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Confucius, Hegel, and human rights.

The cultural, philosophical, and scientific movement known as the 'Enlightenment' established as 'self-evident' certain rights that belong to all rational agents. The justification for these rights was varyingly grounded on natural law or on the providence of a divine creator. Current policies of Western governments concerning international engagement are based on these self-evident rights, even though the natural law upon which they are based is self-evidently not self-evident and the belief in a divine creator is not universally shared. On what philosophical foundation might human rights then rest? I look to two thinkers, one of which was entirely outside of the sphere of influence created by the enlightenment project, the second of which wrote directly after the 'Age of Enlightenment' (and both of which, ironically enough, have been employed by various Chinese governments to justify their structures of government) to see to what extent a different justification for ethical engagement might be established, especially between cultures that do not share 'self-evident' principles. Accordingly, I will give a brief account of human rights as they developed during the Enlightenment, and will then try to establish an alternative account of human rights and obligations as they are articulated in the philosophies of Confucius and G.W.F. Hegel.

Part 1: The Enlightenment Project

Sapere Aude! Dare to know! (Kant 1983, 41). For Immanuel Kant this dictum thematized the essence of the enlightenment project. In his short essay of 1784, entitled, "What is Enlightenment?" Kant expanded on his belief that the enlightenment project provided an audacious new direction for human development. Implicit in this formulation, 'Dare to know' are, in my estimation, three essential claims that differed from previous Western philosophical movements. First, the enlightenment project argues for the universal autonomy of all rational agents. Second, it views itself as independent of and superior to the determinations of history. And finally, it argues for a particular, determinate nature of political and moral structures, the character of which will be determined by the previous two principles.

Kant's writings on moral philosophy attempt to demonstrate that all rational creatures have equal access to the moral law by way of their rational capacities. As a result, moral truths are no longer determined by authority figures that have privileged access to certain texts or governmental positions. Both the prince and the pauper, priest and parishioner have an equal capacity for moral worth. In this sense, Kant says that the enlightenment represents "man's release from his self incurred tutelage" (Kant 1983, 41). The individuals, qua individual, are equally legislators of the moral law. God, himself, in fact, is respectable only insofar as he participates in the rationality that we, too, possess. (1) Because we have this rational capacity, we have the duty to establish for ourselves an understanding of the moral truths, and fail in that duty insofar as we defer to anyone else, even God, for the formulation of those truths.

While Kant carries the rationalist perspective to its ultimate moral conclusion, Descartes clearly inaugurated this era of 'oubliette introspection.' For him, the philosopher began with truths that were certain to him or herself, (2) and from those subjectively certain truths built up on indubitable understanding of the structures of reality themselves. Beginning an intellectual investigation with anything outside of oneself was tantamount to building a house on an uncertain foundation. While resting the investigation on the immediate certainty of one's own mind provided an Archimedean point about which all things could then be leveraged.

This reliance on personal insight into the rational structure of the universe liberated the inquirer from the irrational and inherited structures of history. As a rational agent, one was in the position to judge history rather than being determined by history. Descartes "was struck by the large number of falsehoods that [he] had accepted as true" (Descartes 1984, 12). It was his duty to "demolish everything completely and start again right from the foundations" (Descartes 1984, 12). Only with such a fundamental re-evaluation could he, or any rational agent, free his or herself from inherited prejudices and establish a system of beliefs that could be universally employed.

This emphasis on the individual's subjectivity and freedom from historical determination does not imply an arbitrary or indeterminate content to the rational truths of which any individual thinker would come to be aware. Quite to the contrary, rationalism in the age of enlightenment remained convinced that any rational truth would be universally recognized by any other rational agent. Universality was, after all, the very measure of reason for Kant. Thus, though one began with subjective principles, and in this way all might equally be considered to be the author of the moral law, there was no danger that different understandings of the moral law would ever arise. Because reason was the same among all people, though each began with themselves, all would arrive at the same conclusion. Descartes had every faith that anyone following him in his meditations would see the truths he arrived at as equally indubitable. In this way, one might return to Kant's dictum, sapere aude, with confidence that all who dare to know will arrive at the same conclusions. Rational truth is both generated by and separable from the individual rational agent.

