Confucianism - Freedom and democracy 2.0

Is Confucianism a religion?


      So what to do now?Love and the good life


Sections to follow –


The Augustinian prescription  

What does Confucianism do? 

The Joseph Chan prescription  

Rule of law, but also religion  


The golden mean  

Democracy and religion need each other 


Finding the path - A combination of rule of law and Confucian principles   


The road to Singapore  

The good life  

What price justice? 

The Confucian prescription  

Practices, rights, and virtues  

A superfluous end note … for those who find morality can only come from the bible …  


After Virtue is Alasdair MacIntyre’s treatise on the sickness of modern morality and a plea for a virtue ethic that can return us closer to an Aristotelian teleology. At the very end of the book he suggests we might have to wait for a new St. Benedict to help a small minority of us find a morally virtuous path in the modern age. Benedict is known as the architect of insular faith communities. The proposal seemed to call for a retreat from the world. Rod Dreher echoes this view in The Benedict Option. He concludes that Christian virtue ethics cannot exist simultaneously with Kantian universal morality. Our age is decayed beyond reform and hunkering down is perhaps the best available moral choice.

But MacIntyre did not want retreat from the world but a new form of engagement. The world, it is said, is something we make, and therefore something we can make differently. I think Confucianism – a spiritual form of humanism - is the path of engagement for secular liberals to change the world.

There is a path to follow. We cannot just put on Confucianism as we put on a new shirt, any more than we can put on Christianity. We need to change our thinking about individualism, individual sovereignty, our relationships with each other and democracy itself.

Right now, we are awash in data and opinions. We are manipulated in our thinking and choices. We have learned to believe in little or nothing. This is a dangerous path for a democracy. Cynical people in a cynical age don’t want to engage too much, unless via clicks, and a healthy democracy demands engagement, not just clicks or nasty tweets. Why bother being engaged if you don’t know what to believe? Or worse, if being engaged gets you shot or your family threatened.

We need to learn to think and behave differently. Confucianism can help.


The Augustinian prescription

A Confucian prescription for change has to start with rejecting the cynicism. We need a healthy skepticism, but we need to find the good in our neighbors, our communities, our systems. This is the Augustinian view – that a community is not defined by a common search for justice (per Cicero) but by whatever things they love (City of God XIX.24).  I think there is Augustinian and Confucian compatibility on that point. Sometimes peace is more valuable than justice, as Li Zehou told us.

We do need to think differently about the good things we do share. We too easily lose an appreciation for what we do share, left and right and religious and non, including our freedoms, relative prosperity and health, and even arts and sports and entertainment. We have shared notions upon which to build, even if we do not agree on some ideas about justice, morality or the future.

It sounds strange to us to think of a community not agreed on a search for justice. But there are other virtues just as necessary to community, and one of those is peace. We can have community simply by remembering what things we do share.

We too easily lose sight of those shared things we do love. We protest and complain about the economy or the government, forgetting that in much of the world such speaking or writing is punishable with jail or worse. We are free to be Christian or non- or none. We can share appreciation of books and art and music and sports. We share an ability to communicate and trust. We can generally trust strangers and eat lunch at a café far from home and expect to not get sick and get the car fixed in some small town and not get cheated. We do have rule of law and a free press.

Garry Wills tells us in his extraordinary lecture Citizen Believers that the Augustinian definition of community is superior to that of Cicero, who said community was defined by a common search for justice. Augustine disagreed, and Wills sees this as Augustine’s boldest stroke in political philosophy. We are always a community bound by those goods we do share. It is important for Americans now to remember what we share, and cut each other some slack on suppositions about how awful the other side really is. We need to be a community of some sort. That, I surmise, is what deTocqueville saw in early America. He saw an ability to come together as a community, unimpeded by king or church.

An Augustinian view of community is tolerant and does not insist on a particular view or ideology. Love of neighbor requires us to seek the neighbor’s happiness as well as our own. That sentiment seems lacking in America today.

Wills counts five reasons for thinking the Augustinian view of community is a useful path for all of us and superior to a view that defines community as bound by a common search for justice -

This approach offers five advantages to citizen believers – it is realistic; concrete; positive; inclusive; and love centered.  

… realistic because it does not make unreasonable demands on the state – lowers our expectations for the state while heightening appreciation of what can hold us together – the City of God is not available to us. It is concrete, because it allows us to focus on justice that can be achieved in the here and now – rather than “do justice though the heavens fall,” instead “do the kind of justice that keeps the heavens from falling.”And we must ask whether the improvement to justice is really worth the effort – is our sense of community really improved.

… positive because government is built on compromise – some take that as a sacrifice of good, as evil. But for Augustine, political compromise – what we offer deride when we see legislative outcomes – is part of preserving the community. Nothing intrinsically evil as created by god. 

… inclusive because it looks to add more people to community rather than divide. It does not say, “love it or leave it,” but “love it and stay and improve it.”

… and based on social amities, on love. Not rights defined in competition with others, but how to be protective of shared goods, including rights that are not at the mercy of the most individualistic assertion. Societies are built on social affections, Wills quoting John Ruskin, not iron demands of rights.

Garry Wills. Citizen Believers. Inaugural Lecture at Voices, Walter H. Capp Center for the Study of Religion and Public Life University of California at Santa Barbara. August 7, 2008. Available at

I should note that all the negotiation literature promotes seeking win-win rather than forced one-sided outcomes, particularly in community settings. The Peace of Babylon remains a public good that we all can and should share. This is a conservative view of the world. It is a fierce moderation. But it preserves the peace that allows change to take place without violence.

Those of you who have read prior sections of Is Confucianism a Religion? remember that Augustine’s Peace of Babylon and emphasis on tolerance and benevolence could hardly be more Confucian, and hardly more pertinent in our plural and confused times.

