As soon as I re-enter my everyday life and cease thinking about myself in isolation and in the abstract, I can see clearly that I am a human being in the midst of specific other human beings to whom I relate in various ways, and consequently the answer to “who am I?” becomes extremely easy. I am the eldest son of Henry Sr. and Sally Rosemont. They had a profound influence on who I have been and am becoming. I significantly influenced their lives as well. I am, then, first and foremost and always a son . For two-thirds of my life I have also been the husband of JoAnn Barr Rosemont, again with significant influences on and for each other. I am also the father to five daughters, grandfather to their children; I am student of my teachers, teacher of my students; friend of my friends, neighbor to my neighbors, colleague of my colleagues; and more. When all of these interrelationships have been specified, and their further interrelations spelled out – I am “Sam’s father” not only to Sam, but to her friends, husband and children as well – then I have been altogether individuated, but with nothing left over with which to piece together an individual self; at all. Let alone an autonomous one; or so it seems to me. Without these relations I don’t know how I could be identified at all, much less uniquely. For all practical – and psychological – purposes I would be nobody. But with these relations I don’t know what else would be needed to identify me as the one and only Henry Rosemont, Jr.; there is no one just like me, and I am not alone. Nor are you, if you can break free of the spell of the individual self that can be described, analyzed and evaluated in isolation from other individual selves.
A key element of the overall capitalist ideology today that hinders the search for a new cooperative value–ordering for morality, as noted earlier, is the belief that the only alternative to being a free, autonomous competitive individual is to become part of a faceless collective, Stalinist or fascist. Or at the least, highly authoritarian. But these correctly discredited positions do not exhaust the possible answers to the question of what it is to be a human being, and thus how human beings should interact with each other. What I should like to suggest now is that the particularistic, altogether autobiographical brief account I gave of who I am can be developed as an ethics of interrelated role-bearing persons that can reflect a value ordering focused on cooperation that is much more in keeping with the needs of contemporary society than the competitive individualistic model. At the same time I will also claim that the concept of human beings as role-bearing interrelated persons is not simply more in keeping with the needs of today’s world than the free, autonomous individual self model, it is also much more realistic as descriptive of human lives as actually lived in contemporary U.S. society. The family looms large in this account, so along the way we shall try to wrest the “family values” label away from the arch-conservative evangelicals who have monopolized it for far too long in the further service of capitalist ideology.
The inspiration for an ethics of roles has come from extended studies of the writings of the early Confucian philosophers. It is, as far as I can tell, sui generis with them, having no close counterpart even in China, and none at all in the history of Western philosophy. I have modified some of their views to accommodate modern circumstances and moral sensibilities, but the overall picture remains pretty much as they first envisaged it: we are the sum of the roles we live (not “play”) which begin at birth, and are developed in the family, later extending outward into the larger world while yet continuing to be linked intergenerationally to other family members in an ever-wideninig web.
If I am indeed the aggregate of my roles, it must follow that as I grow older my roles will change, and consequently I will become quite literally a different person. Marriage changed me, as did becoming a father, and later, grandfather. I interacted differently with my daughters when they were children than when teen-agers, and differently again now that they are adult mothers themselves. Divorce or becoming a widower would change me yet again. In all of this I not only change, others with whom I relate perceive me in changed ways as well. And of course they, too, are always changing as we change each other. Now that they have children of their own, my daughters (and my wife) now see me as “grandpa” no less than “dad.” All the more so is this true when old and cherished friends and relatives die, making me yet again different, and diminished. No wonder I cannot find my “essence;” there is none.
