Alternative democracies

Unitarian Universalists claim that one of our central principles is democratic process. As our United States democracy seems on the verge of failing, maybe it’s time to look for new ideas in alternative forms of democracy. A recent paper by Stephen C. Angle titled “Confucian Leadership Meets Confucian Democracy” explores one such alternative democracy (Journal of Social and Political Philosophy [1.2 (2022): 121–135 DOI: 10.3366/jspp.2022.0021], available free online through October: https://www.euppublishing.com/doi/epdf/10.3366/jspp.2022.0021).

Wait a minute — Confucian democracy? I always thought Confucianism was hierarchical, not democratic. Apparently Confucian democracy is now A Thing. And I found some interesting ideas in this article that might help us rethink our hyper-individualistic democracy. For example, this passage explores how individuals must balance their moral intuition (which can get self-centered) against what’s going on in the world around them:

“[T]he right way to think about Confucian leaders is as a kind of external model or authority, vis-à-vis each individual citizen, and in this way they serve as a kind of institution: one among a number of necessary external checks on the individual judgment of any given citizen. Confucians, for all their stress … on the need for people to freely ‘get it themselves’, also emphasize the need for such external checks, other instances of which are teachers, parents, ritual instructions, and classic texts. The relationship between internal, personal attainment and matching with an external model is much debated within the tradition. Often, it seems as if a pendulum is swinging back and forth, from extremes of inner-reliance, through various more balanced positions, to extremes of outer-reliance, and back again. I feel that Confucians today can learn the most from the balanced positions that recognize the importance of both sides.

“One excellent example is the Ming dynasty Confucian Luo Qinshun (1465–1547). He was concerned about thinkers of his day who advocated sole reliance on one’s own moral intuition. He calls this ‘onesidedess’, and adds: ‘If one’s learning is not extensive and one’s discussion is not detailed, one’s vision will be limited by the confines of one’s own heartmind, and however one may wish to be free from error, it will be impossible’…. What, then, is one to do? [Luo] says: ‘Thus to “seek within oneself” one must begin with one’s own nature and emotions. One then goes on to extend to other things what one has perceived in oneself, and if it is found to be inconsistent, then it is not ultimate Pattern’…. Like most of his fellow Neo-Confucians, Luo holds that the coherent Pattern of the universe is one-and-the-same, no matter whether examined within oneself or in external things. Therefore, by looking for ways in which one’s own emotional reactions tally with external models (such as the reactions of role models to similar situations), one can locate Pattern within oneself and avoid being led astray by superficial or self-centered reactions. Similarly, if external models cannot be made to tally with one’s own emotions, then this is reason to question those models. The goal is to ‘achieve corresponding illumination of things and the self’….”

I like that Luo Qinshun wants to ensure that we aren’t led astray by self-centeredness. One implication: democratic leadership should maintain social structures that will help us avoid self-centeredness. That’s going to be a tough sell in the United States today. But it could be a bracing corrective to the hyper-individualistic self-centeredness that currently rules us.

I find Angle’s academic prose to be tough going. Still, lots of thought-provoking material in this paper.

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