When we think of personal rights, we think most often of freedom – freedom to do what we wish in pursuit of our individual happiness and prosperity; no other person or institution should come between us and our personal goals. What does not come so readily to mind when we think of personal rights, however, is the fact that as we are all persons, and as such we all have equal claim to these freedoms. Unfortunately, in a complex modern society, conflicting claims to these freedoms are common, and these conflicts give rise to interpersonal and social disharmony. Because in Confucian societies social harmony is of paramount importance, the question of how a modern Confucian society might maintain social harmony as it grows and modernizes becomes increasingly important.
In ancient China, interpersonal and social harmony was maintained by adherence to Confucian rites, the respectful behavior due each other based on personal relationship and reciprocity. In modern society, however, where much of our day-to-day interaction is with people we do not know, just how we should behave toward one another seems all too often unclear. Here, too, Confucius offers us guidance – in his simple admonition that we should not do to others what we would not want others to do to us. That is, we should recognize others as equal members of society and render each other a certain level of respect.
Confucius did not say we were obliged to actively do things for others, but merely that we should limit our behavior – out of our own desire for (and right to) the respect of others – by not doing to others what we would not want them to do to us. As we go about our daily lives, however, it is difficult to be mindful of the fact that we owe it to others to not interfere with them as they go about their business of pursuing their own personal happiness and prosperity. And, because it is so easy to forget that we do owe each other this debt of respect, we as citizens of a modern, complex society remind ourselves of what we ourselves agree to as standards for social behavior by enshrining these standards in a system of laws.
Unfortunately, many of us still see laws as means by which the government interferes in – and controls – our lives. We ignore the law and do what we believe is in our own individual best interest. We don’t realize that our behavior, as Confucius advised (and also might have warned), is a model for others to follow. Reading in our disrespectful behavior (our ignoring of the agreed-upon standards for social interaction), others will repay us in kind, and a vicious cycle ensues – and everyone loses as social harmony is disturbed.
Democracy may be new to the Far East, but its fundamental belief – that all members of society are equally entitled to respect – is one that traditional Confucian societies share. It may sound counterintuitive, but the success of modern democracy in the developing Far East might ultimately depend on the ability of Far Eastern societies to reinvigorate their traditional social values. If the modern system of civil law can be seen for what it is – the embodiment of the traditional Confucian value of mutual respect – then the road to democracy will be a much smoother, and much happier, one for all who share it.