Respect and Reward: Ecology from the Analects of Confucius

Yi Chen, Boris Steipe

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Today’s ecological crises are scientifically well understood. Their dire consequences follow predictions with relentless accuracy. What is astounding is how little we can bring ourselves
to do about them. Granted, powerful economic interests invest heavily in maintaining the status quo of consumption. But there is another side to this problem, a curious unwillingness,
inability to take personal responsibility. The reasons for this failure to respond are questions for philosophy.
Original sayings of Confucius are collected in a slim book, the Analects. Throughout, we find an emphasis on the nurture of ethical values that are derived from reciprocal forbearance,
trustworthiness, and loyalty. In Confucian philosophy, the concept Lǐ 禮, generally translated as “ritual propriety”, expresses how a sincere respect for nature and society can manifest the
self, and how self-cultivation is a way to transform the private self into an open, transparent self that is in balance with the dynamics of one’s environment. From this Confucian perspective, the self and its context, whether other individuals, society in general, “nature” or cosmos, exist in a constant, innate, gap-less encounter and dialogue, based upon meaningful differentiation rather than antagonistic struggle. The awareness of this immanent relationship is not based upon a set of imposed social rules, but an intuitive sensibility towards propriety,
an “enabling restraint”, a procedure of propagation, derived from life’s inner growth.
Grounded within an embodied self here and now, this attitude of sincere respect, independent of expectations of utility and reward, envisions behaviour in accordance with ecological needs and sustainable principles as an effortless response, fed by an aesthetic sensibility towards an environment that is constitutive of and cultivated within the self. Thus, the key to ecological responsibility is an education through which we understand that responsible behaviour can be pursued because it is an expression of who we are as human beings, and for which economic gain, social status and humanitarian responsibility are natural consequences. Such a personal yet not private response to our current challenges, day-to-day, and in every moment, is the ultimate win-win proposition.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationSustainable Development: Asia-Pacific Perspectives
EditorsPak Sum Low
Place of PublicationCambridge
PublisherCambridge University Press
ISBN (Electronic)9780511977961
ISBN (Print)9780521897174
Publication statusPublished - 2022


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