Joel Fetzer on Confucianism and Democracy
Date: October 13th, 2013

Max Weber, the famed sociologist who shaped a great deal of the social scientific study of religion, once wrote that a certain ideational version of Protestantism, namely Calvinism, was responsible for giving rise to industrial capitalism and, by extension, liberal democracy in Western Europe.  In contrast, Weber also argued that Confucianism acted as an ideological roadblock to economic and political development.  With the recent democratization of several countries that were historically influenced by Confucian thought, Joel Fetzer — a professor of political science at Pepperdine University — examines whether or not the claim that Confucianism is incompatible with democracy still rings true.  Our primary focus is on Taiwan, a country that he studied extensively with his frequent collaborator Chris Soper, though we also extend an eye to the democratization process in South Korea, as well as the still-authoritarian countries of China and Singapore.

Joel begins the conversation by detailing the political history of Taiwan, South Korea, and Singapore to set the table for latter discussion.  He then discusses some of the more prominent political explanations for the political liberalization of the former two nations, which includes an emphasis on economic variables such as the rise of a middle class as well as the political manuevering of interest groups.  Often overlooked in the study of democratization, though, is the role ideas play in reshaping the political landscape.  We briefly talk about how ideas or culture may affect the shape of a political regime, with a tip of the hat to scholars such as Robert Putnam who have argued that cultural traditions can play an important role in the political organization of society.

With the potential influence of ideas on the table, we then examine Confucianism.  Prof. Fetzer provides a basic introduction to this religion/philosophy.  He notes that key elements of Confucian thought do seem to coincide with more authoritarian notions of leadership.  We discuss the “five right relationships” that emphasize a deference to elders and to authority, the importance of filial piety, and the desire to promote social harmony over conflict.  All of these virtues can be seen as working against the conflict and social fluidity that tend to characterize modern democratic thought.  We then discuss how Confucianism, like many other religions, is rather malleable and how interpretations or emphases can change over time.  This leads to an interesting discussion of how the educational system in Taiwan was used to emphasize different facets of Confucian thought at different times in its history, most specifically in the authoritarian and post-authoritarian eras.  This is compared with how it is taught in Singapore currently.

Prof. Fetzer than shares some of the empirical observations from his study conducted with Chris Soper.  In conjunction with what Weber and others have argued, they find that adherence to Confucian values do correspond to holding authoritarian values under autocratic regimes.  Interestingly, this relationship doesn’t necessarily hold under democratic regimes.  Indeed, people identifying with Confucianism may be more favorable to values such as minority rights under democratic regimes.  This leads to one of the main assertions of their research, that while Confucianism may not be a cause of political liberalization in these societies, the philosophy itself is not necessarily inimical to democratic values under more liberalized regimes.  We finish our discussion by examining the role that Christianity may have played in the democratic process both in South Korea and Taiwan.  Recorded: October 4, 2013.


Joel Fetzer’s bio at Pepperdine University (includes links to available articles).

Confucianism, Democratization, and Human Rights in Taiwan, by Joel Fetzer and J. Christopher Soper.

Muslims and the State in Britain, France, and Germany, by Joel Fetzer and J. Christopher Soper.

Luxembourg as an Immigration Success Story, by Joel Fetzer.


Robert Delahunty on Alexis de Tocqueville and Religion.

Robert Woodberry on Missionaries and Democracy.

Daniel Philpott on Religious Resurgence and Democratization.

2 Responses to “Joel Fetzer on Confucianism and Democracy”

  1. […] Confucianism and Democracy Joel Fetzer & Anthony Gill, Research on Religion […]

  2. […] Confucianism and Democracy Joel Fetzer & Anthony Gill, Research on Religion […]

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