Free Confucian Moral Theory and Practice: Six Virtues Essay Sample

Confucius was one of the wisest philosophers of the East Asian thought of the 6th-5th centuries BC. However, the philosopher's political and ethical doctrines became popular only later, when they were considered as the official Chinese ideology, during the government of the Han dynasty in the 2nd century BC. In fact, the key aspects considered in Confucian moral theory are the following: the relationships between the ministers and the subordinates, a husband and a wife, and among the siblings; harmonious order; the cultivation of the main virtues and moral qualities, and others. Moreover, Confucius believed that every person should try to find the Way (dao), and this belief represented the philosopher’s fundamental view of the world. A person could achieve this goal only if he/she lived in accordance with the main principle of Confucian theory and practice – morality. In order to perform all the rules, a person had to cultivate moral virtues. According to Confucius, six essential virtues in his ethics were the following: ren, yi, li, zhi, xin, and wen. Thus, Confucian moral theory and practice can be explained and examined through the moral virtues, which represented the nature of each human being: if a person followed these virtues, he/she would find the Way and attain happiness and harmony.

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Following the Way as One of the Key Concepts of Confucian Moral Theory

Actually, Confucius believed that every person should develop the key moral virtues with the sole aim – to follow the Way. Dao is considered to be the method to achieve harmony between the universe and oneself. The universe consists of such dimensions as Heaven, Earth, and human beings. When all the dimensions interact in a right way, it is possible to attain the harmonious order. Heaven and Earth cannot change their essence, as they are the laws of nature; however, a human being is often mistakable in his/her deeds, which may lead to chaos. For this reason, Confucius developed the concepts of moral virtues and explained to his followers that they might lead a person to the desired harmony and perfection. Actually, the philosopher tried to persuade people that they could attain the blessing of Heaven through the moral practice. Moreover, Confucius claimed that a person would enjoy all the benefits of the world if he/she followed the right Way.


One of the most important steps to attain the Way was a hierarchical division of the roles in the state. Thus, each person should behave in accordance with his/her name. For example, a ruler should act as a ruler, while a son should act as a son. If a son acted as a ruler, the harmonious order would be violated, as both the family and society would fail. On the contrary, the order would be guaranteed, if everyone knew his/her place in the state; thus, the whole society would prosper both morally and financially. Accordingly, each person should cultivate moral virtues, which would help to follow his/ her Way, not the way of someone else.

The Main Virtues (Values) of Confucian Moral Theory and Practice

Most of the philosophers distinguish five moral virtues or regulations in Confucian teachings. Some sources distinguish the sixth moral value, literary expression (wen). However, Confucius believed that literary expression and art had no moral virtue in itself, and only a person, who developed all other virtues, could benefit from literary expression. In his Analects, he said: “if a man is not ren, what can he do with li? If a man is not ren, what can he do withmusic?”. Thus, if a person wanted to create music, the music should aim at expressing moral virtues, not at earning money. At the same time, if a person developed five constant virtues, he/she could use wen to teach others the virtues through art. In such a way, the value of wen was important only along with other moral virtues, such as li, for instance.

Moral Virtue of Li (Ritual/Property). The concept of li (ritual/property) was the center of the Confucian doctrine of the harmonious order. In order to preserve the harmonious order, a person should follow the traditions and rituals, i.e. the rules of li. The practice of li may be illustrated by the example of a family. In a family, the aim of a husband and wife was to preserve their family traditions and to teach the children all the important rituals. Every Confucian family should perform ceremonies and rituals in order to demonstrate the Heaven that they respect the laws of nature. Moreover, people demonstrated their love and respect towards their ancestors through such rituals, which was also of high importance. Thus, parents taught their children to preserve the rituals and they punished them if children behaved in a wrong way. People considered that the children would never respect the traditions and rules, if they were not punished; thus, the children would violate the harmonious order in their family.

An interesting tradition in Confucian families was the ritual of a funeral. When the father died, his sons could abandon all their jobs and mourn during the next three years. The same time for grieving was common, if the mother, wife, or the eldest son died. If other family members passed away, their descendants would mourn for five months. In such a way, family members demonstrated their devotion and respect to their relatives and cultivated the concept of li that maintained the proper order.

After considering the concept of li, one can understand that it was a behavioral norm for the followers of Confucianism. A person, who followed the virtue of li,was called a noble man, while the one, who ignored the virtue, was called a low or humble man. The main aim of every noble man was to live in accordance with the traditions and laws and to adhere to the rituals. On the contrary, a low man was the one, who disregarded all the rules, despite high social status. Such a man thought mainly of his interests and was not afraid of the will of Heaven. Hence, Confucius judged people not by their social or financial status but by their following of the moral virtues.