Although this early Confucian view of the human being is very different from the abstract autonomous individual, rational, free, and almost surely self-interested locus of moral analysis and political theory current in Western philosophical, legal, and political thinking today, it is, I hope, not seen as remote from ourselves. In order to be a friend, neighbor, or lover, for example, I must have a friend, neighbor, or lover. It is very difficult to feel or even imagine the bonds of friendship or love when contemplating abstract individuals, but easy when I’m with my wife, children and friends. On the Confucian view other persons are not merely accidental or contingent to my goal of following the path of being as fully human as possible, they are fundamental to it. My life can only have meaning as I contribute to the meaningfulness of the lives of others, and they to me. Indeed, they confer personhood on me, and do so continuously; to the extent I live the role of a teacher students are necessary for my life, not incidental to it. In this regard it should also be noted that while Confucianism should be seen as fundamentally religious, there are no solitary monks, nuns, anchorites, anchoresses or hermits to be found in the tradition. The way is made in the walking of it, but one never walks alone. Moreover, it is always within this world that one walks; classical Confucianism has no beliefs that contradict any of the laws of physics, biology or geology.
Our first, and always most fundamental role, a role that defines us in significant measure throughout our lives, is as children; xiao, translated as “family reverence” is one of the highest excellences of integrated thought and feeling to be nurtured in Confucianism. We owe unswerving loyalty to our parents, and our manifold obligations to them do not cease at their death. As Confucius said in the Analects,
While [the parents] are alive, serve them according to the observances of ritual propriety; when they are dead, bury them and sacrifice to them according to the observances of ritual propriety. (2.5)
Confucian moral epistemology is thus easily described: it all begins at home, in the role of son or daughter with which every human being begins their life. We learn loyalty and obedience by deferring to our mother and father, but it is easier to understand the Confucian vision, I believe, if you do not see deference (positive) as subservience (negative), and that learning early on to defer to parents is best done not by having them insist on it by scolding or worse, but from having watched them defer to their parents, your grandparents. For the Confucians, attitudes of deference no less than say, generosity, loyalty, compassion or responsibility are a basic ingredient of personal development, and developing patterns of deferential behavior are as important for maximizing the quality of our role interactions as any other behavioral patterns. You should not, therefore, simply see yourself as deferring to parents, but rather as deferring to deferrers. The point is an important one. Deference to parents and grandparents should come fairly easily to children whose parents and grandparents interact with them appropriately. You are helpless before them, yet they care for you unstintingly and affectionately; being deferential should be a natural response. (Most of the time, anyway). Subservience is very different: here you must bow down to the powerful no matter how unworthy of respect or affection they might be.
If your parents are subservient in dealing with your grandparents, that is strong encouragement for you to be subservient as well. You defer as your parents defer – and their parents before them. And you should come to see actions of loyalty and obedience on their part as simultaneously expressions of gratitude to parents for all that they have done for their children, and so on across the generations. At times the loyalty and family reverence – and hence gratitude ―will be best expressed not by obedience, but remonstrance, when the parents or others have gone astray. Such actions are obligatory for Confucius at times. When asked once how best to serve the ruler, he said “Let there be no duplicity when taking a stand against him.” (14.22). Even stronger: “Failing to act on what is seen as appropriate is cowardice.” (2.24).
From our initial role as sons and daughters – and as siblings, playmates and pupils – we mature to become parents ourselves, and become as well spouses or lovers, neighbors, workmates, colleagues, friends. All of these are reciprocal relationships, which begin at birth. In terms of their applicability to the contemporary world these reciprocal relations are best described as holding between benefactors and beneficiaries. When young, we are largely beneficiaries of our parents. As our benefactors they give us love, care, sustenance, security, education, and more. We are to reciprocate with obedience, love, loyalty, and attentiveness to parental concerns. The roles are thus clearly hierarchical, but not elitist. In the latter, the positions seldom change: the elite and the masses remain the elite and the masses; patrons tend to remain patrons and clients, clients; admirals never take orders from ordinary seamen, and royalty never bow to commoners.
But although certainly both traditional and hierarchical, Confucian roles, beginning with the family, are fluid. First, the reciprocal nature of the roles goes in both directions in all interactions. While our parents are giving us love, care and attention as benefactors we are also giving them loyalty, attentiveness, love and obedience in return; even though basically beneficiaries, children can give not inconsequential gifts, as all parents of inattentive and disobedient offspring know only too well. Children are also both a locus and a focus for parents to express their capacity to love and to nurture. In all of this lies true reciprocity; I am not at all describing tit for tat, but loving integrated interactions.
