The Normative Impact of Comparative Ethics: Human Rights


Professor Chad Hansen

Chair in Chinese Philosophy

The University of Hong Kong

28 October, 1996

In this paper, I reflect on the role of "comparative ethics." I use the question of human rights in China mainly as a useful illustration.  It should help us trace the way comparative philosophy bears on normative reasoning about ethics. Human rights arguments give us a topical example and alert us to some ways comparative ethics can go awry. Comparative studies, I suggest, have tended to foster or endorse crucial confusions surrounding this politically charged issue.

In the first section, I distinguish comparative ethics from related intellectual enterprises inside and outside philosophy. I discuss the need for a comparative conception of morality. I propose a working conception for the China-European comparison.  In the second, I attempt to isolate the kinds of ethical implications that comparative philosophy could reasonably have. I argue that the normative relevance is limited and flows out of three conditions of normative respect.  They apply in a Chinese-Western comparison but not equally to any foreign culture.  Finally, I summarize some of the ways apologetic comparative arguments undermine or ignore these conditions of normative respect.

Introduction: Comparative Ethics and Chinese Philosophy

Comparative ethics is a specialized field within comparative philosophy. We can distinguish the philosophical activity from closely related studies in, say, anthropology and history. Anthropology, for example, would naturally to emphasize actual patterns of behavior more than doctrines and a comprehensive description of "ordinary" attitudes. Anthropology or sociology might use the popular distinction between an "elite" and "popular" culture to distinguish itself from comparative philosophy. Historical and religious studies may also focus more on "elite" written sources, but still address a wider range of doctrines and a different content.

A philosophical comparison does not merely catalogue moral attitudes and motivations, but analyzes the supporting doctrines and reasoning.  We may relate these to actual attitudes and behavior within the community but we do not merely cite those attitudes or describe the behavior.[1] Philosophers would naturally also address philosophical accounts of moral psychology and metaethics that inform and shape the normative theories. Indeed, they should look at the entire range of philosophical models and theories that could motivate or justify different normative positions. If, for example, normative reasoning relies on coherence, then an individualist epistemology, semantics or metaphysics would be epistemically relevant to normative individualism.[2] 

Philosophers would focus on cultures with a tradition of theorizing about moral doctrines—with a distinct philosophical tradition. Thus China is a particularly appropriate model for the philosophical study since it has a rich and distinctive philosophical heritage and ethics is a central concern. A robust philosophical ethical tradition is likely to have lively internal debates and rival theories. A philosophical study would focus on interpretive hypotheses about the assumptions driving the debate. They would seek to reconstruct the shared commitment to higher level standards and norms of reasoning about attitudes.[3] 

Philosophy may, of course, draw on anthropological and religious studies as well as other attitudes such as aesthetics in this reconstruction. Still the focus is on theoretical structure, not descriptive detail.  Within philosophy, we also need to examine how comparative ethics bears on other traditional ethical theory. I will look first at metaethics and then normative theory.[4] 

The initial step in ethical comparison raises a metaethical issue. A comparative analysis of ethics requires some account of "morality" that is general enough to structure a comparison. Henry Rosemont has argued that some differences between alternate cultures' beliefs may rule out comparative ethics. For example, they may lead us to conclude that the culture has no concept of morality at all. We could not then say that they have a different morality.[5] They simply have something else.

It is not obvious that a sound metaethics must lead to the conclusion that all communities have a morality. It does not seem to follow from the meaning of "moral" and evolutionary considerations are inconclusive. A community might survive with reasonable harmony based on a combination of etiquette, law and positive or conventional mores.  On the other hand, a good metaethical theory would probably be sensitive to the range of practical beliefs in actual cultures. It should count against a metaethical theory if it turned out that only Western Europe had a morality.

Using metaethics in normative disputes is a familiar strategy. Some familiar Kantian arguments , for example, adopt narrow metaethical conceptions that rule out familiar theories like Utilitarianism as viable candidates for "the moral."  Other conceptions render "ethical egoism" an oxymoron. For comparative purposes, we should forgo such definitions.

It may be hard to find a suitably neutral conception for comparative ethics. If, for example, we require that a culture have a conception of "laws of pure reason" to count as having a concept of morality, it may result in the conclusion that Chinese philosophy has no moral theory. We might continue to have the same interest in “whatever we choose to call it” that seems to occupy a comparable place in their philosophy. Similarly, a content criterion, like "morality consists of the rules or principles that govern interpersonal actions" may rule out an ethical system (or a conception of one) that describes ethics solely in terms of inner virtues.

Provisionally, I propose to assume a conception that is broad enough to allow the Western-Chinese comparison while still allowing us to distinguish morality proper from etiquette, religious piety, positive mores, fashion and taste. The latter distinctions are arguably "part of the meaning" of the term.[6] In any case, Philosophers will have less interest in communities that advance only revelation, instinct or traditional authority as standards for evaluative judgments. A conception that blurred these for comparison purposes, would not interest philosophers though it could continue to be of anthropological or religious interest.

For comparison purposes I propose to finesse some metaethical issues. We should not pretend to rebut more restrictive metaethical criteria by advancing our comparison. We do not, that is, treat it as analytically true that Chinese culture has a moral theory. A comparison using a broad conception will yield information that is relevant for metaethical argument about more restrictive conceptions, but it does not settle the issue.

The more urgent issue of this paper is to clarify the implications the comparative ethics has for straightforward normative theory. Here, the politically charged issue of human rights in China is helpful. We should not confuse a comparative inquiry with the ethical relativism. A normative question, i.e., whether Chinese citizens have human rights, raises autonomous issues. Does the correct morality justify a scheme of human rights for Asians or Chinese. Whether Chinese morality itself justifies such a conception is formally irrelevant. One would need an independent argument that no correct moral theory exists or that Chinese moral theory is correct to yield such a conclusion. Yet I do think that comparative studies have normative implications and I will return to the issue in section two and try to describe them more carefully.

Morality as a Hierarchy of Standards.

