Rudyard Kipling famously penned, “East is East, West is West, and never the twain shall meet.” His poetic line suggests that Eastern and Western cultures are irreconcilably different and that their members engage in fundamentally incommensurable ethical practices. This paper argues that differing cultures do not necessarily operate by incommensurable moral principles. On the contrary, if we adopt a virtue ethics perspective, we discover that East and West are always meeting because their virtues share a natural basis and structure. This article sketches the rudiments of what a universal virtue ethic might look like. Such an ethic is especially relevant and valuable in this era of global business.
This is a preview of subscription content, access via your institution.
Buy single article
Instant access to the full article PDF.
Price excludes VAT (USA)
Tax calculation will be finalised during checkout.
As I have argued elsewhere, referring to “Asian” ethics or “Western” ethics is problematic because these geographical regions are huge and contain diverse communities. Moreover, cultures are not static nor are they isolated from each other. Cultures are continually cross-pollinating each other with ideas. However, in this paper, I have retained references to Eastern and Western ethics because these terms belong to the discourse of moral relativists who want to insist upon the vast disparity in cultures and their ethics (see, e.g., Quintelier and Fessler 2012). As I argue in this paper, pace the cultural ethical relativists, these cultures are not in fact so different insofar as elements of virtue ethics expounded by Aristotle and Confucius and manifested in countries as diverse as France (Western) and China (Eastern) are remarkably the same.
The only author I have found who has attempted a sustained and multi-topic comparison of Confucius and Aristotle is Yu (1998a). My analysis differs from his in several crucial respects. First, Yu is not especially interested in arguing for the possibility of a universal virtue of ethic as a counter to ethical relativism. Second, he is really contrasting Confucianism with Aristotle insofar as he draws on texts by Mencius and on other “Confucian” classics, not confining himself to the Analects (whose comments are traditionally imputed at least in part to Confucius). I prefer to stay close to the Analects because it makes it easier to stay focused on the highly similar structure and nature of virtue as argued for by two thinkers. I do not have to refract the arguments about virtue through an entire interpretive tradition. Third, I am interested in points of similarity either not discussed or not highlighted by Yu—e.g., the role and relevance of experience, the ability to cope with so-called “moral luck,” the crucial importance of shame, the focus on an internal locus of control, and the part played by the larger political community in the development of virtue. While I concur with Yu that both thinkers have a natural basis for virtue and view virtue as habitual, I disagree with his assertion that Aristotle’s ethic revolves around a distinction between virtuous activity and the possession of virtue, while Confucius has no such distinction. In the Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle’s general thrust is that virtue is valuable insofar as we act well—hence, his claim that a “virtuous” person who spends his or her entire life asleep would be virtuous only in an equivocal sense (Aristotle 1985, pp. 1095b25–1096a5). The real worth of virtue lies in its action-directing and action-modifying force. In my view, Aristotle and Confucius are in perfect accord on this score. Confucius, too, praises as virtuous not those who say noble things but those who enact virtue on a daily basis. For example, he praises his student Yen Hui who listens well to Confucius, incorporates what he hears into practice, and who finds joy in quotidian activities (Confucius 1997, p. 2.9, 6.11). Like Aristotle, Confucius would not have found Yen Hui of much ethical interest if the young man had spent his entire day sleeping. It is the endless active cultivation of virtue that is Confucius’ focus (Confucius 1997, p. 6.18, 7.3, 7.8, 7.28).
In addition, there is considerable anecdotal evidence suggesting that multinational firms do not necessarily suffer when they take what we in the West would see as the ethical high road. One huge American-based computer company decided it would stop paying bribes to customs officials in India. The CEO was warned by fellow computer firm managers that his decision, while perhaps morally commendable, would mean corporate disaster. The firm's computers would never be allowed to leave airport warehouses. Despite this dire prediction, the CEO stuck to his guns. He met with local officials and quietly told them that, although his predecessor may have sanctioned the payment of bribes, under his leadership, the firm would no longer pay bribes to expedite shipments. The firm soon found that its shipments were moving faster than ever before. When customs officials realized that there was nothing to be gained by holding up these shipments, they simply let the computers through. By making the morally right choice, the CEO gained a competitive advantage. I do not claim that such choices always have a happy ending, but I would argue that there is no compelling evidence that firms that act in accordance with high moral standards consistently suffer business losses.
