Effects of Collectivist vs. Individualist Approaches to Ethics on Sino-US Relations

             One of the greatest sources of tension between United States and China relations is fundamentally different societal views on ethics. Historically, China has viewed the goal of ethics has reflected the collectivist approach of maintaining a stable and harmonious society, while in the United States the individualist view of ethics tends to focus on the individual and their morals. These distinct viewpoints lead to radically different views on the role of government, the rights of individuals, and are a major cause of cultural misunderstandings that affect international politics. 

            Western ethics is based around the individual. The ultimate pinnacle of society is to protect its individual members, giving them unhindered opportunities to pursue life, liberty and happiness. In Chinese philosophy there is a more collectivist approach where upholding a stable and harmonious society has been viewed as the most important role of ethics. Even the word ethics in English and Chinese reveals the distinct cultural approaches. In English the definition of ‘ethics’ is ‘a set of principles of right conduct’, ‘a theory or a system of moral values’. The Chinese word, 伦理 has a very different focus; it might be better translated as rules of society. When we say ethics in Chinese, it’s more about maintaining the society in a relatively stable status where people have a balanced relationship with each other without overstepping the limitations.

            This differing philosophical approach to ethics has been present for thousands of years. Confucianism has been one of the most influential schools of thought in China. It focuses on the cultivation of oneself as well as respecting obligations towards others. Two central tenets of Confucianism are ren and yi. Ren is each individual’s obligation to be altruistic and help others, yi is the need to be righteous and aspire to have a good moral disposition. According to Confucianism, people should be willing to sacrifice their own lives if necessary in order to uphold ren and yi. In Western society the perceived moral obligation is to first help oneself and then help others. Confucianism also codified social rituals called li, obeisance of these rules of behavior was necessary to maintain a stable society.

            In contrast to this view of a rigid society shaped by rituals, American society upheld a romanticized image of the Wild West as its standard for much of the nineteenth and twentieth century. Such a lawless land where might makes right is the anti-thesis of Confucius’ vision, but in the United States it was idealized through western films and pop culture. The idea of a single cowboy leaving behind the conventions of society to single-handedly make his own fortune still pervades American culture. John Wayne, Gary Cooper and Clint Eastwood all represent triumphs of the individual over society in the eyes of American culture. People who spoke up against society to stand for what they believed in, such as Martin Luther King are viewed as heroes and lauded in the United States.

            The practice of viewing the well-being of society as more important than an individual’s well-being continues to influence Chinese society and government. One particularly striking example of this is the court system. Currently China’s courts are not fully independent from the rest of the government; instead they are viewed as an extension of the Communist Party. In the United States, an independent court system is viewed as essential for protecting the rights of individuals; in China this is not the primary goal, instead the court is an extension of the party’s power and works to uphold their authority. In Chinese society one thing of paramount importance is maintaining the appearance of harmony, simply the presence of any dissent invites more instability. As a result it’s the courts responsibility to maintain the status quo.

            In the United States the court system is also designed to protect individuals as much as society as a whole. The courts are not regarded as an extension of the government’s power, instead they act as an independent check on the legislative and executive branches, forcing them to adhere to constitutional principles. One illustration of this is Blackstone’s Formulation, a cornerstone of Western law which states, “It is better that ten guilty persons escape than that one innocent suffer.” This support for the basis of law is to protect an individual as opposed to society as a whole. There is a story of a Chinese professor who upon hearing this maxim responded after a moment’s pause with, “Better for whom?”  This appears indicative of the attitude of many Chinese, jailing one innocent is possibly worthwhile sacrifice in order to protect society as a whole.

            The desire to protect society and thus the status quo is also is reflected in the news and policing in China the media is heavily controlled by the government.  Not only do television and newspapers have government censors, Chinese versions of twitter and facebook are constantly being checked and there is even the “fifty cent party”, who work to post positive propaganda on internet forums, so named for their rumored compensation of 5 mao per post. These are viewed as invasions of individual privacy in the United States, while the Chinese government views them as necessary measures to protect society.

            This tendency of Western morality to value individuals over society as a whole is also reflected in the work of psychologist Lawrence Kohlberg. In his proposed stages of moral development he states that the highest stage of morality evolved when an individual moved past viewing laws as important social contracts. Instead, at this stage an individual’s actions are entirely governed by their interpretation of universal principles working towards a higher standard of absolute justice. Kohlberg maintained that this state is superior to a social contract driven world, where laws and justice are social contracts designed to maintain the “greatest good for the greatest number of people.” Under these circumstances individuals might take actions that negatively impact society but follow their own moral code. These theories have been criticized by some occidental philosophers; they believe that the good of society is of paramount concern. To these Chinese philosophers Kohlberg’s supposedly highest stage of morality and ethics is in fact a dangerous and regressive step towards destabilizing the status quo.

                        The economic successes of the U.S. and China are reflective of these distinct ethical systems, they also serve to legitimize their viewpoints. The United States became the world superpower and world’s largest economy through capitalism, a system which rewards individuals for personal innovation and development. China has defied theories of economic development by maintaining incredibly rapid economic growth while maintaining strict control through a single party government.  Both economic systems are based on the ethical and ideological foundations of the countries, both have been extraordinarily successful. This validation of the underlying principles helps demonstrate both countries have developed functional systems, rather than judge the validity of one over the other it’s more constructive to promote mutual understanding and ensure that both countries can collaborate on the international stage.

            These different perceptions of ethics are a source of tension is U.S-China relations. Actions which are viewed as indefensible in the United States may not only be justifiable but even viewed as optimal in China.  U.S. allegations of human rights abuses in China are a continual source of tension in Sino-US relations. Chinese lawyer Chen Guangcheng protested China’s one-child policy until he was sentenced to house arrest and detained indefinitely until his narrow escape to the U.S. embassy. United States and Chinese approaches to ethics exacerbated the situation tremendously the United States viewed the situation as an individual who was being oppressed and denied his basic freedoms. Chen Guangcheng’s refusal to respect the status quo and active attempts to change the system were viewed as a destabilizing threat by the Chinese government. Under the Chinese ethical guidelines, Chen’s actions were unjustifiable; the government viewed it as necessary and just to try to silence him.

            Conflicts between the United States stemming from differences in ethics are becoming more common with growing globalization, China’s expanding role in Asia, and the United States’ new pivot to Asia strategy. In order to maintain positive, beneficial relations, it’s essential for both countries to understand these different approaches.  

            Interests change, yet universal values and mutual understanding do go a long way. We are, after all, co-habitants and neighbors on this tiny, blue planet. Communication between the United States and China is growing at an astounding rate; although the approach to ethics in China and the United States are fundamentally different, the Internet and continuous cultural exchanges of all kinds are leading to better mutual understanding; with that, we might be one step nearer to solving the challenge of ethical differences between US and China.


Matthew Werth

University of Delaware
United States

吴靖思 (Wu Jingsi)
Xiamen University
China