A drawing of Confucius from a seventeenth-century book. The original caption read: “Confucius, The celebrated Chinese philosopher.” From Su shu; The morals of Confucius, a Chinese philosopher. London: Printed for Randal Taylor, 1691. BEINECKE RARE BOOK AND MANUSCRIPT LIBRARY, YALE UNIVERSITY.

Confucian ethics teaches that no fixed and binding rules govern the moral life. Rather, a person must be trained to weigh the relative value of actions in specific situations in regard to specific persons. Confucian ethics had a strong influence on Chinese, Korean, and Japanese cultures.

Confucian ethics, founded on the idea that people must strive to do their best to express human kindness or love for others, left an indelible mark on the development of Chinese, Korean, and Japanese cultures.

Confucian ethics can be compared with Aristotelian and feminist virtue ethics and best understood as a contextualistic virtue ethics based on self-cultivation. Three general categories are used to classify moral systems: absolutism, relativism, and contextualism. Ethical contextualism holds that there are no absolute moral rules and that cultural customs or feelings cannot be blindly followed; alleged absolute codes or customs and feelings can serve only as guidelines. Each person must decide what is the best that she or he can do in that particular context to complete an action of a higher value such as authenticity, love, or virtue. The philosophies of the ancient Greek Aristotle, the Chinese philosopher Confucius (551–479 BCE), and the existentialists, as well as and modern situation ethics are examples of ethical contextualism. Confucian ethics can be summarized as the art of contextualizing the practice of virtue.

Confucian ethics bears some similarity to Aristotelian ethics. Both are virtue-based systems (virtue ethics refers to the moral quality of a person’s character or personality as opposed to a person merely obeying moral rules) that acknowledge that no fixed and binding rules govern the moral life. Rather, a person must be well trained and habituated to weighing the relative value of actions in specific situations in regard to particular persons.

Confucians and Aristotelians soon part company, however. Aristotle held what has been called the “doctrine of the golden mean,” namely, that most of the virtues are at the midpoint between the extremes of deficiency and excess. Regrettably, Zhongyong (centrality and commonality), one of the Four Books of the Confucian canon, was misleadingly translated as the Doctrine of the Mean, allowing for superficial comparisons. The Confucian concept of “centrality” refers to the condition before feelings of pleasure, anger, sorrow, and joy are expressed; clearly it is not the mean between extremes.

Confucius and Earlier

Confucian ethics began long before the time of Confucius. It was rooted in the clan values of the early Zhou dynasty (1045–256 BCE) aristocracy. Confucius was both a traditional and an innovative thinker; he breathed new life into the traditional aristocratic clan ethics of the Zhou. His innovation was that he sought to transform aristocratic values and practices into everyday practices and values for common people. Thus, he reinterpreted the label for “prince” (junzi, the son of the ruler) to mean any person who achieves the status of being a noble and moral example for others, that is, a prince of virtue.

Although Confucius had his gender biases, the content and practice of his moral teachings are similar to those of the feminists who advocate a contextual care ethic. Speaking generally, Confucius, like the feminists of care, was concerned about interpersonal relationships founded on love and affection; his known writings contain nothing of an ethics based on impersonal duty. In the writings of both Confucius and certain feminists, moral values are learned at home by participating in a morally healthy parent-child relationship. The writings of Confucius emphasized the father-son relationship rather than the feminist mother-child relationship, but both advance the importance of proper child rearing for the cultivation of a moral personality that learns to contextualize values and actions in particular situations in relation with particular persons.

All Confucians agree that moral education begins at home. Only after a child learns filial respect for parents and brotherly love for siblings can he or she be expected to extend respect and love beyond the family. Methodologically, filial piety (xiao) is primary; ontologically (relating to being or existence), person-to-person care (ren, usually rendered as “benevolence” or “humanity”) is the significant trait of being human. To be a caring person is to be a moral example or moral authority for others to follow. After proper rearing, a person needs instruction from a Confucian teacher to develop his or her practice of caring. This instruction focuses primarily on gaining literary achievement (wen) memorizing the Four Books (four ancient and venerated Confucian texts), large sections of the Five Classics (also important Confucian texts), and other important Confucian works; and learning Confucian rituals and music so as to habituate the student in the practice of being virtuous.

The Confucian virtues are best understood in terms of actual human behavior rather than intellectual beliefs. Confucians, both past and present, are concerned with the practice of taking care of others, not the abstract idea of care. The five constant virtues are person-to-person care (ren), ritual action (li), rightness (yi), trustworthiness (xin), and moral wisdom (zhi). Person-to-person care is defined as “love” in the Analects of Confucius. Confucians do not advocate random acts of love; all of the virtues must be practiced according to the requirements of ritual action. Confucian society is based on ritual order, not legal order.

The art of contextualizing the virtues in practice is clearly expressed in being a person of rightness (yi). Although the examples of the ancient sages serve as a guide, no absolute standards of rightness exist. Rightness entails doing the right thing to the right people at the right time in the most appropriate manner. Confucius invested a lot in trustworthiness (xin); exemplars of the moral must stand by their words. They must practice before they teach others, and they must teach only what they themselves have practiced.

Even moral wisdom (zhi) should be understood in terms of practice, or doing the right thing, rather than merely knowing what should be done. It is bolstered by the virtues of literary accomplishment (wen) and studiousness (xue). Any virtue may have to be practiced with bravery (yong). The virtues of reverence (jing) and sincerity (cheng), only briefly mentioned by Confucius, were developed by later Confucians and were understood to be part of the structure of the universe.

Mencius and Later Philosophers

Whereas the writings attributed to Confucius were primarily concerned with the practice of moral behavior, those attributed to the Chinese philosopher Mencius (371–289 BCE) understood the cardinal virtues to constitute the operations of the human heart-mind. Although the writings of Mencius and Xunzi (c. 310–213? BCE) disagreed on the natural goodness of humans, with Mencius c
laiming that people are basically good and Xunzi that they are basically deviant, both emphasized the importance of proper rearing, education, and ritual action for the correct expression of moral virtues. Not until Zhou Dunyi (1017–1073) and Zhang Zai (1020–1077) revitalized the study of Confucianism did all the Confucian virtues come to take on a cosmological as well as a social moral role. To the extent that Korean, Japanese, Vietnamese, and other Southeast Asian cultures adopted and adapted Confucianism, they also accepted and transformed Confucian ethics to meet their social and moral needs.

Further Reading

Allan, S. (1997). The way of water and sprouts of virtue. Albany: State University of New York Press.

Ames, R. T., & Rosemont, H., Jr. (Trans.). (1998). The analects of Confucius: A philosophical translation. New York: Ballantine Books.

Chan Wing-tsit. (1963). A source book in Chinese philosophy. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Ivanhoe, P. J. (1993). Confucian moral self-cultivation. New York: Peter Lang.

Tu Weiming. (1979). Humanity and self-cultivation: Essays in Confucian thought. Berkeley, CA: Asian Humanities Press.

Tu Weiming. (1985). Confucian thought: Selfhood as creative transformation. Albany: State University of New York Press.

Source: Sellmann, James D.. (2009). Confucian Ethics. In Linsun Cheng, et al. (Eds.), Berkshire Encyclopedia of China, pp. 467–469. Great Barrington, MA: Berkshire Publishing.

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