Encountering China: Michael Sandel and Chinese Philosophy
Michael J. Sandel and Paul J. D’Ambrosio.
Harvard University Press, 2018.
Hardcover, 320 pages, $30.

Reviewed by Jason Morgan

During the twentieth century, liberals such as John Rawls, Friedrich Hayek, Milton Friedman, Ronald Dworkin, Ludwig von Mises, Robert Nozick, and Karl Popper held remarkable sway over the economic, jurisprudential, and societal discussions of much of the eites in the Western world. Later in that century, however, a new generation of philosophers began to question the liberalism and neoliberalism that had come to dominate life in the West. Canadian Charles Taylor, for instance, stressed the role of communities in forming individuals, a distinct break with the Hayekian view that individual actions organically gave rise to societial order. Scottish philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre was instrumental in reviving Aristotelianism as an alternative to absolutist Enlightenment morality. And French thinker Jean-Luc Marion turned to a refined Husserlian phenomenology as a way to situate the subject as a gift, and not as a standalone autonomous unit.

Of all of these thinkers contra liberalism, perhaps none has achieved such current prominence as Michael Sandel. The author of contemporary philosophical classics like Liberalism and the Limits of Justice (1982), Democracy’s Discontent: America in Search of a Public Philosophy (1998), The Case Against Perfection: Ethics in an Age of Genetic Engineering (2007), and What Money Can’t Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets (2012), Sandel is the Anne T. and Robert M. Bass Professor of Government at Harvard. Pushing back against Rawls explicitly, Sandel has carried out a patient, methodical rethinking of the liberal agent, an abstraction from the full human person which Sandel eventually began calling “the unencumbered self.”

“The unencumbered self,” Sandel explains in an essay included in the collection Public Philosophy: Essays on Morality in Politics, “describes first of all the way we stand toward the things we have, or want, or seek. It means there is always a distinction between the values I have and the person I am. To identify any characteristics as my aims, ambitions, or desires, and so on, is always to imply some subject ‘me’ standing behind them, and the shape of this ‘me’ must be given prior to any of the aims or attributes I bear. […] [The unencumbered self] rules out the possibility of what we might call constitutive ends. No role or commitment could define me so completely that I could not understand myself without it. No project could be so essential that turning away from it would call into question the person I am.”

This indictment—dissection, even—of the unencumbered self resonates deeply with Sandel’s Anglophone audience. At a time when the old American certainties of faith, family, and country have collapsed, Sandel’s robust engagement with real-world dilemmas has helped rootless postliberals think through the questions of shared existence even after much of the former context and purpose of life in common have been swept away. However, while it is easy to see why a philosopher like Sandel has gained a big following in the West, it is perhaps surprising to learn that Sandel is even more popular in the People’s Republic of China. Surprising, because the PRC is most emphatically not a liberal society.

Since 1949, when the Kuomintang under Chiang Kai-shek lost the nearly forty-year Chinese civil war and fled to Taiwan, mainland China has been ruled, without exception, by the Chinese Communist Party. The most infamous Chinese communist was of course Marxism-Leninism true believer Mao Zedong, who drove some fifty million of his countrymen into an early grave in the name of “socialism with Chinese characteristics.” Not content with this epochal slaughter, Mao obliterated China’s cultural heritage, too, sending Red Guards to ransack schools, temples, and museums during the late 1960s. By the time the chaos had largely subsided and Deng Xiaoping had become the leader of China, more pragmatic minds decided that economic development without concomitant political liberalization was the only way for the Party to maintain control over the people. On June 4, 1989, thousands of Chinese citizens who thought it might be nice to have both prosperity and the right to vote were disabused of their idealism by People’s Liberation Army soldiers in tanks and phalanxes plowing across Tiananmen Square.

Even after the Cultural Revolution subsided and the shattered Confucian statues and burned-out Confucian libraries had all been cleaned up, the cynical market turn in Chinese life finished off what cultural traces of Confucianism remained. China today would be unrecognizable to someone waking from a Rip Van Winkle slumber begun in the last years of the Qing Dynasty. Filial piety has been transformed into one-child worship, such that “little emperor syndrome” is an acute and chronic social problem. The Confucian ideal of leaders of moral rectitude instilling civic virtue in the people has given way to massive and pandemic government corruption. Modesty and bearing in comportment and dress are gone, while flashy clothes, fast cars, and gaudy living are the norm. Whatever was once Confucian about China has been chucked overboard more quickly, and with more reckless abandon, than the Ten Commandments and the Beatitudes in the neopagan West.

It was amidst this headlong Maoist fugue from Confucianism, coupled with an uneven quasi-marketization under Dengian state-run crony capitalism, that Sandel was discovered by the Chinese. In a country that has grown powerful and rich by almost the same measure that it has become jaded and cynical, Sandel’s often folksy investigations into the nitty gritty of real-life ethical dilemmas offer an intellectually and morally adrift Chinese populace a way to think through the consequences of a long season of failed economic utopianism abutting hard against wildly successful, but utterly unfulfilling, economic realism.

Out of this malaise grew Encountering China: Michael Sandel and Chinese Philosophy, edited by Sandel and Paul J. D’Ambrosio. Sandel—who is, as the China Daily newspaper puts it, as popular in China as “Hollywood movie stars and NBA players”—has often traveled to the Middle Kingdom to give talks and to participate in symposia with academics in Chinese universities. People pack big lecture halls to hear him. China Newsweek even went so far as to name him “most influential foreign figure” in 2010.

