The Right of Self-Defense in Confucianism

Ping-cheung Lo

Image by cocoColin from Pixabay

This article is part of our “Self-Defense and Human Rights” series.
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This piece contributes to David Little’s claim that the right of self-defense is universally acknowledged by analyzing the subtle idea of self-defense in the book of Mencius, a Confucian text named for its author. This treatise was influential in premodern Japan and Korea, as well as in Chinese thought then and now. It is common knowledge in Confucian political philosophy that Mencius places the well-being of the people as the foundation of his thought and that he detests oppressive rulers to the extent that he approves revolution, tyrannicide, and humanitarian armed expedition. As I will point out below, Mencius’ view of self-defense is close to Little’s understanding: “Self-defense is not egotistically grounded. Rather, it is defined as the right to use defensive force to protect oneself or others because the exercise of arbitrary force constitutes a universal violation.”

One can gain a holistic picture of Mencius’ view of the right of self-defense by analyzing Mencius’ understanding of just causes for war. Mencius (c.372-289 BCE) lived in the period of Chinese history known as the Warring States Period, a time in which warfare was rampant. Hence, it is no surprise that it is in this text that we find the first recorded use of the term “just war” (yizhan, or righteous war) in Chinese history. The text also contains rich and nuanced discussions on warfare ethics. Mencius condemns most of the warfare of his time, but he allows room for the use of force for just causes, which he consistently calls warfare of “zheng,” i.e., a military expedition to punish a tyrant and to rectify an injustice perpetrated by his tyrannical rule. A tyrant loses his moral legitimacy, and killing a tyrant is not deemed regicide. However, this mission has to be carried out by a virtuous ruler or minister who practices “benevolent governance.”

Mencius allows for four just causes for war in the past and in his time:

  • (i) a revolution led by a virtuous leader to overthrow a tyrannical ruler (past);
  • (ii) a military expedition by a feudal state, on behalf of the virtuous imperial court, to overthrow a tyrannical ruler of another feudal state (past);
  • (iii) a military expedition by the virtuous ruler of one independent state against the tyrannical ruler of another independent state on humanitarian ground (Mencius’ time); and
  • (iv) a war of self-defense against an actual, wrongful aggression (Mencius’ time).

Cause (iv) is obviously a matter of justice; so are the other three. For causes (ii) and (iii), on the one hand, it is a matter of retributive justice to resort to war to punish the tyrant. On the other hand, it is a matter of rectifying justice to use force to rescue the people from the “deep water and scorching fire” of suffering under the tyrant. For cause (i), a group rising up to overthrow a wicked ruler involves both retributive and rectifying justice. Wars fought on these causes are not only justified wars; they are indeed just wars, i.e., wars of justice.

Cause (iv) is indisputably a cause of self-defense. Looking to cause (i), throughout the treatise Mencius takes the revolutionary wars of Tang and Wu of earlier times as the moral exemplar and extends this rationale to inter-state wars. It is widely recognized by scholars on Mencius that he places the common people as the foundation of his political thought. And he famously says, “The people are of supreme importance; the altars to the gods of Earth and grain come next; last comes the ruler. That is why he who gains the confidence of the multitudinous people will be Emperor [literally “the son of Heaven”].”1 Mencius 7B14. A revolutionary war against a regime that oppresses its own people is a collective act of self-defense; a tyrannical ruler that oppresses the people loses legitimacy. Another very famous moral pronouncement of Mencius is, “If a prince treats his subjects as his hands and feet, they will treat him as their belly and heart. If he treats them as his horses and hounds, they will treat him as a mere fellow-countryman. If he treats them as mud and weeds, they will treat him as an enemy.2 Mencius 4B3 (emphasis added).

“Mencius” / Wikimedia

The moral responsibilities between the ruler and his ministers are mutual. If a wicked king severely maltreats his ministers as though they were mud and weeds under his feet, this king loses moral legitimacy and the ministers should not pledge allegiance to him anymore; nay, they should see this wicked king as the enemy of the state. Hence, hermeneutically we can infer that a ruler that rules tyrannically is an act of “internal aggression.” When Mencius asserts that King Zhou was punitively executed as a “mere fellow,” or a commoner during a revolution, he is denying legitimacy of a tyrannical ruler and is treating the tyrant as morally equivalent to an external aggressor and oppressor. To revolt against a tyrant under the leadership of a virtuous minister is an act of self-defense from the perspective of the people and this tyrant is to receive the same punishment as tyrants elsewhere: punitive execution. But there is a proviso: the revolutionary war must be led by a virtuous leader, meaning the common people do not have the right to initiate a revolt, though they have the right to join one. This is quite understandable; Mencius does not want to encourage common people to start sporadic, unorganized, poorly armed revolts that will be self-defeating.

