Confucianism - Freedom and democracy 2.0

Is Confucianism a religion?

Appendix 1.  Rules Golden and Silver  Christian and Confucian formulations


Christians know the Golden Rule. In Matthew 7:12  and Luke 6:31 Jesus says do to others what you want them to do to you.

Christianity is not unique in having such a rule. Pretty much every culture has a variation on this. 

The rule in the Old Testament is formulated in the negative – “do not do.” In Tobit 4:15 - Do to no one what you yourself dislike. And Leviticus 19:18 - What is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow: this is the whole Torah; the rest is the explanation; go and learn.

Similarly, Confucians use the so-called Silver Rule, called so because in the Christian west a non-Christian rule must necessarily be lesser, and silver is a lesser metal than gold. In Analects 15.24 (Wei Ling Gong) - Zi Gong asked, saying, "Is there one word which may serve as a rule of practice for all one's life?" The Master said, "Is not reciprocity such a word? What you do not want done to yourself, do not do to others."

Both rules encompass the broadest description of how one should treat others, including the stranger, and for most purposes they both work reasonably well to guide moral behavior.  They do have some practical differences.


The focus on the individual relationship

Christianity focuses on love. Jesus talks mostly about a relationship between the individual and God. Of the two great commandments, the first is to love god, the second to love your neighbor. Love your neighbor and the Good Samaritan are prominent, but not the key focus.

Loving your neighbor can interpret the golden rule as promotion for evangelicalism – “If other people knew the Good Word as I know it, I would want them to preach it to me, so therefore I should preach it to others.”  This is a call for equality of outcomes, but not for reciprocity or understanding the other.


The focus on community

The Confucian prescription is more other-focused. Confucian scholars point out that the silver rule is actually more oriented to community than the Matthew 5:39-41, which rejected the old eye for an eye with turn the other cheek.

Matthew 5:39-41 - But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also. And if anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, hand over your coat as well.  If anyone forces you to go one mile, go with them two miles.

The “do not resist” is a tough standard. Gandhi and King survived long enough to see a movement mature, but many others did not. Is there nothing else to do?

Well, yes there is. Confucian scholar Tu Weiming tells us the golden rule stated in the negative (the Silver Rule) is based on the self-awareness that the integrity of the other takes precedence over the desire to establish a relationship in one’s own terms. The passive injunction must be augmented by a positive charge, “in order to establish myself, I must help others to establish themselves; in order to enlarge myself, I must help others to enlarge themselves.” 

Tu Weiming. Spiritual Humanism: Self, Community, Earth, Heaven. Wang Yangming Lecture, 24th World Congress of Philosophy, Beijing, 2018.


Some issues – community and knowing the other

The Golden Rule does not prohibit seeking to educate or correct the behavior of a transgressor, but it is not encouraged, either. But “know your enemy” (Sunzi, in the Art of War) in this context is not different from “know your transgressor” and that is more akin to the philosophy behind the Silver Rule as used by Confucians. One can act in the most intelligent way when one knows the intentions and desires of the other side.

The Christian advice takes no account of who the other is. Of course we want to be treated fairly, according to our own definition, and we should treat others in the same way. But others may well have a different idea of fairness or different intentions.  Of course there is the unique case – two robbers, one of whom intends to rat out the other. And there are destitute or homeless people who simply wish to be left alone (IEP, Golden Rule). When we are personally mistreated, the golden rule only requires that we return with kindness, ignoring any social differences. 

A benevolence that tolerates injustice seems morally questionable. Certainly there are abused wives and mothers who have been taught to accept injustice as a “turning the other cheek.”

The golden rule need a caveat. Huang Yong describes the caveat -

An important assumption of the Golden Rule is that moral agents and moral patients have the same or at least similar desires, ideas, ideals, customs, and so on, in which case the Golden Rule can function without any problem. However, in the absence of relevant similarities, it will cease to function properly. A global society is precisely one that features an increasing diversity in terms of desires, ideas, ideals, customs, and the like. This is precisely the reason that we need to be especially cautious in applying the Golden Rule in our moral life.

Huang Yong. Some Fundamental Issues In Confucian Ethics: A Selective Review Of Encyclopedia Of Chinese Philosophy. Journal of Chinese Philosophy 32:3 (September, 2005)

Not everyone wants to be treated as you think they would like to be treated. Sometimes, people would want to know they had done wrong so they could correct their behavior, rather than being permitted to do wrong again and again.

This creates a conundrum. We have a requirement to turn the other cheek and a requirement to love one another, and they can conflict. Moreover, it is natural to want some form of justice on earth. Justice and vengeance are the province of God; but without some form of justice here on earth, we are in the realm of Hobbes’ state of nature. Modern societies can’t function that way. 


What to do?

The fundamental conflict is described by Hans Kung –

Here we have reached the decisive point of theological controversy between Christianity and Confucianism. It is the understanding of God to which corresponds an understanding of the human person. This love makes it possible for people to feel that they are the sons and daughters of God, not only within the confines of the family, the clan, or the nation, but in the world in general. Enemies can become brothers and sisters! For the Christian, God’s love for every human being is the basis for every human being’s love for every other human being. . . . In the same way, God’s own love for the enemy is the basis for people to love their enemies. 

