All Humans Must be Equal, or else Go to Jail
Drafting sessions for the Universal Declaration of Human Rights were replays of meetings between Jesuits and Chinese and Koreans 300 years earlier. Then, the terms of the meeting were set inside a Judeo-Christian agenda, not Confucianism. The terms had not changed since, and certainly not in 1947 when the UN human rights project had become a Catholic ontology seminar in disguise. The disguise worked. But Chinese society remains rooted in foundations more established than Europe’s, and undermined only by enemies within, the choirboys of the Declaration’s founding fathers who have declared: No longer “created”, all humans must be equal, on the pain of jail.
THE western axiom, all men are created equal, would have been made universal law in much of Asia if not because political, religious and social life in Chinese and other East Asian societies repeatedly proved otherwise. It is that all men are equal until birth.
The truism in the second axiom is contained in the Confucian phrase 性相近也，習相遠也 (xingxiang jinye, xixiang yuanye), which may translate as, “in birth, men are the same; in practice, they grow apart”.
In objecting to the word “inalienable”, Chang Peng-chun, a classical Chinese scholar who studied in America and had taught in China, was not being semantic. Rather, he was encroaching into the root cause, the foundation, of the western philosophical basis for the construction the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (the Declaration). For his audacity, they canned him and feted the others.
The gulf between western and Chinese interpretations of “rights” and its adjectival terms, inalienable and equal, was there in the beginning. The only question to answer is, how wide is the rift? To comprehend its scale, imagine a white man arriving for the first time on a Columbus ship at a Pacific island and demanding to speak to the island chief.
First to the task was, speaking in a common language. The terms for drafting the Declaration, like rights, inalienable, and equal are in English and this leads to the second problem, what they mean and what are their cultural attributes. Those words are terms that had been situated and had grown out of a history of western intellectual thought, much of them during the Renaissance. They have connotations beyond the surface interpretations.
Third: the terms of the negotiation. The negotiation that follows between the white man and the island chief is on terms already defined in the language and in the cultural history of the white man. All that is left to dispute, hence, is not over whether rights should exist – which is already presumed – but how much is to be given away.
Chang was not challenging the terms of the negotiations or the validity of the western cultural and intellectual foundations of their concepts. He was challenging the negotiation itself, in essence, the fundamental basis of those rights. That is, is there a right to the rights and, if so, is it an “inalienable” one at that? In another way of saying, by whose definition are rights to exist and why?
But to do so, it would require him to, first, get past Rene Cassin and Charles Malik with terms like 仁 ren 想 siang 禮 li. (The first, ren, may be translated as humane or, if combined with this 慈 ci, to read renci or benevolent or compassionate.) This is nearly a thankless task because Chang would have to teach two grown men the Chinese language, lexicon, culture, politics and society, and above all classical Chinese and literary thought.
If that had been the basis of the deliberations – that is, within a Confucian-Chinese framework – Chang’s contribution to the drafting would have been done for him already. But it was not. Instead, the default position of the deliberations of the Declaration’s drafting committee is English, western and Christian. It was never the other way around, that is, Chinese, eastern and mono-atheism.
The initial drafts delivered by John Humphrey, a Canadian lawyer and the third man in the drafting triumvirate, were in the entirety of their substance, content, meaning and basis, also western and Christian oriented.
Against those odds, Chang’s eventual task was essentially reduced to wriggling in Confucian notions of self, humaneness and humanity into the actual Declaration that had started off under Humphrey inside a Judeo-Christian framework. Even this is nearly impossible. And in the history of contacts between the western and Confucian minds it rarely gets far.
In New York or Geneva, Catholics were face to face with Chang in precisely the same fashion Jesuits confronted neo-Confucians 300 years earlier in Korea and China. The first was trying to convert the second, and the second was trying to make sense what is it the first wanted.
Imagine then Chang, a Confucian scholar, ranged against modern-day Jesuit versions in Malik and Cassin. Their discourse begins, not with nothing and not with the lunyu (論語 or Analects) but with the bible as the supposed authority and the guide for deliberations. This incongruity would be immediate, as Humphrey had noted in his memoirs about the quarrels between Chung and Malik.
Yet the confrontation is not new. Korean neo-Confucians also recall the same, as is narrated by Don Baker, University of British Columbia. Sin Hudam was one of the key Korean figures then. And one of his first tasks was to make sense of what the Jesuits were saying about the individual self that is divided between the soul and the body. Jesuits, unwilling to surrender their ultimate truth in their god, thought of the Koreans (and much of everybody else) as godless.
