, Volume 11, Issue 1, pp 39–52

Setting the Record Straight: Confucius’ Notion of Ren


DOI: 10.1007/s11712-011-9256-8

Cite this article as:
Luo, S. Dao (2012) 11: 39. doi:10.1007/s11712-011-9256-8


Comparative studies involving early Confucian ethics often appear to assume that it is a unified approach to morality. This essay challenges that assumption by arguing that Confucius had a significantly different conception of ren, commonly viewed as central to Confucian ethics, from that of Mencius. It is generally accepted that ren has two senses: in a narrow sense, it is the virtue of benevolence (or compassion); in a broad sense, it is the all-encompassing ethical ideal. Both senses fail to capture Confucius’ conception of ren, for the narrow sense fits only Mencius’ understanding of ren, while the broad sense lacks emphasis and precision. I propose a third sense of ren, that is, ren as an integral, higher-order virtue with respect as its most salient component. This sense of ren is more in keeping with the textual evidence in the Analects. It played a key role in Confucius’ political-moral thinking and made his doctrine diverge considerably from that of Mencius, who understood ren primarily as compassion.


Confucian Ethics Confucius Ren Respect 

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media B.V. 2012

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Philosophy DepartmentSimmons CollegeBostonUSA