Confucianism Moral Theory


The word Confucianism was used from the early 13th century by the Jesuits. The word literally means the tradition and the doctrine of literary scholars. The word is derived from Confucius, which is a Latinized Chinese name for Kong Fuzi, the master king which in turn is the title for Kong Qiu. Confucius lived during the reign of Zhou Dynasty. During this period, Zhou Dynasty ruled in the feudal order when the central government rules through divisions known as the feudal. The feudal were ruled by the members of the royal family or those that had rendered power from the state. 124 states existed before Confucius was born and were reduced to around 70 during his lifetime. The system initially worked very well. The dukes and the prince of states took the king as the “Son of Heaven”. People respected and followed all the rules. However, when Zhou Kings powers weakened, the administration started to collapse. State commanders started competing for land and properties. There were military conflicts between states. People were left in poverty and misery; women were raped, wives forced to leave their husbands, the poor were left with nothing while the rich lived a luxurious life. Zhou people experienced severe sufferings as well.

Researchers and explorers wanted to know the reason for chaos and disorders. Different scholars created different schools of thoughts to explain the cause of disorders. Confucius was one of the people who explained that the chaos and disorder came due to misuse and abuse of ritual property and music. Confucius insisted that only through improvement of social lives people could leave in goodness and harmony. He was focused on restoring social life and moral excellence of the ru. He, therefore, took the duty of reforming the government and reinstalling the ancient ways which were believed to lead to the success of the Zhou Dynasty. This is the reason why many believe that the school of Confucianism was started by Confucius, and that he was responsible for the basics of Confucianism. This paper explains Confucius Moral Theory and practice and illustrates it with six virtues (values), particularly ren.


Confucius Moral Theory

Morality was the central theme in Confucianism Theory and practice. Confucianism was founded on the basis of codes of moral life, patterns and behaviors, rule of property, and guidance to social life. Confucianism underlines the basic structure of community, society, or government to orient the lives of people and defining their moral values in most parts of East Asia. Therefore, Confucianism should be viewed as a set of behavior patterns. According to the Confucius’ ethics, both the inner motives and external results must be taken into account when looking at the persons’ conducts. Thus, he says that the conducts are deontological and consequentialistic.

Confucius notes that although it was important to follow ancient traditions strictly, it could not make any sense if the person does not have a sincere and devoted spirit. He says “for if a person lacks humanness (ren) within then what is the value of performing music?”. Confucius took a deep view of a person, and he, therefore, believed that if one had his or her actions, motives, and tastes keenly observed, then it would be impossible for the person to hide his/her own character.

The morality revolved around family relations. Confucius was more concerned with the relationships between parents and children, younger and older brothers, and husband and wife. The emphasis of these kinds of relationship is doing things to the other person with a sincere and conscientious heart. This, however, does not mean that the theory of ethics is only confined to the family setting. It means that the family is the cornerstone of morality in the society and in the world. Logically speaking, the family is the basic unit in the society, and when a harmonious family exists in the community, the society is in harmony. The virtues in family affairs of those members who rule the community or even the world are vital to the moral conducts of the whole society. Confucius states that “when a ruler feels profound affection for his parents, the common people will naturally become humane.”.

The theory of Confucius does not confine ethics to just moral issues but also implies religion, politics, religion, psychology, and meta-physics. The above aspects are all integral parts of the Confucius ethics. Since it is integrated with politics and religion, moral values become necessary in both religious and political activities. On the other hand, since religion and meta-physics are parts of morality, religious acts and rituals are ways of improving moral values in the society. This is the reason why Confucius Theory of Morals is a special kind of moral values. It covers a wide range of areas, and it would be misleading to confine Confucianism as a moral system.

Confucius explained that for one to practice the moral theory, he/she must possess virtues or values of life. The values should ground human beings despite their needs and wants. The five constant virtues for five great relationships include: ren (humanness), yi (obligation or doing good), li (ritual practice), zhi (wisdom), and xin (being faithful) (last name of the lecturer). These five virtues are important in five constant relationships, that is, parent and child, ruler and ministry, husband and wife, siblings and friends respectively.

Ren or the virtue of humanness is the universal virtue. ren, as Confucius states, is a universal virtue because it takes into consideration other values such as courage, filial piety, tolerance, loyalty, respectfulness, and generosity. According to Confucius, “to be ren is to be a man” this means that the quality of ren makes one a true person. Although humanity and humanness may refer to inborn character, Confucianism Theory insists that ren can be cultivated. This is an indication then that ren is a combination of both humanism and virtues. The person who possesses the character of ren in Confucianism is known as junzi which may mean a gentleman and an exemplary person. It can also refer in literal terms as the “lord’s son” as used in feudal princes. This is also a shift to indicate a man with noble human characters. Confucius states this to indicate that the good being of a man is not only restricted to family affairs but all humans that share a common thing. The philosopher concludes the topic of ren by saying “because ren is what makes a person a person, junzi a person of ren, is one who has fulfilled and manifested what genuinely human.”.

