The Sandy Hook school shooting in the United States last month was as shocking as it was baffling. To many non-Americans, the right to bear arms and the strident defence of that right by a large portion of that country's population fly in the face of common sense. Are these people genuinely concerned about defending American liberties, even if it means thousands die from gunshot wounds each year, or are they simply overgrown children who want to play cowboys and Indians?

If they deem the inviolability of a principle as more important than human life, then they aren't very different from the likes of Cheng Yi (1033-1107), a proponent of a somewhat stultifying brand of neo-Confucianism that plagued China for almost a millennium, until the 20th century. When asked if a destitute widow should be allowed to remarry, Cheng answered that a woman "dying of hunger is of less consequence than her losing her chastity".

In that worldview, which had a profound influence on Chinese politics, culture and the lives of ordinary people, dogmas were sacrosanct even if their application defied common sense and their consequences were horrifying. And where did these rules governing society originate but from the all-too fallible minds of men?

It is absurd to place such unquestioning faith in ideas or precepts, however great the minds which formed them or however well they may have worked. Whether it is Confucian tenets or the Second Amendment, no principle is worth a life.