Confucian ethics for Engineers

A very interesting overview of Confucian philosophy and its application for engineers. You can read the paper using one of the following links.

Engineers’ Moral Responsibility: A Confucian Perspective by Shan Jing, Neelke Doorn
Science and Engineering Ethics – Springer Nature

The mechanic, who wishes to do his work well, must first sharpen his tools

Confucian thought focuses on education and the cultivation of virtue, which makes it an interesting perspective to include in engineering education.

For the discussion of Confucianism, we draw on the writings of Confucius himself, the disciples of Confucius, and Mencius (a contemporary of Aristotle who lived two centuries after Confucius and who is generally considered to be the most prominent Confucian thinker after Confucius), and the disciples of Mencius.

The current paper discusses Confucian moral responsibility based on the Four Books: the Chinese classic texts illustrating the core value and belief systems in Confucianism.

Four books are four pre-Qin Chinese classic texts, including The Analects (Lunyu, 论语), The Great Learning (Daxue, 大学), The Doctrine of the Mean (Zhongyong, 中庸) and Mencius (Mengzi, 孟子). They were selected by Zhu Xi during the Song Dynasty to serve as a general introduction to Confucian thought. Use is made of the annotations of the Analects (Yang 2006) and of Mencius (Yang 2008). For the English translations, use has been made of Legge (1861–1872).

The Foundations of Confucian Ethical Theory

Confucianism arose in the patriarchal clan society, and was based on blood ties and established under the framework of Heavenly (the Heavenly Way) and Human (the Human Way) Relations. To understand the foundation of Confucian ethical theory, three characteristics are especially important: blood ties, Heaven, and human nature.

Blood Ties

The basis of ancient Chinese civilisation is a strong unity of nature and blood, including totem worship, which reflects the idea that humans are born out of nature and that they naturally worship nature. During the Yellow River civilization in the 3rd and 2nd millennium BC, cities developed as a result of flood control and irrigation of the Yellow River. During this time, political power was also reinforced. This influenced how the unity of nature and blood came to be seen. Nature became less prominent and blood ties became an essential ingredient of Chinese culture, and this ultimately led to the Confucian ethical culture (Chen 2006). Blood ties should be understood in a broad sense. The word that is usually translated in English as ‘country’ is actually composed of two words that are inextricably linked: ‘country’ (guo,国) and ‘family’ (jia, 家). In Chinese culture, the country has always been placed in the position of ‘the big family’. From this etymological perspective, but also from the psychological and emotional perspective of the patriotism of the Chinese nation, it reflects the idea that the ancient Chinese state was developed on the basis of the expanded family clan (Ge 1996). Because of the importance of blood ties, traditional Chinese culture is regarded as a ‘family-country isomorphism’ culture based on filial piety. These blood ties are fundamental to Confucian ethical theory.

The Heavenly Way

The word Heaven (tian, 天) has multiple meanings in Confucianism. The first meaning is close to nature as reflected in the following text from The Analects: “Does Heaven speak? The four seasons pursue their courses, and all things are continually being produced” (The Analects, 19).4 The second meaning relates to a higher system of rules, and this is the most important meaning in Confucianism. In this connotation, Heaven is supreme. In The Doctrine of the Mean,5 nature is presented as ‘what is conferred from Heaven’, where ‘nature’ should be interpreted as human nature. Although Heaven cannot be changed by human power, it can rationally be understood and realised by humans. The ‘Heavenly Way’ can be known through studying human affairs (the lower level), and the study of human life thus becomes the path to understanding the Heavenly Way (the higher level) (Yao 2000).6 Furthermore, Mencius pointed out that Heaven inherently possesses goodness, and that the way that humans achieve goodness in the service of Heaven is by “preserving one’s mental constitution” and “nourishing one’s nature” (Mencius, 7A).7 This evolved from the Heavenly Way into the Human Way.

