Ethics in Ancient China

Updated 11/29/17

Ancient Chinese philosophy

Was one of the most popular courses at Harvard

(Is it still?)



Lots and lots to be said

We can only get a start


Let’s list some Chinese philosophers








Here are a few:

Confucius (today’s focus)

Mencius (learned from Confucius)

Zhuang Zi (butterfly dream)

(Let’s review it for background)

Lao Tsu (founder of Taoism)


Let’s focus on Confucius

What was his name?

“Confucius” is the Latinized version

Family name was Kong (Con)

Given name was Qiu (“chi-u”)

Title was Zi (“Dze”)

Mr., sir, the honorable,…

usually translated as “master”

So in his time he was Kong Zi

(Master Kong)

Let’s add even more respect:

Instead of Zi, use Fu Zi

(like Zi, but a bit more!)

We get his modern name in Chinese:

Kong Fu Zi

Hence, “Confucius”!

From “The honorable master Kong”

He has had more names, but that’s good for now




Who was Confucius?

Born probably 551 BCE

(Socrates born 470/469 BCE)

Father died when he was 3

Married at 19

Had first child at 20

Mother died when he was 23

His philosophy was forged in a politically turbulent environment

He died aged 71 or 72 (maybe)

Many descendants are still officially listed

2 million of them

How many descendants could someone have after N generations?

What, if anything, have you heard about Confucius?





What do you know of Socrates?






I surveyed a sample of one (1) Chinese person about Confucius:

He taught regular people

Not just royalty

Birthday is a holiday for teachers in Taiwan

People are born with virtue

Unlike Zuang Zi who believed people were born without virtue and needed learn it

What is your initial thought on that?

Stated the broader Golden Rule

Avoid doing to others what you would not want them to do to you

Never impose on others what you would not choose for yourself”

– as translated in wikipedia

What is the narrower Golden Rule?

What is the difference?

Robert Kane, in “Through the Moral Maze,” lists many statements of both versions



“Virtue ethics” 

is person rather than action based:

It looks at the moral character

of the person carrying out an action…”



Confucius’s ethical teachings were a form of virtue ethics

What do you think of virtue ethics?





How does virtue ethics compare to

deontological ethics?


utilitarian ethics?




Thomas Hume’s teachings?



if you had to state principles of virtue ethics…

What would some be?

Let’s list on board…



What did Confucius teach?

Personal character is key

Specific rules of behavior are less key

What is the meaning of his statement:

When the stables were burnt down,

           on returning from court Confucius said,

           “Was anyone hurt?”

           He did not ask about the horses.

– as translated in wikipedia

Look at the ethics paragraph in Wikipedia’s Confucius article

It summarizes things well







Confucius’s principles of personal character

Several principles

The most important:


仁 “benevolence,” “humanity,” human connectedness, comprehensive virtue.

Did Hume know about this? Not unlikely…


Confucius stating it in common terms:

ren is to love others


Which is more important, yi or li?


 義, Righteousness


The desire to do good

Refers to actions that are the right thing to do


“ritual” is a poor translation

Refers to the actions that society considers correct

Which is more important, yi or li?






HW6proj and HW6case

Updated 2/7/18

HW6proj, due F Apr. 20, 2018 (online students: Su Apr. 22)

Note 1: Neatness and format count! Follow this example. 

Note 2: Please email me the date that you want to sign up for to do your 5 minute presentation to the class about your project (if you haven’t already).

Note 3: Also think about how and what you plan to present in your 5 minute presentation to the class about your project. Email me any questions.

Directions: For your term project (see “Course Information” tab for details): if it is a paper: write 349 words (or more) of it and place in your blog. The blog entry should not contain any material already in a previous blog entry. If your project is not a paper: do the equivalent amount of work. Then describe briefly (but with specific details) what you did on your blog (for example, if you are developing a web site, you could provide a link to it. Or if you are filming a skit, you could explain who will play each part, or provide the script outline, etc., depending on how far along you are.) If you’re not sure what to do, see me or send me an email, and I will try to suggest something. Title your blog post “HW 6proj.”


Due dates for in-class students:

  • Q1 is due Monday, Apr. 23, 2018, at the beginning of class
  • Q2 is due Monday or Wednesday, Apr. 23 or 25, 2018, during class
  • Q3 is due Sunday, Apr. 29, 2018

Due date for online students:

  • All questions due Sunday, Apr. 29, 2018

Note: Neatness and format count. In-class students do it like this. Online students do it like this.

