Rosemont, Confucianism and First/Second-Generation Rights
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?