The Human Way

The ‘Human Way’ is based on the goodness of human nature and continuous learning. In Confucianism, an individual should extend him- or herself so as to include others (Fung 1976). In other words, individuals should be as responsible for themselves as they are for others. Why should a person be responsible? Confucius and Mencius attempted to give an answer to this question, and in doing so developed the theory for which they are most famous: that of the original goodness of human nature. According to Confucianism, humans have an inborn nature, which is the basis for goodness. This means that there are good elements in the nature of man. Mencius further developed Confucius’ ideas about human nature in the compilation Mencius and attested that human nature is good. He did not claim that all people are born a sage (sheng ren, 圣人), but that there are good elements in human nature. There are also other elements, certainly, neither good nor bad in themselves, that when left uncontrolled can lead to evil. Mencius explained this in terms of what has become known as the four beginnings: “The feeling of compassion is the beginning of benevolence. The feeling of shame and dislike is the beginning of righteousness. The feeling of modesty and yielding is the beginning of propriety. The sense of right and wrong is the beginning of wisdom. Man has these four beginnings (benevolence, righteousness, propriety, and wisdom), just as he has four limbs” (Mencius, 6A:6). All people are born with these four beginnings, which, if fully developed, become the ‘four constant virtues’, and lead to responsibility. Mencius gave the example that none of us would fail to be moved if we saw an infant facing imminent death, such as by falling into an open well (Mencius, 2A:6). The reason that we would save the baby is not because we want to have a better relationship with the baby’s parents, nor to get the praise of the neighbours, or because of the despairing cry of the child, but because of our inborn human nature. This became the foundation for Confucian moral responsibility. The moral responsibility of Confucianism does not result from external regulations or coercion, but from the self-consciousness of the individual within human nature. Confucius understood human nature from the ‘genus’: “by nature, men are nearly alike” (The Analects, 17:2), by which he means that from birth, all human beings share the same nature, with similar universal characteristics. In the course of their lives, people may become different (“by practice, they get to be wide apart”; The Analects, 17:2). Hence, the environment in which people grow up is important, because this environment has a significant influence on how people will develop themselves. Accordingly, different people will undergo self-cultivation in different ways, resulting in a distinction between good and evil.

Within Confucian ethics, continuous learning is important for individuals, which is also reflected in the statement by Tszehsia8 in The Analects that “[a devoted learner is] learning extensively, and having a firm and sincere aim; inquiring with earnestness, and reflecting with self-application; virtue is in such a course” (The Analects, 19:6). The benefit is that one can proactively investigate new perspectives, attitudes, and behaviour, and take steps to improve one’s self-cultivation.

The Classification of Confucian Moral Responsibility

The core structure of Confucianism is ‘saint inside and king appearance’ (nei sheng wai wang, 内圣外王). The text of The Great Learning9 interrelates moral self-cultivation (saint inside) with general harmony (king appearance) in state and society, and is explained through a chain of achievements and activities. For an individual, once things are investigated (ge wu, 格物), his or her knowledge becomes complete (zhi zhi, 致知). Once a person’s knowledge is complete, his or her thoughts become sincere (cheng yi, 诚意). Once a person’s thoughts are sincere, his or her heart is rectified (zheng xin, 正心). Once a person’s heart is rectified, his or her character becomes cultivated (xiu shen, 修身). Once a person’s character is cultivated, his or her family is regulated. Once the families are regulated (qi jia, 齐家), the State becomes rightly governed (zhiguo, 治国). Once the State is rightly governed, the whole kingdom is made tranquil and happy (tianxiaping, 天下平) (The Great Learning). Mencius formulated this chain as follows: “People have this common saying: ‘The kingdom, the State, the family.’ The root of the kingdom is in the state. The root of the State is in the family. The root of the family is in the person of its head” (Mencius, 4A:5). This quote reflects an individual’s four levels of moral responsibility: self-responsibility, family responsibility, professional responsibility, responsibility to the universe. Confucian responsibilities are not isolated, but closely related, with progressive characteristics. First of all, Confucian moral responsibility is entirely based on individual self-cultivation, not only for ‘ordinary’ people but for all people: “From the emperor to the monks, you are all based on self-cultivation. The chaos and the final ruler are guilty” (The Great Learning). Previously, benevolence (or human-heartedness in other translations of the Chinese texts) was mentioned as the foundation of the goodness of human nature. In Confucianism, this benevolence is linked to the bloodline of human beings, more explicitly to the filial piety of a child to his or her parents.10 People should first of all take responsibility for their family, and then extend this responsibility to fulfil their responsibility to others. Thus, responsibility is shown progressively: “He is affectionate to his parents, and lovingly disposed to people generally. He is lovingly disposed to people generally, and kind to creatures” (Mencius, 7A:45).


Above, the chain of self-responsibility was mentioned, which refers to: investigating things (ge wu, 格物), complete knowledge (zhi zhi, 致知), accomplishing sincerity (cheng yi, 诚意) rectifying one’s heart (zheng xin, 正心), and practicing self-cultivation (xiu shen, 修身). Self-cultivation is the symbol of the saint inside, as it emphasizes an individual’s recognition, training and practice of the ‘four beginnings’. According to Confucianism, taking responsibility is not a result of persecution by external forces, but rather of the individual’s active commitment to his or her own responsibility: “One who restrains himself in order to observe the rites is benevolent. Once you can do this, you will be unanimously considered a man of benevolence. Such a practice wholly depends on the person himself, not on anybody else” (The Analects, 12:1). Benevolence (ren, 仁) is the core of Confucian self-cultivation. Self-love is the basic link in the logic of the development of ren, insofar as a person with self-love lives a long life of equilibrium (zhong, 中) and harmony (he 和). If a person does not know how to love him- or herself, even if they love some-one else, he or she may be hypocritical or have ulterior motives.

