Confucian Virtue Ethics: Definition & Theory

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  • 0:04 Confucius
  • 0:46 The Six Virtues
  • 4:08 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Joshua Sipper

Dr. Sipper holds a PhD in Education, a Master's of Education, and a Bachelor's in English. Most of his experience is in adult and post secondary education.

Confucius is credited with many wise and moral sayings that ultimately led to a way of life where morality and wisdom are central themes. Confucian virtues are used to guide thoughts and patterns of life for many throughout the world.


Confucius lived during an era of crisis of ideals in China. This time of moral disruption and loss of traditional Chinese values offered Confucius the opportunity to affect moral change among his people through the use of wisdom and virtue. During the Chou Dynasty, great political upheaval took place, bringing with it a philosophy of cruelty and a general lack of compassion. Tradition and kindness faltered, leading many to follow suit in what became a society quickly falling into selfishness and anarchy. Confucius saw the moral peril of his people and took it as an obligation to turn the hearts and minds of any and all back toward the values of compassion and tradition.

The Six Virtues

Confucius used an ideological framework commonly referred to as virtue ethics, which is a system of ethics in which character is the primary emphasis for how an individual and society should guide their lives. Confucius based his system of ethics on six virtues: xi, zhi, li, yi, wen, and ren. Each of these attributes has a different meaning and focus, allowing any person to easily focus on and identify an area for improvement or meditation.

Let's take a closer look at each one:


Xi is the virtue of learning. Someone who meditates on the concept of xi is one who has a natural capacity or desire to learn. This virtue is important for many reasons, but probably the most important is due to the danger of ignorance. One who is ignorant or does not desire to learn is in danger of leading a foolish existence and spreading folly among other people. The act of learning and living in wisdom brings with it virtue and a meaningful, impactful life.


Zhi is the virtue of character. The closest translation of zhi is the substance of which one is made. This can refer to the physical construction of a person but is more about the character of that person. Both zhi and xi state that a person is neither created good nor bad but is free to choose how he or she will learn, grow, and progress. For example, someone might be born into a family of criminals, but it is up to them whether they will chose a path of immorality or morality.


Li is the virtue of community and one's interaction and responsibilities toward others. Li is mostly about how people behave toward and treat each other. This concept is closely related to fairness and justice. The idea is that the more fair and just someone is, the more these virtues will spread and bring about a more fair and just society.


Yi is the virtue of morality. But, there are many connotations from this simple definition, such as righteousness and duty. Yi basically comes down to right action or the treatment of others in a right way. For example, if someone is in need and weak, the right action would be to help that person, not to oppress them for financial or personal gain.

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