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The Idea of Human Dignity: A Reconstruction of Confucianism

作者:张千帆   点击量:80562

4.    The Double Implications of Human Dignity: Toward a Balanced View of Rights and Duty
It is commonly asserted, however, that the Chinese tradition in general and Confucianism in particular lacked any clear conception of rights.  While this appears to be obviously true from even a cursory scan of classical Confucian works, it would be a mistake to infer that Confucianism is inherently opposed to individual rights, including basic political rights.  I argue below that the Confucian concept of human dignity can accommodate the notion of rights as a device for cultivating individual virtues.  To hold this view may require us to modify the traditional view of personhood and to reject the dogmatic strain within Confucianism which took the legitimacy of tradition for granted.  But doing so does not undermine the basic argument that, leaving the descriptive content of human dignity open to future modifications, as mankind acquire more experience and better judgment, Confucianism can adapt itself to changing circumstances and conceptions of human nature.  Indeed, with overall optimistic assumptions of human nature, Confucianism can derive a balanced view of duty and rights, and provide a more consistent foundation for the commonly held belief in human worth and dignity than modern liberalism in the West.  This section is divided into two parts.  First, I briefly review the western liberal theory of individual rights as represented by Hobbes, and point out its deficiencies.  Second, I discuss the possibility and the necessity of deriving individual rights from the universal duty of respecting human dignity in Confucianism to make it consistent with the basic social facts. 
4.1.  The Primacy of Rights over Duty in Western Liberalism
Belief in human dignity is often implicitly assumed in modern liberalism, a dominant ideology in the western liberal democracies.  On June 27, 1998, for example, President Clinton made the following remarks in the historic city, Xi’an, the first stop in his recent trip to China: “Respect for the worth, the dignity, the potential and the freedom of every citizen is a vital source of America’s strength and success....  In this global information age ... a commitment to providing all human beings the opportunity to develop their full potential is vital to the strength and success of the new China as well.”  Yet, paradoxical enough, modern liberalism seems to be incapable of providing a solid philosophical foundation for the widely held belief in human dignity.  It is simply difficult to find any worth or dignity in man from its basically negative view of human nature.  And, without dignity and worth, many basic and now widely accepted rights would lose their legitimate ground.
It is well known that the western idea of individual rights is originally derived from the social contract theory of Thomas Hobbes.[1]  In his Leviathan, Hobbes postulates a state of nature, in which egoistical individuals, with limited resources (including material goods and honor) and without mutual trust and a common government, find themselves trapped in “a war of all against all”.  To escape such a miserable condition, every person rationally enters a compact with every other person to put themselves under a sovereign.  From such a original promise, enforced by the common power, is derived a set of natural laws which command each individual to keep peace and observe the terms of compact.  The duties thus prescribed, however, is strictly conditioned upon the original purpose for which the compact was made at the first place: the preservation of individual life.  This is indeed the “inalienable” natural right that Hobbes finds in every rational human being.  Every human government must work toward the preservation and security of life; failure to do so constitutes a fundamental breach by the sovereign, which brings back the state of nature, where every individual is absolved of all duties toward others and regains natural liberty.  The primacy of natural right over duty is obvious, as there is no equivalent “natural duty”, but only duties derived from rights.  The notion of natural right is further extended by John Locke to include the right to liberty and property.  Although, in Locke’s theory, the natural laws maintain their binding force in the state of nature, the fundamental asymmetry between rights and duty would remain if the biblical authority of God is left out.
Despite its wide acceptance today, the social contract theory of rights contains several difficulties.[2]  First, without presupposing the a priori validity of transcendent divine command, the existence of human duty would depend entirely upon the prudential calculations of one’s self-interest, and is thus made secondary to rights.  Among other things, the Hobbesian theory can support only a weak notion of duty, that is, a person observe his duty not for its own sake, but only because it furthers his selfish interest, and his duty stops as soon as the cost of obeying it apparently outweighs the benefits.  Prudential considerations, however, depend on the actors’ foresight and circumstances in which they are situated, and the ensuing uncertainty necessarily undermines the binding force of certain basic duties (e.g., “Don’t steal” or “Act justly under all circumstances”).  Second, without the sanction of an external divine authority, which requires belief in a particular religion,[3] the primacy of natural right of self-preservation in the Hobbesian theory makes it difficult to even accommodate other widely held rights, such as personal liberty and property.  If human beings are by nature selfish, unjust, vile, and rapacious, it seems doubtful whether they are worthy of any rights other than bare preservation.  Finally, and most significant for our purpose, it seems to be very difficult to consistently derive from this theory the widely held “recognition of the inherent dignity” in the Preamble of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, or respect for “the worth, the dignity, the potential and the freedom of every citizen”, to which President Clinton alluded in his China trip.  If everyone is, as Hobbes depicts, an egoistical animal preoccupied with his self-interest, and his apparent observance of law and duties arises only from the fear for the punishments of the sovereign power, then it is difficult to find any worth and dignity in human beings.  If men act by nature like thieves and robbers, then the mere appearance of law-abidingness does not change who they really are, and few would find that theft and robbery are worthy or dignified way of life.
