Eastern Theories of Ethics

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  • 0:05 Eastern Ethics
  • 0:47 Confucianism
  • 2:05 Taoism
  • 3:35 Buddhism
  • 4:52 Hinduism
  • 5:52 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

There are many theories of ethics in the world. In this lesson, we'll look at the ethics of Eastern philosophies, and see how each one of them is both similar and different to its counterparts.

Eastern Ethics

One of the simplest ways to explore the many, many theories of human ethics or moral principles is according to the parts of the world they came from. In general, European cultures ascribe to the Western theories of ethics. On the other hand, cultures of Asia tend more towards what we call Eastern philosophy. Eastern philosophies may arrive at the same ethical conclusions as Western ones but they tend to take different paths getting there. Still, there are a number of Eastern philosophies as well, so let's narrow them down a bit further. Our most influential Eastern theories of ethics tend to be focused around two cultures, both very different and both very, very ancient.


The first two ethical systems we'll be dealing with are from China. Chinese ethics tend to be very practical, focused on real-world applications over esoteric theory and abstraction. One of the most famous of these theories is known as Confucianism. Confucianism is a philosophy of maintaining moral virtue between individuals and within society as a whole. It takes its name from the ancient Chinese philosopher Confucius and has formed the basis of much Eastern thought for thousands of years.

Confucianism is a wide-reaching philosophy, so we need to focus on it specifically as it applies to ethics. In Confucianism, actions are rarely identified simply as good or bad. The morality of the action is closely tied to the morality and virtuousness of the person and his or her motives. So actions may be moral if the person and motives are virtuous, regardless of their outcome.

In fact, Confucius once claimed that a son lying to protect his father may be more moral than a son turning in his father to the authorities because it respects the ultimate Confucian virtue of filial piety. In Confucianism, moral actions like this are very often associated with strict rituals and rigid systems of social hierarchy. Knowing one's place is the key to proper behavior.


While Confucianism seeks virtue in the relationships between people within a society, other Chinese doctrines are a little more out there. Taoism, sometimes Romanized as Daoism, is a Chinese philosophy of life and existence in a broader, cosmic scope. Being less human-centric, it often looks at human problems in a detached sort of way.

The basis of Taoist ethics is the concept of the Tao, which literally means 'the way,' but really refers to the natural order of the cosmos. It's something that is present but non-conceptual; accessible, but fluid and changing. Ethical actions in Taoism are those that are in harmony with the Tao.

So what does that mean? Well, Taoism evaluates the morality of actions on a case-by-case basis, interpreting every action as a response to cosmic events. If your action was an appropriate response in a situation, then it was in keeping with the Tao and moral. If it was not appropriate, it was immoral and could result in consequences that range from sickness to throwing your life out of balance with the universe, which is something you clearly want to avoid.

Because of the somewhat detached nature of Taoism, Taoist ethics tend to be somewhat detached as well. In fact, some Taoist thinkers believed it was best to never initiate action in the universe, but only to wait and respond to cosmic events.


Confucianism and Taoism are two of the most influential schools of Eastern ethics coming from China. The other two major Eastern schools both developed in India, but we'll start with the one that eventually made its way to China.

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