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  • Ethics and Politics in Classical Confucian Thought: A Response to David Elstein
  • Loubna El Amine (bio)

In his review of my book, Classical Confucian Political Thought, David Elstein argues that my interpretation of Classical Confucian political thought draws too sharp a distinction between Confucians’ ethical standards (virtue) and their political standards (order), thus veering perhaps a bit too far from the “conventional wisdom” that views Confucian politics as an extension of Confucian ethics.

As I write in the book, “To the extent that the political standard is a normative standard, it is difficult to insist that it has nothing to do with morality” (p. 15). My aim in the book is thus not to posit a complete break between ethics and politics. Rather, my aim is to show where the two intersect and where they part ways, and how the Confucian attunement to the material world (p. 13) mediates the relationship between them.

For example, I show that Mencius insists on a virtuous ruler precisely because the latter is needed to pursue specific economic policies (pp. 68–73), and not because of the inspirational power of a sage-king (p. 137). Similarly, I contend that the duty of political involvement (the taking up of ministerial posts) that the early Confucians advocate for is adjudicated through a balancing act between “the Confucian understanding of virtue itself” (p. 149) and the need to “undertake policies favorable to the common people, and thus to peace and order” (p. 156).

One of the main claims I make in the book is that “the qualities expected of the common people are not full-fledged Confucian virtues” (p. 30). This relies on a distinction I draw between the virtues, which I list as ren (仁), rightness (義), and wisdom (智) (p. 32), and the qualities of orderliness, among which I include reverence (敬), honesty (信), and dutifulness (忠) (p. 34). As Elstein rightly points out, ritual [End Page 919] propriety (禮) belongs to both categories (although I argue that it is to be understood differently depending on which angle it is viewed from (p. 116)). Is this categorization “a little arbitrary,” as Elstein worries? To some extent, it is: as he points out, it does not map onto any such categorization internal to the texts. But there is no question that the emphasis in the texts, in what concerns personal self-development, is on the attainment of ren, rightness, and ritual propriety (in its internalized form), and it is revealing that these are not associated with the common people. Whether or not the qualities that are in fact associated with the common people should be called virtues should not affect the crux of my argument that what is expected of them is significantly different from what is expected of Confucian disciples.

Elstein writes, “There is an ambiguity in what it means to say that the purpose of government is the moral improvement of the people.” I completely agree. The aim of my book is precisely to sort through this ambiguity and to suggest what it does and does not mean. Does it mean that the Confucians, were they offered the vision of an ideal society where everyone is virtuous, would laud it? Sure. Does it mean that they themselves offer such a vision, or any suggestion that they view it as a likely outcome of their recommended policies, or even a hint that it is possible within the material world they are familiar with? Not so clear. I agree with Elstein that there are “conditions necessary for people to develop virtues themselves.” But these conditions do not merely amount to a protection from want. For everyone to become virtuous, what is required is no less than that everyone be free from manual labor. Yet in what I describe as the “Confucian understanding of the socioeconomic makeup of society” (p. 14), “there are those who use their minds and there are those who use their muscles” (Mencius 3A.4). The early Confucians do not entertain the possibility that things could be otherwise.

Loubna El Amine

Department of Political Science, Northwestern University



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pp. 919-920
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