The basic problem with the modern liberal theory of rights is, then, its low estimation of human being contrary to the widely held practical beliefs.[4]  Such an initial assumption makes it too difficult to derive the notion of innate dignity or worth, and makes basic duties too easily overwhelmed by the prudential concerns of self-interests.  For this reason modern liberalism is criticized, perhaps with some justice, for adopting an unnecessarily dim view of human nature and for ignoring the inherent moral potential in a human being.  By undermining social duty and legal constraints on personal gratification of desires, it is charged,[5] the radical individualistic tendency in modern liberalism dehumanizes human beings.  I argue below that Confucianism, while fundamentally a duty ethics and despite its own problems, provides a salutary correction to such a tendency and, if properly construed, is capable of accommodating a well-balanced theory of rights.
4.2.  From Universal Duty to Universal Rights: A Confucian Transformation?
We have already seen that, as a consistent implication of the Confucian belief, the universal respect for human dignity carries the demand that the state and society must protect and help cultivate the innate virtues in every individual human being, and this task is probably best achieved by providing a constitutional system of basic rights.  It is nevertheless true that such a system of rights has been conspicuously lacking throughout the Chinese history.  It appears as if that, by emphasizing social duty, the traditional China were diametrically opposed to the modern west.  The reason for such difference lies partly in the different conception of equality.  As Munroe points out,[6] the classical Chinese philosophers recognized only natural equality in the sense that everyone is born with innate virtues as unique human potentials, but denied actual equality that all men could in fact develop their nature to such an equal extent as to entitle them to equal respect.  In Confucianism, this view had justified the hierarchical structure of society and the denial of popular participation in government.  By focusing on the capacities that the people have in fact developed through learning and education, the Confucianists had limited the participation in government to a small group of elites, and ignored the notion of innate moral  rights developed in the West, which entitles every adult to some form of participation.  As a result, Confucianism had never developed an explicit notion of “rights”--not modern political right to participation, not the Lockean right to property in virtue of one’s labor, not even the Hobbesian natural right to self-preservation.  Similar to the classical and Medieval counterparts in the West, Confucianism was decidedly duty-orientated.  In what the Chinese view as a just society, one’s “right” (that is, social, economic and political privileges) was to be made strictly proportional to the degree of actually developed worth and ability.  The state and society must be run by the most virtuous and worthy, who almost always remain a small minority, and it seemed to them patently absurd to allow the ignorant, selfish, and morally immature mass to choose their own leaders.  To the contrary, Confucius and his followers were simply concerned with how to make men virtuous and, at the same time, make the virtuous men rule. 
In a sense the Confucianists were quite right.  If one is truly incompetent in a certain vocation (e.g. political participation), then both justice and common prudence require that he should refrain from engaging in it, but leave it instead to those who are capable.  And mere rights, freedom and participation are not the only things about which the people ought to care; indeed these things alone are not even sufficient to sustain social and political institutions.[7] Rather, they presuppose something else as their foundation, that is, the development of the people’s virtues and the primary means by which the virtues are acquired: proper education and upbringing.  After all, hardly anyone wants to live in a society full of “rights” and “freedom”, but bereft of basic norms, values, and a sense of duty--a society in which everyone feels free to do whatever s/he wants, without any moral constraint.  Such a society would be necessarily one of “littlemen”, among whom numerous conflicts, strives, infringements and oppressions are bound to occur.  On the other hand, a democracy worthy of its name presupposes a society of gentlemen who, having developed their virtues and become mature citizens, are capable of exercising their “rights” intelligently.  Thus, for good reasons, self-cultivation has occupied the central position of Confucianism; it is the very path toward the making of virtuous and dignified citizens. 
To be consistent with the Confucian assumption of natural equality, however, even xiao ren (“littleman”) is, after all, a ren (person) and must be treated as a human being with the inborn potential virtues.  For those who choose to accept the Confucian view of man must believe that every man and woman is equally endowed with the innate virtues and think highly of them.[8]  Even a littleman deserves some respect for his innate nobility in virtue of being a human--better, nobler and more worthy than other animals.   Thus, to a Confucian gentleman, it is morally inadequate to treat anyone--littleman, even a criminal, not excepted--like a mere animal.[9]  The failure to cultivate one’s virtues should never lead a gentleman to merely despise one’s person, but should rather urge him to help the littleman by all means to cultivate the virtues and become a gentleman.  The belief in human dignity may further inspire a gentleman to devise a better system of education, among other things, in order that everyone can have a reasonable opportunity to actualize his/her virtues and to maximize, as it were, his dignity.[10]  At least, social and political schemes should never be designed to merely put down a littleman and make him docile simply for the sake of societal peace and order.  As everyone is endowed by Heaven with the innate virtues which afford him some basic dignity, everyone is an end in himself, more than a tool for any other end, however grandiose. 
Thus, it can be plausibly argued within the Confucian framework that an ordinary person should have some right in discussing and deciding public issues that will ultimately touch upon his life, and many such issues might be plain enough to be understood by a common mind with reasonable education.  Further, to become a gentleman presupposes a set of favorable social and political conditions, which had been denied to most ordinary men and women in traditional China.  A person need be given the basic education and some opportunity for practice before he can intelligently participate in government.  Without these opportunities, he will most likely remain a uneducated and underdeveloped “littleman”--not because he wishes to remain politically ignorant and incompetent, but because he lacks the fortune (at least a reasonably wealthy family, among other things) that is beyond his control but is nevertheless necessary for his moral development.  Since the mass of people were deprived of the opportunity to become morally developed gentlemen, the apparently “just” system of merit was based ultimately on injustice.  In this sense, a social and political system that guarantees a minimum right--to participate in government or otherwise--seems to provide more fairness because it can afford relatively equal opportunity for personal development of innate virtues.
