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How Confucian Harmony Can Help Us Deal with Echo Chambers

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This article received an honourable mention in the graduate category of the 2023 National Oxford Uehiro Prize in Practical Ethics

Written by Kyle van Oosterum, University of Oxford student

Section 1 – Introduction

Many of us are part of or aware of the existence of widespread echo chambers on social media. Echo chambers seem concerning because their members are led to believe bizarre things and disagree viciously with others. For example, some people genuinely believe the Earth is flat. Others disagree about basic political reality as we saw with those who stormed the U.S. Capital on January 6th 2021 and, more recently, the Brazilian congress. A great deal of this may be attributable to the way social media algorithmically sorts us into echo chambers. However, this sorting is partly so effective because we have not become disposed to exit echo chambers or deal well with the individuals who inhabit them. Even if we change these algorithms, we may also need to change our dispositions to better deal with these individuals.

In this paper, I argue that Confucius’ ideal of harmony provides us with practical dispositions that help with the problems posed by echo chambers. In brief, my view is that echo chambers threaten our social relationships which can undermine social stability. As such, maintaining social stability may require managing these social relationships. Confucius’ ideas are well-suited to making these points.

To that end, I start by briefly defining what echo chambers are (Section 2). I then introduce Confucius’ idea of harmony and how it helps diagnose what is wrong with echo chambers (Section 3) and prescribes how we can live harmoniously with echo-chambered individuals (Section 4).

Section 2 – What is an Echo Chamber?

The concept of an ‘echo chamber’ is still being figured out in academic circles. However, almost all philosophers and non-philosophers agree there is something wrong with being in an echo chamber.[1] If we suggest a person is in an echo chamber, this is usually meant as a criticism either of what they believe or how they have come to believe it. This might be quite obvious, but it raises an interesting question about people in echo chambers. Why would people be part of something that they know is wrong or problematic?

My explanation for this starts from the observation that people in echo chambers probably do not think there is anything wrong with the environment they are in. In fact, given how confident people in echo chambers tend to be, they will think they have joined (or remained in) the echo chamber for good reasons. Perhaps they think they are more likely to discover the truth about something, so they join the echo chamber to obtain knowledge. Alternatively, they may join the echo chamber to obtain the good of a community who share their values. These are perfectly good reasons that motivate much human behavior. However, given our shared fallibility, we sometimes make mistakes in pursuit of what we think is good. I think this last point is crucial for understanding what echo chambers are. An echo chamber looks like the kind of social environment in which goods like knowledge or community can be obtained, but, in reality, they frustrate our access to these goods. In other words, they are troubling social environments that are parasitic on ones from which we can obtain certain goods. This squares well with what we think of a typical echo chamber member. Despite their efforts, they tend to have false beliefs and viciously dislike people who do not share their beliefs and values. In short, from understanding why individuals join these environments – to pursue goods they think they will achieve – we get a better understanding of what echo chambers are.


Section 3 – Introducing Harmony

Harmony or 和 (pronounced ‘her’) is a crucial concept in Confucian thought rendered in different ways over time and by different thinkers (Li, 2008). In keeping with the methods of the Confucian tradition, the concept of harmony is best illuminated with an analogy. The oldest analogy relies on the similarity between governing harmoniously and making a good soup. When one makes a soup, there are a variety of ingredients that one needs to add and different quantities of each ingredient must be added carefully to achieve a dish that is balanced in flavor. Similarly, a ruler should solicit many different points of view on what an acceptable policy is and take note of the dissenting and approving verdicts and determine an optimal balance of preferences. ‘Harmony’ is explicitly referred to in Analects 13.23:

The Master said, “The gentleman harmonizes without being an echo. The petty man echoes and does not harmonize.” (Confucius, 2014: 13.23).


The thing to avoid in making soup, ruling a country, or trying to reconcile different things that are in tension is to have too much ‘echoing’ or ‘sameness’. For example, having too much of the same opinion in government or having too much of the same ingredient in a soup. The problem with this, to reference an ancient Chinese thinker, is that “this is like trying to improve the taste of water with more water. Who would want that?” (Confucius, 2014: ‘Commentary on 13.23’). Harmony in the broadest sense is a process by which different things are brought together into a constructive whole (Wong 2020). In this context, I will work with harmony as a moral ideal which implores us to reconcile our inevitable differences with other people in a constructive manner and without conforming to what others believe or how they act.

