Social Ethics in a Changing China: Moral Decay or Ethical Awakening?

Social Ethics in a Changing China: Moral Decay or Ethical Awakening?

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780815725725
Publisher: Brookings Institution Press
Publication date: 10/13/2015
Series: The Thornton Center Chinese Thinkers Series
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 250
File size: 955 KB

About the Author

He Huaihong, one of the most influential ethicists in present-day China, is a professor of philosophy at Peking University in Beijing.

Cheng Li, director and senior fellow of the John L. Thornton China Center at Brookings, is author of the upcoming book, Chinese Politics in the Xi Jinping Era: Reassessing Collective Leadership (Brookings, 2016).

John L. Thornton is cochairman of the board of trustees at the Brookings Institution and professor and director of global leadership at Tsinghua University.

Read an Excerpt

Social Ethics in a Changing China

Moral Decay or Ethical Awakening?

By He Huaihong

Brookings Institution Press

Copyright © 2015 The Brookings Institution
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8157-2573-2


"New Principles"

Toward a New Framework of Chinese Social Ethics

China overthrew its monarchy a hundred years ago and is now starting its second century as a republic. There has been much to be proud of over the last century: after decades of war and upheaval, in the last thirty years China has achieved astonishing progress both in its economy and as an international presence. The world has been stunned by China's economic rise. But those achievements do not seem to have generated solidarity and cohesion among China's citizens; they have not built up our confidence in ourselves or each other. We see polluted rivers, contaminated food, violent police, uncaring passers-by, greedy officials, and self-interested citizens. We see people seeming to celebrate violence and abuse; we see millionaires scrambling to leave the country. A startling number of officials seem to have already evacuated their families in anticipation of the day when they will flee abroad with their looted fortunes. Perhaps most shocking is what happens to children in our society: two-year-old Yueyue, run over by a car and ignored by dozens who saw her; whole groups of children killed and injured in kindergarten bus accidents. Such problems and disasters are the shame of our society. They are China's tragedy.

But I do not think that they represent China's "moral collapse," as some have argued. I still believe in humanity and in particular the humanity of the Chinese people. I believe what Mencius said: "Humans all have the feeling of compassion." Our fundamental sense of sympathy and community is real, but it is often weakened by a range of influences to the point that it no longer disciplines us and drives our conduct.

We need to discuss each specific problem, then work out its direct causes and find ways to neutralize them. But I am not advocating a stopgap approach alone: in the face of so many problems, that would likely have no effect. We need not just a patch to help us muddle through but also a permanent cure. So on the one hand, we have the urgent task of forestalling disaster and social disintegration; on the other hand, we have the more fundamental goal of searching for the keys to lasting peace and security in our society. Most of the past century was a transitional period, marked by extreme turbulence. An old society was completely destroyed in those convulsions. But today we still have not yet properly established new social and conceptual systems that offer us unity, confidence, and lasting stability. We have only just emerged from our convulsive transitional period, and though things seem peaceful now, we may still be in a transformational phase. We have not yet created a new society with mechanisms for long-term stability; we have to be constantly on guard against the return of turmoil. So there is an urgent need to work out and build a new type of society, and the first step in that process is to lay firm moral foundations, from ethical fundamentals to political justice. In other words, we need to explore and construct a full ethics for a republic, covering everything from institutional justice to individual duty.

But this is precisely the area where the soft power that we have to work with is far from up to the task. Old political ideologies have completely failed to keep up with changing social reality, with the result that people find themselves stuck with a public morality that does not reflect the way that they live. Empty rhetoric is everywhere, starkly divorced from real conduct. Our old ideology was born from a theory of conquest (in this case, revolution), not a theory of governance. It started as a foreign import, and in its early incarnations was much concerned with attacking China's cultural traditions. It never gave us the tools to build a lasting polity. Recent political ideals are an improvement: the "eight honors and eight disgraces," "harmonious society," and "scientific outlook on development" attempt to draw on the resources of ancient Chinese thought and combine them with a modern sensibility. But slogans like "eight honors and eight disgraces" are hardly a complete, freestanding moral theory. And the phrase "harmonious society" is so vacuous and so obviously at odds with the reality of Chinese life that it has become little more than a punch line. Moreover, the interpretation of these slogans is always excessively ideological and fails to properly embrace China's millennia of distinctive cultural traditions. I believe that we should be embarking on many parallel projects to explore and exploit the rich seam of ethical resources that runs through China's history and culture and apply those resources to the modern world. Such projects could generate an ethical framework to underpin a new social morality.