Garry Wills concludes his lecture with abortion and civil rights examples. Those who wish can and should protest, march, lobby, and vote their conscience, even go to jail in protest. Physical attacks and blocking the way of others is too arrogant, too presumptuous of an absolute right, not to mention presumptuousness of the mind of God. One must acknowledge the moral arguments on both sides.

All of those arguments, all of those positions can be under attack or have an alternative story told about them. Some of the positions are coherent, but precious few refer back to the tolerance, benevolence, and love that is the source of Christian or Confucian morality. On both the far right and the far left, there is resentment and search for power to change the world. Cynicism is the modern world view. Universal cynicism is a prescription for chaos and nihilism. We lose sight of the fundamental goods at our democratic – and religious - peril.

Skepticism is important and useful, but we have to find some positive way forward. There is no negative way forward.

A good short summary of Augustinian political philosophy is here in the lecture by James Muldoon, or St. Augustine at Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

So what? Why all this Augustine business?

I want to make the point that Confucianism is not some weird Asian import. It aligns with Christian virtue ethics and can help find a path out of our depressed American cultural state, and perhaps unite some on the left with some on the right in doing so. 


What does Confucianism do?

Confucianism gives us a path to civic republicanism. The writers in this tradition emphasize many common ideas and concerns, such as the importance of civic virtue and political participation, the dangers of corruption, the benefits of a mixed constitution and the rule of law. It mixes individual freedom and public participation with ideas of the common good – connections mostly unexplored today. One does not usually associate Confucianism with such ideas, but the best thinkers in new Confucianism see compatibility with classically republican norms. This is a way to a more tolerant, less individually sovereign polity without sacrificing rights, democratic ideas, or religious beliefs.

Civic republicanism is not a populist movement of the left or right. It is not necessarily liberal in its philosophy. It does not necessarily prioritize property rights or social welfare benefits. It does argue for the duty to participate in public debate, to be part of governing, which requires some tolerance.

But tolerance and participation are insufficient. We need a basis for our morality, other than just what feels right at the moment.

Early Christianity – tolerant and love centered - would be a good ethic. A problem for us now is that many people, particularly those who claim no religious affiliation, cannot find meaning in institutional religion and refuse to look there for guidance.

Confucianism provides a virtue ethic that does not require belief in salvation, an afterlife or the bible. Following a Confucian ethic does not require any alteration to Christian ethics. One can be a Confucian Christian, or a Christian Confucian. A Confucian  would neither exalt nor denigrate a person for their Christian morality – if it is truly Christian.

I see Confucianism as an assist in rejuvenation of the American republican ideal – let us call it communitarianism or self-interest rightly understood – and a way to reconcile some American secularists with a notion of the spiritual.


The Joseph Chan prescription

Every democracy – one might say, every modern society – must balance rights and responsibilities, roles of government and religion, order and personal freedom. Democracies in particular  exist in a continually negotiated dance among what is sacred, what is moral, what is legal, what is reasonable. 

Pluralist democracies can’t have strong policy opinions on what is good for all citizens. Once past life, liberty and pursuit of happiness American government policy gets weak. We require kids to be in primary school and get some vaccines, but not much else. There is no teleology, no end state of perfection, that government can promote. Government can’t promote a sense of virtue. A perfectionist notion of government is one in which the government proposes an idea of the good life for all and creates policies to act on that idea.

A Confucian perfectionism would see Confucian precepts adopted in government and leaders espouse Confucian principles in policy. That won’t happen in the US. The question is how and to what extent Confucian ideas could support the liberties demanded by liberal democracy.

In his 2014 book Confucian Perfectionism Joseph Chan describes new Confucianism that can support a range of civil liberties as well as personal autonomy and is compatible with most of our notions of liberal democracy. He proposes adoption of liberal democratic institutions that are shaped by the Confucian conception of the good rather than the liberal conception of the right. Confucianism should promote other-regarding virtues, including basic sufficiency for all, education, health care, good family and home life. I discussed Chan’s proposal (too briefly) in the posts Civilization-State and Freedom and What is a Virtue Ethic?

It is a bit tricky – state perfectionism versus complete government liberal neutrality. We cannot do either to an extreme. No one thinks government in a democracy should be promoting a particular religion or a particular notion of the virtuous life. The debate seems to be how to choose between government support for “self-regarding” personal goods (education or health care) and government disapproval of self-regarding harms (smoking or drug use). Government does make those choices now, in a limited way. The question is how much government force to put behind the support. And of course, self-regarding goods can become social goods (or bads) all too quickly. An excellent description of the Confucian perfectionist-liberal neutrality conflict is in the introduction to the Huang Yong and Robert Carleo book on modern Confucian political philosophy Contemporary Confucian Political Philosophy - Dialogues on the State of  the Field. They discuss concepts of justice, harmony, personal independence and public reason. Confucianism, like any virtue ethic, has no universal or absolute answers. Joseph Chan steers a path for a moderate perfectionism in his 2000 Legitimacy, Unanimity, and Perfectionism in Philosophy and Public Affairs. Spoiler - the US government, with its support for those in need, education and health care and justice, undertakes a form of moderate perfectionism now.

In essence, Chan is arguing for a morally consistent view of civility and social relations. This is a civil society that privileges social concepts, moral concepts, over the legal notions of rights that we use now - often to our detriment in social relations. Rights are generally useful, but often of the “winner take all” variety. Chan is arguing for a first level Confucian morality that seeks preservation of community. This is a Confucian-inspired society that uses social relations first in resolving disputes, rather than immediate default to conflicts over rights. This idea is applicable equally to personal conflicts, as in divorce, and to public disputes over land and environmental concerns.  I discussed this at some length in my blog post The Civilization State and Freedom.

