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Towards a Minimal Common Ground for Humanist Dialogue

Date:2005-11-05 00:00Author:youzhengli
Towards a Minimal Common Ground for Humanist Dialogue: A Comparative Analysis of Confucian Ethics and American Ethical Humanism * Youzheng Li ` Confucian ethics originating in the authoritarian ancient East, and American Humanism originatin

                           Towards a Minimal Common Ground for Humanist Dialogue:

                   A Comparative Analysis of Confucian Ethics and American Ethical Humanism *

                                                    Youzheng Li `
  Confucian ethics originating in the authoritarian ancient East, and American Humanism originating in the democratic modern West, share a number of moral principles because of their common empirical approaches to the ethical situations and ethical doctrines of mankind. A comparative analysis of these two ethical systems can show why the present world, suffering as it does from multiple crises, needs a more empirically-directed and operatively-stratified ethical science. This ethical humanism, a humanistic ethics based on an empirical or naturalist approach, is the best hope for an ethics universally applicable to all communities despite  historical and geographic divergences.

1. Confucian Ethics and Ethical Humanism

Confucian ethics is a historically transmitted thought, and American Ethical Humanism is a modern synthetic movement.  The systems as a whole are heterogeneous in composition and cannot be directly compared.  So for purposes of this comparison, it will be primarily the theoretical system of ethical humanism, and the theoretical implication of its other constituent aspects, that will be addressed.  More simply, American Ethical Humanism in the present essay will be considered as a dynamic instance of empirical ethical theory.  It is its empiricism and naturalism that is characteristic of the entire movement. As regards the Confucian partner in this comparative analysis, we have to first explain what is meant by the term “Confucian ethics”, and secondly to disentangle from the popular confusion its different content and function in different historical contexts.

1. 1  A Distinction between Confucian Ethics and Confucianist Academic Ideology
China has a continuing imperial history over 2000 years, characterized throughout by its authoritarian Confucianism. In the popular view Confucianism is presented as a deeply rooted despotic sociopolitical system and an unchanged state-run ideology. Since the beginning of this century Confucianism has been widely taken to be the main impediment to China’s progress. It was generally regarded as the opposite of democracy and science during the first half of the century. Later on, different elements were gradually separated by modern scholars.  Some are negatively conservative while others are seen as positive with respect to the modern world.  The socio-political system is considered negative, while the intellectual and cultural spirit can be viewed in more positive terms.

Confucianism, which can be traced back to the first Chinese imperial dynasties Qin-Han, literally means Ru-School, of which Confucius was the legendary founding father.  Much of its sociopolitical content was a later accretion which has little to do with original Confucian thought, since Confucius is supposed to have lived about 300 hundred years earlier than the despotic politico-academic ideology of Confucianism was established. From a cultural-anthropological point of view, then, we have to make a distinction between the earlier Confucian thought and the later Confucianism. The former is embodied in a single book, Lun-Yu (the Analects).   It was the so-called first book written privately in Chinese history, and it appeared before the establishment of the first Chinese despotic empire. Confucianism as an politico-academic ideology and synthetic system originated in the imperial period, and includes the earlier Confucian thought as a constituent part. A lot of misleading debates arise because of this initial constitutive ambiguity. In addition, there was a translation problem caused by the early Western missionary scholars. Because of the linguistic divergence between Chinese and Western conceptual frameworks, early cultural communications suffered from confusions arising from different semantic organizations. Many discussions about Confucian thought and Confucianism involve quite inconsistent topics, and misunderstanding is further increased when different readers approach the topics from different contexts.  Proper hermeneutic analysis requires that we should take the original Confucian thought out of the Confucianist system and put it into a modern social and intellectual context for reinterpretation, in order to get a more relevant understanding. For as I have suggested elsewhere, the same textual content can function differently in different historical and academic contexts. 