At the beginning of the twentieth century, in New People and other writings, Liang Qichao made an attempt to set out an ethic for a new society. During Taiwan's "economic miracle" years, a debate erupted in Taiwan over adding a new, sixth relationship to the five relationships recognized as ethically important in traditional Confucianism. While the Confucian relationships are mainly between those who know each other well, the sixth relationship, citizenship, would link strangers. In 1940, during the war against Japan, He Lin published an article in the third issue of Strategies of a Warring State entitled "A New Discussion of the Five Relationships," in which he wrote:

For thousands of years, the five Confucian relationships have endured as one of the most powerful traditional concepts shaping the moral lives of Chinese people. These relationships lie at the core of our ethical code; they constitute the regulatory framework for the Chinese ethnicity. It is our goal to discover the most current spirit of modernity through an interrogation of these old traditions. This approach, of finding the new within the old, exemplifies our adaptive acceptance of our heritage.

Near the end of the article, he repeats the point: "The question today is: how do we locate a permanent, indestructible foundation among the broken shards of the old ethical code? And, on this foundation, how do we assemble ideals and standards of behavior for modern lives and modern society?" Other writers, such as Ch'ien Mu in his Outline of Chinese History and Feng Youlan in Six Books of Continuity and Renewal, have also tried to revive our traditions and restore respect to them through a process of renewal and adaptation. Of course, the "enlightenment" represented by the May Fourth Movement has had an enormous impact, but it also has its blind spots and abuses. It is perhaps time to shine a light on enlightenment itself — that is, to locate the abuses inherent within it.

The most important task is to develop a set of fundamental moral principles — gangchang ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]), or "three guidelines and five constants" (san gang wu chang, [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]) — to anchor our ethical system. For many, "moral principles" means nothing more than prescriptions and restrictions, but we do not have to see them in that way. The old principles of Confucianism are the "three guidelines and five constants." The "three guidelines" are those that the ruler sets for the subject; the husband sets for the wife; and the father sets for the son. The "five constants" can mean either the "five constant relationships" or "the five constant virtues." The relationships are those between ruler and subject; father and son; husband and wife; elder brother and younger brother; and friend and friend. With the exception of the last, they are all obedience relationships. The five constant virtues are benevolence, rightness, ritual, wisdom, and faithfulness. The three guidelines and five constants have been given a bad name for nearly a century. They have been seen as an enemy to overcome, so much so that today many Chinese people think of the guidelines and constants as the biggest obstacle to progress. It has become commonplace to say "The old rules kill the human spirit" or "Prescriptive labels eat our humanity." But that view is wrong. Chinese civilization exists only because Confucian guidelines and constants maintained it over so many centuries. And if we are today attempting to construct a new, more rational system of social ethics, then our purpose is the same as that of Confucius: to build a space for people to live in freedom.

Aside from this misunderstanding of our own history, another objection to fixed moral principles comes from the modern world. In modern societies, relativism — and sometimes nihilism — are commonplace. Relativism disputes and rejects universal moral principles. But if we take a hard look at our own psychology and the realities of history, we do indeed find certain natural moral principles. We find that there are certain acts — the indiscriminate harming of members of our own species or the killing of innocents — that can never be justified and against which our very psychology rebels. Take another example: there is a fairly universal intuition that humanity must have a basic social order, because without it we have no way to reduce our exposure to danger. In every civilization, every religion, and every legal code we find these shared intuitions and rules. Of course, they represent very limited, very primitive principles — and that is precisely what we need for our ethical foundations.

I believe that what we now need to locate is precisely this kind of eternal, solid moral foundation. We need the moral principles behind the old moral principles — their distilled moral principles. Once we find them, we can give new meaning to these distilled principles by applying them to modern times, expanding and interpreting them for our changed society. In fact, beneath the rules of the old moral code we do see more basic, more eternal elements. For example, lying within the old code is an endorsement of a basic political and social order that helps to protect human life. It is this element that pre- serves human society and the existence of the group. This seems to have been what Zhu Xi meant when he wrote, "The guidelines and constants will not be destroyed in a million years." Preservation of the species and socialization: these have been always intuitively recognized as natural principles.

Of course, depending on our subjective attitudes and our moral efforts, those principles can be more or less fully realized; they go through periods of flourishing and decay. But our core moral principles have never changed, never in the history of China's countless dynasties. Even under the "tyrannical Qin" — the object of severe criticism by Zhu Xi — our foundational moral principles were not lost. That is why we identify morality as independent of politics to some extent and more permanent than any specific political system or ideology. And if we turn from Chinese historical comparisons to comparisons across the world, we find that all religions, cultures, and nations share certain fundamental moral prescriptions, though their details and forms vary with respect to historical and ethnic particulars.

In Chinese history, the Confucians who have dominated our politics have of course given much attention to the moral foundations of our polity. But that concern is not unique to the Confucians. The Guanzi, a compilation of philosophical writings often seen as the ancestor of the legalist school, includes an essay on "the four cardinal virtues," which it defines as ritual, rightness, integrity, and the sense of shame. "The state has four cardinal virtues," it states. "If one is eliminated, the state will totter. If two, it will be in danger. If three, it will be overthrown. If all four are eliminated, it will be totally destroyed." Of course, if one cardinal virtue totters, it can be set straight. A state can pull itself out of danger. Even a state that has been "over- thrown" can "rise" again. But if all four virtues are destroyed — if ritual, right- ness, good faith, and the sense of shame are all lost — then the state will be destroyed, and "what has been totally destroyed can never be restored."

