Ancient Chinese Philosophy in Modern American Living

in SAIS Events

EMILY WALZ & TONG ZHICHAO
ASSISTANT EDITOR & STAFF WRITER AT SAIS NANJING

Professor Sam Crane, chair of the Williams College Political Science Department and former Hopkins-Nanjing Center instructor (’88-’89), recently visited Nanjing to discuss his ideas about the micro-application of ancient Chinese philosophy to the ethics of everyday American life.

While stressing that his interpretation is not the sole possible position, Crane argues that his application of Confucianism and Taoism to controversial social issues like abortion and assisted suicide are reasonable extrapolations, valuable not so much for their ability to offer new answers as for bringing new ways of thinking to tired traditional partisan debates.

In an example related to foreign policy, Crane mentioned that on the one hand, criticism of the Obama administration’s delayed intervention into Libya pitches it as “leading from behind.” However, from the Taoist perspective, where one can never be sure of the consequences of an action, that is precisely the role of a leader: to take cues from events as they unfold, and judge the best way forward, rather than attempting to impose a preconceived plan of how events ought to go, which is often disastrous.

What Sam Crane essentially advocates in his book “Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Dao: Ancient Chinese Thought in Modern American Life” is a deliberation between a liberal mainstream culture and an illiberal, minority culture.

In the age of globalization, people have begun to sense that liberalism itself does not provide satisfying answers to every moral question, and it largely responds negatively to the safeguarding of individual rights. But the problem is, if human life is all about setting boundaries between individuals, or between individuals and the state, then it is definitely something empty and meaningless, without a higher moral goal.

lliberal cultures, which entail an ultimate conception of good (such as Confucianism and Taoism), provide valuable additions to liberalism because of their emphasis on the cultivation of character and virtue. After all, many would say it is not enough to live merely a life without encroachment on individual rights. We want a life with goals worth striving for, a virtuous life demonstrating the beauty of the human spirit.

From this perspective, illiberal cultures not only have the potential to make liberalism more comprehensive, but they also provide a new rationale supporting a progressive stance on many social issues about which liberals care.

Take same-sex marriage: the typical liberal solution, being rights-dominated, may cause states to recognize the legitimacy of such an issue. However, many people may continue to discriminate against same-sex couples as long as the moral vacancies behind their perspectives remain unaddressed.

This is where illiberal cultures provide a solution: through a positivist interpretation of traditions lying behind illiberal cultures around the globe, advocates may defend same-sex marriage not only as an individual right, but also as morally good, supporting family values. In this light, liberal incorporation of illiberal elements may not just be a necessary evil for the state to find a middle ground between values and individual rights, but could benefit the liberals’ agenda, supporting reconsideration of the moral issues at stake.