Chan understands that people will default to rights much of the time. Rights in law and human rights are necessary backups in a heavily plural society. Sometimes people refuse to compromise or threats of harm are too salient. Chan hopes that various forms of what we used to call “alternative dispute resolution” – like mediation, arbitration or even just discussion – can take a social priority to insistence on rights. This is usually less costly and faster than litigation but certainly has better preservation of social relations.

Chan argues for a Confucianism that can accommodate some elements of a liberal democracy, including personal and moral autonomy. His argument is careful and nuanced and academic.

I wish to ride a bit roughshod on his careful Confucian analysis to suggest that he is arguing for a return to a form of civic republicanism and promotion of DeToqueville’s self-interest, rightly understood. His moderate Confucian perfectionism suggests a bottom-up strategy of moral education in virtues such as respect, trustworthiness, sincerity, civility, and a commitment to the common good. Such values are those we expected religion to provide, if not provided at home.

Many public school attempts were made in the 1960s and 1970s to provide “values clarification” for primary school students. These programs died out with fears of parents left and right that values were being imposed on students. But if we are to rescue American democracy from the designs of autocrats of the left and right we will need to educate in the virtues, in the absence of church or Boy Scouts or parental guidance.

When there are large amounts of social capital, the institutions of civil society and even government are less necessary. That can be the case in the very small town or premodern village. It is true in some partnerships or contractual relations in which fundamental Christian or Confucian relations dominate.

An unusual example might help here. In Chicago, land use changes that require a change in zoning are the province of the local alderman. Anyone can introduce a proposal for a zoning change to the city council, but as a practical matter the alderman of the ward in which the change is proposed has sole power of approval. That has been the practice for generations.

It is not without instances of corruption and malfeasance and opposition to change by crazed residents. But – I have to say, based on my own experience over a couple of decades in requesting and usually getting zoning changes as requested – there is a concept of a good alderman who takes into account the wishes of local individuals and groups as well as the necessity of change over time when making a decision about land use changes. This is not a process using Kantian universal reason or even the greatest good for the greatest number. It is a reasoned judgment about what change can be acceptable without costing the alderman his job at the next election and that would be beneficial for the ward and the city. To call this a Confucian process would be ridiculous. But it is a process that is based less on rights than on some notion of the common good.

It is hard to type the words “good” and “alderman” in the same sentence, given the general image of aldermen in Chicago, but there it is. When done well, this process is not about rights but about a higher level notion of the good over the right. Rule of law is necessary and good. The humane concept is we can do better.


Rule of law, but also religion

We need another constraint on simple rule of law, this constraint focusing on government policy rather than regulating private behavior. As with other necessary dualities in human life, yin and yang, exercise of power and restraint, we need something to counter overly aggressive government.

John Adams made the point in a letter to officers of the First Brigade of the Third Division of the Militia of Massachusetts to outline the responsibilities of the citizens of the new republic. The letter contains the famous declaration that “our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious People. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.” And -

Because We have no Government armed with Power capable of contending with human Passions unbridled by morality and Religion. Avarice, Ambition, Revenge or Gallantry, would break the strongest Cords of our Constitution as a Whale goes through a Net.

Atlantic columnist David French comments in John Adams' Fear has Come to Pass -

Put in plain English, this means that when public virtue fails, our constitutional government does not possess the power to preserve itself. Thus, the American experiment depends upon both the government upholding its obligation to preserve liberty and the American people upholding theirs to exercise that liberty towards virtuous purposes

A strong government is necessary to restrain our baser instincts. Understood. At the same time, we need religion to restrain government from its own baser instincts – an alternative source of morality by which to measure how well government is serving the needs of the people. From left or right, government can become too technocratic, too perfectionist, too certain of its own higher morality. It is the job of religion in the US to provide a constraint on government overreach. It is the wisdom of the Constitution to separate government and religion, so each can monitor the other and bring an alternate view of morality to bear.

Priority of the common good is a fundamental concept for Confucius, Augustine, Aristotle, Christianity, and Judaism. And beyond the common good, all would counsel individual humility and compassion as more fundamental than any notion of rights.

Confucian scholars often provided an alternative view of the good for Chinese emperors – sometimes sacrificing their careers  or lives in the effort. One is reminded of Sir Thomas More, who chose martyrdom over what he considered violation of Catholic rules about supremacy of the pope as leader of the church and required approval of Henry VIII’s divorce.

In fact, Christianity serves as an ultimate guide – a backup, if you will. Joseph Chan argues for rights as a legal backup to Confucian notions of benevolence and harmony in conflict resolution. I am saying that religion serves as a monitor to government action, and if religion is unavailable, then Confucianism can fill that role to point out the good and not just the right.

It would be nice if public policy discussions started from a consideration of the good, rather than just the right. We argue over where to put the expressway exits, rather than whether we should spend money on expressways or on schools. We argue over what premiums poor people should pay in health care, rather than why we would deny health care to anyone regardless of circumstance. Confucianism – as with Christianity – could certainly help in those discussions. We seem to have lost any sense of personal or institutional shame in public policy – violation of the need to do the right thing rather than what is minimally acceptable politically.



In our modern society, shame has a poor reputation.  It is viewed as a relic of a regimented, religious and patriarchal society, in which people were shamed into conformance with social roles or norms. Too much Hester Prynne, excommunication and general meanness. 

Shame and guilt are closely related. The general idea has been that honor cultures, including ancient Greece and Rome and China now, are shame cultures. Loss of face brings disrepute. It is said that more modern cultures are guilt cultures, in which one feels bad for having done wrong, whether recognized by outsiders or not.  Shame is a matter of “face,” of embarrassment, of social status. Shame says, “change your ways; you have lost honor or dignity.” Guilt says, “change your behavior; you have done a wrong thing.” Guilt is a violation of a personal rule or norm; shame is a falling short of a more public ideal. One can feel ashamed at one’s behavior, or shame can be imposed from outside. Mark Berkson draws a clear distinction - guilt is concerned with acts and their consequences while shame is concerned with character.