       In brief, then, Confucianism consists of a double system: The broader sociopolitical one and a more narrow academic one. Both were historical phenomena, and both have virtually disappeared in this century. But despite its ancient origins, Confucian thought and ethics still plays an active role in modern China. The Bible, with similarly old or older history, has effectively functioned in modern times as well. An important distinction between the two classical texts is that the Bible systematically uses supernatural and metaphorical language, while the Analects uses an empirical humanist language. The perenniality of the former is due to the lasting effects of the ancient Mediterranean mythological tradition; while that of the latter is due to its basis in a constant and universal human nature common to Confucius’ contemporaries and all succeeding generations. This “first Chinese book” is a valuable modern resource because it gives us access to cross-cultural and trans-historical universals about ethical human nature. Thus, we moderns do not need to employ any special literary technique or art for grasping the Confucian text.  We can directly understand its literal meaning, first because of its accessible daily language, and secondly because of its reference to empirical human conditions experienced in common by members of all cultures.
        Confucianism in its traditional form has sometimes been formulated as a  quasi-religion of a political-academic type.  Many ancient and modern conservative advocates of Confucianism have tended to deify and dogmatize the Confucian texts, and invented Confucius as a founding father of Confucianism.  In a broad sense, Confucianism is said to be the very foundation of the perennial Chinese civilization. Some Chinese scholars tend to compare the role of Confucius to that of the Buddha.  Unlike Buddha or Jesus, however, Confucius appears in the Analects only as a wise human being.  If the historical existence of the person Confucius remains to some extent unauthenticated, his words and deeds as presented in the Analects have been  universally accepted and respected. For understanding Confucian thought,  the point is not to ask whether Confucius was a historical person, but rather to acknowledge his narrative role as transmitter of ethical  ideas that were, with amazing consistency, created, collected and edited over a period of about 300 years.   The Analects was the result of a collective practice expressing the same spirit and thought  across that period.  It is a set of ethical teachings deeply rooted and widely implemented in the long Chinese history.   The content of this historical text can be further reassessed and reevaluated entirely in positive-empirical terms today. That fact, in my opinion, is the main reason why the Analects keeps its perennial value in the modern world.

Another distinction that needs to be drawn is that made between Confucian thought and Confucianist philosophies, the latter including both ancient Neo-Confucianist metaphysics (Song-Ming Li Xue) and modern New Confucianist philosophy (Xin Rujia).   Modern Confucianist philosophy, based on its historical counterpart, combines Taoist mysticism, Buddhist ontology, Western metaphysics and Confucian texts to form a modernized philosophy of nationalist character. The various philosophical schools of Confucianism have their own justifications and achievements but many of them tend to change the structure as such of the original Confucian ethics and therefore disturb its empirically operative logic. In the current interdisciplinary and cross-cultural academic context,  a return to the empirical humanist spirit of Confucian ethics becomes more and more possible and desirable. In addition to the scholarly reasons, there is a practical incentive as well. Confucian empirical humanism is badly needed today to deal with present social reality.

