Confucianism - Freedom and Democracy 2.0

Is Confucianism a religion?

Appendix 7. What is the individual’s relationship to leaders and family and  others?   Mutual obligations …

Chinese is a relationship culture. Who you know can take priority over regulation and law, even more so than in the US. Confucianism is part of that ancient understanding of how the world works, although it is not the hidebound, patriarchal system sometimes portrayed in the west.

Below, some brief comments on how the relationship culture works with regard to families, leaders, and strangers.

We start by remembering the five principle relationships mentioned by Confucius in Analects 12.11 and later by Mencius - parent and child, minister and ruler, husband and wife, older and younger brother, friend and friend.  Analects - The duke Jing, of Qi, asked Confucius about government. Confucius replied, "There is government, when the prince is prince, and the minister is minister; when the father is father, and the son is son."

We must also remember that the obligations in the relationships are two-way, not one. The key term is reciprocity. Obligations of respect and honor are mutual.



Filial piety is one concept westerners might remember about Confucianism. This is understood as the father in the extended family in the communal village having great authority and power in managing the lives of even adult children. The hierarchy in family relations is then extended to the nation, where the emperor rules as father of all the people and with the same inviolable force.  One might remember that in early China, human relations were modeled on the regularity and perfection of celestial movements. From king to subjects, as it is from father to members of the household. As it is in heaven, so it should be on earth.

In the chaos of post World War I China, the May Fourth Movement thinkers saw this hierarchy as key to the suppression of individuality and personal freedom.  It was necessary to jettison these old ideas for China to modernize.

The original Confucian ideals were based on the rural village, without ability to travel far outside Without much contact with the outside, family generations lived side by side with other family generations. The small community is also assumed in early Christianity and in Plato and Aristotle – the ideal size of the state was said to be about 5000 male citizens, or no more than could assemble at one time to hear the leader. Hierarchies function better in small communities.

As nations grow, societies become more complex, relations with the outside become common, children live far from the village, any system of ethics must undergo revision. So, too, for Confucianism.

The picture of Confucianism as patriarchal and sexist is not part of new Confucianism.  Christianity too has been “upgraded” to account for changes in moral values.

Family and family leaders are still given more respect in China than we find in most American families. Discussions about what job to take, where to go to school, even who to marry are treated as family issues, not individual decisions. There are still families in which a father or mother can negate an adult child’s decisions. I am directly familiar with several such family conflicts. But Chinese parents today likely have little understanding of the complexities of daily life in Shanghai or Chicago. More and more, all members of a family in China understand that obligations between family members run both ways, and parents are willing to guide and question, but ultimately leave life decisions to their child. That is necessary for sufficient moral and personal autonomy in a pluralistic and wider world. 



The individual in Confucianism is obligated to exercise moral autonomy – otherwise, how is one to be a good son, father, subordinate, leader. One cannot be required to follow the Dao. With that moral autonomy comes the obligation to treat strangers as human – to be humane. The Confucian idea has been “equality with distinctions” meaning that one will obviously first assist a family member in the same straits as a stranger. But this is not meant to ignore the stranger.

Of the three early conceptions of virtue ethics, Christianity is the clearest on treatment of the stranger. We have the parables of the good Samaritan, and the wedding feast announcement to bring in the poor, and Matthew 25:45 - Then he will answer them, saying, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.’

The Confucian must be concerned about the moral acts of another, so in that way also he is concerned about the stranger. It is not enough to be personally morally upright. One has an obligation to seek to assist others. See Analects 6.30 (Yong Ye 30)

Zi Gong said, "Suppose the case of a man extensively conferring benefits on the people, and able to assist all, what would you say of him? Might he be called perfectly virtuous?" The Master said, "Why speak only of virtue in connection with him? Must he not have the qualities of a sage? Even Yao and Shun were still solicitous about this. Now the man of perfect virtue, wishing to be established himself, seeks also to establish others; wishing to be enlarged himself, he seeks also to enlarge others. To be able to judge of others by what is nigh in ourselves - this may be called the art of virtue."

This is a distinction from the Golden Rule and “turn the other cheek,” which are focused only on the individual actor. They tell one what to do seemingly without regard for the wishes or beliefs or behavior of the other. There is no obligation to seek to improve others. The Confucian will not want to permit another to continue to behave poorly.


Who are exemplars?

Cultures will have different exemplars, based on history and religion and social practices.  Some characteristics of exemplars are common, though. An exemplar is someone to whom people look for guidance. Exemplars have a certain demeanor, and seem calm and reflective, as if they have taken time to considers important issues – Confucius is a good example. A bit crassly, one might  think of an exemplar as someone who gets high ratings from many buyers of his (morally sound) advice. “He tried this, and over time it worked great again and again!”

Practical wisdom is the term we use for what it is that exemplars offer. They are able to integrate the requirements of many different virtues into a single course of action as virtue ethicist Linda Zagzebski tells us. Wise people may have a breadth of general knowledge and a deep understanding of the value of things. Wise people may have social equanimity – they are attuned to both the world and the immediate context. They also detect the emotions and thoughts of others well. Obviously, it is the very rare person who has all these qualities. Confucius thought that no one could attain full understanding of ren, humaneness, but it remains our human obligation to try.



