Confucian Moral Theory and Practice and Five Virtues

Date: Dec 5, 2019
Category: Informative

Confucius is regarded to be one of the most important and authoritative influencers of Eastern philosophy and a representative of Eastern culture. Confucius, in line with Gautama Buddha, Socrates, and Jesus Christ has been included to the list of four paradigmatic individuals due to their continuous and expanded impact, which lasted for more than two millennia and had an exceptional effect on the entire philosophical thought. The current paper will explain Confucian moral theory and practice and illustrate it with five virtues. 

It is known that Confucianism is frequently described as a system of societal and ethical philosophy rather than a religion. Confucianism is based on ancient religious grounding, instituting societal values, establishments, transcendental notions and concepts of traditional Chinese society. Therefore, Confucianism is frequently regarded as a “civil religion”, since the major idea of any religion is to define, identity and generalize the moral cognition on the basis of a society’s primary and principal institutions. Moreover, it is also regarded as Chinese “diffused religion”, because its institutions have not appeared in a form of a separate church, but encompassed the entire society, families, schools, and state. Therefore, priests did exist to act as separate liturgical specialists, but parents, teachers, and officials were in charge of teaching the youth. The facts demonstrate that Confucianism appeared as a constituent for the Chinese societal mode of life, as everyday life was viewed as an arena for religion. This was performed particularly to conduct moral management through moral education, moral character, ritualization, elite education, recognition and reputation. 


Confucian moral theory can be characterized by five major concepts. The first regards the merging of self-cultivation and social-political reform. The facts demonstrate that Confucius regarded that political order should be based on the social order, and at the same time, social order should appear through the personal cultivation. This is vividly seen in the following thought of Confucius, “from the Son of Heaven down to the mass of the people, the cultivation of the self is the foundation of everything besides”. Thus, Confucius believed that when individual’s heart is peeled, the person appears as cultivated. In addition, when the individuals are cultivated, then their families are regulated. Furthermore, when families are regulated, then regions can be appropriately governed. Finally, if regions are appropriately governed, the entire kingdom appears as tranquil and condemned.

The second concept regards the pursuit of dao. Dao stands for the path or road, but the term can also be regarded as a way, mode, method, doctrine, truth, or moral system. This concept has been rendered as the uppermost metaphysical power, which exists everywhere in everything and predominates the realization and functioning of all things in the entire world. In addition, dao is regarded to be the universal moral order and the perfect state of moral accomplishments, which a human being should outline, as well as pursue and achieve. Thus, overall, it appears to be an all-covering status, which encompasses the ‘eternal’ societal-political order and the ‘internal’ moral life of a person. Therefore, the main objective of the humankind is to search for the understanding and life style in relation to dao. Confucius himself claimed, “What Heaven imparts to man is called human nature. To follow our nature is called the dao. Cultivating the dao is called education”. He also believed that if a human being heard the dao in the morning, he/she might die in the evening without regret. Thus, it appears obvious that humanity (also known as jen) is believed to be the differential characteristic of a human being. If humanity is incarnated in human being’s conduct, this state can be regarded as dao.

The third concept comprises the combination of the ethical system of jen (humaneness)-yi (fairness)-li (regulations of respectability). Confucius’ system of jen, yi, and li embodies the principal ideas and values in regards with Confucius’ moral theory. Jen can be translated as humanity, benevolence, love, warmth, goodness, perfect virtue, genuine courage and virility, and humaneness. This concept also stands for perfect interconnections and relationships between people. On the contrary, yi typically presupposes fairness, equity, duty, and justice. It is a specific principle for doing things in a right and appropriate manner. Finally, li stands for ceremony, rituals, decency, politeness, decorum, regulations of respectability. The concept incorporates three types of rituals, including cognitive, symbolic, and casual. In accordance with Confucius, rituals stand for the cognitive self-cultivation through ritual collective action. This principle might initially appear as the one representing the ceremonial order. Nevertheless, the full sense of this concept practically regards the sociopolitical order. Generally speaking, jen (humaneness) combined with yi (fairness) are believed to be the internal nucleus of morality, which motivates, stimulates and directs a human being to pursue the dao. While li (regulations of respectability) might be outlined as an external model and standard of morality, which should be solid and specific for human being to abide, especially in the context of human society.

