What do Confucius' ideas of virtue and propriety mean for human conduct?

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What is interesting about Confucius is the way in which he always supported the smooth running of society rather than championing the rights of the individual vs. society. Thus his focus on values leads individuals to act in a way that will prize community above and beyond their own personal desires and ambition. This is of course a highly culturally-shaped way of thinking.

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Confucius essentially claimed that human actions should always be guided by virtue- a regard for their impact on other people and by an understanding of the mutual obligations around which society was structured.  These obligations were known  as "bonds," and they dictated how husbands related to wives, children to fathers, brothers to brothers, and rulers to subjects. As post #2 points out, it was indeed "communitarian," but Confucius also conceived of society as being stratified in the extreme, and obedience was crucial to most of the bonds described earlier in this post.

However, virtue also entailed a certain inner morality, and the best people, those atop the social ladder, were expected to cultivate and exhibit moral and ethical behavior for its own sake. They would then act with propriety, behaviors that were appropriate to their elevated position. Society would function best and most harmoniously with a virtuous ruler, served by gentlemen, ruling over a people who understood their station in life.

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Together, these ideas of Confucius mean that human beings should always conduct themselves with an eye towards what is needed for a good and stable society.  This is not an individualistic system of ethics that values doing what we want to do.  Nor does it emphasize individual rights.  Instead, it emphasizes the need to act in ways that will be good for society as a whole.

For example, a leader was supposed to act in virtuous ways.  This meant that he was supposed to follow all the proper rites and ceremonies.  By acting with virtue and propriety, he would be able to bind the people of his society together and allow the society to be strong and stable.

This is a philosophy that emphasizes acting in the way that is appropriate for your station in life and in ways that will help society.  It is a communitarian ideal, not an individualistic one.  In other words, it tells us that human conduct should be based on what is good for society rather than on some notion of individuality and rights.

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