What Was the Ultimate Virtue According to Confucius What Was the Ultimate Virtue According to Confucius

What Was the Ultimate Virtue According to Confucius? 4 Essential Details Defining the Foundation of Morality

Confucius was born in 551 BC in China. Being a legendary figure his teachings have deeply influenced Chinese society and beyond. His philosophy is known as Confucianism. It engrained a set of values that have shaped the ethical and moral fabric of societies for over two millennia.

At the heart of his teachings is the concept of virtue ethics, which emphasizes moral character over rule-based behavior. The virtues highlighted by Confucius include benevolence, righteousness, propriety, wisdom, trustworthiness, loyalty, filial piety, frugality, and others.

But what was the ultimate virtue according to Confucius, and how does it relate to our modern understanding of morality?

This orientation towards virtue ethics holds a significant place in Confucian teachings. Rather than focusing on the correctness of individual actions, Confucianism emphasizes the moral character of the person performing those actions.

According to Confucius, virtuous character arises from sincere effort, personal growth, and learning. Thus, one’s actions are seen as a reflection of their inner virtues.

Confucianism concept
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What Was the Ultimate Virtue According to Confucius?

The principles of Confucian virtue ethics revolve around the idea of human-centered virtues for leading a peaceful life.

For Confucius, the golden rule was: “Do not do unto others what you would not want others to do unto you.” This aphorism encapsulates the essence of his teachings. It underlines the importance of empathy and respect in interpersonal relations.

He believed that cultivating these virtues within oneself would lead to righteous actions, thereby creating harmony in society.

In the realm of Confucian virtue ethics, each virtue holds its unique significance and is interconnected.

For instance, ren (benevolence and compassion) cannot exist without yi (righteousness), and li (ritual propriety) cannot be attained without zhi (wisdom).

Each virtue contributes to the moral character of an individual. They collectively form the bedrock of a harmonious society. Understanding these intricacies gives us a deeper insight into the complex yet fascinating world of Confucian virtue ethics.


1. Understanding Trustworthiness as the Ultimate Virtue

In the realm of Confucian philosophy, trustworthiness, also known as “Xin“, holds a place of paramount importance. To comprehend the depth of this virtue, one must delve into the multifaceted nature of its meaning.

Xin has been translated variously from Chinese to English as faithfulness, sincerity, truthfulness, and honesty. At its core, it encapsulates the essence of being true to one’s word and serving as a reliable pillar of support for others. This concept is deeply embedded in Confucius’s teachings. It marks a pivotal virtue in his ethical framework.

What is Trustworthiness?

The role of trustworthiness in Confucian philosophy extends far beyond its individual significance.

  • It serves as the bedrock upon which all other virtues are built.
  • It is the foundation of a moral edifice, supporting and giving solidity to the other virtues that Confucianism upholds.
  • Without the presence of Xin, the structure of morality would crumble and falter.
  • This is because trustworthiness is directly linked to the concepts of respect for autonomy, beneficence, non-maleficence, and justice. All these are integral parts of Confucius’ ethics.
  • By practicing xin, one inherently respects the autonomy of others, offers benevolence, abstains from causing harm, and upholds justice.

Consider trustworthiness as the root system of a tree, with each root symbolizing a different virtue. Just as roots provide nourishment and stability to a tree, so does trustworthiness bolster and sustain the other virtues.

It permeates the entire moral system. It ensures that every action undertaken is grounded in sincerity and truth. This interconnectedness between trustworthiness and other virtues forms the basis of a harmonious society, as envisioned by Confucius.

Trustworthiness as virtue
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By prioritizing trustworthiness as a core virtue, Confucius emphasized the value of individual integrity and reliability in societal relationships.

In doing so, he laid the groundwork for an ethical system that promotes mutual respect, understanding, and empathy among individuals. Understanding the profound impact of trustworthiness in Confucian philosophy can offer us valuable insights into fostering moral communities, both in the historical context of ancient China and in contemporary societies.


2. The Four Sprouts and Remaining Virtues

As we delve deeper into the virtues embraced by Confucius, it is essential to explore the concept of the ‘Four Sprouts’ described by his follower, Mencius.

These sprouts are essentially seeds of virtue that, when nurtured, can bloom into a morally upright character. By understanding these, we will gain deeper insight into the Confucian perspective on morality.

The Four Sprouts

Mencius proposed that within every human there are four inherent tendencies or ‘sprouts‘—benevolence (ren), righteousness (yi), propriety (li), and wisdom (zhi). These sprouts have the potential to develop into the corresponding virtues when properly cultivated.

