A Ku Indeed!

Rosemont, Confucianism and First/Second-Generation Rights

Posted in China, Chinese Philosophy, Ethics, Values Analysis by Chris on September 27, 2007

After Dr. Rosemont’s talk on Social Justice and Poverty: A Confucian Meditation, I had the pleasure of speaking with him at length at dinner about the subject of his talk. I find the premise of Rosemont’s general thesis very plausible, and I’m wondering what others think. I’ll try to reproduce the argument here without a lot of unnecessary complication. Here’s it is (I’m taking some liberties here to keep things simple):

1. We ought to care about social justice issues (poverty, say).

2. Individualism (as a thesis about the ontology of persons) not only leads to poverty, but is insufficient to deal with the problem on a significant level.

Thus, we need to abandon individualism and embrace an different scheme of what human identity is, namely the Confucian one (which is “relational” seeing us as having overlapping identities).

Premise 1 I’ll take as given.

Premise 2 is complicated. Rosemont’s thesis comes down to this: individualism sees people as logically independent. Thus, one persons’ “personhood” is not dependent upon the existence of any other person. When we understand personhood in this way, “respecting” persons seems to result in adherence to “first-generation” rights. Basically, these are the kinds of rights that we find in the Bill of Rights (freedom of speech, assembly, religion, etc). However, because it is possible that a person can exist when there are no other persons, it is possible to respect the dignity of others — while maintaining my own personhood — by simply ignoring others. This is evident, given that first-generation rights are negative in form (they call upon me to not do things, not to do things).

If that’s so, however, I have no reason (with respect to my basic personhood) to help others, or to act positively towards them with respect to social justice. I can be a person and respect others as persons by not helping them at all. Thus, we see the “gulf” that opens up with respect to any kind of logical connection between me and you, and with that gulf comes the fact that I don’t have to help you out (if you’re poor, say). I can, but my personhood is not dependent upon it. Charity is nice of me, but not necessary for me (so to speak). Rosemont thinks ways of showing that logically separate individuals must help one another are doomed. The best we can get is charity.

To fix this, he suggests that we return to an ancient Confucian sense of relational identity. According to the Confucian, I am not separate from my mother, given that we are logically dependent upon one another. My basic personhood is wrapped up in hers — or more appropriately, we share personhood. Thus, what diminishes her personhood diminishes mine. Thus, Rosemont argues, only using relational identity can be get “second-generation” rights, where people have a right to housing, minimum wages, food, and so on. They have a right to it because their basic personhood cannot be upheld without it (just as in first generation rights, but in a negative manner). And who owes those things to them? Everyone does, but the closer you are related to that person, the more you are diminished by their own diminishing. So when my mother is starving, it diminishes me that this occurs more than it diminishes you. But still it diminishes you, just less so, so your obligation is lower (but always exists).

I find this general way of schematizing the problem and interesting and fruitful one (I’m used to it, being immersed in Confucianism for some time now). What do you all think?


5 Responses

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  1. Charity Smith said, on February 14, 2008 at 2:09 pm

    Did Rosemont go much into counter-arguments to this model of personhood/rights and the Confucian responses to them? I’d be interesting in hearing his thoughts, as I tend be persuaded by the Confucian concept.

    Specifically, I think the strongest argument against the Confucian model is that it can tip into a type of paternalism we shrink from. We, devout proponents of first generation rights, fear that someone else’s moral connection to my ‘good’ means that my rights will be trampled by a rush of well-intentioned bystanders who just happen to be mistaken about what my ‘good’ is.

    However, I think the resounding picture in The Analects is that this is just not the case given how the negative and positive formulations of shu are handled. Whether you think these formulations are really ends of the same thread or not, it’s clear at least that the negative formulation of shu enjoys priority in terms of moral focus, and perhaps development. Thus, ‘foster the good’ is always superceded by ‘do no harm’, etc.

  2. Chris said, on February 15, 2008 at 10:26 pm


    The question certainly did come up (as it always does), but I can’t recall _exactly_ what he said. I do think that he believes that the emphasis on “my (first gen) rights” is misguided, and mostly is what gets the whole problem rolling in his view. From his perspective, far more rights are “violated” in the situation where no attention is paid to second gen rights. Of course, though, your point is well taken; an emphasis on second gen rights without heavy emphasis on virtue would be very dangerous indeed. I do have Rosemont’s paper on my computer — if you’d like to read it, I can post it here for you. Just let me know.

    On the positive/negative formulations: I’m not convinced that the negative formulation has priority. In fact, it seems to me similar to first generation rights in a way. “Don’t do to them what you don’t want them to do to you” always tells me that I’m directed to abstain from acting in certain ways (don’t stop them from speaking/voting/assembling/etc). But abstaining from acting in certain ways towards others doesn’t do anything _positive_ to develop the humanity of those persons. And it seems surely true that you need to foster the good (as you put it) to exemplify humanity, not just refrain from doing this or that.

  3. Charity Smith said, on February 15, 2008 at 11:05 pm

    I’d be great if you could post Rosemont’s paper– thanks in advance.

    In regard to the negative/positive formulations– I’d argue (really I’m borrowing this argument from a fellow grad here at OU) that it’s clear that the negative formulation is given more attention in the text, but that this is only leading in certain ways, for if we take a developmental model there’s perhaps a story here to be told that will please both of us.
    It’s easier to teach do not harm and the implementation of this is perhaps a basic moral skill. Hence, it would make sense why Confucius spends so much more attention on the negative form of shu– we’re dealing after all with students in various stages of development. Still, the positive formulation could hold priority in the sense of it being a greater moral skill– one only properly practiced by the junzi or ethical sophisticate, who would know how not to transgress the negative formulation. Best,


  4. Chris said, on February 16, 2008 at 7:29 am

    Charity –

    The paper is on my other computer, I’ll get it up in a while. I’ll put it under the handouts for “Confucian Virtue Ethics” (link to the right on the main page.

    On the N/P formulations: I like the way you put that, and I don’t disagree. The N formulation does have a greater explicit presence in the text for sure (I do think that the positive formulation has perhaps a greater _implicit_ presence, though). Still, there’s an important question to be answered: why is the N form for explicitly present? I think your answer (or your colleague’s) makes sense: in earlier developmental periods, that’s where you start.

    My sense of priority was exactly what you state — moral priority, not textual or developmental. It’s tough to teach a small child to cultivate humanity, but it’s fairly easy to teach them some N form-rules (within the family setting, perhaps).

    You are at OU? I had a student here at Drury (very briefly, only for a semester) who went to OU. Andrea Taylor? My first semester teaching at Drury was her senior year. I also have (had, actually, she graduated in 2004) a student who is currently applying there for next year.

  5. Charity Smith said, on February 18, 2008 at 1:57 am

    Ha. Andrea’s actually the colleague from whom I so happily stole. She and I were in a seminar on the Analects last semester (the start of my interest in Confucian virtue ethics) and her paper was on the formulations of shu. She’s actually teaching her own course here on Human Destiny and doing well working with Amy Olberding. I’ll have to send her a link to this; I’m sure she’ll get a kick out of it.

    Thanks for posting the Rosemont paper!

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