Confucian Human Rights Ideas and Their Influence on Modern Human Rights Thought
Professor Gu Chunde
The world in which we are now living is becoming economically globalized, politically multi-polarized and culturally diversified. In such a global trend, the discussion on oriental culture and human rights development aims at stimulating Chinese and international human rights development, promoting China¡¯s human rights exchanges and cooperation with the theme of peace and development. This is of theoretical and practical importance.
Confucian culture is an important component of world cultural heritage, a major representative of oriental culture, and the dominant facet of Chinese cultural tradition. Confucianism dominated China¡¯s feudalistic society for thousands of years before the founding of the People¡¯s Republic of China in 1949, and it is the essence of the Chinese cultural spirit.
With Confucius as its initiator and major representative, it was founded about 2,500 years ago in the Spring and Autumn Period, and was further developed by other Chinese philosophers to form an extensive, profound and refined ideological system. It has rich content covering the fields of humanity, politics, law, education, philosophy and ethics. Though the expression ¡°human rights¡± was never mentioned in Confucianism, it did contain some unique human rights ideas. Exploring these ideas to analyze the birth and development of Chinese human rights is of great importance to modern human rights theoretical development.
Confucianism, A Humanistic Philosophy
Confucian culture is based on humanistic philosophy, and this is shown in its respect, attention to and love of human individuals. Benevolence is an important spirit promoted by Confucianism. This is reflected in many of the famous sayings of Confucius, such as ¡°Among all the creatures in the world, the human being is the most precious¡±, ¡°The human being is the heart of heaven and earth¡±, ¡°The King is the boat and the common people the water; the water can carry the boat, but it can also capsize and sink the boat¡±. The well known Chinese scholar Mencius also said, ¡°The human being is the most precious, the state is second, and the ruler the least.¡± Founded on these humanistic ideas, Confucianism paid attention to the needs and sufferings of the ordinary people and protected their interests.
Proposing Free Conscience and Personal Dignity
Human rights means the rights and qualifications of a human being; it implies that human dignity should be respected. Therefore free conscience and personal dignity are basic foundations of human rights. Confucian culture promotes human consciousness and benevolence. Benevolence means to love people, which is the highest standard in dealing with human relationships and the relations between the individual and society. Confucius said, ¡°The benevolent one is the human being. How can a non-benevolent people be polite? How can a non-benevolent person be happy?¡± The spirit of benevolence is to love everyone, and to be benevolent one has to restrain one¡¯s own desire, conquering selfishness and submitting to ritual. According to Confucius, ¡°We are to look at nothing in defiance of ritual, to hear nothing in defiance of ritual, to speak nothing in defiance of ritual, to undertake nothing in defiance of ritual¡±. Mencius further developed the idea and put forward the concept of free conscience, which means the kindness, or goodness of a human being. Mencius considered free conscience as symbolic of a human being. He said, ¡°One with no sympathy is not good; one who is not shy when doing wrong is not human; one who does not know how to politely decline is not human; and one who cannot distinct right from wrong is not human.¡±
From these statements, we can see that Confucian culture admitted that it is human nature to have desires and dislikes. Confucius once said, ¡°Wealth and rank are what everyone desires, but if they can only be retained by improper means, they must not be accepted. Poverty and meanness are what everyone detests; but if they are to be removed by improper means, one cannot be released from them.¡± Here, benevolence and goodness are the principles to teach people to do good deeds.
Though Confucianism paid attention to free conscience, it also saw the influence of postnatal habits. Confucius believed that benevolence and goodness could conquer some acquired bad habits, and Mencius posited ways to develop one¡¯s free conscience in practice. Meanwhile, Confucian culture set up the same standard and principle for oneself and others. A famous Confucius saying goes, ¡°I would describe goodness like this: one who desires standing, helps others to gain standing; one who wants success, helps others to attain success.¡± ¡°Never do to others what you don¡¯t want others do to you.¡± The principle is to treat oneself and others the same. It is human inclination to pursue interests and avoid harm; no one wants to hurt himself subjectively. Confucianism encouraged the principle to think of others and treat others as one would treat oneself.
The ideas of free conscience and personal dignity in Confucianism, especially its principle of ¡°Never do to others what you don¡¯t want others do to you¡± has been widely recognized and accepted in the world and brought great influence on modern international human rights law. The principle was greatly promoted by Dante during the Renaissance, and was then stated and explained by the British philosopher Thomas Hobbes in the 17th century, who included it in one of his 14 natural principles. Some 18th century thinkers, such as Diderot, Voltaire, Robespierre and Kant, all admired this principle. The German philosopher Kant emphasized respect for human dignity, pointing out that a human being is not tool; people did not exist for the state, but the state existed for people; therefore, the state should protect the rights and freedom of the people. The principle is also reflected in the UN Charter and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights adopted after the Second World War. Approaching the end of the twentieth century, it was directly quoted in the Universal Declaration of Human Responsibilities as a golden rule. All these show the great importance and influence of Confucianism on modern human rights development.
