Printer Friendly

The good is prior to the right: Rosemont on human rights.

I may be exaggerating when I say that until Henry Rosemont came alone, no one in the Western world seriously questioned that very basic assumption of our moral, social, and political way of life, the assumption that all human beings have rights. But this is certainly true for me. This assumption, he points out, "is embedded in a larger conceptual framework in which the essence of human beings lies in their individuality, their autonomy, and their rationality" (Rosemont 1991a, 57). Henry woke us up from our dogmatic slumber by teaching us about a flourishing ancient culture that did not have that conceptual framework and that did not think of human beings as fundamentally autonomous, rational, rights-beating individuals. He has in this way made us more critical of our rights-based moral way of thinking and more open to embracing the way of that ancient tradition.

1. In "Rights-Bearing Individuals and Role-Bearing Persons," written for a festschrift for Herbert Fingarette, Rosemont repeated his well-known argument that Confucius did not and could not have a moral view, let alone a moral philosophy, containing the idea of human rights, because there are no lexical items in classical Chinese that correspond to any of the familiar terms in the concept-cluster of Western morality. So, it is surprising to find Fingarette, who shares essentially the same view of Confucius as Rosemont, responding to this argument by writing:
 I do not think that an absence of explicit reference to
 [rights] or consciousness of it in other times and places
 shows that the claims of universal human rights is
 invalid. That human beings possess fundamental rights
 might still be a moral truth about human beings that is
 independent of culture, and also independent of
 awareness of the concept. The refutation of either of
 these propositions would require arguments more telling
 than any Rosemont provides.
 (Fingarette 1991, 191)

Fingarette is not defending the Western theory of rights, for he goes on to say that "there is a remarkable paucity of sound argument in favor of the thesis of universal human rights" (Fingarette 1991, 191). Nevertheless, Fingarette is speaking as a moral realist, holding that there are objective moral truths regardless of whether we know it or not, regardless of whether we can even give convincing reasons for any putative moral truth. But moral realism is highly problematic. Metaphysical realism is at least sensible, for we can say that there are trees whether or not we have the concept of a tree. But does it make sense to say that human rights exist whether or not we have the concept of moral rights?

My conjecture is that Fingarette is responding in a typical way to what he mistakenly believes is Rosemont's relativism, and "relativism" and "relativist" have become almost as pejorative as the terms "sophism" and "sophist." But what's wrong with being a relativist? Richard Rorty points out that three different views have been associated with the term, "relativism." He writes:
 The first is the view that every belief is as good as every
 other. The second is the view that "true" is an equivocal
 term, having as many meanings as there are procedures
 of justification. The third is the view that there is
 nothing to be said about either truth or rationality apart
 from descriptions of the familiar procedures of
 justification which a given society--ours--uses in one
 or another area of inquiry.
 (Rorty 1991, 23)

It is clear from his writings, especially his essay, "Against Relativism," that Rosemont associates relativism with the first view. And he rejects this view because he sees correctly that if we believe that "every belief is as good as every other," we are forced to either be tolerant or ethnocentric, neither of which is palatable. He writes:
 On the one hand, we might wish to simply accept the
 "diff'rnt strokes for diff'rnt folks" idea, and cease
 believing that our philosophical efforts can find a
 purchase beyond our Western cultural heritage; at this
 extreme, it cannot ultimately make any sense to argue
 that a particular view of human beings is any better, or
 any worse, than any other, because there could be no
 culturally independent grounds for settling the argument.
 On the other hand, we can simply dig in our heels, and
 insist that all human beings do have rights even if they
 are not recognized in other cultures, that if other cultures
 don't have our concept of rights, they should have it,
 and all of them will be the worse morally and politically,
 if they do not.
 (Rosemont 1991b, 74)

Rosemont, of course, does not want to defend rights-based morality, for his sympathies are with Confucianism. What he does is to offer in "Against Relativism" what can be construed as a realist or objectivist alternative. He writes, "I wish to pose for consideration: that there is a conceptual framework--what I will call a "concept-cluster"--within which both ethical statements and an ethical theory can be articulated which can be applicable to, understood and appreciated by, all of the world's peoples" (Rosemont 1991b, 74-75). For Rosemont, that concept-cluster must include the assumptions and presuppositions of the non-Western cultures that constitute seventy-five percept of the world's population.

