Why Equality and Which Inequalities?: A Modern Confucian Approach to Democracy

29 August, 2017
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“Confucius” from SRN’s SG Photobank

How can we reconcile Confucianism with democracy?Confucius, a teacher, editor, political advisor, and philosopher of China’s Spring and Autumn period, was born in 551 BC on the 27th day of the eighth month of the Chinese calendar. While Singapore does not officially celebrate Confucius’ birthday, the country marks Teachers’ Day on the first Friday of September to honour the contributions of educators.

A/P Tan Sor-hoon (Department of Philosophy) discusses debates about equality in Confucianism and democracy, noting that Confucianism values certain forms of equality even though it has a historical association with hierarchical and oppressive societies. Tan states that both Confucianism and democracy support good government (i.e. a government for the people), but have different ideas about how to achieve it. Unlike in democracy, political power in Confucianism is distributed according to virtue in people, which is itself unequal. Confucianism focuses on what people do with the power they have, more than an individual’s indisputable right to power. As long as some of its citizens are impoverished, a government is not performing up to Confucian standards of virtuous rule.In a democracy, majority rule may not give rise to a government that prioritizes shared prosperity. In Confucianism, socioeconomic inequalities can be avoided by promoting political inequality based on virtue; at the same time, Confucianism would endorse political equality if it indeed resulted in the reduction of objectionable socioeconomic inequalities. Confucians emphasize the need for virtue in wielding power, which provides us a means to re-examine what good government entails in democratic societies.

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