Confucian Moral Theory and Practice

Asia has always been an object of interest attracting the attention of cultural scientists and historians. Since its history and culture are extraordinary and exceptional, many travelers and adventurers have always been enticed by it. However, Asia becomes associated not only with the odor of the spices or Buddhism but also with one of the most ancient philosophic schools of the world – Confucianism. It is not a mere philosophy; it is the basic principle of the Chinese way of life. Moreover, it incorporates the society organization standards, ethical and moral rules, a set of laws, intellectual and scholarly organization, tradition, and culture. 

It is impossible to describe Confucianism by a single term since this phenomenon has no equivalences in the West. Nevertheless, it should be noted that this school of thought has triggered an extensive interest in many philosophers and thinkers from all over the world. Confucianism is the Chinese doctrine and can be related not only to the ancient times but also the contemporaneity (Yao 2).  Nevertheless, some notions of the doctrine are difficult to understand or translate. It can be explained by the fact that the Oriental way of living and perceiving the world differs from the European one, and some aspects of their comprehension of the world are quite contrary to that of the West. Nevertheless, Confucianism gained its popularity not only in frames of its country of origin: “From its origins in the north, it spread to the whole of China and then to other countries of East Asia. More recently it has spread to North America, Europe and the rest of the world.” (Yao 28) From the moment of its emergence, it was considered as a tradition of religion and philosophy; afterward, it transformed and extended into a wider notion. This doctrine encloses all spheres of life, such as society, ethics, management, education, religion, economy, anthropology, and many others.


The initiator of this philosophy was Kongzi (“Master Kong”), known as Confucius to the Western civilization. He lived during the Zhou Dynasty period. “The Zhou Dynasty was established on the system of feudalism: under the central government the empire was divided into many feudal states, either headed by the members of the royal house or awarded to those who had rendered outstanding service to the state.” (Yao 41) However, the human thirst for power caused the collapse of the system. The society found itself in poor moral and financial conditions. It created a need for the development of new philosophical schools and doctrines, but all of them were weak or had borrowed conceptions and did not have  a guide philosopher, a strong leader to inspire changes in the minds of the people. Confucius was such leader; the fact, which, of course, contributed to the success of his teachings. He was the first to have created an image of a person following all moral commandments and duties. Thus, the problem of the human moral nature is a crucial aspect of Confucianism. According to the doctrine, all kinds of relationships are based on morality. It also states that the ideal society is possible if it adheres to all moral rules because the morality can protect a person from wrong and sinful doings. In other words, Confucianism is a philosophy focusing on moral rules and laws. 

Moral Theory And Practice

The Confucian teaching consists in keeping the ceremony and following the Way. The latter is a deep and extensive philosophic notion also called Dao, which expresses the method of achieving the full harmony. “The original meaning of dao as a road or a path is enriched to mean the universal Way applicable and existent in every corner of the universe.” (Yao 140) The main purpose of following the Way is to attain the perfection. Confucius regards the universe through three dimensions: the Heaven, the Earth, and the human. These three powers have a nature opposite to each other, but their interaction can lead to a harmonic existence. The soul, divinity, and all unearthly powers are reflected by the notion of Heaven. It is the way Confucianism comprehends the religion. “Heaven is referred to as a divine being who controls and determines the human world.” (Yao, 144) However, Heaven is a part of nature but is the most powerful energy. A person can get the greatest gift from Heaven – the morality, and people should follow its norms to please Heaven. Thus, Confucianism applies morality as a means of connecting to the divine powers. Due to the fact that the doctrine initially was a philosophical teaching, its religious conceptions are closely related to the ethical rules. As a method of instilling these values in the minds and hearts of the people, the doctrine has become a religious teaching. . Religion had a powerful influence on the Chinese population, which strictly followed all the religious teachings. Confucius was aware that the only way to make people cherish moral values is to make them afraid of Heaven since fear is the most powerful weapon that can help to control the society. 

Confucianism persuaded people to believe that the only way to receive the blessing of Heaven is to follow the path of morality. Therefore, the doctrine gained success, its schools became extremely popular, and people accepted all its principles, trying to live adhering to its laws. 

The study expressed the idea that Heaven had created everything and continued to control all the spheres of human life. According to it, humans can nourish their moral power only by the help of Heaven, which is a mighty source of virtue. In order to get closer to Heaven’s ideals, first of all, one should follow moral principles. Then, in order to achieve high morality, a person should devote oneself to Heaven. It is the beginning and the end since the way to Heaven lies through the human life. Heaven is a final step in the existence of a person; it is the last court after death. Thus, reaching Heaven is a central notion of the Confucian morality since its moral principles coincide with the religious laws. “The moral order and the cosmic order are one, and, through ethical cultivation, the individual not only achieves human perfection but also becomes part of a unity with Heaven and Earth.” (De Bary 334) 

The above philosophical and religious tradition is a spiritual base of the Chinese society. The ethics of the Confucianism proclaims the supremacy of good and blames evil. Having gained wide popularity, the new teaching weakened the old laws and customs. The importance of morality entered all the spheres of life - family, government, economics, and social relationships (Magagna 6). According to Confucianism, moral rules had to control the relationships with the strangers and foreigners, as well. One had to demonstrate respect and honor, as well as civility and truthfulness toward the unknown person in order to show the kindness of own heart to Heaven and get its support. In addition, people had to treat foreigners as important guests and act in accordance with the ceremony. The Chinese population obeyed these rules, and the doctrine helped to control the society. Some relative composure and peace were established. In light of the feudal disunity and wars, such changes were highly required since the old tradition collapsed, and social order transformed into chaos. Only new ideology of Confucianism managed to change the situation. Thus, Confucian doctrine turned to be more powerful and influential than the military force or governmental measures. 