1. 2. Relevance of Confucian Ethics to Our Times
     Confucius has often been compared to Aristotle, because the two philosophers were regarded sometimes as founders of the Chinese and Western ethical systems respectively. However, in contrast to Confucian thought, Aristotle’s is too scientific in style, and ancient China was much weaker in scientific and logical potential.   A more relevant comparison is perhaps between Confucius and Socrates. Both of them started the ethical way of reflection in human civilizations. For both, ethical thought was still not organized in political or legal terms, although the one deals with ethical problems more affirmatively and the other more skeptically. Both of them focus on the practical wisdom of ethical choices. Confucius treats it in a more pragmatic way, and Socrates treats it in a more analytical way. But both approach ethical problems in empirical and rational terms.  At almost the same time, then, the two philosophers originally raised questions of properly ethical character respectively in the East and the West.  Unlike many later more elaborate developments of moral philosophy, they focused on the subjective aspect of the moral situation. 
        Via Plato, Socrates’ conceptual tradition has been widely mixed with and absorbed into later Western philosophical developments.   Confucian thought, however, uniquely keeps its textual, intellectual and historical  autonomy as well as its existential entirety. It presents itself as an amazingly well developed  subjective ethics.  We might call it an attitudinal ethics, a discussion of the proper attitude of the agent to ethical values, an approach that is as pertinent to modern as to ancient peoples.   It can effectively participate in a theoretical dialogue with modern Western ethical theories; but it needs a conceptual transformation with a methodological combination of hermeneutic, semiotic and pragmatic approaches. For this purpose, we have to establish both linguistic and theoretical common grounds for the dialogue between the ancient Eastern and modern Western ethics.   For Confucius does not discuss ethical problems in the formalistic-logical mode characteristic of the western intellectual tradition, but rather through an intuitive, structural and pragmatic approach deeply rooted in its original ethical experience.  Because of this difference of approach, Confucian ethics can present a useful complement to ethical reasoning based on the Western logical tradition.
       In pre-Qin China, Confucian ethical discourse was organized independently of any specific political system. It was later incorporated into the social-ideological Confucianist  system in the course of  the historical success of the legalist philosophy of power. It is significant, however, that it maintained its textual identity throughout the long pre-modern period of Chinese history. Even in the authoritarian social context of the imperial period, Confucian ethical thought preserved its separate spiritual-cultural identity within the syncretic and changing Confucianist social system. It is because of this ethical autonomy that we can speak of a separable modern significance of Confucian thought.  It is the basis of its ability to interact with other modern disciplines in different practical and theoretical fields, at different, though related, levels.  It does not contain a primitive political science or a legal theory, and it has nothing to do with sciences and democratic procedure, but that does not reduce its theoretical and practical significance from a modern ethical perspective. Its ethical autonomy is based on the unalterable empirical constancy in human nature. This subjective ethics was a product of specific historical experience,  the historical interaction between a conservative authoritarian system and the critical moral personality ironically shaped in reaction to that system. This historical situation has produced a special ethical wisdom that has proved to be universally meaningful for mankind.
A further contribution of historical Confucian ethics lies in its potential for helping the development of modern ethical scholarship. It provides a historically tested model for dealing with basic human ethical experience. Its universal applicability  lies in an practical wisdom presented in a  historical mode. It has nothing to do with some ancient sage’s supernatural power; it is the crystallization of a collective human experience as such.  In respect of style, this eastern practical coherence contrasts with, as well as supplements, the theoretical analysis of Western ethics. It is time now to combine these two ethical traditions in a way that is mutually supportive and mutually profitable. It is an opportunity for such a convergence that this comparison of Confucian ethical thought and Western ethical humanism presents.

1. 3.  A comparison between a secular humanist ethics and Confucian ethics    
        Contemporary American secular humanism is a successful independent social and academic movement focusing on promoting an applied ethics that is deeply rooted in the achievements of modern science. With a serious concern for the moral life of the world, it has applied a scientifically directed ethical doctrine to various aspects of modern society, playing an active role quite unlike that of academic ethics. The direction of this ethical Humanism towards social reality and practical goals leads to an especially efficient empirical autonomy of ethical scholarship.

        In their different social, political and historical contexts the original Confucian movement and the modern American humanist movement express three major tendencies in common:  independent socio-ethical concerns and engagement with this world; organizing efforts to pursue their ethical ideal; and an empirical-humanist approach to socio-moral problems. They surely differ from each other in other respects, because of originating from radically different geographical-historical-cultural conditions. However, the two systems are faced with essentially the same ethical issues. Confucian ethics initially arose as an alternative to the supernatural or primitive religious approach to moral-socio-political problems that had prevailed since early antiquity in China. Confucian thought is characterized by its emphasis on the human will rather than on any supernatural power, expressing a rational spirit emerging from the early cultural Enlightenment of the late Zhou period (Chun-Qiu Zhan-guo). American humanism as an ethical trend was a critical movement against the Christian tradition. Both are intellectual revolts against supernatural determinism of the moral life. This commonality of reaction is due to a properly ethical concern.  It is directed toward the more relevant objectives of human ethical life. It is this direction towards true ethical goals and its related methodology that shapes their common spiritual orientation.

