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?






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