The Origin of Chinese Morality
A well-known scientist (some say it was Bertrand Russell) once gave a public lecture on astronomy. He described how the earth orbits around the sun and how the sun, in turn, orbits around the center of a vast collection of stars called our galaxy. At the end of the lecture, a little old lady at the back of the room got up and said: "What you have told us is rubbish. The world is really a flat plate supported on the back of a giant tortoise." The scientist gave a superior smile before replying, "What is the tortoise standing on?" "You're very clever, young man, very clever," said the old lady. "But it's turtles all the way down!"
— Stephen Hawking, 1988
If you are religious, the origin of your morality is simply you creator, or the myth you subscribe to. If you are an rational atheist, the origin of your morality is by no means settled. Can it be rationality itself? Very few people understand game theory or Axelrod’s Game of Life simulation (“Tit-for-Tat”), and humans are predictably irrational. No rational model can explain one-off transactions with no expected payoffs, like tipping in a restaurant you will never revisit, or sacrificing your money or even life for strangers. George Bataille and David Hume further argued that no rational models can have rational final objectives, e.g. let’s say your model is to maximize your income, but how will you spend the leftover money after feeding yourself?
What about biology? Darwin speculated that “man and the higher animals, especially the Primates, have some few instincts in common”. Richard Dawkin’s 1976 book “The Selfish Gene” popularized W.D Hamilton’s Inclusive Fitness theory, and can be summed up as ‘I would lay down my life for two brothers or eight cousins’. Dawkins inspired Thatcherism: “There was no such thing as society, just individuals...and families”, together with rational market fundamentalists, they proved ‘scientifically’ that selfishness and greed are good!
E.O. Wilson, the renowned Harvard biologist who had sided with Dawkins, now admits that Inclusive Fitness “was a mistake and I went along with it to begin with. But it’s finished. It’s over”. According to Wilson’s new multilevel group selection theory, “individual-level selection, with individuals competing with other individuals in the same group, on the one side, and group-level selection, with competition among groups, on the other. The latter force promoted altruism and cooperation among all the group members. It led to innate group-wide morality and a sense of conscience and honor. The competition between the two forces can be succinctly expressed as follows: Within groups selfish individuals beat altruistic individuals, but groups of altruists beat groups of selfish individuals. Or, risking oversimplification, individual selection promoted sin, while group selection promoted virtue.”
The problem with scientific origin of morality is, like all good science, it takes a while to decide the winner until it isn’t. While the technical debates between Inclusive Fitness and multilevel selection camps still raging, for non-biologists like us, who is to believe? Even if you believe Wilson’s math is correct, it still leaves you with choice whether to cooperate on per-transaction basis, or with which groups. Should you include Californians but not Texans, or gays but not lesbians? Even if atheists can agree on the same principles and groups, famous atheists like Jonathan Haidt and Alain De Botton, admit they still need to address the critical functions of religions, namely the rituals that build trusts and communities amongst strangers. After all, morality means nothing if it doesn’t facilitate charities to nonkin, and where do atheists meet every Sunday to foster friendships, volunteer their money and services to help those in need?
According to Wilson, humanity, or our flexibility to choose between individual and group strategy, was an evolutionary accident, just like life on earth was a cosmic accident. “Of the millions of species of animals that have lived during the 3.7 billion-year history of life on Earth, we only know of 20 ancestral lines that are true “eusocalists” (caring for children not of our own). Fourteen of them are insects (ants, bees, wasps and termites), three are species of marine shrimp, and three are mammals – two species of naked mole rats and, arguably, humans.” Humans is also the only eusocial specie that the choice whether compete or cooperate is not hard-coded in our gene, and this unique flexibility has enabled us to adapt and flourish. “Social intelligence enhanced by group selection made Homo sapiens the first fully dominant species in Earth’s history.” Our flexibility to choose is not only the most powerful gift evolution has chanced upon us, but as Victor Frankl said, gives meaning and dignity to the human existence.