Kung H. (1989). Confucianism: ethical humanism as religion? A Christian response. In H. Kung & J. Ching, Christianity and Chinese religion (pp. 93–129). New York: Doubleday.1989, cited in Huang Yong.

But God's love for humans as all are equal cannot be a realistic model for human love on earth. God is not equal to humans; we live in the city of man, not the city of God. It is no problem for God to love and treat all equally. It seems too much for humans to ask of each other, for humanity to just let God sort them out later. 

“Love the sinner, hate the sin” is the way out of the conundrum for Christians. One can turn the other cheek and call the police. To forgive “seventy times seven” is an attempt to remain loyal to the love of God in the face of injustice, and possibly to demonstrate a better path to those who commit injustice. This is the path of Gandhi and King. Their morally exemplary nonresponse did turn justice in their direction, after decades and after many killings. Their exemplary model doesn’t require the injured to seek to reform or remonstrate with an offender. Justice and reform are only implied, or left to others. The Golden Rule can get one to some justice and reform, but it may take a long time. 

“Love the sinner, hate the sin” is also Confucian. Confucius advised to repay a good turn with a good turn, and an injury with uprightness Analects 14.34 (Xian Wen)  which could be any form of reform, including, of course, police action. The Confucian advice is an attempt at enhancing community rather than enhancing one’s own state of grace. A virtuous person, in other words, should be concerned about the virtue of others as well as that of himself. In Analects 6:30, helping others in order to help oneself - Now the man of perfect virtue, wishing to be established himself, seeks also to establish others; wishing to be enlarged himself, he seeks also to enlarge others. To be able to judge of others by what is nigh in ourselves - this may be called the art of virtue."

It is in this sense that Confucianism requires the individual to seek to educate the transgressor, rather than simply turn the other cheek. The Confucian does not want to turn the other cheek not out of fear of being harmed, but for fear of leaving the other in an immoral position.  Incidentally, this is the counsel of Laozi in Daodejing 63requite injuries with good deeds, and Daodejing 49 - Of the good man I approve, But of the bad I also approve, And thus he gets goodness. The truthful man I believe, but the liar I also believe, And thus he gets truthfulness.

Confucius again, in Analects 14.7 (Xian Wen) -

The Master said, "Can there be love which does not lead to strictness with its object? Can there be loyalty which does not lead to the instruction of its object?"  Clarifying, “if you love someone, how can you not instruct the person? If you are loyal to someone, how can you not teach the person?”


Christian love

Reinhold Niebuhr describes Christian love –

Jesus did not counsel his disciples to forgive seventy times seven in order that they might convert their enemies or make them more favorably disposed. He counseled it as an effort to approximate complete moral perfection, the perfection of God. He did not ask his followers to go the second mile in the hope that those who had impressed them into service would relent and give them freedom. He did not say that the enemy ought to be loved so that he would cease to be an enemy. He did not dwell upon the social consequences of these moral actions, because he viewed them from an inner and a transcendent perspective. (Niebuhr, 1960, cited in Yong Huang)

Yong HuangConfucian Love and Global Ethics: How the Cheng Brothers Would Help Respond to Christian Criticisms. Asian Philosophy.  Vol. 15, No. 1, March 2005, pp. 35–60. Available at

The transcendent perspective Niebuhr cites is what makes turn the other cheek palatable. Christians can turn the other cheek if they are confident in the justice of a world to come. Otherwise, it just invites further abuse.


Confucian love

Confucianism avoids the conflict over turn the other cheek and a human need for justice now by ignoring a transcendent perspective of ultimate justice in the next world. Rather than turn the other cheek, Confucius advises to return injury with justice. Analects 14.34 (Xian Wen)Some one said, "What do you say concerning the principle that injury should be recompensed with kindness?" The Master said, "With what then will you recompense kindness? Recompense injury with justice, and recompense kindness with kindness."

Confucian love is sometimes described as “love with distinctions.” The first love and first obligation is to family. That familial love is the model for all other forms of love. We feel stronger obligations to family than to friends or neighbors, and that is the sense of a love with distinctions for those outside the family. It seems unreasonable to expect people to love those outside the family – a neighbor, for instance – as one loves family. We don’t do it. In an extreme situation, would we be more likely to save our own child or the child of a neighbor? Love with distinctions is a practical response to the way people actually live.  Confucius does say that benevolence requires us to “love all men” Analects 12.22 (Yan Yuan 22).

Confucians rejected the idea of universal love – loving all people equally - as proposed by Mozi. Such an idea failed to properly honor family and was not practical in any case. Mencius points the way to love all people with the sprouts of virtue example – we are all born good, with sprouts of virtue that need nourishment from parents and family. All of us are children of our parents and due the same sort of attention and care that we received from and provide for our own parents.

