Michael Sandel on East-West Philosophical Encounters

In the 2018 compendium “Encountering China”, renowned philosopher Michael Sandel makes the following observation about learning from Chinese philosophy:

Engaging with responses to my work by scholars of Chinese philosophy is for me a learning opportunity on several levels. It requires me to consider challenges to my views from unfamiliar directions, it brings to light some of the competing perspectives at play within Chinese philosophy, and it prompts me to wonder how dialogue across cultural and philosophical traditions can best proceed.

Sandel points out several highly interesting differences between Western and Chinese philosophical traditions; there are four primary points I would highlight here:

  1. The thickness of community
  2. The elevation of harmony or justice
  3. The externalities of progress
  4. The existence of individual identity

I do not yet have concrete responses to any of these, but I find them worthy of repetition and contemplation here. To me, the interesting thing to note is simply how different human thoughts on fundamental questions can be, and perhaps how far outside the norms of Western philosophical thought Chinese thought can be. However, a caveat: I think we all recognize that philosophers forced into these conflicting spaces can adopt much more extreme and confrontational views than they really hold in their daily lives, and in many ways both Chinese and Western philosophers may adopt reactionary viewpoints to counter each other. For example, even if Sandel is correct in the fact that Western systems elevate Justice over Harmony, I think we all recognize that these can sometimes be at odds (see the many cop-vs-African American Community incidents in recent years), and in many cases courts and public opinion can elevate Harmony over Justice, preserving the social status quo and scorning what the law demands (see To Kill a Mockingbird).

The Thickness of Community

Having become accustomed to the objection that the conception of community I defend is too morally demanding, or “too thick” in the philosophers’ vernacular, I find it intriguing to encounter the challenge that my conception of community is “too thin.”

Elevation of Harmony or Justice

Until encountering the Chinese tradition, it had not occurred to me to consider harmony as the primary virtue of social life. Notwithstanding my critique of the unencumbered self and my argument for a deeper conception of community than the social contract tradition affords, I have always defended a pluralist conception of the common good, in which citizens argue publicly and openly about moral and even spiritual questions. Such arguments are typically more clamorous than harmonious.

In Singapore, whose population consists of ethnic Chinese, Malays, Indians, and others, a recent attempt to promote social harmony involves a proposal to rotate the presidency, an elected but ceremonial post, among the various ethnic communities. While some might complain that the rotation system would deprive certain aspiring candidates of the right to seek office in a given year, this right should give way to considerations of harmony. Having all groups represented would create a strong sense of citizenship

Tongdong Bai identifies two respects in which Confucian philosophy, as he interprets it, departs from my account of moral and civic virtue. First, only “the few” can go far in cultivating sufficient virtue to participate effectively in politics. Confucians therefore “reject the strong republicanism in communitarianism” and favor a meritocratic regime, in which the learned and virtuous few govern on behalf of the rest.

Externalities of Progress

But the Daoist gardener glimpses that something more is at stake—something about the attitudes we take toward the activities in which we are engaged. Technology can change our relation to our purposes and ends. The invention of irrigation systems changes the meaning of traditional gardening, casting it now as a backward, inefficient mode of farming that creates only enough crops for subsistence rather than a surplus to be sold for profit. This redescription of the activity may not force Daoist gardeners to abandon their vocation and go into agribusiness. But it does exert a certain pressure.

Existence of Individual Identity

In his essay attempting to mediate between the Ames-Rosemont conception of the person and mine, Paul D’Ambrosio discusses an analogy introduced by Rosemont in his book Against Individualism (2015). Those who believe in an essential, enduring self think of persons as if they were peaches with a pit. Although the skin and the fruit may change, the pit persists. On such a conception of personal identity, it makes sense to ask, “Who is the (real) person who is playing these various social roles?” But those who believe that social roles and relationships are constitutive of identity think of personhood as an onion; peel away the roles—son or daughter, husband or wife, parent, grandparent, friend, teacher, neighbor, and so on—and nothing remains. Rosemont offers the onion analogy to illustrate the anti-essentialist, role-bearing conception of the person.

I am uneasy with both vegetarian options. […<] Let me see if I can explain why: I do not think that the continuity of our identities over a lifetime is given by an “essential” self at the core of our being whose contours are fixed once and for all, untouched by the vicissitudes of life. And yet neither do I think that a person is only “the aggregate sum” of his roles and circumstances. What the purely aggregative picture misses, it seems to me, is the role of narrative and reflection (including critical reflection). Not only social roles and relationships, but also interpretations of those roles and relationships, are constitutive of personhood. But narration and interpretation presuppose narrators and interpreters—storytelling selves who seek to make sense of their circumstances, to evaluate and assess the aims and attachments that would claim them. And this interpretive activity, this making of sense, constitutes moral agency.

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