Digest of terms
Confucius, c551-479, and the Analects later attributed to him, gave rise to a long and rich tradition of thinkers and interpreters, among whom Mencius, c391-308, was particularly honoured. In ethics, emphasis was placed on cultivation of character rather than rules and principles - a form of virtue ethics akin to that of Aristotle. A key concept is jen, construed as affective concern for the well-being of others, and thus better understood as benevolence, with its necessary emotional impetus, rather than altruism, which, as in Kantian ethics, may be prompted by a purely rational sense of duty. Relatedly the tradition contains a version of the so-called Golden Rule.
Emphasis is placed on the family as the context in which jen is nurtured and its scope initially extended in a widening circle of concern for others. The family context is a hierarchical (and patriarchal) one in which great importance is attached to filial piety. A schema of five ethical relations came to be emphasized: parent-child, ruler-minister, husband-wife, older siblings-younger siblings, and relations between friends. Only the last of these is at all egalitarian. A social ideal of justice ensues, one of a hierarchical but harmonious society under a benevolent government. A new class of Confucian-educated scholar-officials arose intended to embody and promote the virtues, and administer and shape society accordingly.
Society does, of course, need rules and regulations, and these are covered by the notions of li and yi, li meaning a tradition of apt or reasonable prescriptions, and yi sound judgment in their application. The three concepts jen, li, and yi are understood to be mutually illuminating and mutually reinforcing notions, encouraging both social stability and practical flexibility.
Confucian ethics can be seen as a form of humanist ethics, although a religious dimension is to be found in the notion of T'ien, Heaven, a kind of supreme source of order in the world (legitimate emperors were thought to rule under the Mandate of Heaven). T'ien has been subject to a range of interpretations, both personal and impersonal, but is acknowledged as ultimately responsible for a human nature which finds fulfilment in the practice of the virtues.