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Some Ideas on Individualism, Relationality, Confucian Ethics, and Dewey’s Thought of Democracy – The Existential Buddhist

John Dewey








Since 2017, I’ve scrupulously averted posting political content material on this web site as a result of The Existential Buddhist is targeted on the Dharma and there’s no scarcity of political commentary to be discovered elsewhere. Additionally I’m not an economist or a political scientist, and my opinions on these issues deserve no extra consideration than anyone else’s.

That being mentioned, I’ve spent the previous two years gaining a greater understanding of Chinese language cultural-philosophical influences on the event of Zen, and this has led me to studying how you can learn Mandarin and familiarizing myself with classical Chinese language philosophy in addition to the scholarly literature on Chinese language Buddhism. I’m nonetheless a relative newbie at this, nevertheless it has helped me to suppose creatively in regards to the intersection of Buddhist, Aristotelian, and Confucian ethics and what all three programs have in widespread regardless of their obvious variations. This, in flip has led to a brand new guide (The Home We Stay In: Virtues, Knowledge, and Pluralism) which I hope can be printed later this 12 months. The guide focuses on the moral commonalties between these programs and their  implications  for the present disaster of American democracy. Can these commonalities function a floor for a contemporary flourishing-based ethics succesful or addressing the issues inherent in pluralistic, multicultural democracies?

The guide is lengthy, however my quick reply is, I imagine they will. All three programs emphasize (to various levels) a standard set of virtues (benevolence, equity, truthfulness, braveness, equanimity, temperance, conscientiousness, and knowledge) and probabilistically tie these virtues to dwelling a flourishing life characterised by subjective well-being, meaningfulness, and goal goodness. Goodness right here refers back to the diploma an individual’s life contributes to the well-being of the communities to which she or he belongs. Aristotle stresses we’re in the beginning social animals, and the Buddha and Confucius stress our relational and communal nature much more strongly. We don’t flourish by ourselves as people, however as integral members of households, societies, cultures, a global neighborhood, and a posh net of pure ecosystems. Lastly, all three programs emphasize the worth of a lifetime dedicated to the cultivation of the ethical and mental virtues.

Western tradition’s best flaw is its overemphasis on individualism. This overemphasis grew out of the Western Enlightenment as Europe emerged from feudalism. Individualism had and continues to have its many profit: the precise of individuals to conduct experiments to discern the reality for themselves somewhat than counting on historical texts, the worth of particular person conscience, the concept that individuals possess inherent rights, and the thought of particular person uniqueness–that we every have our personal path to trod, skills to develop, and views to precise. Individualism served as a bulwark in opposition to fascist and communist statism within the 20th Century and underlies immediately’s liberatory motion for the free expression of 1’s distinctive gender and sexuality. Lastly, it’s the underpinning free of charge markets, entrepreneurism, and the sort of progressive capitalism Adam Smith described in his Wealth of Nations. So, let’s give credit score the place credit score’s due. Two cheers for individualism!

However an individualism that fails to be counterbalanced by an equal emphasis on relationality is a cultural catastrophe. It results in an ethics of limitless particular person self-aggrandizement no matter the way it impacts the communities one belongs to. It results in viewing the whole lot outdoors oneself as one thing to grasp and management. It emphasizes energy and dominance over caring and cooperation. It’s pure penalties are the subjugation of different people and cultures, and the degradation of the pure ecosystems that help life on this planet. It emphasizes private freedom with out sufficiently acknowledging our elementary human obligations to one another.

This Western overemphasis on individualism has had a significant influence on our response to COVID-19. With some exceptions, Confucian and Buddhist influenced societies like China, South Korea, Taiwan, Japan, and Viet Nam have managed the pandemic much better than the individualist nations of the West. It’s disheartening to see vital pluralities in America and Europe assert that their freedom to not don masks overrides their obligations to guard the well being of the aged and susceptible.

A lot of our present troubles are associated to this overemphasis. America’s huge financial inequality is a direct consequence of its ethics of individualism and relative neglect of relatedness. This financial inequality is fueling the present wave of authoritarian populism that threatens to place an finish American democracy. The post-Reagan channeling of wealth away from the poor, center class, and public funding is stoking inter-ethnic and inter-racial tensions as members of various communities compete for restricted assets as they proceed to lose floor to the ultrarich.