Equality Before the Law and Fair Punishment
Everybody being equal before the law is both a legal principle and a basic human rights requirement. Confucianism admitted free conscience and personal dignity, and it surely required everybody should be equal before the law.
According to Confucianism, everybody must be punished according to the law if found guilty, whether the felon was from the royal family, a high government official or an ordinary person. In Confucianism, if the emperor¡¯s father was found guilty, he could not enjoy the privilege of going unpunished. Confucius strictly practiced this legal principle when he served the Kingdom of Lu and was highly praised by the people.
Confucianism also proposed using virtuous people to rule the country and enforce the law. Confucius said, ¡°Government administration relies on people¡±; ¡°If one promotes the straight and sets them on top of the crooked, they will be submissive; if one promotes the crooked and sets them on top of the straight, they will not be submissive.¡± Mencius also said, ¡°Kindness is not enough to govern a state, and law is not enough to restrain oneself.¡± These sayings show that Confucianism paid great attention to the virtuous quality of the ruler, and that it advocated equal importance of virtue and law in administering the state.
An important legal principle of Confucianism is ¡°Do not give privileges to relatives when governing a country or enforcing the law¡±, which indicates that Confucius strictly abided by the principle that everybody is equal before the law. However, Confucius also mentioned concealment between father and son, although it is not concerned with law enforcement, but about giving witness. He pointed out the testimony given by relatives is not reliable. This is not contradictory to the principle that everybody is equal before the law; it is simply human nature.
The Confucian legal idea is also reflected in its requirement of fair punishment. Confucius was strongly against using the law for purposes of revenge, and Mencius proposed severely punishing the tyrant. To ensure everybody was equal before the law, Confucianism advocated that punishment should fit the crime, nobody should be above the law, and equal punishment for all guilty of the same offence. These are ancient Chinese expressing forms of equal legal rights and fair justice, and they have great influence on modern legal and human rights concepts. Locke, the 17th century English liberalist thinker, was one of the earliest ones to advocate legal ideas and the equality principle before the law. He said, ¡°Everybody, rich or poor, nobles or farmers are equal before the law, and they should be treated without any difference.¡± This principle was formally included in the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen of France in 1789, and it is now a common rule in the constitutions of countries around the world. The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights also adopts this spirit.
Advocating freedom of Ideology and Speech
Freedom of ideology and speech are basic political rights enjoyed by human beings, and this is reflected in Confucianist ideas.
Confucianism admits that speech is the basic form and tool to express human ideas and to communicate. Understanding people is a major theme, as well as an important mission of Confucianism. Once a student of Confucius asked: ¡°What is it to love people?¡± Confucius answered, ¡°To love people is to understand people.¡± In Confucianist logic, to love people is to understand people, to understand people is to understand their speech, to understand the speech one must have complete freedom of speech. If one is not allowed to fully express one¡¯s own ideas, others cannot understand these ideas and the personality or their originator.
Confucianism proposes using the law to punish behavior, but not to punish ideas and speech. It asks people to think more, considering thinking as a happy and honorable behavior. Meanwhile, it insists that one should not be praised or punished because of his speech. As Confucius said, ¡°A wise man does not promote a person for what he says, neither does he undervalue what is said because of the person who says it.¡± From this we can see that Confucianism protects freedom of ideology and speech, allowing the independent existence of speech, whether it is right or wrong. It encourages people to criticize the government. Confucius said, ¡°If the government is doing well, people will not complain.¡± This indicates that he advocated people to talk about politics and to criticize the government; if the government is doing things against the people¡¯s will, they should complain and criticize. Rulers should adopt a modest attitude towards these criticisms, correcting mistakes if they have committed them and guarding against them if they have not. However, Confucianism has restrictions on the speech of government administrators, because they have the political power and their speeches are of primary importance to the state, so must be supervised and restricted.
