Moral Absolutes Across Cultural & Socio-Economic Differences

Evil China, Go to Hell! sign in Taiwan.

Evil China, Go to Hell! sign in Taiwan.

A common stumbling block in discussions of divisive issues involving China (as well as those that don’t) is the moral absolute, the black and white perspective.

The stumbling block is understandable, because people tend to regard their absolutes (moral or otherwise) as being commonly shared. That’s why they consider them “absolutes”, right? However, as so many philosophers, psychologists, and sociologists have repeatedly taught us over our years of schooling, these absolutes aren’t always what they are, and often they aren’t.

Most of us know this. Many of us forget it. It’s easy to get caught up in discussing, debating, even arguing without considering how what we’re saying is actually premised upon certain absolutes we take for granted, presuming them to be shared by the person opposite us. If there isn’t much gnashing of teeth and rending of garments while plodding forth in frustration, there’s a lot of dismissing the other person as somehow being less of one.

If we’re lucky, someone calls us out. If we’re not, we don’t recognize it even when someone does.

Argument between an Olympic protestor and supporter.

An argument between a protestor and a Chinese supporter during the 2008 Olympic Torch Relay as it passed through San Francisco.

This stumbling block is massive, and only more so when it comes to discussing contentious issues across sometimes vast cultural and socio-economic differences as it often is when the subject is judgments of China and the Chinese. The truth is that there are no objective moral absolutes and nothing is inherently black and white. Absolutes really are merely products of your own subjective perspective, your own imagination, your own way of making sense of the world.

Moral relativism?

Sure. But settling for that conclusion (and dismissal) is missing the point. The only absolutes exist ad hoc. They only exist for the purposes of our discussions and arguments with the other person. Both parties determine what they are, and both parties are responsible for being mindful of when inappropriate presumptions of absolutes are preventing agreement.

Most of the time we get away without having to go through and establish every premise our subsequent statements will be founded upon. Most of the time, this is because the vast majority of us share similar ideas of what is black and what is white. But every so often, in the course of a complex discussion of a complex issue, people are called out for employing moral absolutes and black and white perspectives precisely because their argument is built on a premise, an “absolute”, that isn’t actually agreed upon.

Some of us will tackle that. Others will press forth, trying to shove it down everyone’s throat, overwhelming them into retreat or surrender. Both tactics work, and all of us are more or less guilty of having done both at times.

But only one is intellectually honest, sincere, and humble.

2008 Olympic Torch Relay in San Francisco, protestor blows whistle at Chinese supporter.

2008 Olympic Torch Relay in San Francisco, a protestor blows his whistle in the face of a Chinese supporter.

Our arguments are only as fair and legitimate as the strength of the agreement shared on the premises those arguments depend upon.  As ad hoc as they are, absolutes are indeed shared, living up to their definition. So invoking moral absolutes to justify our arguments, without regard to if and how they are shared, is simply breaking wind.

When we get away with it, it means little more than that we were preaching to the choir. When we don’t, we have the opportunity to actually communicate with and influence someone. The former is often comforting, but the latter is perhaps arguably much more meaningful.

But I suppose that depends on whether or not you accept my premise that there is meaning and significance in overcoming disagreement, building consensus, and — here it comes — crossing the divide.

That one’s up to you.


  1. What moral absolutes are all too common in discussions and debates concerning China or involving the Chinese?
  2. How, if at all, do differences in our cultural and/or socio-economic backgrounds influence the moral absolutes invoked?
  3. How, if at all, do those differences encourage the use of these moral absolutes?


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  1. Man, Kai, I chuckled when I read this line:

    If we’re lucky, someone calls us out. If we’re not, we don’t recognize it even when someone does.


  2. This “moral relativism” or whatever you want to call it is its own form of moral absolutism. The way you’re describing this approach – and I personally think it’s inaccurate – already is soaked through and through with the moral absolutists’ certainty in the superiority of his method – to quote, more “intellectually sincere” and more “humble.” The way you’re characterizing this has the further weakness of making it far too easy to dismiss certain viewpoints – for example, the 50 Cent Partyer no longer is dismissed due to the demonstrable fallacy of his claims, but rather by mere virtue of the fact that he or she doesn’t ascribe to the obviously and patently superior and intellectually rigorous worldview you ascribe to. I mean, that’s basically what you’re doing to me in post number 1, no? I’m calling you out for using the moral absolute of “trolling is bad” to shunt a legitimate observation.

    Anyway, it’s not this simple. I mean, I love the idea – and the 3 questions Kai Laoshi has given us for homework – but I think most people involved in China talk are either beyond this sophomoric observation or, if they 50 centers and what have you, really don’t care about the discussion of moral relativism.

    • Josh

      Condescending much? God damn, dude, let him write. Not everything he says is meant to look down upon us from a cloud in the sky. What seems to be more obvious from what you’ve consistently written is insecurity on your own part.

      • Josh, my response to Kai’s post is that moral relativism, or whatever you would like to call it if the phrase has too much rhetorical baggage, is fashionable. It is a mindset that can rapidly and easily fall into the same pitfalls Kai identifies with “moral absolutism.” Is this not a thought worth considering? Isn’t it something worth noting before slapping an automatic “condescending” on it?

        I’m totally not getting this blog, folks, so if I have something to contribute but it’s not exactly in line with what the owners of the blogs want I should keep my mouth shut? Can someone explain this to me?

        • Josh

          I was actually referring to your implication that Kai is being pedantic in writing a piece on moral relativism by referring to him as Kai Laoshi. Believe me, I know plenty of people who could benefit from reading this and recognizing the fact that they are in China and shouldn’t expect people to stop pushing to get on the bus when there are 150 people and 50 spots. Like Custer enumerates in the next post, not all of us are people who’ve been around the block in China and speak the Chinese language (not that that’s a requirement to “get” China, but it certainly helps.)

