A Chinese philosophy friend sent along a paper (unpublished, not for citation) the other day which started to consider how Confucianism might gain greater practical acceptance in the US. I will respect his wishes and not divulge more about the paper. But it got me to thinking about this topic and I want to put down here some of my own ideas...
There have been efforts to adapt Confucianism to American culture and society. Perhaps most prominently Robert Cummings Neville's book, Botson Confucianism, which investigates the points of intersection and divergence between Confucianism (with a particular focus on Xunzi ritualism) and Western philosophy and religion, i.e. Christianity. It is a starting point of sorts and ultimately argues that Confucian principles can be enacted in a meaningful manner in American contexts. His sub-title is telling in this regard: "Portable Tradition in the Late-Modern World." A Chinese "tradition" can be practiced, and become the source of a kind of moral identity, in the US. It can become American; one can be a Boston Confucian.
It seems, however, that Neville's work has had little effect in expanding the practice of Confucianism in the US. The book appears to have garnered only limited attention, mostly by academics and philosophers. I do not find it widely cited outside of academia - though maybe I'm missing something. Oddly, then, the intellectual work done by Neville may have had a perverse outcome,: it unwittingly demonstrates, rather in the manner of the various efforts of Roger Ames and David Hall, that Confucianism is an esoteric subject, something that only specialists can really understand and appreciate. Now, don't get me wrong. I have the greatest respect for Hall and Ames. But, ironically, the more intellectualized we make Confucianism, the more it is the work of academic philosophers, the less accessible it is for a broader American public.
Instead of more intellectual-cultural work, what might be required to open up Confucianism to a wider American audience is something like a socio-political advance. Let me just throw this out there: the US is, basically, a liberal society and polity. For any moral theory to gain any sort of traction in the US an accommodation with liberalism is required. Without that, illiberal systems of thought will remain marginal to US culture.
OK, that was a bold assertion. Let's unpack it a bit.
The US is a liberal society and polity in the sense that a certain individualism, defined in terms of rights and preferences and "lifestyle," is deeply ingrained. Communitarianism, though an important part of American tradition and political discourse, seems always to be constrained by more powerfully institutionalized principles and practices of liberalism. Assertions of "community" cannot transgress individual rights. I say this not in celebration (I have long had a certain sympathy for communitarianism) but simply as a point of fact (which some might want to dispute empirically...). For example, Christianity has transformed over time in the US. The more communitarian mainline denominations - Catholics, Episcopalians, etc. - have declined in recent decades while smaller sects and denominations that can cater to more personal, individualistic religious preferences have grown. Similarly, a more muscular class-based politics, something more genuinely socialist than the usual American left-liberalism, has never gained much backing here. Culturally and politically, Americans are just too averse to identifying themselves in broad social groups. We talk about "community" all the time. But we are forever acting and thinking as individuals.
Again, these assertions are contestable, and I welcome contestation. But, for now I will stick to the basic line: the US is, at base, a liberal society and polity.
If that is true, than any philosophy, if it is to be more than a mere scholastic curiosity, has to be adaptable to the liberal US context. I think, in certain ways, Confucianism can be so adapted.
We all know what the problems would be at the outset. Some will want to argue that "genuine" or "authentic" Confucianism is fundamentally different than liberalism. If we accept that statement, then we must also accept that, in consequence, Confucianism will never really gain a practical foothold in the US. But there may be reason to resist that characterization. Yes, of course, in the context of ancient China, Confucianism was, by contemporary standards, illiberal. But a kind of Confucianism, one in which certain familial and societal duties are given greater salience in ethical judgment, is possible in a liberal context. It would not be like the Confucianism of pre-Qin China. But, then, again, the Confucianism of Song China was not exactly like its predecessors of pre-Qin China. "Confucianism" has evolved and changed over time.
An interesting attempt to adapt Confucianism to a liberal context is this article (pdf) by Brooke Ackerly: "Is Liberalism the Only Way toward Democracy?" She begins by stating that Confucianism is clearly distinct from liberalism, recognizing it does not carry with it a notion of a rights-bearing individual. She then goes on to show how key principles of (non-liberal) Confucianism can be compatible with the practice of political democracy. In doing so, she starts with a non-liberal Confucianism and ends with a liberal-compatible Confucianism, at least at the level of politics. This is, of course, still an academic exercise. But if she is right, and Confucianism can give rise to democracy in practice, then that practice in itself could be the kind of breakthrough that is needed to demonstrate the relevance of Confucianism to Americans.
Confucianism would be more attractive to more Americans if it could be shown that it did not fundamentally contradict certain basic liberal presumptions. A Confucian democratic practice would go some way in doing that.
We can see the primary obstacle here, however. As long as the CCP party-state maintains its firm rejection of democracy, Americans will sense that Confucianism, which is widely seen not as a universal philosophy but a "Chinese" philosophy, is incompatible with liberalism and thus irrelevant to American experience. Other democracies that have emerged in Confucian cultural contexts - Japan, South Korea, Taiwan - do offer counterexamples. But these pale in comparison, in the American perception of "Confucianism," to the Chinese case. As long as the PRC remains undemocratic, Confucianism will have a hard time gaining wider respect in the US.
There may be other possibilities in the social and cultural realms. But I suspect that here, too, greater accommodation with liberalism will be necessary.
(That is Confucius, just to the left of Moses, in the center of this frieze over the East entrace to the US Supreme Court)