For causes (ii) and (iii), from Mencius’ perspective, to launch a humanitarian rescue mission is to offer assisted self-defense to those who (a) cannot defend themselves against a tyrannical ruler and (b) requested such military assistance (this is another manifestation of people’s right of self-defense). A tyrant can be deemed “an aggressor” against his own people, either within one’s state (hence revolt) or in another state (hence humanitarian rescue and punitive mission). Accordingly, both a revolt led by a virtuous leader and a requested humanitarian rescue mission are acts of self-defense — a kind of “alter ego defense.” The same qualifying proviso from above applies, though. Humanitarian rescue should come as a virtuous deed of a ruler. A ruler who practices benevolent governance is expected to extend his benevolence toward the people suffering under wicked rulers because such a virtuous ruler “cannot bear to see the suffering of people,” which is the hallmark of benevolent governance. This ruler is famous for his/her virtue of benevolence and so s/he would be requested for military assistance by the oppressed people. Mencius does not endorse such a mission launched by a regular ruler, who surely will abuse this mission for one’s self-interests.

Therefore, the 4 just causes are indeed variations of only one just cause, viz., self-defense against aggression. The list can be rephrased as follows.

  • (a) self-defense against external aggression (cause iv: a war of self-defense against an actual, wrongful aggression);
  • (b) self-defense against internal aggression (cause i: a revolution led by a virtuous leader to overthrow a tyrannical ruler);
  • (c) assisted self-defense against internal aggression (cause ii: a military expedition by a feudal state, on behalf of the virtuous imperial court, to overthrow a tyrannical ruler of another feudal state); and
  • (d) assisted self-defense against internal aggression (cause iii: a military expedition by the virtuous ruler of one independent state against the tyrannical ruler of another independent state on humanitarian ground).

Mencius’ novel view on just cause for war was an alarm to subsequent emperors. After China became a unified empire a few decades after Mencius’ death, another version of Confucianism was invented as the empire ideology and, contrary to the view of Mencius, the supremacy of the emperor was emphasized. The book of Mencius was neglected for a long time until the neo-Confucian movement in the 12th century. From then on, the political thought in Mencius was heatedly debated in the imperial courts and even censored. There was one time that people were allowed to read only an imperially abridged edition of Mencius; passages about treating a tyrant as an enemy of the state were deleted. According to a recent research, the same intense debate and controversy on tyrannicide in Mencius also occurred in premodern Japan and Korea.

In short, the book of Mencius has a robust view of people’s right of self-defense, manifested as the oppressed people’s rights to join a revolt and to call for foreign humanitarian intervention. However, such a right is a collective right, as warfare is a collective act.

In Confucianism, to defend oneself as an individual is not discussed as an individual right, but as a personal responsibility.

As to the issue of whether people as individuals have a right to defend oneself against a wrongful attack, Mencius is apparently silent. This is because the moral language of individual rights is absent in premodern China. Personhood is not conceived as separate individuals; rather, every person is a relational self. The book of Mencius is one of the earliest Confucian texts that places a person in the web of five cardinal relationships, viz., parent and child, husband and wife, sibling, king and subject, and friendship. Confucianism never discusses the right of defending myself as a separate individual. I need, however, to defend myself against arbitrary attack because I need to fulfill my relational responsibilities to my family, friends, community, and nation; these relational responsibilities mandate me to defend myself. Just as I have a responsibility to protect other members of social groups against arbitrary attack, I have the same responsibility to protect myself against arbitrary attack as a valued member of these groups. Hence, in Confucianism, to defend oneself as an individual is not discussed as an individual right, but as a personal responsibility. Nevertheless, if the responsibility to do X entails the right to do X, as it appears to do, then Confucianism can be interpreted to endorse an individual’s right of self-defense

Mencius and Confucianism is a common cultural heritage in East Asia. It lends support to a passage in the Preamble to the UDHR, which David Little elaborates as follows: “Under tyranny and oppression, human beings have the right to exercise a legitimate use of force – “as a last resort” – in response to an illegitimate use of force – one that is cruel and arbitrary, which is what tyrants and oppressors depend on.” ♦

Ping-cheung Lo (Ph.D. in Religious Ethics, Yale, 1990; Ph.D. in Moral Philosophy, SUNY at Buffalo, 1982) is Professor in the Department of Religion and Philosophy at Hong Kong Baptist University, where he has served for thirty years. He is also the Director of the Centre for Applied Ethics at the same university. He is the author of ten books, co-editor of nine books, and the author of about eighty published articles in the areas of Chinese-Western comparative warfare ethics, Chinese-Western comparative bioethics, and Confucian-Christian comparative ethics.

Recommended Citation

Lo, Ping-cheung. “The Right of Self-Defense in Confucianism.” Canopy Forum, July 14, 2020.