          • Porfiriy

            Hey Josh,

            Well, whether or not Kai is pedantic is a call each of us are going to make on our own. To be honest, reading all this somehow reminds me back in like 6th grade when some girl made an observation that maybe we shouldn’t judge Hitler because he thought killing all the Jews was the right thing to do. Now, I’m not bringing that up as a judgment of moral relativism, because that would be unfair. I am bringing it up though as part of my contention that “moral relativism” as Kai is characterizing it here frankly is something that almost necessarily occurs in the panoply of “adolescent philosophical ponderings” alongside things like challenging authority, questioning the existence of God, sexual experimentation (to make a reference to the porn post!) etc. As an example, in the West, we were all introduced to the idea of moral absolutism when we heard the story of Adam and Eve and the tree of knowledge of good and evil, and some of us were introduced to moral relativism the first time we looked at that story and thought there was something fishy about it. I mean, do you remember these things? Do remember thinking about these issues when you were a (pre)teen roiling on hormones? I do. And that girl in sixth grade was thinking about it to. I think most people old enough to read this blog have made their decision on one side or the other already – and what Kai is writing is not going to convince *those* people one way or the other. I mean, I’m being only half sardonic when I say that perhaps Kai would be a good high school teacher.

            Irregardless, another point remains. I’ve made an observation that moral relativism can become it’s on form of moral absolutism, and that’s not trolling. And Kai is making himself look bad by illustrating that his willingness to engage in conversation is based on whether or not he “likes” someone rather than the merit of the argument itself. This is important. If there is a major fault in Kai’s version of moral relativism, shouldn’t we discuss that before we accept its validity and move on?

            Think about this. Here on this blog we learn the “middlenuts (TM)” way. So when we take Kai Laoshi’s lesson and then disperse among the Chinese, the Westerners, the Assholes and the Apologists, the idea is with the middlenuts way we can bridge this “divide.” So, what then, with this moral relativism?

            Dear Fenqing: you can talk to me! I’m a caring, culturally sensitive individual unlike that American patriot over there. I can manage listening to your impassioned thoughts on nationalism, Tibet, Japan, and what not – [because I know from Kai Laoshi’s class that your passion is for a non-existent modernist entity, the “nation state,” and therefore is silly and cute!]

            Dear screaming Tibet activist: I’m a middlenut, talk to me, as I can bridge the “divide” between you and that hateful Chinaman over there. I’ll sensitively listen to your ideas [because I know from Kai Laoshi’s class that your spirited advocacy of Tibetan independence/spirituality is based on a culturally local (and therefore invalid!) conception of Western human rights!]

            What we’re doing here is replacing one Western ideology – that is, the superiority of “democracy” and “human rights,” with another Western idea, and Western it is, as we can trace the philosophically ideology of Kai’s “moral relativism” to the heavy musings of European philosophers in the 18th and 19th century.

            And Kai is not going to respond to these observations just because he doesn’t like me and tells himself I’m “trolling.” Which violates the spirit of the blog. :(

          • Porfiriy, don’t mistake the spirit of being open to conversation and discussion with giving audience to anyone who demands it. As you’re free to judge me pedantic, I’m free to judge you not worth my time. We disagree with each other and about each other, but whereas I’m content to ignore you, you’re clutching to my leg. Keep your comments civil and on-topic and they’ll be approved. Scratch that, given that you’re repeatedly stuffing votes despite our previous warning, you’re no longer welcome on china/divide. Please go declare your victory on your own blog or other blogs.

          • Daniel

            Kai, I don’t blame you, Stan, or Custer for finally losing patience with Porfiriy. He has been nothing short of rude, disrespectful, and obnoxious with all the members here. What bothered me was how he would constantly make ad hominim attacks against all three owners of this blog while attempting to present a front of moral superiority.

            I don’t expect this blog to be perfect or representative of China as a whole because it’s a blog run by three guys who all have their own experiences and opinions to share about China. It’s not supposed to be a tell-all encyclopedia about everything in the country. I think somewhere down the line, Porfiriy missed the whole point.

            And I find it funny because I know that as I type this, Porfiriy must be boiling in rage at what I say about him, wishing he had the chance to immediately respond back to me with a few smart-aleck insults and pendantic lectures. He just has to save face and have the last word. In this case he can’t because he’s been banned so I imagine this post, as well as a few other posts, will leave him seething for quite a while.

          • Daniel, thanks for the comment. Unfortunately, I’m pretty certain Porfiriy isn’t seething with rage and he’s already e-mailed us a “parting shot” with plenty of personal insults and lecturing. His goal, I suspect, was to force us to ban him and then feel a sort of validation through it. He might even think we’ll experience debilitating cognitive dissonance in doing so, but that would be a gross overestimation of how much we care. Now that it’s over, I think it’d be best for us to move on without obliging him the attention he so craves.

    • If you think you’re beyond the piece, why not just move on? Had it occurred to you that Kai might not be writing this piece for those who’ve been following China and discussing it for years, like you?

      You’re like a high school student walking into a third grade classroom and then complaining about how the class is just pedantic bullshit. If it’s obvious to you, then it wasn’t meant for you. (You may be shocked to learn that none of us actually take you personally into consideration when deciding what to write)

      Some pieces on this site will be meant for the old China hands, but others may be meant for everyone, or just for the newbies. You may have to come to terms with that.

