A Confucian Conception of Rights and Its Applications to Practical Issues of Social Policy and Lawmaking


Student thesis: Doctoral Thesis

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  • Wenqing ZHAO


Awarding Institution
Award date5 Oct 2015


The concept of rights is undoubtedly one of the most important concepts in contemporary philosophical and political discourses. Although philosophers still disagree on the nature, foundation, and specific content of human rights, the idea that human rights is universally held by every individual is becoming a widely accepted international norm because of the UN General Assembly’s adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948 in Paris, France. The ineluctable popularization of the language of rights has raised questions of cultural incompatibility. Many people ascertain that Confucianism is particularly incompatible with the concept of universal human rights. In this study, I argue that incompativists are mistaken because they have either subscribed to the traditional Western parochialism of thinking Confucianism as a static, unchanging school of thought or accepted the concept of universal rights to be identical to natural rights. My view is that Confucianism is incompatible with the natural rights tradition; however, the former is compatible with a practical approach to human rights as proposed by John Rawls and his followers.
I base my theoretical framework mainly on the works of Ruiping Fan’s virtue-based theory and Joseph Chan’s understanding of Confucian rights as fallback. Confucian rights are virtue-based legal rights that function as a fallback mechanism to protect the basic interest of people in society when interpersonal feelings and community bounds fail to do so. The content of a Confucian right is informed by one or more necessary obligations that are essential to fulfill a particular Confucian virtue. After identifying the necessary obligation(s) in the Confucian virtue system, an entitlement of the person entailed by such obligation can be set down as his/her right. This means that Confucian rights are specific instead of general and tentative instead of constant. Confucian rights may occasionally vary in response to the changing social environment and emerging social issues.
This study aims to develop a list of Confucian rights that are based on Confucian virtues. I endeavor to provide a considerably comprehensive explanation to the issue of “what Confucian rights look like” using concrete examples taken from medical care and other social policies. Among these Confucian rights, I selected three rights that have distinct Confucian characteristics: the right to elderly care, right to compassionate leave, and family-oriented right to informed consent. I believe that Confucianism provides a realistic grounding for rights to exist and function in contemporary China, and enhances our general understanding of how rights should be understood and practiced. This discussion will necessarily go beyond the current defensive and reactive discourse on Confucian rights. Therefore, the goal of this study is to develop a distinctive theory of Confucian rights that is true to the fundamental experiences of Confucianism and valuable to the current Western discourse of rights.