Here, below, is a Chinese interpretation of the soul (or spirit) by Fan Chen (450-c.5l5) that is shared by the Koreans when they questioned the Jesuit assertions that the soul survives the body. Baker narrates Fan Chen:
“The body is the substance of the soul; the soul is the functioning of the body….The relationship of the soul to its substance is like that of sharpness to a knife, while the relationship of the body to its functioning is like that of a knife to sharpness. What is called sharpness is not the same as the knife, and what is called the knife is not the same as sharpness.
Nevertheless, there can be no knife if the sharpness is discarded, nor sharpness if the knife is discarded. I have never heard of sharpness surviving if the knife is destroyed, so how can it be admitted that the soul can remain if the body is annihilated?”
This view, that the soul is a body activity and an attribute of the latter, but each dependent on the other, contrasts sharply with the Christian view that they are separate and material entities. Thus, early Confucian Korean scholars when confronted by Jesuits (in Matteo Ricci for example) found both unconvincing and ridiculous the notion of the material soul surviving the body after death.
Since early Chinese and Korean Confucians could not share the Jesuit worldview, what if it was made the other way around? That is, could Malik, the twentieth century version of a Jesuit monk who sees only false gods and idolatries outside of Christianity, ever understand Confucianism? Could Cassin, a man mindful of the Ten Commandments issued to Israelites, imagine and visualize any tribe other than Jews?
Such deep metaphysical and conceptual differences, once extrapolated to notions of the individual self, help to illuminate the reason why Chang wanted the word “inalienable” removed. And, his insistence for removing the word begins with the idea of the self.
Early Confucians have clear, distinct notions of the self but that is rather cultural in interpretation, that is, the self is an acquired trait.
Revisit Fan Chen, however, a Kungzi contemporary whose elucidation of the self parallels the western idea of body and soul (spirit) residing in the same. Liu Ming-wood, Chinese philosopher at the University of Hong Kong, has Fan Chen’s metaphorical rendering in the English.
“Human lives are like flowers of the same tree. They grow on similar branches, and bloom on similar calyces. When blown by wind, they fall. Some brush against screens and curtains and fall on rugs and mats: some are stopped by fences and walls and drop by the side of lavatories. Those which fall on rugs and mats are [like] your Highness; those which drop by [the side of] lavatories are [like] my humble self. Even though the high and the low follow diverse paths, where does [the karmic law of] cause and effect come in?”
“The substance of trees is devoid of consciousness, the substance of human beings is endowed with consciousness. As human beings have a substance [without consciousness] like trees while [humans] also possess consciousness different from trees, does it not [prove] that trees have [only] one [substance], while human beings have two?”
Throughout Fan Chen, and in common with Confucian thought, the self is seen as malleable and akin to nature (like flowers) and does not subsist as an innate fixture. That is, it has no “state of nature” as western philosophy calls it. The self, like all nature, is susceptible to its environment (blown by the wind).
In this environment, the Confucian self, as an individual entity, is interdependent on the relations with other entities. This self is relational, in that, it depends on its function. The self may in a single day be the father to the son, the son to the father, a subordinate to the superior, or as friend to friend. This self, as lived from moment to moment, or from day to day, has those specified roles, each role determining the outcome and in turn is influenced by it.
The notion of a western self divorced within itself between one part spirit and one part body and each parcelled out and conferred with certain “rights” is to deduce that all other selves around him are potentially hostile.
The Confucian self is the starting point and not the end state that Hobbes thought was an individual alone, solitary, short, brutish and nasty. So alone is this person, he required protection from a crowd or a state in a situation where one is against all. The Confucian self is not like that at all. He is the locus or the interspersed of influences. He faces multiple circumstances and multiple individuals, and within these subsets of daily experiences attunes to the panoply of governing relations and demands.
Thus, consciousness is a process conceived simultaneously in both the heart and the mind. And, in the single character 想 siang used to depict this process, it denotes a dominant East Asian idea that Reason without the heart or compassion (心), or thinking without feeling, can be, respectively, dangerous and empty. Once again, the Thomist duality principle (body-soul, mind-matter) is absent in East Asian consciousness.
The ability of the Jesuits in Malik and in Cassin to categorize thought as completely separate from emotional life (hence, the idea of private and public lives) continues to puzzle East Asians today. To say there is a public or a private life is to presume two types of selves; and this, to the Confucian, is rubbish. The self is a single fiduciary entity, with fiduciary responsibilities, born into a web of other selves answerable to all, as it is answerable to himself.
To say that rights (however defined) are equal to all is to presume the implausibility of nature or society to offer distinction between father and son, between friend and foe, and between flowers and trees. To say rights are inalienable is to presume the self is unassailable, no matter whether a person is a scoundrel or a saint. It presupposes no distinction inside the web of the other selves. This is, at one level, unnatural and, in another, plainly absurd. The Christianity of the west created saints and sinners, but the Daoist answer to that dichotomy is to say man is essentially both. To live as a saint, one has to know what is it to sin.
