Morality Begins at the Top

J. C. Cleary

The recent economic debacle has provoked some renewed questioning of our contemporary political orthodoxy. Perhaps unbridled acquisitiveness at the top is not always a natural right or a public good. Perhaps leaving the big players free to do whatever maximizes their own short-term profits does not automatically lead to economic well-being and prosperity for all. Perhaps cynical bought-and-paid-for leaders cannot keep the social consensus going, despite all the arts of the public relations and advertising specialists. With history erased, who could have known that a powerful social stratum left to its own devices could actually crash the very system from which it profits so mightily?

To stimulate our own rethinking process, we might benefit by taking into consideration ideas that come from other traditions than our own.

As China has grown in economic strength in recent years, it has naturally attracted more attention in the West. There is more motivation to learn something about the Chinese people and their cultural heritage, and to understand more clearly how this heritage might be contributing to China's contemporary successes.

An outsider seeking a deeper understanding of Chinese ideas of leadership, social order, and political legitimacy should try to become familiar with the basic axioms and perspectives of the Confucian tradition. Confucianism, of course, was just one of the streams within Chinese thought. Another stream of great contemporary interest would be the tradition of strategy and statecraft exemplified by Sun Zi in The Art of War, and in many kindred works.

As always, the first step toward understanding systems of thought from other cultures is to face squarely the reality that, however we have been trained to regard them, our own culture's preconceived categories are in no sense inherently natural or necessarily true. To understand Confucianism, we have to mobilize our cognitive skills and avoid the trap of assuming that our own culture's way of thinking about society and politics, individuals and communities, religion and ethics is somehow natural, logical, scientifically correct, inevitable, or free of contradictions.

Coming to grips with Confucianism poses this challenge from the start. In the Confucian worldview, "social theory" and "personal ethics" are not seen as separate realms. The principles that guide what we would call the moral development of the individual are intimately connected with the principles that would structure a just social order and guide the ruling elite. The Confucian cardinal virtues ren (human fellow-feeling, acting humanely) and yi (justice, acting righteously) apply in both realms.

Our distinction between "philosophy" and "religion" does not apply to Confucianism in any straightforward way. Confucianism does not feature an anthropomorphic deity or stories of supernatural events, but in the Confucian worldview, the patterns which human communities and individuals must follow if they are to prosper are mandated by Heaven, an abstract source of both natural order and human norms.

Confucianism does not fall in line with our contemporary culture's conviction that there are "ideals," on the one hand, and "what works in practice," on the other; that "being idealistic" is normally at odds with "being practical." In the Confucian worldview, following Heaven's pattern for human affairs is what in fact works best, as a matter of natural logic. "Ideals" are ideals because they prescribe the most effective attitudes and actions for achieving optimal results.

So far we are on alien ground conceptually, but perhaps no more than sophisticated cosmopolitan Westerners of today will be used to, when exploring the world outside their home cultures.

Even more disconcerting may be the way Confucianism accepts social hierarchy as a given, and proceeds from that. The Confucian methods of self-cultivation are open to anyone who makes the effort, in principle, but in practice Confucianism was oriented to preparing the members of the ruling class to fulfill their duties toward maintaining the social order and keeping it sound.

There was a career open to talent in traditional China, and the Confucian notion of a social elite is based on a higher level of education and moral development, not hereditary rank. But Confucianism does not share our customary concerns with veiling social hierarchy and power politics, overlooking inherited privilege, and emphasizing "meritocracy" and "equal opportunity" in describing our social order. Certainly Confucianism does not share our laissez-faire faith that impersonal mechanisms like "the rule of law" or "the free market" can produce a favorable outcome regardless of the moral level of the people at the top and the example they set.

On the contrary, Confucianism is one of those classic teachings that takes it as a given that those in the upper ranks of society must be held to a higher moral standard than the ordinary people. Why so? Because any moral failings among people in positions of power and privilege can be exceedingly damaging to the social order as a whole. Unbridled greed, lust for power, and egotism can cause harm at any level of society, harm to the person's family, harm to the person's neighbors. But when these moral defects are found in people who wield political power, or the social power and prestige that come with wealth, this will inevitably undermine the basic solidarity and sense of fairness that every social order needs to survive and flourish.

The idea that society can be structured according to the principle of the unlimited pursuit of self-interest strikes the Confucian mind as pernicious nonsense. Confucian historians regularly highlighted episodes that showed the pitfalls of immorality at the top. A classic figure is King Jie. He launched war after war against the neighboring states to force them to pay tribute and hand over treasures. King Jie's advisers tried to warn him that he was wasting the people's resources and endangering the realm, but he silenced them by terror. He declared that the whole world belonged to him and he was invincible. The people hated him and prayed for his downfall. This finally came at the hands of a righteous leader who put together a new coalition in a neighboring area, and moved to overthrow him. King Jie maintained his arrogant, self-deluded style right up until the day of his defeat. They say he took his court ladies to observe the final battle from a hilltop, saying it would be amusing, like watching a hunt.

If we generalize across the long complex history of Confucianism, we can pick out certain ideas that are axiomatic for the tradition.