One of the five Confucian principles is respect for a leader. Confucian scholars over the centuries took this to mean that remonstrating, correcting, advising were all part of their portfolio, and faithful performance of decisions was owed. A Confucian advisor who could not morally agree to a leader’s ruling was expected to resign. In some cases they committed suicide.

Since 1949, traditional Confucian respect for leaders has been confounded with authoritarian demands from leaders in CCP, so there are no good examples of Confucian political leaders in recent history. A better Confucian model might be found in the US. Remonstrating, correcting, and advising are what subordinates in the US do now, in the Church, in government, in business. Subordinates are expected to carry out decisions of the leader, unless a personal moral conflict arises. A good example is that of the US Navy Secretary Richard Spencer who resigned in late 2019 over meddling by Trump in Navy judicial actions, or leaders of the US Department of Justice who threatened resignation if Trump proceeded with his plan to bypass the election results and proclaim his kingdom.


Exemplary leaders

Leaders should be exemplars, which requires that they conduct themselves with respect, perform duties with reverence, and treat others with wholehearted sincerity (Analects 13.19 (Zi Lu 19))

Leaders have a particular moral obligation. The best leader exercises de (virtue), an ethical excellence so charismatic that it draws people to follow.

In Analects 14.42 (Xian Wen 42) Zilu asked about exemplary persons -

Zi Lu asked what constituted the superior man. The Master said, "The cultivation of himself in reverential carefulness." "And is this all?" said Zi Lu. "He cultivates himself so as to give rest to others," was the reply. "And is this all?" again asked Zi Lu. The Master said, "He cultivates himself so as to give rest to all the people. He cultivates himself so as to give rest to all the people - even Yao and Shun were still solicitous about this."

And Analects 15.18 (Wei Ling Gong 18) -

The Master said, "The superior man in everything considers righteousness to be essential. He performs it according to the rules of propriety. He brings it forth in humility. He completes it with sincerity. This is indeed a superior man."

Mencius was quite clear about benevolent governance in Liang hui wang II, 12 -

There were the old and wifeless, or widowers; the old and husbandless, or widows; the old and childless, or solitaries; the young and fatherless, or orphans - these four classes are the most destitute of the people, and have none to whom they can tell their wants, and king Wen, in the institution of his government with its benevolent action, made them the first objects of his regard, as it is said in the Book of Poetry, "The rich may get through life well; But alas! for the miserable and solitary!"'

And  Mencius in Jin Xin 1, 45 (7A45) -

Mencius said, 'In regard to inferior creatures, the superior man is kind to them, but not loving. In regard to people generally, he is loving to them, but not affectionate. He is affectionate to his parents, and lovingly disposed to people generally. He is lovingly disposed to people generally, and kind to creatures.'

And in Mencius Li Lou II, 47 -

Mencius said, 'That whereby the superior man is distinguished from other men is what he preserves in his heart - namely, benevolence and propriety. The benevolent man loves others.

And from the Classic of Rites Li Ji (Qu Li I, 11) -

Propriety is seen in humbling one's self and giving honour to others. Even porters and peddlers are sure to display this giving honour (in some cases); how much more should the rich and noble do so (in all)! When the rich and noble know to love propriety, they do not become proud nor dissolute. When the poor and mean know to love propriety, their minds do not become cowardly.

And Li Ji (Qu Li I, 3)

Men of talents and virtue can be familiar with others and yet respect them; can stand in awe of others and yet love them. They love others and yet acknowledge the evil that is in them. They accumulate (wealth) and yet are able to part with it (to help the needy); they rest in what gives them satisfaction and yet can seek satisfaction elsewhere (when it is desirable to do so). When you find wealth within your reach, do not (try to) get it by improper means; when you meet with calamity, do not (try to) escape from it by improper means. Do not seek for victory in small contentions; do not seek for more than your proper share. Do not positively affirm what you have doubts about; and (when you have no doubts), do not let what you say appear (simply) as your own view.


Practice, practice, practice

Full humanity requires an ability to practice the five virtues. Benevolence (rén 仁), righteousness (yì 义), propriety (lǐ 礼), wisdom (zhì 智) and fidelity (xìn 信) are the Five Constant Virtues (wǔ cháng 五常).

For Christians, we have John 13:34 - A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another.

For Confucians the precepts are similar. In Analects XII.22 (Yan Yuan) - Fan Chi asked about benevolence. The Master said, "It is to love all men." He asked about knowledge. The Master said, "It is to know all men." Fan Chi did not immediately understand these answers. The Master said, "Employ the upright and put aside all the crooked; in this way the crooked can be made to be upright.

 Analects 17.6 (Yang Huo 6)Zi Zhang asked Confucius about perfect virtue. Confucius said, "To be able to practice five things everywhere under heaven constitutes perfect virtue." He begged to ask what they were, and was told, "Gravity, generosity of soul, sincerity, earnestness, and kindness. If you are grave, you will not be treated with disrespect. If you are generous, you will win all. If you are sincere, people will repose trust in you. If you are earnest, you will accomplish much. If you are kind, this will enable you to employ the services of others."