      • Hah, man, you guys are great. Less than a week and all three of you guys dissolve into the whiny, juvenile little shits you claim to be rising above. We get Captain Obvious, “Justification for my use of porn wrapped in barely-trying social commentary,” and “moral relativism for junior high school students.” Pbbbth.

        • Yeah, with writing like this we’ll never beat your “indefinite hiatus” article on a blog nobody reads.

          • Heh heh heh ;D So clever. You know, Janet’s Jackson’s titty also got a lot of viewers, too!

          • Indeed. You’re the one with the tit out, though. It’s pretty obvious you’re picking fights here to draw attention to your blog’s relaunch. Let me just get it out of the way for you:

            The New Dominion: “a constantly updated source of news and information about China’s Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region”! ” a resource for Xinjiang scholars and enthusiasts that can provide both a snapshot of the latest happenings in the region and a database that can better illustrate historical, economic, and cultural trends and patterns over extended periods of time”! Check it out!

          • Porfiriy

            Not really. Frankly, I’m not really interested in attracting readers from a blog like this. As for the link to my blog in my name, my browser fills out the form for me, but I’ll remove it, for your sake. The relaunch is going to be in, like, a month, though, as I slog through wordpress themes, so again as clever as you think you’re being (You and Kai both, sheesh!), by the time we launch this shitstorm will have passed.

            As for picking fights, no, Charles, it’s not picking fights. There are way more people out in the China blogging world that can handle serious criticism with way more tact, patience, and insight then you guys, who seem to enjoy acting like petulant whiny brats. I mean, look at your porn article. Either people agree with you or you get all moist and wet when someone calls you out on a deliberately provocative article that really doesn’t have anything to do with China. I mean, we’re on to you, man. As much as *all three* of you, you, Kai, and Stan, try too coolly deflect whatever I’m saying with psychoanalytic rambling or laughably contrived conspiracy theories about generating attention for my blog, it doesn’t change the fact that you can’t handle someone who is sincerely critical of what you’re doing and saying, and that’s pathetic in light of the “middlenuts (TM)” values you claim. Look at the dialog you all are conducting with your commenters – it’s only been a few days so the sample size is small enough to take in in 30 minuteset. It’s either shoulder-slapping buddy buddy agreement from a ring of mutually-commenting bloggers who are willing to do Kai’s utterly patronizing homework assignment, or it’s people who happen disagree and get snapped at or dismissed. I really, really want to put this blog alongside other blogs I take seriously, like Michael Manning at Opposite End of China who actually *knows* how to use satire and irony, or Richard at the Peking Duck or Kaiser Kuo who actually know how to deal tactfully with people who disagree with them, or people like Far West China or Granite Studio who operate within certain thematic boundaries and take those themes and starting principles seriously. But when you guys pull shit like this you just end up looking like a bunch of teenagers engaged in an exclusive, grandiose friends-only circle jerk – which I guess makes sense given your insecure need to defend your porn usage on a China blog.

          • What kind of response are you looking for, exactly? Are we being “whiny”? Or was it “cool”? Or wait, no, we’re coming up with conspiracy theories? No matter how we respond, it’s obvious that the only response you’ll accept is agreement with you (which, of course, is the ridiculous irony of all this. I don’t think any of us is even capable of coming off half as petulant and pedantic as you do.

            As for my post on porn, do you actually have an issue with it on logical grounds, or do you want to keep feeling superior to me because you don’t (openly admit) that you watch porn? Trust me, I do not, in any way, shape, or form, feel the need to justify my sexual habits to you or anyone else but my partner. I posted that article because I think it’s an interesting question. If you don’t, you might again consider that not all of our articles are written with Your Majesty’s tastes in mind.

            Spare us the bullshit. You don’t “want to like this blog”. Plenty of other people seem to be enjoying it, you are the lone commenter who seems to be deeply offended by its very premise. That’s fine, and I get where you’re coming from, although I still think you should probably look into getting a sense of humor. But I really wonder: let’s say we did agree with everything you were saying, what is it you actually expect us to do?

            Anyway, this is obviously a huge waste of my time, so I’m not going to be responding to your further comments in this vein. We get your point, and the fucking horse is dead.

          • Porfiriy

            What am I looking for? A response that’s within the freaking parameters that you opened this blog on. Cool, contrived dismissal on being notified that your zipper is undone is not what you guys burst onto the blogosphere saying you’d do. Neither is whining. Since I understood all the “we’re awesome” dressing to be tongue-in-cheek, I thought that you guys were opening a blog centered on thoughtful discussion, which necessitates an openness to contrary opinions. You’ve proven otherwise, and you’ve proven that the “we’re awesome” in your intros actually isn’t tongue and cheek. You all need to grow up. You can’t handle criticism, especially because this is *your* blog and you’ve opened it expecting everyone to praise you. If you can’t handle criticism, then your mission statement shouldn’t be what it is. People for the most part are going to follow down tracks already laid by users on this blog – they’ll either play the patronizing game and let you play sagacious sage and go along with your homework assignments and nod eruditely at your poorly crafted disingenuous articles, or they’ll call BS like me and get hounded out by all this voting system, “dead horse”, “I’m too cool for this” CYA tactics, just like myself, or they guy that put your panties in a wad over the porn thread, as if you weren’t expecting someone to comment on it in that manner. You want to dismiss me and tell myself that everyone is “enjoying” your blog even though other commenters have expressed an interest in what I have to say (and apparently know the true meaning of tongue and cheek), then that’s fine. I mean, if it zings right over your head that you’ve created a system that ejects anyone you don’t like and preserves those you do and you react by saying “wow, everyone likes my stuff! I must be really damn awesome!” well, then you’re as dumb as a jar of mayonnaise.

