Confucianism and Human Rights
JOSEPH C. W. CHAN
The relation between Confucianism and human rights is a complex issue and raises a number of questions. Is Confucianism compatible with the idea of human rights? Is there a place for human rights in an ideal society as understood in Confucianism? Under what conditions would Confucianism accept human rights, if at all? Can it accept the specific human rights listed in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights? Different answers have been given to these questions, in part because they are based on different understandings or evaluations of both Confucianism and human rights. Some scholars who hold an incompatibilist position give Confucianism a rather positive portrayal and human rights a negative one, arguing that Confucianism as an ethics of benevolence and harmonious social relationships has no place for rights that are premised upon individualism and self-assertiveness. Others taking the same incompatibilist position give an opposite account, holding that Confucianism preaches an authoritarian morality and politics that has to be rejected and replaced by a political philosophy of human rights and democracy. The compatibilists, however, argue that while Confucianism may have no difficulty in accepting the idea of human rights, it may not accept a full-blown conception of human rights as expounded by certain liberal philosophies of rights or developed in international laws. Before examining these various controversies, let us start with a brief, and hopefully uncontroversial, description of the Confucian tradition and the idea of human rights.
As a tradition of thought, Confucianism began life in China more than 2500 years ago.1 Although its core ideas can be traced back to the teachings of Confucius (551–479 B.C.E.), this tradition was never thought to be wholly created by Confucius himself. In fact, the original Chinese term of Confucianism, “ru-jia,” makes no reference at all to Confucius. It rather refers to a school of ru, “a type of man who is cultural, moral, and responsible for religious rites, and hence religious.”2 Confucius himself stressed that he was not an inventor of any radically new vision of ethics or ideal society, but only a transmitter of the old tradition — the rites and social values developed in the Zhou dynasty (traditionally, mid-eleventh century to 256 B.C.E.) and even earlier. Nevertheless, it was Confucius who most creatively interpreted the tradition that he had inherited, gave it a new meaning at a time when it became stifling, and expounded it so effectively that his views have influenced a great number of generations of ru to come. The Analects, a record of his ideas and teaching compiled primarily by his disciples and later scholars, is the