Commencement address given at Morningside College, Chinese University of Hong Kong, November 17 2016
Utility, Liberty and Community
By Gerald Chan
I’d like to congratulate all the graduates. Four years, or in the case of the medical students, six years of hard work have made you proficient in your chosen fields of study. You are now proud graduates of the Chinese University of Hong Kong.
In addition to four years of study at CUHK, you have also spent four years at Morningside College. Rather than you being an anonymous number intercalated into a long roster of students at the university, Morningside College is designed to be small so that you experience being part of a community – not a virtual community, but a real-life community. It is meant for you to get to know your peers who come from different backgrounds, have different life experiences and sensibilities, who hold different views, have different strengths and are faced with different challenges. There were undoubtedly fellow students you liked and with whom you have forged lasting friendships. Perhaps there were also fellow students that you’d rather be without – all the same, you lived together for the four years as equals and as members of the same community. Being part of a community does impose limitations, but limitations are indispensable if we are to develop socially.
I highlight the social aspect of college life for two reasons. First, human beings are social beings. Without social interactions, life cannot be fulfilling. Personal development and social development must go hand in hand as complementary and mutually enriching. One must not be pursued at the expense of the other.
Second, we see today everywhere in the world the precipitous disintegration of traditional social fabrics. We see formerly cohesive communities becoming polarized and fragmented. Recent elections in the UK, America and other places sent an alarming signal that these societies have become perilously disoriented. Social, economic and political forces are in play to make people ever more intolerant, intransigent, resentful and malevolent. Acrimony pervades the public sphere as rancor overruns reason. Seeking common grounds is viewed as weakness and bigotry is considered laudatory. Against this backdrop, there has never been a more urgent need for rebuilding the social fabrics.
I know Professor Michael Sandel from Harvard University came and spoke to you this past year and was exceedingly impressed by your thoughtful discussions. I’d like to point out that Professor Sandel’s classic work on the different views of justice is not only an abstract theory of social justice, it serves equally well as guidance for how we should live our personal lives. These different views, or impulses, must not be thought of as mutually exclusive as much as they are at odds in one way or another. Just as society would be destabilized without all three views being respected, our personal lives would be untenable if these three views are not all present in our moral vision.
Consider an utilitarian vision of life. Seeking to maximize utility is necessary as we all have to be purposeful and accomplish something in life. Each of us is endowed with certain abilities and resources. They should be deployed and developed so that we can maximize the outcome of our lives from what we were given. However, excessive utilitarianism will turn every action and relationship in life into an instrumentality. Life would become unmoored as the means supplant the ends.
As much as we highly value freedom, if our lives were run only by libertarian impulses, we will soon find out that freedom from all constraints is an impossibility. Not only is such freedom not possible as long as a person exists within a community, even within himself, he will be conflicted by the social instinct which is as integral to human nature as is the desire to be free. The constraints against absolute freedom are not only externally imposed, they are inherent to being human. Seeking absolute freedom with zero constraints is a fool’s quest. Such a person will be a perpetual disruption to himself and to his community.
Professor Sandel’s third view of justice is the communitarian one. All human beings are results of the community and the social milieu from which they come or in which they exist. The unencumberd self is a figment of the imagination of the philosopher just as the rational self is a figment of the imagination of the economist. Our lives’ aims are both constitutive of and entwined with the communities that we are a part of. Achieving personal good at the expense of the common good is never a sustainable exercise.
Human history is of man’s struggle to find an equilibrium among these three impulses. In antiquity, the crushing authority of community deprived the individual of his liberty and his potential utility. Modernity offers a different configuration where the polity is called upon to safeguard the individual’s liberty and to help him fulfill his potential utility. A great discovery in modernity is the paradox that the community’s interest is in fact best served when the individual’s liberty is safeguarded and his potential utility realized.
Fast forward to the Millennials today. I am encouraged to see in this generation a configuration where the individual’s utility is more bound up with community. One expression of this shift is the resurgence of idealism and altruism. More so than their parents, meaning is to be found in community. I also see in the Millennials an assertion of their liberty, this time not so much against authoritarian hegemony, but from popular culture designed by commercial interests to subject all under its massification. It is a revolting against the other-directedness in how they live and an exercise of their own form of inner-directedness. Culturally, there is a confidence expressed as a diminished need to conform. Cultural particularities are celebrated and this has led to a gush of creativity.
I don’t mean to to indulge in sociological speculations. Suffice it to say that by providing you with a framework borrowed from Professor Sandel’s work, my good wish to you all is that you will find, in each stage of your lives, a good balance among utility, liberty and community. With this balance, your life will be in equilibrium and it will be a good life.
The communities that have bound us together today are Morningside College, CUHK and the city of Hong Kong. Some of you were born and raised here, as was I. Others have come from around the world and made this your adopted home. I know a number of the medical students had studied abroad but opted to come back to Hong Kong for their medical education because they have decided that they want to spend their lives living and practicing medicine in Hong Kong. I look forward to seeing you all becoming positive contributors to this city in each of your own ways. While we are seeing a lot of tearing down all around us, we should seek to build up. Rather than hollow denouncements, we need constructive words and actions that edify. The social fabric of Hong Kong is in need of rebuilding and for this, we need builders.
I trust that your experience of college life here in Morningside College will form a part of the underpinning for how you will live the rest of your lives. One of the crown jewels of any college is its alumni. You will make your mentors and your peers proud if you live your lives according to the values that we hold dear in Morningside College. Be a lifelong learner and continue to pursue scholarship, live a virtuous life and serve your communities. Remember the motto of your College – Scholarship, Virtue, Service.