Human Dignity in Classical Chinese Philosophy
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Human Dignity in Classical Chinese Philosophy

Confucianism, Mohism, and Daoism

Qianfan Zhang

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eBook - ePub

Human Dignity in Classical Chinese Philosophy

Confucianism, Mohism, and Daoism

Qianfan Zhang

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About This Book

This book reinterprets classical Chinese philosophical tradition along the conceptual line of human dignity. Through extensive textual evidence, it illustrates that classical Confucianism, Mohism and Daoism contained rich notions of dignity, which laid the foundation for human rights and political liberty in China, even though, historically, liberal democracy failed to grow out of the authoritarian soil in China. The book critically examines the causes that might have prevented the classical schools from developing a liberal tradition, while affirming their positive contributions to the human dignity concept.
Analysing the inadequacies of the western concept of human dignity, the text covers relevant teachings of Kongzi, Mengzi, Xunzi, Mozi, Laozi and Zhuangzi (in comparison with Rousseau). While the Confucian notions of humanity (Ren), righteousness (Yi), and gentleman (Junzi) bear most directly on the conception of dignity, Mohism and Daoism provide salutary corrections to the ossification of the orthodox Confucian practice (Li).

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© The Author(s) 2016
Qianfan ZhangHuman Dignity in Classical Chinese Philosophy10.1057/978-1-349-70920-5_1
Begin Abstract

1. Introduction

Qianfan Zhang1
Peking University, Beijing, China
End Abstract
More than five decades ago, in the wake of great atrocities committed during World War II (WWII), the United Nations appealed to the “recognition of the inherent dignity and of equal and inalienable rights of all members of human family” as “the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world.” 1 In the following year, the Basic Law of the Federal Republic of Germany (Grundgesetz, 1949) honored human dignity in its very first article as the controlling norm. Since then there has been a consensus among the nation states that human dignity is an important moral and legal concept that should be taken seriously at both national and international political order. 2
The salience of the dignity concept is not diminished in the new millennium, when economic expansion and technological advancements quickly bring together the peoples of diverse cultures hitherto separated by the geographical barriers. While the closing of distances creates opportunities for mutual understanding and cooperation, it also creates occasions for conflicts and distrust, which sometimes lead to violent confrontations. The tragic incidence of September 11, 2001, was but a climax reached by decades of ethnic and cultural conflicts, and foreboded the escalation of violence in a world of diminishing physical distance and engulfing cultural disparity. The cultural and political conflicts in the contemporary world have much to do with the clash of the senses of dignity in different cultures. When the Jihad suicides attacked the western civilians, they might have acted out of the belief that this was the way to vindicate their own dignity, while their attacks obviously devastated the dignity and basic rights of the victims.
It seems paramount that, in order to guarantee the world peace, justice, and prosperity, the governance of a harmonious “global village” requires a global constitutional order based on the moral discourse of human dignity. Such discourse may not produce a universally agreed understanding of human dignity, but it will help to improve consensus and reduce tensions among nations of different cultures. This book is but a modest contribution from the classical Chinese perspective, which developed a rich conception of human dignity before and during the Warring States (Chunqiu Zhanguo, 770–221 B.C.) period.

