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7.4.The Alleged Asian Values and Their Implications for Bioethics

- Kam-por Yu, Ph.D.
The Hong Kong Polytechnic University
Hung Hom, Kowloon, Hong Kong


In recent years, there have been attempts to reject a global ethics on the ground that many of the values held in Western countries are not shared by Asian countries. It is said that there is a set of Asian values that serves as a basis for an ethics that is different from that prevailing in the West.

In this paper I examine what the alleged Asian values are, and consider how far they can be regarded as genuine Asian values. I shall also consider reasons to suspect talk of Asian values, and ways to make better sense of such talk. Finally, I shall consider the limitations of the individual rights approach to bioethics and the possible roles societal or cultural values can play in the foundation of bioethics.

What are the alleged Asian values?

Talk of Asian values has only a short history. It has come into fashion about 10 years ago. In 1993, just before representatives from countries all over the world were about to assemble in Vienna to discuss universal human rights, representatives from a number of Asian governments gathered in Bangkok and discussed an Asian perspective of human rights. It is largely since the Bangkok Declaration of Human Rights in 1993 that the term "Asian values" has become popular.

At the time the term "Asian values" began to appear in the mass media, the scholar de Bary, who has spent more than 50 years studying Asian civilizations (including China, Japan, Korea, and India) was asked "What are Asian values?", he did not know how to answer. He has never heard of this term. It was not in the literature. Asians were not conscious that they have such common values in the past. It is highly likely that such Asian values are political constructions. (de Bary 1998: p. 1)

The term "Asian values" is commonly used to contrast with the term "Western values", which actually means "liberal values". Actually, it is quite misleading to call liberal values "Western values". If we study the values people held in the Victorian period England, then we would find something more like what we now call "Asian values" than the so-called "Western values". Moreover, the approach to study Asian values through contrasting with "Western values" is problematic. Instead of understanding Asia for what it is, Asia is understood as an Other. First, liberal values are taken as Western values. Then Asian values are taken to be the opposite or as something contrasting with Western values. As a result, Asian values are taken as "non-liberal values". This approach does not do enough justice to the uniqueness and complexity of Asian cultures.

The leaders of two countries in particular are especially related to the advocacy of Asian values. They are Singapore and Malaysia. China is also supportive of talk of Asian values after the Bangkok Declaration. But basically China's approach is quite different. The Chinese government does not appeal to different cultural values, but rather appeal to the current situation of China. As China is at this particular stage of development, it is argued that survival and economic development are much more important than civil and political liberties. Moreover, the principle of sovereignty should be upheld and foreign countries should not intervene China's internal affairs in the name of human rights. It is the particular stage of development China is in rather than the Chinese people's particular cultural values that the Chinese government appeals to in combating against Westerners' appeal to universal human rights in criticizing the human rights conditions in China. (Yu 1995)

The list of values that is commonly put forward as Asian values can be traced back to a list of "shared values" formulated by the Singapore leaders. A White Paper on Shared Values was drafted in 1991 and tabled in the Parliament of Singapore in January 1992. (White Paper 1991: p. 1; Chua 1995: p. 32) As some scholars have observed, "shared values" was used as a national strategy of Singapore to combat against individualism. (Chua 1995: p. 31, p. 187)

In the first draft, there were four values: (i) "place society above the self"; (ii) "upholding the family as the basic building block of society"; (iii) "resolving major issues through consensus instead of contentions"; (iv) "stressing racial and religious tolerance and harmony".

Later this list was revised. There were two major revisions. Firstly, since Singapore is a pluralistic society composing of different ethnic groups and religious communities, it was emphasized that nation should be put before community. So the first value was revised as "nation before community and society above self". Secondly, since the original list put much emphasis on the individual's duties rather than his rights, one more value was added to make the list more balanced. Hence the fifth value: "regard and community support for the individual". As a result, the revised version is as follows: (i) nation before community and society above self"; (ii) "upholding the family as the basic building block of society"; (iii) "resolving major issues through consensus instead of contentions"; (iv) "stressing racial and religious tolerance and harmony"; (v) "regard and community support for the individual".

The Prime Minister of Malaysia, Mahathir, is one of the few Asian leaders who have put forward a clear and systematic list of Asian values. Mahathir regards Asian values as including the following: (i) importance of the community and family (fulfilling individual responsibility towards family and community should take priority over the consideration for individual interest and privileges); (ii) respect for authority (which can guarantee stability for the entire society); (iii) placing importance on hardworking attitude in pursuing progress and harmony in the global economic world. (Mahathir 1999)

Are the alleged Asian values genuine Asian values?