We see the identical paradigm repeated for firms who, we at the moment are instructed, are legally thought of “people.” Many function solely for the good thing about their stockholders giving quick shrift to their ethical obligations to their workers, communities, customers, and the setting. If  people acted equally, they’d be recognized as psychopaths. If a tissue cell acted equally, it could be recognized as a most cancers cell. Psychopaths and cancers are what they’re as a result of they maximize their very own satisfactions on the expense of their neighbors. We see this sample in extractive industries that wreck the setting, media and social media firms that promote hate, division, and disinformation, gun producers that promote navy grade weaponry to civilians, pharmaceutical firms that gouge costs, agribusinesses that function inhumane manufacturing facility farms, and tobacco and soft-drink industries that promote merchandise injurious to well being. Progressives blame these abuses on neoliberalism, however as thinker Judith Inexperienced factors out, that is in all probability a misnomer. It must be known as ego-capitalism as a result of it operates in line with an ethics of non-public self-aggrandizement on the expense of others. The issue isn’t an economic system that responds to market indicators and permits the free movement of capital. The issue is financial actors who be at liberty to behave unconstrained by an moral framework that takes relationality sufficiently into consideration. If there have been a rising consensus round a flourishing-based ethics that balanced individualism with relatedness, there could be the general public will to deliver legal guidelines, guidelines, and laws into larger accord with that consensus. There are a lot of totally different proposed methods of addressing the issues in our economic system and the best way firms perform, and since I’m not an economist, I’m not going to judge them. What I’m arguing is that we’d like a brand new ethics greater than we’d like a brand new economics. If the ethics was there, the economics would observe.

In pointing to the failures of Western individualism, I don’t imply to say the prevalence of Asian Confucian cultures. They’ve their issues, too. We might talk about, for instance, how present Chinese language society doesn’t go away enough space for individuality and doesn’t shield minorities sufficiently and may gain advantage from the incorporation of extra Western democratic concepts regarding human rights. We every have a lot we are able to study from one another. However this publish isn’t about China’s issues, however about our personal.

Confucius believed the non-public cultivation of advantage led to well-ordered households and societies. This concept is summarized by the Chinese language expression  “domesticate advantage, regulate the household, govern the state, deliver peace below Heaven.” Confucius thought the non-public, familial, and civic spheres had been inextricably linked and enhanced by way of private cultivation of advantage: a well-ordered society made for well-ordered households and virtuous people doable, however virtuous people made well-ordered households and a well-ordered state doable. There may be an intimate connection between the values we stay by and concord within the bigger social world.

Confucius’s view was opposed by the Chinese language Legalist thinker Han Feizi. Feizi argued the Confucians had had a few centuries to enhance human advantage and hadn’t but succeeded. If good governance relied on virtuous leaders, good governance would happen solely as soon as In a blue moon as most leaders had been mediocre at finest. Feizi tried to think about a centralized bureaucratic state that ran by itself whether or not its leaders had been virtuous or not. One of many issues with Feizi’s imaginative and prescient is that bureaucracies can solely insulate themselves from unhealthy rulers to a restricted diploma–ministers and civil servants can all the time get replaced after they fail to observe a despot’s will,and bureaucrats who aren’t guided by knowledgeable sense of advantage quickly flip corrupt as they pursue their very own self-interest. Scholar Tao Jiang makes the purpose that Feizi failed to differentiate between the monarchy and the monarch. Institutional safeguards (separation of powers, the franchise, and many others.) make good governance extra seemingly, however don’t assure it: all establishments turn into corrupted when the actors who comprise them aren’t guided by a way of non-public advantage {and professional} integrity. I believe democracy is finest served when there are the institutional safeguards in opposition to despotism, and when these establishments are supported by a public consensus on advantage.