Let us propose a metaethcial criterion that will allow the Chinese-Western comparison.  As I hinted above, Chinese thought does not postulate a close counterpart of human “reason.”[7] However, we can describe a generalized substitute that would allow disciplined comparison. We can generalize “reasoning” to the notion of applying a system or hierarchy of standards in deliberation or discourse. Deliberating about and accepting a standard are themselves bits of normative discourse, and can be judged by still higher standards. Thus the system of standards form a complex hierarchy . Let us think of morality as such a complex system of standards governing evaluations--our praising, blaming, excusing, feeling guilty or angry and so forth.[8] 

Although I do not postulate an autonomous rational standard, we can partly explain the intuition that morality is autonomous. We still distinguish moral systems from positive mores. A moral system is one whose highest standards of evaluation do not rest ultimately on mere conformity with traditional or customary social practice.  We could distinguish a community’s morality as a social practice that rejects bald appeal to social practice.  A social practice that did rest on such appeals would not be a morality, but mores, conventions or manners.  It might have a complex structure (as law does) but if at the highest level it endorsed appeal to the sociological fact that these are the laws, it would not be autonomous in this way.

Normative Implications

This metaethical conception adds a level of complexity that is typically missing from discussions of human rights in Asia. We do not accept at face value the claim that there is a special Chinese or Asian conception of human rights. The prevalence of different Asian views on the question does not settle what status Chinese morality gives to liberty or human rights. Existing moral attitudes or traditions could not directly justify breaching or ignoring human rights because a morality would reject bald appeal to tradition as justifying such an important moral judgment. Those who violate human rights citing only traditional grounds do not act morally within their community’s moral tradition.[9] 

In adopting this stance, one is not appealing to a transcendent reason or principles. This judgment would be available to competent members of that moral-linguistic community itself. A moral tradition would be a tradition that does not endorse or accept bald appeal to moral tradition. There are, of course, more subtle ways in which the differences of tradition are relevant to which I will return below.

The other feature of these criteria will also complicate our discussion. Since these standards form a system or a hierarchy, we can consider the standards themselves subject to evaluation and revision by higher standards implicitly within the system. Any system with a plurality of standards will generate some conflicts where different standards pull in different directions. They may have principles to resolve these conflicts or some higher scheme of weighting for standards.

In a rich philosophical system, the appeal to standards will usually turn out to be highly complex. It is highly unlikely that they would have correctly formulated their ultimate standards.[10]  Any explicit standard that they could raise in moral discourse could be a target of further standard-based evaluation. Thus I characterized comparative ethics as depending heavily on interpretation—postulation of background assumptions that explain observed attitudes and arguments for rival moral views.

The implicit standards of a community are the idealized outcome of norm guided discussion within moral communities.[11]  We engage in complex moral discourse together about ways (daos) to evaluate and guide action.  We naturally adjust our attitudes to harmonize with those of others in our community.  To say that a China's moral tradition does not support individual rights is to say that if the community validly applied all its historically available moral insight, norms, standards and the like, it would decide against adopting a stable scheme of individual liberty.

Subjective Responsibility and Excuses

This brings us to a valid normative dimension of a comparative study. We can understand the normative relevance of comparative ethics on the analogy of an excuse. Western moral and legal reasoning commonly distinguishes between what we can call "objective" and "subjective" rightness. Briefly, "objectively right" refer to what we should do given the way the world actually is.  "Subjectively right" refers to what we should do given all that we understand about the world.

We normally do not blame people for actions that are objectively wrong if they acted in good faith on the best information available to them. This consideration may even incline us to praise subjectively right actions, i.e., to judge that the person acted rightly, while still finding the action objectively regrettable.

Is there any obvious reason not to extend this analysis from factual beliefs to beliefs about values? If Anson Chan (Hong Kong’s chief secretary) acts on the best information of both types available to her, we should judge her as being morally responsible and even if we judged her action as wrong. We may even think more highly of her when she conforms to moral standards than we would if she were merely to follow H.K. Governor Patten’s moral attitudes with which we agree.

This subjective-objective distinction in judgment belongs to the normative theory of excuses. What a Western reasoner would be doing here resembles excusing and perhaps even approving of morally responsible Chinese thinkers who oppose human rights. Western thinkers need not abandon their own normative views about human rights when they do so.

Here, though, our conception of morality as a system of norms matters. Notice that we may excuse an action without making the corresponding judgment of the rightness of the action for the actor. We may reasonably conclude that it would be wrong to punish certain mass murderers, such as the Son of Sam. We normally do this when we conclude that he has a mental defect together with beliefs  (1) in God (and divine command theory) and (2) that God told him to do it. The law excuses him on the ground that he was mentally unable to appreciate that his action was wrong.  Still those considerations would hardly tempt us to praise him or judge that he had “acted rightly.”  Let us call cases where we are willing to do so, cases of "positive excusing".

Positive excusing rests on reasoning about epistemic responsibility. We expect those who are not mentally defective to make reasonable efforts to discover the facts.  Similarly, we would be disinclined to praise an excusable action that did not show sufficient effort to address one’s sincerely reflective moral attitudes or principles.  As with general epistemic responsibility, we expect one to make a sufficient effort to address considerations and norms that are available to other discussants in one’s community. 

Both traditions’ moral conceptions entertain a goal of norms that yield general agreement in attitudes and reactions about behavior and feelings. It is precisely because the application of standards can be controversial within a community that they engage in moral discourse and advocate moral reform. Ethical argument and persuasion are activities that would not make sense if communities merely took the majority view as determining what was right. Both communities under discussion normally judge that there is a right thing to do independently of the authority of any individual, of the community or the whole tradition. Further, both understand the realm of agency, the scope of persons to whom moral appeals are addressed, to be all of humanity.

Moral thinkers from the Western traditions may positively excuse individuals for divergent but reflectively responsible normative judgments.  We conclude the agent’s moral judgment followed from sufficient attention to all available considerations. The bulk of a community could be wrong while reasoning responsibly. We might then positively excuse them.  However, we could, at best, only negatively excuse mere conformity with the community’s predominant beliefs about human rights.

Could this conception accommodate a community discourse that had as its highest norm that one should conform to the thoughts of Confucius or Christ?  Initially, it would seem to be a candidate for a religious ethic rather than a morality. If it had reflective justification for the norm, then the justification would point to deeper or higher norms. If we appeals to the broad vision or the compassion of the authority, it would suggest the highest norm was something like “judge with all-comprehending compassion.”

