Voting with Their Feet: How Early Ruism (Confucianism) Conceived of the Relationship Between the State and its Citizens

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Following from the article “A Chart of Ruist Virtues”, Bin Song writes about ‘friendship’ among the five cardinal human relationships.

Unlike the other human relationships, friendship is generally with people who are outside of the family, and it is also egalitarian. Considering that Ruist ethics is usually thought of as centering upon family and socio-political hierarchy, it may be a surprise to learn that Ruism actually places a human relationship which is neither familial nor hierarchical among the five most important.

What may seem even more surprising is that for Mencius and his Ru school, friendship is not only one of the five most important human relationships, but it is also the model for the relationship between the state and its citizens: “Friendship is the Way (Dao) between the ruler and his subjects” (“友, 君臣之道.” – the Chu Bamboo Stripes in Guodian). In other words, just as people can freely choose their friends based upon their virtues and merits, the ruler of a state can also be chosen. Though the ruler could not, of course, have been chosen by ballot, something which was not available in the social context of Mencius’ time, even so, Mencius highly recommended that people should vote with their feet. We can see this is the case from the following conversation between Mencius and King Xuan of Qi, which concerns the difference between two kinds of ministers:

The King Xuan of Qi asked about the ministers who are noble and relatives of a ruler. Mencius answered, “If the ruler has great faults, they ought to remonstrate against him, and if he does not listen to them after they have done so again and again, they ought to dethrone him.” The king was stunned and changed his countenance. Mencius said, “Let not your Majesty be offended. You asked me, and I dare not answer but according to truth.”

…Relying on this conversation and other related texts, we can summarize Mencius’ view as follows: within an aristocratic monarchy, which was the prevalent form of government in the period of the Warring States (475-221 B.C.E), ministers should assist their ruler in being virtuous just as though they were exhorting a friend.


The original article can be found here.

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