Ultimately, in the human rights discourse, a rights regime is motivated purely by the welfare of the individual not everybody else around him. He has only entitlements and offers nothing in return.
Here is the opening shot in the preamble of Declaration:
“Whereas recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world…”
And, in Article 1:
“All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights…”
Inalienability, as innate, inherent or born-with, is a modern-day abstraction of theological Christianity in disguised. Before it, the notion was founded in the Socratic principle: Know thyself. But the credo of Confucianism is instead: Cultivate thyself.
If equal and inalienable rights are the foundation of freedom, justice and peace, then what is the purpose of virtue? The Confucian answer to this question is this: No law makes a man virtuous. In the lunyu is this other answer:
“What do you say concerning the principle that injury should be repaid with kindness?” The Master said, “With what then will you repay kindness? Repay injury with justice, and repay kindness with kindness.” (XIV:36)
“Let the ruler be a ruler, the subject a subject, a father a father, and a son a son.” (XXII: 11)
Within this philosophical tradition, Chang could have gone a step farther, rejecting even the concept of rights as the basis for freedom because without responsibilities freedom turns into hedonism. Confucianism does not interpret human relationships based on rights that inferred contractual obligations – somebody confers something for somebody else to accept. For the state to grant that right is to presume the state is in possession of it in the first place, therefore acknowledging more powers to it than is necessary.
Permitting the state to grant rights also permits it to take the same away, and this is dangerous. In Germany and Belgium where the human rights regime had been written into their statute the state is entitled to take children from their parents if a child is not given a formal education. Home schooling, while a feature of traditional Chinese society, has become criminal in Europe.
More than once, a few perceptive white men see Europe as a Christian continent in disguise, veiled in a façade of secularised laws. Jürgen Habermas, a veteran leftist German philosopher, is one of those. He has since proclaimed:
“Christianity, and nothing else, is the ultimate foundation of liberty, conscience, human rights, and democracy, the benchmarks of western civilization. To this day, we have no other options [than Christianity]. We continue to nourish ourselves from this source. Everything else is postmodern chatter.”
Habermas is not only correct but he is also insistent that Europe continues to draw on the same Christian tradition in the way persons such as Malik and Cassin had done in the Declaration in 1947. Europe has no choice, but China has.
Yet, in Hong Kong, politicians like Audrey Eu, Margaret Ng and Alan Leong and academicians like Lung Ying-tai will demand for laws to make a Chinese society more European. If they have their way, they will want the entire Declaration written into law in all China. They are the offsprings, the mind and soul products, of the Thomism in the human rights ideology that Charles Malik, in New York, had told Americans: go forth and multiply, and especially to save (see Part 1 essay).
In that respect Malik was successful. You don’t simply export institutions and leave them to be copied, you export the laws so there is conversion (of mind and soul) en masse and by fiat. In the human rights ideology, people are no longer born or created equal; they are now compelled by law to be equal. All those that the Jesuits failed 300 years ago to convert from the bible, they now have the backing of legislations passed by the choirboys, the offsprings, to do the job.
Thus equal (in the image of Malik and Cassin), their offsprings in persons like the legislator Margaret Ng will force, on the pain of jail, all Chinese to behave according to their Thomist and Christian theological imperative – indeed, as Habermas notes, all the benchmarks of western civilization.
As for the rights of Chinese to be left alone without the human rights regime, the cultural sovereignty that was promise under it? “Well, the Chinese are godless and racist, urgently in need of a human rights,” would be the unspoken words in the hearts of the offsprings.
In the prejudices passed on to them, Chinese civilization is either inferior or European civilization is superior. This is anti-Chinese racism, corroding at the Confucian foundation and source of how Chinese treat each other and in how relations are conducted between the state and citizenry. Ultimately, the choirboys, the mind and soul offsprings so badly wanted by Malik, are the enemies of the Confucian humanist order, for they poison the wellspring of the Chinese civilization, or whatever is left of theological colonialism and its imperialist ideologies in Hong Kong.
As a collective writ large, the Confucian state is the penultimate web of relationships, with its rulers sitting in the centre governed by and must exhibit a set of ethical code of conduct. The same code of conduct, beginning with personal virtue, integrity, propriety and so on, defines relationships across and up and down societies.
This set of ethics and propriety behaviour must exist by necessity because no person can conceive of freedom until that person has another one to contend with. A neighbour is not an incidental outcome to one’s existence; it is the basis for discovering oneself. A father appreciates the ultimate freedom of parenthood only if he understands and goes along with his duties to his children. In the absence of this role, he has no parenthood and could taste no freedom because he has only himself, alone and bewildered.