Mark Berkson. A Confucian Defense of Shame: Morality, Self-Cultivation, and the Dangers of Shamelessness. Religions 12(1), 2021.  Available at

Now sovereign personal freedom is sometimes thought to mean that there is no need for shame. And per Kantian morality, that might be true. If one only obeys a law, a morality, that one gives oneself, then there is no common law by which one must abide. Shameless means acknowledging no standards, no rules, no morality.

Absence of shame is not necessarily a benefit. We should want people to know when they have done a wrong thing, and to feel a bit bad about it so they will try to not do it again. Those who feel no shame at unsocial acts are considered sociopaths. A society that is unable to use shame has no sense of common morality. 

No society can function that way. Shame is not sufficient for cultivating a moral community, but it needs be part of our socialization.

Shame is a reaction to the criticism coming from others, from outside. Our social media ability to criticize others now means that people adjust to being criticized continually, and the threat from shame becomes less salient. We go on electing politicians with no sense of shame – of having brought disrepute on themselves, their families and colleagues. One remembers the old – now very old – standard for proper behavior in government – avoiding the appearance of impropriety, lest one be publicly shamed or feel shame, regardless of whether or not an individual felt any personal guilt.

My contention is we could use a bit of shame exhibited by leaders in politics, entertainment, and business. It would do all of us a bit of good for leaders to admit to dishonorable behavior and apologize publicly (Companies and CEOs as well). It would do all of us a bit of good if we pressured leaders to admit to dishonorable behavior. (Yes to tolerance and “who am I to judge” and “don’t comment unless you know all the facts.” But we should remember the Confucian “silver rule” and seek to correct a transgressor, rather than simply accepting poor behavior.)

One way to inculcate some sense of right and wrong is through observation of ritual, in Chinese li.  Ritual reminds us of who we are, where we are from, and what our predecessors did in similar circumstances. It will be difficult to resurrect respect for ritual in our degraded social state. Perhaps we could start with the rituals of civility in language and writing. Use of please and thank you and go ahead and excuse me, may I ask a question and pardon me if I am misunderstanding ….

Ritual is part of the answer to the question, “what would your mother say?”

Confucius in Analects 2.3 (Wei Zheng 3) -

"Lead them through moral force and keep order among them through rites, and they will have a sense of shame and will also correct themselves.”

Mencius went so far as to declare that an individual without a sense of shame was no longer human. Mencius 7A.7 (Jin Xin I.7) -

Mencius said, 'The sense of shame is to a man of great importance. Those who form contrivances and versatile schemes distinguished for their artfulness, do not allow their sense of shame to come into action. When one differs from other men in not having this sense of shame, what will he have in common with them?'

Confucian shame is not the Augustinian “soul-sickness” but it does work to regulate behavior. And shame does not require punishment. Confucians always think wrongdoers should be educated before punishment. The educated will develop a proper sense of shame, and go on to live upright lives.

This is where a Christian turning the other cheek falls a bit short. The Confucian wants to correct poor behavior, not simply tolerate it in hopes the miscreant will realize his error.

Shame from outside can be a powerful, even dangerous tool.

We have tended to see shame as only a negative, punishing act. But shame can be a force for positive change as well. Users of shame need to keep that distinction in mind.

Accompanying the ability to shame should be an ability to tolerate and forgive.

Tolerance does not mean no recognition of or comment on inappropriate behavior. Shame is, in fact, what stands between a personal notion of guilt and the public recognition of law. To our detriment, we have lost much of any sense of shame imposed by society and relegated moral decision-making too much to the individual conscience. It is fitting, I suppose, that we use “personal choice” as a trump card, even when considered by most to be immoral or unfair.

Sometimes tolerance needs disdain –

If there is only tolerant shame and no stringent disdain, one may not be pushed to morally rectify oneself. If, on the other hand, there is only the stringent disdain without tolerant shame, one may feel no warmth of love and hence generate only hatred in his heart for others.

Yinghua Lu. Shame and the Confucian Idea of Yi (Righteousness). International Philosophical Quarterly, 58:1 (229) March 2018. Available at

Remember the Confucian “silver rule” – do not do to others what you would not have them do unto you.  The Confucian idea is not to always turn the other cheek, but to seek to reform or correct someone who is in jeopardy of embarrassing himself again. I would want to be told of my poor behavior, so I may learn from the experience.  Self-awareness, self-cultivation is a necessary element of Confucianism, and for anyone seeking to live a fulfilling life. One should constantly monitor one’s own behavior. The Thomist “Do good and avoid evil” is for everyday minor kindnesses as well as major life events.  


The golden mean

Humans inclinations and human societies will always be suspended between dualisms – right and wrong, white and black, yin and yang. Our individual and social task is to find a good path between extremes. That is what Aristotle told us about virtues. That is what every version of the Golden Mean tries to accomplish. The Golden Rule tries to find a middle way as well. Blessed are those who can do that.

This middle way recognizes the eternal conundrum, and the bible proposes a solution –  Matthew 22:21 -  Render therefore unto Caesar the things which are Caesar's; and unto God the things that are God's. This is recognition that we live in both worlds and must accommodate to both.

We run into problems when government gets too close to God or God gets too close to government. Proper respect for roles, that middle way, is hard, but that is what people in democracies must do.


Democracy and religion need each other

It is not that democracy and religion can be separated. Both address moral concerns. Remembering dualism, yin and yang, we understand democracy and religion as necessary counterbalances. Each functions as a restraint or a corrective when the other threatens to become too encompassing of power. Religion creates a boundary with others, even when it is open. Democracy is a way to find some unity among diverse opinions. We can be both separate and united, not all the time and in all ways, but that is the democratic balance.