         In addition to this reactive commonality, there is a shared concern as well for the ethical implications of other aspects of human sociality.  Confucian thought indirectly touches on every aspect of life, including politics, education and law. Those social parts of Confucian thought, however, play a not much role in Chinese history. Nevertheless, its concern for these sociopolitical topics focuses on their ethical meaning. American humanism as a modern, scientifically directed movement deals with many more modern relevant social, academic and ideological issues than the Confucian. These modern topics, however, directly or indirectly implicate the same ethical concerns which are also present in the ancient Chinese ethical doctrine. In general, American humanism places more emphasis upon moral values, while  Confucian humanism places  more emphasis upon the subjective attitudes towards those basic values.  Of course, Confucian thought in its ancient form lacked the technological potential to realize its social goals, except in psychological and cultural dimensions.
A basic ethical autonomy is essential to both of the two doctrines. We have already pointed out that Confucian ethics could maintain its ethical-operative coherence or autonomy even when separated from the historical Confucianist system. This characteristic becomes more salient after its alignment with modern thought.  Its ancient social, political,  and cultural connections  have an ethical implication, which can be linked to the related social and intellectual aspects of  the modern world. American humanism, especially in its recent developments, shares this ethical autonomy. This centrality of ethical focus makes it worthy of serious attention despite a relatively modest academic profile.  Both ethical doctrines share the same intensive ethicocentric stance.   In order to more clearly express the value of a possible intellectual collaboration between the two ethical systems, we will next turn to a background discussion about the categorization of ethical scholarship.

2. Basic Ethical Autonomy of Humanism
        We have several reasons for using the term humanism to represent an ethical doctrine as well as for an ethical movement developed in reaction to religious, metaphysical and irrational ethics. The most remarkable feature of humanist ethics is its strict orientation on an empirically conditioned autonomy of ethical thought. This intellectual autonomy becomes the basis or core of the entire humanist ethical system. Both Confucian ethics and the Western ethical humanist movement exhibit this basic ethical autonomy.
2. 1  Minimal definition of humanist ethics and a  model for classifying ethical discourse
       In order to promote a wider international ethical dialogue, Paul Kurtz, in a recent article, raised the question of the minimal definition of Humanism.   I have suggested a model for classifying ethical discourse which may be useful for further considering Kurtz’ requirements.  I hope that analytical model can contribute to the discussion of humanist ethics in general. The model consists of four main categories of ethical discourse as follows:
    M1:   Moral teaching and customs.  The direct or straightforward presentation of ethical values, norms and instruction in oral and written forms.  Confucian text is one of its earliest types.
    M2: The semantic and semiotic approaches to M1.  The discourses of Socrates,  the Sophists and  the Taoists offer some ancient examples of this type. 
     M3:   Scientific and technical approaches to M1 and M2.  This category can be further divided into natural, social, human and interdisciplinary subclasses. Each of the subclasses contains a number of branches.
    M4:   Philosophical, religious and poetical:  All super-empirical approaches to M1, M2 and M3, such as metaphysical, ontological, theological, mythical and poetico-rhetorical interpretations, including both rational and irrational styles.

       This typology stresses a two-fold scheme for dividing ethical discourse in history.   Practically oriented moral teaching is the basic category and the three related, theoretical categories supervene upon it. A so-called minimal definition of an empirical or humanistic ethics (MHE) should provide an adequate system of moral doctrines covering both personal happiness and interpersonal justice.  It must encompass subjective attitudes towards happiness and justice, as well as methods to attain them.  Those ethical issues contain little in the way of interpretation or explanation; they deal with more practical and often quite coherent moral teachings. Their pragmatic logic is formed on the basis of rational practices of human beings in their struggle for survival in the face of natural and social hardships, without necessarily involving other related or derived scholarly subjects. As a pre-scientific ethical system, Confucian thought provides a typical example of the minimal humanist ethics.  A desirable minimal definition of Humanistic Ethics could fall in the category M1, particularly one formulated in the pre-scientific period. American Secular Humanism, despite its modern scientific context and its more comprehensive system, provides a modern example of a minimal definition of a humanistic ethics, because of its epistemologically empirical direction of ethical inquiry. Not all minimal definitions of humanistic ethics need to be directly presented as such.   A MHE can present itself in society directly or indirectly.   A system of MHE can be indirectly embodied by other theoretical discourses in ethical scholarship. Even very complicated or sophisticated ethical systems can incorporate a basic ethical autonomy.