But the human rights regime works precisely in the opposite direction to human relationships. It makes demands nearly without end and without offering anything in turn. Jeane Kirkpatrick, the former US Ambassador to the UN (1981-85), was one of the few western observers who saw through the fundamental flaws in the Declaration.
Commenting on the list of rights, she wrote:
“Neither nature, experience, nor probability informs these lists of ‘entitlements’, which are subject to no constraints except those of the mind and appetite of their authors.”
In plain wording, the human rights regime is entirely self-centred, indeed selfish, and indiscriminate in purpose and objective. There is no consideration for the larger community because an economic right, for example, can only be offered by extracting a bounty from somebody else. There are only so many apples hanging from a tree and, acting without discrimination, the whole tree is liable to be plucked to death. A thousand indiscriminate selves to be served without distinction, without end, and without consideration for all others is a recipe for society’s destruction.
In sum, then, is the Christian autonomous, inalienable self that Chang had sought to challenge. The secularised Judeo-Christian version of the human rights regime has come to mark the final death of its god. The self having survived his creator now replaces god in the Declaration, issuing commandments to Moses: You shall serve no other god but man.
This perversity, this inversion of the final judgement, turns humanity on its head. It becomes inhumane to humanity because the rights regime recognises only individual autonomy and not any more the collective good.
In the bipolar, Confucian-western metaphysical universe, their humanistic values engendered therein are compatible by degrees. Where the outcome differs, most plainly, is that the western man becomes a little god exhibiting thunder and lightning and a set of commandments whereas the Confucian man becomes 君子 junzi, the child of the sovereign or ruler. He is the noble man, the cultivated man, the learned man, and the gentleman.
The western position begins to irrevocably set once it abstracted and then extrapolated core concepts like self, indivisibility, freedom, liberty and turning these into fixed code of practices, or legalism. But the Confucian position worries endlessly about legalism, even long before human rights were encoded as a mechanism to govern relationships. This is because legalism, like human rights, presumes the nature of man as fixed, and that the Will is seated in the self of a person, independent and standalone. In existentialist terms: existence precedes essence.
Confucian thought is to the contrary, seeing instead the self – not as essence preceding existence, for this doesn’t quite capture it – but as evolving from sets of multiple layers of relationships. The father is to the son, as he is the son to his father, as bureaucrat to his superior, and as a colleague to colleague, official to citizen, as citizen to state, and so on. In this multiple, and often times interconnected roles, the self evolves through multiple imprints and is cultivated over time. The varieties of experiences eventually shape the essence of a person and that, in turn, drives forward the reason for his existence.
With his god dead and only himself to account to, the white man, note, has no more reason for his existence.
A Confucian man is, however, determined virtuous in the totality of his relationships with his environment, that is, with other people, but always beginning in the family, which is the unit of the state. The self, therefore, is not a fixed position on a Cartesian plane that is governed by principles (Judeo-Christian in origin) but by his multiple roles (as a son, father, factory hand, and so on) within the dynamics and principles within each set of relationships. Here is to quote from one of the canonical texts:
“The Master stood by a river and said: Everything flows like this, without ceasing, day and night.”
All this suggests then that the clashes in the meeting rooms of the Commission’s offices had to do with first principles. This is decisive because in politics everything is negotiable, in philosophy nothing.
The human rights regime triumphs today not because it had proven to be a superior system of governing conduct – and western conduct towards the rest of the word in 1947 was a total sham. It triumphed because Thomism, like biblical commandments, is dogma. In contrast, Confucianism was about variability, change, and self-control. Man need not go out to seek salvation; he is his own saviour.
Of course, Chinese societies have given rise to authoritarian regimes but they have also experienced more humanity in the last thousand years than western democratic countries had elected despots in the last 200. Whenever despotism sprouts in China, it leads invariably to a serious, internal evaluation within its society that does manage to self-correct.
This is why the protest language of the students at Tiananmen Square in 1989 was invariably for an examination and/or a redress into the overt failures of the state, as reflected in the urban and countryside poverty and in the corruption. The language of the protestors was couched full in Confucian terminologies, for the students were far less interested in the overthrow of the state than the western media made it out. The latter were instead imagining romantic images of an American or French style revolutions.
There is another reason why Confucianism is averse to explicitly granting rights to individuals. It is that those rights confer a relationship of power, to borrow from Foucault, rather than to ground relationships on ethics. And, as with any relations of power, it is subject to abuse, which is likely to arise in any society because all societies are inherently unequal.
Human rights by making all men equal do not level the field; it obliterates the field. Everybody is set free to pursue his dreams and, if not, to claim it from the state, regardless of what the dreams may entail, the cost and the repercussions to parents, brother, sister, kin, friends or colleagues. To capture what this hedonism means in daily life is to watch it unfold in the TV series of Donald Trump’s The Apprentice. Its persona always stands for the upper case “I” not “we”.