Third, as we grow up, each of us moves from benefactor to beneficiary and back again with both the same and different people depending on the other(s) with whom we are engaged, when, and under what conditions. I am son to my mother, father to my daughter. When young I was largely beneficiary of my parents; when they became old and infirm, I became benefactor and the same holds with my children. I have worked to be a good teacher, but I have also learned much from my students. I have probably changed some of them; I know they have changed me. We are benefactors of our friends when they need our help, beneficiaries when we need theirs. Taken together the manifold roles we live define us as unique persons, undergoing changes throughout our lives, and the ways we instantiate these relations in associative living are the means whereby we achieve dignity, satisfaction, and meaning in life, and give concrete expression to our creative impulses.
Role interactions are thus mutually reinforcing when performed appropriately. The ideal Confucian society is basically family and communally oriented, with customs, traditions and rituals serving as the binding force of and between our many relationships and the responsibilities attendant on them. To understand this point fully we must construe the term li, translated as “ritual propriety,” not only for its redolence with religion, nor as only referring to ceremonies marking life’s milestones like births, weddings, bat mitzvahs, and funerals, but equally as referring to the simple customs and courtesies given and received in greetings, sharing food, caring for the sick, leave-takings, and much more: to be fully social, Confucians must at all times be polite and mannerly in their interactions with others. And these interactions should be performed with both grace and joy. We are all taught to say “Thank you” – a small ritual – when we receive a gift or a kindness from someone. From the Confucian perspective, however, to say “Thank you” is also to give a gift, a small kindness, signaling to the other that they have made a difference, however slight, perhaps, in your life.
As the young see their parents remonstrate with their parents at appropriate times they will learn that lesson, too. Both family and court remonstrance became subdued as time went on in imperial China (especially the former) as obedience came to be more and more expected, and rewarded. It is the stereotype we have of Chinese society since time immemorial, and has contributed much to many Westerners dismissing Confucianism as a reactionary sexist, elitist, and agonizingly formal set of behavioral prescriptions. But with the current example, as with most others, there is no reason why a felt and reasoned balance between deferential and remonstrative behaviors could not be inculcated and maintained in fully human fashion, blending contemporary sensibilities with the original Confucian vision.
Gratitude is an essential component of family reverence, and can be effective in fostering a proper sense of deference, obedience and loyalty along with remonstrance. Cultivating the feeling of gratitude (usually with the aid of rituals) is an important component of personal cultivation. Deference motivated by a feeling of gratitude will not descend to servility. Gratitude is not to be construed in terms of merely the obligation to repay a debt, as the ideology of capitalism tends to suggest. If we are role-bearing persons raised intergenerationally in a loving home, we should come to realize fairly early in life that what our parents did for us was for our sake, not their own, and they did a great deal of it. And come also to realize how we are thus linked to them, and through them to our grandparents, and their parents in the lineage(s). These realizations should give rise to a sense of joy when having the opportunity to care for them.
We cannot, however, simply “go through the motions” of following custom, tradition, and ritual in our interactions, nor should we fulfill our obligations mainly because we have been made to feel obliged to fulfill them, else we will not continue to develop our humanity. Rather must we make them our own, and modify them as needed. Remember that for Confucius, many of our responsibilities are not, cannot be, chosen. But he would insist, I believe, that if the term ‘freedom’ is to be used in ethics, it must be as an achievement term in our value ordering, not a stative one, such that we can only begin to think of becoming truly free when we want to meet our responsibilities, when we want to help others (be benefactors), and enjoy being helped by others (as beneficiaries). This point is not at all common in individualistic moral theories, so an illustration may be useful to bring it home clearly.