The ideal of harmony sheds light on the problem of echo chambers. Whether we are in or exposed to them, echo chambers show us individuals with whom we viciously disagree yet must co-exist. Their members ‘echo’ each other too much and those outside the echo chamber become too frustrated or bitter to try to break up these echoes. Over time, echo chambers cause damage to these interpersonal relationships and to the prospect of managing our differences with others. Research by political scientists confirms these ideas; people are far too polarized around their partisan political views and continually told their ideological opponents are not to be trusted (Jamieson and Capella, 2008; McCarthy, 2019; Nguyen, 2020). This is a familiar problem and Confucius recognized a version of it, though perhaps not remotely on the same scale as today. Nevertheless, Confucius would urge that we manage the delicate relationships we have with others – relationships to our family, friends, and civic peers – to which echo chambers cause much damage. Why must we learn to do this? Insofar as we are interested in maintaining social stability, we can work on maintaining the social relationships that together constitute a society. As such, harmony offers a plausible way of diagnosing the echo chamber as partly one of fractured moral relationships with one another, which, over time, may threaten social stability.


Section 4 – Harmonizing with Others

So far, we know that harmony is a kind of moral ideal or standard, but it is not yet clear how we ought to harmonize with others. Which actions or which ways of acting count as satisfying the standard of harmony? Confucius does not offer direct advice on this question, but David Wong (2020, MS) suggests that harmony can be elaborated through the idea of accommodation. Accommodation is a moral value whose emphasis is on maintaining a constructive relationship – of respect and concern – in the face of continuing disagreement. It comes into play because societies, in their best attempts to maintain convergence on moral values and ideas, will nevertheless disagree on how to interpret the weight of their shared values and how those values interact when they conflict (Wong, 1992). Human life is marked by significant disagreement and to accommodate is to live with such disagreement rather than seek, unsuccessfully, to dissolve it.

Accommodating others involves three things. First, it involves having an epistemic openness to the possibility of expanding one’s view of the good life or at least trying to understand other ways of life. Second, it involves a tactfulness to act on your moral opinions and values in ways that aim to minimize damage to your relationships with others who have opposed views. Third, it involves amenability. This is the willingness to compromise on what we hope to gain for our moral views for the sake of sustaining relationships with disagreeing others (Wong 2020: 133). Accommodation is key to living harmoniously with others, but does it help us deal with echo chambered individuals? I will argue that it does.

The value of epistemic openness is readily seen when dealing with run-of-the-mill echo chambers containing political partisans. Some philosophers have argued that the chances that one will be right about everything are often very slim (Joshi, 2020). When one is a stubborn political partisan and, I would argue this is true of echo-chambered individuals, one believes those outside the echo chamber are systematically getting things wrong. This is a belief that it will be hard to find a rational justification for. To move forward will involve being epistemically curious and being genuinely prepared to change one’s mind, which may help others become open and curious to make such changes too.

Openness does not always require one to change one’s moral beliefs for these may be foundational to one’s identity. But the importance of our moral beliefs and values does not entitle us to insult or denigrate those who oppose us in attempts to ‘score points’ for our views. This is unfortunately how much discourse in echo chambers and social media in general takes place. Just as we would hope that others not denigrate our views, exercising a similar tactfulness towards them builds the relationship within which these difficult conversations can take place. Relatedly, the familiar injunction to ‘pick one’s battles’ becomes relevant here too – never being amenable frustrates the relationships with these disagreeing others and robs us of the potential to find some degree of harmony. In short, harmony recommends we become disposed to being open, tactful, and amenable in accommodating those with whom we disagree. As such, it is a useful prescription for dealing with echo-chambered individuals with whom we encounter serious disagreement.

