Samuel Huntington’s portrayal of the clash of civilizations is well-known, but if we go back 2,000 years, the sages from the West and those from the East were really “on the same page” so much so that if one is familiar with the ancient philosophers like Aristotle and Confucius and the revered spiritual teachers like Jesus and the Buddha, one would scratch their heads as to why there is this “clash of civilizations” that has triggered so much hatred in the West for China and resentment for perceived Western bullying of China.
I published a paper titled “A Model of Human Nature and Personal Development” back in 1998. In that paper, I argued that human nature is universal. Because human nature is universal, Western and Eastern readers can read and appreciate literature of “alien cultures” and experience aesthetic and emotional feelings that are similar and familiar to all of us, regardless of our ethnic origins. When Abraham Maslow invented his hierarchy of human needs, he meant it for all humanity, not just people in the West. The 2008 Beijing Olympics slogan was “One World, One Dream”. I don’t really see much difference in the Chinese Dream and the American Dream. So why do some Western people say that “the Chinese don’t believe a thing that we believe”? I did come across an online video in which an American public figure said something to that effect. I cannot find it now and cannot recall who it was who said that.
One can easily find articles about the similarity between Stoicism and Confucianism on the internet. Both Stoicism and Confucianism value virtues. Stoics believe in the four cardinal virtues: practical wisdom, courage, justice, and temperance. Confucius and his followers also believe in the three “developed virtues”; namely, wisdom, benevolence and courage. Two of these correspond directly to the Stoic cardinal virtues, while benevolence also resembles justice and temperance. Aristotle talked about the Golden Mean, so that finding and following the mean between the two extremes of excess and deficiency is considered the essence of morality. One of the four classics in Confucianism is Zhongyong, which literally is the principle of moderation. The Buddha also taught about moderation, which he was said to have learned after first going through a life of luxury in the palace when he was a prince and then, having followed asceticism and eventually abandoning it in his path of spiritual pursuit, taught his disciples that one needs to live a life of moderation. It is like tuning a musical instrument appropriately before one can play music. Lao Zi, the Buddha and Jesus all taught that humility is an important enabling virtue: Only people with humility can grow wiser through life.
The interesting thing is that even today, the West is not short of wise counsel. Less than 300 years ago, Immanuel Kant, in his 1785 Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals, advised: “Act only according to that maxim whereby you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law.” He advises that we should all follow the categorical imperative of acting according to the call of duty based on reasoning in pursuit of the good. Moreover, according to Kant, what is good must be decided impartially and must be independent of the identity and desires of the person making the moral deliberation.
This brings us to the Golden Rule: Do not do unto others what you would not have others do unto you (Confucius) or the corollary: “In everything, do to others what you would have them do to you.” (Gospel of Matthew, 7:12). Although these teachings are ancient, they are not outdated. John Rawls in his A Theory of Justice, published in 1971, asks us to consider justice as if we were “behind a veil of ignorance” so that we forget our identities and imagine that we could be anyone affected by any policies being considered. If we use this perspective in considering, say, the slave trade or slavery, we would all outlaw the slave trade or slavery, since none of us wants to be exposed to the risk of being a slave.
While writing this article, I came across an article in Harvard Business Review that implores people to adopt a “New Golden Rule”: Treat others “as they would like to be treated” instead of “as we would like to be treated.” The reason, the author says, is that people are different. What is good to one may not necessarily be good to another. But the spirit of the Golden Rule is that we should all respect one another as equals. Mutual respect is a value that the West and the East share.
If we share ultimately the same values, like freedom, safety, and equality, then why is there this apparent clash of civilizations as we observe today? The explanation can only be found in politics. China and America have different political systems. But political systems are not values. They are merely means to ends. China’s political system works perfectly well for China. Its people are happy with it. China does not impose its system on other countries. Shouldn’t America similarly respect China’s freedom to adopt and protect its political system?
The author is director of the Pan Sutong Shanghai-Hong Kong Economic Policy Research Institute, Lingnan University.
The views do not necessarily reflect those of China Daily.