The fourth concept regards the moral ideal of chun-tze (which stands for the superior human being or gentlemen). Chun-tze is a human being with a high level of moral achievements who continuously attempts to enhance and cultivate himself/herself in order to obtain different stages of perfection. Moreover, the moral nature of chun-tze reveals both the characteristics of “an autonomous individual”, who seeks self-energizing, self-defining, self-dependence, and self-cultivation, and “a relational individual” who is dedicated to achieve other characteristics concerning morality and altruism. The principal regard and interest together with self-realization of a Confucian perfect individual includes the possibility of providing safety and peace to all people. Nevertheless, if the person desires to obtain this objective, he/she should primarily become achun-tze, which requires continuous and uninterrupted moral self-cultivation.

The final concept of Confucian moral theory regards the wu-lun (meaning the five fundamental human relationships). It is known that Confucius emphasized family values together with compliant filial devotion via formulating the five fundamental human relationships, which were used to direct the connections between governor and minister, between parents and children, between husband and wife, between older and younger brothers, and the relationships between friends. Therefore, the wu-lun provided the Chinese society and societal institutions starting from the government and ending with personal connection with specific rules regarding the relationships that actually had a far-reaching impact on the East Asian, Confucian moral theory grounded cultures. Furthermore, Confucius believed that healthy family education and upbringing could naturally lead to healthy elites and ultimately to appropriate societal relationships. This is a main reason why Confucius claimed that: “A superior man is devoted to the root. When the root is firmly established, the moral law (dao) will grow”. He believed that the filial devotion to parents (known as shaw) together with the fraternal regard and esteem (known as yi) are regarded as the basis of humanity (known as jen).

The analysis of these fundamental concepts demonstrates that it is highly significant to acknowledge that Confucius’ moral theory has been developed in the era of chaos. Therefore, it aimed at retrieving and recovering the societal order and advancing the general welfare via everyone’s moral self-cultivation and fulfillment of individual duties and responsibilities. Thus, Confucius ultimately adopted a specific consequentialist approach and method in numerous socio-political contexts in the attempt of pursuing public interests, apart from the solid virtue ethics features of the model. Therefore, Confucius’ moral theory and practice, characterized with fundamental assertions of “cultivating oneself so as to bring peace and prosperity for people” combined with “sagely within and kingly without,” declares a perception of communion and dedication. It demonstrates a requirement to resort to the “principle of usefulness” because the analysis of things, which contribute mostly to the public interest, appears as a basic moral value. 

Confucian Five Virtues incorporate such concepts as jen, li, yi, xiao, and zhi. Jen (known to be pronounced as ‘ren’) can be translated as sympathy, goodness or humanness. It appears to be the primarily, pivotal, and highest virtue in Confucius’ moral theory that makes people humans. There is a more empathetic translation of the concept, which is “human heartedness,” which obviously connects the term to the genuine Confucian wisdom. Jen consists of two facets, incorporating reciprocity and loyalty. Loyalty is regarded as a dedication and devotion to the way (meaning dao), and reciprocity stands for the capability of a human being to perform things he/she does not want to do. Jen is “the loftiest ideal of moral excellence, the most difficult of attainment, and the highest development of the individual’s distinctive nature”. Thus, this concept and virtue incorporates such characteristics as love, benevolence, humaneness, and duty. Therefore, a person acquiring jen has to master such virtues as morality, love, and sympathy. Confucius believed that all people have the capability to become people of jen, because all people are actually good and are able to act in a humane, empathetic, and caring way. This supposition regarding the inherent goodness of all people is a basic idea of the Confucian moral theory, practice, and the entire worldview. Thus, Confucius stated that when people are not educated or developed in a proper way, the intrinsic goodness collapses, resulting in aggression, hatred, and absence of discipline leading to chaos at every level of life.

