Confucian Moral Theory and Practice

The Confucian moral theory has a long history is popular in East Asia, mostly Vietnam, Japan, Korea, and China. It is evident that Confucianism has influenced historical interpretation, cultural attitudes, moral teaching, educational philosophy, ritual exchange, social relationships, and political thought and institution. Despite the intensive westernization and modernization, Confucian values remain crucial for the East Asian way of life. One should say that the moral aspect of Confucian theory and practice is the most essential one. Moreover, the Confucian theory has national differences, cultural particularities, and historical variations in the region. The key virtues of the Confucian moral theory are kindness, earnestness, sincerity, generosity of soul, and gravity. Confucian moral theory and practice are the basis for the development of ethical principles due to its emphasis on human virtues.

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The History of the Confucian Philosophy

The Confucian philosophy has an ancient history that has had an impact on East Asian culture and thought. Moreover, Confucian philosophy is a common element in Vietnamese, Korean, Japanese, Chinese, and other East Asian societies. One should mention that Confucian ideas have shaped the culture, political, social, and personal lives of the people of East Asia. Confucian philosophy was founded by Confucius who lived from 551-479 BC. Confucius included the older Chinese traditions into his moral and ethical principles. One should say that the Confucian tradition has formed and maintained a good government, civil order, and harmonious social relations. Moreover, the ancient Shang Dynasty also provided the basis for the Confucian moral theory. Not without reason, Confucianism was the official state ideology of the Han Dynasty.

Confucianism is more a system of ethical and social philosophy than a religion. The ancient religious foundations are the basis for Confucianism. Consequently, Confucianism was the affirmation of accepted norms and values of behavior that provided the vision of moral and ethical principles. One should say that the Confucian moral theory is still quite actual for the Chinese people. Confucianism regards two main questions: people’s relationships with heaven and a person’s understanding of heaven. Confucians value the significance of human being rather highly. Confucianism emphasizes its attention to human nature and following the codes of the universe. Consequently, Confucian philosophy teaches people to develop and follow the moral extinct in their daily lives, taking into consideration the political, educational, and social aspects.

The key five elements of Confucian ethics are earth, water, metal, wood, and fire. It means that Confucian philosophy merges with the natural processes. One should say that Confucian philosophy emphasizes self-development of the personality. It is evident that the person demands discipline and restraint, trains intellect, and provides his/her virtues. Moreover, the person needs moral development that internalizes and emphasizes the virtues of character. Confucianism insists that personal and moral growth can be done with the help of the necessary system of education and examination. For promoting and maintaining social harmony, one should involve good government, design social institutions, and encourage the natural virtues.

Confucianism is based on self-regulation and management ethics. The practice of management was supported by Confucius because it was relevant for leading, planning, and organizing. Management ethics pays attention to the moral issues related to how a person manages. The history of Confucianism shows that self-regulation of the person can be possible when he/she has the following virtues: filial piety, trustworthiness, wisdom, ritual propriety, righteousness, and benevolence.

Confucian Ethics

Confucian ethics relies on a cosmological context of the triad of humans, earth, and heaven. One should say that human actions are also taken into consideration for completing this triad. Confucian moral theory regards humans as ethical beings who live in the universe of relationships and correspondences. Moreover, Confucian ethics insists that human virtues are seeds that can grow over time and sprout through moral practice. Confucians believe that the worldview is characterized by an anthroposophic perspective, a dynamic vitalism of material force, comprehensive ethics, and holism of the continuity of being. Confucian ethics insists that one cannot see the person as an isolated individual. It means that only in relationships with other people can reveal their moral or immoral traits. Western ethical traditions support individualism. As for the Confucian traditions, they rely upon the cooperative group efforts for achieving the common good. Confucian ethics pay a great deal of attention to the continuity of the family as a moral duty for the past generations and obligations to descendants.

