The Task for Asians: To Discover their Own Political Morality for Human Rights

Human Rights Dialogue 1.4 (Spring 1996): "Three Years After The Bangkok Declaration"

March 4, 1996

Insofar as the human rights debate between Asia and the West has centered upon the validity of the universal claim of human rights, the only fair assessment so far is that the burden of proof remains with the proponents of cultural relativism. Not only have representatives of Asian states, such as Singapore, Malaysia, China, and Indonesia, failed to provide vigorous arguments for their claim to distinctiveness, but their positions have been neither clear nor consistent. This is evident in their constant oscillation between a stated acceptance of universal human rights and an emphasis on the legitimacy of a different understanding and practice of human rights arising from different historical traditions. Likewise, they have oscillated between a commitment to equal importance of political and economic rights and selective priority given to economic development at the expense of political and civil rights. Even if the Asian states opt for a firm relativistic posture on human rights, there is strong normative and empirical evidence that makes such a position untenable. However, the debate is not over, for a broader and more fruitful dialogue needs to take place. This next stage of the debate must focus not on the validity of human rights but on a broader range of substantive issues of political morality.

Liberal critics of an "Asian concept of human rights" tend to downplay the importance of substantiating and determining the scope of international human rights law. Instead, they have devoted their efforts to refuting Asian states claims against universal human rights. It would be a mistake to believe that this is a satisfactory means of engaging Asians in a fruitful dialogue. Even if Asians accept human rights as stated in the Universal Declaration and subsequent covenants at face value, they still face the tremendous task of interpreting these rights for the local context. Some liberals tend to think that cases that do not accord fully with their notion of human rights are outliers, and thus do not call for a significant alteration to their approach to human rights. This is far from the truth. A systematic substantiation of human rights involves nothing less than the development of a coherent political morality, which involves moral justifications for rights and responsibilities.

The promotion of human rights norms in Asia is at its core a search for a coherent political morality suitable to the many different societies within the Pacific Rim. This is an important task for Asians. The task should not be understood as a contest between Asians and Westerners. The search for a political morality is ultimately a soul-searching exercise for Asians themselves: to clarify their values and aspirations and to develop social, political, and philosophical norms that best capture them. Inevitably these values and aspirations will draw from both Western and Asian civilizations. Asians, specifically the Japanese and the so-called Four Little Dragons (Singapore, Taiwan, South Korea, and Hong Kong), have adapted well to modernization and have learned much from Western cultures. As Kishore Mahbubani, a Singaporean senior official, writes, "If the Pacific has emerged as the most dynamic region of the world, it is because it has drawn on the best practices and values from many rich civilizations, Asian and Western. If this fusion continues to work, there could be explosive creativity on a scale never before seen."*2*

Political moralities for East Asians must be liberal at a minimum, in the sense that the state must enforce basic individual rights. The differences between political moralities in East Asia and those in the West are thus differences between members of the same family. Yet the differences may not be trivial. Liberal political moralities for East Asians may legitimately diverge in several important respects from those in the West, especially the United States. While tere is no such thing as a single, unified American political morality, it is hard to deny that there is an influential political vision in both the American academic community and the general public. This vision, which may be called exclusionary liberalism, can be explained as follows.

The state's primary duty is to enforce basic individual rights. In determining the scope of rights and enforcing them, there are limits on the state. Specifically, the state may restrict individual rights only on the grounds of preventing harm and offense to others. The state must remain neutral among competing conceptions of the good life (the neutrality or anti-perfectionism principle); it must not restrict an individual's liberty for his or her own good (the anti-paternalism principle); and it must not enforce society's morals by means of the law (the anti-moralism principle). American political morality thus excludes perfectionism, paternalism, and moralism as grounds for state intervention. In other words, it excludes the pursuit of the good life from the business of the state—what I call "exclusionary liberalism."

I believe that exclusionary liberalism is defective on philosophical grounds and not suitable for East Asians on cultural grounds. At the cultural level, the spirit of exclusionary liberalism is entirely foreign to the Confucian-based traditions in East Asia. In China, from ancient to modern times, the state has always performed an educative as well as protective function. The most fundamental element in Confucian political thought is that the primary task of the state is to help citizens develop virtues and achieve the good life. It is the duty of the state in East Asia to carry out this task with due concern to the ethical and cultural life of society and within the broad constraints of basic individual rights. Undoubtedly, there are many illiberal elements in Confucian doctrines, and many actual practices of the Chinese state do not recognize and respect individual basic liberties. There is a strong reason for East Asians to abandon these illiberal elements on the basis that they violate universal human rights. Yet to go to the extreme of embracing exclusionary liberalism would be a serious mistake.

The rationale for an inclusive view of the tasks of the state is at the same time cultural, sociological, and philosophical. We see in East Asian cultures, in particular Confucian-based ones, a strong emphasis on intimate family relationships and respect for elders, for example. From the sociological point of view, the pursuit of virtues and the good life is not an entirely personal matter but requires conditions that can only be provided by collective effort. Social institutions, culture, and traditions are collective constructs that provide the conditions for people to live the good life. This is a truism with which no liberal would disagree.

What exclusionary liberals seem to insist upon is that civil society, being free from the coercive machinery of the state, is voluntary in character and strong enough to maintain the conditions for the pursuit of a worthy life. They hold that collective groups in civil society can flourish on their own as in a free market. There is no evidence however, that even under conditions of freedom, people will choose a sound option that may benefit the community at large. Since the most virtuous choices in life are not naturally selected, and since the market or voluntary associations cannot provide adequate insurance of the good life, there is a need for the state to act as arbiter in ensuring a political balance among competing factions within society. Valuable cultural elements that may otherwise be driven out by a highly commercialized market and materialistic culture, need the support and subsidies from the state in order to survive. For example, in Taiwan the government has actively sponsored research and social activities that promote Confucian thought and way of life. Furthermore, the notion of traditional liberals that what incapacitates civil society is the state and that the former should thus be protected from the latter, is flawed. The reality is that the enemy of civil societ can emerge from within: domination, coercion, manipulation, and destruction of groups and valuable ways of life can occur in civil society even if the state is kept outside.

Both the state and civil society face shortcomings and need each other to help resolve them. Civil society needs the state to prevent itself from self-destruction, and the state in turn requires a strong civil society to check its enormous power. And as individuals are susceptible to the sometimes negative influence of civil society and the state, both need to be checked by public scrutiny. The state and civil society thus require each other for the attainment of perfectionist goals. The need for a perfectionist state seems strong for East Asians, particularly today as the forces of marketization and commercialization have eroded the traditional ethos of various East Asian societies. While some effects of modernization may be liberating for individuals, there are legitimate fears that certain valuable personal and familial ethics may be lost in the process.

*1* This is an excerpt of a paper presented at a confernce on "The Contest for 'Asia'" organized by the Asia Research Centre, Murdoch University, amnd the Department of politics and public Administration, university of Hong Kong, December 4-5, 1995, Hong Kong.
*2* Kishore Mahbubani, "The Pacific Way," Foreign Affairs, 74 (jan/Feb 1995): 107.