Philosophy 51 - 3.3.2 Confucianism

Confucius (551–479 BCE) was the founder of Confucianism, a philosophy that has influenced society, politics, and culture in East Asia for more than 2,000 years. Confucius lived just before the beginning of what is called the Warring States period, a time in Chinese history plagued with violence and instability. Though not a member of the aristocracy, Confucius rose from lowly positions to become the minister of justice of Lu, a province in eastern China. He challenged three powerful families that were trying to wrest control of the government. After a clash, Confucius left his home with a small group of followers, hoping to serve as an adviser for rulers in other provinces. After 14 years, he returned to Lu and was able to provide some advice to government ministers, but he never achieved his goal of finding a leader to carry out his ideas (Huang 2013). Confucius is credited with authoring or editing the Chinese classical texts that became the core educational curriculum for hundreds of years, though it was only after his death that Emperor Wudi of the Han dynasty first adopted Confucianism as the official state ideology.

One measure of the immediate impact of Confucius’s success is that he spawned an entire class of scholars known as shih, who were trained in classical studies and language and were only suited for teaching and government work. They maintained their livelihood through a system of patronage. This system has had an enduring impact in China. Contemporary exams for government officials include testing on traditional knowledge about classical Chinese philosophy and literature (Fung 1952).

Though Confucius was labeled an atheist and considered an innovator, he was in other ways culturally conservative. He believed in a well-ordered society where rules and guidance come from the very top (the emperor or “the heavens,” as it may be). Scholars today identify Confucianism as a form of virtue ethics because it is an approach to ethics that focuses on personal virtue or character.


Learn more about Confucianism and virtue ethics in the chapter on normative moral theory.

Benevolence and Reciprocity

The Confucian concept of de is closely related to moral virtue in the sense that de identifies characteristics of a person, understood to be formed through habitual action, that make it more likely the person will act in morally excellent ways. In Confucianism, the five constant virtues are ren, yi, li, zhi, and xin. Each of these terms is difficult to translate consistently, having varied meanings. Loose translations are sometimes given as follows: ren is benevolence, yi is righteousness, li is propriety, zhi is wisdom, and xin is trustworthiness. More broadly, ren means something like shared humanity, empathy, or care for others. Similarly, the institutionalized rituals of the Zhou dynasty are captured in the Chinese word li, which is translated as both propriety and ritual. Though Confucius emphasized the importance of ritual and tradition in daily practice, he also recognized that such actions are empty if they do not have a solid foundation in benevolence. These terms can be seen related in the following passage: “If a man is not ren [benevolent], what can he do with li [ritual]? If a man is not ren, what can he do with music?” (Confucius 2015, p. 9, 3.3).

To emphasize the relational and communal character of Confucian ethics, it is worth noting that alongside the five virtues, Confucius highlights three fundamental bonds or relationships: father and son, lord and retainer, and husband and wife. These bonds designate the fundamental relationships that are necessary for social life (Knapp 2009, 2252). The ethical obligations of children to their parents are frequently captured in the notion of filial piety, or simply filiality, which is a widespread Chinese value. Even though Confucius emphasizes that there is a subordinate relation between sons and their fathers, wives and their husbands, and subjects and their lords, he also recognizes that the superior party has obligations to the subordinate one. These obligations can be characterized by the virtue of benevolence, wherein the good and upstanding person demonstrates goodwill toward those with whom they have relations. Whereas the virtue of benevolence emphasizes the common humanity of all people and seems to advise a common concern for all, filial piety introduces the idea of care with distinctions, where the moral and right thing to do is to show compassion to all human beings but to recognize that some people are owed more than others. In the case above, Confucius clearly advises that greater concern is due to one’s family members, then to one’s local community, and finally to the state.

An important concept in Confucianism is zhong, usually translated as “loyalty.” Later commentators have defined zhong as “the ‘exhaustion of one’s self’ in the performance of one’s moral duties” (Fung 1952, 71); it might also be translated as conscientiousness or devotion. Another related virtue is reciprocity. Confucius explains reciprocity with a version of the Golden Rule: “Zigong asked, ‘I[s] there a single saying that one may put into practice all one’s life?’ The Master said, ‘That would be “reciprocity”: That which you do not desire, do not do to others’” (Confucius 2015, p. 85, 15.24).