The Quest for Dignity

Important as it is, the dignity concept has not been intellectually explored and politically utilized among nations of the world today. While many developing nations were beset by economic hardships and political repression, developed liberal democratic nations were caught by the explosion of various political, economic, and social rights. The USA, for example, was preoccupied with the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s and with the welfare rights in the 1970s. Despite the conservative turn, the world continued to be inundated with the “rights-talks” in the 1980s. Individual rights in different realms of human life—rights to free speech and free exercise of religion, rights against legal and political discriminations based on race and sex, right to procedural fairness in welfare hearings, right to physical freedom of woman versus potential rights of an unborn life, and so on—seemed to be the only ground that people in liberal democracies were willing to accept as the basis for good life. Yet, rights are not self-justifying, and “rights-talks” would remain groundless without some unifying conception of human beings. Although the postwar rights movements did contribute to improving the social, economic, and political status of the disadvantaged sections of the population, they shifted the focus of political, legal, and philosophical debates away from the central question about the meaning of human dignity and, without even attempting to answer this question, many invented rights remained unjustified. 3
Recently, however, there seems to be a renewed interest in the idea of human dignity among philosophers and legal scholars. Within the western liberal tradition itself, some philosophers come to treat dignity as the philosophical foundation for the existence of rights. 4 A US Supreme Court Justice even made effort to found the new constitutional rights on the basis of human dignity. 5 The concept of dignity is also used, implicitly, as a device to reconcile Confucianism, primarily a duty-oriented ethics, with the rights-based modern liberalism. 6
Unfortunately, the recent rise in references to human dignity has hardly contributed to its conceptual clarity. The concept, which Dworkin notes rightly as broad and vague, 7 has caused much confusion in literature. It has been used by authors of different convictions to stand for different meanings and with different implicit assumptions, often never made explicit and articulated. It has been employed variously to mean, among other things, the Kantian imperative of treating human being always as the end and never as means only, 8 the “intrinsic humanity divested of all socially imposed roles and norms,” 9 the inherent worth belonging equally to all human beings, 10 the actually developed and mutually recognized moral status of a person, 11 the act and the capacity of claiming one’s rights or the self-controlled expression of rights, 12 the right to secure inviolable moral status against degradation and disgrace in the context of the Due Process and the Equal Protection clauses of the Fourteenth Amendment in the US Constitution, 13 self-respect implying respect for others as opposed to purely self-centered esteem, 14 the quality or state of being worthy and esteemed which requires respect for one’s physical or psychological integrity, 15 full realization of human power and rational existence, 16 the existentialist “authentic dignity of man” as found in man’s thrownness into the truth of Being, 17 the universally shared human reality as given by God or the unique value of human being created in the image of God, 18 and the all-embracing Confucian ideal of humanity (Ren) composed of “concentric circles” of the self, the family, the state, human society, and the cosmos. 19 While some of the connotations are vague and unclear in themselves (e.g. what is meant by the end as opposed to mere means? What is full realization of human power?), others conflict with one another (e.g. human dignity as intrinsic quality universal to all vs extrinsic characters present only in some achieved human beings). It is perhaps not far-fetched to say that the current discussions of human dignity are mired in the stage of conceptual chaos. A recent comprehensive survey of this subject across major civilizations of the world indicates that there are many unanswered questions about the concept of dignity. 20
Before we begin systematic discussion of the classical Chinese perspective, I present below a brief account of the western understanding of human dignity.

The Concept of Human Dignity in the West: An Overview

Like the notion of individual rights, human dignity is a western concept. But in the prevalent rights-oriented ethical discussions today, 21 “human dignity” is not among the terms that are often talked about. And in those academic works that do mention the phrase (even in their titles), it is often left undefined and is used to express moral convictions the authors take for granted to be self-evident. 22 In reality, of course, the concept of dignity is anything but self-evident. Having comprehensively surveyed the conceptual development in the history of western philosophy, Spiegelberg finds it compelling to conclude that the meaning of “human dignity” remains vague and inconsistent, and the clarification of the concept still poses a “genuine challenge” to contemporary philosophers. 23 To facilitate comparison with the Confucian idea of human dignity discussed below, I provide here a brief account of the conceptual development in the West. 24
Since the Greek philosophers, the concept of human dignity has evolved in the entwined development of two traditions in the West: secular and religious. From the beginning human dignity was implicitly associated with freedom and reason. In the Platonic anatomy of the soul, reason is the best and the highest part; it is the divine substance, the partaking of which elevates the soul and makes it immortal. For Aristotle, men are dignified in virtue of reason because it brings order to their individual and social lives. 25
When it came to the Christian scale of value, however, human reason was relegated to a minor place. For Augustine, human beings are reasoning creatures, yet reason is not the end in itself, but only the means to a higher end. 26 Fundamentally, faith is the precondition to right reasoning, and the faith in God, the perfect and highest good, is to be chosen freely by human will. 27 Free will, then, seems to be the ultimate locus of human dignity. 28 In the same vein, Descartes elaborates further that mankind can be said to partake a part of its Creator, not in its limited capacity for reason, but in the unlimited free will. 29 In a sense, human being has dignity because he is created in the image of God, and carries within him a portion of divine substance. 30 Under the influence of the humanist movement since the Renaissance, the Christian view of human nat...

Table of contents

  1. Cover
  2. Frontmatter
  3. 1. Introduction
  4. 2. Human Dignity: A Reconstruction of Confucianism
  5. 3. Humanity or Benevolence? The Interpretation of Confucian Ren and Its Modern Implications
  6. 4. Propriety, Law, and Harmony: A Functional Argument for Rule of Virtue
  7. 5. Equality and Universal Love: Human Dignity in Mohism
  8. 6. Primitive Freedom and Human Dignity in Daoism: A Comparison with Rousseau
  9. 7. Conclusions: Human Dignity Revisited
  10. Backmatter