        ‘Humanist,’ ‘empirical’ and ‘naturalistic’ are similar terms, which can be used to describe the traits of the MHE. The MHE, on the one hand, is minimal in that it includes empirical moral principles but few other indirect theoretical elaborations, empirical or non-empirical. On the other hand, it should also be maximal in content, a common ground for all ethical systems that contain positive-empirical parts in their theories and practices, so as to allow and encourage a larger ethical dialogue among different ethical systems.  Because most elaborated ethical systems exist in mixed forms, the four-fold classifying model can help separate different sections of each ethical system and more precisely redefine the MHE for each. If we define the empirical basic ethical part, some related ethical discourse will be found to fall inside and some outside it. Generally speaking, the semantic, scientific and philosophical operations usually fall outside the MHE, as do all  religious and other transcendental discourses. The fewer the basic principles are, the larger the applied extent. In practice, the minimizing and maximizing strategies are employed simultaneously. On the one hand, it is desirable to put all unnecessary parts  outside the basic zone and organize them into different related categories of ethical science.   On the other hand, however, we need to include as much empirical and positive reasoning as possible, including that taken from natural and social sciences, to strengthen the inner structure of MHE. Those empirical scientific elements should be widely accepted as irremovable principles in any ethical doctrines.

          There are thus two possible types of MHE: One in its primitive form like the Confucian and other ancient empirical ethical systems, and the other in its modern scientific form, which will contain many more scientific results which have been already accepted as universal norms in modern time. So the demarcations between different categories of ethical discourse are flexible. In general, the scientific type M3, more than the philosophical type M4, is closer to M1, for it is also primarily empirical. It is for this reason we find that American ethical or naturalist humanism contains many more empirical or scientific elements, functioning contextually as the MHE. The same naturalist ethical discourse can alternatively function as M1, M3 and M4 in different contexts.

         The modern world has been pluralistic in its social, intellectual and ideological compositions, which contain varying rational and irrational elements, including some very absurd and disgustful ones. All of those phenomena have different historical, sociological, psychological and ideological sources that cannot be changed or replaced merely by stronger rational arguments. The desired objective of the empirical-rational humanist ethics does not lie in unrealistically anticipating the disappearance of its opposites, but rather in more effectively restricting their scope of impact. The danger of superstitious and irrational rhetoric does not lie only in its social impact, but in its influence on more crucial realms of human life, such as politics and human sciences. The classification of ethical scholarship and the definition of a MHE attempt to help shape different ethical discourses. Each concrete category contains different degrees of empirical, rationally operative elements, with the MHE providing the direct empirical and practical portion. Thus, on one hand, there is the basic system of ethical values and instructions directly shaped in human historical practice; on the other there are different types of  related interpretative and explanatory ethical teachings. The MHE provides an operatively effective common denominator for different ethical systems across different historical and geographical settings.   Using this classifying principle, most scientific, philosophical and religious theoretical supports for the MHE will not be confused with the MHE itself. The importance of this classification of ethical discourse is practical as well as theoretical. Ambiguity about and confusion of ethical discursive categories are damaging because unclarity leads to less effective ethical theories. The mixture of categories and resulting ambiguity could lead to inferential invalidity in ethical reasoning.

        We know the traditional concepts of humanism, naturalism and empiricism can be more precisely and more pertinently defined according to their different contexts, functions and usages. We do not need to fix their definitions on any specific historical theory. We have indeed learned a lot from the history expressed in those traditional ethical theories, but we should selectively use their concepts and terms in the contexts and programs we choose.  The ethical humanism of the future can be inspired by intellectual sources which are richer and more pluralistic than any past historical thoughts. Still, there remains a basic, or historically constant, empirical autonomy concerning human ethical situations. This is the very essence of the humanist ethics, different from any traditional moral philosophies.

         One of the most fundamental empirical concepts is the human nature that is the epistemological basis of our concept MHE.   Unlike the post-moderns, who reject the idea of a constant human nature, both Confucian and western humanism accept it.  We can better expand the term as “essential nature related to humanity” and therefore acknowledge different kinds of “nature”, which include physical, biophysiogical, psychological and biosocial traits and tendencies.   Naturalism should cover both biophysical nature and psychosocial nature; these two kinds of naturalism are respectively stressed by American humanism and Confucian humanism. All these different referents of the term ‘nature’ are empirically defined and therefore included in the empirical realm.  According to our definition, humanism is empirically and pragmatically defined; it is an empirical ethics or an empirically based ethics consisting of different theoretical levels. Whether it is basic or derived type in its theoretical construction depends on the chosen inferential sophistication and the operative stage concerning ethical projects.

