Can Confucianism save the world?

Can Confucianism save the world?

Confucianism needs saving because it is a very old tradition of thought that can no longer speak effectively to the modern world without systematic reconstruction.

Confucianism also needs saving because of the chronic gap between its political ideals and the reality of societal circumstances. But to save Confucianism and to let it save the world, we must first learn from its profound insights - and its profound failures.

Confucius set about his (doomed) mission to save the world in response to the decay of feudalistic social and political order that started in the Spring and Autumn period (772BC-475BC).

At that time, the political elite were motivated more by self-interest than by virtue, and played by the rules of power rather than the rules of rituals designed to ensure good governance. Confucius' solution was to revitalise rituals, based not on earthly power or heavenly sanction but on the deepest and noblest parts of human beings - their humanity (ren) and inner moral selves.

The value of virtue

Every human being, Confucius believed, is capable of cultivating moral feelings and virtues. To the (morally cultivated) individual, virtue is what he or she desires for its own sake. It is also the foundation of a successful society.

Children respond with filial piety to the love of their parents; ministers return loyalty to the rulers who treat them with respect; truthfulness earns the trust of others, and benevolence wins the heart of the multitude.

But Confucius overestimated the power of virtue. Virtue cannot protect the weak against the strong, and it is powerless against wickedness and naked selfishness. In pressing situations, people often simply find it more convenient to resort or submit to the use of power in order to protect themselves or advance their interests.

Ironically, Confucius was keenly aware that his moral approach could not save the world from moral and political decay. In The Analects, his student Zi-lu comments that "as for putting the Way into practice, (The Master) knows all along that it is hopeless". Still, Confucius, and later Confucian thinkers, rejected the competing Legalist solution, which relies heavily on reward and especially punishment. They did this for two good reasons.

First, the excessive use of reward and punishment makes people shameless and turns them further away from independent moral cultivation. To accept Legalism is tantamount to abandoning the best aspects of humanity. Second, reward and punishment alone cannot ensure long-term stability and peace. If people have no virtue, sophisticated systems of sanction only breed ingenious crimes, and no government of any kind can save the day.

What are Confucians to do then? They cannot agree with the Legalist strategy, yet they admit that their rituals and virtues fail to control elite behaviour. The challenge then becomes this: Is there any alternative that effectively tackles problems in the non-ideal world and yet retains Confucian ideal aspirations?

This question has haunted Confucians for over 2,500 years, and continues to do so today.

Liberal democracy

The best way to meet this challenge is to adopt liberal democratic institutions that are shaped by the Confucian conception of the good rather than the liberal conception of the right. Confucianism has good instrumental reasons to adopt democracy, given its view that political authority exists for the well-being of the people. Under appropriate social and economic conditions, the institutions of liberal democracy - limited government, democratic elections, human rights, and civil liberties - appear to be more effective than other political systems in restraining political power, preventing blatant corruption, and forcing elected officials to work for and respond to the people.

Besides instrumental reasons, democracy's value can also be understood as the expression of the Confucian ideal of a political relationship of mutual commitment and trust. In the democratic version of such a relationship, the elected are committed to governing in a trustworthy and caring manner, while the electors express their willing endorsement and support.

While democracy can promote and express Confucian values, Confucianism can also work to the advantage of democracy. For a democracy to function well and not degenerate into antagonistic politics based on narrow self-interest, it needs a virtuous citizenry. The cultivation of Confucian morals, as a form of humanity-based moral education, may well be more effective than liberal civic education in instilling the virtues of such a citizenry.

Confucianism holds that people should cultivate certain virtues whether or not they participate in public affairs. These virtues - such as respect, reverence, sincerity, lenience, truthfulness, industry, and beneficence - make individuals better people. They also offer guidance in interactions with family, friends, colleagues and fellow citizens. As such, Confucian moral education provides a stronger incentive and more opportunities for citizens to cultivate virtue and thus make democracy work better.

Confucianism can also provide food for thought on how to select virtuous and competent people to serve in politics. If democratic elections do not furnish an adequate number of high-calibre politicians, or if they discourage politicians from making policies conducive to the people's long-term interests, Confucianism would consider alternative institutions to supplement democracy. By way of example, establishing a second legislative chamber whose members consist of seasoned participants in public service with good reputation in serving the people.

US, China and Singapore

I've been asked to give some advice for Singapore, China and the United States. Normally I don't think it is appropriate for me to give "advice" to any country. But I feel obliged to do as requested.

The US has a democratic system but little moral education, and the health of its democracy suffers partly because of this. So I hope the people and government of the US could consider developing a kind of moral or civic education for citizens that is more robust than the popular kind, which consists largely of developing critical thinking and acquiring knowledge of public affairs.

China has no democracy or civil liberties. Moral education is thus either futile or politically self-serving. So I hope the Chinese government could strengthen the rule of law, liberalise the regime, and introduce democracy, starting from the local level.

Singapore, it seems to me, aims to implement a Confucian kind of democracy and pursue moral education initiatives. I applaud the effort. Both projects are hard to do well, and certainly there is room for improvement. I would like to see the Government of Singapore do more to encourage the active participation of citizens in common affairs and the pursuit of moral education. In short, more bottom-up rather than top-down strategies. After all, moral cultivation has to be achieved through active practice.

I am also a little concerned about the culture of meritocracy in Singapore today. It seems that its model of meritocratic leadership has slowly shifted away from the traditional Confucian notion of the gentleman that ties virtue to a strong sense of self-imposed responsibility to the people. Instead, it has become a kind of global CEO ethic that ties merit to an acute sense of self-importance, as expressed through lucrative salaries. As Confucius says, the heavy use of reward or punishment leads people away from proper moral motivation and cultivation. Leaders must set a good example for the people.

The writer is professor in the Department of Politics and Public Administration of the University of Hong Kong. He is the author of Confucian Perfectionism: A Political Philosophy For Modern Times. This article is based on 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 for more stories.

This website is best viewed using the latest versions of web browsers.