in a globalized world, is the categorical imperative still “universal”?

Yesterday I attended a book launch for, Yang Lichuan’s second book, “The Transformation from Vertical Society to Horizontal Society: The Historical Philosophy of the Crash between Chinese and Western Civilizations (纵横之变:中西文明碰撞中的历史哲学)”. The two parts of the book title suggest the political thrust and method of intervention, respectively. The first part of the title expresses the author’s hope for social transformation to a more egalitarian society, while the second part captures the discourse–philosophy–through which this call for social transformation will be made. And yes, although the political call for social transformation was clear, the philosophical argument was as overwhelmingly comprehensive as the title suggests. 

Yang Lichuan is himself a historically important figure in ongoing efforts to transform Chinese society. After 10 years as a rusticated youth, in 1977 he was accepted into Beijing University’s philosophy department. He was a candidate in the first student elections held at Beijing University and in 1984 published his first book on the relationship between cultural geography and political form. However, in the years after 1989, like many Beijing intellectuals, he ended up in the South, Dongguan specifically, where he started up a packaging company. Today, he is well known in Chinese philanthropical circles.

Yang Lichuan compares what he calls “vertical” and “horizontal” societies, which he defines as follows:

A vertical society takes the group as its goal; is governed through administration, with an emphasize on oversight (管); has courts that only determine capital punishment and enforce “the king’s law”; its overriding morality is that of the state, and; it is closed, stagnates, resolves regime changes through revolution, and then repeats the process until the next revolution.

In contrast, a horizontal society takes the individual as its goal; has a constitutional democracy and uses contracts to regulate society; has people’s law with a base in “private law”; respects rules and law is internalized, and; it is open, progressive, regenerates itself, and therefore can peaceful change regimes.

My sense is that Yang Lichuan sees China as a vertical society and wants it to become a horizontal. His point of intervention is the idea of morality (道德), which he believes integrates the individual and society. His understanding of morality is Kant’s categorical imperative, which denotes an absolute, unconditional requirement that must be obeyed in all circumstances and is justified as an end in itself. It is best known in its first formulation:

Act only according to that maxim whereby you can, at the same time, will that it should become a universal law.

In turn, I understand Yang Lichuan’s deployment of the categorical imperative as the basis of transformational morality to be an attempt to establish a site of legitimate opposition outside the Party, and ultimately outside the Chinese state. (In his talk, he suggested that globalization indicated the lessening need for the state.) Yang Lichuan’s definition of “vertical society” as closed and its ultimate moral value the state itself, clearly indicates that there is no space for opposition within a vertical society. In contrast, the “openness” of a horizontal society indicates that there is an outside and moreover, the outside has its own inherent legitimacy. And that outside, the otherness to the state, is the place from which Yang Lichuan would begin to transform China.

That said, there was a naive believe in the fairness of the market and contract law as means of regulating society in Yang Lichuan’s argument. After all, the main target of his progressive argument is limiting the powers of the Chinese state, and giving individuals more rights. And thus, the thrust of his argument as well as his turn to Western models of the economy overlaps with what I would identify as (in its most ideologically reprehensible) Koch brother economics, where what’s could for capitalist monopolies is what’s good for society.

In this sense, it is clear that the book’s intended audience is Chinese progressives, where the market is still valued as an alternative to the State. In fact, in its hopeful tone, Yang Lichuan’s argument reminds me of western philosophers who turn to Confucius and China to explore the limits to democracy. The latest such book circulating (via a NYTimes editorial) is Daniel A. Bell’s book is “The China Model: Political Meritocracy and the Limits of Democracy.”

When placed in conversation, such books highlight the very different projects that situated progressives face (“more democracy in China” and “more US sympathy for China’s political project”,  respectively). The next step, of course, is to figure out what projects we have in common, where working together would not be working against one or the other. For example, anti-corporate laws don’t really help Chinese entrepreneurs who have no stable property rights, which is why those who can invest outside China, where their assets are protected. But also contribute to the ongoing production of economic and hence social inequality in the United States.

Thus, the problem that vexes these two books: in celebrating the hegemonic moment in the other society as a means of reforming one’s own, one actually mineralizes the problems faced by progressive intellectuals elsewhere. Which is to say, while the market and corporate rights may be a solution to China’s inequality, they are the cause of inequality in the US. Similarly, where a stronger government might help the United States, authoritarian government is the cause of inequality in China. So, learning from each other is an especially fraught conundrum.

Question du jour: was Kant right? Is there a categorical imperative that is, unquestionably, universal?

After all, part of my reluctance to jump onto Yang Lichuan’s ship derives simply from the location of the book launch. The Beijing University Alumni Association hosted the launch in its clubhouse which is located in prime OCT Happy Coast real estate. Yang Lichuan’s audience and supporters were politically progressive intellectuals, who had benefited and continue to benefit from the exclusions and privileges of capitalism, in addition to the monopolies of the State.


This group of wealthy, Shenzhen intellectuals are discussing political alternatives. They are also in positions where they can push for incremental social change across a variety of institutions. And so yesterday afternoon, I chose to listen and to debate and to hope that such conversations might illuminate the difficulty of identifying “universal” values when its clear we aren’t yet confronting the same powers-that-be.

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