Although self-love is a necessary condition, it is not sufficient. People should continue to enhance the realm of benevolence from this starting point and expand it beyond self-love (Han 2016). Ren begins with love for one’s own family members, which, embodied as filial piety and fraternal duty, is the essence of ren. The basic way to practice ren is to apply the principles of loyalty (zhong, 忠) and consideration (shu, 恕) and to treat others as one would wish to be treated by them. The benevolent person cherishes objects and values human life, treats other people as his or her brothers and sisters and other living beings as their fellows. The benevolent person respects and serves the spirit and makes other people incline towards honesty, kindness and other important virtues,11 manifesting the essence of humanity. In other words, to practice self-cultivation with benevolence means taking on responsibilities in the family, in one’s profession and in the universe.

Family Responsibility

Confucianism views the family as the natural habitat of humans, and treats the family as the key unit in human society (Moise 1986). Family, as the most basic and intimate relationship, occupies an important and fundamental position in Confucianism, where the notion of family—unlike most western interpretations—does not contain clear boundaries between those who belong and those who do not belong to the family. Fei Xiaotong, a well-known Chinese sociologist, described traditional Chinese human relationships, including family, as: “[…] circles that appear on the surface of a lake when a rock is thrown into it. Everyone stands at the centre of the circles produced by his or her own social influence” (Fei 2012). Hence, family can be closer or further away, but it is more a matter of sliding scales than a clearly demarcated category.

Family responsibility refers to the concept of family-regulating (qi jia, 齐家) as in the text of The Great Learning. To achieve unison within one’s own family, it is of great importance to establish the moral responsibility of the family members. The Book of Rites12 mentions that “What are the things which men consider right? Kindness on the part of the father, and filial duty on that of the son; gentleness on the part of the elder brother, and obedience on that of the younger; righteousness on the part of the husband, and submission on that of the wife; kindness on the part of elders, and deference on that of juniors; with benevolence on the part of the ruler, and loyalty on that of the minister—these ten are the things which men consider to be right” (The Book of Rites, 7(2):19). That is to say, family members, especially the core members of the family, should handle the triple relationship: the parent and child relationship, the partner relationship and the relationship between young and old. ‘Filial Piety’ (xiao, 孝) and ‘Brotherhood’ (ti, 悌) are the two most important values of the familial relationship. In the relationship between parents and children, Confucianism emphasises the filial piety of children with respect to their parents. This piety of children towards their parents is enabled by the support of their parents. “Kindness on the part of elders, and deference on that of juniors” (The Book of Rites, 7(2):19) is not just the ethical requirement to deal with the relationship between people in family relations, but also the ethical requirement to deal with the relationship of peers outside the family. Specifically, elders should be friendly to young people and the young should respect the elderly people. These ethical requirements for handling family relationships are also the respective responsibilities of family members. As in the discussion of self-responsibility, the effect of family responsibility transcends family relationships, as reflected in this quote by Mencius: “If each man would love his parents and show the due respect to his elders, the whole land would enjoy tranquillity” (Mencius, 4A:11).

Professional Responsibility

Beyond the family, people also have a professional responsibility, which is clearly illustrated in the following quote by Confucius: “The mechanic, who wishes to do his work well, must first sharpen his tools” (The Analects, 15:10), where the word ‘tool’ is intended as a metaphor for both work (technical) skills but also to self-responsibility. The influential contemporary Confucian thinker Fung Yu-lan (冯友兰), discussed professional moral responsibilities in his book A New Treatise on the Nature of Man (Xinyuanren, 新原人). Fung Yu-lan argues that individual people cannot live without society. All people have a place in society, where they should “assume professional responsibility to the greatest extent so that human beings can live in harmony (jin xing zhi ming, 尽性至命)” (Fung 2007). Professional responsibility is achieved through virtues such as reverence, loyalty, courage, and honesty.13 By fulfilling their own self-responsibility, people also work for the benefit of society at large. According to Confucianism, no matter what kind of work a person is engaged in, one should work in one’s place, in one’s government, in one’s devotion to duty, and in diligent work. When in a position of responsibility, one should not ease off, but approach one’s work with loyalty.14 A clear example of how far this professional responsibility may go can be found in Mencius’ example of Da Yu (Mencius, 3A:4). The Emperor appointed Yu to manage the floods in the Yellow River. Yu was so dedicated that he was said to have passed his home three times without entering. Ultimately, it took Yu and his colleagues 13 years of continuous effort before they succeeded in dredging all the rivers, and in doing so, were able to manage the floods effectively. Mencius explained the dedication of Yu in terms of what would have happened if he had not assumed responsibility; many people in the kingdom would probably have been drowned during a flood. Hence, professional responsibility, even though it stems from self-responsibility and family responsibility, may come with great personal gains and losses.

