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Confucian thought and its worldwide significance

ROGER T. AMES | 2022-09-08 | Hits:
Chinese Social Sciences Today

The human being today is weathering the perfect storm. We’re in the middle of a pandemic. Global warming is ruining the planet. Environmental degradation, food and water shortage, nuclear proliferation, proxy wars, all of these things that human beings are doing today constitute a predicament. And they have one thing in common: these problems that we face today don’t have any boundaries. They’re organic. You can’t solve one of them without solving the others. Human beings are complicit in these problems and the most important thing is that we do have the cultural resources to respond effectively to the human condition, to the situation. We have the cultural resources, but we will need a change in human intentions and human values and human practices. 

Finite games and infinite games
There is an American philosopher named James Carse who gives us a very useful distinction. He makes a distinction between what he calls finite games and infinite games. The nature of finite games is you have a beginning and you have an end. Finite games are played according to a finite set of rules. Finite games are winners and losers playing to win. When it comes to business, sports, or diplomacy, the model that we have today is winners and losers, zero sum. If you win, I lose. But infinite games are very different. Infinite games are me and my granddaughter Sophia strengthening our relationship, so that together we can face an increasingly difficult world, an increasingly complex world. It has to do with collaboration. It has to do with working together so that we can both win. 
So in the world today, we have to move from finite games to infinite games. We have to move from a model of winners and losers to a model of win together or lose together. Now, the finite games can be very closely associated with an ideology of individualism, that it’s individuals, individual actors playing to win. The infinite games have to do with the model of interdependence, an ecological way of thinking, understanding that everything that we do in the world is interdependent. That individualism whether we’re talking about people, corporations, or sovereign states, is a fiction. In order to solve global warming, the pandemic, and food and water shortage, either we work together or we lose together. This is where we are. So, if wisdom won’t carry us to infinite games, then necessity will. As the globe warms, as the problems become increasingly intense, we will have to learn to cooperate. 
Significance of Confucian thought
What is the alternative to the Westphalian model of equal individual sovereign states? There’s a political scientist at Princeton named Michael Walzer, who talks about thick and thin moralities. The thick moralities have fragmented us. Islam, Judaism, Christianity, Hinduism, Ubuntu in Africa. These thick moralities have separated us, and made us into civilizations as seeking their own interest. Michael Walzer wants to challenge us: is there a thin morality that can bring us all together? What I want to suggest is this Confucian tradition, this tradition of China for thousands of years and counting. 
One of China’s most important contemporary philosophers is a man named Zhao Tingyang at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, and Zhao Tingyang has this idea of tianxia tixi of a planetary order. And what he does is he asked the question: where did China come from? Early on, China was a whirlpool, a xuanwo that brought all of these different kinds of people into a shared identity. The one is many, the many (are) one, yiduo bufen. China produced a civilization that China describes itself as he’erbutong, harmony, not sameness. That all of this kind of diversity that is China, different languages, different ways of governance, different ways of celebrating the human experience that over this long history of China, the diversity has been activated to produce the Chinese culture. So we want to ask the question: if we’re looking for a minimalist morality, if we’re looking for a morality that can bring the world together, maybe we could find inspiration in what has happened here in China.
The Chinese concept of minimalist morality is xiao, is this idea of family reverence, is this idea of qinqing, of family feeling. What has maintained the integrity of this diverse population from generation to generation has been the commitment to family. Each generation has the capacity, has the responsibility to inherit the culture, to embody that culture. The physicality is the most obvious signal symbol of the transition from one generation to the next. But the language, the culture, the music, the technologies are also passed from generation to generation, so the living tradition is inherited by a tradition, is studied and understood by the tradition, is expanded upon in commentary, and is used to address the pressing issues of the time. When the hair grows white, the living tradition is passed on to the next generation. This idea of family as being the conduit through which a living tradition passes from generation to generation. It’s really a lesson that can be learned from this Chinese experience. 
The Chinese conception of the political is an isomorphism between family, country, and planetary order, between jia, guo, tianxia tonggou. This kind of isomorphism among these three forums in which we organize the human experience. And so, when I travel around the world, I talk about this prime moral imperative in the Chinese tradition, this notion of xiao, sometimes translated filial piety, but family reverence is probably a better translation. It’s the commitment to family. Michael Walzer’s own response to the need for a minimalist morality is a garden variety version of justice, but justice is a concept. I think what we need is not a concept, but a consensus. The word consensus, “con-” means to bring together, and “sensus,” in Latin, means feeling. And so can we find a human consensus around this idea of family? 
What I’m saying is not that we should take this Confucian morality and carry it to Italy or Uganda, and persuade Italians and Ugandans that they, too, should follow this Confucian model. What I’m arguing is that Italians feel very strongly about family; Ugandans feel very strongly about family. Maybe the Chinese culture, having endured for so long, can be an inspiration for us to look at ourselves and to ask, in our own world what is the highest value, what is the most important human institution, what is the one thing that can bring the world together. My argument comes out of this. Confucian tradition would be that it is the institution of family. Whatever a government can do, it cannot replace the role that the family has in education, in social welfare, in responsibility, in human flourishing. Family is the bottom line in the human experience. Perhaps, we can take advantage of this consensus around family feeling in looking for the minimalist morality that can bring the world together.  
Roger T. Ames is an American Sinologist and professor of philosophy at Peking University. This article was edited from his video speech submitted to the forum.