Friday, February 10, 2012

Refilling the Liberal vacuum

Another post on my political blog:

In a previous post I talked about the Liberal tradition (that is, the explicit and formal human rights framework, not to be confused with how people often use the term to refer to a political or economic “left” or being “progressive”) as being a byproduct of religious, political and other kinds of oppression in the west. I also talked about the importance of instituting rule of law and rights protection for China in the coming years in the comments section.
However, I always have had serious reservations about the Liberal model on philosophical grounds.

Focusing on rights may actually hamper ethical or moral development in society because it focuses on bare minimum ethical standards of conduct and behavior. It detracts attention and energy from more positive accounts of ethics such as those from virtue cultivation and community-building. There’s some debate whether a Liberal framework can handle more nuanced and more positive accounts of ethics. I happen to doubt that it can. Confucius mention 2500 years ago that even in societies with well established laws, people can still find ways to treat each other like shit and make life hell for each other. That is because even in such a society, people may still not be virtuous and find ways around the law to behave despicably.

I think that the serious development of the rights framework ought only be a temporary in China so that bare minimum standards are set in place for now and into the near future so that basic rights are protected and society will have something to fall back on for protecting people’s rights. But I also think that as China gets richer, as people get more educated, China ought to progress into a more Confucian model which focuses not on what we owe each other in the form of bare minimum duty and other rights but on our virtue and on the quality of our relationships. This is a much more nuanced and robust form of ethical development but it has the drawbacks that it is more difficult to develop requiring extensive education and good, solid, development of welfare for the whole population. As Confucius mentioned, societies become immoral when two major events occur: when either the education system collapse or when the country does not have enough to feed, clothe, or build infrastructure for the whole population.

Now, I believe also that we may never get totally away from having some legal protection for individuals in society from abuses of their rights no matter how we cultivate virtue in the population because there will always be some bad apples making the whole society worse off and law may be the only way to protect people from abuses from these intractable individuals.
But it seems to be a good goal to try and build something more ethically solid. How would we build such a society that moves away from focusing on rights and starts focusing on individual virtue cultivation?

I would start with a secular moral education. I believe that students should start learning philosophy such as ethics and critical thinking as early as possible (maybe as soon as they are in the 4th or 6th grade). I think Confucius would agree to this.

Second, Confucius said that ritual is another important aspect of moral cultivation of virtue and community ties. But what rituals ought we employ to further this end in a secular 21st century China? (Note: Confucius said that rituals can be wholly secular). I think this is a crucial question that Chinese people should look to themselves and their own history for answers.

It struck me that another useful application of experimental philosophy may be to see if rituals can improve moral conduct.


  1. Culture is an illusion. There is no difference moral or ethical between the people of the United States and the people of China. Culturally there are many differences, but the future evolution of culture will be similar to the melting pot of America. This time it will just be melting pot Earth. The east will be like the west. The west will become more and more like the east as population density increases.

    The idea that we can improve our morality via ritual is as older than Confucius. One example in the west is liberation theology. Teaching people to recycle, reduce, and be good managers of resources is one of the goals of liberation theology. My point is culture itself is a tool of evolution. We can sit and point out the different cultures, but in the end game they all have the same goal of preserving the species.

    When I was in South Korea, I had this sense that had stepped into the future. It was amazing to walk into my new dwelling and see a rather thick manual on how to take out the trash; separating organics, types of plastics, types of paper, electronic devices and types of glass. Taking out the trash was a complex ritual. I'm sure that all cultures will evolve in ways to adapt to a changing world. Those that do not may become extinct. Humanity as a whole is coming to a great crossroads of exponential increase. The population of Earth has more than doubled since 1965 population (3.3 Billion) to October of 2011, population (7 Billion). In this century sea levels could raise 3 ft or more all the signs are pointing to more, by the year 2050 the north pole could become free of ice during the summer. Ice melts have been on the increase in Greenland with the ice flow doubling in the last 5 years. We reached peak oil production in 1970 and have been on the decline since. No oil, no fertilizers or fuel to farm, and ethanol is not the answer it takes more energy to produce than it yields. So before 2100 we will be out of oil, loosing large masses of land to the ocean, and our farms will be producing less. These are just a few of the problems we'll experience in humanities downward spiral. My best guess is that by the end of the century the planet Earth will be culturally homogenized in an attempt to adjust to a world that is rapidly changing.

  2. I definitely think that most people have large overlapping intuitions about morality the world over but there really are some differences that are cultural. Nichols, Knobe and some other experimental philosophers and psychologists have documented these differences. However, one should be cautious here because some of the differences may be due to how people interpret survey questions, etc and not real moral differences.

    Confucius was not the first to see the importance of ritual to a moral life but he is an central figure for that tradition in Chinese philosophy (though still not the first even in Chinese thought).