In Defense of Political Equality: On Bai Tongdong’s Against Political Equality

Journal of Confucian Philosophy and Culture 37:59-90 (2022)
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Bai Tongdong’s Against Political Equality argues for Confucian meritocracy over a pure democracy of equals. His arguments draw on a multiple modernities comparison between the Spring and Autumn Warring States period in China and early modernity in the West, and rest on a Mencian conception of human nature according to which humans are equal in moral potential but not in moral actuality. I argue that there is a crucial disanalogy between this Chinese early modernity and Western early modernity: the role of capitalism. In a similarly comparativist and modernist spirit, drawing on B. R. Ambedkar and M. K. Gandhi, I argue that this disanalogy challenges both Bai’s critique of democracy and his positive account. Bai’s failure to take into account the role of capitalism in Western modernity raises a challenge to the explanatory power of his Mencian conception of human nature with regard to the failings of contemporary democracies, namely that capitalism fosters the relevant features of our moral psychology that cause those failings. Further, without that grounding assumption, Bai’s arguments against democracy cut equally against his Confucian meritocracy. The disanalogy also creates challenges for his positive proposal. Bai, I argue, provides an ideal theory of Confucian meritocracy at the same time as he provides a non-ideal theory of democracy. But, taking into account the non-ideal cultural and moral psychological features of capitalism, Bai’s Confucian meritocracy is likely to fall into an unjust and oligarchic hierarchy.

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Yarran Hominh
Bard College


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