Each of these virtues is identified as fundamental, but they all are expressions of the underlying virtue of benevolence. The importance of benevolence runs through the relational and community-driven nature of Confucian ethics. This is quite different from Western ethics, particularly modern Western ethics, which emphasizes the rights, freedoms, and responsibilities of individuals.

Wisdom and the Dao

The Chinese concept of dao is another difficult-to-translate term. Often, it is interpreted as “way” or “path,” but in Confucius, it is just as frequently translated as “teaching.” One can see the goal of Confucius’s teaching as relating a way or pattern of behavior that could be adopted by careful students. The wisdom gained through reading and, more importantly, living according to the dao is a kind of natural awareness of what is good and right and a distaste for what is wrong. Confucius also recognizes that a rejection of materiality is a sign of one who follows the dao. He frequently cites poverty, the ability to enjoy simple foods, and a lack of concern for the trappings of wealth as signs of one who is devoted to the right path or right ethical teachings.

Propriety and Junzi

One of the five constant virtues is propriety, in the sense of following the appropriate rituals in the appropriate contexts. Rituals include wearing ceremonial dress, reading and reciting the classic poetry of the Shijing, playing music, and studying culture. However, Confucius also makes clear that the foundations of ritual lie in filial respect for parents and elders, demonstrating care and trustworthiness, and having good relations with people in general (Confucius 2015, pp. 1–2, 1.6). Acting according to propriety or ritual is connected to the idea of the junzi, a person who represents the goal or standard of ethical action and acts as a model for others. One can observe key characteristics of virtue by listening to Confucius’s description of the junzi. For instance, he suggests that a junzi is someone who is thoughtful, but decisive: “The junzi wishes to be slow of speech and quick in action” (Confucius 2015, p. 17, 4.24). Similarly, Confucius frequently comments on the lack of material desires or a rejection of material wealth as a sign of the junzi’s virtue: “The junzi does not hem his upper robes with crimson or maroon. He does not employ red or purple for leisure clothes. In hot weather, he always wears a singlet of fine or coarse hemp as an outer garment.” (Confucius 2015, p. 47, 10.6).

These virtuous characteristics are connected to propriety and one’s obligations toward others in interesting ways. Confucius articulates what is required in order to become a junzi as an ordered series of obligations. The best and highest sense of a junzi is one who serves their lord faithfully and without shame, the next best is one who is thought to be filial by their local community, and the least of the junzi is one who can keep their word and follow through on their actions. This suggests that personal responsibilities to others—keeping one’s word and following through on one’s actions—are the minimum, most basic requirements for being a junzi; next is being known as one who is respectful of one’s parents and elders in one’s local community, and greater than that is being loyal and trustworthy to the regional government.

In a famous passage on filial piety, Confucius introduces a potential moral dilemma for the junzi: “The Lord of She instructed Confucius, saying, ‘There is an upright man in my district. His father stole a sheep, and he testified against him.’ Confucius said, ‘The upright men in my district are different. Fathers cover up for their sons and sons cover up for their fathers. Uprightness lies therein’” (Confucius 2015, p. 70, 13.18). Here, Confucius suggests that the appropriate way to resolve the dilemma is to favor familial relations over relations with the state. This is consistent with the previous passage, where Confucius suggests that good family relations are the most necessary relations to maintain, while relations with the state are the highest relations. What Confucius means is that it is a sign of the highest standards of conduct that one can act in accordance with his obligations to the state, but it is essential for one to maintain obligations to family, so if the two are in conflict, then the junzi should uphold the relations within the family.

Think Like a Philosopher

Consider the moral dilemma presented here. One of your parents has stolen money from their employer, and you are approached by law enforcement asking what you know about the theft. Do you lie to protect your parent, or do you tell the truth? Which is the more ethical thing to do? Confucius gives one answer here, but philosophy texts elsewhere offer other answers. For instance, Plato’s Euthyphro dialogue begins with Euthyphro telling Socrates that he is prosecuting his father for killing a worker in his fields, claiming that the pious thing to do is to prosecute people who commit murder no matter who they are. Socrates is shocked to hear this and questions Euthyphro on the nature of piety. What do you think? If your obligation to protect a parent is in conflict with your obligation to tell the truth about a theft and follow the law, which obligation do you choose to uphold? Why?