The Confucian contention is that to be politically strong and morally healthy, a society must be united by bonds of reciprocal loyalty and concern among all ranks. Justice in any community or social group is based on the principle of reciprocity. Both rulers and ruled have obligations to each other. If the leaders expect their followers to be loyal to them, the leaders must be loyal to their followers.

Society needs leaders who follow Heaven's true pattern, in order to inspire people to adhere to the correct social forms and thus create the conditions for a sound society. A legitimate social order is one that serves the material, social, and spiritual needs of the people, and wins their loyalty. A legitimate ruler wins the hearts and minds of the people by serving their real interests. Legitimate rulers pattern their rule on Heaven's impartiality, magnanimity, fairness, justice for all. "Heaven sees through the eyes of the people." A legitimate ruler is the "Legate of Heaven," and has the "Mandate of Heaven."

Thus, the legitimate ruler is above all an educator, who teaches by example and transforms others by moral force. The duty of the legitimate ruler is to embody virtue and spread knowledge of Heaven's true pattern, and to inspire people at all levels to align themselves with the true pattern. The duty of a ruler is to implement policies in such a way that the common people are guaranteed a reliable livelihood, a healthy community, and a just social order: these things being to the average person the prerequisites for moral cultivation and a wholesome life.

The social elite has a responsibility to Heaven and to the common people to act in a way that maintains the soundness of the social order. If the ruler or other members of the social elite put their own private interests above the common interest, then they have lost their legitimacy. If a ruler loses the allegiance of the people, that ruler has lost his legitimacy, that ruler and his regime have lost the Mandate of Heaven.

Taken together, these axioms make up the Confucian analog to our idea of the social contract, and the will of the people as the source of political legitimacy.

Obviously, the Confucian perspective on social order and the special duties of those in power are poles apart from the canons of laissez-faire market fundamentalism. The Confucian contention is that human nature itself shapes the requirements for a just society. People yearn for humane and righteous leaders who sympathize with the everyday reality facing the ordinary person and who put the common good ahead of their own personal desires. People yearn to be part of a community governed by norms of reciprocity and human fellow-feeling.

To taste the flavor of the Confucian discourse, a good place to start is the classic collection of the sayings of Confucius known as Lun Yu. The central concern of Confucian education is to develop the morally developed person (Tu Weiming's artful rendering of the key term junzi)—the person who has fully cultivated the innate human moral sensibilities necessary for group living, and vital to fulfilling the responsibility that power brings to those of high rank in society. "Morally developed people understand matters of justice, petty people understand matters of personal advantage" (1.16).

Addressing the social elite of his own time and place, Confucius said: "You are truly humane if you can practice five things in the world: respectfulness, magnanimity, truthfulness, acuity, and generosity. If you are respectful, you won't be despised. If you are magnanimous, you will win people over. If you are truthful, you will be trusted. If you are acute, you will be successful. If you are generous, you will be able to employ people" (Lun Yu, 17.6).

A disciple asked Confucius: "Is there a word that can be practiced all one's life?" Confucius said, "What about sympathy? What you do not want yourself, do not inflict on others" (15.24).

The opposite of the morally developed person is the "petty person"—the person whose horizon is defined by personal self-interest and ambition for self-aggrandizement: "Don't worry that other people don't know you. Worry that you don't know other people" (1.16). "Morally developed people are universal and not parochial. Petty people are parochial and not universal" (2.14). "Morally developed people foster what is good in others, not what is bad. Petty people do the opposite" (12.16).

In another memorable maxim, Confucius pointed out that morally developed people have their own moral compass, and therefore cannot be put to use by the organization or group to which they belong in ways which violate their own moral standards: "The morally developed person is not a tool" (2.12).

On the legitimacy of leaders, Confucius said: "Riches and status unjustly attained are to me like floating clouds" (7.15). A pupil asked Confucius about the proper way to conduct government. Confucius replied, "Lead [the people] and work for them." The pupil asked for more. Confucius said, "Be indefatigable" (13.1).

"If leaders are courteous, their people will not dare to be disrespectful. If leaders are just, people will not dare to be intractable. If leaders are trustworthy, the people will not dare to be dishonest" (13.4). Confucius also said, "When friends are honest, sincere, or knowledgeable, they are beneficial. When friends are pretentious, fawning, or opportunistic, they are harmful" (15.37).

A disciple asked Confucius about human fellow-feeling. Confucius said, "Love people." Then the disciple asked about knowledge. Confucius said, "Know people." The disciple didn't understand. Confucius said, "Promote the honest, placing them over the crooked, and you can cause the crooked to straighten out" (12.22).

Does this all strike us as too lofty, too "idealistic"? We can end by simply repeating the challenge as Confucius posed it to the power holders of his own time: "Is human fellow-feeling far away? If you want to be truly human, then human fellow-feeling arrives" (7.29).


J. C. Cleary holds a PhD in East Asian Languages and Civilizations from Harvard University. He is the translator or co-translator of numerous works from Zen's Chinese history, including The Blue Cliff Record and, most recently, Zen Under the Gun: Four Zen Masters From Turbulent Times.

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