CHING FENG: Journal on Christianity and Chinese Religion and Culture


VOLUME 38, No. 3.


September 1995




Dr. Stephen T. Chan




Heiner Roetz. Confucian Ethics of the Axial Age. Albany, N.Y.: State University of New York Press, 1993.


                        The Confucian Ethics of the Axial Age by Heiner Roetz, lecturer at the J. W. Goethe-Universitat in Frankfurt, represents one of the best resources in recent publications that makes German sinology readily accessible to the wider English readership. Originally published in German [Die chinesische Ethik der Achsenzeit], this book was translated and rewritten by Roetz himself into English, thus rendered it with genuine originality and uniqueness.

                        In the first two chapters, Roetz provides a succinct and cogent introduction to European sinology, begins from French Enlightenment, through Kant and Hegel, and consummates in Max Weber. In the first place, Chinese Confucianism received a positive evaluation in German Enlightenment thinkers, such as Christian Wolff (1679-1754) and Immanuel Kant (1724-1804). They described Confucianism as a good representation of a culture that is governed by an autonomous natural reason and communal morality. To them, Chinese Confucian moral teaching substantiates their claim of an a priori moral reasoning independent of the Christian tradition.

                        On the other hand, Montesquieu (1689-1755) was the first to levy a negative critique against the Chinese culture. To Montesquieu, the Chinese emphasis on natural law and order hampers the spirit of progress and threatens the fulfillment of a truly egalitarian society which was the socio-political ideal of French Revolution. Following Montesquieu, Hegel (1770-1831) places Confucianism as an evolutionary stage which leads the way to an emancipated and enlightened civil religious society. Confucianism received a low esteem in the Hegelian philosophy of history and religion.  Hence "parallel to the decline of the two vogue words of the eighteenth century, 'nature' and 'cosmopolite,' China's star began to wane.'(p.9). In sum, "the positive outlook of the [German] Enlightenment, and the negative one of Montesquieu and the German Idealists mark two idealtypes of Western [European] interpretation of China"(p.10) which have remained determinative for later development of Western sinology.

                        Max Weber follows the Hegelian interpretation of Chinese culture and "describes China in terms of particularism, world optimism, mythos, and heteronomy, as opposed to universalism, world domination, transcendence, and autonomy in the West."(p.1) The Weberian discourse continues to dominate a large part of European and American sinology. It is exactly at this point that Roetz inaugurates the polemic cause of his work. He contents that "this discourse has entered into a peculiar liaison with another discourse which primarily takes place in the United States - the neopragmatic or contextualistic discourse."(p.1) The American neopragmatic sinologists, such as Herbert Fingarette, Chad Hansen, Henry Rosemont, David Hall, and Roger Ames, argue that Chinese philosophy is deeply embedded in its particular context of thought form, language, socio-political-economical conditions, and religious traditions, therefore it is incommensurate to other cultures. According to Roetz, the neopragmatic emphasis on the particularism of cultural tradition at the expense of its universal potential leads to a blind devotedness to context and submissive acceptance of tradition. Roetz vigorously rejects the neopragmatic interpretation of Chinese philosophy and religion and reproves it as "naive, and ...... ethically dubious."(p.3)

                        Confucian Ethics of the Axial Age is supplemented by the subtitle: "A reconstruction under the aspect of the breakthrough toward postconventional thinking." Its central theme is thus explicated by two heuristic ideas: the idea of axial age breakthrough and the theory of postconventional ethics.(Chapter 3) These two heuristic theories are important for Roetz to counter the claims of Hegelianism and Neopragmatic sinology. In order to counter the Hegelian claim that reduces Confucianism to a stage of universal philosophy of religion, Roetz relies on Karl Jasper's theory of axial age that identifies China as part of the universal history of the axial age cultures. "The common horizon of the axial age" enables us to resist "the Hegelian-Weberian perspective of the de facto subjugation of the rest of the world under the Western supremacy."(p.25) On the other hand, Roetz introduces the cognitive-developmental theory of Lawrence Kohlberg in order to counter the neopragmatic perspective that tend to over-emphasize the particularism of Chinese culture. Kohlberg's cognitive-developmental theory provides for Roetz a framework of chronological development of moral reasoning which makes claim to "intercultural validity and to the refutation of ethical relativism."(p.28)

                        Lawrence Kohlberg develops his theory by philosophical reflections and

longitudinal empirical research. He concludes that human moral reasoning consists of a logical sequence of irreversible stages: Stage 1, punishment and obedience orientation. Stage 2, instrumental relativist orientation. Stage 3, interpersonal concordance or "good boy-nice girl" orientation. Stage 4, "law and order" orientation. Stage 5, socio-contract legalistic orientation. Stage 6, universal ethical-principle orientation. Stage 1 and 2 are the preconventional level. Stage 3 and 4 are the conventional level. Stage 5 and 6 are the postconventional or autonomous level. The transition from the conventional to postconventional level usually first begins from a stage of youthful protest which is marked as Stage 4 1/2.

                        The Kohlbergian theory of moral development serves for Roetz as framework of analysis and critique of Confucian ethics in the context of last centuries of Zhou dynasty. The thesis of the work is to argue and show that "China's entrance into the 'axial age,' then, means the transcending of the conventional morality and the transition towards postconventional thinking."(p.265) Thus the Kohlbergian developmental theory, to Roetz, explains the "logical possibility" of the axial age breakthrough in Chinese culture.

