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A Moral Argument for the Priority of the Right Over the Good: A Case Study of the Confucian Ethics

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Abstract

The paradox of Confucian ethics in prioritizing filial piety over humane love can show that only the good of right, which is encapsulated in an age-old precept “harm no one and benefit fellow humans” as well as in a modern principle “respect the deserved rights and interests of every human being,” is the ultimate good and should trump any other goods in human life. In cases of the conflict between the good of right and other goods, therefore, one should give up other goods for the good of right. Otherwise, the result will be an ultimate evil: doing substantive harm to human beings or infringing upon the deserved rights and interests of human beings.

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Notes

  1. 1.

    See, inter alia, [1, 2].

  2. 2.

    As to the fundamental idea of “Critical Humanism,” see [3, 4].

  3. 3.

    Within the conceptual framework of modern Western moral and political philosophy, the good and the right are often differentiated and even separated from each other, as the good is usually used to denote the supposed end at which action aims, whereas the right is used to evaluate the acceptability of action itself. In my view, this separation is a misunderstanding of their relationship, for it overlooks a simple fact that people, including many Western philosophers, often use some particular good(s), such as self-interest, public welfare, rights and liberties, belief in God, etc., as the very criterion of right and wrong to assess the acceptability of an act. In addition, it is noteworthy that Rawls, who discussed the relationship between the good and the right mainly in the above-mentioned dichotomous framework, also talked about the “good of justice” in A Theory of Justice, ch. ix.

  4. 4.

    See [5].

  5. 5.

    The so-called “global ethic” advocated by the “parliament of the world’s religions” may serve as a representative example of this common perception. See [7].

  6. 6.

    See [8]. It seems that, while mentioning its content as the “natural duties” of individuals in A Theory of Justice (see pp. 114–115, pp. 338–339), Rawls did not regard this precept as an “overlapping consensus.” In some sense, yet, the two principles of justice he put forward in this book might be viewed as a modern, philosophical elaboration of this age-old precept.

  7. 7.

    See [911].

  8. 8.

    Rawls remarked, “a society in which all can achieve their complete good, or in which there are no conflicting demands and the wants of all fit together without coercion into a harmonious plan of activity, is a society in a certain sense beyond justice. It has eliminated the occasions when the appeal to the principles of right and justice is necessary.” (A Theory of Justice, p. 281) Nevertheless, it seems that he seldom understood the priority of the right from this perspective, but paid more attention to its priority in logic. See also A Theory of Justice, p. 31, pp. 395–396.

  9. 9.

    See Lunyu 1:6, 12:22; Mengzi 4B28, 7A46. Most of the quotations from the Lunyu and the Mengzi are my translations, based on the Chinese text in [12], with reference to Lau [13], to Lau [14], to Legge [15], to Legge [16], and to Chan [17].

  10. 10.

    Lunyu 12:2.

  11. 11.

    Mengzi 7B31.

  12. 12.

    Mengzi 2A2.

  13. 13.

    Lunyu 4:4.

  14. 14.

    Mengzi 7B16.

  15. 15.

    Lunyu 1:6.

  16. 16.

    Lunyu 1:2.

  17. 17.

    Mengzi 4A27.

  18. 18.

    Mengzi 5A4, 4A19.

  19. 19.

    Lunyu 13:18.

  20. 20.

    Lunyu 1:11.

  21. 21.

    See Zhu Xi, Sishu Zhangju Jizhu, p. 51.

  22. 22.

    Mengzi 4A18.

  23. 23.

    Mengzi 4B30.

  24. 24.

    Mengzi 7A46.

  25. 25.

    Mengzi 5A3.

  26. 26.

    See [20].

  27. 27.

    David Johnson comments, “The Twenty-four Exemplars of Filial Piety is one of the most influential tracts ever written in China…. By late imperial times virtually everyone was familiar with its paragons of filial devotion.” (Wm. Th. de Bary and Richard Lufrano, compiled. [21]) By the way, it is not fortuitous that the story about Shun as a paragon of the Confucian kind of filial son is precisely the first one of these famous twenty-four exemplars.

  28. 28.

    Cf. De Bary and Lufrano, compiled., p. 140, pp. 105–117.

  29. 29.

    One of the most famous defenses of Abraham’s story in the Christian tradition is given by Johannes de Silentio in Fear and Trembling. See Kierkegaard [23]. As for an analysis of the moral paradox of the Christian ethics in the relationship between the two love commands, see Q. Liu [24].

  30. 30.

    See [25]

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  23. 23.

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  24. 24.

    Liu, Q. 2007. A paradox of christian love. Journal of Religious Ethics 35(4): 681–694.

  25. 25.

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  26. 26.

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  27. 27.

    Dworkin, R. 1978. Taking rights seriously, 199. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

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Acknowledgment

I would like to thank Prof. Thomas Pogge for reading the early draft and making valuable suggestions and Dr. Lin Xi and Prof. Josef Gregory Mahoney for polishing and editing the article.

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Correspondence to Qingping Liu.

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Liu, Q. A Moral Argument for the Priority of the Right Over the Good: A Case Study of the Confucian Ethics. J OF CHIN POLIT SCI 15, 245–256 (2010). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11366-010-9111-5

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Keywords

  • Right
  • Good
  • Priority
  • Confucianism
  • Paradox
  • Critical Humanism