The construction of a universal conceptual framework is a real possibility for Rosemont, because of his belief that there is something innate in human nature. It is a real possibility, he argues, that there are what he calls homoversal (as opposed to "universal") principles, principles true of the human species. One example Rosemont gives is what some linguists claim is the meta-principle that underlie the particular grammars of the diversity of natural languages, the so-called universal grammar. Another example is the homoversal principles that act as abstract constraints for our apprehension of musical sounds. It is due to these innate constraints that, while classical Chinese music may sound cacophonous at first to ears trained in the tradition of Bach and Mozart, in time it will lose its cacophonous qualities. Rosemont argues that there must be homoversal principles that govern human responses to sounds since it is obvious that there are "many possible forms of music [that] simply cannot be appreciated by human beings due to their biological endowment" (Rosemont 1988, 55).

Rosemont contends that "ethical theories derived from empirically specifiable theories of human nature [based on yet to be discovered homoversal principles] will be very different from ethical theories based on one or another of the variant concepts of practical reason [as, for example, I will add, utilitarianism and Kantianism]" (Rosemont 1988, 59). All this is mere speculation of course, but my problem is with the very idea of the speculation. Even if we can find, in Rosemont's words, "homoversal principles to govern our responses to and evaluations of human conduct," this leaves wide open the range of possible responses and evaluations--just as principles that govern our response to sounds can only eliminate what is not musical to the human ear. They leave open a whole range of possibilities of what a person might consider musical or melodic. Cultural determinants must play a major role for music as well as for ethics. My point is simply that there is no one true or best ethical theory based on any homoversal principles, simply because there are no theories that are not culturally bound.

2. I believe, however, that there is another way to interpret Rosemont's alternative to what he calls relativism. Let us go back to Richard Rorty. Rorty observes that "'relativism' is the traditional epithet applied to pragmatism by realists," because they mistakenly accuse the pragmatist of holding that every belief is as good as every other, the first meaning of "relativism." Ironically, pragmatists (of which Rorty is one) are relativists, but only in the third sense. There are really no self-respecting philosophers who are relativists in the first sense. Pragmatists hold the ethnocentric third view that "there is nothing to be said about either truth or rationality apart from descriptions of the familiar procedures of justification which a given society--ours--uses in one or another area of inquiry" (Rorty 1991, 23).

Rorty explains that pragmatists are not realist because they reject the idea that anyone's views correspond to the nature of things. They think rather:
 [T]hat the very flexibility of the word "true"--the fact
 that it is merely an expression of commendation--insures
 its univocity. The term "true," on his account,
 means the same in all cultures, just as equally flexible
 terms like "here," "there," "good," "bad," "you," and
 "me" mean the same in all cultures. But the identity of
 meaning is, of course, compatible with diversity of
 reference, and with diversity of procedures for assigning
 the terms. So he feels free to use the term "true" as a
 general term of commendation in the same way as his
 realist opponent does--and in particular to use it to
 commend his own view.
 (Rorty 1991, 23)

One can therefore rightfully reject moral or ethical realism and yet not be forced to take the position that "every theory is as good as every other." One can be a pragmatic relativist and reject as meaningless or empty the realist idea of a theory being true because it corresponds to "the way things are." If we eliminate that option, it makes perfectly good sense, contrary to Rosemont's fears, to argue for a particular view of human nature and a way of life, even if there are no culturally independent grounds for settling the argument. If we eliminate that option, whether or not a theory is true depends on how successful you are in justifying that theory to those who are open to your arguments, those with a reasonable ear. You should not be deterred nor, for that matter, surprised, if a fanatic is unmoved by your arguments.

I propose therefore that we take Rosemont at his word when he "poses for our consideration," that is, commends to us, an ethical theory based on a newly constructed concept-cluster "that can be applicable to, understood and appreciated by, all of the world's people." But we will not take him to be saying, as he implied, that this is to be a true theory that the world should accept. We will take him to be saying that this will be a true theory because all reasonable people who constitute the vast majority of the world will accept it. As William James would say and has said, truth is something that happens to an idea.

