The Explanatory Power of Confucianism

Consider the following fact: East Asians tend to experience more shame, experience shame in more contexts, and experience shame more frequently than do people in other cultures. How can we explain this? Within the interdisciplinary sciences, one scientist's explanandum is another's explanans. The expert on East Asian history 'explains' this result about shame by observing the prominent role of shame in Confucianism, and cites a small number of cherry-picked texts as confirmation. A religionist explains this result in part due to beliefs, widespread then and now, that in a society built on ancestor veneration, it is a terrible sin to experience shame in front of your ancestors. The social psychologist explains this result by appeal to larger psychological forces, collectivism in this case. The biologist, with a nod to the 'behavioral immune system,' explains this result by appeal to the positive correlation between high rates of shame and high ancestral pathogen load in East Asia. A geneticist explains this result by observing that, unlike other populations, East Asians are disproportionately likely (at a rate of 80 percent) to have the short allele of a serotonin transporter gene, SLC6A4, which in turn correlates with increased negative emotion, anxiety, fear conditioning, and other neuropsychological outcomes relevant to the body's shame system. 

Main goals in this area of my research are to (a) bring coherence and completeness to sets of explanations, like this one, that purport to explain the uniqueness of China and its people and, in the process, (b) use cultural transmission theory to show the causal power of Confucian culture. By endorsing explanatory pluralism, rather than setting one discipline's explanation over another, I reason critically about the efficacy of each explanation and set each in its proper complementary relation to others. To do this, I sweep aside disciplinary biases that masquerade as tough-minded reductivism in the sciences and often as anti-scientism in historians, Asianists, literary scholars, and philosophers. My goal is to craft a culturally informed, data-driven, immersively interdisciplinary explanation of the causal power of Confucian culture across 10 areas of life, including morality for kin and for non-kin, ritual and religion, gender and music, emotion, and more. 

In execution, this aim leads to careful construction of genealogies of features of Confucian culture that set people in Confucian Heritage Cultures apart. In one case, I examine the utility of a sense of shame and shame emotions from the point of view of the evolutionary history of social primates. (Shame is a social-rank based emotion supported by a shame system networked across behavior, emotion, and cognition that allows an individual to estimate social rank of self and other and take action accordingly.) This provides a baseline expectation for the relationship between shame and fitness, and this baseline is extended through the study of shame's representations across our species' many cultures. 

To understand how shame in Confucian culture came to differ from shame elsewhere, I examine historical documents, institutions, customs, religion, and rituals. This provides evidence that Early Confucian Chinese cultural transmitters sought to use prestige biases to alter shame's social utility during a time of chaos known as the Warring States period. By using text analytics to carefully track the representation of shame in relation to social goods through millennia of ancient and medieval Chinese literature, we offer further evidence of successful Confucian cultural transmission. But this is not an argument that Confucian culture alone explains shame in East Asia. Instead, throughout the project, I attempt to account for likely interactions between cultural and other factors, including pathogen load, collectivism, and SLC6A4. This gives rise to additional hypotheses that allied researchers might test.