> topics > Philosophy

Confucian ecological philosophy bolsters

SHAN HONGZE | 2018-09-28
(Chinese Social Sciences Today)

 Many studies show that the relationship between man and nature will become a major issue to think about and address in the future. Confucianism is in essence an ecological philosophy and can provide inspiration and support for the issue. Photo: Chen Mirong/CSST

Building a community of shared future for mankind is a Chinese proposal to solve problems regarding world peace and development. As the world undergoes dramatic changes, the proposal is sparking in-depth discussions among countries across the globe. Some scholars have paid attention to its fundamental implications, value basis and path of realization, while some have started from the perspective of traditional Chinese culture, particularly Confucianism, to interpret the concept.
Moral community
Renowned ethicist and New Confucian Tu Weiming examined the possibility of building a community from the angles of Confucian ethics and civilizational dialogue. He held that a community is ideal in which people live together, share common values and substantive civic virtue, and unite in their commitment to realizing the common good. The unity allows diverse lifestyles and different religions, as long as the diversity and differences don’t infringe upon the basic freedom and rights of others.

Tu also elaborated on individual respect for others’ freedom and rights, but he laid more emphasis on the importance of the Confucian moral tradition to realizing the global common good. In Confucianism, morality is the prerequisite to a good society.

Therefore, in the Confucian context of “cultivating the moral self, regulating the family, ordering the state well and making all peaceful,” the concept of a community of shared future for mankind is first of all a moral community, which Tu dubbed a “fiduciary community.” In a fiduciary community, interpersonal interaction is not only based on the building of order, but also based on mutual trust and the influence of ethics.

When it comes to Confucian ecological philosophy, it is obviously not enough to confine the discussion to interpersonal relations. The relationship between man and nature should be incorporated into the moral community.

At present, research on Confucian ecological philosophy has been thriving. Many studies show that the relationship between man and nature will become a major issue to think about and address in the future. Confucianism is in essence an ecological philosophy and can provide inspiration and support for the issue.


Expanded fiduciary community
The community of shared future for mankind from the perspective of Confucian ecological philosophy represents an expanded fiduciary community in which humans and other creatures are equal and free. In early civilizations, humans were largely more valued than animals and plants.
For instance, Aristotle maintained that flora and fauna in nature are all production materials for humans to make a living. In ancient China, the royal court of the Shang and Zhou dynasties offered great amounts of sacrifices. According to the Analects, on his return from court after a stable burned down, Confucius asked whether any men were hurt, not horses.

However, Confucianism and traditional Western culture differ in that the former doesn’t regard animals as pure instruments to serve humans and as having no consciousness. It admits the intrinsic value of nature. Hence Confucian humanism is fundamentally different from anthropocentrism. It is an inclusive humanism grounded upon the harmonious coexistence of man and nature. The basic stance is the unity of the two. In short, although Confucianism admits the superiority of humans in thinking and action, it treats existents living in the same field more inclusively.

Much thought from the pre-Qin and Han dynasties reveals that Confucianism had integrated natural existents including animals and plants, even soil and stone, into the range of moral community, as they are described in Mencius as “lovingly disposed to people generally and kind to all things.”

During the Song and Ming dynasty period, Confucianism advocated “the unity of all things” due to the influence of such Buddhist doctrines as “be compassionate to all” and “all living beings are equal.”

Confucian scholars maintain that man is closely tied to nature. While humanity participates in the operation of nature through moral practices and affects the growth of living beings in nature, nature also influences and transforms human life. The sustainable development of humanity is inseparable from the respect for and compliance with natural laws.

Thus humans and all things in nature are in a fiduciary relationship. Such a community structure can be considered as an expansion of the fiduciary community. The moral community of this kind has evident real-world implications that can provide references for human development in the 21st century.

 Previous studies on the Confucian conception of community focus on the world of universal harmony proposed in The Book of Rites. As an ideal political community, the world of universal harmony is significant to Confucian institutional design, but it has no real-world significance. The moral community through the lens of ecological philosophy, on the contrary, is practical. For one thing, ecological destruction is the most prominent and urgent problem facing every country. Both developed and developing nations are seeking intellectual resources for reference. For another, the ecological moral community not only is theoretically meaningful, but can guide more people to take part in advancing global ecological progress.

The resolution of the global ecological crisis entails the joint effort of introspective intellectuals and non-governmental organizations to find the most livable state by striking a balance between self-interests and regional development.

 Confucianism featuring the unity of man and nature stresses that all things in nature are part of the moral community. Humanity should extend moral concern and assume relevant moral obligations to other species in the ecosphere. These thoughts can indirectly encourage humans to better protect nature.
Unity of man and nature
On this basis, two communities are advocated and should be integrated. The first one is the moral community supported by the self, community and nature, and the other one is the community of shared future for mankind shaped out of the civilizational dialogue between the East and the West.

The self doesn’t refer to closed individuals. It is a dynamic, open system. Within the moral community, the self and others form communities through contact and communication. And communities can realize the harmony between man and nature by observing natural laws.

In this structure, humans shoulder the moral responsibility of maintaining the stable man-nature relationship. Civilizational dialogue is inevitable in this era. Marxist theories as well as Western political philosophy and Hindu thought contain the concept of the community of shared future for mankind. Confucians should deepen the dialogue and cooperation with these cultures to build a community of shared future based on equality, inclusiveness, diversity and harmony, thereby jointly coping with the crisis of survival facing mankind.

The integration of the two communities requires Eastern and Western countries to look at the development status quo of the entirety of humanity and deem sustainable human development as the ultimate goal. Driven by free, equal and cooperative global communities, nations should fully absorb each other’s vital intellectual resources when tackling current environmental problems and eventually unite as a whole to solve the ecological crisis.

In the West, with the destruction of the environment and the deepening of reflection on the Enlightenment, many scholars have called for moral concern toward non-living things in the ecosphere.

As early as the 19th century, when the Enlightenment mentality invited the unrestrained exploitation and destruction of natural resources, Thoreau put forward concepts like “community of love,” believing that nature is an expansive community of equals and an inclusive, consanguineous family.

Later ecologists echoed his view. For example, Holmes Rolston used the concept “life-stream” to express the unity of humans and all things in nature. In the life-stream, the line between man and nature is blurred.

These notions coincide with Confucian ecological thought. Confucianism has likewise overcome egocentricity, broken the barrier between the self and the outside world, and paid respect to those in the ecosphere besides humankind, which is consistent with the modern Western concept of ecological community. Although global ecological ethics is still a vision, by current judgment, it meets the demands of future human development. 
Shan Hongze is from the Philosophy College at Nankai University.

(edited by CHEN MIRONG)