3. Rosemont is thinking of a theory representative of the Confucian Way, but not the ethical view of classical Confucianism per se. It must be a contemporary theory, a theory for us now, and as such it must address the question of human rights, a concept that did not exist in Confucius's time. That is to say, the idea of human rights must lie at the heart of any ethical theory that has a chance of being accepted by all of the world's people. I am not here to do Henry's work for him (nor am I capable of doing it). But I do want to say a word about why I think this effort has a chance of succeeding.

To begin with, I was struck by a remark in a talk Rosemont gave in the fall of 2002 at Trinity entitled, "Individual Rights Versus Social Justice: A Confucian Meditation." The context was the current East-West debate over the nature and scope of human rights, where Western democracies favored the rights of individual freedom, the so-called first generation rights, and Asian nations favored the rights to have one's minimal needs satisfied, second generation rights. To the best of my memory, what Rosemont said was that you cannot derive second-generation rights from first-generation rights, but you can derive first-generation rights from second-generation rights. I instinctively thought that what he said was not only true and symptomatic of what divides East and West; it holds the key to a way out of the impasse.

It seems evident to me that within the framework of rights-based morality and the individualistic concept of a person, you can only give "lip service" to second-generation rights. The fundamental reason is contained in John Rawl's dictum that the right is prior to the good. What this means, according to Michael Sandel, is that under the assumption that:
 Society [is] composed of a plurality of persons, each
 with its own aims, interests, and conceptions of the good,
 [it is] best arranged when it is governed by principles
 that do not presuppose any particular conception of the
 good; what justifies these regulative principles above all
 is not that they maximize the social welfare or otherwise
 promote the good, but rather that they conform to the
 concept of right [or "just"], a moral category given prior
 to the good and independent of it.
 (Sandel 1998, 1)

It therefore follows, as Sandel again puts it:
 Justice is not merely one value among others, to be
 weighed and considered as the occasion arises, but the
 highest of all social values, the one that must be met
 before others can make their claim ... and when justice
 issues in certain individual rights [Sandel means first-generation
 rights], even the general welfare cannot
 override them.
 (Sandel 1998, 16)

Some philosophers like Thomas Nagel maintain that the priority of rights of individual freedom "presupposes not just a neutral theory of the good, but a liberal individualistic conception [of the good] according to which the best that can be wished for someone is the unimpeded pursuit of his own path, provided that it does not interfere with the rights of others" (Nagel 1973, 9-10). Rawls disagrees, maintaining that in a society where individuals are free to choose their own ends, "we need not suppose ... that people never makes substantial sacrifices for one another, since moved by affection and ties of sentiment they often do, but [and here is the crucial point] such actions are not demanded as a matter of justice by the basic structure of society" (Rawls 1971, 178).

The difference between Nagel and Rawls is insignificant. They are only saying in different ways that individuals are not morally required or obligated to act for the welfare of others. This is tantamount to saying that the denial of second-generation rights is consistent with the theory of rights based morality in which human beings necessarily have first-generation rights, so you certainly cannot derive second-generation rights from first generation rights.

Those who conceive of morality as Nagel and Rawls do dismiss off hand the possibility that the good can be prior to the right. They assume that to conceive of the good as prior to the right is to subordinate or define what is right or just in terms of the purported moral ends of a society. But to them this can only mean imposing some person or group's view of the good on everyone else. This is why Rawls claims that "a continuing shared understanding of one comprehensive religious, philosophical, or moral doctrine can be maintained only by the oppressive use of state power." He goes as far as to say that we cannot even share the "reasonable liberalism of Kant and Mill" without the sanction of state power (Rawls 1996, 37).

Confucius would maintain, on the contrary, that it is when there is no shared understanding of the good that state power must be employed to keep people in line. This is because Confucius did not mean by a "shared understanding of the good," a doctrine of what is good or a comprehensive moral theory or even a set of social ends. He means a shared understanding of a comprehensive religious, philosophical, and moral way of life, and when that way of life prevails, the Dao, "responsibility for effecting sociopolitical order [would] not lie with the ministers [and] the common people do not debate political issues" (Analects, 16-2). That is to say, the common people will be engaged meaningfully in the political life of the state and not left to merely "debate political issues (or to listen to the meaningless debates on the talk shows)" There will be, in other words, a true democracy. But to have a true democracy, the good must be prior to the right.

