Monday, April 26, 2010

An email I sent to some of my students, as part of an ongoing conversation

Hey Remy, Jack, et al,
Let me explain my (tentative) position that the notion of filial piety is irrational and evil. This is pretty strong language, I realize, so I think I ought to provide some reasons for it.
I believe one of the necessary steps toward improving society is for at least some people to escape the confines of traditional, parochial morality and embrace a more universalist morality. In my reading of history, substantial moral progress has been made through a minority of people who sought to expand the sphere of who counted as morally equal or relevant. Examples include Gandhi, the civil rights movement, and the anti-war movement. Connected with this idea, for me, is the idea of individual autonomy and recognition of supremacy of reason over authority.
In contrast, parochial morality always emphasizes the moral superiority of ones particular group, and by extension, tends to endow groups leaders with higher moral authority. I take filial piety to be a parochial and authoritarian way of thinking. I believe this method of thinking and social organization has several negative effects:
It allows some people to assert broad authority over others, thus limiting their freedom and, hence, their happiness. There is no place in Confucianism to really question authority, nor any official means to remedy abuse of authority. (Always remember the famous bit from Lord Acton: "Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.")
It limits the moral imagination and individual reason, and thus makes people less likely to cooperate with and help more distant people, with all the benefits that can bring (expansion of trade, humanitarian work, etc.)
It tends to make people more conservative in their lifestyle and career choices (because they do what their parents tell them to), thus inhibiting economic and cultural innovation and diversification, which are key to a more prosperous, free society.
I think the forces of economic development tend to, fortunately for us, encourage more universalist and individualist morality. I think, however, that individual advocacy can still play an important role. So those of us who want to see more of this sort of morality and thinking ought to stand up for it.
I should make clear that this way of thinking in no way means that people shouldn't care at all about their families- there are many good reasons to do that, and I certainly do. The issue here is what we see morality as being, what purpose it serves, and where moral authority comes from. I suppose you could say I think we need more enlightenment morality and less Confucian morality.
To that point, it's a total falsity that the ideas of the Enlightenment are something you find only in the west. Confucianism is taken by most Chinese to represent "Chinese morality", but in Confucius' own time and thereafter there were, as you know, a many thinkers espousing a variety of ideas. It was only through the endorsement of the Han Dynasty that Confucianism became established as "Chinese morality" (though there of course was precedence in ancestor worship and other practices). I would encourage Chinese people to explore this heritage of diverse and rich ideas. Culture is a dynamic process, and just because a certain way of thinking predominated in the past does not mean that it must or ought to predominate in the future. Of course, being an anti-nationalist and individualist, I think you should take wisdom wherever you find it. :-)
Peace and Love,

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