On the other hand, the virtue of ren can be that of affection. This means that ren stands for tender aspects of human feelings and altruistic concerns about other people. Confucius states that “Ren is love for other people.” (last name of the lecturer)Just like love, one can feel ren if he/she wants to feel it. Ren in terms of affection is the foundation of ethics. Confucius states that “no one is devoid of a heart sensitive to the suffering of others,” therefore the heart of compassion is the beginning of ren. To all people, there are things one cannot bear. Therefore, what one can bear is ren. Sympathy comes from someone’s heart when he/she sees other people suffering. Since one would not bear to see someone suffering, sympathy makes one have ren. In that sense, ren becomes love, compassion, benevolence, tenderness, charity, humanness and many more values.

Ren is one virtue in many. Ren as caring is even more evident in Confucius Theory of Moral. For example, he asks, “If a child were to fall into a well, why should one care?”. One would care because he/she feels compassion. One does not need to love the child in order to save him. Saving the child is an indication that one has a human heart. The most natural and important site to practice ren is a family setting. The children love their parents, and when they become adult they naturally learn how to respect their elders. The basis of ren is not only a famil but also the society. Ren can be the basis of stable social and political order. The virtue of ren begins from a personal level, translated into family setting and, ultimately, to the surrounding. Although the virtue of ren is cultivated at home between parents and children, it can be practiced in the society level as well. Confucius concludes that when one feels ren at the family level, he/she can express it even in the society.

Another virtue that Confucius utilized in his Theory of Moral is yi or obligation of doing right. It is a necessary condition for a person who has ren. It calls for a person to have the ability of knowing what is right and good. Even under a given circumstance, a person that possesses yi should be able to discern the right things to do. Some things ought to be performed not because they are the right things to do because the end product is the good. Therefore, a person with yi acts rightfully despite the intension or consequences of his/her actions. This means that yi is different from stoicism (intentions with soft determinism). Practicing yi is the same as practicing ren. Just like a person does all things for the sake of ren that is to respect humanity, a person does things for the sake of yi since that is the right thing to do. It can be concluded then that yi is a form of an intuition of what is right depending on the situation.

Li is the virtue of ritual practice. Li makes religious practices more valuable. Respect of rituals and traditional practices were the main objectives of Confucius to restore and maintain order in the society. Li makes all practices in life ritual and sacred. Although Confucius concentrated on traditional rituals such as playing music, li ritualized and declared all aspects of life sacred. This, therefore, calls for individuals to take religion and other aspects of life seriously. Some examples of li in everyday life include wearing certain color of clothing in a particular day, bowing when greeting someone, observing proper manner while eating or in a meeting, behaving in certain manners when interacting with elders, and respecting the places of worship. To master all the requirements of li, one has to have ren, which again makes it a universal virtue.

Zhi is the knowledge to speak or speaking knowingly which can simply mean having wisdom. This does mean the wisdom of mind and the ability of speaking appropriately and in a knowledgeable manner. Thus, this indicates some kind of character and not information stored in one’s mind. Speaking in the right manner is a certain way of doing things, and only those that possess ren can have this virtue. Those who have zhi thrive well in ren. Zhi cannot therefore be separated from the ethics of ren. Xin, on the other hand, concurs with Zhi. Xin is a character of being faithful. One cannot be faithful is he/she does not speak in a knowledgeable manner. Since a heart was the center of human cognition in Chinese culture, xin requires one to keep his/her words in heart and act faithfully. Therefore, a person could thrive in ren. Lastly, te, although not deeply dealt with, is the virtue of power to rule men. The person governing others is supposed to be honest. A ruler is good if he maintains economy, has confidence with his people, and has sufficient military. Such a person has to possess a kind heart and honest words. Consequently, such a ruler must have ren.


Confucianism is the traditional doctrines of the Chinese people as depicted by Confucian. Confucius observed the Dynasty of Zhou thrive and later destroying. He observed that the kingdom fell because of misuse and abuse of ritual/property and music. To restore the orders in the society, he advocated for moral values. The values were guided by the traditional doctrines such as observing the rituals of music. The Theory of Moral values, according to Confucius, was guided by five virtues that ensured the appropriate relationship. These values are ren (humanness), yi (obligation or doing good), li (ritual practice), zhi (wisdom), and xin (being faithful). Although not deeply discussed, another virtue that Confucius advocated for is te, which called for a leader to be honest in his ruling. Re is the universal virtue and all other values rotate around it. It starts from personal level, to family and then to the larger society. If people have ren, then the world will be a better world to live in.

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