One day my teacher wrote a string of characters on the board. “Qiang da chu tou niao.” Or, roughly, the birds that rise above the cover of the tree line are the ones that are shot down. It is an old saying in China, warning aspiring Donald Trumps that those who make it to the top are those who society grows jealous of and nudges into the collective crosshairs.
The idiom reflects the Confucian ideal of modesty and knowing one’s rightful place, of the need to have subjects to lead and authorities to obey. Those inspired individualists who flex out of the societal strata not only paint a target on their backs but send seismic shocks throughout the larger order that knits communities together. Better to enter the stream of history calmly, obediently. As the Chinese philosopher Lao Tze said, just go with the flow.
My teacher also wrote on the board, “Ren pa chuming, zhu pa zhuang”: People fear becoming famous, pigs fear becoming big. Again, the biggest and best are sent first to slaughter. And as if to make you wish that the first Chinese sage had copyrighted his two cents, the Chinese also have: “Shu da gua feng.” Or, the winds shake the tallest trees.
The community painted by these three idioms is unapologetically utopian. It is a world in which people rise, paradoxically, above the very personal ambition that impels them skyward, in order to weave at ground level a social fabric of humility. Thus the connections between persons would be very close, since the individual ambitions that drive people apart have been tempered. It’s a world which rolls on peacefully, bereft of the political melees/brouhahas churned by self-styled messiahs who hallucinate paradigmatic truths from a make-believe pedestal. It’s a world in which even the most tempestuous tempers among us learn to simmer and swim downstream.
This tightly knit utopia generated by Chinese values is no advertisement for American individualism, where the nonconformist inclination is to break ranks rather than join them—either by starting a trend such as the backward-baseball cap, or by going to war unilaterally amid the wagging fingers of the international community. Of course, both sides have something to learn from the other. I suspect, for instance, that the sterility of Chinese education in sparking the creative impulse—a problem the Chinese are trying to address—is tethered to the cultural tendency to overly reward the kid who colors within the stenciled lines.
What about the kid who wants to scrawl outside the template, who wants to mold his community rather than be molded by it? What about those of us who don’t want to enter quietly into the philosophical currents of our eras, but would rather cannonball into them? Such a person is often of the self-righteous and blowhard persuasion, whose determined capacity for societal improvement emanates from a social and moral myopia that also makes him a potential force for degradation. It is easy to see why a community would condemn this kind of person. But the individualist who flouts societal mores, whether for fame or the collective good, also punctures society’s hand-me-down premises about what is right and what is taboo. Like a salmon headed upstream for spawning, he struggles against the prevailing tides, surmounts the dams of traditional assumptions and, just perhaps, gives birth to something new. Splashing into the philosophical current causes his neighbors get soaked in the process, but his apparent infallibility churns the eddies of our public consciousness. He makes waves.
Compare the turbulent story of the individualist with the community whose largest members trim their wings and slog in mediocrity. Individuals find themselves pulled in toward their community’s magnetic core, and are discouraged from acting on the individualists impulses that impel outward or skyward, and which would thus accentuate the barriers between persons by drawing them further from the societal nucleaus. The community turns inward on itself, much like China until the West pried it open. Wherever we go, the community declares, we go together.
Scholars have noted two wellsprings of value in the Confucian ethic. One, as you have guessed by now, is the community. The other is the virtue of balance, the grace with which the individual assimilates her own ideals to the social mores of her community. In a contractarian twist, the individual is called to sacrifice the ambitions and aspirations that make her stand out, such that she may fit in. As philosopher Michael Boylan points out, “Each person’s individual liberty consists of finding a way to fit his or her own life desires within the confines of the community. Thus, the Chinese government says against objections of the west; let us alone. We are working within the confines of our own community-based standards.”
The final product of the assimilation is a communal entity over and above the sum of each of its members, a social hydra from which the value and life of the separate constituents are offshoots. This social hydra is the antithesis of liberal democracy, in which the autonomy of the individual is the grounding of value. In liberal democracy, the citizen exercises autonomy through voting (auto means self, nomous is law, and hence to be autonomous is to give yourself your own law). In the social hydra, the individual is no longer the actor, and he is no longer autonomous. In shedding the philosophical birthmarks that set him apart, he has bargained away his to capacity for self-rule. He has paced his destiny in the hands of the state, which draws from the abdicated autonomy of each member and assumes the role of autonomous agent, the new actor who lays down the law. Confucian communitarianism is the new Barry Bonds—liberal democracy on steroids.
And now (drumroll…) we face a choice. The Confucians among us would rather cuddle up with their communitarian ethic in which our identities as moral agents are inextricably linked to society, while the champions of personal autonomy would throw down with the liberal state. Which should we choose?
Probing the implications of Confucian communitarianism reveals it to be about as inviting as the deer penis wine people drink here. Think about it (about the implications of communitarianism, not about the deer’s penis). After the individuals forfeit their right to lay down laws, the social hydra operates with no external check. Because the community is the fount of value, and individuals are worthy only insofar as they mold themselves to fit it, the social hydra cannot admit within its circle of concern anyone who does not already share its values. As Boylan says, “Individual interpretations of the community standards are only welcomed if they are supportive.” The communal ideals become self-justifying, held off the table of rational criticism by the citizens’ own eager hands.
Without some external foothold with which to gain philosophical leverage, re-routing the societal stream becomes impossible. Archimedes said that if given a place to stand, he could move the world. He meant that with a lever long enough, and a properly placed fulcrum, no weight is too heavy to budge. But in a self-justifying society that does not admit of standpoints irreconcilable with its own, it is impossible to derive the epistemic leverage with which to dislodge our first principles. Once you leave the sphere of community, you lose any foothold with which to budge its premises. In such a society, the Archimedean point just doesn’t exist; there is no mechanism for re-orientation. We could only cast sail to the prevailing winds and pray we don’t get swept over a waterfall.