Encountering China is divided into five sections: “I. Justice, Harmony, and Community,” “II. Civic Virtue and Moral Education,” “III. Pluralism and Perfection: Sandel and the Daoist Tradition,” “IV. Conceptions of the Person: Sandel and the Confucian Tradition,” and “V. Reply by Michael Sandel.” This is an uneven book, and readers should expect a bumpy ride (including plenty of punctuation, transliteration, and spelling errors).

The weakest section is section III. For example, Robin R. Wang (“Gender, Moral Disagreements, and Freedom: Sandel’s Politics of Common Good in Chinese Contexts”) tries to alchemize individual freedom into the common good through the ancient Chinese concept of yin/yang intra-duality. This sounds promising, but Wang’s essay is a mess, mixing in a very weak understanding of Aristotle and a very New Age reading of Zhuangzi and never coming close to showing how “the yin-yang matrix” brings about either freedom or community except by recycling the platitudes of the same unencumbered self against which Sandel has written: “Instead of having an internal matrix of a gender identification that is male and female, a healthy social structure should allow sex and gender to have a space to play freely and appreciate what each person wants to be. This will lead to less frustration and fewer problems.” Surely we are not going to rehabilitate the Rawlsian unencumbered self as a member of a human community by means of such airy apothegms as these.

In section I, however, more serious scholars turn to the big themes of Sandel’s work. Here we begin to see what is at stake in Sandel’s China excursions, and how we might come to a true (or truer) understanding of the terms and possibilities of cross-cultural engagement. In “Individual, Family, Community, and Beyond: Some Confucian Reflections on Themes in Sandel’s Justice,” for example, Tondgong Bai gets down to brass tacks, chiding Rawls for “taking too much away in the veil of ignorance.” Bai says that “the difference between liberal thinkers such as Rawls, on the one hand, and Confucians (‘East Asian communitarians’) and thinkers like Sandel (‘Western communitarians’), on the other, is not really between an individualism-based, value-neutral philosophy and a community-based philosophy that recognizes the role of the government in promoting certain values. Instead, the difference lies in how many values a government should be allowed to promote. This is a difference in degree, not in kind.” And in “Justice as a Virtue, Justice according to Virtues, and/or Justice of Virtues: A Confucian Amendment to Michael Sandel’s Idea of Justice,” Yong Huang thoughtfully parses Confucianism according to Taiwanese and Hong Kong Confucianists influenced by contemporary Confucian philosopher Mou Zongsan, who thinks Confucius is “better interpreted within the framework of Kantian moral philosophy,” and others, including Yong, “who believe that Confucianism is congenial to Aristotelianism.”

However, the pivotal section of this volume is section IV, in which two giants of Confucian studies in the West—Roger T. Ames and the recently deceased Henry Rosemont, Jr.—attempt a relationist, Deweyan-Pragmatist reading of the human person in the context of a “Confucian role ethics” which sees people, not as a priori givens, but as continually emerging nodes of social relationships.

In “How to Think about Morality without Moral Agents,” Rosemont unfortunately mars his legacy with angry, knee-jerk social-justice commentary and politically correct sentimental moralizing. And yet, even Rosemont’s embarrassing rant fails to tarnish “Theorizing the ‘Person’ in Confucian Ethics,” Roger Ames’s brilliant tour through the Western humanities as a subversive Confucian in pursuit of “humane ‘becomings’ that appeal to a contextual, narrative account available to us through a phenomenology of deliberate personal action.” What Ames wants to do here is not only to interrogate or problematize the Rawlsian unencumbered self, but to overthrow it and everything that went into making it in the first place. Ames wants to establish instead a “pragmatic naturalism” which does not appeal to “ontological assumptions or supernatural speculations,” but “focuses instead on the possibilities for enhancing personal worth available to us here and now through enchanting the ordinary affairs of the day.”

This may at first seem to be what Sandel is generally up to, as well. But Ames goes well beyond Sandel’s critique of Rawlsian individualism. “What makes Confucianism more empirical than empiricism,” Ames volleys, “that is, what makes Confucianism a radical empiricism, is the fact that it is prospective in respecting the uniqueness of the particular—in this case, the particular narrative of this one special person, Confucius, who lived an exemplary life. Rather than advancing universal principles and assuming a taxonomy of natural kinds grounded in a notion of strict identity, Confucianism proceeds from analogy with and always provisional generalizations derived from those particular historical instances of successful living. […] All physical and conscious activity is collaborative and transactional.”

Encountering China is worth buying for the perspective it affords on Western philosophy from the standpoint of Chinese Confucians, but most of all for Ames’s distillation of an entire career of “thinking through Confucius” into fewer than forty pages. Encountering China is also worth buying because of the questions it raises without explicitly asking. For instance, how will the unencumbered self be re-encumbered? What does community look like in an age of the endemic collapse of privacy, the enforcement of government “social credit,” and the wholesale dismissal of the very concept of human rights? Perhaps most important, as the Chinese Communist Party’s crimes mount in number—forced abortions, organ harvesting, genocide in Xinjiang and Tibet, persecution of religious groups, and murderous suppression of dissent—what is there in Confucianism that allows for a reckoning, and justice?

As Sandel’s popularity in China continues to grow, it remains to be seen whether the Chinese people will embrace a Confucian, or even Sandelian, communitarianism as an antidote to the consumerist destruction of Chinese communities, or else will find in the Rawlsian unencumbered self a way to combat the even more pressing problems of one-party dictatorship.  

Jason Morgan is an assistant professor at Reitaku University in Chiba, Japan.