Posted: July 19th, 2023

Values on Support for Democracy and Human Rights


The increasing globalization of the world necessitates a fresh look at international business and political relations which are in harmony with common human nature. Human beings are not individualistic but communal by nature and thus all our dealings must naturally then be derived from communal or traditional cultures. The study of ancient philosophies of traditional cultures can thus prove to be rewarding for bringing about a change in how international politics is conducted. It is here that the Confucian ethics of interdependence gains prominence. (Lutz, 2)

Confucius, who lived from 551B.C. To 479B.C. In the Spring-Autumn periods was one of the first teachers in China and evolved an ethical value system based on the values enshrined in the old aristocratic code of conduct. Some of the moral codes of conducts put forward by Confucius include “integration and peace” or “he-he,” benevolent governance called as “renzheng,” and ‘virtue and morality’ known as “renyi daode.” Amongst these three, “he-he” is the most significant idea where the first “he” combines integration with equality and the second “he” implies harmony, peace, gentleness and kindness. Thus pacifism is at the very crux of Confucianism. (Hsu, 150)

Another idea at the heart of Confucianism is hierarchy or moral hierarchy to be more precise. This was part of “zhong” and “shu” known as loyalty and empathy, as explained by Zengzi, one of Confucius’ main students. One of Confucius’ main objectives was to downplay the individual and emphasize on the individual as a part of the larger society, his position in the society and the roles and responsibilities that come bundled with that position. It was more of a moral hierarchy than a social one in the sense that every individual had a moral obligation to be loyal to one’s moral duties. For instance, it was the moral duty of a ruler to behave in a stately manner and look after his subjects in a paternal way. It was the duty of a minister to help the ruler in governing the state and subjects. Similarly, it was the moral duty of the citizens to heed the law of the land and the commands of their superiors. (Confucius: Ritual & Humaneness); (Fairbank; Goldman, 67)

Even in the family structure, Confucianism advised that the moral duty of the parents is to provide love and support for their children and children must in turn obey and show respect to their parents. The roles and responsibilities of an individual in this hierarchy may be simultaneously different or change along with a shift in moral duties at various stages of life and in accordance with the several relationships one forms with various people. However, there is one common thread that binds all these states in a hierarchy and that is the desired quality of “loyalty.” This loyalty is not exclusively to a certain person or a superior but in general towards one’s duty or role in society. (Confucius: Ritual & Humaneness); (Fairbank; Goldman, 67)

Therefore, this loyalty can be more explicitly stated as “being loyal to one’s role.” In this moral hierarchy, everybody must view their social roles as moral assignments and not simply as social responsibilities. The hierarchical principle espoused by Confucianism laid emphasis not on entitlements or rights but on duties and obligations with the belief that if everyone fulfilled their roles and responsibilities with dedication, they would automatically get what they deserved. Within the family framework, this kind of loyalty ensures parental control and in the political framework, it ensures the achievement of political stability and law and order. (Confucius: Ritual & Humaneness); (Fairbank; Goldman, 68)

The moral hierarchy in Confucianism is incomplete if loyalty is not complemented with empathy known as “shu.” Therefore, even though one must fulfill one’s role in society as well as family according to one’s hierarchical position, one must also learn to feel and appreciate what the other person in a different role or position might feel or desire. Simply being loyal to one’s individual social role is not enough to attain socio-political harmony and must be associated with an empathetic appreciation of the other party’s wishes. For instance, we certainly do not want that any members of our family are harmed in any way and therefore we should also not harm any other person who might be a member of some other family. (Confucius: Ritual & Humaneness); (Fairbank; Goldman, 70)

This may be true in international relations as well. If we do not want our country to be slighted in any manner, we should take care not to do the same to people from other countries as well. Similarly, if we appreciate the fact that others take the pains of learning about our culture during political or social interactions, we should reciprocate the same. Thus, “zhongshu” or loyalty with empathy forms the basis of the idealist society as conceptualized by Confucius. However, scholars have pointed out that this hierarchy leads to gradations of superiority and inferiority and abuse of political power. (Confucius: Ritual & Humaneness); (Fairbank; Goldman, 70)

Western liberalism had certain similarities with Confucian hierarchy since both of them distinguished between various classes of people. However, in today’s modern globalized world with democracy and equality being flaunted everywhere; Confucianism seems to be out of place, even obsolete. (Ackerly, 550) It may be too simple to interpret Confucianism as an approval for opportunistic consent for the exploitation of the weak and the poor. In the real world exploitation and injustice exists even in a democracy. Confucianism acknowledges the existence of this given world and tries to tone down or regulate its existing injustice through appeals to the stronger classes and by application of philosophies of “humane politics.” Bringing about a fundamental change in the established hierarchical forms of society may be beyond human willingness and efforts but the efforts to humanize it to the maximum possible extent is possible through application of Confucianism morals of commitment towards one’s social and moral responsibilities. This connection between ethics and politics was as much a necessity in ancient times as it is today. (Roetz, 277)

Recent attempts at ushering in democracy in non-western contexts have demonstrated that democratization may not be politically sustainable if it has to be necessarily tethered to the standards on which liberalism and the liberal democracies of the Western nations are based. The perception of an autonomous citizen bearing individual rights is something that might not be comprehensible or acceptable to the rest of the world. Individual rights in the West have traditionally curbed any form of misuse by political authorities. On the other hand, the same autonomy fueled by consumerism and capitalism has grown to such an extent that it has manifested itself as a never-ending quest of self-interest so much so that the very fabric of social cohesion stands threatened. It is in this context that a reinterpretation of Confucianism with an emphasis on Confucian democratic political thought is required in the international political arena. (Ackerly, 560)

