By Jessica Engelman
A new book from Ash Center Lecturer in Ethics Kenneth Winston examines Prospects for the Professions in China. Co-edited with William P. Alford and William C. Kirby, the book is the first attempt at a comprehensive view of the subject. The book is the result of a conference convened at Harvard Law School in 2005, and includes papers on the fields of medicine, law, architecture, engineering, journalism, accounting, business management, the clergy, and public service written by experts on China and professional ethics.
Winston’s chapter, entitled “Advisors to Rulers: Serving the State and the Way,” focuses on the role of “scholar-officials,” public servants who were trained in the Confucian tradition in order to become high-ranking members of the bureaucracy. This mandatory training meant that these public officials were required to have an education in ethics to hold office. However, this overt emphasis on ethics did not mean that scholar-officials had a clear mandate to adhere only to their training. Indeed, they had to serve two masters—the principles derived from their ethical training and the ruler who appointed them to office. This “problem of two masters” demanded that they try to offer useful advice to their ruler while also maintaining professional standards. This was not always an easy dilemma to resolve.
The Confucian tradition considers ethics as primarily a matter of personal virtue—the good ruler is someone who is a good person. In contrast, the Machiavellian tradition would not make this assumption. For Machiavelli, being a good person is often an obstacle to being a good ruler. Furthermore, the Confucian tradition worries that practical, useful advice would necessarily involve compromising one’s personal ideals. Sung Lien, an early Ming scholar-teacher, wrote that “effectiveness demands cooperation with the world, which in turn means loss of self, and loss of self means loss of virtue.” The ideal, then, is somehow to engage in loyal remonstrance, to correct the ruler’s behavior while also serving the ruler’s practical needs. This dilemma applies especially to political appointees who serve at the pleasure of the ruler and can be dismissed, not to say banished or executed, at any time by the ruler.
So, is this balance between dependence and independence sustainable? To answer this, it is helpful to consider examples of those who have successfully navigated this challenge. Notably, the U.S. solicitor general is in just such a position of being appointed by the president while expected to maintain the standards of the legal profession. As Winston writes, the solicitor general “reveals a striking similarity to the Chinese scholar-official. Both are dependent and vulnerable to the whims of a political superior, who is nonetheless aware of background norms and expectations that require deference. Both have the task of upholding independent standards, in circumstances generating strong and legitimate counter-pressures.” The solicitor general handles cases in the appellate and supreme courts on behalf of the government. However, the solicitor general has the duty to make the right legal judgment, regardless of the president’s political agenda, not just to try to win a particular case. The solicitor general helps the court assess an issue over a series of cases, and acts as a counselor to the court, even while being the president’s representative in court. By acknowledging that many solicitors general have been able to remain true to both their profession and their boss, we have a basis for saying that political vulnerability by itself does not necessarily undercut the achievement of professionalism. The question we can bring to the study of China is whether it is possible to achieve a similar success in balancing the two masters, even in the presence of heavy state involvement in the professions.
Bringing the story of scholar-officials to bear on contemporary issues of governance, Winston discusses the kinds of competence, including moral competence, that a government official would need in a democracy, and suggests that one could revise Confucian thinking to accommodate these ideas. Traditionally, Confucian ethics was very person-centered; if your own life was in order, you would not need any other skills to govern effectively. Winston argues, rather, that there are certain competencies—beyond personal virtue but compatible with Confucian thought—which an individual needs to develop to be an effective advisor or ruler in a democratic society. The challenge for contemporary schools of public policy, whether in the U.S. or China, is to address the question how well they are doing in teaching these forms of moral competence.