          • Teacher in C

            Popcorn’s done, show’s over Porfiriy. Give them a break already and back off. You’ve made your point.

          • Jay (a different one)

            Don’t stop, please, this fur-flying ‘discussion’ is highly amusing…!

          • Porfiriy

            What can I say, T in C? I’m a performer. :D

            I only partially agree with you though – yeah, my point was made, but not by me. By them.

          • TCL

            “What can I say, T in C? I’m a performer. :D”

            More like a pretentious nutsack who likes to hear himself talk. Of course, being the great performer he is, Porifiriy will no doubt respond to me with a long, overly dramatic five page essay in return.

            But I will agree, you have made your point. Problem is, most of us(Kai, Custer, Stan, etc.) don’t have the patience to read through mounds of drivel which end up saying the same thing over and over again.

        • Dave

          “I really, really want to put this blog alongside other blogs I take seriously, like Michael Manning at Opposite End of China who actually *knows* how to use satire and irony, or Richard at the Peking Duck or Kaiser Kuo who actually know how to deal tactfully with people who disagree with them,”

          To be honest Richard doesn’t always deal tactfully with people he disagrees with. He will just monitor what they say and not allow it to be posted if he doesn’t like it or can’t argue with it.

  3. Kai,

    I disagree absolutely with the assertions you made in the first half of your post, but I feel that your argument in the second half is relatively morally superior.

    BTW, I have an intense dislike of the term “moral relativism” as it is usually used by (in the U.S.) people on the Right to decry attempts by moderates and those on the Left to {gasp} actually criticize government policy.

    Where do you find those photos? Between those and Charlie’s pics of scantily clad women, the bar has been set rather high.

  4. Joe

    1. What moral absolutes are all too common in discussions and debates concerning China or involving the Chinese?

    Practicing my Chinese online and helping my Chinese friends with English I discovered some facts on how China perceives Westerners. The first is that we are extremely open to sex. While I find myself more sexually open to my close friends, public display of affection and certain things are crossing the line to me.

    2. How, if at all, do differences in our cultural and/or socio-economic backgrounds influence the moral absolutes invoked?

    On the Western side we argue that human rights, democracy, and equality are extremely important. Almost to the point where it is pointless to argue with a Westerner about the actual disadvantages of these values.

    As the great French photographer Marc Riboud writes in his 1966 photobook on China “The Three Banners of China, “IN our part of the world more people die from overeating than from undernourishment… In countries like our own, which have pased beyond a certain level of economic development and which have taken centuries to organize and modernize, the free-enterprise system, with its psirit of competition, is an obvious instrument of material progress and cultural enrichment for the majority… In a poor society where there is no security or hope, man can survive only through complete selfishness and his most inhuman instincts reappear.” What he is saying that China is totalitarian because the people feel that controlling the populations inhuman instincts from appearing is the only way to direct to a richer society for all. Maybe rugged individualism worked for the United States during the 19th and 20th century, but maybe it will not work in the 21st century.

    In one other Chinese translation blog a Chinese blogger talked about the lack of racism in China. Using Western ideas about racism would clearly paint many Chinese as racists. But this blogger said it is not racial prejudice but poverty prejudice that formulates these behaviors in Chinese people. Who is correct on these issues. In the West we are held to different standards. It is a lot like judging history on today’s “moral standards,” sometimes it is not fair to do so.

    3. How, if at all, do those differences encourage the use of these moral absolutes?

    The more we feel we are right based on our cultural influence the more we will fight to maintain that right. Our culture is something we identify ourselves with. I would think that most people feel their culture and beliefs are superior to others. If your belief was lacking then you would just change, but if that belief is rooted in your identity and culture then it is hard to listen to arguments about that belief.

    One Chinese friend tells me not to judge a tree by a leaf. We can all learn something from that saying.

  5. Jones

    Why is it that one side is “protesters” and the other side is “supporters”? That’s like taking sides. Maybe the “protesters” in those pictures saw themselves as “supporters” and the other people to be “protesters”. It’s just not that black and white. Moral absolutism. How ghastly.

    • Jones, good point. I was largely echoing the captions found with these images in various places. Oh wait, they actually used “China supporters” and “detractors”. I gave the protesters protesting China holding the Olympics the benefit of the doubt that they weren’t categorical China “detractors”, feeling that “protester” was a bit more objective when it came to describing the dynamic of what happened that day. After all, the protesters SELF-IDENTIFIED themselves as such and explicitly identified the Chinese “supporters” as being “China supporters”. I shouldn’t have taken sides and kept the dichotomy “supporter” versus “detractor”. My bad.

  6. …what we’re saying is actually premised upon certain absolutes we take for granted, presuming them to be shared by the person opposite us.

    Or even that they should be shared by the person opposite.

    Sure, people are inclined to project their own values onto others in the belief that their position is morally without question, but those instances belong to the realm of relativism rather than absolutism even if the value holder can’t see it. Which was partly your point, I guess.

    When I made my comment about moral absolutes in the opening thread I was referring to those ethical no-brainers whereby an action or event defies what could reasonably be termed as civilized human conduct (for the sake of argument we could use the UDHR as a guide – both sides of the divide have signed off on this, after all).

    It’s the difference between arguing the rights and wrongs of dropping the bomb on Hiroshima, and debating possible justifications for the Nanking massacre. I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that latter was absolutely wrong by any moral standard.

    And so was the jailing of Liu Xiaobo.

    • I agree with Stuart here. At least, I think that in real life, for example, there is no culture or civilization that supports random murder for no reason. I think pretty much everyone on the planet (who isn’t clinically insane) can more or less agree to call that “bad”.

      So there’s at least one moral absolute, in my book.

