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Confucian Ethics Essay

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Updated: Apr 17th, 2020

Confucianism is a philosophical movement that started from the teachings of a famous Chinese philosopher, Confucius. Some people argue that Confucian was not a philosopher, but rather, a religious leader (Taylor 8).

His works span through several disciplines, including morality, humanity, rationality, and ethics. However, his teaching on human virtues and morality stands out as his most prominent teachings.

These teachings have formed an important part of Chinese society for more than two millennia now. Its impact on Chinese society manifests through the Chinese social and political spheres (Taylor 8).

The influence of Confucianism has also spread to other parts of Asia, including Vietnam, Japan, and Korea.

The teachings also cut across several religions because albeit some Confucians may profess Islam, Buddhism, or Christianity as their main religion, they rarely deny the fact that they are Confucians.

Confucianism developed from the quest by Confucius to retrieve the meaning of the past by using the love of antiquity and the desire to understand why certain rituals (like burial ceremonies) have existed for centuries (Confucius ignores worship, metaphysics, and dogma throughout most of his teachings).

Confucianism derives a lot of faith from the role of culture in upholding human societies, and the continuity of social norms to uphold civilization (Taylor 8).

Indeed, Confucianism adopts a straightforward perspective on approaching people about benevolence, love, compassion, generosity, and other human virtues.

From the basis of its development, Confucianism supersedes other religious influences, like Daoism and Buddhism, to have the greatest impact on Chinese society (Waxman 1). This paper discusses the ethical dimensions of Confucianism by exploring some of its most fundamental ethical pillars.

This analogy works to show how Confucianism relates to the dominant ethical and political vision of society. These findings also analyze a practical social problem of solving leadership dilemmas in most modern democracies (from the Confucian perspective).

Ethical Concerns

Confucianism outlines six important ethical components – Xi, Zhi, Li, Yi, Wen, and ren. These components also have significant connections with one another.


The concept of Xi explores the innate qualities of people by understanding if people are born with a natural tendency to do “good,” or be “evil.” However, in the understanding of Confucianism, “goodness” and” badness” are not contained in the concept of the Xi (Waxman 1).

Instead, Xi encourages people to learn to undertake their duties ethically because ethics is not an innate human trait. The concept of xi also represents the ability of men to instill virtuous qualities among their peers (Waxman 1).


The concept of Zhi refers to the natural substance that defines people’s behaviors. It, however, does not refer to the innate human attributes as described above (in Xi). Zhi, therefore, refers to the native substance that defines people’s characters.

For example, educational qualifications mirror the concept of Zhi as an acquired character. The acquisition of Zhi, however, depends on a person’s ability to develop their character (self-motivation).

The acquisition of Zhi also depends on whether a person’s behavioral trait aligns with the concept of Li, as described below (Waxman 4).


In most western countries, the concept of Li manifests when teachers teach culturally accepted norms (Waxman 4).

There is, however, a significant contention with the concept of Li because some pundits believe people may mimic cultural traits, without changing their inner traits (moral direction) (Fan 171).

Therefore, there is a widespread fear that Li may not necessarily affect people’s moral behaviors (Waxman 4). Nonetheless, Li also refers to the appreciation of hierarchical order in the society (and the resultant norms that ascribe to this structure).

Li, therefore, motivates people to think and act in socially accepted ways. This happens through “character shaping.” From this redefinition of character, there is a widespread perception of people who have mastered Li as equitable and fair (Fan 171).

An example, of a group of people who have not mastered the concept of Li, may be judges who make their decisions based on their understanding of the law and not the prevailing special circumstances that may skew the application of the law.

However, in a situation where a judge considers the spirit of the law, rather than what the law stipulates; the concept of Li manifests. Indeed, such judges demonstrate a special degree of ethical fairness, thereby demonstrating their mastery of Li.


The concept of Yi refers to issues of morality. However, from the same definition, the concept of Yi also refers to the actions, duties, and righteousness of a person (Waxman 4).

