A Ku Indeed!

Bell I: The Particular Whoops the Universal

Posted in Bell Reading Group, China, Chinese Philosophy, Politics by Chris on December 16, 2008

1995-humanrightsday-whereSo far, one hundred pages into East Meets West, it strikes me that the one “drive home” point Bell wants to make is this one: the particular trumps the universal. Many of Bell’s other points about appropriate East-West discourse and human rights advocacy seem to rely on this fundamental principle. If this is indeed the “engine” that drives the car, it makes sense to start here and pop open the hood so we can take a look around (as Ross Perot might say).

I think Bell’s major argument has a few parts.

Argument A: Effective Human Rights Approaches are Local

Bell is insistent that an effective human rights approach must be “meaningful.” He also thinks that Western liberal approaches to human rights in East Asia are not effective at all – in fact, at times they are downright harmful. As a result, he argues that liberal approaches cross-culturally lack meaningfulness. But what makes an approach to human rights meaningful?

His answer: local knowledge.

Bell puts it this way, “rights, if they’re to be meaningful in practice, must have some grounding in the local culture” (91). What I take Bell to mean is that authentic values and practices (a) are responses to empirical facts on the ground specific to the circumstances at hand, and (b) spring from the way in which those facts can take on different weightings or salience when they are interpreted through the lens of the specific local culture and history in which those facts are enmeshed.

Given that for Bell this is the “Eastern” way, as he sees it in the Eastern perspective, the particular trumps the universal. Authentic or meaningful values spring from a combination of contingent sets of facts, both empirical and cultural.

Sitting in the back of the classroom not paying attention to Bell’s lesson (playing with GameBoys and texting one another, no doubt) the Western liberal human rights advocates get an “F” on the test. They are portrayed as “arrogant” and as representing their values as “the end of history” (45). Western liberals, starting with that hooligan Plato, see their values and rights as exemplifying a “universalistic ethic” that is superior to the values that spring from the merely contingencies of situated local cultures and situations. In other words, for the liberal, the universal trumps the particular.

The battleground is set.

Argument B: Strategy and Theory (or Small Pragmatism and Big Pragmatism)

These claims are prevalent throughout the book, and leave the reader asking “wait a second, Bell (I mean Lo!) – are you giving us a guide to effective strategy, or are you giving us a primer on the origin and justification of human rights themselves?” Sometimes it is hard to tell, because “Lo” seems to have little patience for the distinction itself, and seems somewhat dismissive of theory.

Still, as far as I can tell, if Bell is “Lo” then the answer is: “Both”. He thinks that the particular trumps the universal both in terms of strategy, and in terms of theoretical origin and justification. He’s a full fledged particularist (my word, not a technical term taken from elsewhere).

Let’s look at the components of this.

Strategy first – I’ll call this “small-p” pragmatism (or particularism). Essentially, Bell’s point here is one that is easy to agree with. It simply makes more sense to couch one’s efforts in terms of local cultures, history, and values and to pay close attention to the facts “on the ground” as they affect the actual people involved. Bell pushes this point consistently, suggesting to Demo that since “the functional equivalents” of liberal human rights can be pursued by looking for cultural analogues (it could be that some cultural value ends up endorsing the same behaviors a liberal human right might), there’s no real reason to push for “rights” language, or to insist that other cultures share the justificatory framework one uses to generate one’s own human rights practices (pages 55 and 97, and other places). In other words, from a strategic point of view does it really matter how people justify the fact that they embrace practices that result in people being able to speak their minds, if “free speech” is one’s concern? Find local resources, culturally, empirically and traditionally, to make arguments that secure those practices and be satisfied. (In fact, if you’ve ever had the chance to read Sam Crane’s excellent blog, Useless Tree, it seems that Sam follows this thinking often: whereas Sam often critiques the PRC for their various abuses, he always couches the criticism in terms of Confucius or Mencius). 


