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  • “Self-Restriction” and the Confucian Case for Democracy
  • Joseph Chan
Contemporary Confucian Political Philosophy: Toward Progressive Confucianism. By Stephen C. Angle. Cambridge: Polity Press, 2012. Pp. x + 204. Paperback $24.95. isbn-13: 978-0-7456-6130-8.

Although Confucianism is an old tradition of thought, with political ideas and recommendations generally thought to need significant revision and update, many people today still find its ethical ideas and teachings relevant and attractive. However, as the common understanding of Confucianism is that its ethics and politics are tightly linked, any revision of its political ideas and recommendations presents a special challenge: how can its politics be significantly revised without revising its ethics? In Contemporary Confucian Political Philosophy, Stephen Angle makes a bold and very interesting attempt to update Confucian politics in a way that does not sacrifice core Confucian ethics. More importantly, he claims that the revision of Confucian politics is internally required by its ethical ideal. Arguing that Confucianism can be progressive, Angle calls the contemporary Confucian political philosophy that he develops “Progressive Confucianism” and makes his case by drawing upon and further developing the arguments of the Neo-Confucian philosopher Mou Zongsan, in particular his idea of “self-restriction.” The present article critically discusses whether the “self-restriction” argument can justify a core part of Angle’s progressive Confucianism, namely constitutional democracy.

Progressive Confucianism

Angle’s “Progressive Confucianism” is characterized by two key elements: first, a commitment to individual and collective moral progress (p. 17) and, second, the endorsement of progressive social and political institutions and movements in modern times. Moral progress, a central tenet in traditional Confucianism, is understood in terms of the development and realization of fundamental human virtues, such as humaneness, righteousness, propriety, wisdom, and faithfulness. “Accepting these virtues as central is part of what it is to be a Confucian” (p. 19). However, progressive politics is something new to Confucianism. Angle argues that contemporary Confucianism must embrace “modern innovations like broad political participation, the rule of law, and the active rooting out of social oppression” (p. 9). [End Page 785]

According to Angle, the commitment to moral progress—a tenet that every Confucian must accept—necessitates the acceptance of progressive politics. He writes:

The idea that ethical insight leads to progressive political change, which in turn leads to greater realization of our potential for virtue, lies at the heart of Progressive Confucianism. The institutions advocated by Progressive Confucians are valued not because of their ancient pedigree, but because of their capacity to assist in the realization of the fundamental human virtues that Confucians have valued since ancient times.

(p. 18)

However, it is unclear how progressive politics, understood in modern terms, corresponds to moral progress, understood in traditional terms. Traditional Confucianism embraces the view that sagehood, as the highest stage of moral development, is continuous with, or realized in, absolute political rule. This continuity is captured by the slogan “inner sagehood, outer kingliness (neisheng waiwang).” Traditional Confucians believe in meritocracy, which, carried to its extreme, means rule of the sage-king: ideally, the most prestigious and powerful political position, namely kingship, should be reserved for the most virtuous person, the sage.1 In other words, if a sage with the greatest virtue and wisdom exists and earns our absolute trust, why shouldn’t this person be given absolute power to rule, with power not shared by the subjects or bound by the law?

If we consider the conventional view on this question, we will understand the ambition of Angle’s book. The conventional view is to side-step the question above and point out that sagehood is merely a utopian ideal; in reality, there are no sages, and therefore we have every reason to prefer democracy to absolute rule. Angle, however, confronts the question head-on. Taking seriously the implication of the existence of sages, he claims that the ideal of sagehood not only does not justify absolute rule but, conversely, that it implies a commitment to constitutional democracy (a core part of modern progressive politics). If we accept Angle’s claim as true, it provides a very powerful argument for democracy as a requirement for the realization of the Confucian ethical ideal, rather than...


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