      As far as Liu Xiaobo goes, I’m willing to admit that there are other perspectives on that one, I just find them extremely unconvincing.

      • Nathan


        “As far as Liu Xiaobo goes, I’m willing to admit that there are other perspectives on that one, I just find them extremely unconvincing.”

        I think this brings us back to what Porfiry was saying about how we approach opposing viewpoints.

        “The way you’re characterizing this has the further weakness of making it far too easy to dismiss certain viewpoints – for example, the 50 Cent Partyer no longer is dismissed due to the demonstrable fallacy of his claims, but rather by mere virtue of the fact that he or she doesn’t ascribe to the obviously and patently superior and intellectually rigorous worldview you ascribe to”

        Now clearly there’s some bad blood going on here having waded through these comments between you and Porfiry, and I think his brashness betrays his point, which is that this approach often ends up creating a less rigorous discussion about whatever issue someone is debating.

        Needless to say, I think most of what Kai Pan is saying about taking our own moral absolutes for granted certainly is key for facilitating good discussions about something with someone who may come from a different background, and examining the way our own perspectives influence our ideas about a country with its own helps us better understand that country and our own views, but I don’t think it needs to bring us to the point where we believe that certain other perspectives (taking the Liu Xiaobo example) are ‘right’ – even relatively so.

        • Nathan, I’m not suggesting or arguing that we need to get to the point where we believe that certain other perspectives are “right”. Rather, I’m suggesting and arguing that understanding how other people arrive at their perspectives of “right and wrong” will help us figure out how to successfully influence them towards us when we feel it is important enough to do so. This isn’t about self-analyzing ourselves into folding. It’s about figuring out how to work with others towards our desired goal. If our goal is so important to us, why wouldn’t we seek better ways of realizing it? Again, of course, that’s assuming the goal is to actually build and shape consensus.

          • Nathan

            Thanks for the reply, the ending of my comment was misleading, I was referring to a more general sense of ‘right in their relative perspective,’ not so much folding (though I see know how it reads that way). My main point is that one can draw disagreement with another and see it as coming from something more fundamental than an opposing perspective. Though mainly, what I see is that I, and I think most people who have commented thus far (save yangrouchuan) as well as the moderators here are essentially on the same page on the kind of discussion that you hope to have here, and that is already beginning to happen.

      • Josh

        I’m going to jump aboard this train and expound a bit on what I’ve been thinking throughout reading the comments.

        The thing is that what we recognize as a division between moral standards between China and the “West,” or more specifically, what I and other Americans might recognize as a division between moral standards from America to China is in fact not quite so divisive.

        When I used to teach college students in north China, I decided to have a class one time where I asked the students what exactly they consider to be the fundamental rights of all human beings that cross international bounds and are, or should be, universal throughout the world. To my surprise, they listed things just like those most important facets of our own Bill of Rights. Things such as freedom of assembly, expression, speech, religion and the right to due process were all listed.

        So when people say, “you’re imposing your own moral values upon us,” when I say that China should have freedom of speech (read: Jackie Chan advocating against freedom of speech), personally, I say that’s bunk. Those rights I listed above are, in fact, essential parts of the Chinese constitution.

        I believe the real difference between the two is that the Party, as Custer quoted in a previous post in ChinaGeeks, ALSO has this escape clause where it says, oh, by the way, you’re not allowed to do anything we don’t like. But that’s not a Chinese cultural axiom, it’s a Party rule.

        Therefore, I would say that at least as far as China and America are concerned, there are moral absolutes (ie, things that are common among both nations), it’s just that the Chinese government likes to play things fast and loose.

        • Josh, agree with you on the Party’s clever catch-all exemption in the Chinese Constitution. The practical sphere this issue of moral absolutes falls in is indeed between the average, say, American and average Chinese. Why is it that they seem to profess the same values Americans do at some times, but don’t consistently uphold them at others? Why do they, at times, seemingly make exceptions in line with the Party?

          Some will say, “duh, brainwashed”.

          But it isn’t that simple and persisting in believing that is not going to help us figure out this seeming contradiction and give us any options for dealing with it, influencing it, changing it as we want to. It isn’t just the Chinese government that plays things fast and loose. It is in our nature as humans to behave irrationally and inconsistently given different inputs. This is where we’re really alike, that our moral absolutes are not really absolutes even to ourselves.

          Recognizing and accepting this of the Chinese AND of ourselves is the only way we’re going to understand each other better to articulate ourselves towards consensus, then mutually agreed upon action. Isn’t it advantageous for them to change because they feel a sense of ownership over that idea of change?

      • Custer, when different people’s subjective absolutes are shared, bravo. The hope here is that we’re not bewildered when they aren’t, and that our surprise doesn’t lead us towards needlessly antagonizing or dehumanizing the other. Especially if the goal is to actually influence the other towards agreement, not deep resentment.

    • stuart, yes, invoking a moral absolute as the basis for your argument does necessarily suggest that you think the other person “should” share it, but what’s the premise behind that belief?

      Remember, the point here is the value we ascribe to building consensus with the person we’re ostensibly communicating with. If we’re more interested in judging and dismissing their value system before shoving our value system down their throats, it suggests we don’t place much value in treating the other person as a person. It would no longer be a conversation, a discussion, a dialogue. We’re not talking with them, we’re talking to them.

      Each of us will decide for ourselves how we feel about that.

      I completely and, again, empathize with what you’re trying to establish about moral absolutes, about “ethical no-brainers”. You and I personally very likely share the same general “lines” at most of the extremes of human behavior. What I don’t quite share is how quickly you invoke your moral absolutes (from my perspective). I feel they do more to pass judgment than to actually get the other side thinking, for example, about the UDHR they’re party to.