When younger, your grandmother did you a particular kindness one day, and you decided to reciprocate by drawing a picture for her, so you got out your colors and did so. You know from many past interactions with her that your grandmother will enjoy the picture immensely, and thus you enjoy doing the drawing all the more. And of course she does fuss lovingly over the finished product. All well and good. The next morning, however, as your friends are calling you out to play, your grandmother tells you her arthritis is hurting a lot, will you please give her a neck and shoulder massage? Now as a good Confucian youngster, you will give her the massage, full stop. But you may well feel a tad resentful, or at least put upon or frustrated. Continued self-cultivation in the context of a loving family with proper role models should, however, lead you to the point of deriving more pleasure from relieving your grandmother’s aches and pains than playing with your friends, which thereafter you will become more fully human by beginning to prefer doing.
As I read him, then, for Confucius it is through the family and familial roles that we all serve our apprenticeships for full membership in the human race. It is where we learn to love, and to be loved, to trust and be trustworthy; to be obedient, loyal, grateful as beneficiary, nourishing, caring, encouraging as benefactor; to discern when our role behavior requires gentleness, and when firmness; when to accept others as they are, when to encourage change; and above all, it is in the family where we first come to take pleasure in pleasing the other(s) with whom we are interacting, and come to appreciate fully what joy others bring to us. The sheer physicality, the closeness of some of our interactions in an all-encompassing atmosphere of familial trust, contribute much to the inculcation and growth of these feelings.
When we have brothers (and/or sisters), and experience the feelings attendant on loving sibling relations (even during less than loving occasional interactions), being our brother’s and sister’s keepers should come rather easily to us. When we come to fully appreciate how our grandmothers enjoy our rubdowns, and we have come to enjoy administering them, we will be more inclined to insist on governmental policies that are both contributory to everyone having full health care, and geared toward having both younger and elderly people in a household at the same time (to be discussed below).
It may seem odd or paradoxical at first to exhort people to have a certain attitude or emotion – feeling – in meeting the responsibilities of their roles. But having just those feelings will often be important – indeed necessary – in a number of familial interactions in order to learn to meet ongoing responsibilities appropriately and consistently. Resentment at having to give grandmother a backrub should not last long, for after all you really do love her a lot, and she thus becomes an emotional training ground if you will, for acquiring the feeling of enjoying relieving the pain of others you know less well. Besides being a dear grandmother she is a splendid teacher. For Confucius we are certainly responsible for our human qualities, and to lack feelings for one’s parents or grandparents would be less than fully human. Moreover, it is important to note that in the language of the Confucian persuasion it would not be correct to say that we learn to choose these actions after due deliberation of the options. You simply do these things – emulating appropriate role models – and you do them better as you do them more often. You cannot be formally taught to “read” the moods and attitudes of the people with whom you relate, important for the interactions to be maximally appropriate. But the more you simply “read” the other, the better you become as a reader. Similarly, you cannot rationally decide to take delight when you contribute to the flourishing of the other in an interaction; after a while, it should just come to you, and more naturally with time.
I suspect that many readers here would say I am describing the impossible, but William James – a Confucian at the core even if he didn’t know it – would disagree:
Where would any of us be were there no one willing to know us as we really are or ready to repay us for our insight by making recognizant return? We ought, all of us, realize each other in this intense, pathetic and important way. If you say that this is absurd, and that we cannot be in love with everyone at once, I merely point out to you that, as a matter of fact, certain persons do exist with an enormous capacity for friendship and for taking delight in other peoples’ lives, and that such persons know more of truth than if their hearts were not so big. (James 2007, 52).
Most of your interrelations will be with people you know. You are not to do what is right with them, for that suggests an objective, external standard applicable to all; rather must you do what is maximally appropriate for this person, and that can only be determined by the unique features of the specific person with whom you are engaged, as well as the time and circumstances of the engagement. Role ethics learned in the home is thus to be seen as acquiring and enhancing dispositions to behave spontaneously with an increasingly cultivated and creative sense of appropriateness that grows as you live your roles beyond the family and local community as well as within them.
