Early Confucians faced a world in which small, close-knit communities (in the form of feudalism) collapsed, and there emerged large, populous, and well-connected societies of strangers. The nobility-based ruling structure was also gone, and de facto sovereign states emerged in the "world" (the world known to the Chinese). Thus, three key problems had to be answered:
What can bond a large state of strangers together?
What are the principles of international relations among sovereign states?
Who should be the ruling members of the state and the world?
On the issue of a new social bond, Mencius discovered that all human beings have the sentiment of compassion, a sense of care towards strangers. But he also realised that this sentiment, though universal, is also very fragile. In order for it to be strong enough to hold strangers together, it needs to be cultivated, and family is the first and most important institution in which cultivation can take place, which is why familial care is so important to Confucians.
By learning to care about family members other than oneself, one learns the existence and significance of others.
The Confucian moral ideal is universal but unequal love. Therefore, by compassion, the whole world can be bonded together, but at the same time, one is justified to care about one's own state more than other states. Patriotism is thus justified.
But while caring about one's own state first, one should not disregard the interests of other peoples completely because we, as human beings, also care about other peoples. Indeed, if our state and its allies are compassionate and strong, and the people of another state suffers so greatly from a bad regime that they are ready for a change, the humane states have an obligation to help, even "invade" or liberate this people.
Domestically, Confucians also believe that the service to the people offers the ultimate legitimacy to the sovereign. Indeed, they believe that the state is of the people and for the people, and it should be held accountable for the service to the people. People know the best about whether they are satisfied with the service offered, and if the service is inadequate, a failed ruler or a failed government can be removed, even by force.
But a crucial difference between Confucians and democrats is that the former do not think that the state should be by the people. For they believe that although people are the best judge of how they feel, they are not morally and intellectually competent to judge how they get here and how their lives can be improved through state policies.
Thus, Confucians would endorse a hybrid regime that combines democratic elements (through which people's will is expressed) with meritocratic elements (through which morally and intellectually competent political decisions are made).
In contrast, the present democratic institution, especially that of one person one vote, gives all the political authority to the present voters (and no voice to the future generations and foreigners even if their interests are endangered), allows the majority to silence the minorities, and builds upon an unrealistic premise that voters are rational about their own self-interests.
These problems are the root cause of many problems plaguing democracies today. If democracy was introduced in the past to correct the excesses of the nobles, perhaps now it is time to correct the excesses of the uninformed and immoral masses.
The writer is a professor of philosophy at China's Fudan University and author of China: The Political Philosophy Of The Middle Kingdom. This is an edited excerpt of a speech delivered at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy on May 15.
This article was first published on May 23, 2014.
Get a copy of The Straits Times or go to straitstimes.com for more stories.