Whether there are Asian values that are fundamentally different from the Western liberal values, the alleged Asian values as stated by the Asian governments cannot be taken as a fair and accurate depiction of Asian values. The Asian governments cannot be taken as the spokesmen of Asian values as they may have their biases and vested interest. On the one hand, Asian governments may claim that authoritarian rule instead of democracy conforms to the indigenous cultural norms because they want to perpetuate their own authoritarian rule. (Aung San, 1995: p.167) On the other hand, Asian leaders may want to form a fictional shared Asian identity such that Asian countries can have greater bargaining power in negotiating with Western countries.

NGOs in Asian countries have voiced out different views. Over 100 regional NGOs endorsed the 1993 Bangkok NGO Declaration of Human Rights, which asserts that "one set of rights cannot be used to bargain another" (i.e. economic rights and political rights are equally important). The Bangkok NGO Declaration affirms the universality of human rights.

Another important fact that we have to bear in mind is that Asia is highly diversified. Asia is composed of 3.4 billion people of diverse ethnic, linguistic and religious composition. Asian authoritarianism exists only in Malaysia and Singapore, but not in other parts of Asia such as Japan, Taiwan, or South Korea. (Friedman 1999: p. 65) Asia does not have a coherent set of values (Confucian, Buddhist, Islamic, Hindu). The value difference between Japan and Burma is not less than the difference between Asia and the West. As pointed out by Susan Sim, "It is highly unlikely that 3.4 billion Asians of diverse ethnic, linguistic and religious hues subscribe to a single set of beliefs, completely different from those held by a billion people in Europe and America." (Susan Sim, "Human Rights: The East Asian Challenge", in Steiner and Alston, p. 546)

Quite interestingly, the alleged Asian values seem to be very similar to the alleged African values. And both of them seem to emphasize a rejection of individualism. The alleged African values are strikingly similar to the alleged Asian values mentioned in the above. From different sources including African writers and African governments, it is identified that African values differ from Western values in three major ways: (1) communitarian vs. individualistic orientation: a person is not conceived as an independent entity but is defined by the community. This means that the rights of an individual are not regarded as sacrosanct, and it is justified to put the community before the individual at least when interest of the community is clear; (2) consensual vs. competitive orientation to decision making: decision should be made through seeking consensus rather than through competition. This means that rights such as freedom of expression or periodic election which are designed to ensure fair competition are not taken as seriously; (3) redistribution of surplus vs. individual profit: the minimal physical needs should be assured to all human beings. This means that the assurance of basic needs has priority over the respect of private property, and private property will not be regarded as inviolable. (Howard, 1986: 13-20)

The fact that the alleged Asian values are so similar to the alleged African values constitute a good reason for us to suspect whether the alleged Asian values are genuinely and uniquely Asian, if not to debunk talk of Asian values altogether.

The contrast seems to be more between communitarian values and individualistic values, than between Western values and Asian values, or for that matter between Western values and African values. Such tension between communitarian values and individualistic values also exists in the West and debates on such topic have been going on in the West for some years. (Kymlicka 1989; Avineri and de-Ahalit 1992)

Asian values revisited: survey findings

It is necessary to distinguish between two questions: (1) whether there are Asian values? (2) whether the Asian values are those enumerated by the Asian governments? Even though the Asian governments' perception or characterization of Asian values may be biased and politically engendered, it does not mean that talk of Asian values must be wholly groundless and unreliable. A more reliable approach to understanding Asian values and comparing them with values held elsewhere is the survey approach. The values held by the Asian people may not be exactly those that have been highlighted by some Asian governments, but it is not an unreasonable claim to say that the values held by the Asian people may be quite different from the values held elsewhere. The survey approach is useful to find out such kind of difference.

Some social surveys have been done in recent years. In a survey done by Hitchcock in 1994, respondents from East Asia (including East Asians and South-east Asians) and the United States were asked to mark the personal and societal values that they thought were "critically important to people in your country". "All respondents were to check no more than 5 of the 12 personal values listed, and no more than 6 of the 14 societal values." (Hitchcock 1994: p. 21)

It was found that "the conflict between Asian values and the West is not as profound or threatening as Huntington and the Singapore School suggests" (Hitchcock 1994: p. 26), but "differences over values do exist". (Hitchcock 1994: p. xii)

The top six societal values chosen by Asian respondents are: (i) orderly society; (ii) societal harmony; (iii) accountability of public officials; (iv) open to new ideas; (v) freedom of expression; (vi) respect for authority.

In contrast, the top six societal values chosen by American respondents are: (i) freedom of expression; (ii) personal freedom; (iii) rights of the individual; (iv) open debate; (v) thinking for oneself; (vi) accountability of public officials.

