The interpretation of Confucianism as a form of virtue ethics has been a productive avenue of recent research. Though not without its detractors, this interpretive proposal is fast becoming one of the most recognizable faces of Confucianism's contribution to contemporary discussions in ethics within Anglophone philosophical circles. This chapter will discuss salient features of classical Confucianism that makes it so congenial to its being seen as a form of virtue ethics.
Before proceeding, it would be useful to clarify what is meant by “classical Confucianism” on the one hand, and “virtue ethics” on the other. As indicated above, this chapter will focus on the “classical” variety of Confucianism. By classical Confucianism, I mean the tradition of ethical reflection exemplified by such thinkers as Confucius, Mencius and Xunzi from pre-imperial China (ca. fifth to third century BCE), and the texts associated with their teachings, namely, the Analects, Mencius and Xunzi. So understood, classical Confucianism is distinguished from later developments in Chinese intellectual history, especially those that took place after the introduction of Buddhism from India around the third or fourth century CE (e.g. “Neo-Confucianism”), or with the large-scale intrusion of European ideas into China in the nineteenth century CE (e.g. various forms of “New Confucianism”). Taken as a tradition of ethical reflection, classical Confucianism should also not be confused with various officially promulgated ideologies and their associated social and political forms that claimed the authority of Confucius in different periods of Chinese history.