Solving social problems the Confucian way

In writing my thoughts about Confucianism (here and here), one thing that struck me was the strong influence that its “Doctrine of the Mean” has, even down to this day. This is reflected in the “Chinese preference for negotiation, mediation, and the “middle man” as against resorting to rigid, impersonal statutes. Until recently, legal action has been regarded as something of a disgrace, a confession of human failure in the ability to work things out by compromises that typically involve family and associates. Figures are not available for China, but in the mid-1980s Japan in ratio to its population had one lawyer for every twenty-four in the United States.” (Huston Smith, The World’s Religions, p.191)

In reading that passage, I immediately recalled a day in September 1983 where this was played out in practice. It was the day before my family and I were to leave Sri Lanka to come to the US. I had a huge number of things to take care of before our departure and was driving in the heart of the business district of the capital city Colombo. While I was stopped in traffic, a car backed out of a parking spot in the main street, made a wide arc, and headed straight for me. Clearly the reversing driver had not seen me but I had no place to move and could only watch helplessly as the other car hit mine broadside creating a huge dent in the door.

I got out of my car as did the other driver, who turned out to be a very young woman, probably still in high school, and clearly not a very experienced driver. She was obviously shaken by the experience, although the accident happened at such low speed that neither of us was really in any physical danger.

But the fact remained that my car was damaged and although she acknowledged that she was completely at fault, I immediately realized what a problem this created for me. I simply did not have the time to make police reports, get multiple repair estimates, file claims with insurance agencies, and do all the other dreary things that become necessary in situations like this. It was also too much to ask friends or relatives to be saddled with all this legal and bureaucratic work for me in my absence.

The simplest solution would have been for both of us to have agreed that I would simply get the car repaired and send her the bill for payment. But even if she agreed to this, I had no guarantee that she would pay up later and, since I would be far away by then, I had no means of enforcing payment. Similarly, she could not agree to such an informal arrangement since she had no guarantee that I would not take advantage of her by inflating the repair bill by getting non-accident-related extra work done on the car or similar dishonest acts. This is always the problem in such situations. The people involved usually do not know and trust each other and thus we resort to the cumbersome legal system to step in as a neutral arbiter. Both of us wanted to avoid this.

We were at an impasse and stood there for awhile wondering what to do.

Then I had a brainwave, triggered by the fact that the woman was ethnic Chinese, a very small minority in Sri Lanka. I remembered that down the street from where the accident happened was a sporting goods store owned by Mr. Chang who was the father of a good friend of mine from my undergraduate days and whose home I had visited several times. I asked whether she knew him and she said yes so I suggested that we both go to his store and place our dilemma before him. So we both walked over and he greeted us and listened to us explain the problem. When we were done, he simply stood up and told her that he knew me and would vouch for my integrity that I would not cheat her with the repair bill. And then he told me that he knew her and her family and would vouch for the fact that they would pay the bill when it was sent to them.

And that was it. It was over in a few minutes over cups of tea and everything subsequently worked out just as had been decided, Confucian style. For its success, it depended on every one of us having a sense of honor that was important to maintain. The woman and I both sought to retain the respect of Mr. Chang, whom we viewed as a respected elder, and did not want to let him down by not carrying out the promises he had made on our behalf. He was putting on the line his own honor as an elder whose moral authority was sufficiently powerful that it obliged us to fulfill our promises to him.

I really like the Confucian idea that the best way to establish a just and humane society is by cultivating a sense of honor and propriety among the people, to establish standards for behavior for the various relationships that exist in society, negotiating solutions to problems by consensus rather than in an adversarial and antagonistic way, and establishing all these values as strong traditions that people feel honor-bound to respect, rather than as laws that force people to do so under pain of punishment.

The Confucian way says that we all function better when we take the collective good into account. It seems compatible with the vision of John Rawls of using people’s intuitive sense of justice to create a social structure whereby the powerful cannot obtain runaway dominance over the powerless.

This emphasis on the collective good will be a hard sell in a highly litigious society like the US is now. It goes against the individualistic ethos where the idea is that I should concern myself only with the well-being of myself and my family and others have to fend for themselves, and that by each individual striving for self-betterment, the collective good somehow emerges.

POST SCRIPT: Bush in Albania and the Vatican

The Daily Show reports on Bush’s recent travels.


  1. says

    Mano, I’d like to link to your series on various religions, and am linking to the evolution series you just started, but the “Categories” link doesn’t ,yield any results and I see no tags on the posts. Is there a way to get links to them without searching exhaustively? Thanks!

  2. says

    Dear RBH,

    You have touched on a point on which I feel guilty. I never got around to categorizing and tagging posts, which is something I kept meaning to do. Your request has given me an incentive to learn how to do so in the future. I am not sure if I can do so for all the old ones as well but will try it over the weekend.

  3. wanderer says

    Confucian ideology is not the rosy way of life you are portraying.

    In Chinese society, Confucian ways dictate the father to be the head of the household. As such, the children are subject to him.

    As a result, most Chinese college students do not choose their major in college. The father (or mother) selects some ‘practical’ course of study.

    In addition, the emphasis on using exams to move up the social ladder has resulted in generations of students that concentrate more on memorization and less on thinking.

    Further, the Confucian tendency away from formal laws gives rise to corruption and nepotism. Today Chinese society is burdened by both of these.

    Finally, Confucius believed women were inferior to men. It took Mao’s rejection of Confucianism (women hold up half the sky) to put females on even ground.

    A very good argument could be made that Confucius caused more harm to Chinese society than good.

  4. says


    The point of the post is not that the detailed elements of Confucius’s philosophy are perfect in every way. They are obviously not. He was a product of his times and probably shared the same values and prejudices.

    The point was to highlight the model itself, where good behavior is extolled and encouraged and upheld by strong bonds of tradition, rather than depending on laws and punishment.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *