Research Statement

My research is based on a core question: what deeds and characters are needed for good politics in a pluralistic society, and how can these deeds and characters be cultivated?

Chinese philosopher Xunzi (荀子) once said, “There are men who create order; there are no rules creating order of themselves.” (有治人,無治法。) While laws and institutions play an important role in creating a system of good governance, the foundation of political order is the people. Despite political disagreements, people should act with integrity, respect one another, contain their impulses, and engage each other civilly in debate. Based on this question, my research project is two-folded. One is on political philosophy (with a special emphasis on public justification), while the other is on comparative philosophy (focusing especially on Confucianism). In the first project, I defend political liberalism as the superior model for democracy to address pluralism, but I argue that the role of civic deeds in a publicly justified polity has long been overlooked. In the second project, I introduce a theory entitled Confucian Neutralism that can show how classical Confucian thought (which remains considerably influential within East Asian culture) should approach disagreements in modern times.

  • An Action-oriented Approach of Public Justification

In recent years, serious political polarization has become a problem in many democratic societies; indeed, it has been argued that deep divisions have “destroyed democracy”, contributing to Brexit and the election of Donald Trump. Seeking a solution to this issue, I argue that John Rawls’s political liberalism still offers the best answer. Political liberalism is a liberal theory which argues that a state should be publicly justified among citizens holding diverse religious and ethical doctrines. In several articles (such as this and this), I argue that public justification, the central idea of political liberalism, reveals how a state may use its coercive power without undermining respect for each citizen. Even if political disagreement exists, a publicly justified state can still legitimately exercise its power in a way acceptable to citizens of a pluralistic society.  

Though political liberals like Rawls do explain how a democratic state should exercise its power, they have not fully explained how citizens should behave and what deeds are needed to support such a state. Most political liberals emphasize the function of public reason; citizens should make political decisions and present their views on the ground of public reason. I do not deny that reasoning and offering arguments in a right way is important in public discussion, but I argue that citizens should act in ways that are public-spirited and answerable to others. For example, citizens are frequently willing to listen to the arguments of their political opponents respectfully. Or, during the discussion, citizens are eager to contribute to public discussions by improving the opponents’ arguments, even if this may strengthen their position. I call these actions civic deeds, and I defend that these actions are crucial in promoting mutual trust among citizens in a pluralistic society (to concisely summarize: “Talk may be cheap, but deeds seldom cheat”).

This also suggests a new direction of development in political liberalism. Recently, political liberals have mainly focused on what reasons and arguments are required in public justification, such as what kind of scientific reasons and religious reasons should be permitted. Nevertheless, deeds, character and etiquette should not be overlooked in the ethics of public justification. What civil deeds should citizens perform when interacting? What virtuous character must citizens have in order to execute these deeds in their daily lives? Additionally, what sort of etiquette can be effective bodily training for citizens to cultivate such character? This action-oriented approach of public justification can supplement the current reason-centered approach and provide us with a more comprehensive view of the ethics of citizenship in a democratic society.

  • Confucian Neutralism and gong-fu

My interest in civic deeds also inspires my second research project, which is about how Confucianism can contribute to modern societies. Drawing from Confucius’s focus on virtuous character and etiquette, I believe this tradition of self-cultivation (xiu-shen 修身) provides a rich cultural resource for understanding how deeds and virtues can be cultivated in modern societies.

Given this, I disagree with mainstream Confucians like Daniel Bell who defend a meritocratic and perfectionist interpretation of Confucianism and argue that it would support meritocratic regimes, such as one-party rule or bicameral legislature, or perfectionist policies, such as public subsidies to the promotion of Confucian virtues. In various articles (see this and this), I reject their interpretation of Confucianism. Instead, I embrace Confucian Neutralism, which means that Confucianism should endorse a liberal neutral government. Many Confucians underestimate pluralism and disagreement characterizing modern politics. Even in East Asian societies, a consensus on good governance is largely absent. If a government assumes a universalized Confucian standard for good governance, selects political elites, and makes perfectionist policies on the ground of this standard, it will likely provoke non-Confucian groups and will intensify political polarization. Confucians should recognize a paradox: if political power is used to promote Confucianism, then Confucianism itself will be challenged and hated. I, therefore, suggest a Confucian view that, instead of using power and tax money to promote Confucian values, a ruler should focus on improving his character. Sooner or later, people will be spontaneously attracted and become virtuous.

Whereas I oppose the perfectionist/meritocratic interpretation of Confucianism, I believe that its true contribution lies elsewhere. Confucianism is a practical philosophy that prioritizes self-cultivation over theoretical questions. For example, the Song-Ming Neo-Confucians (e.g., Zhu Xi 朱熹) developed a comprehensive theory of gong-fu (工夫). Here gong-fu does not mean martial arts. Rather, it means the spiritual exercises that shape individuals’ character resulting in them becoming virtuous (e.g., meditation, reading & moral diaries). I argue that the Confucian gong-fu can teach us how civic virtues can be educated in democratic societies. What gong-fu can help people to become more civil, humble, and open-minded in a polarized society? Can some digital measures be utilized to practice gong-fu nowadays? Society changes a lot, but human beings have not changed much since then and are still subject to weaknesses of will and temptations. The Confucian gong-fu is, therefore, helpful because it teaches us how human beings can overcome these obstacles through training. In short, the main contribution of Confucianism is not a non-liberal theory of state, but rather a theory of self-cultivation suitable for democracy.

Hence, I am a liberal Confucian, who believes that Confucianism and political liberalism can learn from each other. While Confucianism should recognize that a neutral state can effectively address the problem of pluralism, political liberalism should also understand that the Confucian insight about etiquette and spiritual exercises can helpfully maintain civility in politics. This sheds light on how we could address some pressing political problems currently in vogue in contemporary Eastern and Western societies.