The Confucian Heuristic

The ancients who wished to illustrate illustrious virtue throughout the Kingdom, first ordered well their own states. Wishing to order well their states, they first regulated their families. Wishing to regulate their families, they first cultivated their persons….Their persons being cultivated, their families were regulated. Their families being regulated, their states were rightly governed. Their states being rightly governed, the whole kingdom was made tranquil and happy.

-Confucius, The Great Learning.

Confucianism is a philosophy that’s sometimes thrown around in these circles. I wanted to give a brief outline and explanation of the Confucian heuristic, because it’s a philosophy that’s less mysterious than it seems, and it can often be a fruitful angle on the sorts of social problems that we address.

Confucianism is less a religion than a set of social rules. Like a lot of people, Confucius was bothered by “bad inequality” – the kind of hierarchy where the elites actively oppress the poor and the lower class at best toils away, and at worse foment short-sighted peasant rebellions. The usual Western response to bad inequality is leveling – knock down all hierarchies as “elitism” and “privilege,” and even everything out until there’s no concentration of power such that anyone can oppress his fellow man. Sometimes that can be a helpful approach, but there are several side effects.

One is that while some kinds of inequality can be gotten rid of – wealth, family inheritance, ethnic inequalities, and so on – there are many more you can’t touch. Some people are more diligent than others, you can’t change that. Some are more politically savvy, some are taller, better looking. If you suppress all sources of inequality that you can, often you end up just increasing the importance of things you can’t touch. Knock down aristocracy, and you simply get meritocracy that privileges diligent, politically savvy nerds instead. And while we’ve developed some social technology to at least channel selfish impulses in prosocial ways, we haven’t yet invented the analogue of capitalism that channels height inequality into prosocial behavior.

A related problem is that in telling a story about eliminating inequality, this leveling frees up the new elites – the winners in the new “emergent inequality,” to deny that they’re in fact elites. They’re just average Joes like anyone else, and feel therefore feel no sense of obligation towards the losers of society. And when they’re in competition with the weak, they see it as a contest between equals and have no compunction about using their strengths to exploit them, all cloaked in egalitarianism. (This is in fact a criticism that has been leveled against meritocracy – the winners feel like they have earned their advantages, and therefore feel no noblesse oblige.)

Confucius took a different tack – he said hey, there’s always going to be inequality, let’s not kid ourselves. Instead, let’s formalize it into really visible hierarchy, and, crucially, tie great power to great responsibility. Rather than wrangle with abstract notions of status, he prefers to emphasize the personal interactions between superiors and inferiors. So he spends a lot of time talking about rights and responsibilities in different kinds of relationships, and promoting rites – think “etiquette” – to make it clear that the weak respect the strong, and that the strong have obligations to the weak. If you’re going to be king, you’d better protect your people. If you’re going to be a mom, the kids have to obey you and take care of you in your old age, but you’d better raise them well. No weaseling out.

And overall, it’s a pretty fascinating set of prescriptions. A lot of the problems that people complain about today have to do with social atomization and the lack of agentic leadership in powerful institutions. Confucianism would diagnose some of these problems as stemming from our willful insistence on a veneer of equality. With this egalitarianism comes a withdrawal of respect for elites, and so the elites don’t feel like elites – they just feel like average folks without any extraordinary sense of duty. And because they don’t feel like a winner yet, these elites also feel insecure and powerfully want to “get theirs” – whether a credential, a cushy job, or social approval. And in the process, they feel justified in exploiting their advantages without feeling a sense of obligation to their inferiors. The Confucian prescription: make it really clear who the elites are and pay them respect, and tie them to one-on-one relationships with their inferiors that come with corresponding obligations.

A lot of the social problems that usually concern us are enormous society-wide problems that we individuals can only do so much about. But the strength of Confucianism is that unlike many other political philosphies, it is scale-free; you don’t need to be a philosopher-king to start putting it into practice. Everyone, whatever his station, has the ability to start fostering stable, explicit, human-level relationships, and openly acknowledge respect and obligation as appropriate. And this matters: from relationships within a family or workplace up through the administration of a country, almost all the things we care about are mediated through human interactions. And if we can get those relationships right, a lot of previously intractable institutional problems will suddenly seem less daunting.