There are other citations on rules for rulers -

Analects 13.6 (Zi Lu 6) - The Master said, "When a prince's personal conduct is correct, his government is effective without the issuing of orders. If his personal conduct is not correct, he may issue orders, but they will not be followed."

And Analects 13.16 (Zi Lu 16) - The governor of She asked about government.  The Master said, "Ensure that those who are near are pleased and those who are far away are attracted." 

And Analects 20.1 (Yao Yue 1) - If a man is tolerant, he will win the multitude.  If he is trustworthy in word, the common people with entrust him with responsibility ... What he attached chief importance to were the food of the people, the duties of mourning, and sacrifices. By his generosity, he won all. By his sincerity, he made the people repose trust in him. By his earnest activity, his achievements were great. By his justice, all were delighted. 

With these virtues, one can become a good person, a good citizen and a good leader.

Our own founding texts echo the need for wise leaders. In Federalist No. 57 James Madison wrote –

The aim of every political institution is, or ought to be, first to obtain for rulers men who possess most wisdom to discern, and most virtue to pursue, the common good of the society; and in the next place, to take the most precautions for keeping them virtuous while they continue to hold their public trust.  The elective mode of obtaining rulers is the characteristic policy of republican government.

In other words, it is not sufficient for the people to simply select any ignoramus to rule, and then vote him out two or four years later. The public trust, as Plato and Aristotle told us, is the highest calling in society, and the wisest and most virtuous should be encouraged to hold office. In the US system, wisdom and virtue are found less in legislators, presidents, or political appointees, but in executive department and legislative staff, where education and expertise are highly valued.

That doesn’t seem to be sufficient. Our long national experiment with individual sovereignty has shown its results. If there is anything thoughtful people on the left and right might agree on, it is that we need greater responsibility – and wisdom, if that were possible – in ourselves and in our leaders.



The term for cultivating oneself is to seek to become ren, benevolent, sincere, and wise. David Wong –

Ren is comprehensive moral excellence viewed under the aspect of affective concern and respect towards others…. (it) is not explicitly defined but is associated with a wide array of desirable traits and behaviors: deference, tolerance, making good on one’s word, diligence, generosity, loving others, (and) ritual propriety ….

David B. Wong. Cultivating the Self in Concert with Others. Chapter 9 in the Dao Companion to the Analects, ed. Amy Olberding. Blackwell 2013. Available at

Tough act. The achievement of virtues requires long training. This alone should be a warning to Americans who think being a celebrity or an actor or a businessman is sufficient training for becoming an exemplary leader. Aristotle would agree.


The value of shame

Some American conservatives and some Christians bemoan the loss of a sense of shame in our culture. Shame was associated with personal guilt, a trait inculcated by religious training and mostly abandoned in American culture from the 1960s on. But shame is a useful value in a highly pluralist, mobile, and disconnected society. It helps us define the boundaries of our morality, if in no greater way than to remember, “what would your mother say?”

Lu Yinghua. Shame and the Confucian Idea of Yi (Righteousness). International Philosophical Quarterly Vol. 58, No. 1, Issue 229 (March 2018) Available at

Shame is indispensable for promoting right behavior. Mencius - “A person should not be shameless. The shamefulness of shamelessness is a lack of shame indeed!” Mencius 7A.6 (Jin Xin I.6)

Confucius told us that governing people by laws and punishments is insufficient to

help people cultivate themselves and preserve order. Analects 2.3 (Wei Zheng 3) -

If you guide people by laws and maintain order with punishments, the common people will try to avoid the punishment, but they have no sense of shame. If you guide people by virtues and maintain order with ritual propriety, they will have the sense of shame, and moreover they will set themselves right. 

I don’t want to get caught up in fine distinctions between guilt and shame. I do think it is important that people understand when they have done wrong, feel bad about it, and seek to correct their behavior. This is helped along by social recognition of the wrong act. It is a social yellow card.


Dishonor and Social Shame

If one’s action is disgraceful, he not only puts himself in a shameful situation but also dishonors the people connected with him, such as his teachers, family, friends, and even ancestors. He can even bring shame to his country when he is regarded as representing the country. Shame is more prominent in a collective culture where people are deeply interconnected. I am arguing that we could use a dose of shame among public figures and political leaders.

We can see why the people who are fond of individualism debase the value of shame. Shame destroys their negative freedom (free from external constraints), even though it promotes people’s positive freedom (the freedom to overcome desire and achieve self-cultivation.) One takes responsibility for his own action, and it is not another person’s right or obligation to restrain or care for him by leading him away from shame.

No one is arguing for a return to Hester Prynne-type public shaming. That sort of collective dishonoring was the hallmark of CCP struggle sessions – and we see it today in “cancel culture.” 

No one supports community shaming as in Hawthorne’s Scarlet Letter. But its complete absence suggests a collection of people without individual bonds. I have described the decline of American sociality and commitment to democracy as if we were all simply shoppers at a national shopping mall – all of us in the same physical space and without connection or obligation to each other. A sense of obligation would be a good and useful purchase for us all. A society without a sense of shame – implying some obligation to each other - is in deep trouble indeed.