So this conception need not abandon reason or substitute sociology for reflective thinking. However, it allows that "reasonable" as applied to morality, might be a public, historical concept. Right and wrong are not what people happen to feel about persons and actions, but what their social standards of deliberation justify.  In addition to the norms governing particular evaluation of actions, community discussion also concerns the higher-level norms for validating reasoning about first level norms. Focused discussion of these norms distinguishes moral philosophy from normal moral discourse.

Widening Moral Community

At this point we address an even more complex normative issue to which comparative ethics may have relevance. Recall that comparative ethics, no more than anthropology or comparative religion, demonstrates that morality is relative. Awareness of different moral systems with different moral beliefs does not undermine the reasonableness of making comparative evaluative judgments.  Neither does it undermine either cultural conception of the scope of intended moral agreement. Both implicitly entertain the idea that morality embraces all of humanity.

In doing any comparison, however, an authentic critic will use the standards she brings from her home tradition. We can recognize that ours is but one of a group of rival moral systems and still rely on our reflective judgments. It would be irrational and irresponsible for moral discussants from either tradition to abandon their system of beliefs wholesale for a rival tradition.

The Western advocate of individual liberty is not irrational in continuing to adopt the result of her "reflective moral equilibrium" merely on being told that Confucian moral sensibilities are different. A Chinese conservative may justifiably dismiss the appeal to "international moral standards" in favor of the sincere application of his existing norms of reason. Both continue to address the question of what is objectively right and both approach it with the best information and norms of reasoning available to them. Even when aware of the moral conflict, one can with intellectual integrity make such judgments without abandoning the commitment to formal autonomy. Neither, that is, needs to appeal to the bald fact that his judgment is his or belongs to his tradition.

The normative relevance arises for each reasoner in a more indirect way. The set of beliefs among which she must now achieve reflective equilibrium includes a belief about the other morality. That belief may mildly destabilize our moral confidence when three conditions are met.

1.        The rival moral  tradition is significantly different in its conceptual or theoretical approach.

2.        It is an intellectually rich, reflective system of norms.

3.        It satisfies some plausible condition for substantive rightness—e.g., has been historically successful or leads to correct moral judgments. 

We may provisionally read the latter judgment as “yields moral insights that impress us from our present moral point of view.”  To the degree that we become aware that a significant conceptual rival is comparable in reflective coherence and cultural success, we may rationally begin to entertain a general mildly skeptical or distancing attitude toward our own morality.[12] 

The first condition is related to the difference between moral disagreement with a significant rival moral community and one within our own.  Where we believe that the assumptions, standards of reasoning etc. are commonly shared, the disagreement becomes a normal one which concerns the implications of those standards, and would not raise general questions about the moral system itself.  Westerners, some claim, exhibit a fascination and a more receptive attitude toward differences they find in Chinese morality than toward the of India or the Middle East. Charges of “orientalism” are louder and angrier from writers in those areas than from Japan and China.  One reason for the difference might be that initially, these communities constitute less significant conceptual rivals. In the “near” east cases, Westerners sense a comparatively common historical and conceptual background. Moral disagreement is more likely to strike them as similar to their disagreements internal to their own community.

The third condition also seems at work in Western attitudes toward the Middle East. Westerners may feel a greater alienation from the orthodox results of the moral outlook than in the Chinese case. They would find the attitudes familiar but minority claims within their own tradition, moral claims they would normally attribute to familiar and discredited biases in their own perspective. In India, Westerners exhibit more fascination but still sense a common base.  They find the differences in moral judgments as most plausibly linked to religious or "factual" beliefs which, they reasonably suspect, will never come to seem rational on examination (reincarnation). In both cases, if we sense a common conceptual framework and perspective, it makes it unlikely the differences in moral attitudes will have a deeply interesting source.

This initial reactions may, of course, vanish with greater understanding but they are not prima facie irrational or unfair. We can justify an interest in comparative Chinese ethics on grounds that would not imply an equal interest in the teachings a Cree Medicine man or a polygamous prophet of some rural mountain community.

Where Westerners see similarly familiar appeals in the Chinese case, they are equally likely to be cynical. For example, the argument that we should restrict liberty for administrative or economic advantage is a familiar one in Western political discourse.  To the degree that Asian leaders focus provide that justification of their repression, Western thinkers have no reason to suspect a significantly different moral outlook underlies the appeal. Reason need not require being respectful of the claim that there are economic benefits of depriving people of freedom simply because a Chinese autocrat, rather than a European one, delivers it.

Where we find that a rival tradition meets the three conditions (significant difference in approach, rich reflective development, and compatible or successful outcomes) we may then reasonably entertain an equilibrium-disturbing possibility. The rival scheme of norms may embrace sound moral insights that one’s home system has missed. We rationally begin to suspect the completeness or comprehensiveness of our moral view. One rational response is to try to learn more about the newly appreciated system—to try to appreciate it more from the inside.  The three conditions justify this kind of normative respect for some but not all rival moral traditions.

Prima Facie, autonomous reasoners from both communities can begin to entertain the possibility of a third position’s being right. If we could successfully synthesize the insights of both rivals, it would have some claim to be a better moral structure. This too seems implicit in the internal moral autonomy of both traditions. Although we live in and carry on moral discourse within communities, we do not normally take the range of our moral concern or our persuasive activity to stop at the boundary of our community.  We naturally seek to widen our community and we assume that moral discourse tends toward that goal.

The implicit assumption behind discussion and persuasion is that we expect others can appreciate and be moved by the standards to which we appeal and ultimately to share our attitudes. Failure to get that agreement from an otherwise rational interlocutor normally prompts more moral discussion. Ultimate failure requires that we have some plausible, system-saving story. Given our present second-level norms about moral reasoning in both the communities, a synthesized morality that can command agreement of the wider, reflective community of moral reasoners from both traditions would have prima facie appeal. 

The synthesizing, however is a complex task that, I conclude, is not the provenance of comparative ethics per se. We would have to carry it out simultaneously and independently within each moral perspective. That is, a Chinese theorist would have to pick and choose attitudes and norms from Western morality that recommend themselves from his present lights. Similarly, the aspects of Chinese morality that would engage a Western moralist would be those that seem insightful given her existing attitudes. This may include aspects of the theory of human nature or the way of engaging in moral debate and reflection.