Still, the notion of “rights” does not so easily fit with the dignity of a Confucian gentleman.  The problem of rights lies deeper in the Chinese practice, for even a gentleman seemed to have only duties, but no reciprocal rights, before his parents, rulers and society in general.  Somehow it appears inadequate--even distasteful--to a gentleman to fight for his own rights and interests, especially in the form of factions and parties, for “a gentleman is dignified, but does not wrangle”.[11]  It is true that the Confucian duties are never unilateral, but always reciprocal.[12]  Thus, the king and his subjects have their own duties to perform toward each other.  And, if a duty (e.g., benevolence of a king) is insisted and recognized by every member of the society, then it is in effect transformed into a kind of right toward the recipient of its performance.  But, in practice, such condition is hardly ever met.  Generally, in a relationship between two unequal parties, the moral persuasion of duty alone is seldom sufficient to prevent the powerful party from abusing its power.  As a result, contrary to equilibrium and harmony as prescribed by the Principle of the Mean, the imbalance of power frequently took place in the Chinese political history.  During that period, no matter how dignified a gentleman was in private life, his dignity would disappear before the state, against which he had no protection.[13]  Even private complaints must be made with caution, as Confucius himself taught: “When good government prevails in a state, one should speak and act boldly.  When bad government prevails, act righteously, but speak with reserve”;[14] otherwise, one would merely put his life, together with the security and welfare of his family, in jeopardy.  Before the state, then, even a gentleman could not maintain his dignity because he was compelled to refrain his action and speech out of fear for an omnipotent power.  This is incompatible with the earlier image that, as a mature, just and courageous man, he should be without any fear for actions (including public speeches) he thinks to be just and proper.  As a rational being, it seems, he would desire to live in a better social arrangement in which his moral autonomy can be effectively preserved.  Indeed, a central theme that continues to preoccupy the contemporary neo-Confucianism has been to extend from “sageliness within” (Nei Sheng) to “kingliness without” (Wai Wang)--a political system that is conducive to the realization of endowed virtues and, thus, the enhancement of human dignity.[15]
Therefore, to consistently follow the Principle of the Mean, it seems necessary for a Confucian gentleman to adopt some institutional mechanism to guarantee his basic right in order to minimize the possibility that his dignity is degraded.  Nor should a gentleman feel shame in exercising and defending his rights in democratic politics, as the partisan competitions can now be carried out through entirely peaceful and dignified constitutional procedures, without having to “wrangle”.  Quite the contrary, in the spirit of the Mean, the secure independence of a gentleman requires a certain balance of power between an individual and the state, in order that nobody is so overwhelmed by the omnipotent power of the sovereign as to become the mere object of political control.  When this independence is endangered by the natural disparity of power between the state and individuals, the Principle of Mean demands the implementation of a system of rights, so that the power of the stronger can be checked peacefully, and the balance restored, secured and enforced by an effective legal artifice.  Such a balance can be guaranteed by a rationally designed Constitution based upon a set of fundamental values, which are shared by a people who have commonly agreed to respect the dignity of every member in society. 
It may be contended, at last, that such a universalistic notion of respect could not be consistently derived from Confucianism, an ethics primarily concerned with particularistic duties.  The Confucian concept of general love (Ai or Fan Ai), for example, is not to be confused with the Mohist notion of undifferentiated, universal love.  Rather the Confucian love was graded according to the proximity of natural human relationships, enforced by a hierarchical system of propriety (Li), which prescribed different rules for treating one’s family members, friends and members of society.  And the Confucian notion of “intimate love” (Qin) is further restricted, by definition, to be within one’s family.  I argue, however, that the clear distinction between particularistic love and general respect constitute the strength rather than weakness of Confucianism.  This is best seen in the context of the central concept of humanity (Ren), which the Confucianists define as a radiating process beginning naturally from within one’s family and extending to more remote social relationships.[16]  According to Mencius, humanity and intimate love are applied to things of different orders: while a gentleman is humane to whole mankind, he owes special filial duty only to his family members.[17]  Humanity for ordinary people (Ren Min) lies between the intimate love for one’s kin (Qin Qin) and the general care for things (Ai Wu): although humanity is above ordinary care for things, it does not carry with it the unique emotional feeling for one’s kin.  For Mencius, indeed, the Mohist universalization of social relationship is to ignore one’s parents (wu fu), a fault no less grave than that committed by its egocentric opposite, the Yangist denial of all social duties (which leads to the neglect of one’s king, wu jun).[18]  To the Confucianists generally, it would be against human nature to prescribe such universal Christian command as  “You should love your neighbor as yourself”.[19]  Among other things, love as an intense emotional feeling and obligatory commitment is necessarily limited only to a few, to whom one owes his/her special debt (parents) or who otherwise occupy prominent places in one’s family life (husband, wife, children, and other close relatives).  Yet, if intimate love is to be restricted to one’s family and cannot be universalized, general respect as a personal attitude is not constrained by such physical limit, and can be reasonably required to extend over all members of society.