Responsibility to the Universe

Lastly, in Confucianism, people have a responsibility to the universe, which includes all living creatures. Mencius recognised that people have a responsibility to animals as well, even if they were labelled ‘inferior’: “In regard to inferior creatures, the superior man is kind to them, he is affectionate to his parents, and lovingly disposed to people generally and kind to creatures” (Mencius, 7A:45) and “So is the superior man affected towards animals, having seen them alive, he cannot bear to see them die; having heard their dying cries, he cannot bear to eat their flesh; therefore, he keeps away from his slaughter-house and cook-room” (Mencius, 1A:7). In The Doctrine of the Mean, responsibility to the universe is explained in terms of the natural unity of all living things. In this regard, people have the responsibility not to interfere with, or to disrupt or destroy natural ecology, which is generally known as ‘The Harmonious Relationship between Man and Nature’ (min bao wu yu, 民胞物与), a term coined by Chang Tsai15 during the North Song Dynasty.


4The Analects (Lunyu, 论语) is the compilation of speeches by Confucius and his disciples.
5The Doctrine of the Mean (Zhongyong, 中庸) was originally a chapter in The Classic of Rites. The authorship of The Doctrine of the Mean is controversial. It is said to be written by Tzu Ssu (Zi Si, 子思) a disciple of Zeng Shen, but it is also maintained that it was written by Confucians during the Han Dynasties.
6Cf. Mencius’ quote that “He who has exhausted all his mental constitution knows his nature. Knowing his nature, he knows Heaven” (Mencius 25.1).
7Mencius (Mengzi, 孟子) was probably compiled by Mencius, his disciples or disciples of his disciples. The received text of the Mengzi is divided into seven ‘books,’ each of which is subdivided into two parts (labeled ‘A’ and ‘B’ in English), and then further subdivided into ‘chapters.’ As a result, a passage can be uniquely identified in any translation; for example, 1A1 is the first passage in any edition or translation of the text and 7B38 is the last. See also the entry on Mencius in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (https ://plato .stanf es/menci us/).
8Tsze-hsia (Zixia, 子夏), one of the most important disciples of Confucius, makes most of the pro-nouncements in section 19 of The Analects, broadly covering many of Confucius’ main ideas of humane-ness, the gentleman, and fondness for learning.
9The Great Learning, originally a chapter in The Classic of Rites, was probably written by Zeng Shen, a disciple of Confucius.
10Cf. “the filial piety is also the foundation of benevolence based on the bloodline of human beings” (The Analects, 1).
11The main Confucian virtues are: benevolence (仁, ren), righteousness (义, yi), courtesy or politeness (礼, li), wisdom ( 智, Zhi), trustworthiness (信, xin), courage (勇,yong), filial piety (孝, xiao), brother-hood (悌, ti), loyalty (忠, zhong), consideration (恕, shu), reverence(敬, jing), honesty (诚, cheng), char-acter And Integrity (廉, lian), shamefulness (耻, chi).
12The Book of Rites (Liji, 礼记) is a core text of the Confucian canon edited by Dai Sheng. The work consists of 49 chapters, outlining the social forms, administration and ceremonial rites of the Zhou Dynasty. Dai Sheng (dates unknown), also known as Xiao Dai, was a Confucian scholar and expert of the ritual classics who lived in the early Former Han Dynasty. Use has been made of the English (Legge 1861–1872).
13Cf. “Let the superior man never fail reverentially to order his own conduct” (The Analects, 12:5); “It is, in retirement, to be sedately grave; in the management of business, to be reverently attentive; in inter-course with others, to be strictly sincere” (The Analects, 13:19) and “In regard to his doing of business, he is anxious that it should be reverently careful” (The Analects, 16:10).
14Cf. Confucius’ response to his disciple Tsze-chang who asked how to engage in politics: “The art of governing is to keep its affairs before the mind without weariness, and to practise them with undeviating consistency” (The Analects, 12:14).
15Chang Tsai (Zhang Zai, 张载) (1020–1077), a realist philosopher of the Song Dynasty, was a pioneer in giving neo-Confucianism a metaphysical and epistemological foundation

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