The concept of li may be considered as the foundation of the whole society because the harmonious order may be achieved through it. The word li can be translated as a ritual, norm, order, or ceremony. In order to cultivate and maintain this virtue, one should preserve all the established traditions and respect the natural laws of Heaven and Earth.Harmonious order and material prosperity of the society were impossible without li. Moreover, the distinction between the ministers and subordinates, older and younger, lower and higher could not be distinguished without li. Therefore, according to the Confucian moral theory, li represented the establishment of the order.

Moral Virtue of Yi (Righteousness). The concept of yi may be interpreted as an obligation, doing a right action, or morality. Confucius believed that all the human actions should be judged according to yi. Thus, such a concept was closely related to the ritual prescripts. One may identify yi with li,since the latter one is the expression of yi. In such a way, yi is the perfection of moral virtues, and it can be practiced through li. Therefore, it means that one cannot regard the two concepts separately.

Moral Virtues of Zhi (Wisdom) and Xin (Faithfulness). The virtues of zhi and xin can be acquired through education. Xin means trustworthiness or being preserving, while zhi means wisdom or being penetrating. Confucius believed that a person should learn how to act according to moral and ethical rules and principles, because he/she did not have that knowledge by nature. The concept of xin represented the starting point in learning, and a person learned to be faithful to one’s word and never act contrary to it. Moreover, zhi was the basis for self-cultivation. Actually, zhi can be interpreted as establishing one’s mind through education. Since education can be achieved through yi and li, the concepts are closely interrelated; thus, they cannot be separated in the moral theory of Confucius.

The Master Virtue of Ren (Humaneness)

According to Confucius, the most important virtue was the virtue of ren, or humaneness. Furthermore, it may be interpreted as the love of humankind, since humaneness means expressing kindness and sympathy to other human beings. In fact, the concept of ren is connected to the concept of li. Confucius believed that a person would be able to behave properly in any place and situation, if he/ she cultivated and improved li. In addition, a personwould learn how to treat the others with kindness and love, if he/ she cultivated the virtue of ren. Thus, the two moral virtues would bring peace to the whole society. Peaceful society, in turn, would lead to the harmonious order and both moral and financial flourishing. The moral virtue of ren may be illustrated in the following way.

If a person expressed his kindness and benevolence towards the others, such a person was considered to be a noble man. On the contrary, the absence of humaneness meant that a person was a fallen or low man. A noble man would never be selfish, while a fallen man would only think of his personal benefits and ignore the needs and opinions of the others. A ruler could not represent a fallen man, because he would lead the community to chaos. Thus, only noble men could successfully govern their societies and lead the country to proper order. Such a governor would serve the others and take all their offers and opinions into account by reinforcing his ren in such a way. The main purpose of the noble man was to cultivate the virtue because it would lead him to the creation of a perfect society. Therefore, the virtue of ren together with li was the key virtue of Confucian moral theory because it helped the rulers to achieve the harmonious order and to create an ideal society.

One may explain humaneness in the following way. The father should be kind to his children, while the children should express piety. Thus, the older and higher person (father, ruler) would cultivate his ren,while the younger and lower person (son, subordinate) would follow the virtue of li. In such a way, the proper order would be preserved in relationships. The same principles could be applied to the relationships between the siblings. The older brother should express courtesy, while the younger one should respect and obey his older sibling. The relations between a husband and a wife are also based on the principles of ren and li. In Confucianism, the wife should obey her husband and demonstrate her respect to him in any situation. The husband, in turn, should also respect and love his wife, and be kind and humane to her. If the spouses had harmonious relationships, the proper order would be guaranteed in their family. Hence, the virtue of ren mostly deals with human relationships, which is the basis of every society.

Humaneness (ren) is the necessary quality of every human being, since it helps to cultivate oneself and improves the relationships with the others. The one, who cultivates this virtue, becomes the role-model for the others. Thus, a father shows his children that it is important to be kind and benevolent in order for other people to respect and value this person. A good leader, who demonstrates sympathy towards his subordinates, gains their confidence and creates a strong and peaceful society. A person with ren would never hide his/her achievements or skills from the others. On the contrary, he/she would educate them based on the personal example.If no one complains against the ruler, the state will prosper.


The Confucian moral theory and practice aimed at directing people towards the Way (dao) in order to help them achieve happiness and flourishing. The only thing one should do is to follow the main ethical principles and to cultivate moral virtues. Moreover, each person should know his/her place in the society and should act according to the place. In fact, Confucius believed that the key moral virtue was ren (humaneness). If a ruler wanted to succeed in the government of the state, he should be kind and benevolent to his citizens. In order to achieve this goal, the ruler should also develop the concept of li (ritual/property). The two concepts were closely connected to each other, and adherence to one of them required the adherence to the other. Confucius considered the rites and traditions to be of high importance for every society because they helped to preserve the order. Therefore, the concepts of li and ren were the most significant moral virtues among the other five. Only if the Five Constant Virtues were cultivated, a person could use wen to educate the others through literature and art. In conclusion, the Confucian doctrine aimed at attaining the harmonious order in society through following the Way and peaceful co-existence with Heaven and Earth.


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