Both Aristotelianism and Confucianism stress that virtue lies in a mean (Confucius 1997, p. 6.26; Aristotle 1985, p. 1106a2-30). I have consciously refrained from discussing this apparent similarity for several reasons. First, this particular issue is one that has recently been canvassed by several thinkers (Sim 2004; Xia 2009). Second, to do this issue justice, I would have to discuss at some length what Aristotle, in my view, does and does not compass within his notion of a mean “relative to us.” That topic itself is quite complex and very contentious as evidenced by Urmson’s claim that “few philosophical theories have been more frequently and more grossly misunderstood…than the doctrine of the mean” (Urmson 1988, p. 28). Third, the Confucian take on the idea of a mean is equally complex (Legge 1930; Leys 1997; Ames and Hall 2001), relating to complicated ideas of harmony, physics, process, etc. Consequently, to compare the two in any persuasive way would require a small treatise on its own.
All quotations are taken from Aristotle (1985). I have quoted from two different editions of the Confucius and have clearly indicated which edition I am citing at each point.
McLeod (2009) argues that Aristotle, unlike Confucius, makes morality depend primarily upon the exercise of individual reason. In my view, McLeod’s approach is overly simplistic because (1) he forgets that Aristotle is quite clear that the development of reason is itself a social/political process and (2) because he wrongly assumes that Confucius thinks virtue is acquired through a kind of slavish adherence to social norms.
Indeed, it would be worth investigating whether Asian-Americans, Asian-Canadians, etc., are thriving in the West at least in part because the Confucian virtue ethic overlaps so considerably with the Aristotelian ethic of virtue. As far as I know, no one has even raised this question, much less studied it.
Tu (1999, p. 292) also stresses that Confucius’ ethic aims at bringing human beings into harmony with the cosmos: “A life informed and enriched by an anthropocosmic vision is not merely human but fully human, which means a sympathetic resonance in and a mutual responsiveness to the will of Heaven.”
Abratt, R., Nel, D., & Higgs, N. (1992). An examination of the ethical beliefs of managers using selected scenarios in a cross-cultural environment. Journal of Business Ethics, 11, 29–35.
Ames, R., & Hall, D. (2001). Focusing the familiar: A translation and interpretation of the Zhongyong. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press).
Aristotle. (1985). Nicomachean ethics (T. Irwin, Trans.). Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Co.
Arjoon, S. (2000). Virtue theory as a dynamic theory of business. Journal of Business Ethics, 28(2), 159–178.
Athanassoulis, N. (2005). Morality, moral luck and responsibility: Fortune’s web. New York: Palgrave.
Boyle, J. (1992). Natural law and the ethics of tradition. In R. P. George (Ed.), Natural law theory: Contemporary essays (pp. 3–30). Oxford: Clarendon Press.
Chang, G. (2010). The confucian view of shame, New York Times. Retrieved December 2, from, http://www.nytimes.com.
Charles, J. D. (2010). Saving a bad marriage: Political liberalism and the natural law, a review of Christopher Wolfe, natural law liberalism. Modern Age, 52(1), 71.
Confucius. (1997) Analects. (D. C. Lau, Trans.). London: Penguin Books.
Confucius. (2003). Analects. (E. Slingerland, Trans.). Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Co.
Dancy, J. (2006). Ethics without principles. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
DeGeorge, R. (2005). A history of business ethics, unpublished talk, http://www.scu.edu/ethics/practicing/focusareas/business/conference/presentations/business-ethics-history.html. Accessed 16 Aug 2013.
Garver, E. (2006). Confronting Aristotle’s ethics. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Gier, N. (2004). The virtue of non-violence: From Gautama to Gandhi. Albany: SUNY Press.
Gowans, C. (2012) Moral relativism. In E. N. Zalta (ed.) The Stanford encyclopaedia of philosophy. Retrieved February 15, 2013, from http://plato.stanford.edu/archives/spr2012/entries/moralrelativism/.
Harman, G. (2000). Moral relativism defended. In G. Harman (Ed.), Explaining value and other essays in moral philosophy (pp. 3–19). Oxford: Clarendon Press.
Herman, B. (2000). Morality and everyday Life. Proceedings and Addresses of the APA, 74(2), 29–45.
Herodotus. (2003). The histories (A. de Selincourt, Trans.). London: Penguin Classics.
Hofstede, G. (1980). Culture’s consequences: International differences in work-related values. Beverly Hills: Sage.
Hofstede, G. (1983). National cultures in four dimensions: A research-theory of cultural dimensions among nations. International Studies of Management and Organization, 13, 52–60.
Hofstede, G. (1984). The cultural relativity of the quality of life concept. Academy of Management Review, 9, 389–398.
Hofstede, G., & Bond, M. H. (1988). The Confucius connection: From cultural roots to economic growth. Organizational Dynamics, 16(4), 5–21.
Hume, D. (1975) Enquiry concerning the principles of morals. In L. A. Selby-Bigge (ed.), 3rd ed. Oxford: Clarendon Press.
Ivanhoe, P. (2000). Confucian moral self-cultivation. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing.
Kipling, R. (1895). The ballad of East and West. http://www.bartleby.com/246/1129.html. Accessed 16 Aug 2013.