We can see these three characteristics of enlightenment thought (i.e., individual autonomy, freedom from the determination of history, and confidence in a necessary and determinate moral structure) reflected in the political thinkers of the day as well. They were equally confident that their claims would meet universal recognition. (Or, more pragmatically, if universal recognition was not possible, they strove for agreement among all rational agents. This agreement may or may not include any particular ruler to whom the moral certitude of their political truths was being pointed out.) Take for instance the formulation closest to our own cultural milieu:
 We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are
 created equal, that they are endowed by their creator
 with certain inalienable rights; that among these are life,
 liberty, and the pursuit of happiness; ... whenever any
 form of government becomes destructive of these ends,
 it is the right of the people to alter or abolish it, and to
 institute a new government, laying its foundation on
 such principles, and organizing its powers in such form,
 as to them shall seem most likely to effect their safety
 and happiness.
 (Jefferson 1990, 107)

And also that given by John Locke almost a hundred years earlier:
 Man being born, as has been proved, with a title to
 perfect freedom and uncontrolled enjoyment of all the
 rights and privileges of the law of nature equally with
 any other man or number of men in the world, has by
 nature a power not only to preserve his property- that is
 his life, liberty, and estate- against the injuries and
 attempts of other men, but to judge of and punish the
 breaches of that law in others as he is persuaded the
 offense deserves....
 (Locke 1990, 62)

The characteristics of enlightenment thought are readily apparent in each. For both Locke and Jefferson, there is a conviction of the universally shared individual autonomy of all rational agents entering into a politically agreement. The truths established are 'self-evident' to any moral actor. These truths trump the pre-existence of any already existent political regime. And finally, the determinate content of these truths is not up for debate. Though arrived at by way of a respect for the reason inherent in all persons, the conclusions reached by each of those individual rational agents will necessarily be universally acknowledged, should one but 'dare to know.'

Part 2: Confucius and Hegel on an Alternative View of Human Rights and Rationality

I believe that two thinkers, quite differently placed in relation to the enlightenment period, offer a similar and at times compelling critique of these rationalist principles. In the following section I will argue that G.W.F. Hegel and Confucius, in their shared critique of legalism, argue for a different role of history in the establishment of moral goals. This differently conceived historical determination grounds a belief in a different kind of subjectivity that, in the end, is able to produce a different kind of truth from those presented by the rationalist thinkers of the enlightenment. Though their combined account does not do justice to the modern understanding of human rights, they do successfully reposition rights back within a human context rather than a purely rational one. I will show how this repositioning allows for greater dialog and a more realistic approach to international engagement.

The first objection to be considered in this context is one that criticizes the faith that the enlightenment has in the ability of any single individual to establish on his or her own a universally acknowledged truth that is rich or deep enough to have any broader significance or meaning. I consider this objection first because it is also the one that may seem the most apparent to a modern observer. Living today in a multi-ethnic, multi-cultural society, it is difficult to put one's entire faith in anyone's claim that some truth or another is 'self-evident.' We are too familiar with too man cultural traditions that have no similar formulation to this self-evident truth. (3) Even Confucius, a writer coming from a remarkably homogenous society, has the insight to realize that the structure of humanity's relation to humanity is not immediately apparent through the use of independent reasoning. He claims in the Analects that "I am not the kind of person who is born with knowledge. Rather, I am the kind of person who loves antiquity and who diligently looks there for it" (Confucius 2001, 7:20). And, "To learn [[TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]--xue] without thinking [[TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]--si] will lead to confusion. To think without learning, however, will lead to fruitless exhaustion" (Confucius 2001, 2:15). The enlightenment claim that all knowledge is readily apparent to anyone who 'dares to know' is clearly rebutted in these comments. (4) What Confucius offers instead is a gradualist understanding of truth that roots itself [[TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]-- ben] in a given particular tradition. On our own, humans are impoverished creatures. We become enculturated, moral, and humane [[TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]-- ren] by diligently learning the lessons of those who have come before us. Truth is a multi-generational task that allows us to incrementally refine ourselves and our relations to those around us. "From the vantage point of the Zhou, one's gaze can encompass the two dynasties that preceded it. How brilliant in culture it was! I follow the Zhou" (Confucius 2001, 3:14). By following the Zhou, who themselves followed the Shang and the Xia, we are never set the Cartesian task of establishing first principles. To desire to start anew would be to roughen the collective project of cutting and polishing that constitutes the goal of culture.