The trick in pluralism is to not interpret actions of others as immoral. MacIntyre reminds us that a universal morality is the morality of no place. Moralities must necessarily be local. Of course we need some agreement on local standards, but improving economic and political and social life must recognize our human imperfectibility and the difficulty of change. Those who seek greater tolerance and fairness should be aware of their own intolerance and unfairness.

Our democratic – and religious -  trick is to find a path. And we should remember that separation of church and state, to the benefit of both, is the unique contribution of the American constitution.

The law is an insufficient moral guide. Law gives us a sense of common morality, but its boundaries necessarily must be drawn not too tightly.  Other features – separation of powers, levels of government, elections and rule of law – had all been tested before. The separation allows each to function in its role, while reminding each that absolute power corrupts and there must be more than one way to peace, security, and prosperity.  Religion is a constraint on progressive promotion of libertine behavior; democracy reminds religion of pluralism and the Peace of Babylon.

Religion likewise needs constraint. Augustine told us that to attempt perfection on earth is not only impossible; for Christians it is blasphemous. We can, and must, seek a feasible earthly standard. We can and must find ways to coexist. Augustine proposed the Peace of Babylon, echoing the prescription in Jeremiah 29:7 – Jews in captivity in Babylon should interact with their overlords, be part of society, survive peaceably if nothing else and possibly change their condition by example.  By extension, we must find ways to get along in our imperfect plural world. None of us can claim to know the mind of God, or the arc of history. All of us must find a path.

N.B. - I suggest two long reviews of the interplay of democracy and religion. One is an interview with John Keane, Professor of Politics at University of Sydney - God, the Gods, and Democracy [part one] delivered October 23, 2015. The other is a 2018 discussion sponsored by Providence Magazine among Paul Miller, Jonathan Leeman, and Jennifer Marshall, all thoughtful academic and religious leaders, about whether or not Christianity is compatible with liberal democracy - Is Christianity Compatible with Liberal Democracy?

Robert Hariman told us in Democratic Stupidity that democracies generate distinctive forms of stupidity – both populism and rationalism, both of which reflect a failure of tolerance and compassion. In the US in 2022, we see the results daily in all the familiar forms of social breakdown and communicative failure. Neither more rationality nor more religion can fix the dilemma. What is needed, Hariman says, is a shift in attitude toward others in our pluralist community of strangers. Accompanying that shift in attitude will necessarily be a shift in our process of finding meaning.



The task for everyone everywhere is to find meaning in life. Meaning is purpose, one’s own teleology. We needn’t belabor this too much. Meaning doesn’t require taking online courses or reading self-help books.

Meaning is what Viktor Frankl found among people who could survive concentration camps and horror. This is partly what Aristotle advised – to recognize one’s proper role. This is Alasdair Macintyre’s recommendation about developing a practice – a personal expertise that develops internal goods of perseverance, attention to detail, and excellence – to be someone with an expertise.  This is what Confucius 2,500 years ago might have called rectification of names – someone who is Smith, or Baker or Fisher.

Jordan Peterson tells young people, particularly men who are resentful, rootless, bored, without purpose or meaning in their lives, to grow up. Easier said than done, though Peterson offers plenty of advice in 12 Rules for Life and countless videos, like The Greatest Advice You Will Ever Receive. It is all a bit lightweight, but the focus on self-improvement and mindfulness over incoherent incessant external demands for attention and stimulus are proper. 

Meaning need not come through work. Ilana M. Horwitz conducted longitudinal studies of religion and education, and reported in a New York Times piece - I followed the lives of 3,290 teenagers. This is what I learned about religion and education -

American men are dropping out of college in alarming numbers. A slew of articles over the past year depict a generation of men who feel lost, detached and lacking in male role models. This sense of despair is especially acute among working-class men, fewer than one in five of whom completes college.

The notable exception to this finding was among boys from working class families who grew up with religious training. However, teenage boys from working-class families, regardless of race, who were regularly involved in their church and strongly believed in God were twice as likely to earn bachelor’s degrees as moderately religious or nonreligious boys.”

In part, a religious connection provides social capital useful in every adult field of endeavor – school, relationships, work and social life.

When church attendance is very low, when young people are assaulted daily with conflicting news stories about right and wrong, good and bad, when intelligence and expertise are  derided, when cynicism is de rigueur and government will not provide moral leadership, it is hardly surprising that there is no meaning to be found in daily life, or no meaning past immediate gratifications.

Some study of Confucianism can steer a young student toward a different path, if only because Confucianism is odd – not religious, not western, not what one hears from parents or the media. It is not the norm and may be intriguing simply for that reason, just as Daoist and Buddhist texts attracted some of us a couple generations ago.


Finding the path - A combination of rule of law and Confucian principles

Confucianism steers well between excess rationality and excess emotionality. The original meaning of the term xin, now mostly translated as heart, was heart-mind, reflecting the lack of separation of intellect from emotion.  Mencius told us that what distinguishes humans from animals is not intellect (as per Aristotle) but emotion – the ability to feel compassion for others.

Both Christianity and Confucianism use exemplars to guide moral choices. An American Confucian should seek exemplars from history and from culture – most pointedly, not the sort of exemplars often cited in popular media.

A liberal democracy as we understand it cannot have a teleology, a single definition of the Good, by definition. People get to define the good for themselves. Nevertheless, there must be general agreement on some principles or there is chaos.

Three east Asian countries provide examples of Confucian-influenced democracy – Taiwan, Hong Kong (prior to 2021), and Singapore.

