Academic journal article The Review of Metaphysics

Confucian Values and Human Rights

Academic journal article The Review of Metaphysics

Confucian Values and Human Rights

Article excerpt

TALK OF VALUES HAS been used by East Asian governments to argue for emphasizing economic, social, cultural and developmental rights over civil and political rights that are stressed by Western governments. Such discourse is neither restricted to politics nor uncontroversial. Scholarly articles defending and disputing "Asian values" peaked just before the 1997-98 financial crisis and have all but disappeared thereafter. (1)

The historical antecedent of what we have come to call Asian values is the introduction of Confucian ethics into the Singapore secondary school program in the early 1980s, as an option in the compulsory religious knowledge course aimed at promoting moral education in the schools. (2) The nationwide concern with moral education was motivated by then Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew's perception of the destabilizing effects of industrialization on Singaporeans. Instead of the cohesiveness of traditional communities, rapid economic growth led to increased crime, drug abuse, abortion, and divorce rates, which disorderly social behavior Lee identifies with Western individualism promoted by the emphasis on individual rights. (3) More cynical critics of Asian values maintain that such discourse not only justifies the paternalism of Asian governments with respect to personal behavior, but also enables them to restrict liberal democratic tendencies by being authoritarian and limiting political opposition. (4)

Rather than attempt to adjudicate between these rivals in the Asian values/Confucian values debates, I wish to explore if Confucian values can contribute to the promotion of human rights. Instead of relying on prioritizing the communal over the individual which some defenders of Asian values have done--communal values which are not that distinct from the more conservative Western communitarians' emphasis--I inquire into the distinctive characteristics of Confucianism which can be used to justify the kind of human rights proclaimed by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR). (5) More specifically, I reexamine the resources put forth by some Confucian commentators which are, in my view, relevant to someone's being a rights bearer, such as, the role of the Confucian intellectual and the importance of education, and the potentiality for civic virtues in virtues like humaneness (ren), acting with appropriateness (yi), and ritual propriety (li). Examining these key philosophical concepts will enable us to get clear about Confucianism's compatibility with pluralistic values and ascertain if the kind of liberalism, so frequently associated with the ills of Western individualism by Asian governments, is necessary for possessing human rights, especially the first generation civil and political rights.

If there are indeed Confucian values that support both the civil and political, as well as the economic, social, and cultural rights, then Asian governments who appeal to Confucian values to deemphasize civil and political rights and focus primarily on economic, social, cultural, and developmental rights are overstating their case. Moreover, if Confucian values can accommodate both the first and second generation rights without succumbing to a pluralism of values, especially those which glorify an individual's rights and freedoms without regard for the good of the community, then the value of individual liberalism prized by some Westerners is not a prerequisite for human rights, nor need it be embraced by Confucianism. If liberalism is not a prerequisite of human rights, then perhaps there is something about social order and moral values that the West can learn from Confucianism. The corollary for Asian governments who appeal to Confucian values is that the exercise of civil and political rights need not necessarily lead to excessive individualism. Consequently, these first generation rights do not need to be downplayed in a Confucian conception of human rights.

There was no consciousness of human rights in early Confucian societies. …

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