With these lessons learned and interpersonal skills acquired we will be suitably prepared to go beyond our home to school, to the neighboring community, and beyond it. Friendship is the basic role for entrance to the world outside the family, and it is one of the most important relations for role-bearing persons, as the early Confucians emphasize; indeed, the opening section of the Analects asks: “To have friends come from afar; is this not pleasant?” (1.1) When young we have first playmates, then schoolmates. Many in both categories will remain such; a few of them will become our friends, and the role of friend requires the same emotional responses as familial ones: love, trust, nurturance, loyalty, and the joy of contributing to the friend’s flourishing. Most friends will be more or less our peers. A few may belong to the generation preceding or following ours.
Even here, however, the concepts of benefactor and beneficiary are applicable to the description and analysis of friendship roles almost all of the time, and thus this role, too, can be thought to be hierarchical, although not oppressive; interactions among absolutely equal role-bearing persons would surely be an oddity. When dining at my friend’s house he is obviously the benefactor; at my house, I am. My neighbor is benefactor when she brings a can of gas to me at my stranded car by the roadside, I am benefactor when I watch her children when her babysitter is ill.
All of this is obvious, but what may be less immediately apparent is that in these descriptions of everyday human interaction, the principle of reciprocity involved is not “repaying the favor” (or “debt”), nor is it “payback,” or “Now I owe you one,” or anything similar which smacks of the social- cum-economic contract we have left to autonomous individual selves to draw up and execute in the market society. Role-bearing persons engage in these activities because that is what friends (and on occasion, neighbors) do in their interactions with their fellow human beings. Reciprocity is thus to be seen within interactions no less than between them: the beneficiary role exhibiting a set of behaviors appropriate to that position – gratitude, obedience, attentiveness, etc. – and different from those of the benefactor, wherein care, sensitivity, courage, etc. are exhibited.
In the extreme case, we can see the difference between “payback” and Confucian senses of reciprocity with great clarity: some of the responsibilities we have are to others no longer living, so there can be no “You owe me one.” Grief is another feeling we must cultivate, and funerary rituals and memorial gatherings are the means whereby we continue to interact with our predecessors, and bond more closely with our peers, and descendants; again, through the family.
These attitudes and behaviors we continue to develop as we begin to spend more time outside our home. It can be hard work, but that is what Confucian personal cultivation is all about, as a spiritual no less than ethical practice. It take effort to develop an appropriate sense of being appreciative without being fawning; dissenting while remaining polite and proper; thankful without becoming servile. At the same time we must continue to get better as benefactors by assisting without being domineering; give of ourselves mightily without complaint; accept thanks for our efforts graciously without seeking undue recognition;
My account here might seem altruistic, but only to those for whom the image of the social contract remains foregrounded. Altruism denotes selfless behavior, but that behavior requires a self to negate, which Confucian role-bearing persons do not have. On the contrary, it is just through such interactive behaviors as I am now describing that role-bearers mutually achieve a more fulfilling personhood, beginning in the family, but then extending beyond it – to share scarce resources, equitably, conserve the environment jointly, and enjoy helping and being helped by others when in need.
A Reordering of Family Values
Even for those who wish to retain the concept of the autonomous individual self I believe it is of signal importance to bring the family center stage in thinking about forming and reforming institutions to address the Herculean economic, social, political and environmental tasks we face today. Surely a great many families can be characterized as sexist, oppressive, or just generally dysfunctional. These are the families that make the news. Many more families, however, are functioning quite well, with fairly happy members engaged with one another, many of which interactions are reflected in countless advertisements in the media every day, suggesting their widespread appeal. Moreover, families are not going to disappear as an institution no matter what some people might wish, because there don’t appear to be any alternatives: barring a nuclear holocaust or the coming of Huxley’s Brave New World children will continue to be born and require much human nurturing for many years if they are even to survive, let alone flourish. This point bears repetition: there are no alternatives to the family system in any society for rearing the young right now, consequently there can be no question of whether to keep the institution. Rather should we be looking for ways to reform it to enhance its ability to both enrich its members and create better societies.
