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  • Moral Autonomy, Civil Liberties, and Confucianism
  • Joseph Chan

One of the most challenging issues that must be faced today in any attempt to develop a contemporary Confucian ethical and political theory is the question of individual autonomy. Since the May Fourth Movement, Confucianism has been criticized as failing to recognize the dignity of the individual and the value of individual autonomy as understood in the Western liberal traditions of political thought. Some have gone further to contend that Confucianism not only fails to recognize, but even actively suppresses, individual autonomy. The most forceful critic in this regard was Chen Duxiu, who argued powerfully that Confucianism is unfit for modern life because its ethics seriously undermines individual autonomy and self-respect. This criticism is still influential today, but appears in a different form. Confucianism, it is now claimed, is unfit in the context of human rights and civil liberties because it does not respect the autonomy of the individual.1

Is it true that Confucianism does not recognize individual autonomy? In the past, scholars often defended Confucianism against these charges. Their argument holds that there is, within Confucianism, a concept of moral autonomy that can support civil liberties with out having to incorporate the liberal notion of individual autonomy.2 This argument of moral autonomy is important. If sound, it can revise, if not reject, the dark and pessimistic picture of Confucianism powerfully painted by May Fourth thinkers. In this essay I seek to examine critically the Confucian conception of moral autonomy and explore its implications regarding civil liberties.

The concept of moral autonomy is, unfortunately, vague and ambiguous, and the arguments that make use of this idea do not help remove its vague nessor ambiguity. The question of whether Confucian ethics has a conception of moral autonomy often invites two replies, neither of which is fruitful for my purposes here. The first uses Kant's view as a yardstick to measure any alleged conception of moral autonomy. It says that because Kant coined and popularized the term, we should take his concept as the definition of moral autonomy. And because Kant rejects anything other than one's practical reason as the source of morality, Confucian ethics, which sees morality as grounded in human nature and heaven, cannot possibly have such a concept of moral autonomy. The second reply goes to another extreme. It says that conceptions of moral autonomy range from a minimal one that require sonly the agent's voluntary endorsement of morality to a demanding one that takes morality as a kind of free creation of the individual's will. From this reply it should not be difficult to pick one particular conception from the spectrum to characterize the Confucian view, and then conclude that Confucianism does have a conception of moral [End Page 281] autonomy. Alternatively, one might even add a Confucian conception to the list if none from the existing range of conceptions fits it.

Both replies are problematic because they direct our attention away from substantive issues to terminological ones. A more fruitful strategy, I believe, is to ask whether the elements commonly found in conceptions of moral autonomy can also be found in Confucian ethics, without necessarily concluding that those elements that are present in Confucian ethics would amount to a genuine conception of moral autonomy. To what extent can those elements found in Confucian ethics support civil liberties? This is a substantive question, not one of mere terminology. For the sake of convenience, however, I shall still use the phrase "a Confucian conception of moral autonomy," instead of the clumsy "the elements in Confucian ethics that are present in other common conceptions of moral autonomy." But the use of "a Confucian conception of moral autonomy" should not be taken to mean that I intend to settle the terminological dispute in one way or another. Rather I shall discuss some aspects of moral autonomy that are commonly found in different conceptions, and then examine whether they are present in Confucian ethics.

Individuals are autonomous if they are in some sense masters of their own lives. Individuals are morally autonomous if they are in some sense masters of their moral lives. But what does it...


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