The importance of Yi in understanding the philosophy of Confucianism cannot be overemphasized because Yi has always been an important part of Confucianism. Waxman (5) says that Yi defines the standard by which people measure actions.

However, there is no standard for measuring Yi. Yi, therefore, denotes the object of all learning because it defines the ethical set of principles that define the concept of Confucianism in the first place.

If we were to trace the relationship between Yi and Li, it would be correct to say that Li is the expression of Yi.

Therefore, Yi measures the principles of right actions (as defined in Li). Stated differently, if a person constantly and harmoniously practices Li, they achieve a perfect balance in life (Waxman 6).


The concept of Wen refers to music, poetry, and other acts that express an act of leisure. Wen criticizes some of these expressions of leisure as lacking virtue (Rosenlee 128).

For example, in the sixties, a popular form of music, bubble gum, lacked purpose and value, but people celebrated it worldwide. Therefore, even though the music was profitable for most companies and artists, its popularity did not advance any useful continuum to the associated genre.

Certainly, many people thought that the cultural impact of such music was very superficial and did not add any values to the advancement of society (Waxman 9). Therefore, Confucianism does not expect people to engage in such activities if they lack virtue.

Instead, Confucianism requires people to embed moral themes in the pursuit of these leisure activities. For example, Confucianism would encourage people to listen to music that has an important message that would promote their personal growth.

Still sticking to the musical example, several types of music meet the above criterion. For example, several music albums such as Pepper (Beatles) had a strong impact on the development of most western societies, as we know them today.

The same type of music still has a profound impact on the way artists write modern music. Comprehensively,

“Since music provides a universal language, it is an effective vehicle for expressing emotion, virtue, and morality. Confucius understands that artistic expression is an opportunity to teach (and remind) people of the perennial virtues which are sometimes forgotten.

Consequently, through the expression of the arts, the community maintains its ethics, compassion, benevolence, and morality” (Waxman 13).


The manifestation of humanity and altruism outlines the concept of Ren. The practice of human behavioral reciprocation provides the best example of the application of Ren because Confucianism stresses on the importance of supporting desirable actions among people (Waxman 6). Ren, therefore, stresses the importance of people loving each other.

Confucianism does not emphasize on the nature of people being good or evil because it says, “men are men born similar, but in practice, they differ” (Waxman 9).

Therefore, although some men may be evil and others are good, the concept of Confucianism acknowledges that their practices and social conditioning mainly influence their actions (Waxman 9).

Waxman (9) adds that some men are often ambitious by pursuing what they want, regardless of whether the outcomes are going to be desirable or undesirable. Confucianism, therefore, emphasizes the importance of cultivating good human values.

The concept for Ren is therefore highly important in understanding the ethics of Confucianism because if people lack Ren, they will not exhibit humane behavior.

In a political dimension, it is correct to say that if a leader acts inhumanely towards his subjects, he runs the risk of losing the right to rule. Waxman (11) says people do not need to obey a ruler who does not exhibit humane behavior.

Instead, people should obey leaders that act humanely. Confucianism does not expose a lot of interest regarding the will of the people here, but it stresses the importance of leaders to consider the contribution of their subjects (Waxman 12).

Ethical and Philosophical System of Confucianism

Another important feature of Confucianism and self-cultivation is the understanding that Confucianism is important in practice and reflection.

This is especially important in making important political decisions because self-cultivation involves a leader’s understanding of his experiences, plus the experiences of other leaders who have been in similar conditions.

This understanding is crucial in comprehending the link between Confucianism and leadership because practice and reflections are important factors in Confucian moral philosophy (Lai 21).

Lai (21) also explains that the Confucius of the Analects is also crucial in understanding the decisions of other leaders, as part of moral philosophy. The Confucius of the Analects also manifests as a key observer of humanity.

Relative to this assertion, Lai (21) says Confucianism helps leaders to not only observe and imitate the behaviors of other leaders but also to evaluate these behaviors critically.