What I think is improbable, however, is that a rival system's merely assigning something a certain moral status can count as a reason for adopting that attitude from the home perspective. When a comparative philosopher, for example, argues that we should adopt Confucianism’s “virtue ethics,” we legitimately may wonder how the fact that Confucius believed it is relevant to any rational moral decision we are facing. Since we do not consider that the fact that they are Aristotle's reasons to make them better reasons, why should we Mencius'?

Similar points apply to communitarianism.  Whatever reasons a Westerner might have for adopting a communitarian attitude, they become no stronger when we are told that Confucians are communitarians. If the argument given by the other culture’s philosopher is a good one when translated to  the local tradition, then it is as good if newly invented.

Simon Blackburn suggests a way that the mere fact that a reflective culture has a certain moral attitude counts in favor of that attitude.  He suggests that as a first step, a synthesis between two moralities would be a more permissive morality. That is, we may think of the three conditions as conditions of a "permissible" morality.  What is obligatory in a permissive morality need not be obligatory, but what is permissible in a permissible morality is permissible. So, if we accord the appropriate level of respect for the other tradition then the fact that they permit something we forbid should count as a reason to permit it. 

However, it seems that we still require an argument that that the permission in question is coherent and survives due reflection by those in the rival tradition. The interaction of permissions and requirements seems to block this move in the rights case. We are not, I assume, tempted to conclude that in a “higher” synthesizing morality, rulers would have permission to imprison their political opponents. The permission in question conflicts with another important permission in a Western system—the permission to criticize one’s political leaders.

While the goal of a wider moral community is implicit in both traditions, it is not clear how to derive any more specific normative relevance for comparative ethics. There may be no direct argument for some disputed feature of local ethics from merely comparative premises. The normative relevance seems to be the extremely general one of vaguely increasing our openness to moral reform and contemplation of the other tradition. Comparative philosophy has more normatively relevance when it illuminates for the other tradition the background assumptions, concepts and norms of reflection that give the rival system the kind of reflective coherence that gives us pause.

In any case, a sufficiently large, robust and reflective moral community to give us this kind of pause, is also likely to have ongoing moral disputes. We certainly could not recommend a specific conclusion on purely comparative grounds when it is theoretically controversial within its home community. Siding with one party on a concrete normative issue within both the home and rival traditions seems to land one back in the realm of ordinary normative argument.  The normative features of comparative ethics play no obvious role.

What might interest us in these cases would be explanation of some general features of how the other culture frames the dispute. The sound way to make comparative theory relevant to normative theory would be a specific example of the original  case for normative respect.  We can show how the rival theorists within the remote tradition are coherent and reflective in addressing the specific moral issue. The fact that one party in the remote dispute enjoys political favor and patronage does nothing to strengthen the case for their specific moral conclusion.  The comparative philosopher contributes normatively relevant information better by clear, philosophical exposition than by castigating allegedly narrow-minded local philosophers.

Summary of Normative Relevance

We have uncovered two ways comparative philosophy can have normative relevance: positive excusing and raising the openness to the idea of a moral synthesis. Of course, we would already have good reasons to value openness, moral curiosity, etc. and we have good practical reasons to find modes of harmonious co-existence with other cultures. These values need not depend on the claims of the reflective coherence of the other tradition.

If we make the comparative case for the three criteria of normative respect, it has some implications for the Asian values debate.  The West should indeed avoid an imperious lecturing attitude toward any Asian culture for whom such respect is justified. Each side should acknowledge the other’ moral responsibility and intellectual integrity. We need not be moral relativists to adopt this attitude. The relativism required is the familiar type that results from applying the principle of epistemic responsibility to different situations.

It does not, however, follow that we should fail to engage in open and frank moral discourse.  We can still express strong moral criticism together with the reasoning that supports our moral views. Comparative ethics should not lead to being an apologist for the rival perspective. Failing to be open, frank and detailed in our moral objections may signal the very lack of normative respect due a co-equal moral discussant. It would signal that we do not consider them as potential partners in a wider moral community.  All it means is that Western adocates have to provide as complete a reflective case as they can—not relying on the mere "dominance" of the view in our home tradition. They should elucidate in detail the assumptions and higher norms supporting their judgment. This is entailed in treating each other as potential members of a wider community of moral discourse.

Westerners should expect and accept no less from the Chinese side. We should not accept the simple, unelaborated assertion of “traditional differences” end the exchange. We should pursue questions about what higher values and other features of the Chinese perspective support the targeted differences in moral judgment. One should want to know what norm guides Confucian attitudes, how that norm is justified, if rival Chinese traditions have questioned it, why the speaker accepts the Confucian answer and so forth.

Here comparative philosophers may have a role.  We may reasonably excuse a political leader from the philosophical task of filling out all the assumptions, formulating the higher norms, etc.  If we are to gain this kind of respect for each other, it will perhaps require philosophical interaction. Both cultures need to have a deeper and more widespread appreciation that the other meets the conditions of normative respect.

China and the Human Rights debate.

Given my argument up to this point I now abandon now any pretense of discussing the moral perspective of Asia in general. I suspect the moral communities that make up Asia lack the kind of philosophical coherence a comparative philosophy approach needs for treating them all together. I have already pointed to historical and conceptual reasons for thinking that Middle Eastern or South Asian moral perspectives have more in common with European metaethics and moral psychology. So I limit myself, as before, to elucidating what I claim is the equilibrium challenging Chinese comparison.

Initial Problems for Chinese Theories of Rights

We should first distinguish between conceptual and value problems surrounding human rights claims. The lack of a concept 'like' rights doesn’t directly explain much. It would bar a Chinese male from asserting that a husband had a right to beat his wife as much as from asserting that individuals have a right to political and civil liberty. Our concern is really with the latter and, since we are using the issue mainly for illustration, I will speak of "human rights," "individualism," "democracy," and "political liberty" more or less interchangeably.

We can restate the normative issue in neutral conceptual terms. Should Chinese political structures give individuals a larger and more stable set of basic liberties.  I won’t argue here that they should use the language of “rights” in doing so or that they should justify doing so, as Western theorists do, by appealing to the inherent dignity of the individual as a rational being.

