Confucian Moral Theory and Practice

Live Chat
Confucian Moral Theory and Practice

The East-Asian conception of morality has a deep interpretation, which made European school consider it as an eternal ceremony. Confucius empowered this feeling after proclaiming his statements of morality and leadership. Despite mentioning that his ideas are not new but based on the ancient inheritance, modern researchers interpret them as a unique mainstream. In practice, it opened new horizons for the development of the bureaucracy and benefit of separate groups. Hence, the conception of morality in Confucianism has a form of Utopia, which leaves it in a theoretical status. Confucius’s moral theory and practice are based on humanity, leadership and state interpretation in the context of divine Way and family traditionalism.

General Conception of Morality and Leadership

Confucius was a descendant of the old traditional order and declared his opinion as a kind of continuation of the inherited positions. According to Victor Magagna (sixth lecture), Confucianism is one of the “East Asia Sources of Law” (n. p.). The main thing in Confucius’s doctrine is the idea of the perfect state, and the main aim is the achievement of harmony between the lord and his servants. Also, it is about the support of the social system based on the harmonious existence with nature, a perfect political symbol Confucius found in the past, not in the future.

As an important condition of the social order Confucius declared personal virtues. Hence, responsibility causes trust, generosity gains nation, kindness can change and rear people, and diligence guarantees success. Confucius is biased to appeal to the humanity, which means love, obedience and loyalty between the lord and the servants. Overall, he attaches a large importance to the rear and preaches the idea of moral improvement of a human. Continuing this thesis, it is necessary to apply to Kam-por Yu, Julia Tao and Phillip J. Ivanhoe, whose multi conception academic analysis of Confucian morality is valuable. They prove that “Confucius’s ethics is a strong kind of virtue ethics” (n. p.).

A well-reared (noble) people have to reform society, beginning with the family – an item that Confucius considered as a natural unit. He underlined the importance of humanity in relationships, such as a mutual concern between parents and children and fair attitude towards strangers. In fact, Confucius’s first moral principle is called Zheng (humanity). Son’s obedience and respect (Ciao) is a core of Confucius’s ethical and political theory. While the father is alive, the son should follow his aspirations. When the father dies, the son should continue his deeds (Yao was biased to similar interpretation). If during the three years the son did not change his father’s vector (Dao), it means he is obedient and respectful descendent. A father’s Dao does not include only deeds, but also outlook and qualities. In fact, it is a short instruction for the establishment of the strong spiritual connection between generations and ancient traditions.

The lord’s power is similar to the power of the father over the family members. The dependence and connection that exist inside the family (wife’s and child’s dependence on the father) should be transferred into state relationships. They justify congenital and unbreakable dependence of the servants. A lord is a selected one, and his power is divine. Consequently, Confucius formed the basic rule of the order and submission. He means that imposing fair and elimination of unfair leads to the national obedience. Within this context, it is useful to use the term “moral management” from the fifth lecture (Magagna n. p.). His subdivision of the moral attributes (virtue, education, diplomacy, etc.) in practice makes a structure chain of human relationship system.

The basic principle of the mutual relationships proposes to avoid doing things you do not wish to be done to you. The system of the state and people ruling should function by the same mechanism. Confucius proved that to manage means to do right. Thus, one of the lord’s responsibilities is rearing his servants so they could obey him as a father. A perfect rule should be based on the mutual agreement, the golden mean and humanity. According to his conception, the mutual agreement means the creation of the right Way (Dao). Dao is related to “logic of nature, logic of human relations, and methodology of management” (Magagna n. p.). It is possible for anybody, who wants to live a happy life, being in harmony with oneself, with the surrounding world and personal outlook. Golden mean means moderation, the middle between caution and incontinence. Acceptance or deviation of those moral requirements is a criterion for dividing people on nobles and snobs. Thus, if the ruling is conducted by the power of law and order and is supported by using punishment, people strive to dodge and never feel shame. If the ruling is based on the virtues and the order is supported by the ritual, the nation will find shame and try to avoid faults.

The list of Confucius’s rules of moral behavior included regulations of execution of the ritual and cult rites (spirit worship, the cult of ancestors). These rituals have a straight relation to humanity because to be a human means to beat one and turn to ritual. Confucius was biased to believe that a perfect Li (a system of rules, which regulated human behavior) existed only in ancient times (“Zhou age”) (Richey n. p.). China was ruled by the best kings, and everything was in the right order and cultural respect. Goo is another normative request of Confucius, and it means reverence for antiquity. It should be implemented by learning “A Book of History”, “A Book of Poems”, where Chinese real stories and legends are kept.  

The basic rule of Li functioning is based on unconditional assimilation and strict execution. Confucius taught that it is not allowed to look at something that counters Li. It is wrong to listen to something that counters Li, and it is forbidden to say something opposite to Li. Those principles could be accepted by some people on a conscious level because Confucius implemented a grammatical cult inside of the traditional culture of the Chinese community. The majority group (snobs) should trustfully follow them without any explanations.

