Confucian-Inspired Family Values: A Moral Vision for the 21st Century

We must come to see ourselves as much more interdependent than independent, related rather than autonomous, and re-adjust our ordering of values accordingly.
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This essay is largely excerpted from Against Individualism: A Confucian Rethinking of the Foundations of Morality. Politics, The Family and Religion (Lexington Books, 2015). It deals centrally with politics and morality, and readers may understand it, and themselves, in a different way by asking what label they are inclined to affix to the piece -- "liberal" or "conservative" (Or "radical" or "reactionary" for that matter.) -- and why.

A major reason it is so difficult to address the problems of the world today is that an economic ideology and morality championing self-reliance, freedom, competition and an incessant search for wealth that may have served societies well during the industrial age has become increasingly dysfunctional as we move into a post-industrial age occupying a more fragile planet with many more people on it. To whatever extent corporations, for example, continue to be measured by and celebrated for maximizing profits, to just that extent is it difficult to fault them for avoiding taxes, laying off workers whenever possible, outsourcing jobs whenever labor costs are less costly elsewhere, or polluting the environment when it is not illegal and much cheaper than cleaning it up; all of which enhances profits.

The almost unqualified celebration of these same values applies equally at the individual level: seek wealth, maximize your self-interest, pay not a penny more in taxes than you absolutely have to, do not purchase solar panels so long as they are more expensive than continuing with gas or oil. If corporations are supposed to compete, so are individuals - for schooling, jobs, partners, good housing, celebrity, and much more, despite the fact that competition is a system of human interactions which by definition guarantees losers as well as winners, growing in number as the winners become fewer and more powerful.

We must come to see ourselves as much more interdependent than independent, related rather than autonomous, and re-adjust our ordering of values accordingly. When material goods are decidedly finite, "May the best man win" should be confined to athletic contests and replaced by "It's not whether you win or lose, but how you play the game that counts". Social recognition should stem more from the quality of one's life than from the quantity of things owned. Without slighting the insight of "Every man's home is his castle" we must come to rank it lower than the deep truth of "No man is an island." And whether we are Christians or not, "God helps them that help themselves" must give way to "Love thy neighbor as thyself." Our current fetish with youth should surrender pride of place to honoring the elderly. And we must all work to steadily increase the size of "us," and diminish the number of "them."

Despite its increasingly dysfunctional effects on contemporary politics and society, the current capitalist ordering of values is seldom questioned because it is perfectly in keeping with the ideological perspective of capitalism that human beings are free, rational, rights-holding autonomous individuals, the only alternative to which has been to be seen (again, ideologically) as part of a faceless collective, Stalinist or Fascist. It is noteworthy, however, that we all do give significant weight to the cooperative values quoted above, so we should not think about the need for a whole new set of values, (which is impossible), nor about choosing capitalist individualism over communist collectivism, for both are almost certainly fictions, and dehumanizing; what is needed is another model of being human that might also be a fiction, but accords much better with the day-to-day lives of almost all of us, and suggests a value re-ordering that stresses our interdependence over independence, and cooperation over competition, thus making it easier to secure greater agreement on how to most effectively and equitably address our pressing problems without widespread violence. There are a number of such models - Buddhism, for instance -- but I believe it would be more instructive to examine classical Confucianism because it focuses on an institution as value-soaked in the West as in China, and, suitably augmented by contemporary sensibilities, is a plausible candidate to engender the value re-ordering and sense of ourselves necessary for dealing with tomorrow: the family.

A good place to begin is with a quote from my collaborator and good friend Roger Ames:

For Confucius and for generations of Chinese that have followed after him, the basic unit of humanity is this particular person in this particular family rather than the solitary, discrete individual. . . there is no reference to some core human being as the site of who we really are and that remains once the particular layers of family and community relations are peeled away. [...] The goal of living is to achieve harmony and enjoyment for oneself and for others through behaving in an optimally appropriate way in those roles and relationships that make us uniquely who we are.

From this perspective we may perhaps begin to see that who we "really are" can be seen as a function of who we are with, when, and under what circumstances. And the same may be said of them; each of us has a unique, but always changing identity, which affect the others with whom we live in association. Seen in this way, our interrelatedness becomes very clear, and independence a misleading mirage. I am defined in large measure by the other(s) with whom I interact, highly specific personages related to me in one way or another. When all of my roles have been specified, and their interrelationships made manifest, then, while I am surely not a free, autonomous rights-holding individual I have, for Confucius, been thoroughly individuated. Seen thus as the aggregate of the roles I live, it must follow that as I grow older my roles will change, and consequently I become quite literally a different person, just as those to whom I stand relationally change also. (My children interacted with a very different me when they were in high school than they did in second grade, and much differently now that I am old and infirm.)

Our first, and always most fundamental role, a role that defines us in significant measure throughout our lives, is as children; xiao, which Ames and I translated as "family reverence," rather than "filial piety," 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 responsibilities to them do not cease at their death, which our relationship transcends.

