Confucius, since he lived in a war-torn society, was largely concerned with improving government
and society. He was convinced that the problem with government and society was a lack of virtue.
There were not enough government workers of the ideal kind that Confucius's pupil Zizhang
A public servant who on confronting danger is prepared to lay down his life, who on confronting gain concentrates on
what is right, who when sacrificing concentrates on reverence, who when mourning concentrates on grief should definitely
be all right. (19:1, Analects)
Since it was the case that government workers and officials would be chosen from the people
themselves, Confucius worked hard at training his students (most of whom would likely go on to
service in government) to make them virtuous. His belief was that if he could train virtuous persons
who then went on to government, those students (or whoever) would serve as examples for the
common people, who would then in turn become virtuous themselves. This is due to Confucius’s
belief that people tend to gravitate towards and copy virtuous behavior. Think of Jesus, or Abe
Lincoln. People gravitate towards emulating their behaviors because – Confucius would say – they
are good exemplars with ethical characters. They are “polestars”. He says:
The Master said, “The rule of virtue can be compared to the Pole Star which commands the homage of the multitude
of stars without leaving its place”. [II, 1]
In his ethical philosophy, we see that Confucius is concerned most with character. At the start of the
Analects he says:
The gentleman devotes his efforts to the roots, for once the roots are established, the Way will grow there from. Being
good as a son and obedient as a young man is, perhaps, the root of a man’s character.
In order to help others, then, it is best that one focus one’s efforts on one’s own character. If one
succeeds in developing a better and better ethical character, then one will succeed inevitably with
respect to becoming a ‘polestar’. People will look up to you, and emulate your behavior. So if you
have a good character, they wil try to acquire the traits (or virtues) that you possess.
Having the right character requires that the man possess virtue. What is virtue, however? Partly, it is
a kind of “disposition” (we will see this again in Aristotle). A man has character X at least partly
because he is disposed to do things associated with X (a man of character trait ‘courage’ is likely to
do courageous things). So being virtuous requires having the right habits.
Tzu-hsia asked: ‘Her entrancing smile dimpling, Her beautiful eyes glancing, Patterns of color upon plain silk’.
What is the meaning of these lines? The master said: “The colors are put on after the white”. “ Tzu-hsia replied
“Does the practice of the rites likewise come afterwards?”. The Master said: “It is you, Shang, who have thrown light
on the text for me. Only a man like you can discuss the Odes”. [III, 8]
Here we find Tzu-hsia suggesting that one must first have the right habits (the white) before one
turns to refining one’s character (the colors). However, as Confucius often points out, having the
right habits is not enough for virtue. Note where it is written:
The Master said: “Guide them by edicts, keep them in line with punishments, and the common people will stay out of
trouble but will have no sense of shame. Guide them by virtue, keep them in line with the rites, and they will, besides
having a sense of shame, reform themselves”. [II, 3]
The Master said: “The common people can be made to follow a path but not to understand it”. [VIII, 9]
From the first quote we are led to believe that people who do the right things, but not from having a
‘sense of shame’ (which goes beyond having the right habits) are not virtuous. Moreover, we see
from the second quote that most people are not virtuous. Obviously, then, ‘being virtuous’ or ‘being
a good person’ means more to Confucius than simply “doing the right acts”. People who are
habituated not to steal don’t steal. But yet he is unwilling to call such people virtuous if the habit is
the only reason they don’t steal. So Confucius is an agent ethicist (which seems evident). Acts are
“right” when they proceed from people with the right characters, which means that what is going on
inside the agent is what has primary importance (does the agent have the right character, the right
intentions, and so on). Note this aphorism, which clearly indicates Confucius’s leanings:
Meng Wu Po asked whether Tzu-lu was benevolent. The Master said “I cannot say”. Meng Wu Po repeated the
question. The master said “Yu can be given the responsibility of managing the military levies in a state of a thousand
chariots, but whether he is benevolent or not I cannot say”. What, then, about Ch’iu? The Master said “Ch’iu can be
given the responsibility as a steward in a town with a thousand households or in a noble family with a hundred
chariots, but whether he is benevolent of not I cannot say”. What about Ch’ih? The Master said: “When Ch’ih,
putting on his sash, takes his place at court, he can be given the responsibility of conversing with the guests, but
whether he is benevolent or not I cannot say”. [V, 8]
Note here that Confucius’s point is this: one can know about what one has direct observable
evidence. He can tell whether one his disciples can converse with the guests, or manage the levies.
Evidence of these skills comes from observing those people’s acts. But with benevolence, acts are
not entirely revealing. One can do the right thing for the wrong reasons, or do the right thing but
still have a bad character. So Confucius is pointing out here that since benevolence has to do with a
person’s character, one cannot know for sure whether another man is benevolent since one cannot
see their character.
Returning to our question, however, what does Confucius think is missing when he says that people
who have only good habits are not virtuous? What is missing, it seems, is understanding. Confucius
(like Aristotle) thinks that the virtuous person is not only habituated to do the right thing, but does it
for the right reason, which requires that the person understand why that habit is a good one to have.
This implies that virtue requires understanding, or wisdom. Without understanding or wisdom,
virtue cannot exist. He says:
The Master said: “It is these things that cause me concern: failure to cultivate virtue, failure to go more deeply into
what I have learned, inability, when I am told what is right, to move to where it is, and inability to reform myself
when I have defects.” [VII, 3]
Note here that Confucius links understanding what one has learned (perhaps by habit or lesson) on
a deeper level with virtue. The man of morality thus is continually trying to achieve greater
understanding, to move from a robotic automaton (of habit) to an actual individual using reason.
