Independence & Autonomy

In What Sense Does a Ru(Confucianist) Need to be Independent and Autonomous?

Bin Song

        People usually think the values of independence and codependence clash each other. In some misconstrued version, Ruism is also frequently depicted as prioritizing the value of codependence over individual independence and autonomy.

        However, why shouldn’t people be independent and codependent simultaneously? And it is actually one’s autonomy and independence that determines whether one can conduct well in her relationship with other human fellows, and vice versa? If you feel strange about this theoretical possibility, and wonder how this could be so in reality, let me use two examples from Ruist ethics to explain it.

        For instance, in order to be a “filial” (孝, xiao) child, we do not only need to take care of our parents’ food, lodging, and physical heath, we also need to keep alert on their mental health and moral development. This means that whenever our parents do something wrong, either to themselves or to others, we need to correct it in a respectful and appropriate way. Sometimes, this is really difficult, I know. But what Ruism teaches in all of its canonical classics is exactly to hold on to what is right regardless of whosoever holds the power. Therefore, can you be your genuine, authentic self who holds on to what is right when your parents do something wrong? If you can, and if you never give up correcting your parents’ wrong doing without disrespecting them, and without undermining your other filial duties towards them, you are independent and autonomous as a Ru.

        Similar situations can happen to our workplace, between our boss and us. As an employee, we definitely need to know our position, role and duty in the workplace, do them well, and routinely succumbs to the administrative authority of our boss. However, if the boss is doing something obviously, or even blatantly wrong, something such as that could hurt the company or does not treat humans justly, do we still need to yield to her authority? Ru say no. At this moment, we need to voice our criticism, to remonstrate (諫, jian) in a Ruist term, against the boss in a respectful and appropriate way, and thus, try all reasonable and available means to correct the boss’s wrong doing. Only when we succeed in doing so, according to a Ruist standard, can we be counted as being “loyal” (忠, zhong) to our company. I know this is difficult, for sure. But based upon the same aforementioned reasons, we just ought to do this regardless of power dynamics. Actually, the power of the phrase “ought to do something” is exactly that it defies against any mundane power which is based upon non-reasonable violence, rather than non-violent human reasoning.

        But what if this does not work? What if the boss is a stubborn toad who never cares any voice from the bottom? Well, Ruism will tell you, after all, your boss is not your parent. No matter how wrong our parents are, they are still our parents. Within our body still flows their blood. So, we still need to maintain our parental relationship regardless of the ethical status of our parents. This may mean that sometimes, our parents could be so off that we are only able to maintain our parental relationship as tenuously as that could merely exist in theory or in mind. But at least, even when the worst parents passed away, we still need to help to organize a decent funeral, and pay our last tribute to them since the existence of our life has been decisively, and irreversibly owed to them. Nevertheless, when our boss is that kind of a stubborn toad, let’s leave the company, go to the job market, and serve other workplaces. There is no need to keep the relationship any more.

        Is this Ruist idea of “an independent self within co-dependent human relationships” strange to American thought? I would say no. When I read and ponder over Henry David Thoreau’s essay of “Resistance to Civil Government” and Martin Luther King’s “letter from Birmingham Jail,” I find the idea of civil disobedience is utterly congenial to what the Ruist virtues of “filiality” (xiao) and “loyalty” (zhong) imply. According to this idea, as human beings, we are great, and we can even be thought of as being dignified because of some essentially good part of human nature. That is, we can build a government to sustain a civilization so as to make all members within the civilization flourish together! In a Ruist term, this state of co-flourishing within a civilization is called “harmonization” (和, he). But what if our government did something terribly wrong? At this moment, in order to correct our government’s wrong doing, we cannot use violent, non-human means to justify a non-violent, noble purpose. Instead, both Thoreau and MLK taught us that, let’s stick to the idea of nobility and dignity through and through: we civilly disobey our government so as to voice our dissent against it, and eventually, rectify it. Frankly, I cannot imagine anything more Ruist than this!