But that would be to give such a society too much credit. There is a sense in which the social hydra cannot go anywhere at all. Because there is no external principle which the hydra accepts, there is no external goal to which it can possibly orient itself, and thus no meaningful measure of societal progress. The hydra, in assuming leadership of its citizens and liberated from principles that come from outside, becomes a self-contained moral apparatus condemned to be its own guide. It is unchained to exterior forces and thus completely free. How wonderful, you might think.
To see out it isn’t, suppose you are a member of the jury deciding the case of John, who is accused of murdering Jill two nights ago. The prosecutors bring up the usual evidence, including fingerprint evidence, DNA swabs, and eyewitness testimony. But suppose that you are part of a rare minority that believes that the past is unreal, a mere imaginary tale you hallucinated five minutes ago with the appearance of age. If you believe this, there is no evidence the prosecutors can possibly bring up to convince you that John did anything, much less commit murder, more than five minutes ago.
The above case reveals how all action and analysis occurs within the context of guiding assumptions—there is a past or there isn’t—and it is within the context of these assumptions and only within their context that we can act at all. To accept the evidence as illustrative of John’s guilt is to assume that there is indeed a past, while to dismiss the evidence on the grounds that nothing happened two days ago is to make a contrary assumption. Because evidence has meaning only within these assumptions, it can’t be used to prove or disprove the assumption on pain of circularity. The assumptions then, while they cannot be justified, channel our possible actions into avenues consistent with them, guiding our actions in a way that confers meaning on what we do.
An entity that is unchained to principles is an entity without direction, for whom action has no meaning. The burden shouldered by a self-justifying society is that it is in the moral clear whatever (almost) it does, and so has no reason to move in this direction rather than that. It feels no pushes or pulls, achieving unrestrained mobility at the cost of necessary stasis. The self-contained hydra has no compass with which to guide itself and no traction on the external world with which to take its first step. Without prior assumptions to constrict behavior, it can go anywhere; it can go nowhere. It is free; it is caged. One might say that absolute freedom fetters absolutely.
A society which demands that individuals conform to its values, that drags drifters back into its core with the promise of anchoring agents in an order greater than themselves, has nihilistic effects upon its body politic. For since the community can go nowhere, can achieve nothing, and since a community is in an important sense defined by what it does and how it operates, the community must be, in an important sense, nothing as well. The citizens sign their name on the dotted line, eager to take part in something greater, but then realize that the core they are being pulled toward is not a core but a hole—a big, bad, black hole that sucks away the autonomy they have given up and leaves nothingness in its place. And thus commences the disintegration of the individual. Self-sacrifice becomes impossible after all, since there is no longer any self to sacrifice.
So we might reject the ethic of the social hydra. But don’t go off founding new liberal states just yet. Some of you will have realized that the above arguments apply to the ideal of liberal autonomy as well.
Liberalism holds the autonomy of the individual supreme, in the same way that communitarianism emphasizes the supremacy of the community. According to liberalism, what we choose is not as important as our right to choose, and it is this right that is to be preserved at all costs. That’s why we have a separation of Church and State. We are free to choose our own way. There is no substantive check on what we may choose, so long as we don’t go off tormenting the communitarians. We thereby arrive at a non-judgmental form of government whose role is merely procedural, protecting our right to choose without evaluating the substance of our choices. It is the triumph of form over content.
And because the right to choose outstrips what we choose, there is no substantive condition our choices must meet in order to be worth acting on. Our ends are worth respecting not because they align with an external rubric of right and wrong, but because they satisfy the formal condition of having been chosen freely.
Need I write this paragraph? Because there is no external check to constrict what we choose, we can choose anything and nothing. Because the autonomous will is constrained by nothing above itself, the value of its choices derives from within and it thus becomes a self-contained moral apparatus, condemned to be its own guide and yet without a compass with which to do so. There is no mechanism for re-orientation. Nor can the autonomous will get traction on external moral terrain in order to take any first steps, and it thus attains unrestricted potential at the cost of necessary stasis. Because the will can choose nothing, and because the will is, in an important sense, a function of what it chooses, the will itself must be, in an important sense, nothing as well. Just a big, black hole that sucks away its own autonomy. The will is free; it is caged. Absolute freedom fetters absolutely.
This argument assumes that the autonomous will can indeed choose whatever it wants and retain its autonomy. If this is so, then the alternatives of Confucian communitarianism and liberal autonomy are not in fact two choices. The first is simply the second masquerading at the level of society rather than the level of the agent. In the first, what the community may do is unimpeded by anything above it. In the second, what the community may do is impeded by how the individual will checks it, but what the individual will may choose is unimpeded by anything above it. Both views lead to disintegration of the individual, and both deny the fundamental unit of moral worth—the community or the individual will—any mechanism by which to re-orient its course. The two political theories are simply two descriptions of what boils down to a single choice. Which means, of course, that we have no choice after all. We can have both; we can have neither. Unable to make a move in one direction or the other, we are condemned to necessary stasis.
Perhaps we’re doomed to choosebetween Scylla and Charybdis, with no way to steer ourselves out of this imbroglio. Then agan, I never would have found myself at this juncture had by teacher not sparked my philosophical impulse. Which means that I never would have seen China in this way unless I had come here, and that I would never have seen my home country in this way unless I had left it. How’s that for re-orientation?