Confucianism - Freedom and democracy 2.0

 Is Confucianism a religion?

 III.   Getting unstuck 2 -  the Goal   How can we talk with one another? The language of talking

Liberals understandably throw up their hands when confronted with wild-eyed conspiracy theorists of the right or flat-earthers or Q fans. But there remain the views of some principled conservatives, some thoughtful Christians with whom liberals must contend. Liberals have to find a way to talk the talk with conservatives, else they lose moral ground at the outset. I am hoping to provide some background for liberals to use so that discussion does not descend quite so quickly to yelling or silence. The organization Braver Angels is a good example, as Jonathan Rauch suggests in The Constitution of Knowledge: A Defense of Truth. They sponsor workshops, debates, and music in an effort to depolarize “reds and blues.”

My goal is this work is to suggest a moral language for liberals that is consistent with Christianity but not based on the bible or metaphysical issues of sin, salvation, heaven, redemption, or personal relationships with god. For many liberals, the ability to use moral language rather than rights language will come as an entirely new tool. It might be possible to communicate with some conservatives who can use some of the same language of virtue.

Let us stipulate that many secular American liberals have little scriptural basis upon which to base their liberalism. The Bible is available, but seems too fraught with theological dark alleys, hypocrisy and antimodernity. Mainline churches are not much help. Modern liberal ethics are Kantian or utilitarian at base, and they prove unwieldy in a complex society. Kant bases too much on universal moral rules about fairness, rules which in practice are insufficient – universal reason is in too short supply for universal rules to work and assumes universal habits of the heart. The complexity of real world cases promotes restricting the ability of judges to apply judgment, manifestly a poor outcome. Utilitarianism tends to value all goods expressed in monetary terms and treats as equally important the wants and needs of rich and poor.

The general idea is that Kantian and Benthamite ethics want a rule book, a universal code for moral decision making. From the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

Virtue ethicists maintained … that it was quite unrealistic to imagine that there could be such a code. The results of attempts to produce and employ such a code, in the heady days of the 1960s and 1970s, when medical and then bioethics boomed and bloomed, tended to support the virtue ethicists’ claim. More and more utilitarians and deontologists found themselves agreed on their general rules but on opposite sides of the controversial moral issues in contemporary discussion. It came to be recognized that moral sensitivity, perception, imagination, and judgement informed by experience—phronesis in short—is needed to apply rules or principles correctly.

What sort of discussions can liberals have with conservatives?  Too often, secular liberals lack a language of liberalism – for example, a justification for a policy supporting human rights. Human rights are just … rights, as if coming from nowhere – or, from God if determined secularists could so conceive. As a solution to social problems, often liberals can only promote more community, more sharing, in a society as highly and aggressively individualistic as any in history. When some conservatives hear community, they hear more taxes. This might be true even for some evangelicals, for whom community should be a core value.

We have a need for an underlying morality with which both liberals and conservatives can agree.  

Religious writer Karen Armstrong provides a model with her Charter for Compassion. Confucian ideas can provide fundamental support for greater compassion.

How to talk with conservatives?  Recall Michelle Obama’s comment – “when they go low, we go high” – when the talk becomes offensive or degrading, one should reach for the principled high moral ground. All well and good, but that is often a stalemate rather than an advance. And there is no point in sticking to higher moral ground of tolerance and perspective if the dear leader is driving us over a cliff. How to achieve a higher moral ground of agreement? What language to use? My contention is that in speaking with some conservatives liberals can be afraid to use moral language, particularly Christian moral language, for fear of finding themselves in some theological or semantic trap. Better to stick with human rights and nothing else. But per Alasdair MacIntyre, rights too easily end up being emotivism – what the speaker happens to favor at the moment.

It is liberals who are responsible for beginning this conversation. Among much other research on how conservatives and liberals speak, linguistic complexity, including language and ideas, is more prevalent among liberals. We are offering ideas that require some consideration, and liberals might be better able to hear what we have to say. And liberals will need to begin conversations with conservatives, since many conservatives don’t find anything useful to discuss with liberals. Karen Stenner in The Authoritarian Dynamic - the “overriding objective of the authoritarian is always to enhance oneness and sameness; to minimize the diversity of people, beliefs and behaviors.”

I can’t provide a verbal vaccine against crazed biblical injunctions or fake news stories. That is too hard, too long, and unnecessary. But too often liberals get flummoxed by arguments invoking scripture and they are afraid to enter that ground. There are moral arguments consistent with Christianity on the ground that do not require belief in an omnipotent god, salvation or grace. 


The Goal

My goal is this work is to suggest a moral language for liberals that is consistent with Christianity but not based on the bible or metaphysical issues of sin, salvation, heaven, redemption, or personal relationships with god. For some liberals, the ability to use moral language rather than rights language will come as an entirely new tool. It might be possible to communicate with some conservatives who can use some of the same language of virtue.