One should mention that Confucians are also doubtful about the entity of their ethics. They are not sure whether their learning brings the development of human nature or provides a way to acquire a second, moral nature. However, it is evident that Confucian moral theory and practice suggests a model of moral self-cultivation. Moreover, Confucians see the joy of moral learning and believe that the harmonious relationships between people can justify moral self-cultivation. Furthermore, Confucians regard the formation of character as the base for their moral theory. It is evident that learning, training, and development are the key instruments of Confucian ethics. As a result, Confucians have the richest traditions of moral self-cultivation.

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The peculiarity of Confucian ethics is that it focuses on the structure of human relationships, especially on the family ones that are the idealized models for others. Confucian moral theory regards the family as paternalistic and hierarchical. Confucian ethics is considered to be a natural law tradition that has been influenced by Taoism. Confucian ethics distinguishes the following relationships: friend and friend, ruler and minister, elder siblings and younger ones, husband and wife, and parent and child. The distinctive virtues of the relationship between friends are fidelity and faithfulness. The relationship between ruler and minister demands loyalty, justice, and righteousness. The distinctive virtues of the relationship between elder and younger siblings are propriety and order. According to Confucius, the relationship between husband and wife is based on separate gendered roles. The distinctive virtues of the parent and child relationship are respect, filial piety, and affection. Confucian morality includes all of the conventions, habits, manners, and customs.

One can distinguish the following Confucian principles for human self-regulation: the goal of becoming a Junzi, the principle of social harmony, and the principle of acting ethically according to roles. The Junzi is a person who interacts with others (De Barry and Cohen 600). Moreover, this is a noble person who is ready to implement moral principles. The idea of social harmony can be achieved according to the Confucian social hierarchy of moral virtues. The Confucian idea of harmony does not presuppose domination but it emphasizes the natural harmonizing. Confucianism suggests the following practices for achieving self-regulation: the role of music, rites and ritual, self-examination, and mentoring. Rites and rituals teach self-control in demeanor. They help to establish and build relationships between people. Moreover, the rituals shape the character and internalize social values. The role of music is also crucial for self-regulation. Confucius believed that playing and listening to music could develop a person’s moral character. It means that music should not only be perceived as a leisure activity. However, the music builds unity in some organizational and national cultures. Self-examination is another practice for achieving self-regulation. First, self-examination is necessary for understanding oneself and self-refinement. One can also improve ethical practice with the help of reflection and comparison of good and bad examples. Mentoring is a way of refining of ethical conduct. First, it encourages discussions on ethical practices. Second, mentoring suggests opinions and encouragement to ethical behaviors.

The Key Virtues of Confucian Moral Theory

The Confucian moral theory is based on five virtues: kindness, earnestness, sincerity, generosity of soul, and gravity. Confucius taught that people should practice those virtues every day to live a harmonious and happy life. Consequently, virtues are the indicators of morality and ethical principles. The first virtue is Ren. It is the virtue of humanity, charity, and benevolence. Moreover, this virtue includes empathy, kindness, and politeness. People should learn these qualities as they are common practices within the community. Moreover, these virtues are necessary for building friendly and harmonious relationships between people. Benevolence manifests one’s inner love and compassion. It forbids harm and evil deeds. One can say that Ren is the base for the development of morality and ethical behavior.

The cultivation of Ren can help to achieve excellence and human virtues. One should mention that most of all Ren is related to Li, and they are intimately connected. The advantage of Ren is that it shapes social conventions and the principles of propriety. It is evident that Li is blind without Ren. As a result, people should develop their virtues in a complex. It is evident that Ren is related to the principle of reciprocity as proper social relations presuppose mutual benefit. Ren is crucial for regulating interpersonal relations and emphasizing moral goodness. One should say that this virtue is altruistic and it reflects the tenderest human feelings.

Yi is another virtue of Confucius. It presupposes uprightness and honesty. It is a human moral disposition to do good affairs. Yi has a moral connotation as a person has the ability to recognize what is right and wrong. Moreover, he/she can feel what good things to do even under the pressure of circumstances. As a result, a person should have the intuition and feel good and evil. A person should do good affairs for the sake of his/her morality and respect for humanity. Every action should be done as a good-in-itself. It means that Confucian ethics is similar to Kant’s one. An individual should always have noble intentions that will benefit society. It demands rationalism, resistance to temptation, and fortitude to do one’s duty. Yi may be divided into zhong and shu. Zhong expresses loyalty, conscientiousness, and doing one’s best. Shu expresses altruism, reciprocity, and consideration for others.