Thinker John Dewey argued there was a distinction between democracy as a proper set of political establishments and democracy as an ethos. For Dewey, the thought of democracy was one in all people participating cooperatively with members of their neighborhood to develop the alternatives for every member to flourish in his or her personal means. As such, democracy as a actuality can solely be approached however by no means totally realized. The character of what constitutes flourishing for people and the most effective methods to attain it change as historic and social circumstances change, and so will all the time require public inquiry and dialogue as to their adequacy and revision consequent to that inquiry. Revision should all the time be piecemeal and advert hoc and never complete or primarily based on some grand overarching concept as a result of societies and cultures have lengthy histories that in the end partly decide the varieties they will take. Over two centuries after the French revolution, France remains to be very a lot recognizably France. A century after the Russian revolution, Russia remains to be very a lot recognizably Russia. A half-century after the Chinese language revolution, China remains to be very a lot recognizably China. There are methods during which they’ve modified, and maybe even extra methods during which they haven’t. Historical past is all the time continued on into the current.

Dewey primarily based his concept of democracy on the identical sort of flourishing-based ethics that animates Aristotle, the Buddha, and Confucius, though none of them had been democrats. Dewey, like Aristotle, the Buddha, and Confucius, acknowledged the significance of relationality, and in his guide A Frequent Religion, argued for a civic ethos that is likely to be embraced by the non secular and the non-religious alike. That widespread religion by no means materialized, and far of immediately’s politics may be understood as a contest between a Dewey-like ethic of flourishing and concepts of flourishing rooted in monotheism and ethnic identification. This contest will no-doubt proceed in a wide range of varieties till some historic denouement happens, however every of us has the accountability to contribute in the direction of the event of some “closing” consensus as finest we are able to. I take advantage of the time period “closing” is scare quotes as a result of no consensus is ever closing because the historic and social circumstances that underlie them are all the time in flux. Consensus by no means requires us all to agree– simply sufficient of us so our society can perform sufficiently to incrementally enhance flourishing for all.

Contributing to that new consensus means speaking with our household, associates, and neighbors, together with those that disagree with us, and interesting in open ended good-faith inquiry and dialogue. What this truly entails isn’t simple, and I’ll have extra to say about it in future posts. It definitely means a dedication to pluralism–that there’s not often one once-and-forever reply to social questions, a method to consider flourishing, and that totally different social teams, geographical areas, and nation states could arrive at totally different conclusions about what’s finest. What variations may be tolerated and what variations are skilled as insupportable is often largely a psychological somewhat than moral query. When a majority or minority can rightfully pressure their views on others and when it may possibly enable variations in social practices to exist can be a query that may solely be addressed on an advert hoc foundation with out an overarching set of moral ideas that may settle them. We should always attempt to tolerate pluralism as a lot as doable, have a good time it once we can, and perceive that there are additionally points that come up the place battle can’t be averted and have to be addressed. There are some questions (e.g., international coverage) that may solely be addressed as a unified nation, and others that may be left to the laboratory of the states. We fought a civil battle over forcing an finish to slavery, and it’s all the time doable that there can be different points that can rise to that stage of urgency and permit no compromise. Hopefully, only a few points will rise to that stage of urgency over the course of the historical past of a nation, and most arguments can be amenable to being settled by way of dialogue, tolerance, and compromise, and the easy passage of time. All kinds of beforehand extremely contentious points– ladies’s suffrage, plural marriage, and prohibition, have been settled with out nice carnage, and the hope is most points may be resolved on this means going ahead.

These are only a few of the concepts my new guide takes into consideration.  It’s greater than a bit of off matter for a weblog dedicated to Buddhism, and I apologize for that. Nevertheless it’s what I’ve been engaged on lately, and the rationale I haven’t posted very continuously this previous 12 months. Right here’s to 2022, the survival of our democracy, and extra posts on Buddhist subjects going ahead. Greatest needs within the New Yr!


John Dewey (1924/2013) A Frequent Religion. Yale College Press

Judith M. Inexperienced (2021). Pragmatist Political Economic system: Towards a Deweyan Paradigm of Deep Democracy in a Time of World Disaster, in Ames, Chen, and Hershock (Eds). Confucianism and Deweyan Pragmatism: Assets for a New Geopolitics of Interdependence. College of Hawaii Press, pp 109-132.

Tao Jiang (2021). The Origins of Ethical-Political Thought in Early China. Oxford College Press






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