The importance of both observing and reflecting in leadership practice is not only important when seeking a solution to every leadership problem but also in supporting self-cultivation and applying the learned skills in different leadership circumstances.

Therefore, Confucianism helps leaders to reflect on what they have observed and practiced. Relative to this assertion

“Through the exposure to different situations, the Confucian paradigmatic person cultivates sensitivity to the morally weighty factors that arise in these situations. In brief, the three processes, observation, practice, and reflection, are intertwined in Confucian moral cultivation” (Lai 21).

Broadly, if we mirror the above statement to the ethical and moral frameworks that Confucianism supports, it is easy to see how Confucianism is preoccupied with people’s moral development.

Indeed, “It follows that universal — in the forms of normative prescriptions — has a limited place in such a philosophy” (Lai 21).

Application of Confucianism

The application of Confucianism manifests through the justification of people’s actions as they approach different ethical dilemmas. For example, some people have used Confucianism to solve the political issues surrounding authoritarianism in some third-world countries.

Most countries that fail to observe human rights provide the best example for the application of Confucianism because Confucianism helps to explain the actions of leaders in such countries. The actions of these leaders manifest through the understanding of how people develop their characters.

Confucianism stipulates that the best leaders are those that are ethically cultivated because they are the best drivers of political reform (Lai 21).

Their suitability for this purpose is important because leaders who have cultivated a strong “ethical base” are likely to disseminate the same values to their subjects.

This concept closely resembles the concept of wen, which advocates for the inculcation of strong ethical principles that respect humanity. Therefore, the Confucian moral development of political leadership thrives on the commitment of leaders to uphold high levels of human welfare.

This commitment thrives on a leader’s exposure and reflection on ordinary situations that characterize the lives of their subjects.

Experts, therefore, define the moral capability of leaders through their ability to conduct moral deliberation (Lai 21). Therefore, as some of these leaders face varied moral dilemmas, their level of moral development provides them with the best compass for pursuing their political decisions.

Through the pursuant of sound moral decisions, the leaders cultivate ethical principles on their subjects.

The application of Confucianism principles in the political leadership of many countries has been undisputed. For instance, powerful political and military leaders of China use Confucianism principles to influence their judgments.

Ma Fuxiang is one such example of a leader who greatly relied on Confucianism to make his decisions (Lai 22). The influence of Confucianism in modern times also manifests through the adoption of the concept among Hui Muslims of China.

The adoption of Confucianism principles also manifests as a strong reason for the rapid development of most Asian economies like China, Malaysia, and Hong Kong (Lai 22).

For example, the Vietnam War had a significant negative impact on the country’s economy, but unlike other countries that have experienced such a conflict, the Vietnam economy recovered rapidly. The rapid expansion of such an economy traces to the adoption of Confucian principles.


Confucianism is a moral and philosophical construct of human activities and interactions. After weighing the findings of this paper, the concepts of Xi, Zhi, Li, Yi, Wen, and Ren stand out as the main driving forces of this philosophy because they explain humanity and its antecedents.

Confucianism also emphasizes on the ability of people to learn and improve their moral and ethical compasses because the concept finds people to be teachable, improbable, and perfectible (Lai 21).

Personal experiences and communication skills outline the main bridges people may use as self-cultivation and self-creation skills for improving their interactions with other people.

The cultivation of virtues and the maintenance of ethics, therefore, outline the main goal of Confucianism, as practiced by Chinese society.

Works Cited

Fan, R. Reconstructionist Confucianism: Rethinking Morality after the West, New York: Springer, 2010. Print.

Lai, K. “Understanding Confucian Ethics: Reflections on Moral Development.” Australian Journal of Professional and Applied Ethics, 9.2 (2007): 21-27. Print.

Rosenlee, Li-hsiang. Confucianism and Women: A Philosophical Interpretation, New York: SUNY Press, 2007. Print.

Taylor, R. Confucianism, New York: Infobase Publishing, 2009. Print.

Waxman, R. 2013, How-To Practice Confucian Ethics. Web.

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