The Family as the Foundation of the Confucian Ethical Order

Benjamin Huff

The Confucian thinker Mencius maintains, “A man and woman living together is the most important of human relationships.”1 Classical Confucian thought forthrightly acknowledges the positive importance of sexuality for individual happiness and satisfaction, while taking a strong position on how sexuality is to be channeled ethically. The Confucian perspective on chastity is fascinating and challenging because while many ethical systems acknowledge the vital importance of family relationships, few make these relationships so central to the formulation of their ethical principles. For classical Confucians, the family is the origin of ethics, and marriage is the origin of the family. Hence the proper approach to sexuality, including marriage, is crucial to the entire ethical order, and fundamental to the well-being of both individuals and society.

To understand the classical Confucian perspective on chastity it is important to appreciate five key aspects. (1) Confucian thought recognizes that the desire for companionship and intimacy is one of the strongest human desires, independent of any reflection or moral training. Sexuality is a central component of human nature, and from a Confucian perspective this is entirely appropriate. (2) At the same time, sexual desire can be highly destructive when it is misdirected, and so there are strict limits on how this desire should be expressed. Both the positive and negative potential of sexuality are best understood in the context of (3) the Confucian framework for ethical thought as a whole, including human nature, its origin, and its fulfillment within the Way, and especially (4) the crucial role of the family in human flourishing. In Confucian thought, the family is the primary engine of moral formation and the primary locus of moral obligation. Indeed, human flourishing itself is understood primarily through the proper functioning of family relationships. Finally, (5) it is essential to understand that chastity is a virtue, in which desire becomes fully harmonious with what is right, as the result of proper cultivation. After presenting the Confucian understanding of chastity and its importance, I will conclude with some brief reflections on its relevance for contemporary society.

In this paper I focus on classical Confucian thought as anchored in the two most foundational sources: the Analects, a collection of the sayings

The Family in the Confucian Ethical Order 129 of Confucius, and the Mencius, which presents the teachings of the second most important Confucian, Mengzi or (Latinized) Mencius. I also draw on the Xunzi and the Great Learning at times where I take them to be expressing essentially the same perspective. Of course, many important thinkers and works appear later in the Confucian tradition, and Confucianism shaped Chinese life and culture for millennia, so there is much more that one could consider under the heading ‘Confucian’ than these. At the same time, later manifestations of Confucianism may reflect many other influences and vary in their faithfulness to these original texts. For simplicity, then, references to Confucianism hereafter refer to the thought of the classical texts just mentioned.

It is particularly important to note that in certain ways classical Confucian thought departs dramatically from stereotypes of Confucian cultures. A historical tendency of East Asian governments and social hierarchies toward authoritarianism, though hardly unique, is often associated with Confucianism. Yet this is one of the tendencies that the founders of the Confucian tradition criticized most sharply, even referring to harsh or unjust rulers as bandits or outlaws.2 It is also fair to say that East Asian societies, like most societies historically, often have been highly unjust to women in particular, and many of these unjust tendencies remain today. However, the classical Confucians were very conscious of the ways in which social hierarchies can become unjust, and insisted that those in positions of authority have a special obligation to use that authority in the service of benevolence and justice.3 Hence I invite the reader to set aside these stereotypical or merely cultural associations. Though we will not always agree with them, Confucius and Mencius represent Confucianism at its best, and they offer a morally serious perspective on humanity which we should earnestly consider.

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