         The basic ethics, the MHE, is intellectually justified by the persistence of human ethical situations across history. This close link to historical reality is what makes the basic ethics particularly empirical and practical, in contrast to its various transcendental rivals. It is this empirical orientation that allows empirical ethics to maintain a theoretical and practical logic shaped and tried within human historical experience. This form of ethics is almost objective and naturalistic because of its close connection to and dependence upon the stable part of  external conditions. That explains why an ancient Chinese ethical thought and a modern American one can share so many principles across historical and geographic distance. Of course, this comparison is only applicable to the basic level, or the MHE. For the Confucian, that might be its conceptual entirety; but for the American, it is only one component of a more complicated ethical system.  The redefinition of ethical autonomy or basic ethics is increasingly important today, not only because it is a theoretical and practical requirement of contemporary humanist movements, but also because it provides a link to similar historical movements.  As Paul Kurtz said, “Humanist ethical principles are autonomous, in the sense that they do not derive from theological or metaphysical premises, but grow out of our own sentient experiences”.

2   The role of a “minimal humanist ethics” (MHE) in  general humanist ethics

          There are several important tasks facing general humanistic ethics.There is a need for a mutually acceptable and agreed upon common ground for ethical discussion.  Both the theoretical and the practical aspects of ethical practice need to expand their range of influence on wider humanistic fields.  It continues to be necessary to address the damage, which can be done by various forms of irrational and transcendental ethics.  Most importantly, humanistic ethics needs to continue to contribute to the broader humanist projects crucial to the contemporary situation.  All of these tasks can be furthered by the development of the concept of a “minimal humanist ethics,” as suggested above.

         A modern version of MHE includes some theoretical or scientific parts, while a primitive mode of MHE presents only direct experiential content. Both primitive and modern versions of the MHE attempt to include within their basic scope only the necessary elements, in order to encourage more humanist schools to engage in dialogue with them. What that minimum consists of depends on the social and intellectual contexts. The specification of a MHE is made in light of the answer to another practical question: Who will be the chosen dialogic partners?   Will they be fellow humanists, or outside humanism? The definition of the minimum itself is flexible. For a cross-cultural ethical dialogue involving non-humanists, the minimal scope can be more relevantly defined. For example, the present author used E1 to refer to an ethical problem about personal happiness, and E2 to refer to problems about interpersonal justice.   In cross-cultural dialogues, it might be advisable to focus on the issues of social justice, E2, and to exclude ethical debates about what constitutes personal happiness, for those issues involve a number of different religious and philosophical positions.   When the discussants are within humanist schools, on the other hand, a secular and social-directed good is already a widely accepted value, and therefore both E1 and E2 can be included in the MHE. Thus we see that the specification of the MHE is always for the sake of a better ethical-practical priority in our inquiry and practice. Moreover, different elements from different basic systems can be linked to each other. In fact, we can assume a universal autonomy of basic empirical-ethical  principles despite the constitutional difference of various basic systems, because of the common human ethical experience that determines the MHE.
         In the modern intellectually and socially expanded context of ethical inquiry and practice, both ‘inquiry’ and ‘practice’ involve some additional or derived elements.  Ethical inquiry can lead to an increase in the sum of human knowledge at the current epistemological level; while ethical practice can also lead to expansion at the theoretical level. The polar binary concepts ‘ends’ and ‘means’ are relational terms defined in terms of each other, and it is the same for ‘practice’ and ‘theory.’ In each stage or step of ethical projects there are both practical and theoretical aspects, which complement each other. Theory requires practice, just as practice requires theory. In this sense, ethical inquiry is practice and theory simultaneously. It seems appropriate that ethical inquiry should be sufficiently open to new intellectual horizons to be able to ceaselessly enrich and develop itself.