Confucian moral epistemology thus 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 if you do not see deference (positive) as subservience (negative), and that learning early on to defer to parents is not best done by having them insist on it by scolding or worse, but from having watched them defer to their parents, your grandparents. You should not 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. It is by the way(s) they live their roles appropriately that role-bearers command respect and deserve and derive affection. These can become family traditions, usually expressed in and through rituals large and small, and by participating in them you come more and more to identify yourself with your co-participants in the maintenance and strengthening of the quality of your lives. And you can also come to see and feel through ritual participation that this particular web of relationships extends through time no less than space, bonding you to your ancestors now, and in the course of time, to your descendants as well. (This ritual bonding is as religious in nature as it is social and ethical, but cannot be taken up here).

Similarly, we can come to see expressions of children's loyalty and obedience 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 have gone astray. Such actions are obligatory for Confucius at times. "Failing to act on what is seen as appropriate is cowardice." (2.24). As the young see their parents remonstrate with their parents at appropriate times they will learn that lesson, too.

Gratitude is an essential component of xiao -- 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. If we simply grit our teeth and do our "family duty" we will not know what xiao is, or how it is to be exhibited and felt.

If we are role-bearing persons, however, 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 when they are elderly -- and prompt us to see the importance of universal health care. And realizing this same connectedness and thus responsibility to our descendants can aid measurably in helping us to deal with inconveniences in water and energy use necessitated by having to deal with climate change.

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 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, especially when it is realized that when our parents become old and infirm, we become the benefactors.

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. In all of this lies true reciprocity; I am not describing tit for tat or "payback," but loving integrated interactions. 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 am benefactor to my friend when she needs my help, beneficiary when I need hers. I have worked to be a good teacher, but I have also learned much from my students. 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 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 (weddings, birthdays, etc.) 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.

Roles are normative, guiding and constraining our behavior. But they do not confine. Teachers do not indoctrinate, friends do not betray friends, parents do not beat their children; but obviously there are many ways to be a good teacher, friend or parent, giving expression to our creativity. Consider an analogy with language: there are many ways to say "The boy threw the ball" ("The ball was thrown by the boy," "What the boy threw was the ball," "It was the ball that was thrown by the boy," etc.). But "Threw the the boy ball," is not among them. In just the same way that our creative use of language is only possible within the constraints imposed by the grammar, so too, living our roles creatively is guided, but not hindered by the definitions societies place on those roles.

The analogy goes farther: Learning one's roles well is like learning one's native language well in that the more one is exposed to others living their roles satisfyingly the more one will want to and can emulate them. In the same way, the more language we hear spoken, the more proficient we become at using it ourselves, and the more we experience others enjoying conversing with each other the more we will be inclined to enjoy conversation as well.

Taking the analogy still further, when language is used ungrammatically communication tends to break down, and when role norms are violated social interactions tend to break down. And just as grammar changes over time, repeated usage, and circumstances, so too, do roles change over time, repeated performances, and circumstances. Some grammatical sentences are more refined, charming, graceful or appropriate than others; so too, can role performances become more refined, charming, graceful and appropriate. If we take pleasure in particular turns of phrase we've uttered, we can take equal pleasure in the performance of our roles.

This point is not at all common in individualistic moral or political 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 get out your colors and do 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. 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 can, 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 come to prefer doing. (For Confucius this personal cultivation is a spiritual practice as much as a moral one).

We must continue to develop these attitudes and behaviors as we begin to spend more time outside our home. It takes effort to develop an appropriate sense of being appreciative without being fawning; dissenting while remaining polite and proper; thankful without becoming servile. On the other hand, 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; and more. All of this is learned first and best in an atmosphere of love and warmth, namely the home.

As already suggested, a fundamental component of the Confucian family is intergenerationality. It is not just mom, pop and the kids, but grandma and grandpa too, all 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: When asked what he would most like to do, the Master 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)

Another defining feature of the Confucian family is ancestor veneration (not "worship"). There is much to be said for knowing who our forebears were, and remembering them on occasion with a family ritual. This idea should not seem foreign to anyone who has visited a cemetery or columbarium to pay respects to a deceased relative or friend. The veneration can serve important psychological functions as well as being an effective family glue. It contributes to our sense of who we are.

Full human flourishing can be achieved within a variety of familial configurations, however.
Intergenerationality is essential, with attendant benefactor/beneficiary roles but otherwise families might be constituted in a multiplicity of ways today, reflecting 21st Century society. Children might be biological or adopted; parents will usually be heterosexual and monogamous, but could be in an "open" marriage. There should be at least two parents, but perhaps more, 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.

We engage in these familial activities for their own sake, in order to flourish, and to come as close to fully realizing our humanity as possible. They are not undertaken for purely practical reasons. 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 a disciplined spontaneity 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. In this way we can also come to a profound sense of belonging; being a part of something that was here before us, enriching us now, and will be here after we are not.

To conclude, it is now necessary to weaken the spell of industrial age capitalist ideology in order for us to appreciate that it is as open to us to see ourselves as role-bearing interrelated persons as rights-holding autonomous individuals, and thus maintain our moral foundations by re-ordering our values to reflect 21st Century life. Interdependent cooperators just might be able to arrest the rending of our social fabric in a way that it is becoming increasingly obvious that independent competitors cannot; perhaps a new vision of "family values" will do the trick.

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