On the View that People and Not Institutions Bear Primary Credit for Success in Governance: Confucian Arguments

Journal of Confucian Philosophy and Culture 32:65-97 (2019)
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This paper explicates the influential Confucian view that “people” and not “institutional rules” are the proper sources of good governance and social order, as well as some notable Confucian objections to this position. It takes Xunzi 荀子, Hu Hong 胡宏, and Zhu Xi 朱熹 as the primary representatives of the “virtue-centered” position, which holds that people’s good character and not institutional rules bear primary credit for successful governance. And it takes Huang Zongxi 黃宗羲 as a major advocate for the “institutionalist” position, which holds that institutional rules have some power to effect success independently of improvements in character. Historians have often called attention to this debate but left the major arguments and positions relatively unspecified. As I show, the Confucian virtue-centered view is best captured in two theses: first, that reforming people is far more demanding than reforming institutional rules; second, that once the rules have reached a certain threshold of viability, further improvements in those rules are unlikely to be effective on their own. Once we specify the theses in this way, we can catalogue the different respects and degrees to which the more virtue-centered political thinkers endorse virtue-centrism in governance. Zhu Xi, for example, turns out to endorse a stronger version of virtue-centrism than Hu Hong. I also use this account of the major theses to show that Huang Zongxi, who is sometimes regarded as historical Confucianism’s foremost institutionalist, has more complicated and mixed views about the power of institutional reform than scholars usually assume.

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Justin Tiwald
University of Hong Kong


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