Conceptual issues of this sort are relevant, however, since the availability of certain ways of framing issues may influence the answers a reasonable discourse within a community draws for guiding their moral attitudes.  I have analyzed such differences in a classical Chinese perspective in many earlier papers. Many of my conclusions were conceptual. Pre-Han (c. 200 AD) Chinese thought lacked not only a term like 'rights' but also any formal counterpart of 'duties', 'obligations', and 'ought'.

Similarly, as hinted above, we find no counterpart of the conception of an individual moral agent as "rational." The familiar cluster of metaphysical, and epistemological doctrines (the private mind as the locus of meaning, for example) that ground the Western intuition about the primacy and dignity of the individual are all quite alien to the classical tradition. These considerations explain why the kinds of considerations Europeans address to each other in justifying individual rights would not "make contact" with the considered views of a responsible Chinese thinker.

Many other seemingly non-ethical features of the two traditions of philosophy may also yield coherence-based partial explanations of our divergent moral attitudes. No doubt a Western sense of the moral primacy of human individuals is buttressed in traditional Western philosophy by its doctrines of metaphysical and methodological individualism. Western theorists mostly understand the world as made up of particular objects.  Chinese metaphysical theory tends to analyze objects as parts of a larger, more basic whole. 

Western folk psychology and philosophy of mind postulated a private, individualized mind as the locus of meaning, thought, and reason.  Chinese thinkers viewed meaning as stemming from conformity to conventions of representation stemming from the culture heroes who invented language (especially writing).  It places fluid dispositions to language use in the place of sentential belief, assertability in the place of truth and different schemes of distinctions for rival theories. It has no clear counterpart of a proof or human faculty for assessing validity—reason. 

Western epistemology concerns the ways we go from the private, subjective, individualized beliefs to an abstract, objective, knowledge. Western thought typically bypasses and denigrates social conventions as "conventional wisdom."  Chinese epistemology focuses on how we take guiding discourse (a dao) and apply it in real world conditions. It had, until the Cultural Revolution, a long tradition of considering history as a treasure of guidance.

Chinese theories locate meaning in social conventions.  In place of the Western folk theory of a language of private symbols (ideas) scattered through all the individual minds of the community and derived from individual histories of contact with objects in the world, they place conventional public symbols (ideograms).  The history of contact with the world that is relevant to meaning is the history of the culture, not of the individual. Language has meaning because we conform to a shared tradition.  Knowledge is primarily knowledge of a dao--a social guiding discourse.

Classical Chinese thinkers framed the central normative question as a social one.  What content should a community’s moral discourse have? Socrates, famously, posed the question as a more individual one. What parts of the community morality should one rationally accept? The differences influencing Chinese and Western moral reasoning is both broad and deep. 

The observation of all these kinds of difference, however, yields only a limited “negative” point.  It merely shows how some coherence considerations that inform Western European attitudes toward individual freedom might be absent from Chinese reasoning. At best it helps explains why the overall Chinese community has not yet overwhelmingly concluded that individual liberty and democracy are important political values—why that is it is an ongoing and controversial issue today. 

These considerations cannot in any sense block genuinely culturally Chinese participants in moral discourse from giving sound and convincing arguments for human rights. They seem to comparative ethicists to do so, I think, only because they assume that only the lines of thought that lead to Western pro-liberty attitudes could lead to a similar Chinese conclusion. The tendency to magnify the implications of the differences noted may stem from the appeal of one of John Rawls' powerful arguments against Utilitarianism. 

Rawls classic presentation of his “liberty principle” argued that it best accounts for all of our considered judgments about justice. He traces the principles to a Kantian attitude of fundamental respect for the individual reasoning moral agent. Utilitarian reasoning, he argued, would not justify the principles in the ways that coincides as well with all our moral community’s considered judgments or intuitions. Utilitarianism, he concluded, takes a mode of reasoning appropriate for the individual to a whole society and thus "does not take seriously the difference among individuals."[13]

Rawls’ subtlety here is easily missed (even assuming his argument is sound). He does not say that utilitarian considerations cannot justify a conception of justice that values liberty and equality. He argues that utilitarian arguments do not do justice to our intuitions about the ontological and practical status of individuals.[14] Our respective moral attitudes, our moral "intuitions," are not isolated judgments. We ground them on a comprehensive philosophical outlook--a view of ourselves, of society and of the world. That view is not utilitarian.

Chinese Classical Moral Discourse.

Now, of what relevance are these kinds of considerations to any live practical issue in China?  Let us take the question of whether the rulers of the future Hong Kong SAR should allow Hong Kong citizens to continue to exercise substantial individual liberty after 1997.  Further, let us imagine the debate is one carried on mainly within the local community. The kinds of conceptual issues I introduced, I suggest, will simply be irrelevant historical curiosities.

Given the contemporary complexity of the Chinese moral community, these anachronistic considerations are distractions from the real issue.  Any living member of a Chinese moral community has much more to draw on in aiming for reflective equilibrium than merely the classical Chinese ethics. We may appropriately notice that internal political debate includes frequent rhetorical appeal to what is “purely Chinese.” Traditional affiliation still retains a powerful emotional pull within Chinese communities. The most common manifestation is the accusation that reformers are "Westernized" or aping Western ways.[15] 

Historically, Chinese liberals have felt and and arguably still feel the necessity to show how the reforms they advocate have a traditional base. Obvious examples include Kang Yuwei, Liang Qiqiao and Hu Shi. Clearly, however, other “reformers” have felt quite comfortable with far more radical anti-traditional advocacy. So it surely is not a shared discourse requirement of the entire moral community that their political ideas should have a traditionally pure Chinese base.

I do not endorse its normative relevance, but the question of the compatibility of classical thought and political liberalism is an interesting intellectual issue. Many in the community regard it as relevant to the debate about human rights. Could a reflective, coherent, pre-Buddhist Chinese philosopher appreciate an argument for individual liberty? The question is not “could Confucianism be coherent with liberty?” The limitation to Confucianism is a common error of comparative ethicists.[16]  Nothing I have said warrants respect for Confucianism in particular as opposed to the Chinese moral discourse in general.