For most people, Christian and –non, love with distinctions is a more realistic concept of love for all. We will love our parents and children more than those outside the family, even as we practice charity and benevolence for all. For those with great moral transgressions, we should use penitentiaries rather than prisons. After all, moral failure is a reflection on one’s parents and neighbors and friends. One should repent, and learn to be more fully human.

This counsel avoids being unable to respond to injustice, commits the injured party to attempt reform of the sinner, and commits the injured not to equal treatment of all but fair consideration of all.  One could characterize the Christian-Confucian distinction as love others equally and love others as they need to be loved, in a way similar to the characterization of justice – is justice to treat all the same, or to treat them as they need or deserve to be treated. More than that, though, the Confucian command is a requirement for community building. Injustice is not satisfied with recompense. It needs education.

The requirement to reflect on the ideas and beliefs of the other can be seen as a contribution of Confucian ethics to a world ethic.  And a benefit to non-Christians is that a Silver Rule does not follow from a commandment from God.  It can – indeed, must – arise from a human instinct to be humane.

Huang Yong -

… the unique aspects of Confucian love are not only not problematic as it has sometimes been claimed; they are precisely the aspects that can constitute unique Confucian contributions to a global ethics. First, as we have seen, the central idea of Confucian love with distinction is that moral patients are not all the same. It is therefore extremely important for a moral agent to know their unique ideas and ideals, beliefs and customs, interests and desires, before he or she can determine the appropriate ways to love them. This is particularly important for a global ethics, because it is supposed to help us to function as moral agents in our interactions with people who may be very different from ourselves and from each other…. To respect people is not merely to refrain from imposing our ideas upon others; it is also to take their unique ways of life and thinking seriously.

Yong’s point is that modernity makes the command to love one another equally, operating under the assumption that we share values, not realistic.  Confucian love is realistic.

Both Golden and Silver rules work equally well in most conditions. It really is good advice to not perpetuate conflict by returning insult with more injury. But the Confucian Silver Rule contains a requirement for engagement in community that can be seen as absent from the Golden Rule. Tu Weiming argues that the negative formulation of  the Golden Rule needs an additional proviso. He argues that “such a negative golden rule would have to be augmented by a positive principle: ‘To establish ourselves, we must help others to establish themselves; to enlarge ourselves, we must help others enlarge themselves.’ A sense of inclusive community, based on mutual benefit and fruitful interchange, rather than on a zero-sum economic game, needs to be cultivated”

Tu Weiming. Centrality and commonality: An essay on Confucian religiousness. SUNY Press, 1989.

And I will argue that this engagement with others is the basis for that classic formulation of American civil society as described by de Tocqueville – self-interest, rightly understood (Democracy in America, Chapter VIII)-

The Americans, on the other hand, are fond of explaining almost all the actions of their lives by the principle of self-interest rightly understood; they show with complacency how an enlightened regard for themselves constantly prompts them to assist one another and inclines them willingly to sacrifice a portion of their time and property to the welfare of the state.

The principle of self-interest rightly understood produces no great acts of self-sacrifice, but it suggests daily small acts of self-denial. By itself it cannot suffice to make a man virtuous; but it disciplines a number of persons in habits of regularity, temperance, moderation, foresight, self- command; and if it does not lead men straight to virtue by the will, it gradually draws them in that direction by their habits.

Well said.

What Confucius and DeTocqueville are telling us is one cannot trust in the ancestors or spirits to provide material support or justice on earth, and heaven is not a destination. One should focus on righteousness and benevolence in the here and now. Not by faith alone is certainly Confucian - James 2:24 - You see that a person is considered righteous by what they do and not by faith alone.   Our obligations are to seek justice here and now... with tolerance and empathy.


What is morality for?

In whatever formulation, these rules express a society’s most general moral requirement. But – briefly – what is morality for? Why the rules and punishments?

Every society has a morality. Its purpose seems to be that of structuring and fostering social cooperation. Morality requires some instances of deference to others, some respect for leaders, some helping others and some independent thought and action. A notion of “turn the other cheek” can be useful, but it is not always useful all the time and not every morality agrees entirely with that view.

The ideal is loving God is first and foremost. But the model is simply too much for most people in practical terms. It is natural to have greater feelings of love toward family than strangers or those with values one despises., and to love … with some distinctions.

The Golden Rule is able to do what it does because of the Christian greatest commandment. We know the two great commandments from Christianity – love God and love one another, as described by Jesus in Luke 6:27-31 - love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. To him who strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also; and from him who takes away your coat do not withhold even your shirt….

Alasdair MacIntyre reminds us that morality is particular to a culture, so it cannot be a universal. Jonathan Haidt reminds us that liberals and conservatives will emphasize different aspects of morality, and that difference is at the source of much political conflict. Mencius told us that humans are not innately moral, but have moral sprouts, or inclinations, that must be groomed if one is to mature to full humanity. In other words, there may be some tendencies in nature, but nurture is most necessary. Golden rules and silver rules seem pretty universal, along with some notions of natural law (not natural rights). Perhaps these rules - golden or silver - are about as far as we can go with a universal concept of morality.


Next:  Appendix 2.  Confucian spirituality