One of the ramifications of this multi-generational embrace of truth is a commitment to a particular path, a particular way, that goes necessarily in a particular direction. Though Confucius does not address the problem, for those of us living in a pluralistic culture it seems apparent that different civilizations can consistently develop what it means to be human for that culture, but do so differently from other cultures. For any given culture, the path of humanity may be a 'way without a crossroads' (Fingarette 1998, 18-36). Within that metaphor, however, there can be multiple roads that never cross that, nevertheless, are constructed and taken by different groups of earnest and well meaning people.

G.W.F. Hegel, in his critique of a purely rational understanding of subjectivity addressed this possibility. Hegel was, himself, a strong advocate for enlightenment ideals and the French and American Revolutions. Nevertheless, he felt the philosophical foundations that supported the revolutions were naive and only partially true. In the concluding sections of the chapter of the Phenomenology of Spirit dedicated to 'Reason,' Hegel makes an implicit criticism of both Kantian rationality and the Lockean conception of human rights. Pure reason, he argues, is insufficient to provide content to our moral actions. Reason, taken on its own, could not judge between a system of private property or communal ownership, for example. Each, from within its own perspective, is entirely rational. They are mutually contradictory but equally sustainable if universalized. "Property, simply as such, does not contradict itself ... Non-property, the non-ownership of things, or a common ownership of goods, is just as little self-contradictory" (Hegel 1977, 258).

For Hegel, this indeterminacy implicit in reason indicates two things: first, the Kantian (and more broadly rationalist) claim that reason taken on its own can provide guidance for human affairs and access to universal truth can result in mutually contradictory claims. Second, therefore, the particular determinations of reason that we employ and appear 'self-evident' to us are not purely rational claims, but rational claims that come from within a particular tradition. Locke argues that civilization's primary goal is to protect the property of those who have come together as a community. That rational claim was, in fact, made not by 'pure reason' but by a land holding subject of the British empire. It makes sense in the context of England or any of its satellite states. It might make equal sense for a group of people to argue that a community's role is to provide for the material well being of all members, and so to require the uniform relinquishment of each actor's claim to property in order to ensure the survival of all its members. (5) As a result, while Hegel advocates understanding human agency as a rational process, it is always a rational process within a particular historical context. (6) To ignore our historicity is to ignore our humanity.

To view ourselves as overly determined by history is equally a mistake, however. Once the possession of a pure a-historical reason is abandoned, Hegel considers the philosophical tenability of a position that believes itself to be entirely determined by history. He does so by way of an analysis of the cultural structures in play in the Sophoclean tragedy, Antigone. For Antigone, the laws of her culture are:
 Stainless celestial figures that preserve in their
 differences the undefiled innocence and harmony of
 their essential nature. The relationship of self-consciousness
 to them is equally clear. They are, and
 nothing more; this is what constitutes the awareness of
 its relationship to them.

 Thus, Sophocles' Antigone acknowledges them as the
 unwritten and infallible laws of the gods.