         The most desirable and most feasible policy of ethical humanism is to first strengthen itself. To this end, the minimal definition of humanist ethics can provide an intellectual and practical division between the ethically basic and the ethically derived or elaborated, and facilitate the operations of the two, separately as well as interactively.  To have in the MHE a practicable system of ethical principles will further consistency of ethical understanding and activities among different people, and can more effectively exclude the harmful interference of various non-scientific or transcendentally directed ethical speculations. The dangerous impact of the superstitious and irrational trends of various kinds is increasingly obvious in intellectual and academic realms. A crucial and difficult task of humanist ethics today lies in determining how to resist the incursion of various irrational and amoral ideologies, secular and theistic alike, into academia.  We need to more seriously emphasize the ethical implications of the humanities by stressing the importance of this basic common ethical ground among different scholarly branches. For example, we as humanists will seriously doubt postmodernist nihilism and extreme relativism when they represent theoretical threats to our basic empirically organized ethical foundation. So epistemological criticism of obvious and latent academic dominations, and efforts to strengthen the humanities, are part of humanist ethical inquiry.   Free ethical inquiry has a two-fold objective: an inward and an outward. As well as the consolidation of the humanist ethics and the development of MHE as an internally directed task, there will be also an outward one oriented toward the intellectual horizon beyond  humanist ethical scholarship.   There is a need to narrow our operative ground within ethical practice; while on the other side we must expand its intellectual contact with other disciplines in its theoretical reconstruction. The definition of the MHE promotes this two-pronged effort to advance ethical scholarship.

2. 3   Contemporary ethics and its relations to the new perspective of the humanities

         Humanist ethics is facing two major tasks today: to shape its basic ethical theory, and to develop related ethical science at higher levels. The first task is important and pressing, not only practically, but also scientifically. Nevertheless, the materials required for this task are mainly derived from human historical experience, and can be practically organized with appropriate methodology. The second task is more complicated and extensively involved in modern social and intellectual conditions. By separating the two goals, we can better see how to achieve them both. The formulation of basic humanistic ethics can more effectively promote our practical objectives of various kinds; but the latter is related to a long-term goal of developing a more comprehensive and more satisfactory ethical science.

         Ethical inquiry, as one branch of the humanities, is related to the much larger issue of the rational reconstruction of human sciences. It is true that the most successful product of the human rational tradition is natural science, which has become the very model for all kinds of scientific studies. But because of the different compositions of physical, psychological, social, axiological and pragmatic realms, different sciences should develop in their own respective fields. Relatively speaking, the human sciences, including philosophy, face more difficulty than the natural sciences in pursuing their goal of scientific establishment.  Despite their longer history, the social and human sciences have been in their modern form for a relatively short period. The present-day humanities are faced with the task of systematically reforming themselves in the future.  The current interdisciplinary and cross-cultural development in the humanities will lead to a readjustment of ethical scholarship as well.

          Both Confucian thought and American Humanism, because of their common emphasis on empirical ethical autonomy, have an important role to play in the tasks of ethical discipline and  its practical applications  in the international context.  The interdisciplinary and cross-cultural turn of ethical theory means that the new ethical inquiry, especially its theoretical development, will be freer and more open in the future, while still keeping a constant MHE as the basic core for ethical practice. Firmly based on the empirical, positivistic and pragmatic, the new ethical inquiry will strive for a more extensive dialogue with all possible theoretical partners. Thus, the new Enlightenment, in the present humanist perspective, is not a simple return to the spirit of its earlier historical stages; rather, it will be a much-expanded intellectual movement incorporating both ethical scholarship and the development of the human sciences.
         Academic ethics has been institutionalized over the past two hundred years, and tends to be more and more rigidified and  isolated from social reality. Consequently, academic ethics cannot sufficiently or precisely describe human ethical situations; and it can hardly provide effective methods for grasping ethical situations and attaining ethical goals in the actual world.   There are the technical or scholastic moral philosophers specializing in historical texts as a profession; on the other side, there are rhetorical players in the same academic market aiming to invent new brands of “academic commodities”. Both oppose the empirical-positive direction of realistic and humanist ethics.  Unlike its historical predecessors, contemporary ethics as a single discipline is unable to solve moral problems by itself alone. The question is how, in our practical ethical programs, to arrange more suitable intellectual and social combinations of the ethical and other related scholarly aspects. For this purpose, the role of ethics becomes at present not less but rather more significant. Within its own proper scope, ethics needs to improve its quality and efficiency. It is only through the advance of the ethical discipline itself that the strategic combinations required can be secured.

