Democratic Perfectionism: Liberal and Confucian Perspectives

Project director: Dr. Sungmoon Kim

Public Reason Confucianism: Democratic Perfectionism and Constitutionalism in East Asia will be published under this project by Cambridge University Press in April 2016.


Over the past two decades, political theorists and philosophers in East Asia and beyond have been struggling with a non-liberal mode of political regime and practice pertinent in East Asia’s Confucian philosophical and societal context and as a result, Confucian political theory has emerged as an important subfield in political theory. For instance, though Western political scientists such as Samuel Huntington once called "Confucian democracy" a contradiction in terms, no informed scholar nowadays seems to subscribe to this western-liberal presumption not least because of the successful democratic transitions of some East Asian, historically Confucian, countries such as South Korea and Taiwan but also because of the collective endeavors of scholars to advance a normatively compelling and socio-politically practicable mode of democracy in East Asia that is distinct from Western-style democracies—namely Confucian democracy.

Given the impressive diversity of the Confucian political theories advanced so far in terms of style, political orientation, interpretive angle, and methodology, it is difficult to single out the most distinctive feature(s) that these theories have in common as Confucian political theory. That said, it appears that most Confucian political theories share some shared perfectionist assumptions: (1) Confucian ethics is a kind of perfectionist ethics that assumes the existence of the objectively good life and thus aims at the moral perfection of the people; (2) given the inseparability of Confucian ethics and politics, the supreme goal of Confucian politics lies in promoting the objectively good life as well as securing the socioeconomic conditions that enable such a life; and therefore (3) the state in a Confucian polity is morally authorized to promote a particular (Confucian) conception of the good life. The underlying argument is that democracy is either only instrumentally valuable or unimportant as long as the perfectionist ends are promoted by the state.

Bianzhong, an ancient Chinese musical instrument.

In this project, I attempt to theorize a form of Confucian perfectionism that is fully compatible with the intrinsic value of democracy. To do so, I first construct a robust normative concept and political theory of democratic perfectionism by critically engaging with liberal perfectionist theory while testing its practical plausibility in the areas of constitutionalism, distributive justice, and political leadership. Then, from the perspective of democratic perfectionism thus constructed, I explore a normatively attractive theory of Confucian perfectionism that is robustly democratic and culturally relevant in East Asia and equally test its plausibility in a contemporary Confucian cultural and societal context.

This project has been awarded a General Research Fund (GRF) by the University Grants Committee (UGC).