Thursday, February 11, 2010

Confucian guidelines for those revising American University's new Faculty Manual

American University’s faculty members and senior administrators - the Provost, Deans and their staffs - are presently engaged in an arduous and time consuming process of revising the The Faculty Manual. This is a set of rules that seek to govern the behavior of faculty members. The challenge of such an exercise is to produce a document with the longevity, clarity and resilience of the US Constitution, perhaps the best set of rules ever drafted. The danger is that the outcome will be a turgid, convoluted tome that more resembles the proposed US health care legislation or the Constitution of the State of California.

Singapore is a society many have described as having been shaped by Confucian principles and rules, though some now say Confucianism is dismissed by most Singaporeans as irrelevant. Seeking to judge for myself, I have been studying a compilation of Confucian teachings known as the Lun Yu, the Analects. Confucius‘ observations on the relationship been rules and principles, which I read earlier this morning, seemed relevant to the Faculty Manual drafting process. What follows is from D.C. Lau’s commentary on the Analects (Penguin Classics, 1979, p. 49-50). The passage is a bit long for a blog posting but, I think, worth the time it will take to read it.

...why should a rule which had been found right in the past be subjected to fresh scrutiny. ...First, a rule once formulated in precise terms cannot adapt itself to changing circumstances. What was right in a previous age need not continue to be right in a subsequent age. ...Second, circumstances may arise where one rule comes into conflict with another. Such a conflict can only be resolved by appealing to basic moral principle. Third, even with a rule which may be satisfactory in itself, there are occasions when the observance of it conflicts with the spirit behind the rule.

Equally important, principle cannot do with rules which give it effect. ...principles need to be put into effect, and any act that puts a moral principle into effect will, in fact, be an exemplification of some rule or other. Thus, while a rule can remain right only if it is constantly measured against the demands of principles, a principle cannot do without rules if it is to be put into effect. This dialogue between rule and principle constitutes the essence of Confucius’ morel thinking.

...All moral rules have implicit in them some principle or principles. A rule can thus always be judged by its success in realizing those principles. In other words, moral rules have built-in standards by which they can be judged. If they are found wanting, this points to the way of their improvement. On the other hand, the implicit principles are ideals which become clearer to us as they are used as standards to criticize the rules. We gain , greater insight into a moral principle by discovering the inadequacies of the rules that give it effect.

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