Ethical Awareness

The third foundational pillar of our framework for understanding Chinese ethical thought and practice is what we call “Ethical Awareness.” Ethical Awareness builds upon Context-First and Interconnectedness. Having


In calling it “Awareness” we are partly inspired by P. J. Ivanhoe (2013, pp. 72-84).

Awareness means having a sufficiently cultivated ethical “sixth-sense,” that one can: recognize an ethical situation as being ethical; identify the ethically relevant factors of the situation; know which ethical values to apply given those factors; and then see how to put those principles into practice given the actual situation. Influential religio-philosophical traditions within Chinese culture, including ones that disagree on a great many things such as Confucianism and Daoism (also spelled “Taoism”), nevertheless agree on this point: one of the central components of ethical wisdom and ability is the cultivation of a kind of intuitive sense whereby one can read context and its intricacies so as to identify how to behave in ethically appropriate ways. This ability is Ethical Awareness.

By and large, Western approaches to ethics, especially as they are typically applied to business, do not place as high a value on cultivating an ethically trained intuitive or “sixth sense” as part of becoming an ethically cultivated person who can make more ethical decisions. In Chinese, and many East Asian culture contexts, exemplars of this intuitive sense are, in effect, “connoisseurs of ethics” in a way similar to music masters or chefs “just know” from learning and experience what sounds or flavors will go together.[1] An exception can be found in some forms of Virtue Ethics, for instance Aristotelianism, where the virtuous person has “practical wisdom” that allows them to “read” situations in such a way that they can distinguish virtuous from non-virtuous decisions. Indeed, the connection is not accidental: Confucius and his followers are often classified as virtue theorists, placing them in the same neighborhood of ethical theory as Aristotle (Van Norden, 2007, Angle & Slote, 2013). Though different traditions have different ways of talking about it, and different background commitments, in this specific aspect of Awareness—the idea that ethically cultivated persons develop a trained intuitive sense of ethical situations—there is some commonality between Western and Chinese ethical frameworks.

Such a sense or intuition does not, however, play a key role in the other important Western frameworks typically employed in business ethics, such as applied theories of justice, Utilitarianism, Deontology, social contracts, and human rights. It is unclear why—perhaps intuition seems too vague or unquantifiable, or perhaps to Western post-Enlightenment ears, it sounds too much like something that could not be subjected to rigorous analysis and description. In any case, an important takeaway for Rules-First Western mindsets is that Chinese approaches to ethics do not, as a rule, assume that every aspect of ethics can be rigorously analyzed and described.

An example of Awareness also comes from the previous story of Confucius and the two students in Analects 11.22. In that case, Awareness consists in Confucius’ ability to accurately read the context by perceiving the different temperaments of the two students, inferring how to answer the same question in two different ways for the two different students, and delivering those answers so as to promote desirable outcomes. Another example from the Analects is in 3.9, wherein Confucius explains why, in some situations, he goes with tradition against common practice, whereas in other situations, he goes with common practice against tradition. This passage is helpful as it contains an explicit discussion of differing values—maintaining tradition and respect versus frugality—that can compete with and outweigh one another in various ways depending on the specific context.

  • 9.3 The Master said, “A ceremonial cap made of linen is prescribed by the rites [Iz IB, effectively a body of guidelines for behavior in a variety of situations, including everyday ones as well as ceremonial and official ones], but these days people use silk. That is frugal, and I follow the majority. To bow before ascending the stairs [when approaching a high-ranking official like a minister or the emperor] is what is prescribed by the rites, but these days people bow after ascending. That is arrogant, and—though it goes against the majority—I continue to bow before ascending.”
  • (Ivanhoe &Van Norden, 2005, p. 25)

Here we see Confucius demonstrating Awareness, not only of how his actions will be perceived by others, but also of the underlying ethical values and


This is not to be confused with Western ethical “intuitionism ” with which there is limited overlap; mostly the two ideas just happen to be associated with the same word.

rationale that would justify different decisions. In one case, ceremonial dress has changed over time. Rather than insist on what is traditional—which one might expect based on stereotypes of many East Asian cultures, stereotypes which sometimes have significant truth behind them—Confucius goes with the general trend of being thriftier, as that is an admirable value that can be accommodated at the same time as showing respect. The rationale for wearing a linen versus silk cap thus involves the interpretation of the guidelines of “ritual propriety,” 17 (f®), according to different contexts and competing considerations (thriftiness and respectfulness). However, in other contexts, e.g., situations where when one bows, Confucius does not go with the general trend which unknowingly exhibits less respect than the more traditional way of bowing. To ascend before bowing implicitly puts the bow-er on the same footing as the bow-ee, for instance a foreign diplomat coming before the emperor. There, respect is the more important underlying value. We see Confucius himself saying what really matters is not a specific rule, but rather understanding different situations. The example, and 17 itself, combine considerations that, on the face of it, are diverse: tradition, current social norms, thriftiness, ethical values, and even religious values. This is Interconnectedness again, insofar as the varying value-types may in principle be distinguishable, but they are operating in connection with one another in everyday situations (Shun, 2002, p. S3). Furthermore, within Chinese perspectives, the ethically cultivated person—by having Awareness, which means also understanding Context-First—perceives the different types of values operative in any given situation, and understands how to weigh and respect those competing values of different types as much as possible (Yu, Tao, & Ivanhoe, 2009, p. 3).