      And for the record, I’m not a paragon of patience and tact either. But I still think actively considering these things can only make us better, not worse, as social creatures.

      Cheers for the comment, stuart.

      • What I don’t quite share is how quickly you invoke your moral absolutes (from my perspective)

        I can be a bit of a knee-jerk moralist, admittedly.

        Some excellent contributions to kick off the new site. Are you moderating to keep out the riff-raff?

  7. yangrouchuan

    Ah, the panda licking has begun. “Everyone does it, therefore no one should criticize”. Yet China has been doing so much bad for so long and loves to point out any past wrongs done to China by foreigners but conveniently ignoring how it has invaded Vietnam 13 times, occupied Korea twice, sacrificied tens of millions in the GLF, persecuted its most talented in the CR because China’s leader was a psychotic tween loving peasant/warlord or the millions of N. Koreans that China has allowed to suffer and die under the tyrannical Kim family.

    Organ harvesting of political prisoners, blatant pro-Han policies, ie institutional racism? Despite Iraq and Gitmo, the US has plenty of room to bash, criticize and badger China about its bad, bad behavior.

    • Jay (a different one)

      an example of a presumed ‘moral absolute’ that seems to prove or at least challenge what I thought was the point of this post (what IS the point of this post?)…
      Or is there some sort of weighting system (body counts? kill-ratios? skin-color? holy-book?) to determine who’s right is more right than somebody else’s right or wrong? If yes, please post a link to it (e.g. so we can check it out and adjust our opinions to the only true black-and-white truth of thruths, thanks!

  8. Teacher in C

    1. What moral absolutes are all too common in discussions and debates concerning China or involving the Chinese?

    The one I’m getting sick of is “Chinese people can’t think.” Meaning that they never plan, always have knee-jerk reactions and, essentially, are inferior to “us” in their ability to have and maintain thought processes of any kind. I know that’s not exactly a moral absolute, so I’m cheating on your question a little bit, but it’s the first “absolute” type statement that came to mind and the one that irritates me the most (because I hear much too often), and it leads to a moral absolute, so…

    2. How, if at all, do differences in our cultural and/or socio-economic backgrounds influence the moral absolutes invoked?

    An example that comes to mind is the building of roads in our relatively new neighbourhood, which is only about 10 years old or so I think. They’re standard roads with a bicycle lane and sidewalks. Because of the huge increase in the number of cars in the last few years, the local government has had to make changes which involve ripping up parts of the sidewalk to make room for cyclists to get around buses which are picking up/dropping off passengers; it also involved changing the bike lanes into parking spaces (thus sandblasting off the existing lines, and repainting them in different patters, leaving scarred and ugly pavement behind). The knee-jerk reaction was, of course, “Hahaha, stupid Chinese people, see how they can’t think and plan a road properly?” From a socio-economic perspective I feel like that’s pretty cold – a developing country can’t really be faulted for failing to predict how quickly the development would happen and thus not realizing that there would be such a huge influx of cars that they would need to create parking spaces on the roads and develop other means to keep the traffic running safely and smoothly.

    3. How, if at all, do those differences encourage the use of these moral absolutes?

    I can’t help but feel that this argument of “they can’t think” is used to make “them” (the people using it) feel intellectually superior to the Chinese, as opposed to someone just laughing at something they think is funny from a purely “look at how ridiculous life is” perspective. With that pride in one’s intellectualism often comes a general haughtiness that makes one believe he/she is superior in all realms, including morality. This feeling of “We can build roads properly in country X, so we know better about everything.”

    • Josh

      You know, I know someone exactly like what you described here in Suzhou. This is his third year in China, and so you would think he would have a somewhat nuanced view of the Chinese and China in general.

      Yet just a few days ago, we were discussing something and he mentioned that a box had disappeared from his laundry room with some specialty camera equipment in it. At the very end he tacked on his belief that Chinese people wouldn’t know what to do with it, so he doesn’t understand where it went.

      I was just silent for a moment as I thought, “the balls on this guy.”

      • Jones

        Everyone knows how to pawn camera equipment.

        After a few years in China, I had grown to distrust people with my own personal property (I’m speaking of places that might store your things for you, such as leaving your backpack with the front desk of a hotel or something). Once, while out at dinner with some friends, I left my camera bag with thousands of dollars worth or camera equipment in it. I didn’t even notice until an hour or so later when a friend asked where it was. I had the most nauseated feeling in my stomach because I knew very well that I had left it in that restaurant. I just KNEW they would say they “hadn’t seen it”. I was seriously about to go into a panic attack.

        Of course, when I got there, the girl at the front saw me and immediately presented my camera bag and all of it’s contents intact before I could even say anything. So even though I knew beforehand that my predisposition to trust no one with anything valuable was a bit wrong, I was still going by it and was delightfully proven wrong. A few days later, I found a really nice cell phone left behind at a bar and pocketed it. Pawned it rather than turned it in to the bar manager. Ironic!

        I realize this isn’t exactly on topic, but I felt compelled to say it regardless.

    • Anyone who has ever played SimCity knows the intricacies of urban development!

    • Jones

      The roads…I never really felt it was a shortcoming to NOT build the massive, multi-lane roads before they were actually needed. On the contrary, I look at it as laziness and inability if they aren’t updated when needed, even if that means tearing up sidewalks and encroaching on business fronts. Anyone who drives a car (which is most Westerners) should probably feel the same way. Especially when one of the first things people notice in pictures of Pyongyang are the massive highway-like streets with almost no traffic whatsoever.

