Joining East and West: A Confucian Perspective on Human Rights

By Weiming, Tu | Harvard International Review, Summer 1998 | Go to article overview

Joining East and West: A Confucian Perspective on Human Rights


Weiming, Tu, Harvard International Review


TU WEIMING is Professor of Chinese History and Philosophy at Harvard University.

This article is based on an expanded version of Professor Tu's "Epilogue" in Confucianism and Human Rights, edited by William T. de Bary and Tu Weiming (Columbia University Press, 1998).

Human rights are inseparable from human responsibilities. Although in the Confucian tradition, duty-consciousness is more pronounced than rights-consciousness--to the extent that the Confucian tradition underscores self-cultivation, family cohesiveness, economic well-being, social order, political justice, and cultural flourishing--it is a valuable spring of wisdom for an understanding of human rights broadly conceived. The argument that Confucian

humanism is incompatible with human rights needs to be carefully examined.

Human rights as "the common language of humanity," to borrow from former United Nations Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali, is a defining characteristic of the spirit of our time. For the past half-century--since the ratification of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948--an unprecedented international effort has been made to inscribe not only on paper but on human conscience the bold vision of a new world order rooted in respect for human dignity as the central value for political action.

The Enlightenment's Effect

In an historical and comparative cultural perspective, this vision emerged through a long and arduous process beginning with the Enlightenment movement in the modern West in the eighteenth century. The Enlightenment mentality is the most dynamic and transformative ideology in human history. Indebted to the Enlightenment mentality are the values that underlie the rise of the modern West: liberty; equality; progress; the dignity of the individual; respect for privacy; government for, by, and of the people; and due process of law. We have been so seasoned in the Enlightenment mentality that we assume the reasonableness of its general spiritual thrust. We find the values it embodies self-evident.

However, we must be acutely aware of the destructive power of the Enlightenment mentality, as well. As the Western nations assumed the role of innovators, executors, and judges of the international rules of the game defined in terms of competition for wealth and power, the stage was set for growth, development, and, unfortunately, exploitation. The unleashed juggernaut blatantly exhibited unbridled aggressiveness toward humanity, nature, and itself. This unprecedented destructive engine has for the first time in human history brought into question the viability of the human species. Mainly because of our own avidya (the Buddhist concept of ignorance), we have joined the list of endangered species.

Human rights discourse may be conceived as the contemporary embodiment of the Enlightenment spirit. While it does not directly address the question of human survival, it specifies the minimum requirements and basic conditions for human flourishing. It is a powerful, if not the most persuasive, universal moral discourse in the international arena. It may very well be the most effective, if not the only, "instrument" by which states' ordinary standards of behavior can be judged by outsiders without infringing the prerogatives of sovereignty.

The Evolving Discourse

The universality of human rights broadly conceived in the 1948 Declaration is a source of inspiration for the human community. The moral and legal imperative that any civilized state treat its citizens in accordance with the political rights guaranteed by its own constitution is still a compelling argument. The desirability of democracy as providing to this day the most effective framework in which human rights are safeguarded seems self-evident. However, human rights movement as a dynamic process rather than a static structure requires that the human rights discourse be dialogical, communicative and, hopefully, mutually beneficial. …

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