“Wokeness” is of no help in this process. Wokeness, whether of the left or the right, confounds virtue signaling with action and its extreme sentiments only paralyze anyone seeking real change or even compromise. David Brooks on wokeness back in 2018 –

The greatest danger of extreme wokeness is that it makes it harder to practice the necessary skill of public life, the ability to see two contradictory truths at the same time. For example, it is certainly true that racism is the great sin of American history, that it is an ongoing sin and the sin from which many of our other sins flow. It is also true that throughout history and today, millions of people have tried to combat that sin and have made progress against it.

Wokeness is not charitable; it is aggressive. It is not community oriented; it is highly individualistic and arrogant. It never seeks resolution, only further division. It is antidemocratic, uncivil, and polarizing. It is unchristian and tends to become dogma.

The antidotes to such behavior are humility, charity, benevolence, tolerance and love.  Where can that medicine come from?

A virtue ethic is the prescription. Virtue ethics are the antidote to highly individualistic ethics as found in Kant, Rawls, and, frankly, most American politics and policy. Specifically, Confucian virtue ethics can be supported by liberals and conservatives, religious and non, people on both sides of the American contention that “my ignorance is just as good as your expertise.”

Democracy is in such peril that it will adjust and heal or it will fade away. Whether death occurs from the right or the left won’t matter much. Transparency, openness, fairness and tolerance really can disappear from either direction without our ability to communicate. The Washington Post reminds us that democracy dies in darkness. Honest communication is the way to fight the dark.

Michael Sandel is encouraging this sort of communicative communitarian democracy. He is suggesting the sort of communitarian democracy that John Dewey advocated – a recognition of the importance of civility - customs, habits, and role responsibilities in preserving civil society, the seedbed of our democratic ideals. That is my contention as well. And Confucianism can assist in a return to the civility and compassion necessary to a republican democracy.



The classicist Sir Moses Finley told us to beware of ideologies of a ruling class that depart too far from the thinking of the populace. He ended his austere and penetrating work Politics in the Ancient World (1983) with these words:

The ideology of a ruling class is of little use unless it is accepted by those who are being ruled, and so it was to an extraordinary degree in Rome. Then, when the ideology began to disintegrate within the elite itself, the consequence was not to broaden the political liberty among the citizenry but, on the contrary, to destroy it for everyone.

We see in this quote the deterioration of American civil discourse. 

We seek what can still bind us. Garry Wills reminds us of Augustine’s definition of a people – a gathering of many rational beings united by a joint participation in whatever things they love (City of God, Book 19, Chapter 24). Augustine is making the point that human governance is never perfect, and earthly justice can only be approximate. A common standard for distributive justice is too hard. We can still be a people, and have a republic, if we focus on those things we do love. Justice will always be contingent in the real world. 

We do share some elements of civil religion, we do share commitments to some levels of free speech, thought, and association, life, liberty, happiness and a bill of rights.  We need to seek the Peace of Babylon.  Despite differences, we must all hang together, as Franklin reminded us in other trying circumstances.

There are those who will refuse to seek the peace, or those whose standard of justice and truth is ideologic. There are people whose views are concretely established, whose minds are sealed airtight against any new idea. Ideologues of the left and right can be described that way. On the right, getting all views from their preacher or from Ayn Rand or their college econ 101 course; on the left, coloring all views through the lens of the fashionable wokeism of the moment. We have those who believe in literal truth of every word in the Bible and the clarity of original intent in the Constitution. There is a significant fraction of the population, left and right, whose views of the Other are the enemy, not to be tolerated but defeated. Some of these are fundamentalists on the right and identity politics warriors on the left. For both, the fundamentals of democracy – tolerance and commitment to public discussion – are of little value. Tribal loyalties seem more important.

Rebecca Solnit told us it won’t work for liberals to try to understand the right wing, or meet them halfway. There are entire media and political and religious industries devoted to preserving the discord. Liberals with their facts and science will not emerge victorious from this not so intellectual battle if they charitably agree that the earth is only half flat.

Liberals need to proclaim their values and really seek a living wage for all, health care and decent schools. Finding a way to talk is not about compromise on values, but a way to make a case that can unite liberals (really?) and give them a language that can meet some, a few, objections on moral grounds. We cannot reach people whose minds are so tight, whose views are so distorted,  that no new idea can enter. In this writing I am attempting a triage on civil society.

The cause of peril in the US is not necessarily law or its application, regulation or creeping confusing of church-state boundaries.  If we are to maintain, as Rome could not, we need to snatch civil society from the maw of a looming authoritarianism, whether of the right or the left.

Early Christians had to account for themselves within Roman culture. Apologetics came into being. Now, for Christians and secularists alike, we need to "Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have" (1 Peter 3:15  NIV).  Emotivism is out. Earnest moral discussion is the way.

If liberals and conservatives can use some similar language in discussing moral issues, we might be able to preserve some civil society. The similar language I propose comes from Confucianism. Next posts will provide some justification.