Kirkland, R. (2008). Taoism and confucianism (through the Han Dynasty). Encyclopedia of Taoism, 1, 137–140.
Kiss, E. (2006). Combining clarity and complexity: A layered approach to cross-cultural ethics. In R. Grant (Ed.), Naming evil, judging evil (pp. 139–173). Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Koehn, D., & Leung, A. (2008). Dignity in Western versus Chinese cultures: Theoretical overview and practical illustrations. Business and Society Review, 113(4), 477–504.
Kupperman, J. J. (1999). Learning from Asian philosophy. New York: Oxford University Press.
Legge, J. (1930). The four books, Confucian analects, the great learning, the doctrine of the mean, and the works of mencius. Shanghai: The Chinese Book Company.
Leung, A. (2000). Gender differences in guanxi behaviors: An examination of People’s Republic of China State-owned enterprises. International Review of Women and Leadership, 6, 48–59.
Leys, S. (1997). The analects of Confucius/translation and notes. New York: Norton Paperback.
Li, L. (2011). Performing bribery in China: Guanxi-practice, corruption with a human face. Journal of Contemporary China, 20(68), 1–20.
MacIntyre, A. (1981). After virtue. South Bend: University of Notre Dame Press.
McLeod, G. A. (2009). Moral personhood in confucius and aristotle, Unpublished doctoral dissertation, University of Connecticut, Storrs.
Meng, P. (2004). Relationship between man and nature in traditional human rights concepts of China and West, magazine of the China society for human rights studies, http://humanrights.cn/zt/magazine/200402004811100410.htm. Accessed 16 Aug 2013.
Osipovich, A. (2010). Bed, bath and bribes: IKEA’s struggle to do business in Putin’s Russia, foreign policy (September/October), http://www.foreignpolicy.com/articles/2010/08/16/bed_bath_and_bribes?page=full. Accessed 16 Aug 2013.
Porter, J. (2003). A tradition of civility: The natural law as a tradition of moral inquiry. Scottish Journal of Theology, 56(1), 27–48.
Provis, C. (2010). Virtuous decision making for business ethics. Journal of Business Ethics, 91(3), 3–16.
Quintelier, K. J. P., & Fessler, D. M. T. (2012). Varying versions of moral relativism: The philosophy and psychology of normative relativism. Biology and Philosophy, 27(1), 95–113.
Rachels, J. (2010). The elements of moral philosophy (6th ed.). New York: McGraw-Hill Higher Education.
Robertson, C. J., & Hoffman, J. J. (2000). How different are we? An investigation of Confucian values in the United States. Journal of Managerial Issues, 12(1), 34–48.
Romar, E. J. (2002). Virtue is good business: Confucianism as a practical business ethics. Journal of Business Ethics, 38(1–2), 119–131.
Rotter, J. B. (1954). Social learning and clinical psychology. New York: Prentice-Hall.
Sim, M. (2004). Harmony and the mean in the Nicomachean ethics and Zhongyong (中庸). Dao: A Journal of Comparative Philosophy, 3(2), 253–280.
Transparency International. (2011). Perceptions corruption index, http://cpi.transparency.org/cpi2011/results/. Accessed 16 Aug 2013.
Tu, W. (1999). Confucius: The embodiment of faith in humanity. World and I, 14(11), 292–305.
Urmson, J. O. (1988). Aristotle’s ethics. Oxford: Basil Blackwell.
Vitell, S., Nwachukwu, S., & Barnes, J. (1993). The effects of culture on ethical decision-making: An application of Hofstede’s typology. Journal of Business Ethics, 12, 753–760.
Wallis, V. (2004). Two old women: An Alaska legend of betrayal, courage, and survival. New York: Harper Perennial.
Wong, D. B. (1984). Moral relativity. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.
Wong, D. B. (2009). Comparative philosophy: Chinese and Western. In E. N. Zalta, (ed.), The Stanford encyclopedia of philosophy (Fall 2011 ed.), http://plato.stanford.edu/archives/fall2011/entries/comparphil-chiwes/. Accessed 16 Aug 2013.
Xia, F. (2009). A comparative study of two doctrines of the mean between Aristotle and Confucius,’ unpublished master’s Thesis, http://hdl.handle.net/1842/3621. Accessed 16 Aug 2013.
Yu, J. (1998a). The ethics of Confucius and Aristotle. New York: Routledge.
Yu, J. (1998b). Virtue: Confucius and Aristotle. Philosophy East & West, 48(2), 323–347.
Rights and permissions
About this article
Cite this article
Koehn, D. East Meets West: Toward a Universal Ethic of Virtue for Global Business. J Bus Ethics 116, 703–715 (2013). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10551-013-1816-x
- Ethical relativism
- Universal ethic
- Virtue ethics
- Global business