The last century has rained blow after blow on those virtues. Many times, all four have been weakened to the point of near collapse. China's glorious millennia of history are also a burden, and onto the weight of those centuries has been added humiliation and turmoil, followed by a century of violence and war. Now, suddenly, we are returning from the margins to a position in the spotlight on world affairs. Responsibilities are piling up; we face many questions. China has seen a massive resurgence in its economy and its strength as a state, but its culture and ethics seem to have lagged behind and in some aspects even to have regressed. As a result, social and moral reconstruction seem ever more vital and urgent. In the face of so many questions, we must start to triage and focus on the most important. However limited our time is, quick fixes will not do; we must try to find a model that will stand the test of time. Here I attempt to describe one conception of a new Chinese social ethics for a modern society.

The New Chinese Social Ethics

The reason for calling my proposal a "new" ethics (xin gangchang, [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]) is that we are marking a shift from the traditional to the modern. Though I call them "Chinese," it is important to specify which China is referred to: in this case, my focus is the cultural tradition, not the present polity of mainland China. We must, for example, consider "greater China": the lives and experiences of other ethnic Chinese, though the primary point of reference will, of course, be mainland China. If we want mainland China to be a leader in the future development of Chinese culture — and certainly if we wish to bring closer the day of Chinese unification — then we must not be limited by simplistic divisions of state or political entities. In particular, we must not be bound in our discussion by an overly narrow political ideology.

Commentators on Confucius have observed that in the Spring and Autumn Annals, he already treats as Chinese those barbarians who have been assimilated into Chinese culture and as barbarian those ethnic Chinese who have become barbarians. Confucius himself says in the Analects, "If the rituals are lost, then seek them among the people" and "The dao does not prevail! I shall set out over the sea on a raft." These words express his inclusiveness, his interest in the populace, in culture, and in the universal values that culture expresses. It would befit us to learn from his example. Morality draws its lifeblood from the community. Morality must grow naturally, but it also needs institutional protection and support from society.

An ethical system can be understood as having two parts: normative principles and value-based beliefs. Of those, the principles are more important. The Chinese word for ethics can be deconstructed into "human relations" and "reasoning," so we should proceed as with all reasoning: by proposing and arguing for principles that will underpin the ethical system. In modern society, in particular, we must first give our attention to principles governing conduct, institutions, and policies. So we must start with a set of basic moral or ethical principles, and I shall frame them using the traditional language: I shall propose a set of new guidelines and constants. In Chinese, gang, the term for "guideline," signals to us that these rules will be in the form of moral principles and that they are deep, fundamental principles. Chang, the term for "constant," has a dual meaning: that these rules are both eternal and in continual operation.


Excerpted from Social Ethics in a Changing China by He Huaihong. Copyright © 2015 The Brookings Institution. Excerpted by permission of Brookings Institution Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents


Foreword by John L. Thornton, vii,
Acknowledgments, xi,
Introduction by Cheng Li, xv,
Part I Reconstructing China's Social Ethics,
1 "New Principles": Toward a New Framework of Chinese Social Ethics, 3,
2 A Chinese Theory of Conscience: The Contemporary Transformation of Traditional Morality, 26,
PART II Historical and Sociological Origins of Chinese Cultural Norms,
3 The Selection Society, 37,
4 1905: The End of Traditional Chinese Society, 54,
5 Three Sources of Chinese Tradition and the Impetus for Cultural Renaissance, 72,
PART III The Transformation of Ethics and Morality in the PRC,
6 The Red Guard Generation: Manipulated Rebellion and Youth Violence, 83,
7 From Mobilized Morality to Demobilized Morality: Social and Ethical Changes in Post-Mao China, 97,
PART IV China's Ongoing Moral Decay?,
8 Moral Crisis in Chinese Society, 119,
9 Chinese People: Why Are You So Angry?, 124,
10 "Absurd Bans" and the Need for Minimum Moral Standards, 128,
PART V Ethical Discourse in Reform Era China,
11 Why Should We Repeatedly Stress the Principle of Life?, 135,
12 On Possible Ways to Contain the Corruption of Power, 143,
13 Challenging the Death Penalty, 148,
14 The Moral, Legal, and Religious Issues of Civil Disobedience, 159,
15 Ecological Ethics: Spiritual Resources and Philosophical Foundations, 165,
PART VI Chinese Ethical Dialogue with the West and the World,
16 The Possibilities and Limits of Moral Philosophy, 189,
17 The Intellectual Legacy of John Rawls, 201,
18 The Applicability of the Principle of Life to International Politics, 208,
19 What Are the Differences? And What Consensus?, 220,
Further Reading: The Writings of He Huaihong, 1983–2013, 231,
Index, 237,

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