Some Thoughts on Individualism, Relationality, Confucian Ethics, and Dewey’s Idea of Democracy

John Dewey








Since 2017, I’ve scrupulously avoided posting political content on this site because The Existential Buddhist is focused on the Dharma and there’s no shortage of political commentary to be found elsewhere. Also I am not an economist or a political scientist, and my opinions on these matters deserve no more attention than anybody else’s.

That being said—I’ve spent the past two years gaining a better understanding of Chinese cultural-philosophical influences on the development of Zen, and this has led me to learning how to read Mandarin and familiarizing myself with classical Chinese philosophy as well as the scholarly literature on Chinese Buddhism. I’m still a relative beginner at this, but it has helped me to think creatively about the intersection of Buddhist, Aristotelian, and Confucian ethics and what all three systems have in common despite their apparent differences. This, in turn has led to a new book (The House We Live In: Virtues, Wisdom, and Pluralism) which I hope will be published later this year. The book focuses on the ethical commonalties between these systems and their  implications  for the current crisis of American democracy. Can these commonalities serve as a ground for a modern flourishing-based ethics capable or addressing the problems inherent in pluralistic, multicultural democracies?

The book is long, but my short answer is, I believe they can. All three systems emphasize (to varying degrees) a common set of virtues (benevolence, fairness, truthfulness, courage, equanimity, temperance, conscientiousness, and wisdom) and  probabilistically tie these virtues to living a flourishing life characterized by subjective well-being, meaningfulness, and objective goodness. “Goodness” here refers to the degree a person’s life contributes to the well-being of the communities to which he or she belongs. Aristotle stresses we are first and foremost social animals, and the Buddha and Confucius stress our relational and communal nature even more strongly. We do not flourish by ourselves as individuals, but as integral members of families, societies, cultures, an international community, and a complex web of natural ecosystems. Finally, all three systems emphasize the value of a lifetime devoted to the cultivation of the moral and intellectual virtues.

Western culture’s greatest flaw is its overemphasis on individualism. This overemphasis grew out of the Western Enlightenment as Europe emerged from feudalism. Individualism had and continues to have its many benefits—the right of persons to conduct experiments to discern the truth for themselves rather than relying on ancient texts, the value of individual conscience, the idea that persons possess inherent rights, and the idea of individual uniqueness—that we each have our own path to trod, talents to develop, and perspectives to express. Individualism served as a bulwark against fascist and communist statism in the 20th Century and underlies today’s liberatory movement for the free expression of one’s unique gender and sexuality. Finally, it is the underpinning for free markets, entrepreneurism, and the kind of innovative capitalism Adam Smith described in his Wealth of Nations. So, let’s give credit where credit’s due. Two cheers for individualism!

But an individualism that fails to be counterbalanced by an equal emphasis on relationality is a cultural disaster. It leads to an ethics of unlimited individual self-aggrandizement regardless of how it impacts the communities one belongs to. It leads to viewing everything outside oneself as something to master and control. It emphasizes power and dominance over caring and cooperation. It’s natural consequences are the subjugation of other individuals and cultures, and the degradation of the natural ecosystems that support life on this planet. It emphasizes personal freedom without sufficiently acknowledging our fundamental human responsibilities to each other.

This Western overemphasis on individualism has had a major impact on our response to COVID-19. With some exceptions, Confucian and Buddhist influenced societies like China, South Korea, Taiwan, Japan, and Viet Nam have managed the pandemic far better than the individualist countries of the West. It’s disheartening to see significant pluralities in America and Europe assert that their freedom to not don masks overrides their responsibilities to protect the health of the elderly and vulnerable.

Many of our current troubles are related to this overemphasis. America’s vast economic inequality is a direct consequence of its ethics of individualism and relative neglect of relatedness. This economic inequality is fueling the current wave of authoritarian populism that threatens to put an end American democracy. The post-Reagan channeling of wealth away from the poor, middle class, and public investment is stoking inter-ethnic and inter-racial tensions as members of diverse communities compete for limited resources as they continue to lose ground to the ultrarich.

We see the same paradigm repeated for corporations who, we are now told, are legally considered “individuals.” Many operate solely for the benefit of their stockholders giving short shrift to their moral obligations to their employees, communities, consumers, and the environment. If  humans  acted similarly, they would be diagnosed as psychopaths. If a tissue cell acted similarly, it would be diagnosed as a cancer cell. Psychopaths and cancers are what they are because they maximize their own satisfactions at the expense of their neighbors. We see this pattern  in extractive industries that ruin the environment, media and social media companies that promote hate, division, and disinformation, gun manufacturers that sell military grade weaponry to civilians, pharmaceutical companies that gouge prices, agribusinesses that operate inhumane factory farms, and tobacco and soft-drink industries that sell products injurious to health. Progressives blame these abuses on “neoliberalism,” but as philosopher Judith Green points out, this is probably a misnomer. It ought to be called ego-capitalism because it operates according to an ethics of personal self-aggrandizement at the expense of others. The problem is not an economy that responds to market signals and allows the free flow of capital. The problem is economic actors who feel free to act unconstrained by an ethical framework that takes relationality sufficiently into account. If there were a growing consensus around a flourishing-based ethics that balanced individualism with relatedness, there would be the public will to bring laws, rules, and regulations into greater accord with that consensus. There are many different proposed ways of addressing the problems in our economy and the way corporations function,  and since i am not an economist, I am not going to evaluate them.  What I am arguing is that we need a new ethics more than we need a new economics. If the ethics was there, the economics would follow.

In pointing to the failures of Western individualism, I do not mean to assert the superiority of Asian Confucian cultures. They have their problems, too. We could discuss, for example, how current Chinese society does not leave sufficient room for individuality and does not protect minorities sufficiently and could benefit from the incorporation of more Western democratic ideas concerning human rights. We each have much we can learn from each other. But this post is not about China’s problems, but about our own.