Another famous example of using Awareness to understand context comes from the Confucian philosopher Mengzi (l^d“), or “Mencius,” as he is known in the West. This story is especially interesting in relation to business because there are parallels to guidelines regarding appropriate versus inappropriate touching in the workplace (though the boundaries of appropriateness would be drawn quite differently in the West today).

4A17: Chunyu Kun [a rival philosopher] said, “That men and women should not touch in handing something to one another—is this the ritual [as in what is proscribed by 17]?”

Mengzi said, “It is the ritual.”

Chunyu Kun said, “If your sister-in-law were drowning, would you pull her out with your hand?’’

Mengzi said, “To not pull your sister-in-law out when she is drowning is to be a beast. That men and women should not touch in handing something to one another is the ritual, but if your sister-in-law is drowning, to pull her out with your hand is discretion.”

(Mengzi, 2008, p. 97)

Here, “discretion” is translating the Chinese qudn (ifi1;), which in this sense literally meant weighing things as if on a balance-scale. The takeaway here is that only an uncultivated “beast” would blindly follow normally strict social norms (or rituals of propriety) governing what sorts of touching are appropriate in public. By contrast, the ethically cultivated person understands how such social norms must be weighed against competing values such as compassion and benevolence toward those in need. This is an example of Awareness because what distinguishes the uncultivated “beast” from the cultivated ethical person is discretion or weighing. They appreciate not only the ethically relevant aspects of the situation, but they are also able to weigh competing values (ritual propriety versus compassion and benevolence) and come to the ethical decision. This is also an example of Context-First because context, not rules or such as strict social norms, is primary for guiding ethical behavior.

A final famous and influential example comes from a Daoism-influenced text rather than a Confucian classic. Chapter 8 of The Art of War contains a discussion of how to perceive differences in types of terrain and appropriately adapt one’s strategy to each.

And so, a general who thoroughly understands the advantages associated with the nine varieties of terrain knows how to deploy an army. A general who does not thoroughly understand the advantages associated with the nine varieties of terrain will not be able to enjoy what these offer, even though he is familiar with the lay of the land.

(Sunzi, 2011, pp. 51-52)

This passage is a perfect example of Awareness because of the implication that understanding terrain is not the same as (merely) perceiving the lay of the land. The task of the general is distinct from the task of the geographer;

for a general to understand terrain, he or she must understand not just geography, but also how it can promote or inhibit victory against an opponent. This involves more than accurately perceiving the facts at hand (i.e., the lay of the land), and instead having a more penetrating insight into how the facts at hand relate to decision-making. In the case of the general, this means intuiting how to use geography to arrange military resources for victory. In the case of a manager or executive, it means intuiting how to position company resources so as to come out ahead in a negotiation or increase market share, to take just two examples. Terrain-types are thus not “valley,” “stream,” or “mountain,” but rather “difficult,” “contested,” or “encircling.” The terminology may be unfamiliar, but it simply means that the wise decision-maker, whether in combat or business, must understand how the mere facts of any given situation relate to increasing success, whether that be military victory, competitive advantage across a negotiating table, or more ethical decisionmaking in the (for many Westerners) unfamiliar terrain of China. All that is Awareness, and with that level of understanding, or one might call it insight, one can achieve victory.

The figurativeness of the previous passage is in fact part of its strength— this is a key reason why The Art of War is of such enduring fame and relevance not just for strategy in war, but also in politics and business. The person without Awareness sees an obscure passage about generals interpreting the land to win in battle. By contrast, the person with Awareness sees not just the difference between terrain and geography; they also see the underlying wisdom and how it would apply to other situations, for instance in business. According to Chinese perspectives, the ethically cultivated person who can make savvy ethical decisions is not literal-minded and not focused just on the facts. Rather, they perceive the facts and then interpret with Awareness, that trained insight almost like a sixth sense, to see how they can promote more successful decisions—again, whether that’s victory in battle, negotiating a better deal, or making more ethical decisions. Gaining Awareness requires first accurately understanding the situations, or contexts, in which one finds oneself, as well as recognizing unexpected interconnections, e.g., between decision-making in military strategy, business strategy, and business ethics. That is why Awareness is on the top of the pyramid in our diagram—to understand it requires understanding Context-First as well as Interconnectedness. Using Awareness to switch from armies and geography to companies and products, we can see how the concept of terrain applies in business.

To demonstrate how understanding and internalizing Chinese perspectives on ethics can help business executives to achieve their business and ethical objectives, we next consider the challenges many Western companies face regarding the protection of intellectual property (IP) in China.

  • [1] This is simultaneously another instance of Interconnectedness: in this case, of ethics and aesthetics. 2 In contrast, Roger Ames and Henry Rosemont argue that Confucian ethics are not properly understood as a virtue ethics, but they do so on grounds consistent with our larger argument—that ultimately, Western virtue ethics like Aristotelianism promote adherence to universal rules that govern virtuous behavior, as recognized by the virtuous person (Ames and Rosemont, 2011).
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