Fair enough. But I think Bell is a “Big-letter-P’ pragmatist/particularist too (not sure about Sam). Or at least I suspect that Bell is. Here’s a rough definition:  Big-P pragmatists/particularists think that truth is created via local negotiation, not found or discovered. In this context, “truth” is “a set of rights” (or values or norms). In fact, sometimes one gets the impression that all of Bell’s emphasis on effective dialogue between the East and West is partly because this is how he thinks new values and norms come into existence — and perhaps this is wht would happen if the two cultures actually “spoke to” (as oppposed to at) one another.

So: real, authentic values emerge from negotiation and consensus. A “little-p” pragmatist doesn’t think this: they think that truth (or a set of rights) is found and discovered. That said, they do think that there are better or worse ways of securing the practices that those truths/rights entail, and so they embrace the more instrumental paths, making them strategy-minded. As a result, if Bell is a “little-p” pragmatist, he actually believes that liberal ideals and norms concerning human rights are the right ones, trans-culturally. Epistemologically, we can access these truths and justify them without recourse to local contexts or knowledge.

But I think Bell is a “Big-P” pragmatist/particularist, so he’s more radical than that (notice that Big-P doesn’t rule out Little-P). And I suspect that he is.

Lo/Bell often talks as if there are no a priori bases for universal human rights claims at all. That said, it is curious on the face of it that he thinks that most of what we would, prima facie, take to be “incontrovertable” rights, such as a right not to be tortured, are not really in dispute (although not always in practice, he says) between different cultures (in this case, between the “east” and “west”). However, the fact that there is widespread agreement on the “larger” human rights issues doesn’t negate the “Big-P” pragmatist argument by suggesting that there are indeed a priori norms. Instead (he doesn’t say this, I’m suggesting it) it might be due to a common coincidental agreement between those local cultures that is rooted in a similarity of empirical and cultural circumstances (in some generalized way). So in the end even these larger shared human rights concerns — which have the appearance of universality — might be local in this way (it’s all turtles, all the down!).

What gives the liberal pause is the fact that Big-P pragmatism is radical — radical because it smells relativist. Of course, Bell is not asking us to embrace a robust relativism about human rights. It’s not that “anything goes.” But he’s surely a robust pluralist – and a very robust one at that. Given that there are a number of possible local situations and a great variety in the ways in which local knowledge can be constructed, we must be open to a pretty large set of possibly authentic human rights norms and practices, even ones that are inconsistent with our own liberal notions.

Are we powerless to argue otherwise? In fact, as far as I can tell, Bell only gives us three tools to test a value or norm with, to see if it is authentic (and so three tools for effective critique). First, the culture the norm springs from must be rooted in facts. As Bell puts it, if the norm relies on the belief that the Earth is flat, it’s not acceptable. Second, it cannot spring from political manipulation by powerful interests; instead, it must emerge in a meaningful way from the larger concerns of the tradition or culture more generally. Third, the culture’s normative structure must be internally consistent. These three rules give us some leeway to protest particular local behavior or rules or rights, but our “elbow room” is restricted.

Perhaps it is restricted for good reasons. I’m not sure.

In many ways, I like what Bell has to say here. To be honest, I have strong intuitions that his way of understanding the origin and justification of rights or norms is right, or at least mostly right. But one can’t help but to feel disarmed when faced with values that are strongly illiberal, and which do pass those three tests. Are we willing to embrace this? Not just strategically, but in the strong sense of Big-P pragmatism? Are these values authentic values? The only way to prevent such a conclusion (in theory) seems to be to build into the procedural mechanism above (and that’s what it is) some substantive content. Perhaps in the requirement that norms be “rooted in facts” we build in some normative claims, or axioms. But that’s the very thing Bell opposes – a priori content. This is what the liberal tradition does, as far as I can tell.