3. Significance of the Dialogue between Confucian Ethics and Ethical Humanism

        We are now in a position to summarize the major points shared by American and Confucian ethical humanism.  The two ethical traditions have the following points in common:

          An empirical, human-centered stance in ethical doctrines;
          Rational attitude to ethical reasoning;
          Personal happiness, interpersonal love and social justice as preeminent values;
          High personal devotion to ethical truth and social commitment;
          Solid focus on the ethical dimension of politics, society and culture;
          Wisdom for distinguishing between true and false moral conduct in   ethical analysis, which leads to modern ideological criticism;
          Cosmopolitan or globally universalistic position in pursuing ethical   goals.
          An empirical-ethical-minimalism, which makes both flexible and open  enough to be combinable with  many related disciplines and fields for   realizing ethical goals. This also makes them intellectual and social  organizers in promoting all ethics-related objectives.

           The similarity of the two positions in presenting, organizing and realizing their respective ethical doctrines is certainly due to their common empiricism and realism.  Shared content on the level of the MHE is rooted in the unchanging part of human nature across history. The long historical experience in the East and the most recent social experiment in the West form a reliable common ethical ground for us to more relevantly understand the human ethical situation and ethical scholarship.

        It should be emphasized that our comparison is not made between the two actual systems as such, which have emerged in completely different historical and social circumstances, but only between their central ethical  bases. In order to reveal its MHE, Confucian ethics must be first detached from its historical shroud of sociopolitical and academic Confucianism. This nationalist ideology of Confucianism can only hide the true ethical value of Confucian thought, and distort its intellectual direction. Similarly, a more intensive focus on its ethical dimension will allow American humanism, already notable for its attention to ethical practice, to enrich its other related scientific connections. Ethical Humanism as a powerful movement emerging in the West should play a larger role in the twenty-first century. A possible scholarly union between the two ethical traditions, the historical Eastern and the modern Western, could lay a foundation for a new universal ethics to be shaped within the natural-social-human scientific framework that has been so important in the past decades.

            Ethical Humanism and modernized Confucian ethical thought share the same intellectual potential for advancing ethical-epistemological and moral-methodological rationality. In my opinion, this fact will lead to the desirable emergence of a new positivist ethics in the future. First, their basic empirical tendency reinforces an orientation towards real ethical situations.  Second, their positive potential for integrating related scholarly fields and social activities will constitute this as an attainable goal in the ordering of social and human knowledge.   Even if the Confucian cannot be compared with modern theoretical Ethical Humanism in every respect, it can present a unique pragmatic holism leading the ethical agent to consistently operate with different ethical-related elements, and accordingly is conducive to shaping a more independent and adamant moral personality.  The social ethics of the one and the personal ethics of the other can complement each other, uniting hopefully  in a more satisfactory ethical system.

       It has been suggested that modern Mediterranean orientalism can pose a relevant alternative to western culture.  If so, Chinese Confucian thought posits a more radical as well as equally relevant “Other”  , especially alien to its latest type: American culture.

      It is perhaps just this cultural polarity that constitutes the possibility of forming a common operative ground in modern social-cultural world. As one of the latest Western ethical traditions, American humanism has realized two kinds of ethical synthesis.  On the theoretical level, it combines different empirical ethical trends in western history ranging from the ancient Greek to American naturalism; and  practically, it unites humanist ethical theory with the multiply-secularized socio-political  activities of the United States. We have suggested ways in which this latest ethical development originating in the most developed country in the world can be traced back to its spiritual founder Socrates. American ethical humanism, opposed to current irrational and dogmatic trends of various kinds, becomes the most consistent modern successor of the Socratic tradition. Meanwhile, a new Confucian ethical humanism, after being scientifically modernized and epistemologically clarified, will be the natural successor of the long Confucian tradition. The two ethical humanist movements, originating respectively in the largest historical-cultural Eastern country and in the largest modern scientific-industrial Western country, with Confucius and Socrates as the co-founding fathers in human ethical history, forcefully represent an empirical and positivist tradition of humanist ethics which will be capable of coping with the current ethical irrationalism and dogmatism alike.