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Confucianism and the Foundation of Human Rights

Abstract

This chapter argues that Confucianism is compatible with the idea of human rights. In the first section, I survey the current debates on whether Confucianism is compatible with the idea of human rights. In the second section I discuss the virtue ethics reading and the role ethics reading of Confucian moral theory. In the third section I argue that regarding one possible foundation of human rights, human dignity, Confucian idea of human nature and virtues can provide a better foundation than the idea of autonomy. In the last section I address some of the objections to this argument.

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Notes

  1. 1.

    An extended version of this paper was originally published by International Philosophical Quarterly, vol. 59: 2 (2019), pp. 175–192. Thanks also to the Institute of Sino-Christian Studies in Hong Kong for hosting my visit for writing this paper from September to December of 2017. Funding for this paper was provided by MOE (Ministry of Education in China) Project of Humanities and Social Sciences (Project No. 18YJC720009) and “the Fundamental Research Funds for the Central Universities” of Wuhan University.

  2. 2.

    Wong [33, 35].

  3. 3.

    Stephen Angle believes that there could be three different approaches to the relation between Chinese tradition and human rights: an obstacle, an alternative, or a source. See Stephen Angle, ‘Human Rights in Chinese Tradition’, forthcoming [4]. My following categories are slightly different from his.

  4. 4.

    I believe that Henry Rosemont [22], Daniel Bell and Roger Ames belong to this group. See also de Bary and Weiming [9]; Also, Liang [19].

  5. 5.

    Ihara [15].

  6. 6.

    Coplan and Godie [7].

  7. 7.

    A further problem with some formulations of the CF view is that their anti-essentialist interpretation of Confucianism which does not seem well supported by classical Confucian texts. See Yu [36], Sim [24] and Wilson [32].

  8. 8.

    Most liberalists in China hold this view.

  9. 9.

    Chan [6].

  10. 10.

    Ibid., p. 221. Justin Tiwald explores the complications with regard to the view that rights fit into Confucian institutions as a fallback apparatus. Cf: Tiwald [28]. Also, see Tiwald [27].

  11. 11.

    Lee [17].

  12. 12.

    I believe that Joseph Chan, William Theodore de Bary, Sumner Twiss, and Stephen Angle belong to this group.

  13. 13.

    de Bary [8].

  14. 14.

    Lee, ‘Was There a Concept of Rights?, p. 242.

  15. 15.

    Lee, ‘Was There a Concept of Rights?’, p. 247.

  16. 16.

    Lee, ‘Was There a Concept of Rights?’, p. 248.

  17. 17.

    Sim [24, p. 341].

  18. 18.

    Roetz [21].

  19. 19.

    Roetz [20].

  20. 20.

    Zhang [37, 38].

  21. 21.

    Bloom [5, p. 98].

  22. 22.

    Ibid.

  23. 23.

    Lee [18].

  24. 24.

    Ibid., 376.

  25. 25.

    Some may argue that this is far from the practice of human rights. However, those ideals make Confucianism more compatible with the idea of human rights.

  26. 26.

    Angle [2, p. 74].

  27. 27.

    Angle, 2002. Angle discussed important Confucians, such as Huang Zongxi, Gu Yanwu, and Dai Zhen in 17th century, and Chen Duxiu in 20th century. In a different book, Angle also discussed 20th century Confucian Mo Zongsan. Angle [3].

  28. 28.

    Van Norden [30].

  29. 29.

    Ames [1].

  30. 30.

    Some may argue that the role ethics understanding of Confucianism may be more compatible with the idea of human rights. For example, according to Pan-Chiu Lai, “Confucianism can offer an alternative interpretation of human rights that is more communitarian than individualistic, affirming human rights without neglecting responsibility to one’s family and wider society”. Lai [16, p. 138]. As I explained, if we take the thick idea of human rights with the human nature assumption, the individual oriented virtue ethics understanding of Confucianism seems to share the focus on individuals. Another complication is the subtle difference between role ethics and communitarian reading of Confucianism. Valuing community itself does not lead to defining personal identity as compositions of social roles.

  31. 31.

    Gewirth [11].

  32. 32.

    Griffin [13].

  33. 33.

    I do not think that the idea of autonomy here is restricted to a moral sense. It is closely related to a broader notion of rational choice. I believe that this is quite different from the concept of autonomy in Kantian discussion, a free will subject only to self-legislated but universal laws. Cf. Guyer [14].

  34. 34.

    An extensive survey of this approach can be seen in Gilabert [12].

  35. 35.

    Here the challenges can be directed to moral rights or human rights. The following discussion can be applied to both moral rights and human rights.

  36. 36.

    Since “moral potentials” brackets all the discussion of moral codes, moral relativism would not be seen as an imminent challenge to this view. The cultural or moral diversity has been regarded as a challenge to universal human rights.

  37. 37.

    Wong [35].

  38. 38.

    I am aware of the complications of using the terms “virtues” or “virtuous persons” here. I just focus on Confucian understanding of moral potential and moral virtues. I do believe that there are similarities among different views about virtues.

  39. 39.

    There might be a generality problem. If the feature is too inclusive, the theory collapses to the “rank” idea that if one is a human being, one has human rights. If the feature is too exclusive, the theory might exclude those who should have been included.

  40. 40.

    Waldron [31, p. 15].

  41. 41.

    As Uta Firth points out, people with autism lack the ability to engage reciprocal social interaction, communication. They engage repetitive activities and act with narrow interests. Due to neurological deficiency, they have challenges to show joint attention. But they can learn to follow rules. Firth [10].

  42. 42.

    Some may point out that I am taking a very liberal understanding of Confucian understanding of moral agency. I believe that Confucians, such as Mengzi, do have the emotional and rational component of human moral agency. For example Mengzi’s discussion of the heart/mind of compassion, respect, shame, right and wrong with regard to the ethical ideals of benevolence, propriety, ritual and wisdom can be read as having emotional and rational component. Cf. Sung [26].

  43. 43.

    I realize that there are many borderline cases, such as senior people who are not in a lucid state of mind. I believe that even if they cannot come back to a lucid mind, it does not imply that they do not have the (moral) ground to be given rights. In some sense, they still have moral memories or moral knowledge. Another challenge is the case of severely mentally underdeveloped. I do not think that the care for these people is based on the idea of rights, rather on the idea of needs. They need protection. They need to be cared for. Treat them with dignity does not imply that we should not hospitalize them or that we should leave them alone.

  44. 44.

    I believe that this is in the spirit of Confucianism. However, to discuss the complication of this implication is beyond the scope of this chapter.

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Li, Y. (2020). Confucianism and the Foundation of Human Rights. In: Xie, Z., Kollontai, P., Kim, S. (eds) Human Dignity, Human Rights, and Social Justice. Springer, Singapore. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-981-15-5081-2_2

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