 'They are not of yesterday or today, but everlasting,
 Though where they come from, none of us can tell.'
 (Sophocles, Antigone, 11. 456-7) They are. If I inquire
 after their origin and confine them to the point whence
 they arose, then I have transcended them; for now it is I
 who am the universal and they are the conditioned and
 (Hegel 1977, 261)

The position that Hegel here represents is one that maintains that humans have no say in the construction of laws. It is the position that claims that "It is not ... because I find something is not self-contradictory that it is right; on the contrary, it is right because it is what is right" (Hegel 1977, 262). What is right is so because its rectitude is written into the very structure of the universe. Ethics in this understanding is the pure and un-embodied voice of reason, not the finite, frail voice of embodied human subjectivity.

But Hegel, in his further analysis of Sophocles' play reveals that Antigone actually constructs the laws to which she had hoped to defer. As long as there was no conflict, the active role we as citizens play in the construction of our core values may not be apparent. But, in the figure of Antigone, we see that the citizenry, through its choices, makes valuable what the culture takes to be valuable, rather than the contrary position that maintains that we make choices due to our unquestionable and independent understanding of moral laws that exist independently of our choices. That is, Antigone, in the stark choice between civic law and familial duty, prioritizes one over the other. She makes that choice. The choice is not made for her. And in that choice is revealed the essential role that we as humans play in prioritizing what we take to be valuable. What lies at the heart of Hegel's implicit critique of the enlightenment is a move to place humans at the center of their own world.

This humanist point is reminiscent of Confucius' claim that "Human beings can broaden the Way- it is not the Way that broadens human beings" (Confucius 2001, 15.29). There is no divine edict that tells us how to be. There is no truth that does not come in human form. "Devoting yourself to transforming the values of the common people, to serving the ghosts and spirits with reverence and yet keeping them at a distance- this might be called wisdom" (Confucius 2001, 6:22). The values of the common people are not transformed by religion but the choices we make in our daily dealings with each other. Kant and Descartes have tried to understand a truth that exceeds their mortal form. They search for the eternal while still in the finite. "The Master said, "You are not yet able to serve people- how could you be able to serve ghosts and spirits ... You do not yet understand life- how could you possibly understand death?" (Confucius 2001, 11:12).

For both Hegel and Confucius, as was indicated in the previous quotations, the goal of virtuous action is establishing connections between people. (7) Should those connections be successfully established, political harmony will follow. "In the application of ritual, it is harmonious ease [[TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]--he] that is to be valued. It is precisely such harmony that makes the way of the Former Kings so beautiful" (Confucius 2001, 1:12). Or, in the terminology employed by Hegel, what each of us as self-conscious subjects desires is recognition. We hope to find our projects and values reflected in the world by other agents that are employed in similar and supportive projects. Without that recognition, we remain fundamentally alienated and un-realized. "Self-consciousness exists in and for itself when and by the fact that it so exists for another; that is, it exists only in being acknowledged" (Hegel 1977, 111). This understanding of subjectivity is obviously what Hegel means by 'Spirit.' In spirit, the individuality of any given self-conscious actor can be so only insofar as it is recognized by another. To be human requires that you expand your understanding of yourself to include that which is other. (8) Spirit, is, in his famous words, the "I that is 'we' and the 'we' that is 'I'.

Compare this to Confucius' concept of 'ren [[TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]], often translated as 'humaneness,' the essential quality possessed by a 'gentleman' [junzi]. "Desiring to take his stand, one who is ren [[TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]] helps others to take their stand; wanting to realize himself, he helps others to realize themselves" (Confucius 2001, 6:30). Humanity, in its ultimate expression cannot be accomplished by a singular actor. We as humans require the engagement and acknowledgement of a community. (9)

Such acknowledgement can only take place when there is a shared structure that over-arches the individual actors. Only by having a common language, participating in common institutions, and engaging in common tasks can one fully develop who one in fact is. This shared system of subjectivity can only be accomplished insofar as there is a common system of education that links the actors together. Without a common language and a mutually accepted structure of recognition, human existence can only remain undeveloped. As a result, the network of personal and structural communication established between people that provides the medium through which actors are linked is the essence of Spirit.