V.    Conclusions
To sum up, the Confucian view of human dignity presupposes the potential virtues equally endowed by every human being and their irreplaceable value.  Under this view, everyone has the basic dignity due to these innate virtues and deserves some respect.  A Confucian gentleman, to be sure, is a person who consciously cultivates, practices and displays his virtues, and his dignified appearance invites general respect.  He not only always seeks to perfect his own virtues, but also help others, within his ability, to improve theirs.  Although the respect to a particular individual can be made proportional to the extent to which s/he has actually acquired human virtues, the innate human potentials, which constitute the irreducible core of human dignity, entitle everyone to at least a minimum respect.  In this sense even an infant has as much innate dignity as any adult, and should receive only those treatments that will help her to develop the inborn potentials as she grows up.  A criminal also has the same innate dignity, even though it is manifestly contradicted by his grievous behavior; but even he should be treated in such a manner as to help him to recover his innate virtues and to see the worth in himself, so that he becomes able to develop them on his own initiative.  The legitimate actions of a state, society, or private persons are limited to those that do not inhibit anyone from attaining one’s full dignity.[20]  A legitimate public institution must fulfill the duty to provide favorable social conditions and a compatible legal framework so that everyone has the basic opportunity to develop the inner worth and become a dignified member of community.  To this end, society is obliged to establish an equitable constitutional system of basic rights.  Construed in this way, the Confucian idea of human dignity can provide a sound philosophical basis for the modern notions of human rights and freedom, together with a balanced theory of reciprocal duties.  Such a reconstruction of Confucianism can help us understand, I hope, the connection between two types of universal ideals to which the United Nations appealed half a century ago, that is, “the dignity and worth of the human person” and “the equal rights of men and women”.[21]
 