The Legacy of Confucius

It is difficult to overstate the importance of Confucius for Chinese culture, philosophy, and history. After his death, many of Confucius’s disciples became influential teachers. The greatest among them were Mencius (372–289 BCE) and Xunzi (c. 310–c. 235 BCE).

Mencius expanded and developed Confucius’s teachings, spreading the ideas of Confucianism more widely and securing the philosophical foundations of Confucius’s legacy. One of the doctrines for which he is best known is the idea that human beings are innately benevolent and have tendencies toward the five constant virtues. This view led Mencius to argue, for instance, that human beings have a natural disposition toward concern for a child in need or an obviously suffering human being or animal. In one famous example, he argues that all human beings have hearts that are “not unfeeling toward others”:

Suppose someone suddenly saw a child about to fall into a well: anyone in such a situation would have a feeling of alarm and compassion—not because one sought to get in good with the child’s parents, not because one wanted fame among one’s neighbors and friends, and not because one would dislike the sound of the child’s cries. (quoted in Van Norden 2019)

Given that human beings are innately good, it remains for them to develop the appropriate knowledge of how to act on that goodness in order to become virtuous. In order to do so, Mencius encourages people to engage in reflection and the extension of their natural compassion for some to others. For instance, in one account, he tries to convince a king to care for his subjects by reminding the king of a time he felt compassion for an ox that was being led to slaughter. The reflection necessary for extending one’s compassion from those for whom one naturally feels compassion to others requires an awareness that is grounded in practical motivation. In this sense, Mencius holds that virtue is the result of knowledge grounded in the caring motivations and relations that individuals have with one another. He locates this grounding in a process of reflection that, he says, is the natural function of the heart.

By contrast with Mencius, Xunzi held that human beings have an innately detestable nature but that they have the capacity to become good through artifice—that is, by acquiring traits and habits through deliberate action. Unlike Mencius, Xunzi did not believe that goodness came from reflection on one’s innate tendency toward compassion. Rather, he held that one’s innate emotional attachments would lead one to harmful behavior toward others, but through teaching in accordance with Confucian principles, one can become virtuous and ultimately transform those innate tendencies into something beneficial for humankind. This difference in perspective led Xunzi to emphasize the importance of external forces to guide behavior. He thought that the best guide toward virtue was the rituals that were handed down by ancient sages. Along these lines, Xunzi emphasizes the importance of music for developing an appreciation for ritual. Ultimately, rituals are the signposts that help mark the way, which flows from the constant and enduring guidance of heaven. Here, Xunzi returns to Confucius’s appreciation for tradition (Goldin 2018).

Long after Confucius’s death, in the eighth century CE, a new school of Chinese philosophy known as Neo-Confucianism became prominent. Thinkers such as Han Yu and Li Ao reinvigorated classical Confucianism with less emphasis on tradition and religion and a greater emphasis on reason and humanism. Neo-Confucianism engages critically and seriously with the traditions of Buddhism and Taoism, which had become prominent in Chinese thought. These schools of thought are distinct from Confucius’s own philosophy, but they explicitly link their ideas with his. Classical Confucianism and Neo-Confucianism continue to influence modern philosophical writing in China, and their influence extends even beyond China, to Korea, Japan, and Vietnam.

Interior of temple. One wall is taken up by a large status of Confucius, set into a recess lined with red curtains. Other statues appear on one side, as well as a large painting of several men. Large vases of flowers stand on the floor and on platforms. A box with a slot for offerings is in front of the statue of Confucius. Cloth covered rectangles to kneel upon are on the floor.
Figure 3.9 Although Confucius was considered an atheist by his contemporaries, the following he has inspired has many elements of what most consider a religion. This contemporary Confucian temple in Urumqi, Xinjiang, China, features shrines, altars, and spaces for offerings. (credit: “Confucian Temple” by David Stanley/Flickr, CC BY 2.0)

Confucius remains a central and celebrated cultural figure in China. His teachings have produced a following that at times resembles a religion. The degree to which Confucianism is entrenched in Chinese political and cultural life suggests that it performs the function of what has been called a “civil religion”—namely, a set of cultural ideals without the specific doctrinal components that typically characterize religion that nevertheless provides a common basis for moral norms and standards of conduct in political speech and political life (Bellah 1967).

The content of this course has been taken from the free Philosophy textbook by Openstax