  • Benevolence refers to a natural inclination towards acts of love or acting in others’ interests, such as caring for a family member.
  • Righteousness prompts us not to violate prohibitions that are generally regarded as shameful or degrading, like bribery.
  • Propriety, or li, guides us in respecting others, knowing when to act and when to refrain, and navigating the delicate nuances of our interpersonal relationships.
  • Lastly, wisdom, or zhi, equips us with discernment—distinguishing what is true from false, what is right from wrong.

When these sprouts are carefully nurtured, they flourish into virtues that guide an individual’s moral conduct. However, if neglected, they may fail to grow, leading to moral decay—an explanation given by Mencius for the moral mess in the world.

Trustworthiness: The Foundation of All Virtues

While all virtues are important in Confucian thought, trustworthiness, or xin, stands out as the ultimate virtue. It was added by Dong Zhongshu to the original four virtues grouped together in the Mengzi.

Trustworthiness is considered the most significant virtue because it forms the foundation for other virtues. One could argue that all other virtues derive from it.

Without trustworthiness, benevolence could be feigned, righteousness could be pretentious, propriety could be superficial, and wisdom could be manipulated for self-interest.

Remaining Virtues: Filial Piety, Fraternal Love, Xi, and Zhi

  • Confucian philosophy also emphasizes other virtues like filial piety and fraternal love, which encompass respect and love for one’s parents and siblings, respectively.
  • Additionally, the virtues of xi, which represents learning, and zhi, meaning character, are also central.
  • Learning is highly valued as it helps to avoid ignorance, while character determines the path of morality or immorality one chooses.
  • These virtues, along with the Four Sprouts, contribute significantly to the moral fabric of an individual as per Confucian teachings.

Through this exploration, we can better understand the building blocks of moral character according to Confucius. It’s not merely about following rules but cultivating inner virtues that naturally lead to moral actions, with trustworthiness at the core.

What Was the Ultimate Virtue According to Confucius
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3.  The Role of Humaneness in Morality

Confucius’s concept of humaneness, known as “Ren” in Chinese, serves as the root of morality in his philosophy.

Ren is a foundational virtue of Confucianism that characterizes the bearing and behavior that an ideal human being should exhibit to promote a thriving human community.

This virtue originated from the handsomeness and bearing of young virtuous warriors. But it was transformed by Confucius into the uprightness of the junzi, who influences others toward ethical action with their excellence.

Confucius’s teachings suggest that acquiring ren may seem straightforward. In reality, it is a challenging and even elusive task. He once stated, “Whenever I want ren, it is as close as the palm of my hand.”

But he also noted that his best student, Yan Hui, was the only person he had known who had exhibited ren for any significant length of time, and then only for three months. This indicates that the attainment and practice of this virtue require great effort and dedication.

Mencius Interpretation of Ren

The philosopher Mencius, also known as the “second sage” of the Confucian tradition, offered an influential interpretation of ren.

According to Mencius, the sprout of ren is a spontaneous feeling of compassion and commiseration within the human heart. This feeling does not necessarily lead to moral action.

For this sprout of compassion and commiseration to develop into ren and the tendency towards morality to be realized, one must act with benevolence towards others and extend this benevolence to all of humanity when possible.

Family Ethics and Social Goods

Confucianism places a strong emphasis on family ethics, viewing social goods as extensions of these ethics.

Confucius believed that morality begins with those who are dear to us – our loved ones. Above all, one must be filial to his parents and love his siblings.

Then, he must extend this familial love and respect to others, empathizing with the heavens, the earth, people and things, and with his own heart.

In other words, if one can maintain harmony and kindness within the family, they can then apply these virtues to society at large, promoting a flourishing human community imbued with the virtue of ren.


4. The Importance of Learning and Character

Confucian teachings place a significant emphasis on the virtues of xi, or learning, and zhi, or character. These two virtues play a crucial role in the moral development of an individual, and their importance cannot be overstated in the context of Confucian philosophy.

Xi: The Virtue of Learning

Confucius regarded xi, the virtue of learning, as a fundamental element of personal growth and ethical conduct.

  • He believed that continuous learning is essential for avoiding ignorance and fostering intellectual humility.
  • According to Confucius, knowledge is not a destination but a lifelong journey.
  • For him, an educated mind is not one that knows everything, but one that realizes how much there still is to learn.

Hence, xi is a critical virtue that instills a sense of curiosity and the desire for continual self-improvement.