      Anyone who uses their own morals to make themselves appear superior to Chinese (or anyone else) are definitely subject to ridicule themselves, because it’s generally accepted in most places around the world that arrogance is kind of a dick move. Those that feel uncomfortable because of the difference in their own morals and the ones of the culture that’s hosting them at the moment is just having trouble adapting, or realizing that there’s an entirely different thought process. It happens to us all. So I see a difference in the two.

      The Ancient Romans built the best roads. They lasted thousands of years. But lord knows their “morals” were definitely bat-shit crazy.

      • xiaomoogle

        “Anyone who uses their own morals to make themselves appear superior to Chinese (or anyone else) are definitely subject to ridicule themselves”

        Too right, this is why articles like
        that talk about twitter ‘helping’ democracy and freedom of speech in China, make me gag.

        I have chinese friends who are annoyed at the blocks and want to get past them, simply to browse and watch youtube, yet this twitter article above seems to assume that every chinese person is gagging to get online and protest – when every chinese person I know is politically apathetic by a western definition, and doesn’t see the internet as a tool for protesting for free speech. I’m not saying it can’t be or that I don’t advocate that, but yeah, basically a company like Twitter deciding it’s going to ‘free’ Chinese netizen based on American citizens values is just a bit argh.

      • Teacher in C

        Agreed 100% Jones.
        On a side note (since you mentioned Pyongyang), there’s a suspiciously wide road which leads from Pyongyang directly to the border with South Korea in a very beeline fashion. Almost seems too wide to be meant for cars…

  9. From a Western point of view:
    to every moral absolute there is an equal and opposite reaction.
    From an Eastern point of view:
    The yang having reached its climax retreats in favour of the yin; the yin having reached its climax retreats in favour of the yang.

  10. One difference is that the West has a long tradition of moral absolutism and the belief in eternal values, starting with Plato and running through Christianity (which as Nietzsche reminds us is Platonism for the masses). Chinese thought has no parallel metaphysical tradition that looks outside of space and time for eternal values.Rather the values of Confucianism and Taoism are very much this worldly and do not lend themselves to an absolutist worldview.

    I think the best short defense of relativism is Stanley Fish’s “Dont’ Blame Relativism” published shortly afrter 9/11. Here is the link

  11. Alex

    It is perhaps ironic that an argument broke out on a post about arguments. And a pity, as I’m a fan of people on both sides.

  12. Bill Rich

    Answers to your questions are:

    1. China is absolutely right, all the time, on all issues, and the west is absolutely wrong. And, therefore, all people must be required to support the holy and sacred China, and destroy the evil west.

    2. If you are a Chinese, you are morally, ethnically, ethically and absolutely have to agree with (1.) or face the wrath of all Chinese, others can deviate from it.

    3. Chinese are required to comply with (1.), while others have their choice, or comply with various degrees of (1.)

  13. Richard

    Talking with other westerners about China, this kind of underlying difference in moral axioms always comes to light. Though we may all happen to personally believe in x, that does not mean it should be taken as a basis for the rest of the argument, especially when it concerns a completely distinct group of people. A German born Chinese friend of mine is very good observer of how Chinese interact with each other, but often tries too hard to explain why their society needs x. It’s always so easy to see through this to his (and others) somewhat indoctrinated subconcious, influenced primarily by Christianity as far as I can tell.

    I always thought torture was really bad when growing up, but in rural China I found most people are either in support or ambivalent about it, at least in so much as the family/individual/company in power has the right to resolve a nasty situation through use of violence, including of course the police. I don’t know about urban China, but it seems like for every person who is a victim there are several more who have benefited in some way. Nobody wants to be tortured themself, but the seemingly nicest of people would still be perfectly willing for their enemies/crimnals in general to be. So gradually I am persuaded by their thinking, and by watching Jack Bauer.

    Chinese people being so much more flexible to talk about and define morals and human rights etc, it can be a lot more interesting to have such discussions with them rather than with westerners, in my experience. However, there are so many other kinds of axioms which are undisputed in the typical Chinese worldview, even to the extent where they may not be aware that there could exist such a kind of dispute.

    Talking to Westerners, especially Europeans, there is a sense that with each person belonging to so many different labels, “Yorkshire”, “Northerner”, “English”, “British”, “European”, “Germanic”, “Nordic”, “Viking”, “Western”, “Caucasian”, “White” etc., none of them can be said to be more important than any other. Instead, each label is open to each individual’s unique understanding of how it applies to theirself and others, which may vary hugely from repulsion or hatred up to allegiance and the utmost respect. Instead, in China when any label is brought up in conversation, it is generally assumed to mean the same to everyone, particularly if its a geographic, ethnic or cultural classification.

    Of course, there is also the issue of the government creating exact definitions of these kind of things, which may or may not be the source. Additionally, very few Chinese are exposed to this kind of variance in concepts of nationality, ethnicity and citizenship even if they come face to face with a Westerner. Despite the internal contradictions of the Chinese Government’s arbitrary definitions which stare westerners in the face, Chinese people are not stimulated to question them, to construct their own concepts or to pursue personal unique relationships with existing ones. In my view this is entirely alike the Westerner’s inability to question themselves about moral absolutes.

  14. Don’t know why you felt the need to scapegoat moral absolutes in this post. No need to get all epistemological. You could have taken all the talk of morality and absolutism out of this article and simply talked about differing culturally-conditioned underlying assumptions in Chinese-Westerner debates.

    “Absolutes really are merely products of your own subjective perspective, your own imagination, your own way of making sense of the world.”
    I realize it’s trendy right now for many people in many circles to claim this (albeit selectively, of course), but the existence or nonexistence of moral absolutes is SO not a settled debate. You unnecessarily opened a huge complicated can of worms (a couple different cans, actually) and then stridently pushed a polarized perspective.