Confucius believed the personal cultivation of virtue led to well-ordered families and societies. This idea is summarized by the Chinese expression “xiū shēn, qí jiā, zhì guō, píng tiān xīa” which means “cultivate virtue, regulate the family, govern the state, bring peace under Heaven.” Confucius thought the personal, familial, and civic spheres were inextricably linked and enhanced through personal cultivation of virtue: a well-ordered society made for well-ordered families and virtuous individuals possible, but virtuous individuals made well-ordered families and a well-ordered state possible. There is an intimate connection between the values we live by and harmony in the larger social world.

Confucius’s view was opposed by the Chinese Legalist philosopher Han Feizi. Feizi argued the Confucians had had a couple of centuries to improve human virtue and hadn’t yet succeeded.  If good governance depended on virtuous leaders, good governance would occur only once In a blue moon as most leaders were mediocre at best. Feizi tried to imagine a centralized bureaucratic state that “ran by itself” whether its leaders were virtuous or not. One of the problems with Feizi’s vision is that bureaucracies can only insulate themselves from bad rulers to a limited degree—ministers and civil servants can always be replaced when they fail to follow a despot’s will—and bureaucrats who aren’t guided by a professional sense of virtue rapidly turn corrupt as they pursue their own self-interest. Scholar Tao Jiang makes the point that Feizi failed to distinguish between the monarchy and the monarch. Institutional safeguards (separation of powers, the franchise, etc.) make good governance more likely, but don’t guarantee it: all institutions become corrupted when the actors who comprise them aren’t guided by a sense of personal virtue and professional integrity. I think democracy is best served when there are the institutional safeguards against despotism, and when those institutions are supported by a public consensus on virtue.

Philosopher John Dewey argued there was a difference between democracy as a formal set of political institutions and democracy as an ethos. For Dewey, the idea of democracy was one of individuals engaging cooperatively with members of their community to expand the opportunities for each member to flourish in his or her own way. As such, democracy as a reality can only be approached but never fully realized. The nature of what constitutes flourishing for individuals and the best ways to achieve it change as historical and social conditions change, and so will always require public inquiry and dialogue as to their adequacy and revision consequent to that inquiry. Revision must always be piecemeal and ad hoc and not total or based on some grand overarching theory because societies and cultures have long histories that ultimately partly determine the forms they can take. Over two centuries after the French revolution, France is still very much recognizably France. A century after the Russian revolution, Russia is still very much recognizably Russia. A half-century after the Chinese revolution, China is still very much recognizably China. There are ways in which they have changed, and perhaps even more ways in which they have not. History is always continued on  into the present.

Dewey based his idea of democracy on the same kind of flourishing-based ethics that animates Aristotle, the Buddha, and Confucius—although none of them were democrats. Dewey, like Aristotle, the Buddha, and Confucius, recognized the importance of relationality, and in his book A Common Faith, argued for a civic ethos that might be embraced by the religious and the non-religious alike. That common faith never materialized, and much of today’s politics can be understood as a contest between a Dewey-like ethic of flourishing and ideas of flourishing rooted in monotheism and ethnic identity. This contest will no-doubt continue in a variety of forms until some historical denouement occurs—but each of us has the responsibility to contribute towards the development of some “final” consensus as best we can. I use the term “final” is scare quotes because no consensus is ever final as the historical and social conditions that underlie them are always in flux. Consensus never requires us all to agree—just enough of us so our society can function sufficiently to incrementally improve flourishing for all.

Contributing to that new consensus means talking with our family, friends, and neighbors, including those who disagree with us, and engaging in open ended good-faith inquiry and dialogue. What this actually entails is never easy, and I may have more to say about it in future posts. It certainly means a commitment to pluralism—that there is rarely one once-and-forever answer to social questions, one way to think about flourishing, and that different social groups, geographical regions, and nation states may arrive at different conclusions about what is best. What differences can be tolerated and what differences are experienced as intolerable is usually largely a psychological rather than ethical question. When a majority or minority can rightfully force their views on others and when it can allow differences in social practices to exist is also a question that can only be addressed on an ad hoc basis without an overarching set of ethical principles that can settle them. We should try to tolerate pluralism as much as possible, celebrate it when we can, and understand that there are also issues that arise where conflict can’t be avoided and must be addressed. There are some questions (e.g., foreign policy) that can only be addressed as a unified nation, and others that can be left to the laboratory of the states. We fought a civil war over forcing an end to slavery, and it is always possible that there will be other issues that will rise to that level of urgency and allow no compromise.  Hopefully, very few issues will rise to that level of urgency over the course of the history of a nation, and most arguments will be amenable to being settled through dialogue, tolerance, and compromise, and the simple passage of time. All sorts of previously highly contentious issues—women’s suffrage, plural marriage, prohibition—have been settled without great carnage, and the hope is most issues can be resolved in this way going forward.

These are just a few of the ideas my new book takes under consideration.  It’s more than a little off topic for a blog devoted to Buddhism, and I apologize for that.  But it’s what I’ve been working on recently, and the reason I haven’t posted very frequently this past year. Here’s to 2022, the survival of our democracy, and more posts on Buddhist topics going forward. Best wishes in the New Year!


John Dewey (1924/2013) A Common Faith. Yale University Press

Judith M. Green (2021). Pragmatist Political Economy: Toward a Deweyan Paradigm of Deep Democracy in a Time of Global Crisis, in Ames, Chen, and Hershock (Eds). Confucianism and Deweyan Pragmatism: Resources for a New Geopolitics of Interdependence. University of Hawaii Press, pp 109-132.

Tao Jiang (2021). The Origins of Moral-Political Thought in Early China. Oxford University Press