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Another Virtue Ethics

Japan has now troublesome territory problems with China and South Korea:  the Senkaku, Diaoyu or Tiaoyutai Islands issue and the Liancourt Rocks, known as Takeshima or Dokdo.  It is true that these problems have arisen from historically complicated backgrounds.  However, we need wise and diligent dialogues to resolve them.  In order to do that, we may be able to use a communal wisdom we share historically and philosophically: Confucianism.  Confucianism is basically a virtue ethics.  Its founder is Confucius (BC 552/1-479).  His thought was succeeded and developed by Mencius (BC 372-289).


The principle of the thought of Confucius is jen (humanity/benevolence).  However, he does not explain or define it clearly.  Rather, instead, he tells us what human beings can become by cultivating jen.  There are five cardinal virtues:  jen, i (righteousness), li (propriety), chi (wisdom), and shin (faithfulness / belief).  Every virtue is based on jen.

“Confucius said, ‘Shen, there is one thread that runs through my doctrines.’  Tseng Tsu said, ‘Yes.’  After Confucius had left, the disciples asked him, ‘What did it mean?’  Tseng Tzu replied, ‘The Way of our Master is none other than conscientiousness (chung) and altruism (shu)’ ” (The Analects, 4:15).  This one thread is nothing other than jenChung is to be sincere to oneself and shu is to be sincere to others.  In other words, chung means the full development of one’s [originally good] mind and shu means the extension of that mind to others.


Mencius regards human nature as “good by nature.”  This may sound naïve, but it is in fact his philosophical premise.  This is the origin of all his thought and is generally called a “theory of the original goodness of human nature.”  This theory derives from Confucius’ theory of chung-shu.  The goodness has two characteristics.  First, it is the first ontological or metaphysical cause of human beings.  Second, the good is the last goal toward which every act is oriented.  Therefore, Mencius thinks the original goodness of human nature innately relates not only to oneself but also to others.

In order to demonstrate his theory, Mencius presents four innate feelings universally present in human beings.  These are called the “Four Beginnings”:  the feeling of commiseration, the feeling of shame and dislike, the feeling of respect and reverence, and the feeling of right and wrong.  The Four Beginnings are never abstract concepts, but rather concrete metaphors of moral “sprouts.”

The feeling of commiseration has priority over the other three feelings and the feeling of right and wrong holds the last position.  In other words, for Mencius, having compassion to others is more important than the judgments of right and wrong.  This is one of the notable differences from Western moral thought.  According to Mencius, being good as a human person is more important than exercising the intellectual faculty of judgment.  This sense of morality is never individualistic, but rather communal, that is, it should be executed in harmonious relationship to others.