chapter  15
33 Pages

Propriety, law and harmony: a functional argument for the rule of virtue

Introduction Harmony (he), order and prosperity are obviously salutary social ideals cherished by all classical schools of Chinese thought, but the proposed ways to realize these ideals differ profoundly among the schools.2 Where the Legalist school relies exclusively on rule of law and punishments, Confucianism places heavy emphasis on the learning and practice of the moral principles of humanity (Ren) and righteousness (Yi). In the very opening dialogue from which the epilogue is taken, Mengzi (Mencius) points out the contradictions inherent in rational egotism, which has been widely taken as the philosophical foundation of liberal democracy today (Fukuyama 1992). To the narrowly self-interested question raised by King Hui of Liang – what can be done to benefit his kingdom – Mengzi answers that the formulation of the question itself defeats its solution. As long as the king continues to place his focus of consideration on benefiting himself through benefiting his kingdom, he will eventually find his interest to be defeated; in unexpected ways, exclusive concern over oneself, ‘rational’ as it may seem, often if not always leads to consequences opposite to what was originally desired. Paradoxically, to benefit the state and himself, who supposedly ‘possesses the state’ (you guo) in the sense that he is in charge of running it and can legitimately derive benefits from his successful governance, the king

must shift his focus from interest to something broader, namely, the observance of such fundamental moral rules as required by humanity and righteousness. The only consistent solution, according to Mengzi, is to follow the moral principles, by which one’s self-interest is only to be achieved as a sort of ‘by-product’.3