Yi presupposes behaving and living according to moral principles. Material gains and self-interests are absolutely unimportant. It is evident that this principle is not profitable for business managers as it demands to sacrifice the material gains for the sake of saving a positive moral and ethical image.

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Zhi is another Confucian virtue that means knowledge. Knowledge is the base for wisdom. Consequently, only knowledgeable and wise people can use Confucian moral theory benefitting others. The source of moral wisdom is knowledge of what is right and what is wrong. Wisdom is the innate knowledge of every person and his/her ability to implement it in practice. One should mention that wisdom is necessary for the practice of moral norms. This part of virtue ethics is the way to achieve moral order. Confucian moral theory cannot exist without wisdom as it fulfills and enriches it. People should strive for knowledge to be familiar and understand the truths, facts, and principles. Not without reason, Confucius insisted that man could be superior if he had wished. The person should see clear, express warmth, hear distinctly, and have a respectful appearance, sincere speech, and serious affairs.

Zhi includes not only learning but also recognition of the ability to acquire knowledge and achieve wisdom. This virtue is the most crucial one for self-regulation as it leads to the right decisions.

Xin is another virtue of Confucian moral theory. It expresses integrity and faithfulness. Xin presupposes keeping one’s word and being faithful. Faithfulness can be cultivated during one’s life. It is supposed to be an indispensable virtue for a human being. Only faithful people deserve survival and they are appointed to some tasks. People who are not faithful are mean and they should be avoided. Faithfulness is the basis for administrating of building a country. Moreover, faithfulness is significant, especially for the state administration and interpersonal communication. Xin is a leading notion in Confucian ethics that includes the political and social aspects of human life.

Xin demonstrates loyalty to the social rules of propriety and moral principles. It emphasizes its attention on providing support for others and standing by one’s word. Xin encourages the person to self-regulation through the commitment to relationships and avoiding conflicts.

Li is the last virtue of Confucian moral theory. It expresses worship, ceremony, politeness, good manners, propriety, and correct behavior. This virtue involves some level of humility. Consequently, the person should use the appropriate behavior according to the situation. One should mention that not only actions are taken into consideration but also the thoughts behind those actions. The principle of Li is supposed to be the principle of benefit, order, and gain. Consequently, it encourages the person to the development and growth of moral and ethical values. The key meanings of Li are the general ordering of life and concrete guide to human relationships. The main components of propriety are the five relationships, the doctrine of the mean, and the reification of names.

In Confucian philosophy, Li is a ritual, propriety, etiquette, and protocol. Since Confucian philosophy has its conventionally recognized behavior, then one should simply act accordingly. This virtue of ethics presupposes the internalization of good habits, inner calm, and self-discipline. As a result, Li is a principle of good citizenship and government that includes appropriate behaviors. Confucius insisted that people who manifested Li could fulfill their specific responsibilities and display characteristic virtues. In modern society, it is difficult to understand and accept the Li principle as it is based on the ancient ritual of the times of Confucius. However, this virtue can be beneficial for society as it promotes politeness and benefits building self-regulation.


In conclusion, one should say that the history of the Confucian philosophy is ancient. However, its principles can be used today for promoting morality and ethical principles. Confucian ethics emphasizes its attention on human virtues as the indicators of good behavior and positive thoughts. One can distinguish the following key virtues of Confucius moral theory: Ren (humanity, charity, and benevolence), Li (worship, ceremony, politeness, good manners, propriety, and correct behavior), Xin (integrity and faithfulness), Zhi (knowledge), and Ji (uprightness and honesty). It is evident that Confucian moral theory is too idealistic, and it is difficult to fulfill its virtues. However, it is a base for the development and promotion of the moral principles in society. The application of all virtues in a complex can decrease the rate of cruelty, violence, and immoral behaviors. As a result, Confucian moral theory is valuable and it can be the base for other modern ethical theories.

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