Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Lessons from the Ming Dynasty: Can moralistic thinking lead to large system gridlock, crisis, breakdown?

I am listening to a series of lectures from Kenneth J. Hammond on Chinese History [ The Great Courses: From Yao to Mao: 5000 Years of Chinese History; Professor Kenneth J. Hammond; New Mexico State University ].  Lecture 24 describes "Gridlock and Crisis" in the Ming Dynasty.  Prof Hammond considers the philosophy of individual moralism of 16th century Chinese philospher Wang Yangming [ http://www.answers.com/topic/wang-yangming ].
Wang Yangming's later followers would use a sense of developed moralism by an outgroup to harshly judge the morals of an ingroup, with the conclusion being that the ingroup was unworthy of power, and should be frustrated at every turn, if they cannot be cast out outright.  Prof Hammond sees this as leading to gridlock and crisis, and the ultimate downfall, of the Ming Dynasty.  A more pragmatic thought that emphasizes a deferral to authority would have allowed the Dynasty to govern more effectively and well, Prof Hammond maintains.
The parallels with the modern American Republican party is clear.
I am not a supporter of current Republican obstructionism, but I think the correct interpretation is more subtle than Prof Hammond's thesis.
Personal moralistic thinking can bring clarity and action to bear against incorrect policies, and this is a very fine thing.  And personal moralistic thinking can lead people to foolish, destructive, vacuous obstructionism, and can lead people to petty "dropping out" of the system, and can lead people to petty "casting out" of opponents; vacuous obstructionism like the current Republican party after Obama's election, petty "dropping out" like Texas governor Perry's talk of succession, petty "dropping out" like militia extremism, and petty "casting out" of right-wing thinkers by the currently favored mainstream left-wing thinkers.
(How can I blame right-wing thinkers for "dropping out", if I tolerate left-wing thinkers "casting out"?  I cannot, without being inconsistent.)
Personally, I have a terrible time with over-moralizing and demonizing opponents to my viewpoint.  I am setting myself up to commit destructive, vacuous obstructionism, to commit "dropping out", to commit "casting out".  My error is not acknowledging the sincere genesis of my opponents' morality.
This is not moral relativism, or watering down moral conclusions until no action is compelled, or watering down moral conclusions until perfect inaction.  Acknowledging the sincere genesis of my opponents' morality does not imply moral relativism, because I can still strongly resist repugnant thoughts, words, and actions.  But, at least, I do not "cast out" my opponents to the ultimate wasteland, by contradicting my opponents possessing the capacity for human morality with a sincere genesis.
I will, at the first, make it clear I acknowledge the sincere genesis of their morality, even if they commit thoughts, words, actions to my disapproval, even if they commit thoughts, words, actions to my profound disgust.  I will also remind those I agree with that without acknowledging the sincere genesis of an opponent's morality, they are "casting out" that opponent with finality, and that opponent will feel justified in "dropping out", and that opponent will feel justified in actions of terrible extremism.
If I cannot, at the very least, reasonably and honestly, acknowledge the sincere genesis of an opponent's morality, I think it is better to not engage that bad actor in any way.  There are enough honest thinkers to deal with, without wasting time on the lowest.  My complete disinterest to rise to a particular person's attack should be the ultimate criticism.  I may have to construct a best construction on the intentions of an opponent, and state that where their prior actions contradicted the best construction, they were operating out of stress, or haste, or incomplete attention.

1 comment:

SightReader said...

I've also been poking about after hearing Dr Hammond's ideas on Ming decline and was disappointed to find that his theory of moral gridlock is actually on the fringe. Everyone agrees that Ming ceased to respond effectively, but the decline doesn't appear to be very "well-behaved": that is, there are simply too many possible "turning points" that indicate a frustratingly diverse set of causes. The vast majority of people simply don't give a foundational cause, instead listing the well-known symptoms of ineffectively withdrawn emperors, excessively powerful eunuchs, government ineptitude, and foreign and domestic calamities. Some list scholarly infighting and excessive centralization of authority in the emperor himself as well. The problem is that the progress of these causes keeps getting muddied by occasional "bright spots" that shift the blame to something else.