“Family values” of course, justifiably scares a great many thoughtful people today because the phrase has regularly been employed conceptually in the service of arch-conservative social and political orientations, reinforcing patriarchy, sexism and homophobia, orientations usually grounded in a particular interpretation of a religious creed that defies reasonable belief. I have a great deal of sympathy for readers, especially women readers, who will be inclined to scorn my arguments on the grounds that I have taken the disease from which they and their grandmothers – and minorities, gays and lesbians, etc. – have long suffered to be the cure. But what other cures for abusive husbands and lovers, campus sexual assaulters, gay-bashing thugs and other similarly de-humanized individuals are on offer from moral or political theories grounded in foundational individualism? Punishment for the convicted seldom brings about attitudinal change, either among the perpetrators or in the larger society, and has deterrent value only at the margins if at all. And of course it is pretty much worthless except for the most vengeance-seeking of the victims. Certainly there can be no guarantee that some role-bearers will not behave badly. But at the same time, if we can learn from infancy on to enjoy contributing to the well-being of others, we will very probably be more concerned with rehabilitation than revenge, more restorative than retributive when seeking justice.
From a Confucian perspective the family is dynamic, not static. My wife and I undergo significant changes in our role-relations with her mother and each other when the mother still lives alone, when she moves in with us and becomes a care-giver and babysitter, and when she later becomes infirm and needs our care. We behave differently in our roles toward our children when they are in second grade than when they are in high school, and of course they do, too. A death in the family can alter its dynamic significantly, as does another entrant into it. Families must always be seen temporally and in flux while working for continuity, constancy, creativity and growth.
A second, altogether fundamental component of the Confucian family, already hinted at, is intergenerationality. It is not just mom, pop and the kids, but grandma and grandpa too, and perhaps others; whatever else it is, it is multigenerational, serving ethical, aesthetic and spiritual functions in addition to economic and social ones. This intergenerationality is the key to understanding the Confucian account of what it is to be a human being, and what makes it sui generis ethically, politically and spiritually. When asked what he would most like to do, Confucius responded:
I would like to bring peace and contentment to the aged, share relationships of trust and confidence with friends, and love and protect the young. (5.26)
Full human flourishing can be achieved within a variety of extended familial configurations. Hence this section should be read as suggestive and not at all definitive of possible options different people might want to employ. What is essential is intergenerationality itself, with attendant benefactor/beneficiary roles. Beyond this bare Confucian foundation I am otherwise assuming authentic democratic procedures for any and all families throughout this discussion ― where “authentic” means everyone should have a say in all matters that directly affect them ― both within the family nexus (to cooperatively ascertain the specifics of the roles) and at the societal level (to cooperatively ascertain the specific relations of families to each other, and to the state). According to a recent AARP Bulletin some people have already begun to form reconfigured families in this way and appear to be thriving.
Further, these two elements of traditions/rituals and democracy can be combined by having a number of family decisions voted upon by its members. What to do for Grandpa on his 75th birthday? Where should we go on vacation this year? What movie do we want to see this weekend? Have for Sunday dinner? Initiating a ritual of voting on such issues strengthens family ties, especially if a period of lobbying and speechmaking precedes the voting. Letting the children be taken as seriously as the adults in these matters should enhance measurably their desire to discharge their role responsibilities as citizens by voting as they mature. Their education will be furthered by observing their elders taking the voting seriously, and also by perhaps having a two-ballot system: What do you most want to do on this matter? What do you think the family as a whole would most want to do? 
The families can be made up in a multiplicity of ways. Children might be biological, adopted, or arranged for in other ways. Parents will usually be heterosexual and monogamous, but could be in an “open” marriage or “wedlease.” There should be at least two parents, but there could be more than that, and they might be gendered the same, or differently. The elderly might be the parents’ parents, or a neighbor widowed early, or an older sibling of a parent, or another oldster known well to the couple. After deciding to commit to each other, lengthy discussions should be devoted to everything from the division of labor as between breadwinner(s) and primary caregiver, to which parents or other elders the younger parents will most be able to commit, and how many children to have in their midst. In all of these discussions the young couple’s parents and grandparents might profitably be involved – and, increasingly, great-grandparents, too, as life expectancy rates continue to rise.