So at the end of the day, how far does the particular trump the universal? In the strategic “small p” sense that it helps us to get closer to practices embraced by universalist notions of the good or justice? Or is it true in the “Big-P” sense? Or in neither sense?

One last thing. If Bell is right that values or norms are authentic (or meaningful) when they are products of local knowledge (Big-P pragmatism), then how does that leave liberal normative structures, when they are restricted to Western contexts and situations? One way to understand liberal values would be to see them as emerging from local contexts and histories and empirical situations. So one could see where the origin of liberal values is local. But insofar as Bell portrays it, liberals do not see the justification of liberal values as local at all. They are justified through reason, or through some other procedure that does not utilize local knowledge. Which leaves us (or me) with an interesting question: if East Asians (in general) see norms as originating and being justified by local knowledge, whereas Westerners do not (sometimes not recognizing even the question of local origin), does that make Eastern values and norms more authentic? One might make the case that Western values do not emerge from a culture that is “rooted in the facts” (one of his tests) — at least the basic fact that values have their justification and origin in local cultures. In fact, one gets the impression that it is this factual mistake that leads to so much of the problem when thinking of how the West approaches the East on human rights issues, many times, as Bell suggests, with harmful results.

I’ll stop here, I’ve prattled on far, far, far too long.


In the next post (which I promise will be shorter), I’ll try to compare some of what Bell seems to be pushing here regarding a robust “Big-P” pragmatism to the Existential notion of embodiment.

Two more, coming down the pike after that: one on a possible analogy between Bell’s treatment of local knowledge and pedagogy in the classroom and another possible one that compares this approach to human rights justification to Confucian notions of appropriateness (which I suspect might be in the background for Bell, given his Confucian orientation).

A few batches of finals are coming in, so look for the next post in a few days.


5 Responses

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  1. Phil Hand said, on December 19, 2008 at 7:24 pm

    Re: your reply on Tangdynastytimes. I’d like to respond to a lot of what you say about misery, consequentialism and local knowledge, and I’ve been very much wanting to respond to this post, but my copy of East Meets West is still making its laborious way from the US to China. I think my thinking might be a bit more fruitful if it’s closely tied to a text, so I’m holding fire until I have the book in my hands – might well be January.

  2. Chris said, on December 19, 2008 at 9:12 pm

    Phil — no worries. I’ll be here! Where are you in China? I’ll be in Beijing from this February to July (teaching at Tsinghua).

  3. Phil Hand said, on December 29, 2008 at 7:35 am

    I’m just parking these quotes here. I’ll come back and see if I can make an argument of them later – ought to do some work first. These are quotes from the introduction that seem directly relevant to the issue here.

    p.3 “There is not much point writing or deliberating about the desirability of practices that everyone condemns at the level of principle.”

    “The problem, however, is that many prominent voices in the West seem to foreclose the possibility of a constructive dialogue with ‘the rest’.”

    P.4 “Liberal democratic ideals and institutions command almost universal allegiance in Western societies. This phenomenon is to be understood in the light of the West’s shared history and culture.”

    P.9 “…cultural defenders of authoritarianism often recover references from ancient Asian texts in order to ‘prove’ that Asians favor restrictions on democratic rule… These arguments can also be refuted simply by showing that such values do not have any practical relevance given current normative outlooks…”

    P.10 “…it is important to distinguish between traditional values that are still relevant today and others that have been relegated to the dustbin of history.”

    P.14 “…if there is a case to be made for democracy in East Asia… it will be made from the inside, from specific examples and argumentative strategies that East Asians themselves use”

    P.16 “Chapter 4 turns to a more promising consequentialist justification for democracy in the Singapore context” [Bell’s own]

    P.18 “The more challenging theoretical question, perhaps, is whether one can identify aspects of East Asian cultural traditions relevant in the sense that they may provide a moral foundation for political practices and institutions different from Western-style liberal democracy.”

