Sunday, October 23, 2005

Chinese Ethics

I teach an undergraduate course in Information Systems Auditing at the University of Science & Technology in Hong Kong which is roughly half and half Western and Hong Kong students. One of my modules – in the spirit of Sarbanes-Oxley – discusses corporate ethics and the sort of response to ethical breaches expected of auditors.

Nothing reveals the contrast between East and West more than this module. I present a series of nine case studies from Hong Kong. For example, one presents the case of the son of a property tycoon who uses political influence to steal $10 billion from the government; another presents the case of the daughter of an industrial tycoon who cons the government into paying for fraudulent pollution control equipment at a time when the city is choking on air pollution. Both presented clear cases of unethical behavior which my Western students had no problem discerning.

My Hong Kong students, in contrast, find these ethical cases exceedingly difficult. After all, these cases talk about powerful Hong Kong figures – shouldn’t they be able to do anything they want. And anyway, it might not be in your best interests to irritate them.

In Hong Kong, ethics is about self-promotion rather than what might elsewhere be considered ‘fair play’. This is not the norm in most human societies. And I think I can accurately speculate why.

Studies in evolutionary psychology identify one overriding and uniquely human characteristic – the playing of games with a society’s formal rules. Evolutionary psychologists Leda Comides and John Tooby at UC-Santa Barbara have shown through their research that humans are – by their genetic makeup – acutely sensitive to unfair treatment. They did this by presenting some problems of formal logic to their experimental subjects as a card game. When problems were presented in a form that required the subjects to decide whether people were being treated fairly or not, they found them intuitive and easy – humans it seems are hard-wired for detecting injustice.

Western ‘logic’ – the formal or informal procedures through which we make decisions – has traditionally been predicated on ‘just’ decision making. In contrast, Chinese language traditionally did not even contain a word for logic (that is until quite recently). Only after the exposure to Western influences. The characters for logic 逻辑 (luóji) are a phonetic transcription from the Western word. Humor is similarly the transcription 幽默 (yōu mò), which perhaps explains Chinese failure to grasp situations that to Westerners seem patently absurd.

Add to these proclivities the importance of ‘duty’ (to ones parents, kin and village) in Asian societies; and contrast this with Western emphasis on ‘justice’ and ‘human rights’. It is easy to see where the two cultures might find themselves mutually incomprehensible.

These opposing perspectives are reinforced in the contrasting social philosophies of the West and East. Social philosophy in the West has been dominated by the overlapping scripture of the Torah, New Testament, and Quran. This scripture emphasizes divine revealed law which if followed will yield a just society. Education is a matter of interpreting scriptures in the context of the real world problems – essentially problem solving. Indeed, judges in all three religions have traditionally been the best problem solvers; in all three, the belief that one can attain enlightenment without the intermediation of the earthly priests has been a recurring heresy.

In the East, the dominant social philosophies have been Buddhism, Confucianism and Taoism. Confucianism and Taoism in their own ways preach deference to the powerful – village and kinship leaders in the former; animistic spirits in the latter. Buddhism teaches that education is a continuing process of discovering man’s true nature, extending from life to life.

It turns out that there is a historical precedent for the modern Chinese perspective on fair play, and the Chinese did long ago employ ‘logic’ as a social problem solving tool. The art of social problem solving developed with a contemporary of Confucius, MoZi (墨子). "Master Mo" founded the Mohist school, whose canons dealt with issues relating to valid inference and the conditions of correct conclusions.

Unfortunately for the Mohist path of logic – which very well might have led the Chinese to a more Western world-view – it was rapidly quashed by the authoritarian brand of Confucianism crafted by Xunzi (荀子). Xunzi’s most famous dictum was that “the nature of man is evil; his goodness is only acquired training." By "training" he meant the li (禮) : ceremonies and ritual practices, rules of social behavior, traditional mores and music. Xunzi's students in turn founded the Legalists School – most notably the theoretician Han Feizi and the statesman Li Si who utilized the ruthless but efficient ideas of the political philosophy of Legalism (法家; pinyin FǎJiā) to weld the warring Chinese states into the Qin dynasty. Mohism was forcibly replaced by Legalism. Legalists believed that a ruler should govern his subjects according to three ideas.

1. Fa ( fǎ): law or principle. The law code must be clearly written and made public. All people under the ruler were equal before the law. Under the Zhou Dynasty, law was loosely written and was based on social classes. Laws should reward those who obey them and punish severely those who dare to break them, even if the result of this would on the face of it appear to be undesirable. The objective is to guaranteed that every action taken is predictable.

2. Shu ( shù): method, control or art. Morality and justice are not important in Legalism. Special methods and "secrets" are to be employed by the ruler to make sure the ministers don't take over control of the state. Especially important is that no one can fathom the rulers motivations, and thus no one can know which behavior might help them getting ahead.

3. Shi ( shì): legitimacy, power or charisma. It is the position of the ruler, not the ruler himself, that holds the power (not unlike the British concept of the Imperial ‘We’)

Over the ensuing centuries, Legalism (usually under the guise of Confucianism) was adopted by one ruling warrior class after another – its most recent incarnation in the tenets of Maoism. Given this enduring history, it should not be surprising that the large gap still exists in Western and Eastern perspectives. But just as humor and logic have been incorporated into the Chinese language (and indeed, I do find local students occasionally laughing at my jokes and following my logic) I can predict that a globalized and cosmopolitan China will adopt Western concepts of justice and morality as time progresses.

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