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« So....Maybe China is a Confucian Society After All...Nah... | Main | Confucian Plagarism »

July 10, 2007


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I'm glad I could be of small help with your book.

You suggest that social life can begin before physical birth, but is it not possible for a Confucian to argue that it requires some time after physical birth for the social bonds and interaction between the baby and its parents/siblings to take place? If this were the case, then a newly born baby could be considered something less than fully human. Could this partly explain practises such as female infanticide/abandonment in China?

You are generally right, I think. But my sense is that Confucian ethics eschew rigid doctrines and formulas. Both Confucius and Mencius warn against inflexibly adhering to a single principle. This means that questions of the beginning and life and abortion can be answered only on a case by case basis, taking into account the totality of particular circumstances. That said, I think that a decision to reject a female or disabled child, which certainly occurred ancient China, as well as many other ancient civilizations, and which still happen today, are probably taken very shortly after birth. It is against the law these days to kill a newborn on these grounds but ultrasound and other technologies have led to sex-selection abortions and the like. But to get back to the larger ethical question: I think a modern Confucian position would presume that social life can begin before birth and almost certainly begins at birth; therefore, only under the most extreme circumstances would it be permissible to reject a child after birth. Gender and disability, in and of themselves, would be insufficient grounds for such rejection after birth.
I would go further and say that a modern Confucian would also reject abortion for reasons of gender alone, because girls and women are just as good, if not better, at creating Humanity in the world as men. A desire to carry on a particular family line, it seems to me, should not trump the Humanity-creating capacity of female family members, especially in modern contexts where married women can keep their family name and patrilocal exogamy is less prevalent. Abortion for reasons of disability is more complex, due to the variation disabilities, and will have to be a topic for another post.

I like to think that the Confucian would incline toward your position and say that what I've described above is a distortion of Confucian principles, which no "true Confucian" could approve of. But it's also useful to consider the way ethical systems can be distorted and allow people to convince themselves that they are only bending the rules rather than breaking them. It seems to me that defining humanity as something conferred by others rather than innate, also makes it easier for it to be taken away.

Excellent point. There is a danger that Humanity can be taken away (just as rights can be taken away in liberal systems under duress - see Bush Department of Justice...). There is one thing to add to the mix, however. Humanity is not simply conferred by others. A person, through their good, dutiful acts, creates and reproduces Humanity. As long as you are doing your duty, your Humanity cannot be taken away. You may be persecuted or repressed but your essential Humanity will remain intact because of your proper actions.

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Aidan's Way

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