The basis of the discussions, however, is not the self-interest of social contract theory negotiated by autonomous individuals, but people wishing to assume the new role of parent, of caregiver, and of spouse in order to contribute to the flourishing of related others in new ways and to thereby, and with help, more fully flourish themselves, realizing their humanity across time, which it is difficult for autonomous individuals to do.
Another defining feature of the Confucian family is ancestor veneration (not “worship”). It occupied a more prominent place in classical China than we would think meet today, but there is much to be said for knowing who our forebears were, and remembering them on occasion. This idea should not seem foreign to anyone who has visited a cemetery or columbarium to pay respects to a deceased relative or friend, or went far out of their way to fulfill a deathbed promise. The veneration can serve important psychological functions as well as being effective family glue. It contributes to our sense of who we are, and is of religious significance.
Relatedly, families are strengthened by having rituals and traditions to follow, which need not be confined to major events like weddings, Ramadan or funerals. The rituals and traditions need not be overly elaborate, either: in the Nordic countries, for example, traditional marriages are all but extinct along with the attendant pomp and circumstance, but family ties are stronger than ever as other rituals and traditions develop, and the elaborate welfare states these countries have become are strongly family-centered. Modest but meaningful family traditions and rituals can also include what is done every year on mom’s birthday; the particular rules we follow when dining together; using the same mispronounced words our children once used long after they have ceased doing so (“pasketti,” “brekstiff”); the games we play together, or a hundred other possible activities that are more warmly shared now because they’ve been shared before. And of course rituals and traditions can be created at any time: “instant tradition” is probably better seen as an intergenerational bonding heuristic grounded in mutual affection than as an oxymoron.
The overall point here should be clear: these and similar simple activities are all ones we can easily identify with. What Confucius helps us to do is to see their profound human significance, and the contribution they make to continuing to link us to each other, to the past, and to the future throughout the stages of our lives.
Remember I am here contrasting two strong images of what it is to be a human being: autonomous individual self and role-bearing person. Confucians were not profession-oriented, or would-be capitalists, or believed that seeking fame and glory were worthwhile activities. “Exemplary persons help the needy,” Confucius said. “They do not make the rich richer.” (8.6) Rather are these family activities I have been describing engaged in cooperatively for their own sake, in order to jointly flourish, and thus for each of us to come as close to fully realizing our humanity as possible. These interactions are not undertaken merely as preparation for entering the world of work, or as an ideal working out of a set of related social contracts, or any other purely instrumental reason. For the early Confucians they are ends in themselves. It is the full realization of our humanity through the performance of our roles harmoniously with our fellows that was the Confucian aim in life, and to do so with ever more poise, grace and beauty, achieving disciplined spontaneity and consequent beauty in our human interactions. To realize this aim requires cooperation and increasing fellow-feeling, not competition, and has its genesis in developing our roles in the family, extending outward therefrom as we mature, endeavoring to make our lives a work of art.
There are many more reasons why the family should be a major object of moral, political, social and religious analyses and evaluation today other than simply as central to fostering cooperative rather than competitive views of their fellows in society. One such is that a great deal of the corruption seemingly endemic in China can be traced to family ties, and hence calls for lessening those ties are becoming increasingly common both inside the country and beyond. But in my opinion even the most moral, intelligent and competent Chinese government will not be able to provide adequate social and economic services for one and a half billion people, so that other institutions are going to have to come into play if needed services are to be secured: social security, health care, education, transportation, etc. Purged of their potential corrupting and oppressive elements – and I do not wish to downplay either– the institution of the (extended) family is a viable candidate for the provision of many of these services. It is both more humane, and less expensive to subsidize families who keep their elders at home than to pay for their incarceration in impersonal institutional settings. There is no reason why every child cannot have excellent day care followed by a truly public public education, or the sick to obtain needed care both at home and in hospital. China is by no means alone in having to worry about this issue; it already confronts the United States, and many other nations with a significant, varied, and aging population, dwindling natural resources, and struggling with the effects of climate change – i.e., most of the countries in the world today.