Christianity provides a teleology – eternal reward. Confucianism cannot do that, but it can provide a sort of sufficiently-good-for-human-purposes teleology – a datong, a great unity, if you will. Humaneness and benevolence. The Singapore principles are a decent example.



Issues that divide us are not addressed with just more polite language. But it is certain that hateful, spiteful language drives us further apart, and just like catching more flies with honey than with vinegar, research finds that kinder, gentler language persuades better. Resolving the Progressive Paradox: Conservative Value Framing of Progressive Economic Policies Increases Candidate Support. We need to find a way to use gentler and more tolerant language. To do otherwise is nothing but value signaling, which in a discussion has no value.

In this regard, social media is harmful by definition. I argue for real name use in social media. Perhaps a 24 or 48 hour embargo on all comments, to allow rational voices to chime in.



We know  the concept of keeping governance as close to the people as possible. Many modern problems demand national solutions, though - health care, environment, pollution, transportation. Even in those disciplines, local modifications to national solutions are possible. One can sympathize with the view that federal government has taken on too much, tried to accomplish too much and as a result does most things poorly. State-level solutions can sometimes do better.

There is plenty written on this topic. Just two instances  - In a 2009 Atlantic article, Ross Douthat references economist Edward Glaeser’s small government egalitarianism (rather than big government egalitarianism) as part of a solution when general government has overreached with too many promises and programs that it cannot possibly fulfill within ordinary constraints on budgets and culture. And Howard Curzer describes the Mencian approach to governance in a 2012 Comparative Philosophy article Benevolent Government Now. Mencius supports active care for the people, a level of care that can only be delivered by local government. A tiny nation like Singapore is a good example.


The road to Singapore

There is reason, there is necessity, for religion to counterbalance government, to provide an alternative moral sense.  But Confucians did that, and moral exemplars in the form of Jesus, god or not, and martyrs and saints do that.

What can Confucianism do in governance? A good example comes from Singapore, the city-state that is most plural in religions, ethnicities, and languages. It is a democracy, though not of the one-man-one-vote variety. It is not Confucian in any obvious way, though certainly Confucian-influenced. The habits of the heart described by deTocqueville – a sense of civic duty and purpose – are more salient in Singapore  than Robert Bellah found in his review of American thinking in Habits of the Heart - Individualism and Commitment in American Life. Bellah asked then whether Americans are still citizens, in the civic republican sense. Has individualism become so dominant that it rots our capacity to maintain a reasonable democracy? How can one maintain a democracy when people claim individual sovereignty?

My way of describing lack of citizenship in America now is to think of us, collectively, as shoppers at a big national mall. We can be in proximity in the same physical space, but without relationship or responsibilities to one another. If we do interact, it is momentary and mostly unintended.

But there are other models. Singapore leads the world in efficiency of government, lack of corruption, and government innovation. It is diverse, prosperous and peaceful. It is perhaps the world’s best example for the shining city on a hill that Jonathan Edwards told us about and Ronald Reagan liked to quote. The US would certainly benefit from some greater Confucian emphasis on education of leaders and fostering a sense of civic duty. An excellent description of Singapore governance and cultural response is in the 2017 book Liberalism Disavowed: Communitarianism and State Capitalism in Singapore by Beng Huat Chua.  

In 1966 the Singapore Pledge was proposed by government ministers anxious to bind the dramatically diverse people of Singapore just after breaking away from Malaysia.

We the citizens of Singapore,
pledge ourselves as one united people,
regardless of race, language or religion,
to build a democratic society
based on justice and equality
so as to achieve happiness, prosperity and
progress for our nation.

This is pledging to build a society, rather than pledging loyalty to a flag.

In 1991 the government proposed the Singapore Principles, a set of shared values adopted by the government as guideposts for both policy and individual responsibility. The five Shared Values are:

1) Nation before community and society above self,

2) Family as the basic unit of society,

3) Community support and respect for the individual,

4) Consensus, not conflict, and

5) Racial and religious harmony.


Explanation from the government’s web site -

The aim of introducing the shared values was to help forge a Singaporean identity that would incorporate the various aspects of the nation’s multicultural heritage with the attitudes and values that had contributed to Singapore’s success.

Of course one sees the distinction between the Singaporean principles and an American governance model. In Singapore, the Confucian-inspired government is regarded as a trustee of the people’s welfare, just as Aristotle proposed. The government has a responsibility to protect and serve. The American idea of governance is more that of a custodian, sort of marking time and making sure nothing too bad happens while on the governing party’s watch. There is no policy to promote virtue. One wonders just how plural a society can be before it is no longer a single society at all.

Joseph Chan is insightful in his lecture on The Politics and Ethics of the Rise of China at Cornell in 2012. In discussing Confucian civility, he notes that a society that finds civility, priority of the common good, and yielding for the common good too idealistic is a society in deep trouble.

In contrast, Singapore went on to define six core values that are part of character and citizenship education in the schools.

  1. Respect

As a society where people of different nationalities and races live and work in close proximity, we respect individuals’ space and views, accept that there are different beliefs and traditions, and uphold the law to maintain peace and order.

  1. Responsibility

We take responsibility for our own well-being and our family’s welfare. Being responsible also means recognising our duty to the community, our country and the world, whether it is serving national service, volunteering in the community or doing our part for the global climate.

  1. Resilience

When faced with adversity, both at the national and individual levels, we have the resilience and resolve to overcome them and emerge stronger. From fighting SARS in 2003, dealing with unemployment or personal setbacks, resilience helps us get back on our feet fast.

  1. Integrity

We uphold ethical principles and voice out what is right. We have zero tolerance for corruption at all levels and believe in fair treatment of people based on meritocracy and equal opportunities for all.

  1. Care

We encourage kindness and compassion in our communities. A caring society looks out for each other and is kind to its people, animals and our environment. In particular, we extend a helping hand to the less privileged among us.

