- A Response to Michael Sandel and Other Matters
Section One: Reason and Emotion
1.1. Starting from the Beginning
Are you familiar with Michael Sandel’s work?
Yes I am. In the nineties I read several books on communitarianism, including Michael Sandel’s Democracy’s Discontent: America in Search of a Public Philosophy.
What do you think of communitarianism?
I discussed communitarianism in my books Five Essays from 1999 (Jimao wu shuo 己卯五说) and, especially, Historical Ontology (Lishi bentilun 历史本体论) more than ten years ago. My thoughts have not changed since then. Simply put, I think communitarianism is the product of developed countries with long traditions of liberalism. It has referential value, but if directly or indiscriminately adopted in other societies it can be quite dangerous.
In recent years Sandel has become very popular. Throughout Europe and Asia he has received a very warm welcome, and huge audiences turn out for his lectures. He is widely known as an academic superstar. Would you be willing to respond to his philosophy along the lines of your own ethical theories, such as your “theory of two morals” (liang de lun 兩德論)?
I’d be happy to. Not long ago I read Sandel’s Justice: What’s the Right Thing to Do? (2010) and What Money Can’t Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets (2013). In these two books he points out that many countries, including America and China, are moving from market economies (which he approves of) toward “market societies” (which he opposes) in which everything can be bought and sold and there are no morals to speak of. This is something about which Sandel expresses deep concern, and he brings up many real-life examples. While China has not reached this level, it has already set out on this path, and so we should take careful note of this argument. Of course the problem in China is more complex. The market is not yet fully developed, so there is still time to take steps to prevent or alleviate these issues, and this is precisely why I brought out the “theory of two morals.”1
Sandel’s book Justice: What’s the Right Thing to Do? is an international bestseller. What do you think of it?
I admire his avoidance of academic terminology as well as the clarity with which he makes profound and important points. However, the theoretical aspects of this work present very little original thought. What I mean to make clear here is that [End Page 1068] Sandel relies on examples from historical and contemporary America, which is not even three hundred years old, to make his points. Vast differences exist between America and China in terms of both their histories and present states. I do not want to, nor could I, discuss in detail all of Sandel’s various points and issues. I rather would simply like to respond to Sandel’s basic ideas according to China’s history and current circumstances. At the same time I also want to clarify that this is not an academic work but rather a general dialogue that may not comprehensively address all issues involved.
Just now you mentioned your theory of two morals. You have also put forward notions of “the antinomy between history and ethics,” “history advancing in the midst of tragedy,” and “harmony being higher than justice.” Can these be related to Sandel’s thought?
They can. These basic points can form a response to Sandel’s more specific problem of how markets and morals interact. But then we must address my own philosophical background and begin with a discussion of such traditional Chinese notions as “emotion as substance” (qing benti 情本体). Justice is primarily a rational principle (li 理), whereas harmony involves the integration of emotion and reason (qing-li 情理). In the preface to Reading the Analects Today (Lunyu jindu 论语今读) I argue that “the core of the cultural-psychological formation” (wenhuaxinli jiegou 文化心理结构) is “the emotio-rational structure” (qing-li jiegou 情理 结构). In How Can Chinese Philosophy Go on Stage? (Zhongguo zhexue ruhe dengchang? 中国哲学如何登场?) I emphasize that the fundamental difference...