The essence of ren [[TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]] is similarly accomplished by way of a shared structure of communications, namely by way of the rights [[TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]--li]. "Restraining yourself and returning to the rites [[TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]--li] constitutes ren [[TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]]. If for one day you managed to restrain yourself and return to the rites, in this way you could lead the entire world back to ren" (Confucius 2001, 12.1). Constructing harmonious relations between people, that is 'realizing yourself so that others may realize themselves' or 'establishing 'sympathetic understanding,' requires that a framework be agreed upon that allows each agent to participate and be recognized. For Confucius, that framework was the rites, understood broadly as the inherited rituals of society that provide a platform for each to 'take their stand.' (10) "If you are respectful but lack ritual training you will become timid; if you are courageous but lack ritual training you will become unruly; and if you are upright but lack ritual training you will become inflexible" (Confucius 2001, 8:2). That is, the lack of ritual training prevents you from establishing harmonious relations which is the essence of ren [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]. (11)

These rites are impossible to enact, however, unless there is a common understanding of them established by way of a shared cultural inheritance [[TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]--wen]. This prerequisite is the source of Confucius' emphasis on education. One must "set one's heart upon learning" (Confucius 2001, 2:4) and, "If, in the course of [one's] duties [one] finds [one]self with energy to spare, [one] should devote it to the study of [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]--wen" (Confucius 2001,1:6). One should become familiar with the Odes, the Histories, the Book of Rights, the Book of Changes. Through this shared educational background, one will be able to converse and develop a relationship with anyone who has done similar work. (12)

The resulting understanding of ethics and moral obligation is a much more ambiguous one than was set out by the group of enlightenment thinkers that we earlier examined. The individual, engaged in a process of thought divorced from his or her surroundings, is not able to arrive at moral truths that would be universally acknowledged. We can no longer pretend in the invocation of our understanding of moral rights, that we are the mouthpiece of impartial reason. Hegel and Confucius argue that we always speak from within the context of a given tradition. This historicizes our moral claims. Things can no longer be 'self-evident.' They must, instead, be negotiated. The structures and principles that we find convincing must be extended to our interlocutors, not by way of a necessary and certain appeal to their universal and non-cultural rationality, but by way of establishing a shared view of the world.

Such an establishment, these two humane historicists argue, can only occur when we are able to speak each other's language and share a mutual understanding that is grounded in a study of each other's history and cultural inheritance. Only then will we be able to bring about harmonious interaction through rituals that we would each understand. Some moral force is lost in this concession. We are no longer able to proclaim that actions which are repugnant to us are simply wrong. And we, equally, open up ourselves to our interlocutors counter claim that our actions are not, themselves, the highest form of societal organization. We gain, however, a commitment to an educational system that has to emphasize the acquisition of the languages and systems of engagement for all those people with whom we hope to have dealings. This system holds out the hope that if we learn enough about 'the other' we can construct a harmony that is built out of mutual understanding. Confucius and Hegel, in other words, transform the exhortation 'sapere aude' to fabere aude;' from "dare to know" to "dare to construct."


Confucius. 2001. The Analects. Trans. Edward Gilman Slingerland in Readings in Classical Chinese Philosophy, eds. P.J. Ivanhoe and Bryan Van Norden. New York: Seven Bridges Press.

Descartes, Rene. 1984. Meditations on First Philosophy in The Philosophical Writings of Descartes, Vol. 2. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Fingarette, Herbert. 1998. Confucius: The Secular as Sacred. Prospect Heights, IL: Waveland Press.

Hegel, G.W.F. 1977. The Phenomenology of Spirit. New York: Oxford University Press.

Hsun Tzu. 1996. Basic Writings. New York: Columbia University Press.

Jefferson, Thomas. 1990. "The Declaration of Independence," in The Human Rights Reader, ed. Laqueur and Rubin. New York: Penguin Group.

Kant, Immanuel. 1983. "What is Enlightenment" in PerpetualPeace and Other Essays. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Co.

--. 1981. Grounding for the Metaphysics of Morals. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Co.

