Confucian Ethics Analysis

At Issue

First postulated during the feudal period in China (771-221 b.c.e.), Confucian ethics sought to effect peace and harmony in Chinese society. Starting with simple maxims, the school gradually developed into a comprehensive system of ethics that was primarily political but also emphasized social and religious conduct. Never a popular religion, its rites and ethical dictates were practiced by elites in several East Asian countries.

Ethical Principles

In addition to requiring a monarch to set a proper moral example for his subjects, Confucius stressed that all humans should strive to be jen, which generally means “humane.” Expressed by the character combining the meanings “man” and “two,” this concept called for people to be considerate and compassionate toward one another. One method of developing one’s jen was to observe the proper rituals and ceremonies. It was essential that people be obedient and loving toward their parents and superiors, who, in turn, should be kind and nurturing. Other concepts presented by Confucius and developed by his disciples included li (“principle”) and yi (righteousness), both of which connoted acting in accordance with ancient precedents.

Mencius and Xun Zi further developed the concept of the five cardinal human relationships. These involved affection between father and son, respect between husband and wife, hierarchy between the old and the young, propriety between ruler and minister, and loyalty between friend and friend. All three of the Eastern Chou philosophers stressed ritualistic behavior in order to achieve discipline and nurture moral principles.

With the syncretism of Tung Chung-shu and of later neo-Confucians, other concepts of ethical behavior were incorporated from Taoism and Buddhism into Confucianism. Concepts such as ch’i (“inner spirit”) crept into Confucian theory and practice. Nevertheless, the basic principles of Confucian morality were evident by 250 b.c.e. and have remained fairly consistent to this day.


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