The religious, as opposed to philosophical, attachment to Confucianism may be an important causal factor in Chinese politics, but it has no logical or epistemic importance in answering a straightforward normative question. Like a comparable focus on Catholicism in discussions about abortion in the West, attention to Confucianism may have predictive or explanatory value, but is irrelevant to the live normative issue. There is no more reason for a modern Chinese moral thinker to conform to traditional Confucian beliefs than for a modern European to conform to the moral judgments of Thomas Aquinas.

I do not deny that Confucianism is one authentic expression of the Chinese tradition.  However, the “pure” tradition is not Confucian, even if by the pure tradition, we mean the native philosophical basis laid during the classical, pre-Buddhist period. That is the period of the "hundred philosophers."  Those Chinese philosophers who thought carefully about higher norms of moral reasoning arguably regarded Confucianism as a “soft target.” I have argued that prominent Confucian thinkers were demonstrably inept (bordering on disingenuous) in the techniques of critical moral reflection developed by other native Chinese thinkers.[17] 

Any account of "pure" Chinese attitudes and norms for argument must take account of all the thinkers in Classical China who engaged in systematic and higher level reflection about ethics. Studying the philosophical content of much pro-Confucian writing, one may justifiably suspect that being raised as a Confucian may be precisely the kind of indoctrination that would block or undermine the three bases of moral respect. If we confirm that modern Confucianism is essentially a scholastic enterprise that accords "religious" status to a set of classical writings. If Confucianism won its dominance by being selected and enforced as a political orthodoxy, then its "success" may start to look like success in helping a ruling system achieve political longevity rather than success in promoting stable cooperation.

Modern Confucians work hard to dispel this suspicion but historically it has repeatedly been widespread within the Chinese community. The major examples were the classical period itself, the post-Han interregnum, and the modern period. One doesn’t have to step out of the Chinese community to hear devastating criticisms of the effects of Confucian education and indoctrination. In the face of these suspicions, normative arguments that limit themselves to reciting Confucian views get their normative conclusion at the cost of normative relevance.

Prima facie, Chinese political history provides excellent grounds for doubt that Confucianism's historical dominance is a product of anything like reflective coherence. By focusing on Confucianism, apologists implicitly substitute a ruler's choice of a political orthodoxy[18] for the outcome of a reflective process. Arguably, it is precisely Confucianism’s reflective naiveté that appealed to the early political authoritarians just as it does to modern ones. I see no clear route to justifying that normative respect for which I have argued on the basis of such an appeal. To earn that, defenders need to produce a sound argument for the normative legitimacy of appeal to authority that responds adequately to the doubts historically and currently expressed by Daoists, Mohists, Buddhists, Legalists, Muslims, Christians and liberals in their own community.

For one illustration from the "pure" classical period, let us briefly address Mohism. It was a highly influential school from that period that lost out after the success of imperial Chinese authority "buried" philosophy. Chinese conservatives and sympathetic comparativists, if they mention it at all, typically castigate Classical Mohism as “Western” or “Western style” thought. Alternately, they characterize it as “plebeian,” “shallow” or “lacking in style.” I have argued elsewhere that these aspersions are baseless.[19] I will not revisit these non-philosophical issues here. 

The philosophical quality, in context, is hard to dispute. Mozi’s was the first “master” after Confucius and he gave Chinese philosophy an impressively rich and sophisticated beginning—especially given he overtly non-philosophical character of Confucius’ teachings. Mozi’s teachings included distinctly Chinese versions of utilitarianism, contract theory of government, a pragmatic theory of language. He virtually “invented” the literary style of the argumentative essay. His doctrines stimulated Confucianism to philosophical reflection and led eventually to Daoism and Legalism. The debate between Mohism and Confucianism became a paradigm for Chinese metaethics—for higher level reflection on ethics. 

For our purposes, the single most important feature of Mohism is that it gave an argument for rejecting the authority of tradition. From that point on, no Confucian felt comfortable appealing as simply to moral tradition as Confucius had.[20] Obviously other rival schools (particularly Daoist or Legalist) eschewed such appeal to the authority of tradition. So the core claim of the Asian values debate, that tradition justifies ignoring arguments for human rights is itself incompatible with the traditional standards of Chinese reasoning.

As I argued earlier, the authoritarian Chinese argument is incoherent.  By its own light, it appeals to Chinese tradition to limit moral reflection, but Chinese tradition rejects such an appeal to tradition. The traces of their argument survive the Confucian attempt to erase it.  Mencius, the most influential of ancient Confucian theorists, explicitly sought to give a non-traditional justification of Confucian traditional rites. Once Confucianism steps into that arena, the question simply shifts to whether Mencius' argument is sound or not.

Mencius, given his enormous historical influence, is of interest to the Asian values debate in a number of ways. He confirms that Chinese moral reasoning rejects bald appeal to tradition.  Moreover, his own attempts to give a meta-justification of tradition introduce lines of thought that are extremely congenial to liberal and democratic political reformers. He shows a distinct tendency to interpret the Confucian "mandate of Heaven" based on the mechanism of popular acceptance.[21] His moral psychology appears to provide a viable base for an argument for equal respect for all humans. 

Comparative Normative Conclusions: Some Familiar Fallacies

When comparativists hold Chinese philosophy out as a model for Western moral reform, they similarly run the risk of undermining the basis for normative respect for the Chinese tradition. If they focus on Confucian doctrines, they may appear to blur the important distinction between positive mores and morality. Some, for example, argue that Western philosophy should emulate Chinese philosophy and adopt virtue ethics.[22] Yet is seems that of Classical Chinese philosophers, only Mencius is a plausible example of such an approach to ethics.  Other thinkers produced some powerful criticisms of the position.[23] Further, a debate about the advantages and disadvantages of virtue ethics is an ongoing one in Western thought.  It is not clear how we could assign normative relevance to the fact that ancient Chinese had opted for one approach in the absence ever having formulated or addressed what we call “duty ethics.”

