Ethics of Confucius

About 2,500 years ago, Kung Fu Tze, known to western history as Confucius, built a reputation for being a wise advisor. At the foundation of his advice was a framework for ethical behavior which was built on the principle of treating others around you as you wish to be treated yourself. Confucius described the implementation of this philosophy through a series of concentric circles that began with self and expanded outward through layers of widening groups from family to community to nation and beyond. His teachings sought harmony and equilibrium across this map of expanding centers of influence and interests.

Kung Fu Tzu (Confucius), 551-479 B.C.E. – []

At the root of his moral system is the individual in the family. For Confucius tradition is everything. Duty to obey one’s parents (filial piety) is at the center of his system: “When the personal life is cultivated, the family will be regulated; when the family is regulated, the state will be in order; and when the state is in order, there will be peace throughout the world.”

Virtue moves out from the self in concentric circles: Jen thus goes hand in hand with Hsin : empathy. (Smith, 182). The Chinese character for Hsin denotes both mind and heart. Self expands to include family, family expands to include community, community expands to include nation, nation expands to include all humanity. The self therefore is a meeting place where lives converge, it is not an entity unto itself.


You can think of Confucian ethics as a group of concentric circles, with the innermost circle being respect for the self, followed by respect for one’s parents (filial piety) and then for one’s siblings (brotherly respect), and radiating out into more and more distant relationships. Confucian ethics holds that each of these relationships must be dealt with in order. You cannot be a good and moral person in the world, if you do not treat your family morally first.

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