There is no doubt that the Confucian political thought is controversial with all its hierarchies and class differentiations. (Ackerly, 562) Many scholars have put forward theoretical arguments that adherence to Confucian values would result in a dwindling public support for freedom of speech, women’s right and most importantly, democratization in non-democratic states. Social scientists like Peter Moody and Robert Weatherly have pointed out that the Confucian values of duty, loyalty and hierarchy combined with a lack of any obvious conception regarding individual rights might hinder attempts towards the promotion of liberal democracy. Some scholars like Tse-hsin Chen and Andrew Nathan have also found that in societies like China, Hong Kong and Taiwan, people who held traditional values were “highly unlikely” to believe in democratic values. Others have conclusively opined that the effect of Confucianism on democratic values is definitely negative. (Fetzer; Soper, 146)

On the other hand, a particular conflicting study of Asian values in South Korea by Chong-Min Park and Doh Chull Shin has found that some of the Confucian values have no effect on democratic ideals, some others support the same and some absolutely undermine democratic values. Thus, a more in-depth scrutiny of the significance of Confucianism and its ideals of loyalty and empathy in relation to various hierarchical states in the socio-political scene is required. Such a study which took a fresh look at Confucianism and the influence of its hierarchical values on democratic ideals in Taiwanese society was conducted by Fetzer and Soper and published in the “Taiwan Journal of Democracy” in July 2007. It reported several interesting findings the most significant one being that Confucianism did not “consistently undermine liberal democracy.” In fact, out the three Confucian values of social hierarchy, loyalty and social harmony, none were found to diminish people’s support for democratization. (Fetzer; Soper, 147)

The only negative finding of this study was that there was a distinct conflict between women’s rights and Confucian values. According to these researchers Confucian values are not expected to disappear from those societies in the near future. In fact, they have also observed that the prediction of many social scientists that religion and related ideologies might disappear from this world in modern times have been proved wrong as such ideologies have gained even more prominence in the socio-political life of the current century. (Fetzer; Soper, 148)

The excesses of Western-style individualism and democracy can be moderated through application of a few of the Confucian values. For instance, filial piety and social/moral responsibilities towards an individual’s role in the social hierarchy can bring about a greater awareness about an individual’s obligations towards previous generations as well as look beyond the confines of self-interests to embrace the interests of the community as a whole. This can also act as a successful deterrent to some types of political liberalism which prioritize individual rights with absolutely no concern for the cultural and social context which are essential for the expression of those rights. (Fetzer; Soper, 148)

Confucianism calls for infusing an ethical fabric into the political realm and not the abuse of political might to enforce ethical life. Confucian hierarchy, at no point of time, deviates from the fundamental respect that humanity or human relations demand. According to scholars like Ouyang Xiu, Confucianism has never backed a constant or static standpoint on political authority or life. Confucian hierarchy does not support the abuse of political power; instead it supports a social order system in which people at all levels of the hierarchy including the people and political authorities conduct their lives as per rites which advise the principles of morality. (Ackerly, 572)

It has been suggested that Confucianism and democracy are definitely not incompatible partners but are subject to the manipulations of narrow-minded selfish political leaders. Most political and social philosophies put forward for the betterment of human society have been subjected to distortion ranging from the mild to the very extreme by diverse interpreters and so-called guardians of society. Therefore, a much more balanced viewpoint with logical interpretations is required keeping social harmony and regional context in mind. (Fetzer; Soper, 151)

However, Confucianism is not restricted only to the region in which it was conceived. The value of “ren” or humaneness is similar to the ideals espoused by Western human rights. Some social scientists have observed that Confucian societies have survived through a range of political environments and can boast of a degree of toleration that was not seen at a similar level in Islam or Christianity. Developing an international cross-cultural political theory requires critical and deliberative thought with inputs from various rich sources of which Confucianism is particularly significant. (Ackerly, 574)

If Confucian political thought is democratically interpreted, it may lead to the following three ideas which may be particularly significant in the international political domain: (a) the belief that people, in general, have the capability of “ren” (humaneness), and thus can become “potentially virtuous contributors to political life,” (b) the belief that the institutions of economic, social and political life work in a manner that that helps to cultivate “the virtue of being a perfected human being,” (c) the belief that there will be ample public opportunities for political criticism as well as for a continuous contestation about the behavior, responsibilities, and duties at all levels of the hierarchy starting from the ordinary citizen to the top official along with the working of the institutions which are responsible for the development of that behavior. (Ackerly, 574) Given the conditions in which Confucianism developed, it was a highly advanced form of socio-political philosophy and it simply has to be re-interpreted in the perspective of the modern-globalized world.


Ackerly, Booke. A. Is Liberalism the only way toward democracy? Political Theory, vol. 33, no. 4, August 2005, pp: 547-576.

Fairbank, John King; Goldman, Merle. China: a new history. Harvard University

Press. 1998.

Fetzer, Joel S; Soper, J. Christopher. The Effect of Confucian Values on Support for Democracy and Human Rights in Taiwan. Taiwan Journal of Democracy, vol. 3, no.1, pp: 143-154.

Hsu, Cho-Yun. Applying Confucian Ethics to International Relations. pp: 148-169.


Lutz, David W. African Ubuntu Philosophy and Philosophy of Global Management.


N.A. Confucius: Ritual & Humaneness.


Roetz, Heiner. Confucian ethics of the axial age: a reconstruction under the aspect of the – New York Profession. 1993.

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