A parallel problem plagues the familiar use of Chinese attitudes to commend communitarianism. First, it is controversial even within the Chinese tradition. Daoism, notoriously, tended toward anarchism and was rooted in a tradition of hermitage. Some read Mohism as adopting a contract theory that implies they are individualists.[24] Mencius himself characterizes Yangism as a doctrine of egoism. It would require much more careful argument than I have seen to show that the higher norms that governed the debate in ancient China clearly entailed communitarianism. Nothing follows from the mere observation that some Confucians have communitarian attitudes.

Again the liberal-communitarian debate is a live and vibrant one within modern ethics. In that context, it is far from clear how the alleged fact of Chinese preference for one is relevant to the debate. Most attempts at argument amount to implicit apologetics for Chinese government attitudes toward human rights on the grounds that rights follow from only from Rawlsian assumptions.  However, as we saw, nothing Rawls says bars the possibility of justifying a stable scheme of individual liberty from communitarian assumptions. John Dewey and Philip Petit, for example, both show how such a justification of individualism from communitarian assumptions could go.[25]

I have speculated that the conception of morality that would justify the normative relevance of comparative ethics explains why these direct appeals on concrete issues fail. We should instead trace the background assumptions and higher norms that inform both sides of the Chinese debate.  This will give us an appreciation for how another reflective moral culture frames the question. Comparative ethics would be relevant only when it makes sound foreign arguments that are not raised in the local discussion accessible from our present lights.

My approach does not assume that genuinely moral communities will converge in their moral attitudes. Suppose a Westerner finds some considerations raised in Chinese philosophy to be good reasons for taking a more communitarian view. They will have that status because they make some kind of contact with her present norms.  The way it makes contact and influences reasoning may be different from the way it would do so in Chinese discourse. The implications when combined with a Western perspective may diverge radically from those that flow out of a well-informed and reflective Chinese discourse.

Similarly, a Chinese moral discussant may find some deep considerations offered by Western theorists persuasive about the value of human rights.  Her advocacy of human rights using that argument together with her other considered views may still evidence interesting differences, e.g., in what rights she treats as basic or her ways of dealing with conflicts between rights. Chinese reasoners may be more drawn to communitarian or utilitarian justifications of individual liberty borrowed from Western discourse. If Rawls was right, then they could well achieve “reflective equilibrium” with their existing attitudes at a different point than a Western community might.

The idea of a moral synthesis is a powerful and natural one when a culture meets the conditions of normative respect.  The nature of moral discourse and reasoning, however, may mean that both communities could experience ongoing progress and development in moral attitudes and yet never meet.


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_______1990 "The Science of Man and Wide Reflecive Equilibrium,"  Ethics 100  pp. 259-278.

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Dewey, John. 1939   Freedom and Culture  (New York: Capricorn Books) pp. 3-176.

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Gibbard, Allan. 1990   Wise Choices, Apt Feelings: A Theory of Normative Judgment  (New York: Oxford University Press) pp. x+346.

_______July 1990 "Norms, Discussion, and Ritual: Evolutionary Puzzles,"  Ethics 100  pp. 787-802.

Graham, Angus. 1964 "The Place of Reason in the Chinese Philosophical Tradition," in Raymond Dawson (ed.), The Legacy of China  (London: Oxford University Press) pp. 28-56.

_______1967 "The Background of the Mencian Theory of Human Nature,"  Tsing Hua Journal of Chinese Studies 6/1, 2  pp. 215-274.

Hansen, Chad. 4/1/72 "Freedom and Moral Responsibility in Confucian Ethics,,"  Philosophy East and West, Vol 22/2  .

_______1985 "Individualism in Chinese Thought," in Donald Munro (ed.), Individualism and Holism: Studies in Confucian and Taoist Values  (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press) pp. 35-56.

_______1985 "Punishment and Dignity in China," in Donald Munro (ed.), Individualism and Holism: Studies in Confucian and Taoist Values  (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press) pp. 359-382.

_______1989 "Mozi: Language Utilitarianism: The Structure of Ethics in Classical China,"  The Journal of Chinese Philosophy 16  pp. 355-380.

_______1991 "Should the Ancient Masters Value Reason?," in Henry Rosemont (ed.), Chinese Texts and Philosophical Contexts: Essays Dedicated to A. C. Graham  (La Salle, IL: Open Court) pp. 179-209.

_______1992   A Daoist Theory of Chinese Thought  (New York: Oxford University Press) pp. xv-448.

_______9/1/96 "Duty and Virtue," in Philip J. Ivanhoe (ed.), Chinese Language, Thought, and Culture: Nivison and His Critics.  (La Salle, IL: Open Court) pp. 173-192.

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_______1985  in Donald J. Munro (ed.), Individualism and Holism: Studies in Confucian and Taoist Values  (Ann Arbor: MI: University of Michigan Center for) .

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Nathan, Andrew. 1985   Chinese Democracy  (Berkeley: University of California Press) pp. 1-313.

Northrup, Filmer S. C. 1946   The Meeting of East and West  (New York: Macmillan) pp. 1-531.

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Pettit, Philip. July 1990 "Virtus Normativa: Rational Choice Perspectives,"  Ethics 100  pp. 725-755.

_______1993   The Common Mind: An Essay on Psychology, Society and Politics  (New York: Oxford University Press) pp. Xvi+366.

Rawls, John. 1971   A Theory of Justice  (Cambridge: Harvard University Press) pp. xv+607.

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[1] One early philosophical study that had an "anthropological" character was Richard Brandt's study of Hopi ethics. See Brandt, Richard B. Hopi Ethics : a Theoretical Analysis, (Chicago : University of Chicago Press) 1954, p x:398. However, as much as his situation approximated "field work" Brandt's interests were in the principles that particularly the intellectual leaders of the Hopi used in justifying their different doctrines and behaviors. 

[2] The contrast between narrow and wide "reflective equilibrium" motivates this observation. If we understand moral reflection as the attempt to harmonize our "considered judgments" about morality, the coherence motivation seems equally appropriate for the entire range of beliefs about the human nature, society, and the world.  See John Rawls, A Theory of Justice (Cambridge, Harvard University Press). 1971 p. 51 and Holmgren, Margaret, “The Wide And Narrow Of Reflective Equilibrium” Canadian journal of philosophy, v 19 n 1Mar 01 1989, p. 43.

