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  • Sages and Self-Restriction:A Response to Joseph Chan
  • Stephen C. Angle

Many thanks to Joseph Chan for his insightful review, and to the editors of this journal for allowing me this brief response. By the time this exchange appears in print, Joseph’s important book Confucian Perfectionism will have been published, and readers will be able to see all the more clearly the many ways in which Joseph’s and [End Page 795] my visions of broadly democratic Confucian political philosophy overlap and, I think, reinforce one another. Still, there are places where we see things differently, and so dialogue like the present exchange—and the prior workshop on my book that Joseph generously arranged at his university in April 2013—are crucial to furthering the constructive development of progressive versions of Confucianism.

I am pleased that Joseph has focused on the self-restriction idea, which is indeed central to my book. By pointing out the structurally similar arguments made by rule utilitarians and by J. S. Mill, Joseph helps to demystify the idea of self-restriction. Even if the strongest proponents of Mou Zongsan’s full metaphysical theory might blanch at the ways in which we are applying this thinned-down version of self-restriction to various contexts, I believe it is a healthy kind of cross-cultural philosophical stimulation. In a forthcoming article, in fact, I argue that the virtue politics of Aristotle and Hume could each be strengthened by embracing forms of self-restriction.1

At its core, Joseph’s critique is that the self-restriction-based arguments that I use to defend “progressive Confucianism” are insecure foundations for democracy. As he argues in detail in his new book, he believes that we find a satisfactory basis for Confucian democracy in two different forms of justification—an instrumental argument in terms of sanctions and an expressive argument in terms of trust. My goal here is to clarify the relation between self-restriction, sages, and politics; to argue on this basis that self-restriction may be a more powerful argument than Joseph has described; and to suggest that Confucians may in fact need something with the ambition of my self-restriction argument if we are to justify a political arrangement as adequate to the central goals of Confucianism.

Joseph says that the distinctive ambition of my book rests in part on my “taking seriously the existence of sages.” Several of his arguments aim to show that the weaknesses or limited applicability of self-restriction-based arguments emerge from my commitment to sages. For example, what he calls the “sagehood argument” maintains that political democracy is necessary because it enables the full achievement of sagehood—which relies on the actual exercise of considerable political power—for anyone. To this, Joseph responds that sagehood is extremely rare at best, and high office is not equally possible for all. Confucians would do better with a “ren argument,” according to which all we must aim at is the less demanding personal ideal of ren (humaneness). A second place in which my (putative) reliance on actual sages figures in Joseph’s arguments comes when he asks us to consider what political arrangement would make sense in a society with “just one or a few sages who are recognized and endorsed by a majority of subjects with limited moral capacity.” Based on my premises, he says, dictatorship should actually be preferred to democracy under these circumstances. For reasons like this, my self-restriction arguments are weak, and we should look elsewhere for better justifications of democracy.

Joseph is correct that I repeatedly insist that we Confucians should hold that the achievement of sagehood is, in principle, possible. However, both in the book under review and in Sagehood, I emphasize that Confucians view virtue as a continuum. The practical human task is to become more like a sage, not actually to become a [End Page 796] sage. In this, Mou Zongsan agrees with me. As I say on page 49 of Contemporary Confucian Political Philosophy: “Despite the fact that sagehood is accessible in principle, there are few if any actual sages, and certainly none that can be confidently identified at any particular point in...


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