Ethics & Morals of Confucianism

by Michael H. Jenkins

A moral and ethical system aimed at human development, Confucianism is a widely influential philosophical system, constituting a formative cultural influence in many nations on the Pacific rim including China, Taiwan, Singapore, Vietnam, Korea, Japan, and to a lesser extent Malaysia and the Philippines. It's a key social force in China.


Confucianism has become a prominent cultural force both in East Asia and around the world. The core of the system is the teachings of Confucius, a Chinese philosopher and scholar who lived in 5th century B.C.. At its core, it is a series of codified beliefs and behaviors designed to produce people of superior intellectual and moral character, who will in turn enrich society as a whole through their service and their understanding of the social order. In the centuries following Confucius's life, China's intellectual influence in the Asian Pacific spread Confucian ideas across the region.

Confucian Virtues

Confucianism is a humanist belief, predicated on the notion that human nature can be improved or even perfected through a systematic approach to self-cultivation. That cultivation is in turn based on the cultivation of key virtues. The most important of these are ren, yi, and li. Ren best translates as humanness or humanity. Nearly synonymous with the Chinese word for a human being, it describes the care and concern that allow a community to function and that in theory all people should show toward each other. Yi is the system of righteous behavior, the ethics and etiquette that shape conduct. Li is a series of social norms and proprietary behaviors that allows a community to function in harmony without either external or internal conflict.


The Junzi (literally “the child of a lord”) is the Confucian ideal person. It is most often rendered into English as “gentleman.” The perfect scholar and sage, the Junzi embodies the perfection of human potential by cultivating himself morally, practicing altruism and benevolence toward other living things, and by being the perfect example of loyalty and piety. Most followers of Confucianism hold that Confucius was the greatest Junzi, due to his devotion to virtue and the consistent practice of his own ethics. The Junzi is defined by its opposite. The Xiaoren, literally “small person” is everything that a Junzi is not: small-minded, petty, greedy, and materialistic. In the Confucian world view, life without virtue is both harmful to others and limiting to one’s own potential and development.

Social Structure

Confucianism places great emphasis on education, suggesting that learning should be available to all, regardless of social class, and that educational advancement should be based on merit. Rather than the social stratification that had dominated Chinese society, Confucius advocated that rulers and administrators should be chosen by merit, via a system of education and examination. This led to the creation of the Imperial examination system, which transformed Chinese society by replacing hereditary positions with a meritocracy. Its influence spread outside of China, inspiring similar systems in Korea, Vietnam, and Japan. It was, in part, the basis for the US Civil Service system, which features a similar exam.


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