7.4 Figure 1
Source: Hitchcock 1994: p. 40

Taking into consideration the scale and sampling of the Hitchcock survey, not to mention the complexity and diversity of Asia, we may not take the survey results as conclusive and authoritative. But such kind of survey seems to be promising in telling us that there may be some substance in the talk of Asian values, and there is a more reliable way to find out what such values are than simply taking the words of the Asian governments.

At this stage, it may be too early for us to say what exactly are the Asian values, but it does seem fair to say that societal values are taken more seriously by the people in the Asian countries. The use of societal values as a key factor in deliberation of bioethical issues will have serious implications for bioethics.

Implications for bioethics

Mainstream bioethics adopts the individual rights perspective to a large extent. For example, the four principles of Beauchamp and Childress (1979), namely, respect for autonomy, nonmaleficence, beneficence, and justice, provide a framework to protect the rights and interests of the individuals. Societal values have no role to play if they are not translatable into individual rights or interests. Introducing societal values into the discussion of bioethics may lead to very different conclusions.

For example, the Singapore government advocates unequal distribution of medical benefits to male and female employees. Such a policy is unjustified from the perspective of equal individual rights, but it can be justified if the family is regarded as having special status, to which the makers of social policy owe special responsibility. The Prime Minister of Singapore Goh Chok Tong defended Singapore's policy not to give female civil servants the same medical benefits as the male civil servants are given. He explained that men and women should have different shares of responsibility. The government would like "to channel rights, benefits, and privileges through the head of the family so that he can enforce the obligations and responsibilities of family members". (Steiner and Alston 2000: pp. 544-545) Such a policy is regarded as having the effect of strengthening the family.

The recognition of the role of the family may also justify different practices in the administering of medical care. In some Asian societies, physician-guided family-based decision making is an accepted practice in medical care, as opposed to Western focus on patient autonomy (Cheng et al. 1998).

The emphasis on family value may also allow drawing distinctions that may otherwise seem to be groundless and arbitrary. For example, instead of leaving the use of artificial reproductive technology to the choice of individuals, the use of the technology can be restricted, depending on the possible impact on family structure, but not made available as free choices of individuals. For example, only infertile couples will be given help, and only the sperm of the husband and the egg of the wife will be used for artificial insemination.

In the discussion of the buying and selling of human organs, the introduction of societal values can affect the moral landscape. On the one hand, it can be argued that some societies do not share the view that the human organs have special ontological status, but rather regard human organs as useful things, and hence justify the use of human organs as spare parts. On the other hand, it can be argued that human dignity is an important societal value, and commodification of human organs contradicts human dignity. In this way, buying and selling of organs is not made available as an individual choice, but ruled out on the ground of upholding the societal value that human organs should not be made a kind of commodity.

The ethics of euthanasia can be looked at differently in a different society that has a different conception of good life. For example, the Chinese idea of a good life includes a good death. A long and painful dying process is incompatible with the idea of a good life. So steps to shorten the process of dying can be justified on the ground of securing a good life rather than on the ground of opting for death over life.

The above are all examples illustrating the function of societal values in modifying or shaping views in bioethical debates. The question is: how important is the role of societal values in bioethical discussion? My view is that it is a mistake to exclude societal values, but it is a bigger mistake to allow nothing else in.

Seeking a more adequate foundation for bioethics

It is not unreasonable to seek for a better foundation for bioethics than the individual rights approach can provide, as the individual rights approach to ethics in general and to bioethics in particular have a number of limitations. Firstly, individual rights are useful as a tool to protect individuals, but they are not useful as a tool to protect or promote societal values. For example, an approach based on individual rights may not see anything wrong with the selling of one's organs, but some societal values such as human dignity may be at stake here. Secondly, Individual rights are not useful as a tool to promote higher human ends. As noted by Fukuyama: "The modern use of the term rights is impoverished, because it does not encompass the range of higher human ends envisioned by the classical philosophers." (Fukuyama 2002: p.108)

We have to take the points of communitarianism and perfectionism into account after we have acknowledged the importance of individual rights. If we only have the moral vocabulary of individual rights, then our moral discourse will be impoverished, unable to articulate higher visions of human good.

The individual rights approach has its limitations. But instead of giving up or revoking the rights approach, we can simply extend it. The promotion of societal values should be recognized and given a place. But the promotion of societal values does not justify authoritarian rule. On the other hand, societal values should not be promoted through violation of individual rights.

Taking societal or communal values into account means going beyond the individual rights approach. The same move can be made both in Asian societies as well as in Western societies. The individual rights approach is not confined to the West, and the introduction of societal values is likewise not confined to Asian societies.


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