One can see this at work all the time in the Analects – Confucius says that what is required of a man
is that he is motivated to learn.
Also notice that Confucius also appears to link not only understanding with virtue, but courage. A
man can never acquire the right habits without courage. Moreover, to maintain the character means
that the person is disposed to continue doing the right sorts of acts, and this requires continuing
courage. Here Confucius explicitly links the need for courage with (1) doing right things when they
are called for and (2) reforming oneself when one is in moral error.
What are the virtues, then? A quick read of the Confucian text reveals that the central or cardinal
virtue is benevolence or “love of mankind”. It is from this virtue that all others are derived. How
one becomes benevolent is, of course, a matter of great textual discussion in the Analects. One thing
is for sure, though – Confucius thinks that a large part of what it means to be benevolent is to be
motivated to be benevolent, or to desire to have that kind of character. He says:
The Master said: “Is benevolence really far away? No sooner do I desire it than it is here”. [VII, 30]
Obviously, however, this is but the first step. Central to a benevolent character are two edicts. First,
that one ought to “Do one’s best” and second that one ought to “do unto others as you would have
them do unto you”. So a benevolent man does his best at applying the “golden rule” to his behavior.
A quick mistake, however, would be to assume that any character is okay, such that I could have a
submissive personality and thus treat others badly in a feeble attempt to apply the golden rule as best
I can. Other than courage and wisdom, there are some central virtues that are derived from
benevolence, or loving mankind. There are:
The Master said: “Supreme indeed is the Mean as a moral virtue. It has been rare among the common people for quite
Justice, Generosity, Respect, and Reverence
The Master said of Tzu-ch’an that he had the way of the gentleman on four counts: he was respectful in the manner he
conducted himself; he was reverent in the service of his lord; in caring for the common people, he was generous and, in
employing their services, he was just. On becoming his steward, Yuan Ssu was given nine hundred measures of grain
which he declined. The Master said “Can you not find a use for it in helping the people in your neighborhood?”
A gentleman gives to help the needy and not to maintain the rich in style. [VI, 4]
The Master told Ch’i-tiao K’ai to take office. Ch’t-taio K’ai said “I cannot trust myself to do so yet”.
The Master was pleased.
Yu Tzu said “To be trustworthy in word is close to being moral in that it enables one’s words to be repeated”. [I, 13]
The Master said “Cunning words, an ingratiating face, and utter servility, these things Tso-ch’iu found shameful. I
too, find them shameful. To be friendly towards someone which concealing one’s hostility, this Tso-ch’iu found
shameful. I too find this shameful”. [V, 25]
The Master said “Observe what a man has in mind to do when his father is living, and then observe that he does
when his father is dead. If, for three years, he makes no changes to his father’s ways, he can be said to be a good son”.
In serving your father and mother you ought to dissuade them from doing wrong in the gentlest way. If you see your
advice being ignored, you should not become disobedient but remain reverent. You should not complain even if in so
doing you wear yourself out.” [IV,18]
All of this discussion, however, does not tell us what specific acts are consistent with the virtues
Confucius lays out. This leads us to his important emphasis on the rites. Part of what it means to be
a moral person is to understand the rites and traditions of one’s land. What, though, can the rites
have to do with morality? As far as Confucius sees it, rites are like a language. Without a language, ne
cannot express oneself. Without rites, one cannot express one’s character. One has to know what
generosity would be in a particular place before one’s generous character could shine through. We
see Confucius’s emphasis on learning the rites in Chapter IX. But an important aphorism occurs in
Book III, where he says:
When the Master went inside the Grand Temple, he asked questions about everything. Someone remarked “Who said
that the son of a man from Tsou understood the rites? When he went inside the Grand Temple, he asked questions
about everything. The Master, on hearing of this, said “The asking of questions is in itself the correct rite”. [III, 15]
Confucius’s point here is evident: when he is in a new land or a new place, he must know how to
express himself if he is to remain a person of high character. Ending up, it should be noticed that
Confucius thinks that the man of morality has no real worries at all. Why is this? His belief is derived
from his thought that a man’s character is totally within his control. Since a man of morality is only
concerned with his character, he is only concerned with what is in his control. Like Aristotle after
him, Confucius does not see any reason to worry about something that is totally within one’s
control. The man who lacks morality, however, has much to worry about. The reason is evident:
such a man is concerned with profit, and whether one profits or not is not entirely within one’s
The Master said “The man of wisdom is never in two minds; the man of benevolence never worries, the man of courage
is never afraid’. [IX, 29]
The benevolent man (or ‘gentleman’), then, is continually trying to better his character. He looks
within himself, finds places which require moral improvement, and is motivated to improve. Since
‘improvement’ is always within one’s own control, it is not something to worry about, although
living the ‘road of benevolence’ is not easy. He says:
The Master said “In his heart for three months at a time Hui does not lapse from benevolence. The others attain
benevolence merely be fits and starts”. [VI, 7]
One of the reasons benevolence is so hard to achieve is that it (benevolence, morality) is necessarily
opposed to self-interest. He says:
The Master said “The gentleman understands what is moral. The small man understands what is profitable”.
The life of virtue is not for the sake of getting material rewards. One should not be extravagant or
self serving. Self cultivation is done for the betterment of the rest of society. Confucius said that "In
serving one's ruler one deals reverently with the tasks involved and makes the livelihood involved a
secondary consideration" (15:38, Analects), and "A public servant who is intent on the Way, but is as
of bad clothes and bad food, is not at all fit to be consulted" (4:9, Analects).
Thanks to Magaera Lorenz, from whom I took the template for this handout (I basically added to what she herself had).
Thanks to Magaera Lorenz, from whom I took the template for this handout (I basically added to what she herself had).