Having a Sense of Appropriate Conduct

In ways closely analogous to the virtue ethics in the West, this understanding of the human being as a relational being means that ethics is primarily about becoming a (more) complete human being – first of all, by cultivating the behaviors and attitudes required for establishing harmony both among members of the human community (beginning with the family) and with the larger order (Tian) as such. In classical Confucian thought, this begins with learning and practicing filial piety, respect and care for one’s parents, and ritual propriety. But the ultimate aim is to become an exemplary person (junzi) – someone who has cultivated and practiced appropriate attention to and care for others to such a degree that this exemplary behavior is who that person is. So Confucius describes the exemplary person as follows:

The Master said, “Having a sense of appropriate conduct (yi) as one’s basic disposition (zhi), developing it in observing ritual propriety (li), expressing it with modesty, and consummating it in making good on one’s word (xin): this then is an exemplary person (junzi).”

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The exemplary person, in short, is one who has shaped his or her basic character or disposition through the practice of appropriate conduct and ritual propriety. The primary markers of such a character are modesty and integrity.

Much as Socrates and Aristotle emphasized achieving human excellence through cultivating and practicing the right habits throughout one’s lifetime, Confucian ethics emphasizes that the project of becoming an exemplary person (always in relationship with others) is a life-long project. As one of the most famous of the Analects has it:

At fifteen my heart-and-mind was set on learning.

At thirty my character had been formed.

At forty I had no more perplexities.

At fifty I realized the propensities of tian (T’ian-ming).

At sixty I was at ease with whatever I heard.

At seventy I could give my heart-and-mind free rein without overstepping the boundaries.