But what does meaning mean? If meaning cannot be rationally defined, aren’t they just myths? Turned out “Myth is a vital ingredient of human civilization; it is not an idle tale, but a hard-worked active force; it is not an intellectual explanation or an artistic imagery, but a pragmatic charter of primitive faith and moral wisdom.” In Yuval Harari’s brilliant “A Brief History of Humankind”, he stated that it is mankind’s singular ability to invent myths that enabled large-scale cooperation and our triumph over all other specie.
China used to have many theories on the origin of morality: Confucius did not believe in anthropomorphic heaven and created the myth of ancient sage kings. He posited that rituals are critical in developing our capacity for compassions. Mencius, like Darwin, believed that humans are endowed with unique qualities that separate us from animals. Xunzi, like the behaviorist B.F. Skinner, believed humans can be programmed like a robot, and inspired Lee Kuan Yew’s Asian Model in Singapore. Laozi, went beyond the origin of morality and speculated the origin of the universe was the beginning of information, believed that we must simply follow the Way and inspired the Beat Generation. Zhuangzi, believed in the ghost in the machine(a.k.a. soul), inspired Zen Buddhism and the modern Search Inside Yourself movement. Mozi, the supreme rationalist and atheist like Peter Singer, believed in universal compassion and voluntarism, and started probably the world’s first grass-root non-religious NGO in keeping peace between warring states and advancing society's goals.
Unencumbered by religions, the search for the origin of Chinese morality 2,600 years ago rivaled the European enlightenment movement in the 17th century. Unfortunately, it ended when the First Emperor conquered all of China in 200 BC. He killed all the scholars, burned all the books and kept only the Legalists, who placed the supreme moral authority in himself. Subsequent emperors replaced Legalism with Confucianism, which placed the moral authority in the chain of sons to father, and subjects to emperor. In the 12th century, the Confucians finally suffered enough despotic rulers to abandon the myth of the sage kings, and instead seek the ultimate origin of morality in human rationality. But without the tools of math, computer simulations, biology or psychology, the “search for morality inside yourself” movement resulted in narcissism (men are as great as the universe, it’s just we belittle ourselves). The self-entitled Confucian elite seek success within the government, and believe that government, not individuals, should solve the society's problems. The result? There was no such thing as Chinese society, only families and the state, and China went through endless cycles of marginalized people got fed up and toppled the elite, only to re-establish themselves as the new tyrants. The deep Confucian influence was why China embraced communism in 1949, and placed the ultimate moral authority in Mao during the Culture Revolution. Today despite China, HK and Taiwan having the same number of billionaires as US, only one Taiwanese, as opposed to hundreds of Americans, signed the Giving Pledge. Only 13% Chinese give money to charities, compared with 68% in US, or 77% in Thailand. 70% of China’s social science research budgets is allocated to studying the thoughts of Xi Jinping, its current leader.
After the collapse of Communism in 1989, the official origin of Chinese morality had gone from “Any cat that can catch mice is a good cat”, to Three Represents, to Harmonious Society, to China Dream. But what about individual search for the origin of morality? Do Chinese people believe they can choose differently and still coexist in peace? Does the responsibility of the search belong to individuals or to the state? What should a Chinese mother teach her child how to make the right choices?
Unlike the scientifically inevitable Marxism, democracy itself was a historical accident. Inspired by the irrational Christian belief that all men are created equal, the American founding fathers gambled that a society can tolerate different choices and still endure. Their bet has not only survived a civil war, but saved the world, twice, from the grip of tyranny. Democracy protects our right to choose, thus our humanity. But like all accidents in the evolutionary history, democracy’s survival was by no means guaranteed. Had Hitler got the bomb first and conquered the world like China’s First Emperor, today there will be no Jews, no Chinese, no democracy, no choices, and no humanity.
The last turtle after all, is our choice. As improbable as it was beautiful, no state, religion, or ideology on earth should be allowed to extinguish that last turtle, again. To parallel Stephen Hawking, “However bad life may seem, while there's life, there is hope”, however bad the choices may seem, while there’s choice, there is humanity.