Of course, one might doubt whether harmony requires us to be open, tactful, and amenable with echo chamber members whose views are beyond the pale. I am referring to the ones that espouse controversial conspiracy theories and morally offensive political ideologies. The temptation may be either to ignore or ‘force’ such individuals to change their mind. Even in these cases, I argue one should maintain their epistemically open disposition. It is likely those individuals are mistaken about the good life, but curiosity and tactful question-asking may help them become aware of the implications and difficulties of holding their beliefs. Empirical evidence in psychology suggests this approach may nurture their motivation to change their mind, which may be more effective than acting on the temptations above (Itzchakov et al., 2018; Wong, MS). More to the point, taking this step does not foreclose the opportunity of living harmoniously.

However, missing from this is the element of courage one needs to harmonize with others. This is especially true in online environments where much disagreement takes place that is fueled by echo chambers. Acting in a harmonious manner is demanding, the gains are often not visible to us and the costs are unpleasant and even dispiriting. As a result, harmonizing with disagreeing others – whether in Confucius’ time or ours – must involve some degree of courage to be open, tactful, and amenable in the face of these obstacles.



I have argued that Confucius’ notion of harmony offers (i) a diagnosis of why echo chambers are problematic and a (ii) prescription for how to manage our social relationships with echo-chambered individuals through openness, tactfulness, amenability, and courage.

This prescription highlights the final point that I want to make, namely, that the problem with echo chambers is not only an epistemic one to do with what people believe. As I hope to have shown, the problem is also profoundly ethical. It is equally about what we owe to our disagreeing others and how we can relate to them better. Confucius’ ideas practically orient us toward managing these social relationships, the flourishing of which contributes to a stable society where people can co-exist despite persistent disagreement.


[1] Well, not every philosopher agrees with this, see Lackey, 2018; Elzinga, 2020; Fantl, 2021. However, that is not unique to this issue.


Confucius (2014) The Analects (Lunyu): Translated with an introduction and Commentary by Annping Chin. Translated by A. Chin. New York: Penguin Books.

Elzinga, B. (2020) ‘Echo Chambers and Audio Signal Processing’, Episteme, pp. 1–21. Available at:

Fantl, J. (2021) ‘Fake News vs. Echo Chambers’, Social Epistemology, 35(6), pp. 645–659. Available at:

Itzchakov, G. et al. (2018) ‘The Listener Sets the Tone: High-Quality Listening Increases Attitude Clarity and Behavior-Intention Consequences’, Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 44(5), pp. 762–778. Available at:

Jamieson, K.H. and Capella, J. (2008) Echo Chamber: Rush Limbaugh and the Conservative Media Establishment. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Joshi, H. (2020) ‘What are the chances you’re right about everything? An epistemic challenge for modern partisanship’, Politics, Philosophy & Economics, 19(1), pp. 36–61. Available at:

Lackey, J. (2018) ‘True Story: Echo Chambers are not the Problem’, Morning Consult. Available at:

Li, C. (2008) ‘The Philosophy of Harmony in Classical Confucianism’, Philosophy Compass, 3(3), pp. 423–435. Available at:

McCarthy, N. (2019) Polarization: What Everyone Needs to Know. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Nguyen, C.T. (2020) ‘Echo Chambers and Epistemic Bubbles’, Episteme, 17(2), pp. 141–161.

Wong, D.B. (1992) ‘Coping with Moral Conflict and Ambiguity’, Ethics, 102(4), pp. 763–784. Available at:

Wong, D.B. (2020) ‘Soup, Harmony, and Disagreement’, Journal of the American Philosophical Association, 6(2), pp. 139–155. Available at:

Wong, D.B. (MS) ‘Metaphor and Analogy in Early Chinese Thought: Governance within the Person, State and Society’.


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1 Comment on this post

  1. Things that are old become new again. Like good government and soup. The echo effect is age old although social media as we now have it is in infancy, comparatively speaking. Finding harmony among the staccato confusion surrounding us is increasingly difficult. So, we must be actively engaged in the task and willing to separate noise from signal. Individualism and independence are frowned upon by inhabitants of echo chambers. They have already won the battle to lose a war. As a kind commenter has offered here, laziness is tempting when one seeks a comfortable place to be, among like minds having interests, preferences and motives in common. Comfortable places need not exert much effort to conceal deception. This paper is worth the honorable mention it has received, IMHO. A pretty good mind at work. Best wishes for all of that.

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