Locke, John. 1990. Second Treatise on Government in The Human Rights Reader, ed. Laqueur and Rubin. New York: Penguin Group.

Minogue, Kenneth. 1990. "The History of the Idea of Human Rights," in The Human Rights Reader, ed. Laqueur and Rubin. New York: Penguin Group.

Peerenboom, Randall. 1998. "Confucian Harmony and Freedom of Thought," in Confucianism and Human Rights, ed. De Barry and Tu Wei-ming.

Russon, John. 1995. "Heidegger, Hegel, and Ethnicity: The Ritual Basis of Self-Identity," in Southern Journal of Philosophy. Vol. 33.

(1) See, for example, "Even the Holy One of the Gospel must first be compared with our ideal of a moral perfection before he is cognized as such ... whence have we the concept of God as the highest good? Solely from the idea of moral perfection that reason frames a priori ..." (Kant 1981, 21).

(2) The pronouns were indifferently gendered for Descartes. Kant, on the other hand, seems less convinced of a woman's rational capacity and, therefore, moral autonomy.

(3) To be fair, Jefferson did phrase his claim with the caveat, "We hold these truths to be self-evident ..." It is unclear how tentatively he meant his seeming claim to universality to be taken. Read in the context of other enlightenment thinkers, especially Kant, we can confidently claim that if Jefferson was being coy, others of his generation were entirely earnest.

(4) See also Xunzi's despair about the ability for any individual agent to come to an understanding of rich or meaningful truths: "I once tried spending the whole day in thought, but I found it of less value than a moment of study. I once tried standing on tiptoe and gazing at the distance, but I found I could see much farther by climbing to a high place ..." (Hsun Tzu 1996, 16).

(5) In fact, I maintain that these divergent rational interpretations lie at the heart of what came to be know as first and second order rights established by the United Nations. England and the United States pressed for the inclusion of civil and political rights (freedom from government oppression) while the communist countries dominated by the Soviet Block required the inclusion of social welfare rights (the right to have one's government provide for one). See, for a discussion of this tension, (Minogue 1990, 3-17), especially p. 14. For a discussion of this distinction in a Confucian context, see (Peerenboom 1998 234-260), especially p. 248.

(6) See John Russon for a similar point: "As modern philosophy has insisted, we are indeed reflective, rational, self-conscious beings, but what is most interesting about us ... is how these definitive facets of our existence themselves depend on the existence of fundamentally non-reflective, non self-conscious, and (in some respects) non-rational dimensions of our existence" (Russon 1995, 509).

(7) See Confucius, "All that I teach is unified by one guiding principle ... Loyalty [[TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]--zhong] tempered by sympathetic understanding [[TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]--shu]" (Confucius 2001, 4.15).

(8) See, "The 'I' is the content of the connection and the connecting itself." (Hegel 1977, 104).

(9) See, "This unity the true work; it is the very heart of the matter [die Sache Selbst] which completely holds its own and is experienced as that which endures, independently of what is merely the contingent result of an individual action" (Hegel 1977, 246). Though this quotation is taken a bit out of context, because die Sache Selbst is not the final formulation of a community's goals, the sense of abiding communal engagement is not ultimately misleading.

(10) See (Confucius 2001, 2:4) and also, "A gentleman who is broadly learned with regard to culture and whose comportment has been disciplined by the rites can, I think, rely upon this training and so avoid straying from the way" (Confucius 2001, 6:27).

(11) See, "... if you know enough to value harmonious ease but try to attain it without being regulated by the rites this will not work ..." (Confucius 2001, 1:12).

(12) See, (Confucius 2001, 3.8), in which Confucius quotes a passage from the Odes and his disciple immediately understands its broader implications. "Zixia, you are truly one who can anticipate my thoughts! It is only with someone like you that I can begin to discuss the Odes."
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Author:Mackintosh, Brian K.
Publication:East-West Connections
Geographic Code:9CHIN
Date:Jan 1, 2004
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