  4. Phil Hand said, on December 30, 2008 at 7:30 am

    Alright, so working from Bell’s text:

    From the p.4 quote, Bell is choosing to understand liberal democratic ideals as a cultural phenomenon. Just how “local” they might be is pretty dubious, though, given that he ascribes them to the shared history and culture of “the West” – a pretty large and heterogeneous area.
    His formulation “is to be understood” leaves it unclear for me whether he’s saying democracy is a product of culture, or just that it should be read that way for this argument.

    He makes two references to relevance, and also to “current normative outlooks”, which is all very vague. Whose outlook? Relevant to what? On a practical level, he seems here to be accepting that it is absurd to say “Asians don’t want freedom”. Perhaps this absurdity might be understood in this way: because it’s nothing more than an negation, it doesn’t express an ideal. There is no alternative to the western liberal ideals that Asians could use to counter the western ideals because there is no non-western tradition of modern political thought. Hence the P.18 quote: Bell determines to construct a new tradition.

    I have a few problems with this.

    (1) I hate constructing the arguments of people I disagree with. Honestly, if Bell has a point, he should make it himself.

    (2) Of the two positive arguments Bell makes in this book, one appears to be based on his understanding of communitarianism – and he wasn’t Asian last time I checked; the other draws its inspiration from the British House of Lords, as much as the Confucian tradition (there’s nothing in the Confucian tradition to suggest a parliament-like institution, is there?). Bell recognises the issue: he notes that he wants to avoid “drawing on East Asian traditions only for…the same end goal [western liberal rights]” (p.17). But I can’t see that he’s been at all successful in this.

    On this point we have to be a bit careful. It’d be easy to point to any idea in a western tradition than looks like Bell’s, and accuse him of imposing it on the Asian tradition. So I’m not sure what sort of criteria we’d need to determine what really constitutes the development of Asian ideas as opposed to the importation of western ideas (because, to be honest, however crazy your idea is, you’ll find someone in the west will have written a book in support of it). I might suggest an academic tradition with as much continuity as possible given China’s history; and a clear link between theory and history in customary practice in Asian states. So, we can find the roots of parliament in the courts of Europe, and particularly in Britain where a peculiar set of circumstances led the king to lose control of the courts. Democratic institutions go back to the Greeks, obviously. You’d have to find these kinds of links to show that an idea was authentically Asian. On page 321 you find an example of Bell doing just this to justify the practice of holding whole families responsible for the crimes of one member. I can’t find anything comparable for the “house of scholars” idea, or for the “democracy for patriotism” idea.

    (3) Bell doesn’t seem to distinguish much between cultural traditions and political exigencies. Many of his arguments in part 1 seem more of the form that western HR guy doesn’t know the political exigencies of the situation; not that what he says goes against Asian tradition.

    (4) The two civilizations Bell contrasts here are just too big. Despite the term “the West”, I can’t see all of western Europe and North America as a single cultural entity. Indeed, I regard the strength of the “western” political tradition as coming in part from its diversity, and the massive, intensive discussion and debates that continue to be held on political issues. Asia is at least as diverse. In taking Confucianism as his representative of “Asia”, Bell is being far far too reductive. These broad groupings also seem to work against your idea from Kierkegaard of the local, because there’s no way Confucius is local to Burma; still less could Thoreau be British.

    Actually, after a close reading, I can’t find much evidence to suggest that Bell is a Pragmatist. He’s holding his cards close to his chest, I think, trying to focus mostly on unwise actions by westerners to lever open the question of whether there should be an alternative. But I certainly don’t see any major arguments here for real pluralism or relativism, still less an insistence that values must be local or cultural. At the end of part 3, Wang talks about political strategies for spreading his idea, and is very willing to team up with a Marxist for political convenience. At the very least, this suggests that Bell is not averse to making use of non-local ideas in the pursuit of what he thinks is right.

  5. Sam said, on December 30, 2008 at 1:54 pm

    Sorry I’m late. Because my comment is long, I put it on my blog:


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