It is somewhat paradoxical that while the Confucian insistence on the interdependence of role-bearing persons were put forth almost 2500 years ago, contemporary developments in technology and medicine have made us more, not less dependent on others, and consequently moral and political thought grounded in free, rational autonomous individuals is becoming more counterproductive for addressing our present circumstances as we prepare for the future, both personally and with respect to the state’s provision of social services
According to the Kass Commission on Bioethics the defining characteristic of our time seems to be that “We are both younger longer and older longer” The former is due to economic pressures, the latter to advances in medicine and technology. We are spending more years when we are young and old being cared for by others, and much of the time in between caring for others. (from “diapers to diapers”). This is not a minor matter. According to a recent Washington Post poll, fully a third of the 18-34 age cohort today are living with their parents. At the other end, it has been estimated that providing institutional care for the elderly currently being provided for by roughly 40 million unpaid home caregivers to their elders would cost the government 480 billion dollars a year.
But there are capitalist ideological pressures that can give many people a less than significant concern for the elderly to take on a role of family caregiver today, even when other circumstances would permit .More than a few social scientists are inclined to see the capitalist individualist – communist/fascist collectivist as exhausting the possibilities of who we are, or could become. Two decades ago, for example, a very short test was developed by a political scientist which “has since become the standard measurement of authoritarianism” in America. The first question reads: “Please tell me which one you believe is more important for a child to learn: independence or respect for elders? Note you will almost surely opt for independence if you have bought into capitalist ideology, because of the very high value placed on freedom. If you chose respecting elders you have authoritarian tendencies, and surely no one wants to be thought of as authoritarian. Can authoritarians make good volunteer caregivers? Why should we not be able to foster creativity in our children while yet inculcating respect for elders? Or again: Won’t that respect come pretty automatically when grandmother is living in the same home? And most basic of all for individualists supposedly raised in an anti-authoritarian house: why would you want to be independent of your parents when they are old and infirm?
This sketch of a Confucian-inspired concept of being human as an alternative to the capitalist ideological account has been woefully brief. But it can be expanded at length, to include how to deal with role-bearers who do not perform appropriately, or how to describe the entity that performs the roles (Who is son of Sally, spouse of JoAnn, father of Kathleen, etc.?) A more complete account would also have to include how a role ethics preserves what is of genuine human value in the concept of rights without having to commit to the other elements embedded in legal systems based on retributive rather than restorative senses of justice, and how role ethics has significant aesthetic and spiritual qualities in addition to its moral, social and political dimensions. And much more, including the many ways the reconfigured intergenerational family might serve well a variety of social, economic and political functions in a wide variety of contexts.
It is not my major concern here to win converts to the Confucian persuasion. It is indefinitely superior to the capitalist autonomous individual model in my opinion but there may be other views that are even better, and/or more capable of solving our problems within a competitive conceptual framework. But I do want to insist that it is a viable model that approximates fairly well the actual lives of flesh-and-blood human beings, and to insist as well that we all thus have a choice in the matter, and that each of us is thus responsible in turn for the choice they make. Perhaps the cooperative model isn’t necessarily written into the nature of things, but neither is the individualist competitive model. We are not forced to see a majority of our interactions with our fellows as a series of zero-sum games. Justifying an ordering of values on the basis of capitalist ideology should first require justification for that capitalist ideology itself, which I don’t think can plausibly be provided any longer.
Finally, unlike many other calls for change, overthrowing capitalist ideology for the propaganda it has become does not require a mass movement in order to get under way. Each of us comes from a family, and thus the revolution can begin at home.