Daniel A. Bell engages in the timely and worthy task of looking at an important social issue in East Asia—the employment of domestic workers—from a Confucian perspective. In Hong Kong, for example, live-in foreign domestic helpers (most domestic helpers in Hong Kong and Taiwan are foreign women) constituted 7 percent of the total labor supply in 2001. These helpers contribute to the economic power of married women and consequently the gender equality of the society as they enable married women to participate actively in the work force. Yet the practice also creates racial discrimination and other social problems. Appealing to some basic Confucian values and informed by his own personal observation and exchange with domestic workers, Bell tries to defend and suggest ways to improve the practice of hiring domestic workers. In what follows, my comments will focus on two major arguments he gives for that purpose. I shall then sketch an opposing position on the issue that is also based on Confucian values. The current situation of domestic employment in Hong Kong is my primary reference point.
Bell’s first major argument is based on the priority of care over rights in Confucianism. He suggests that to improve the current practice, employers should create family-like relationships with domestic workers, have affective concern for them, and not merely respect their rights. Bell is correct that the flexibility of the Confucian concept of family and Confucianism’s emphasis on family value facilitate such development. He notes that “excessive focus on rights can undermine affective ties,” and that “the liberal individualist may prefer to err on the side of justice, but the Confucian may opt for norms and practices more likely to secure harmony and trust within the family.” He concludes that we should tone down the talk of rights in order to promote affective relationships between employers and workers.
Unfortunately, this conclusion is not fully justified by his reasons. Conceding that traditional Confucianism lacks the concept of individual rights and downplays the importance of laws in comparison with education and role-modeling, we should note that it still recognizes the indispensable role laws play in the maintenance of social order and protection of personal interests. Laws that protect people’s basic interests can be bent, but only in exceptional cases, and only by virtuous and highly respectable officials. Therefore, to see whether one is justified in downplaying legal protection of domestic workers’ rights in order to promote the value of affective concern, we need to ask the following questions: first, whether the well-being of the workers is already protected to such an extent that further legal efforts are not necessary, and second, whether the creation of family-like affective ties between employers and domestic workers is a feasible social goal.
A reality check, I believe, indicates that the baselin...
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