    The problem isn’t that too many people mistakenly believe that moral absolutes exist — as if that were a bad thing (rule of law, human rights, etc. developed in which kind of context?). The problem is that we often mistake things that are relative for absolutes, and vice versa. This always comes out in cross-cultural settings.

    “The [“]truth[“] is that there are [absolutely!] no objective moral absolutes and [absolutely!] nothing is inherently black and white [except for this statement, and that one, and that one…].”
    Surely I’m not the only one who sees the irony in this statement/perspective. (I know, i know, pointing that out makes its believers roll their eyes. ;) )

    Anyway, the title is what caught my attention because that’s an interesting topic, just not what this post was about.

    • Hey Joel, the existence or nonexistence of moral absolutes is essentially a philosophical question. Everyone draws their own lines. I’m not quite sure how I “stridently pushed a polarized perspective” when that perspective simply says moral absolutes is all in your head. I guess that could be “polarized” but opposite what? I mean, if you say it isn’t, my position still accounts for that, right? That’s the whole philosophy problem behind it.

      I didn’t intend to talk about “differing culturally-conditioned underlying assumptions in Chinese-Westerner debates” here. My point really was to take the force out of those assumptions taken as absolutes. You’re right that people often mistake things that are relatives as absolutes, but isn’t that what I’ve said? And that it comes out in cross-cultural settings?

      You’re absolutely(!) right about my absolutist statement. I think anyone who understood what I’m saying would’ve noticed it.

      Do you have any thoughts on the three questions or whatever would steer you towards the “Moral Absolutes Across Cultural & Socio-Economic Differences” discussion that originally interested you?

  15. On second look at my first comment, I probably shouldn’t have harshed on your post quite that hard. Scanning the ‘discussion’ didn’t put me in a good mood for contributing nicely. ;) My apologies.

    By polarized and stridently I just mean “came down on one end of a wide spectrum and blunted asserted it as fact.” Opposite “absolutes are only in your head” might be “there are absolutes and we can know them absolutely.” (I disagree with both, fyi.) I should have used less strong language.

    It’s an interesting philosophical question for sure, but to me seems like way to much to drag into the discussion. Unless maybe it was something like: “How does the relativist/absolutist difference between China/West cultural heritages impact disagreements between Chinese and Westerners?” You wouldn’t need to take a side that way; it would be about how to navigate our differences when in conversation, rather than “Westerners need to give up their belief in the existence of absolutes, which is a foundational part of their cultural heritage and psyche but which don’t exist anyway, in order to have productive exchanges with Chinese.”

    “You’re right that people often mistake things that are relatives as absolutes, but isn’t that what I’ve said? And that it comes out in cross-cultural settings?”You went much further than that when you asserted that moral absolutes don’t exist. Doing that, I think, made it more about the philosophical question of whether or not moral absolutes exist and less about your specific discussion questions at the end.

    One thing I find interesting but not surprising that applies to both China and the West is that despite the obvious influence of our relativistic/absolutist cultural heritages, each can routinely think and act in the opposite way. The Chinese are, sometimes, some of the most black-&-white thinkers I’ve ever met. And of course it’s popular in the West to drift in lazy moral relativity when it suits us (the phrase “so open-minded their brains fall out” comes to mind).

    • Joel,

      “Westerners need to give up their belief in the existence of absolutes, which is a foundational part of their cultural heritage and psyche but which don’t exist anyway, in order to have productive exchanges with Chinese.”

      I don’t think I was targeting Westerners specifically but given that I’m writing in English, I definitely can accept that as suggesting it.

      Again, though, the idea is to take the force out of absolutes, and then being mindful of how much our arguments across socio-economic differences are premised upon such assumed absolutes. Being aware of that should help us figure out how to get past the roadblocks, the stumbling blocks, we previously got stuck on. Instead of “OMG, I can’t believe you don’t agree with me on this moral absolute!”, I’m hoping to nudge people towards “okay, we disagree on this thing, let’s talk about it.”

      I think this change in perspective would be beneficial towards arguments and debates in the future between such people, ideally with them getting further in their understanding of each other’s positions.

      You’re certainly free to disagree with me on whether or not moral absolutes exist independent of subjective conviction, but I’m not sure how that philosophical question and disagreement prevents or precludes discussion of the three questions I suggested. If you just don’t find the questions personally interesting, that’s completely fine. I’m just saying I don’t see the primacy you do. No harm no foul.

      Love your last paragraph and agree emphatically. In reality, we’re all guilty of these things. We’re all hypocritical bastards in one way or another, at one time or another.

  16. Are you guys blocked in China? I just tried to access with my VPN off and couldn’t pull up your site.

  17. “I’m not sure how that philosophical question and disagreement prevents or precludes discussion of the three questions I suggested.”
    That’s what I’m saying; it’s an unnecessary hot-button, a distracting can of worms — esp. given the place and emphasis it has in the post. It seemed to assume/demand a common ground with the reader that many readers aren’t going to share, and therefore might make them stumble (like me) on their way to the discussion questions. If one of the points of the post is to push that particular philosophical view then fine, but if not then it just gets in the way.

    I just pulled up the site with my VPN turned off. Must have just been a hiccup before.

    • Heh, I guess I simply didn’t consider the philosophical position of absolutes only existing subjectively being a “hot button” issue. As I wrote in the post, I know there are plenty of “absolutes” that are widely agreed upon but that just makes them “ad hoc” absolutes in my book. They wouldn’t exist or be shared without people participating in the agreement.

      I’m starting to have flashbacks of my philosophy courses. I think we understand each other here. Cheers for the comments.

Continuing the Discussion