NANJING UNIVERSITY,  P.R. CHINA.


[1]       See e.g. Leo Strauss, Natural Right and History (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1953), pp. 80-85.
 
[2]        The “difficulties” here are referred to substantive ones.  The logical difficulties, such as the “naturalistic fallacy” which Moore charges the naturalists for committing (ibid., pp. 37-58), seem to be rather minor.  If Hobbes can establish that self-preservation is universally desired by every rational animal, then the opposition against defining such desire as a “good” (i.e. the natural right) carries little force.  The transition from “is” to “ought” does have a logical problem of violating the “Hume’s Law”.  Yet the problem is not so serious if one omits the prescriptive element inherent in the “ought”, so that ethics can be identified with factual inquiry.
 
[3]       For example, the Christian God in Locke’s Two Treatises of Government.
 
[4]        But partial corrections can be found in, among other works, Butler’s Five Sermons, Hume’s Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals, and The Theory of Moral Sentiments by Adam Smith.
 
[5]       Stetson, ibid., pp. 4-8, 165-6.
 
[6]       Munroe, ibid., pp. 49-83.
 
[7]        On defending Confucianism against morally nihilistic freedom without basic values and norms, see Xu Fu-guan (徐复观), Confucian Political Thought and Democracy, Liberty and Human Rights 《儒家政治思想与民主自由人权》 (Taipei: Bashi Niandai Press, 1979), pp. 284-293.
 
[8]        For the common assumption of all classical Chinese philosophers about the natural equality innate in every man, see Munroe, ibid., pp. 1-14, 49-50.
 
[9]       See my arguments in Section 3.2.
 
[10]       Thus, “the Way of great learning lies in the brightening of virtue, in renovating the people, and in the end of the perfect good.” In Great Learning, Ch. 1.
 
[11]      Analects, 15: 22; trans. Legge, ibid., p. 137.
 
[12]       “As a ruler, he abided in humanity.  As a minister, he abided in reverence.  As a son, he abided in filial piety.  As a father, he abided in deep love.  And in dealing with the people of the country, he abided in faithfulness.” In Great Learning, sec. 3; trans. Wing-tsit Chan, A Source Book in Chinese Philosophy (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1963), p. 88.
 
[13]       The same can be said to have occurred--much more frequently but perhaps at a reduced scale--in the traditional family, which is supposed to be both the foundation and a miniature of the state.  Similar opposing arguments made below apply, though with some difficulties owing to the nature of Chinese metaphysics of life, which I won’t get into here.
 
[14]      Analects, 14: 3.
 
[15]       See Fung Yu-lan, A Short History of Chinese Philosophy (Derk Bodde ed., New York: The Free Press, 1948), p. 8.  For an argument for the possible compatibility of Confucianism with the notion of human rights, see Xia Yong (夏勇), The Origins of the Human Rights Concept 《人权概念起源》 (Beijing: Zhongguo Zhengfa Daxue Chubanshe, 1992), pp. 177-192.  For the neo-Confucian effort to derive a compatible political mechanism from the Confucian ethics, see Xu Fu-guan, ibid., Ch. 4.  For a critique on the alleged failure of such effort, see Jiang Qing (蒋庆), “From Heart-Nature Confucianism to Political Confucianism” (“从心性儒学走向政治儒学”), In Liu Shu-xian (刘述先) et al., Collection of Papers on Contemporary Neo-Confucianism 《当代新儒学论文集》 (Taipei: Wenjing Press, 1991), pp. 153-178.
 
[16]      Principle of the Mean, sec. 20.
 
[17]      Mencius, 7A: 45.
 
[18]      Mencius, 3B: 9.
 
[19]      Matthew, 22: 39.
 
[20]       This says nothing against setting up penal institutions for those criminals, whose dignity has fallen below the minimum that can be tolerated by the community.  But these institutions cannot be created merely for the sake of punishment or the maintenance of public order; they must treat these people as human beings, aim to help them to find their own worth, and make them capable of becoming a gentleman upon their own efforts.  This is very much in line with the Confucian thinking of the reformative function of law and punishment.
 
[21]      Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Preamble.
 
载于《中国哲学杂志》) September 2000.  27 (3): 299-330.