After my most pleasant China trip, I am coming to a conclusion: Confucianism works best in the world, especially in the modern world, when it operates as a form of practical ethics, providing ideas that can inform how individuals navigate challenging decisions in their personal lives. Such an approach can be distinguished from another, which employs Confucianism as a framework for law and the legitimation of state power. I will call the former "bottom-up" Confucianism, and the latter "top-down" Confucianism. Or we might even invoke an economics analogy (though I have not thought through all of the connotations of it): micro-Confucianism v. macro-Confucianism.
Let me stipulate at the outset, when I use the term "practical ethics" to describe bottom-up, micro-Confucianism, I do not mean to imply any connection to Peter Singer's famous book of that title. Those who know my writing, know that I have argued directly against Singer's utilitarianism. But I like the term "pratical ethics," especially as it signifies something that lies between "applied ethics" and "philosophy," as is suggested here. I do not want to simply cede the term to Singer.
That said, I have only recently, with the completion of my book, come to the realization that Confucianism works best as a bottom-up practical ethics. Indeed, I mentioned this during my podcast conversation with the Sinica people, and Kaiser Kuo pushed back, making the point that The Analects and Mencius have a top-down, macro-political aspect. And that is true. But it is also true that these books are focused on how individuals can and should live good lives. Moreover, when we consider the conceptual balance between the mirco and macro aspects of pre-Qin Confucianism, the micro has a more significant weight.
Simply put, it is only when people are conscientiously working to do the right things in their personal lives (enact 义 according to 礼 to progress toward 仁) that it becomes possible for macro-political justice and harmony to be realized. Think of these passages from The Analects:
Someone questioned Confucius, saying, Why aren't you in government?
The Master said, The Book of Documents says: Filial, only be filial, a friend to elder and younger brothers - this contributes to government. To do this is in fact to take part in government. Why must I be "in government"? (Watson)
Duke Jing of Qi questioned Confucius about government. Confucius replied, Let the ruler be a ruler, the subject,a subject; the father, a father; the son, a son.
The duke said, Splendid! For if indeed the ruler is not a ruler, the subject not a subject, the father not a father, the son not a son, then although there is grain, will I be able to eat it? (Watson)
2.21 suggests that "government" is rooted in, and emerges out of, filiality. To be a good ruler, one must first be good at fulfilling one's familial and social duties. It is in the cultivation of our closest loving relationships that we devlop the kind of ethical discernment that allows us to become good leaders. Government, in this sense, relies upon a bottom-up process of creating moral goodness in our personal lives.
Similarly, 12.11 suggests that it is only when individuals are fulfilling their duties at all levels of society, from both the top-down and bottom-up, will good government be realized. But it should be noted that Confucian expectations for how a ruler should be a ruler are oriented to the broader micro-social processes of practical ethics. Rulers cannot force people to do the right thing, they should not attempt to impose right action from the top down; but, rather, rulers should exemplify right action in all that they do. If a ruler fails to do the right thing in his or her own personal life, then he or she is no longer fit to be a ruler, because they have set a bad example for the myriad people in society who are trying conscientiously to do the right thing in their personal lives. In other words, the top-down, macro-political aspect of Confucianism is measured by how well it facilitates bottom-up micro-Confucianism. The latter is the defining standard of the former.
There is a danger when Confucianism is invoked as a basis for law and legitimation of state power, as Jiang Qing wants to do. Law and bureaucracy, by definition, seek out universality and impersonalism. That is, law and bureaucracy are concerned with the consistent and routine application of principles across all specific cases. When those practices are rigidly institutionalized, the space for particularlistic judgment is narrowed. And Confucian ethics requires a relatively free social and political space that permits the exercise of moral agency to determine what, precisely, is the right thing to do in particular circumstances.
Think of Shun, the most filial sage-king of legend. Long story short: he decided, when confronted with a particular moral dilemma, that the most filial thing to do was disobey his father. Now, coming to that sort of conclusion (which is heralded by Mencius as morally astute) required a certain agency and a certain legal and political freedom to exercise that agency. He would have not been able to follow through on this decision as he did if law or state power limited his freedom of thought and action.
The problem is exacerbated under conditions of the modern state, where surveillance and repressive powers are so extensive. If political and legal power are highly centralized, without sufficient checks to keep them from impinging upon the personal freedom necessary for moral agency, then Confucianism cannot be fully realized in society. People will be too hemmed in by state power and will not be able to make the kinds of nuanced judgments and actions that Shun exemplifies.
Confucianism operates best, then, in conditions of relative political and social freedom. Concomitantly, if Confucianism is used to authorize concentrations of political and legal power, it runs the risk of limiting personal freedom and undermining the moral agency required for the realization of 仁 in the world. Obviously, the freedom required for the moral success of micro-Confucianism is not unlmited; it is not a matter of everyone just doing what they want. It is, however, a matter of everyone doing what they determine, after careful consideration, they must do if they are to do the right thing.
Ultimately, Confucianism from the top-down should not be allowed to get in the way of Confucianism from the bottom-up.
(photo, "The Marginal Poet Mucao" by Wei Yi, at Moganshan Lu)