  1. Harmony
    Singaporeans appreciate the harmony and peace in our society, where people with different traits and culture live, work and play in a common space. We hope to be a place where people treat each other with graciousness.

The core values are taught in Singapore schools.

Singapore core values at

Lest some American progressives look askance at such indoctrination, I point out that public schools across the US post such lists of beneficial student behavior in the corridors, as a reminder. Be fair, Come prepared, Be kind. Remember community. What would be wrong with an American government agreeing, out loud, to principles of respect, care, and harmony? 

Northwestern University scholar Robert Hariman proposed another list –

Polity of, by, and for the people.

Cooperation as the basic principle of society.

Community support for the individual, and individual obligation to the community.

Deliberation, not violence.

Harmony and change to form a more perfect union with liberty and justice for all.

In all the prescriptions – from Aristotle, Jesus, Confucius, deTocqueville, MacIntyre, Singapore and even John Stuart Mill  (On Liberty, Chapter 4) – we see the requirement for civic engagement, education, and a commitment to the good of the whole.

“Cancel culture” is not a phenomenon of the last decade. It has been festering as long as the notion of individual sovereignty has served to cancel civic responsibility. Individually and jointly, we must find ways to defeat cancel culture in all its forms.

At the same time, we need to bring compassion back. You remember compassion, right? – the humane quality of understanding the suffering of others and wanting to do something about it. We have Mencius 2A.6 (Gong Sun Chou 1.6) - … if one is without the feeling of compassion, one is not human. If one is without the feeling of distain, one is not human. If one is without the feeling of deference, one is not human. If one is without the feeling of approval and disapproval, one is not human … The feeling of compassion is the sprout of benevolence [ren]. The feeling of distain is the sprout of righteousness [yi]. The feeling of deference is the sprout of propriety [li]. The feeling of approval and disapproval is the sprout of wisdom [zhi].

Compassion and empathy are as Confucian as love thy neighbor or any of the beatitudes.

It is a tall order to bring back respect for institutions in society,  respect for and acknowledgement of those good things we do share, and some appreciation for the rituals that bind us.

Our society has honored individual sovereignty and rights over responsibilities to the point of real damage to civility and social capital. We don’t need to abandon rights, but we need an individual self-conscious morality that embraces benevolence, compassion, concern for others.


The good life

Religion and philosophy tell us humans are social beings. We never hunted alone or farmed alone or were nurtured back to health alone. What it means to be a person is to be a part of a larger whole—a family, community, culture, state, world, etc. Persons are not conceived in individualistic terms; rather, to be a person is to be a social being.

And yet in the last few decades we have constructed a puerile notion of individual sovereignty, a Kantian morality taken to extreme – that each of us is the architect of our own world, ignoring all that exists around us that we did not create ourselves, from roads to medicine to sports teams.

All that has been created in the past – tradition, loyalty, sanctity, justice are taken for granted. A tendency is to focus (narcissistically) on issues of fairness to me, of harm to me.

When we had religion it was harder to focus so much on me. When we had community, it was harder to focus so much on me. When we had ancestors and an appreciation of government as both night watchman and trustee for our future, it was harder.


What price justice?

We can make society and systems fairer to all, and more just. What does not help is to forget all the goods we do have, the things we do share.

In the US one thing we do share is relative peace on a daily basis. Our justice system works pretty well, better than in most countries. People get food and health care, even if lower quality and only after insulting bureaucratic confusions. We can do better.

Garry Wills told us in his Citizen Believer lecture cited above that the Augustinian goal is not “do justice though the heavens fall” but “do the kind of justice that keeps the heavens from falling.” This is a moderate and conservative standard, perhaps too much so for zealous college students. But it is not without meaningful action. Wills went to jail twice for his protests against the war in Vietnam.

Confucian scholar Li Zehou has said that sometimes harmony is more important than justice. We may express shock at that, since we sometimes mentally prioritize justice over other virtues. Justice, it seems, is mentally tied with freedom.  But sometimes justice is “overly reliant on adhering to abstract principles, prioritizing reason at the expense of emotional considerations, and a conception of the person devoid of concrete ties to communities and others,” as Paul D’Ambrosio noted in the article above. In negotiation, we seek a resolution that both sides can live with, not a resolution in which one side so dominates the other that conflict will reemerge. We usually do seek peace, not an arbitrary notion of fairness.

We usually do try to temper justice with mercy. Rule of law can be a tough standard. We have people called judges whose job is not just to referee procedure, but to bring some sense of proportion and context to hard law.  Civil law is all about getting to some version of harmony rather than some hard version of justice.

Once we get past an initial shock, we do think harmony is a higher value than justice much of the time. That, in fact, is what we advise in negotiations – better to get an outcome all can live with than to win hard but destroy relationships. It is possible for our sense of justice to change as we discuss and learn more about other perspectives. Michael Sandel makes the same point in his 1982 Liberalism and the Limits of Justice. Harmony can transform people, where justice only delivers what is prescribed in law.  This is Augustine as well.


The Confucian prescription

This is the Confucian prescription. Not to deny protest or complaint or to privilege some with more money or power or fame  over others, but to seek – well, the Peace of Babylon. If social progress requires general agreement by the people, it must necessarily be measured. Getting a majority on board with change is never easy. The Weathermen in the 1960s didn’t do it. The Bader-Meinhof gang in Germany didn’t do it.

Self-cultivation starts with the self. One must look inside first.

The thoughtful theist will realize that even if morality comes from God, we always have and still do interpret morality as we understand it.  We can say that our interpretation is guided, if one  wishes, but nevertheless we don’t condone slavery anymore, we don’t treat women as chattel, we have a sense that equal treatment is just.  Our morality does change. Charles Taylor and Huang Yong remind us that without our intuitive moral ideas – call them natural law or sprouts of virtue (Mencius) – we would have no ability to call on a transcendent source of morality. We do not have a single unchanging moral source, then.