Zhi: The Virtue of Character

On the other hand, zhi refers to the virtue of character. It encompasses a range of moral qualities including honesty, integrity, and respect. In Confucian philosophy, our character determines the path of morality or immorality that we choose to follow.

When an individual’s character is steeped in virtue, they are more likely to make ethical decisions and contribute positively to society.

Confucius believed that the key to achieving moral excellence was to study and internalize the virtues of respect, honesty, and benevolence. He argued that individuals should strive to cultivate these virtues within themselves and encourage others to do the same, creating a harmonious and prosperous society in the process.


In essence, the virtues of learning and character are intrinsically linked.

Learning without character can lead to misconduct, while character without learning can result in a lack of understanding of one’s duties and responsibilities.

Therefore, both learning and character hold equal importance in Confucianism as they work together to build a virtuous individual who can contribute positively to society.


Applying Confucian Virtue Ethics in Contemporary Context

The teachings of Confucius, despite being formulated over two millennia ago, still hold relevance in contemporary society. These age-old philosophies not only provide personal guidance but also help societies navigate complex social dynamics.

statue of Confucius
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From promoting respect for elders to emphasizing social harmony and hierarchy, Confucian virtue ethics can be viewed as a blueprint for harmonious coexistence.

  • As stated by AsiaExchange, “It stresses hierarchy, social harmony, group orientation and respect for elders,” principles that are still very much alive within Asian cultures today.
  • One key way that Confucian virtue ethics manifests in modern society is through its influence on the family unit.
  • As expressed by BrilliantIO, Confucian ethics have left a profound impact on traditional Chinese society. It shaped religions, governments, and education, with its most noticeable influence seen within the family structure. This emphasis on familial respect and harmony translates into broader societal contexts, fostering environments of mutual respect and cooperation.
  • As argued by Shirong Luo, early Confucian texts advocate for a specific kind of agent-basing, namely ‘ren’-basing, suggesting that good actions derive their value directly from the admirable qualities of the agent.
  • Another key aspect of Confucianism that holds contemporary relevance is the idea of trust as a virtue. Confucian teachings could provide a philosophical justification for the necessity of trust in successful governance.
  • Julia Tao argues that “trust as a virtue—applicable to familial, civic, and political contexts—is critical to providing the best environment for humans to thrive.”

So, how can individuals and societies apply these virtues in their lives today? It begins with an understanding and appreciation of these virtues and their implications. By fostering a culture of respect and trust within our families, workplaces, and communities, we can create more harmonious environments.

We should also strive to develop our moral character and continuously seek knowledge to avoid ignorance. These practices not only enhance personal growth but also contribute to building stronger, more resilient societies.



Who was Confucius?

Confucius was a Chinese philosopher and teacher who lived during the 5th century BC.

What is the significance of the ultimate virtue?

The ultimate virtue is considered the highest ethical and moral standard that individuals should strive for in their lives.

How does Confucius define the ultimate virtue?

Confucius defines the ultimate virtue as the cultivation of one’s character and the pursuit of moral excellence.

Why is the ultimate virtue important in Confucianism?

The ultimate virtue is important in Confucianism as it forms the basis of personal and social harmony.

How can individuals practice the ultimate virtue?

Individuals can practice the ultimate virtue by following the principles of benevolence, righteousness, loyalty, and filial piety.

What are the benefits of embodying the ultimate virtue?

Embodying the ultimate virtue can lead to a fulfilled and meaningful life, harmonious relationships, and a just society.

Are there any criticisms of the ultimate virtue?

Yes, some critics argue that the ultimate virtue concept neglects individual freedom and may limit personal growth and expression.

Where can I learn more about Confucianism and the ultimate virtue?

You can learn more about Confucianism and the ultimate virtue through books, academic resources, and online platforms dedicated to the study of philosophy and ethics.



So, what was the ultimate virtue according to Confucius? In this informative journey through the virtue ethics of Confucius, we delved deeply into the significance of trustworthiness, the Four Sprouts, humaneness, learning, and character, and how these principles can be applied in modern society.

Central to Confucius’ teachings is the virtue of trustworthiness or sincerity. This cardinal virtue is the foundation upon which all other virtues are built. It was emphasized that without trustworthiness, the practice of other virtues could lack authenticity and depth.

We then moved on to discuss the Four Sprouts described by Mencius and their derivation from trustworthiness.

Confucius also stressed remaining virtues such as filial piety, fraternal love, Xi (learning), and Zhi (character). Each of these virtues plays a unique role in establishing morality and ethical conduct, according to Confucian philosophy.

Humaneness was discussed as the root of human morality according to Confucius. We explored how social goods are extensions of family ethics