                        Roetz not only relies on Kohlberg's theory to study Confucian ethics, he also utilizes it as criteria to measure classical Chinese ethical thoughts. At the end of the work, he laments the relapse of Mo Di's utilitarianism to a calculation of benefit (Stage 2). While both Yang Zhi's hedonism and Daoist naturalism exemplify the youthful protest against convention that pertains to Stage 4 1/2, the law and order morality of Legalists represents conventional ethics of Stage 4.

                        In his close reading of classical Chinese philosophical texts, Roetz finds that some of the texts resemble the Kholbergian distinction of moral stages, such as Xunzi's small and medium conduct, and the great Dao.(p.274) But the example par excellence of the postconventional ethics can be found in the Confucian concept of ren as defined in the Golden Rule, thus we come to the heart of Roetz's argument.

                        The search for postconventional ethical breakthrough at the time of Zhou is occasioned by deep social and cultural crisis, such as the "loss of tradition and of nature, tyranny, war, and economic upheaval"(p.15). In the word of Zhuangzi, it is a time that "the art of the Dao comes to be torn apart." What people needs at this time of transvaluation is a kind of concept that can bridge the chasm of tradition and novelty, a kind of teaching that can transcend the crisis and lead to enlightenment. According to Roetz, the Confucian concept of ren (humaneness) is the best candidate of the enlightened concept. The Confucian understanding of ren is a dynamic concept that replaces the old hierarchical ethics by a new reciprocal ethics. The spirit of reciprocity in ren is evidenced in its etymological notion of "man" and "two."  The oft-quoted passage in Lunyu: "To overcome one's self and to return to propriety is humaneness" also exemplifies the concept of ren as the higher norm that transcends the rigidity of conventional ethos, and on the other hand safeguards the tradition from degenerating into formalism. The reason that ren can serve this transvalution is because it replaces hierarchy by reciprocity as the center of ethics. Hence according to Roetz, it is the concept of ren understood in the context of Golden Rule that constitutes the postconventional ethics which belongs to Stage 6 in Kohlberg's cognitive-developmental theory.

                        Although the notion of Golden Rule can be found in many classical texts of ancient civilizations, it does not have a positive reception in modern philosophy. The idea of Golden Rule was questioned by Locke and Leibniz as relativistic and not innate, and ultimately refuted by Kant as trivial and replaced by the categorical imperative.(p.136) Roetz, however, argues in light of Kohlberg's cognitive-developmental theory that the Golden Rule is in fact a genuine reflective ethical consideration and exhibits the logical comprehensiveness, universality, and consistency of the postconventional ethics. The Golden Rule is an abstract and universal principle that "takes no account of context, status, casuistry, and tradition, and represents the abstraction of the 'other' as a being of equal dignity like myself."(p.148) "As a maxim neither appealing to tradition nor to the values of concrete contexts, and aiming at symmetry in communication, the Golden Rule is a typical identification sign of the ancient enlightenment civilizations."(p.133) It therefore represents a consummate moral philosophy that transcends cultural boundary and contextual limitation. Interestingly, Paul Ricoeur in his 1986 Gifford Lectures, Oneself as Another, has also commented extensively on the idea of Golden Rule. Ricoeur emphasizes that the idea of reciprocity in Golden Rule is a claim to counter the initial dissymmetry between an agent and a patient. This focus on the corrective and reciprocal function of Golden Rule is in line with Roetz's thought in this work.

                        The major problem and challenge that one can raise against Roetz's Confucian Ethics is the historical discrepancy between the postconventional ethical breakthrough and its actual fate in the course of Chinese history. Instead of materializing its early epoch of enlightenment in later history, Confucianism digresses into an ideology that support and justify status quo. And the Golden Rule "is distorted all too quickly incorporating the hierarchies of society into it."(p.277) Therefore the modern fate of Confucianism, beginning from the May Fourth Movement, often suffers from the totalizing rejection of Chinese intellectuals. This iconoclasm is even evidenced in the historical setting of the June Fourth tragedy of 1989, as pointed out by Roetz that "the statue of liberty on the Tiananmen Square was a clear indication of this attitude."(p.4)

                        The inconsistency between the Confucian enlightenment and its effective history is a fact painfully acknowledged by the author. As he says, "in spite of the Golden Rule of the Lunyu and Mengzi's and Xunzi's anthropology, and in spite of all its partisanship for the weak and poor. Confucianism cannot really take its leave of the world of subordination and inequality. Wherever necessary, it restrains the ruling powers, but it hardly disputes their position which invites abuse."(p.277)

                        Any kind of ontogenic theory of Confucian ethics, even the one that is as best as Roetz's, can be challenged by the historical argument and socio-political critiques commonly raised by many scholars. But, after all, the external critique of historical argument is quite different from the internal critique of Roetz's postconventional ethical analysis. And these two approaches should not be understood as exclusive but complementary and mutually corrective. Roetz's thesis of a postconventional Confucian ethics may not be an absolute truism, but in view of the recent instable political development in Mainland China, Taiwan, and Hong Kong, his hope and vision of a reflective, enlightened, and transforming ethics is certainly a genuine and urgent call. As he expresses this hope at the end of this book, "for in China, too, the project enlightenment began more than two millenniums ago. And in China, too, this project, in spite of all its problems, difficulties, and setbacks, must not fail." (p.280)

Stephen T. Chan

The University of Chicago, U.S.A.




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