These Confucianist ideas on freedom of ideology and speech have direct influence on modern human rights thought. The 17th Century Dutch philosopher Spinoza was one of the earliest Western thinkers to advocate freedom of ideology and speech. He said that, in a free country, everybody should have ideological freedom and be free to express his ideas. The final purpose of politics is freedom. According to him, government does not have the power to control people¡¯s minds: restriction or prohibition in regard to freedom of ideology and speech will only bring harm. However, Spinoza did not propose absolute freedom. The premise is not to threaten the authority of the government, nor to disrupt social order or violate the law. The English liberalist thinker Locke also said, ¡°The aim of law is not to abolish or restrict freedom, but to protect and enlarge it.¡± The 18th Century French thinker Montesquieu also stated, ¡°In a society with law, freedom means one is able to do what he should do, and he is not forced to do what he should not do.¡± Montesquieu was strongly against declaring someone guilty because of his ideology or speech. The German philosopher Kant thought there was only one right with which the individual was born, and this was freedom of ideology and speech. This was included in some very early human rights documents, including the Declaration of Independence of the United States in 1776 and the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen of France in 1789. It is a common constitutional rule of countries around the world, and is also included in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
Patriotism and World
Patriotism is also an important concept of Confucianism. On the one hand, it asked the ruler to love the people, bring them benefits and wealth, and sympathize with them, using more virtue and ritual and less law to rule the country. On the other hand, it required the people to have a patriotic spirit and social responsibility: ¡°To be concerned about affairs of the state before others, and to enjoy comfort after others.¡± It emphasized the concept of collective interest, persuading people to have social duty consciousness, considering the interests of society and the country before self, to feel ashamed of selfishness and be honored to contribute to the country.
Confucianism also advocated good relations among countries, demanding all the noble classes and the separate feudalistic kingdoms to restrain themselves, stop warring with each other and follow the rituals to establish a unified centralized state power.
World commonwealth is a lofty ideal of human rights. Confucianist declarations that ¡°All the people of the world are brothers¡± and ¡°All people should serve the interests of the vast majority¡± are early reflections of such an ideal. Confucianism pursued an ideal society in which ¡°All people serve the interests of the vast majority; people do not only love their own relatives and raise their own sons; the elders are well looked after until death; adults use their abilities; the young learn a specialty; and all the widowers, widows, orphans, childless and handicapped are raised by society.¡± That is world commonwealth, the ideal state of human rights that the human being is striving for today, and is of practical importance.
Confucianism also emphasized harmony, proposing a harmonious people-to-people, people-and-society, people-and-state and state-to-state relationships, using goodness and kindness in governing to reduce contradictions and conflicts.
The Confucianist ideas of patriotism, world commonwealth and harmonious relationships have exerted great influence on modern human rights thought. In the past, they encouraged the Chinese people to safeguard their state independence and national sovereignty, to fight for freedom and human rights. At present, they are still of theoretical and practical importance in dealing with various relationships, in promoting world human rights dialogue and cooperation, as well as pushing forward Chinese and international human rights development.
It is widely accepted that Confucianism is a treasure of world culture and is still having impact on the world today. However, Confucianism is a feudalistic culture, and like many other cultures in the world, it has both advantages and weaknesses. The aim of Confucianist humanism is to protect the ruler, not the ordinary people. Though it says to love the people and pay attention to their needs, what it really cares about is how to use them to serve the ruler¡¯s own interests. Confucianism divides people into two kinds, the mental laborers and manual laborers. ¡°Those who do mental labor rule and those who do manual labor are ruled.¡± It speaks for the mental laborers and looks down upon manual laborers, and especially discriminates upon women. Therefore, Confucianism is a tool serving the feudalistic rule. The Confucianist concept of world commonwealth is only an ideal; it can never be realized in a centralized feudalist social system.
The human rights ideas proposed by Confucianism, such as personal dignity, freedom of ideology and speech are very simple and immature, and they have not formed a complete human rights conceptual and theoretical system.
The weakness of Confucianism was caused to some extent by the thoughts of its representatives, and by its historical and class restrictions. Confucianist culture is a product of Chinese feudalism¡¯s self-sufficient natural economy and thus it reflects the shortcomings of that natural economy.
We should see clearly that some weaknesses of Confucianism are still influencing present Chinese society, such as family power, patriarchal behavior and the concept of class difference. These have infringed upon the basic human rights and freedoms and are obstacles to the reform and opening up of China and the construction of Chinese democracy. It is still an important task for us now to get rid of these bad impacts of Confucianist culture.
To sum up, we should promote the human rights ideas of Confucianism and reject its dross to develop the connotation of a modern human rights concept, to stimulate construction of modern human rights theory, pushing the Chinese and international human rights cause onto a healthy development track.
The author is a professor with Renmin University of China. To sum up, we should promote the human rights ideas of Confucianism and reject
its dross to develop the connotation of a modern human rights concept, to stimulate construction of modern human rights theory, pushing the Chinese and international human rights cause onto a healthy development track.