The second virtue, meaning li, is defined as a regulation of respectability, possession rituals and good manners. Li appears as an associate virtue to jen in numerous respects, as it is known to be the other side of the analogous coin. This virtue supports jen as a ceremonial utilization of benevolence of human nature. Li stands for the specific dimension of Confucian moral theory and philosophy, which makes it “religious,” as it is an element of a ritual. It is known that Confucius was conservative man, which means that he believed in tradition, in preserving and admiring the customs. Thus, the esteem for rituals, conventional practices and traditional manners appeared as highly essential for him in regards to retrieving and maintaining the order in society. Li appears as a mechanism, which allows ritualizing the entire life declaring it “sacred”. This virtue helps to appropriately put life in order and establish harmony. Despite the fact that the concept of li actually subsisted in ancient ritualized worships in a highly restricted and narrow religious form, Confucius expanded it in order to utilize it in all life operations and to make life more religious or serious. The main examples of moral practice of this virtue are bowing when greeting someone, wearing garments of particular colors on specific days, behaving appropriately with elder people, adhering to relevant manners during meals or meetings, etc. Confucius promoted the requirement of li as a significant step for social acceptance. 

Yi is usually separated into shu, which is known to be the virtue of identical mutuality, and zhong, which stands for loyalty and conscientiousness. Yi can be translated as “morality”. Nevertheless, this simple definition helps to derive other meanings, including appropriate actions, duty, obligation, and righteousness. This virtue appears to be a significant concept in Confucianism, since it acts as a standard by which all actions and operations are judged. Yi stands as the major objective for learning, rituals, and regulations of conduct. Thus, the virtue appears as a fundamental ethical set of moral principles of Confucianism. This virtue represents the perfection of morality, while the virtue of li is the utterance of yi. Li helps an individual in creating beauty and balance in his/her life. Despite the fact that shu, which is known to be an essential constituent of yi, is hard to define in a single phrase, it can be clearly explained by the following proverb “do unto others as you would have them do unto you”. This virtue presupposes that the person is supposed to adhere to societal duties and obligations to others, both family-related and work-connected. 

The fourth virtue, zhi, can be explained as the natural substance, which is used to create an individual, despite the fact that this substance cannot be regarded as an inherent human attribute. Each person is able to acquire zhi through education. The desire for building moral character relies on the self-actualization and self-motivation of individual and appropriate conduct based on the qualities of li virtue. Nevertheless, because the assimilation of zhi cannot be regarded as genuine within the individual, the expression of li appears as hollow and meaningless. Thus, the attainment of the attribute zhi is concerned as imperative for the person desire to evolve a meaningful form of li within his/her belief system.

The final virtue is known as xiao. Xiao can be translated as filial piety and it concerns families, inner-family relationships, societal relationships and moral duties that each person has in regards with another. This virtue is a significant element of Confucius' overall vision of societal harmony. Due to the fact that Confucius’ major objective regarded the achievement of harmony in life of both the social and political levels, he concentrated on appropriate societal connections together with the moral cultivation of governors and leaders (characterized by high level of jen and li cultivation) in order to obtain this vision. Governors and leaders belonged to elite, which should be defined and understood in terms of performance rather than in regards with specific classes. This virtue helps to build relationships within the social hierarchy. The concept recognizes five central societal relations, including the governor and the people; husband and wife; parents and children; older brother and younger one; and older friend and younger one. The concept stands as the utterance of care for people who appear lower in the hierarchy, combined with the mutual respect between the members of society. Filial piety is known as an ancient concept connected to worshiping deceased ancestors, and Confucius regenerated and expanded it to all fundamental interactions in society. Thus, he actually brought a sense of religious respect or piety in the everyday relationships. 

Confucianism can be easily defined as a system of societal and ethical philosophy rather than a religion. The current analysis demonstrates that Confucianism does not presuppose that virtue is inherent in humans, but claims that individuals have to start a life-long journey of education and self-analysis in order to understand how to become the ideal person. This process requires not only learning the virtues but practice them as well. These virtues became significant constituents in life as well as accepted standard of conduct for the whole community and country. The five virtues formulate a framework of ideals, which allow any person to become an individual of pure, unrestricted virtue. All of them are interconnected and dependent on each other and help in assimilating moral principles, highly significant in Confucius moral theory and practice.