The Confucian Heuristic

Thursday, November 19th, 2015

Harold Lee explains the Confucian heuristic:

Like a lot of people, Confucius was bothered by “bad inequality” — the kind of hierarchy where the elites actively oppress the poor and the lower class at best toils away, and at worse foment short-sighted peasant rebellions. The usual Western response to bad inequality is leveling — knock down all hierarchies as “elitism” and “privilege,” and even everything out until there’s no concentration of power such that anyone can oppress his fellow man. Sometimes that can be a helpful approach, but there are several side effects.

One is that while some kinds of inequality can be gotten rid of — wealth, family inheritance, ethnic inequalities, and so on — there are many more you can’t touch. Some people are more diligent than others, you can’t change that. Some are more politically savvy, some are taller, better looking. If you suppress all sources of inequality that you can, often you end up just increasing the importance of things you can’t touch. Knock down aristocracy, and you simply get meritocracy that privileges diligent, politically savvy nerds instead. And while we’ve developed some social technology to at least channel selfish impulses in prosocial ways, we haven’t yet invented the analogue of capitalism that channels height inequality into prosocial behavior.

A related problem is that in telling a story about eliminating inequality, this leveling frees up the new elites — the winners in the new “emergent inequality,” to deny that they’re in fact elites. They’re just average Joes like anyone else, and feel therefore feel no sense of obligation towards the losers of society. And when they’re in competition with the weak, they see it as a contest between equals and have no compunction about using their strengths to exploit them, all cloaked in egalitarianism. (This is in fact a criticism that has been leveled against meritocracy — the winners feel like they have earned their advantages, and therefore feel no noblesse oblige.)

Confucius took a different tack — he said hey, there’s always going to be inequality, let’s not kid ourselves. Instead, let’s formalize it into really visible hierarchy, and, crucially, tie great power to great responsibility. Rather than wrangle with abstract notions of status, he prefers to emphasize the personal interactions between superiors and inferiors. So he spends a lot of time talking about rights and responsibilities in different kinds of relationships, and promoting rites — think “etiquette” — to make it clear that the weak respect the strong, and that the strong have obligations to the weak. If you’re going to be king, you’d better protect your people. If you’re going to be a mom, the kids have to obey you and take care of you in your old age, but you’d better raise them well. No weaseling out.


  1. Bomag says:

    …and promoting rites — think “etiquette” — to make it clear that the weak respect the strong, and that the strong have obligations to the weak.

    Yeah, but our tastemakers ritualize exploitation.

    Thus our “capitalists” import replacement workers and claim they are doing oh so much for GDP; so not only are they in need of praise, they need to do more of it and we are obligated to help them.

    Our Too Big To Fail banks are doing the Lord’s work, so they can’t pay us anything on passbook savings accounts and complaining about it is gauche.

    Our politicians can’t do much in the nation’s interest because they are now helping the whole world. And we are trained to sit back and enjoy it all.

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