Confucius’s Opinion about the State

Confucius in his conception of the state divided people into two groups (this principle of division was mentioned in the second lecture: “Rules and ruled” (Magagna n. p.). The managers were defined as noble civil servants, but it does not mean that this category is fulfilled exclusively by the aristocracy. Confucius supposed that managers may include the so-called new blood – representatives of the lower social origin. Summarizing, this idea means that the one who is able to rule should rule, and the one who can obey should do it.

Another moral principle is called Zhan (pliability). It is especially important for officials. Years later, this principle was converted into courtesy and called Chinese ceremonies by the Europeans. Confucius’s idea of a noble official is known by his classical example about Tzy Chan – the most famous and outstanding politician and diplomat of Ancient China. This man embodied four Dao of the noble man. First Dao means that in his actions Tzy Chan demonstrates self-esteem. Second Dao says that at the service of higher Tzy Chan shows his sense of responsibility. Third Dao means that by educating people Tzy Chan shows his sense of kindness. Finally, the fourth Dao is using people when Tzy Chan demonstrated his fairness.

This example means that the most important (first) component, according to Confucius, is personal independence. This thing is a criterion that separates the leader from the general mass of people. The second important aspect defines a noble official as a person who respects the principle of obedience to the higher and the older ones. The last two Dao are dedicated to the relationships between the leader and his people. Hence, the third Dao means rearing people as the implementation of one of the most valuable Confucius’s principles. If a dignitary is a really noble man, he has to be the teacher of his people. This teaching must include personal example and kindness, and if dignitary applies to the law (as a legist), then it will not be true rearing. In the second case, people lose their association with family relationships as a model of state management; hence, the Confucianism dies. The fourth Dao such as using people is based on understanding the ways and methods of human resource exploitation. It is a practical complex of the division of the state duties (labor, military), tax policy framework, and justice system establishment. Fair division and attitude are a guarantee of successful execution of those four Dao – the only one way to get the title of a noble official.

The Concept of True Leader

 Confucius’s position of being a noble official necessarily includes the factor of education. This aspect caused a cult of knowledge in China, so in fact the way to leadership was open to anyone who was willing to get knowledge. The omission was that only rich children could pay for education, leaving poor snobs beyond this process. The elevation of the lord was made by the divine signs (this cult was a new mainstream in China) and executed only by lords and for lords (if they had a title of noble official). The bureaucracy had got a function of Li in China, and it had a reliable patron in Confucianism. In fact, it was a tool for a legitimate overthrow of the inappropriate king. Definitely, sometimes bureaucrats used it for their benefit by the interpretation of the rules on their own way.

Confucius supposed that a noble official (a leader) had to possess three things: divine imperative, outstanding people and absolutely wise. In this case, he is always threatened by the absolutely wises because they can overthrow the wrong leader and make him an outlaw. On the other hand, a leader who has got a sense of true humanity can absolutely and unconditionally love or hate someone. This part can be interpreted in the way the chosen lord has a unique right to punish and forgive anybody.

It is easy to see that explanation of the noble official on the example of Tzy Chan who has a straight relation to: a) Confucius’s understanding of the state polity (“virtues”) (Magagna, Lecture 1, n. p.); b) responsibilities of the senior administration. Confucius’s view in this context has a form of Utopia of the general form. According to his model, state officials and the lord must care about the people and land prosperity because for them the highest achievement is people’s trust. An important function of the leaders is the necessity to define each person’s place in society. A state is just a mechanism for order support and a tool for communication between people. It helps to manage regulation between those who rule and those who obey.

Confucius did not recognize the law because he supposed that a law means legal equality and has a harsh character. The social and family hierarchy rules, the regulation system Li with its central criterion of humanity were estimated as more valuable things. That is why in the case of the law collision (Fa) and rules collision (Li) Confucius preferred Li. In practice, there is an example of his reaction to the story that was told by Confucius’s disciple.

One day a son informed the authorities that his father was a thief. Confucius condemned the boy’s action, explaining that snobs of Confucius’s village are different from others. They cover each other: both parents and children, which is love and straightness. The son has no moral rights, even if his father is guilty; there is no need to inform the authorities about that. Otherwise, it goes against Ciao principle of son’s obedience.

In addition to the mentioned statements, it is necessary to apply to Yao’s chapter “Heaven and Moral Principles,” when the author disputes the transcendence of Heaven. Indeed, Confucius created a simple administration model: when people follow moral rules and neglect regular law, they get the Mandate of Heaven. Yao adds, “…the Mandate of Heaven is understood to be the same as the will of the people, by which the legitimacy of a government is given and confirmed” (Yao 147). There is an interesting and logic division of honors: “bestowed by Heaven (humaneness” and “bestowed by humans (ranks in the governments” (Yao 148). Hence, the moral principles are based on the inherited “human nature” (second lecture) (Magagna n. p.), when the family relation model establishes the general state order.


Confucius’s theory of moral and state is valuable by its dual connection between ancient studies and modern requests of society. Definitely, his theoretical principles were not easy to be implemented or have some elements of utopia. Confucius’s model of state ruling and moral criteria of the leader borrows its ideas from the conception of Heaven transcendence. Hence, a Way to Heaven in real life is hidden in humanity and human nature.