According to Confucius, moral principles had to regulate the relationships in the family. Family is a part of the society; it is a link, connecting an individual and the state. A powerful state can be created through regulating family relationships. In his teachings, Confucius appealed to family values, stressing on their importance. According to the doctrine, moral duties are the biggest family values. Also, the doctrine made a particular focus on the relationships between the younger and older generations of a family. Thus, the core moral duty of each of them is respect. The notion of respect transfixes the whole philosophy dedicated to the family; it is the most significant notion in this aspect. Acting with due respect can make a person shy and calm, which can have a positive effect not only in terms of a family unit, but also it can positively affect the entire society. Each member of the family has particular duties. When the parents are alive, young people should respect, obey and serve them while after their death children are to bury the parents according to the rite. It should be noted that Confucianism stresses the importance of the ceremonies in different spheres of human life. According to the teaching,  the ceremonies and rituals were a way to show Heaven that a person follows the necessary laws. The rituals are the external expression of love, respect, and devotion. In addition, Confucianism has a positive influence even on the present-day society since this philosophy is directed to the formation of the personality through the upbringing a child in the family. Trust, honesty, and esteem are the fundamental principles of the family according to Confucianism. 

Also, the most significant part of moral responsibilities is attributed to the family. Husband and wife have different duties, but all of them are quiet stable. The purpose of these rules is to create an ideal family with pious and dedicated to Heaven values. However, the strictest obligations were created for women. According to these rules, a woman had to stay in her room most of her time in order to prevent any licentiousness. Mostly, a woman had no freedom: she belonged to her parents during her childhood and later - to her husband. In such a way, Confucius tries to form a perfect image of a woman and approximate her to the representation of an ideal wife. From the other side, a husband should be very careful with his spouse, supply her with everything she needs, defend her, and be faithful to her. Moreover, the family in the Confucianism is a special sacred place; and family life is based on traditions and ceremonies. These strict rules were created in order to connect a family with Heaven as well as bond the society with Heaven through Family. Confucius believed that the order in the country could be attained not only by the efforts of the government but also by well-organized family systems. However, the doctrine reflects the idea that the government, economics, and justice must be formed on the basis of Morality, as well. 

Confucius does not distinguish each element of his philosophy; he does not extract chapters dedicated to special notions, such as a state, a person, or a family. On the contrary, his philosophy represents all of these issues as a single whole. He does not detach the notion of the state as a separate one because he does not see the state separated from the individuality, family, society or religion. All the institutions and units are related to each other. That is why the state is an inalienable part of his moral philosophy. Confucius proclaims the successful regiment, which is based on morality, honesty, and respectability. Through these merits, the notion of the political culture is introduced. The state is regarded as a vast family, constructed on the moral principles and values. However, a particular place in the philosophical doctrine is dedicated to the role of the governor. One should have not only high moral qualities but also must be an example of morality and justice. In addition to it, a governor must have a good education. In Confucianism, all the spheres of life have one common principle, which is a high moral value because morality can prevent a person from wars, murders, and other acts of cruelty.

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Adhering to high moral values can lead to a happy, harmonic and peaceful existence. Following the rules of morality has always been the most important aspect of human life in all philosophical and religious doctrines. However, establishing some moral principles in the society can be a difficult matter, which may provoke a hard confrontation. “There is a long tradition in Confucianism of people standing on the basis of a moral decision, a stand of conscience and righteous indignation, enduring right suffering including torture and death in the name of upholding what is morally right.” (Taylor 100) Nevertheless, many principles of Confucian teaching are still adhered to in modern China, as well as in other countries all over the world. Perhaps, nowadays this philosophy may seem quiet strange or even Utopian since it is impossible to establish a country basing exceptionally on moral duties. It is impracticable to satisfy all the people in the state; that is why some of them will always contradict the idea of total morality. Probably, that is the reason Confucianism was transformed into other philosophical schools and traditions and was improved. “Confucianism was unable to gain sole possession of the heart of the people because it stressed relations between one individual and another, instead of relations between the individual and the Absolute.” (Miyakawa 46) Without taking into consideration some Utopian thoughts, which were improved by the followers of Confucianism, the general idea of morality is right. Thus, only high moral values can improve the situation in the country in general and in the family, in particular.

Jul 10, 2019 in Socioligy
Situation Analysis
Contemporary Issue

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