The thoughtful secularist will realize that our intuitive moral ideas – call them natural law or sprouts of virtue – must come from somewhere.  We can call it innate to humans, or given by heaven following the Dao, or imbued by God.  If we want morality to be the universal standard proposed, we better have some way of describing it as more than simply fashion of the moment.

They both point to the need for a reconciliation and integration of theist and humanist outlooks.  Charles Taylor describes a “non-confessional God, no church’s property.”  Religious people need to be careful, though. Even Ross Douthat warned us that as religious leaders move to become political leaders, they lose some of their ability to witness to the entire community. He compares Billy Graham and Martin Luther King with Pat Robertson and Jesse Jackson. Neither Graham nor King  ran for political office and were able to retain some purity of mission. In turn, this identification of a brand of religion with a brand of politics turns some believers and others away from the faith.  The threat of violence – even with Malcolm X in the civil rights movement – can be useful, but the more moderate path of marches, protests and moral suasion are a better bet for success in the long term. The threat of violence polarizes rather than unites.

This may be anathema to many firm believers regardless of stripe, but the resulting God can be transcendent, immanent, and a source of morality.  Confucians would call it heaven.  This God calls on humans to exercise spirituality in their daily lives, which is what all religions call for – a commitment to the Good.

Huang Yong and Robert Carleo explore views on modern Confucian political philosophy in their 2021 ebook Contemporary Confucian Political Philosophy - Dialogues on the State of  the Field. The introduction is recommended as a good overview. They point out that a Confucian virtue politics can mean any or all of  three things –

… virtue politics as a politics that requires political leaders to be virtuous, virtue politics as a politics that sees it a function of the state to provide moral education to its people, and virtue politics as a politics that uses virtues to determine whether a political institution, including its laws and social policies, is moral or not. Of course, these three are fully compatible with each other, and a genuine and robust Confucian virtue politics should include all three of them.


Practices, rights, and virtues

We commonly make use of two kinds of morality – based on rights and based on virtues. When we play basketball we don’t pass the ball or block out opponents based on whose turn it is to shoot; when soldiers, police or firemen go into a critical situation, they don’t take turns or wait for an invitation to join. There are unwritten codes of behavior that determine action, and that is based on the rites, the proper thing to do, and that is the virtuous thing to do in the moment. You can call it training or effectiveness but it becomes a virtue. As in virtue ethics, we use judgment to determine the best course of action, rather than rules.

We need practice in those practices, and not just in preschool.

We use rights in legal situations and in determining the proper course of action in much public policy. That is as familiar to us as a notion of freedom. The rules defined in law work well enough much of the time, but break down when laws or rights conflict.

Both systems of morality can function well in their proper conditions.  Both can fail when taken to an extreme. Virtue based systems fail when they become predictable, or fail to account for changed circumstances – when the other team knows what you will do, or the fire is of a different scale and type than seen before.  Rights based systems fail when what is codified or legal is not what is reasonable.

One may object to a proposal that sounds like a return to an honor society of patriarchy, privilege and kinship, a bit like the old south of the US where rights could bend to relationship. There are aspects of such social relations in classical Confucianism.

But just as Christianity has changed over millennia, so has Confucianism. As Chan and Tu Weiming and many others have told us, new Confucianism comports with most aspects of liberal democracy.

The Confucian prescription is self-cultivation so one can learn to be fully human, benevolent, empathetic and wise. It is not so different from the ideal of Jefferson’s yeoman farmer, or the prescription of Aristotle, MacIntyre, parents, and honest and sincere Christian priests and pastors.  

Learning to be human is key. Education – both academic and spiritual – is a big part of learning to be human. (We see how important education is in every Confucian-inspired society). This education process is not purely an individual pursuit. It requires a community. And to be fully human is a social responsibility, not just a personal wish.

We have heard this sentiment before – it take a village to raise a child, and even in MacIntyre’s suggestion for a retreat to self-aware communities of faith. Mencius told us, too, in Mencius 4B.56 (Li Lou II.56) - That whereby the superior man is distinguished from other men is what he preserves in his heart - namely, benevolence and propriety. The benevolent man loves others.


A superfluous end note … for those who find morality can only come from the bible

This is too long a topic for more than superficial discussion.  Briefly, those who claim morality comes only from an absolute morality in the form of the biblical God absolutely ignore several things –

  • Biblical morality is by no means absolute. We no longer accept slavery, subjugation of women, genocide, or treating people as things, all of which are approved of in the bible.
  • If one wants to grant an absolute authority to God, we must still remember that the books were human compiled, even if under direction, and there are many inconsistencies, later additions, translation problems, omissions made by intent and not, and other writings that did not make it into the canon. And humans, we know, are fallible.
  • For most of human history, no one had access to morality based on the biblical texts. And since the (human) compilation of the new and old testaments, most people in the world have gotten by without instruction in the bible. Does the rest of the world murder, lie, steal, cheat more than the Christian world?
  • Fundamentalists make an argument that humanism tends to one of two extremes – either an individual is the ultimate authority or a collective is the ultimate authority. The Church suffered from the same tendencies. What we seek, whether Christian or Confucian or any other morality, is a balance - between individualism and collectivism, between state and religion, between personal freedom and obedience to authority, between what we can all agree on and what none of us can agree on. That will be always be our human condition.

Lastly, those who think they have personal insight to the mind of God commit a sin of blasphemy. It is good to remember Graham Greene in Brighton Rock - “You cannot conceive, nor can I, of the appalling strangeness of the mercy of God.” If you think you know, that is proof that you do not.