Q1. In-class students bring to class on paper, smart phone, etc., and show me by class time (online students post on your HW6case blog entry) your discussion preparation notes for the case you are discussing with your group related to robots for the robotics unit. This should include

  • a link or other citation to the case you are using. If it is from personal experience, point that out.
  • A list of 8 or more good facts about the case, in your own words, that you want to use to tell your group about the case. Alternative option: “You, Robot.” You may write a quite short story that illustrates a conflict inherent in the “3 Laws of Robotics,” just like Asimov did in I, Robot (or any other robot ethical conflict), and use that as your case.
  • A list of questions (5 or more) you could ask your group members in order to get an interesting and enlightening discussion going (for in-class students), or that you could consider yourself or ask someone else about (for online students); see the “Questions to ask during discussion” tab on the course web page for some suggestions in developing your discussion questions.

Q2. In-class students: On one of the two class days devoted to group discussion for this unit, explain your case to your group and lead discussion on it. Divide the two 50-minute classes into parts so that each person in your group gets to lead discussion about their case. It is ok, however, if some discussions end up taking longer than others, as long as everyone gets a turn.When another member of your discussion group is leading, help them out, and sharpen your thinking skills, by listening and participating in the discussion. Doing other things, using your phone, etc., will lose points. NOTE: When another member of your discussion group is leading, help them by participating in the discussion.

Online students: Explain the case and discuss, one at a time, each question you devised about it, plus the 3 standard questions. Post this on your blog.

Q3. Write up your case on your blog with the following subheadings:

  • “The facts of the case.” Here is where you describe the case in your own words.
  • “Analysis.” Examine the case in terms of the questions and/or discussion. In-class students: also reflect on the challenges and possible solutions involved in leading a discussion in a classroom or workplace setting.
  • “My conclusions.” Your conclusions and opinions about the case. Be sure to explain and justify what you write. 3 sentences of average length or more.
  • “Future environment.” Describe your vision of a future in which technology is more advanced than today, or society has changed in some significant way, such that the ethical issues of the case would be even more important than it is in today’s world. 3 sentences of average length or more.
  • “Future scenario.” Describe how this ethical case (or an analogous one) would or should play out in the environment of the future, and give your opinions about it. 3 sentences of average length or more.

Privacy and Security Laws

Let’s discuss some items

  • For each:
    • I will remark
    • Your groups will discuss
    • Spokespersons from groups will report to class

These topics are also relevant to:

  • an understanding how we do things in the US



  • Federal Education Rights and Privacy Act
  • Suppose your mother sends email:
    • “How is Herbie doing in your class?”
    • I am legally required not to say!
    • If you were younger I could say
    • If you signed a waiver I could say
  • Is this rule deontological or consequentialist?
  • What is the ethical motivation for it?
  • Is that a good idea?
  • Would a Humean-inspired approach suggest anything?
  • “Everyone would agrees it is good for a parent to guide their child”
  • How does that play with FERPA?
  • Can you think of another question?


Other FERPA rules:

I cannot congratulate you in front of the class for getting a 100% on a test

I cannot post the grades on my office door with your names

(A secret code is ok)

What do you think?



Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act

* Some data about you is “Protected Health Information” (PHI)

* It is restricted from being disclosed

PHI includes

Health status

Medical care

Payment history

Hospitals cannot disclose identities of emergency admissions


A 2013 airliner crash in San Francisco 

a hospital cannot freely tell airline co.

who victims are

if they are at the hospital

how they are doing

“Mills-Peninsula adheres to Federal HIPAA (Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996) guidelines protecting patient confidentiality and does not release any patient information, including names, ages, gender, nationality or diagnosis.” -see the article


  • Are these aspects of HIPAA deontological or consequentialist?
  • What is the ethical motivation?
  • Is it a good idea?
  • Would a Humean-inspired approach imply anything?
  • “Everyone would agrees it is good for a parent to guide their child”
  • How does that play with FERPA?
  • Can you think of another question?

3. 2016: FBI demanded Apple figure out how to crack terrorist iPhone

  • Do you recall some details?
  • Should Apple have cooperated?
  • What about next time? What if it’s not terrorism but something else?

4. USA PATRIOT Act and its sequelae

5. Data encryption law