, Volume 11, Issue 1, pp 39-52
Date: 07 Feb 2012

Setting the Record Straight: Confucius’ Notion of Ren

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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.