[3] Explaining a contrast in moral attitudes, thus need not be the main interest of a philosophical study. A philosopher may well show a greater interest in a culture with a different conceptual structure and background philosophical doctrines even where the ethical outlook comes close to his own.

[4] I have little to say about moral psychology, i.e., about the truth of theories about moral psychology for different cultures. It is not inconceivable that a different nationality might have different psychology, or even that a theory’s wide acceptance might be a “self-fulfilling prophecy.”  Modern Europeans, shaped by institutions constructed on the assumption that we are psychological egoists, may become more “selfish” than Chinese. However, that seems mainly an empirical question.

[5] Rosemont, unpublished paper.  Rosemont suggests that China is such a case. He draws on Fingarette’s analysis of Confucian ethics as lacking a concept of choice and that differences in Chinese views on human behavior can not underwrite issues about moral relativity. I reply indirectly in Hansen, 1992, pp. 81-83.

[6] Probably less because it is attaches to the term than because, as Saussere and Derrida remind us, meaning is a function of difference. It is because we normally contrast morality with conventions and religious rules. Conversely, we normally refer to utilitarianism as a moral theory even when we think it wrong.

[7] Hansen, 1991, 1992, pp. 140-143, and 1995.

[8] I am guided here by Alan Gibbard, Wise Choices, Apt Feelings: A Theory of Normative Judgment, (Oxford, Clarendon Press) 1990. He elucidates the claim that an ethical judgment is rational as expressing and endorsing a system of norms from which it follows.

[9] This is only one of the puzzles facing naïve appeals to tradition of this sort.  Another would be that the Chinese critic of human rights could not justify his critical attitude. He implicitly allows that Western tradition is different so he must judge that it is right for Westerners to advocate human rights and to push them on Asian societies as well. That is what, he supposes, Western moral tradition tells them to do.

[10] This need not be because they are mystical like Plato's good.  A more likely explanation it because the system of standards will form a coherent scheme.  The justification of any standard will depends on its coherence with the others in the community's overall system. There will be rival ways of achieving this coherence and they will inform and shape moral disagreement and debate in the community.

[11]See Gibbard, 1990

[12] Notice that Rosemont’s thesis about whether or not Chinese thinking should be regarded as a morality or not blocks this line of thought.  If it is not moral thinking but some other kind of activity, then we may not conclude that they are not in any conflict.  The conflict comes from the assumption I have made that both traditions are formally autonomous and thus think moral judgments are not merely traditional.

[13] Rawls (1972).

[14] I don’t mean to suggest that the difference would not have normative implications. The differences arise from narrow as well as wide reflective equilibrium. The shape of a Chinese “utilitarian” conception of individual liberty may differ from a Western one.

[15] One may worry that giving arguments showing classical thought is consistent with human rights gives reformers a response to the unfortunate rhetorical context but implicitly endorses and strengthens it. Should we on principle insist only on the normative irrelevance of descriptive classical thought—which may give the (mistaken) impression that conservatives win the point? Some Chinese conservatives even hint that Mozi, the nearest contemporary of Confucius and a strong critic, was a “Western” thinker.

[16] Henry Rosemont Jr."Why Take Rights Seriously? A Confucian Critique" in Leroy S. Rouner, Ed. Human Rights and the World's Religions (University of Notre Dame Press).  1988.  pp. 167-182. Rosemont limits his claims to Confucius himself.  Would there be a way to show Confucius of one of his disciples that his conception was wrong and that it should include elements of human rights?  The question, as I note here, is still an interesting one even if is technically irrelevant to the practical issues.  The question, however, loses most of its philosophical interest when personalized or relativized too far. It would be too easy to find a philosopher in both traditions whose thought was inimical to individual rights. Given that Confucius can barely be counted a philosopher anyway, his actual beliefs are of interest mainly to those with a religious attachment to Confucianism. Confucius’ views may have been the result of his psychological peculiarities or his ignorance or inattention to lines of thought that were available in his contemporary culture. See my 1992, pp. 112-115.

[17] Earlier, I would have excluded Xunzi (298-238 BC) from this negative judgment of theoretical sophistication.  I do still think there are some signs of theoretical strength and originality, his position as a whole now strikes me as either uncomprehending or disingenuous.  See my discussion in my 1992, pp. 307-343.

[18] This assumption is seldom defended in print, but when I have put the point to my comparative colleagues they offer various ways of saving it. Some imply that the political decision itself shows the “naturalness” or “fit” of Confucianism for the Chinese “mind.” Others claim that the fact that it could be imposed and “work” demonstrates this and finally that the fact that it was imposed and worked effected a gradual (hereditary) change so that Chinese minds are now effectively shaped by that decision.

[19] See my 1992, pp. 95-152, especially 95-98.

[20] The “simply” is important because Xunzi did have access to an argument for such an appeal.  The deeper bases of his argument included intuition, evaluation of name use, and pragmatic considerations.

[21] He does not, however, accepts a purely procedural account of democratic legitimacy.  The targeted selection was the wisest and best and the implicit method was more like popular acclaim than voting. The democratic feature was intertwined with a natural meritocracy.  Both points also apply to Mohists who probably actually used election for their leaders.

[22] See Bryan Van Norden, “What Should Western Philosophy Learn from Chinese Philosophy” in  P. J. Ivanhoe, ed. Chinese Language, Thought, and Culture: Nivison and His Critics, Chicago, Open Court: 1996, pp. 224-249.

[23] This is, obviously, an interpretive claim with which Van Norden may well disagree.  Still, it seems such interpretive issues must be settled before we can give any normative force to the claim.  I argue for the claim that only Mencius seems to adopt a straightforward virtue ethics in my article in the same volume. "Devirtuosity and Virtue Ethics in Classical Chinese Thought" in  P. J. Ivanhoe, ed. Chinese Language, Thought, and Culture: Nivison and His Critics, Chicago, Open Court: 1996, pp. 173-192.

[24] See Schwartz (1985) p. 142.  I respond in my 1992 pp. 132-133

[25] See Philip Pettit, The Common Mind: An Essay on Psychology, Society and Politics, Oxford University Press, 1993, pp. Xvi-366 and John Dewey, Freedom and Culture, (New York, Capricorn Books) 1939, p. 6.