The notion of the good being prior to the right in the Confucian sense, means that the rights of individuals must arise out of the concern of members of a community for the welfare and the life of each other, out of a shared understanding of the good life. There are no more basic obligations than the obligations of parents to feed, clothe, and house those in their care. Why not say that it is their right to be fed, clothed, and housed. In a Confucian society, such rights are extended by the state to all its people, though they did not speak in terms of rights. If these rights are based on the concern that each one of us lives the good life, the worthy life, then more mature, responsible rights of individual freedom, the so-called first generation rights, should follow, for freedom is certainly part of the good life. One major difference between this conception of rights and the conception of Western rights-based morality is that for the former, but not the latter, these two kinds of rights are interdependent; they are not really two kinds of rights. In Asian societies, rights of freedom carry with them the moral responsibility to respect the common good. But Jack Donnelly, a defender of the Western conception of rights, would emphatically rejects the typical Asian claim that "freedom of speech entails a corresponding duty not to disseminate lies, not to incite communal and religious hatred, and generally not to undermine the moral fabric of society." According to Donnelly, "A right to free speech has no logical connection to an obligation not to disseminate lies. Society and the state may legitimately punish me for spreading vicious lies that harm others. Those penalties, however, rest on the [first generation] rights or interests of those who I harm, not on my right to free speech" (Donnelly 2003, 115). In short, freedom of speech is absolute and unconditional.

I argued earlier that the denial of second-generation rights is consistent with the principles of rights-based morality, so you cannot derive second-generation rights from first-generation rights. We now see that the denial of first-generation rights is inconsistent with the Confucian vision of the good, and in that sense, you can at least say, loosely to be sure, that first-generation rights follow from second-generation rights.

There is no doubt that freedom, genuine freedom, is a high value in a Confucian society, but what is most important is the Confucian belief that individual freedom is not possible unless we nurture the attitude of "helping others take their stand in seeking to take our stand and getting others there in so far as we wish to get there." "Correlating one's conduct with those near at hand," Confucius said, "can be said to be the method of a person of Jen" (Analects, 6-30). Why not also say that it is the method of democracy, the method of a free, self-governing society.


Donnelly, Jack. 2003. Universal Human Rights in Theory and Practice. 2nd Edition. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.

Nagel, Thomas. 1973. "Rawls on Justice" in Reading Rawls, Ed. N. Daniels. New York.

Rawls, John. 1971. A Theory of Justice. Oxford University Press.

--. 1996. Political Liberalism. New York: Columbia University Press.

Rorty, Richard. 1991. "Solidarity or Objectivity" in Objectivity, Relativism, and Truth. Cambridge University Press.

Rosemont, Henry, Jr. 1988. "Against Relativism" in Interpreting Across Boundaries, Ed. Gerald Larson and Eliot Deutsch. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press.

--. 1991a. A Chinese Mirror. La Salle, Illinois: Open Court Publishing Company.

--. 1991b. "Rights-Beating Individuals and Role-Bearing Persons" in Rules, Rituals, and Responsibility: Essays Dedicated to Herbert Fingarette, Ed. Mary I. Bockover. La Salle, Illinois: Open Court Publishing Company.

Sandel, Michael J. 1998. Liberalism and the Limits of Justice. 2nd edition. Cambridge University Press.
COPYRIGHT 2004 The Asian Studies Development Program's Association of Regional Centers
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 2004 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Title Annotation:Henry Rosemont
Author:Chinn, Ewing
Publication:East-West Connections
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jan 1, 2004
Previous Article:World-for-peace or fight-for-freedom: a basic conflict of values (1).
Next Article:Revive the lost scholarship for the sake of world harmony.

Related Articles
300-Room Hawthorn Suites Property to Debut at Chicago's O'Hare International Airport
Village Of Rosemont To Be Home Of Chicagoland's Largest, Most Ambitious Pops Orchestra; Chicagoland Pops of Rosemont's Innovative Blend of Popular...
Augusta Acquires Large Copper/Moly Property in Arizona.
Statement From Rosemont Mayor Donald E. Stephens.
Federal Government to Build Major Facility in Rosemont.
Sharon Latchaw Hirsh, Ph.D., '70 Assumes Presidency of Rosemont College.
ASDP Distinguished Service Award 2003.
Muvico Theaters Debuts Luxe Theater in Chicago.
Is there a universal grammar of religion?

Terms of use | Copyright © 2016 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters