Our self-understanding informs how we relate to others. Understanding humanity as essentially individualistic leads to a spiritually shallow existence epitomised by contemporary capitalism. Solving the socio-political ills of our time — inequality, climate change, political polarisation — requires embracing the Confucian concept of role-bearing persons; we are all inextricably interrelated with one another. This is the central argument of Henry Rosemont Jr.’s book, Against Individualism: A Confucian Rethinking of the Foundations of Morality, Politics, Family, and Religion (2015).
Displacing individualism begins with a thought experiment. Ask yourself: Who am I? Am I a collection of memories? Am I coterminous with my physical body? How much of me could change before I ceased to exist? These questions are intractable because they are based on a false ontology. They assume — as does the bulk of the Western philosophy — that people are essentially individuals, fundamentally distinct from one another. Rosemont argues this is a philosophical fiction so pervasive and pernicious it has crept into our culture and begun to rot our societies from the inside-out. Individualism has created a society where abstract freedom trumps any concern for social justice; a society where corporations are legally recognised as rights-bearing entities, but our precious natural ecosystems are not.
Unfortunately for those who share Rosemont’s politics (myself included), individualism remains a persuasive and coherent ideology, not least because of its historic achievements. Individualism provides a powerful toolkit for criticising unjust traditions. If humans are individuals whose inherent dignity bears no relation to their socio-economic status, gender, race or sexual preference, any moral differentiation based on these contingencies is unjust. Feminism, anti-racism, and social democracy owe much to the idea of individual rights. Without individualism it is hard to imagine most of the progressive social movements over the last two-hundred years. One might agree that contemporary Western culture is in trouble but worry that jettisoning individualism means risking democracy and human rights. This is understandable. But Rosemont argues we can retain the benefits of individualism while shedding its socially corrosive tendencies. We can have our philosophical cake and eat it too.
It is here that Confucianism comes to the fore. What might an ancient Chinese sage, speaking in notoriously open-ended aphorisms, have to say about our current state of affairs? Quite a lot, it seems. Rosemont presents an egalitarian and communitarian reading of Confucius, drawing on quotations such as Confucius’ reply when asked what he would most like to do:
I would like to bring peace and contentment to the aged, share relationships of trust and confidence with friends, and love and protect the young.
Similarly, Rosemont rejects the trope of Confucianism as scholastic elitism. Xunzi, a Chinese Confucian philosopher, exhorted rulers to look after the least-well off:
In the case of the handicapped or the helpless, the government should gather them together, look after them, and give them whatever work they are able to do. Employ them, provide them with food and clothing, and take care to ensure that none are left out…the government must also look after orphans and widows, and assist the poor.
More than two millennia ago — 250 years before Christ — we find justification for policies that are today considered ‘too radical’, such as a universal job guarantee and a generous social safety net. This puts shame to the idea that Western philosophers are the sole drivers of social progress.
But what of ‘first-generation rights’ such as democracy, free speech, and other civil liberties? Surely these cannot remain if we abandon the lexicon of individual rights. Here, Rosemont makes an interesting manoeuvre. For liberals, the goal of politics is to progressively expand the sphere of human freedom. For Confucians, the goal is to promote to human flourishing. Flourishing implies the full realisation of one’s latent potential. To do so requires access to healthcare, education, basic material sustenance, and financial security. Confucianism therefore provides an easy justification for so-called ‘second-generation rights’ (healthcare, education, housing, and so on). Beginning with second-generation rights, Confucianism can easily move into a justification of first-generation rights as well. To quote Rosemont: “If we are at all times to do what is appropriate in order that the other flourishes, then surely they will flourish more as we let them speak freely…to the extent that what civil and political rights guarantee aids our flourishing, of course we must all support and strengthen those rights”.
Conversely, beginning with first-generation rights, individualism cannot coherently move into a justification of second-generation rights. Providing resources to the needy requires recognising our moral obligations to others and viewing our fates as inextricably bound-up with theirs. Such a view is logically untenable if we conceive of ourselves as individuals. If society is no more than the sum of its parts, how can we speak of society ‘oppressing’ the marginalised? To quote Margaret Thatcher: “there is no such thing as society”. If society does not exist, how can I be held responsible for the problems of others? You may not like this view, but you cannot deny its internal coherence.
But whose flourishing is Confucianism concerned with, if not that of the individual? Rosemont answers this question by way of analogy. An individual is a peach: strip away the outer layers, but the immutable core remains. A role-bearing person is an onion: continually strip away the outer layers and eventually nothing remains. Who am I other than a son, a friend, a student, an Australian, and so on? It makes no sense to describe my ‘essential self’ as existing underneath these labels. We find ourselves in relation to others.
Rosemont’s morality follows this ontology. Unlike the isolated individual, moral reasoning for a role-bearing person is not abstract and generalised. Rather than searching for universal moral dictates, the role-bearing person is attuned to the unique nature of his or her relationships, observing the correct way to act within a particular context. This means that our moral obligations are strongest to those we are related to. On this view, family is the focus of moral concern, not the individual. Similarly, we hold strong moral obligations to our local community and wider polity. Cosmopolitans may object — understandably so — to the notion that Australians owe more to other Australians than to Pacific Islanders, for example. However, Confucian role-ethics is not intended to promote chauvinism; on the contrary, it provides a realistic framework for cultivating a cosmopolitan humanism for the twenty-first century. I say realistic because role-ethics recognises that morality is a by-product of socialisation, not abstract theorising. The family acts like a moral training ground, providing children (and parents) with the necessary socialisation to cultivate other-regarding behaviour. Children learn first to treat their grandparents with care and respect, followed by the realisation that all elders are to be treated in the same way. Morality begins close to us and gradually extends outwards. One cannot be a good citizen without being a good family member.
Unlike individualism, Confucian role-ethics emphasises the importance of cultivating virtue in order to act morally. It is not just that we should prioritise giving care to our parents over socialising with friends, but that we should come to see caregiving as more enjoyable. Much like the ancient Greeks, Confucians see knowledge and the good as inextricably bound together –one who is knowledgeable invariably chooses the good.
Overall, Against Individualism is a highly readable and presents a compelling alternative vision to the increasingly solipsistic individualism that plagues Western society. Although I am sympathetic to Confucianism, I am sceptical that another culture’s philosophical tradition will gain much ground in the West, particularly in an era of great-power competition with China. I agree with Daniel A. Bell’s review of Against Individualism, which argues that Rosemont’s argument would be more persuasive if grounded in a more familiar moral tradition. That being said, it is inevitable that China’s rise will be felt beyond its impact global GDP growth. Anyone who seeks to seriously understand the human condition cannot afford to ignore a philosophy which has informed a fifth of the world’s population for two millennia.
 Chapter 6, Towards an Ethics of Roles, p.112.