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Happiness and the Good Life: A Classical Confucian Perspective

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This essay examines the classical (or early) Confucian perspective on the topic of happiness through the lens of three Western theories: hedonism, desire satisfaction theory, and objective list theory. My analysis of the two classical texts—the Analects (Lunyu 論語) and the Mencius (Mengzi 孟子)—reveals that three salient aspects of the Confucian conception of happiness, namely ethical pleasure, ethical desire, and moral innocence, play the fundamental role in the guidance and evaluation of an individual’s life. According to Confucius (Kongzi 孔子, 551–479 BCE) and Mencius (Mengzi 孟子, 371–289 BCE?), happiness consists primarily not in pleasure, but in ethical pleasure; the good life is not a life in which all or most of one’s desires are fulfilled, but a life in which the satisfaction of prudential desires is subject to the constraint of ethical desire; the source of the greatest happiness lies not in the attainment of the greatest political power, but rather in the cognizance of one’s moral innocence. For classical Confucian thinkers, the relationship between happiness and the good life is that happiness is a critically important constituent of the good life. However, happiness—defined in terms of pleasure, desire satisfaction, or a list of goods—needs to be tempered by moral constraints. In light of their views on happiness and the good life, I conclude that Confucius and Mencius each lived a good life that exemplified the three salient features of happiness, and to that extent they were happy.

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I would like to express my deep gratitude to two anonymous reviewers for their insightful comments on an early version of this article. My thanks also go to Philip. J. Ivanhoe and Justin Tiwald for their comments at the APA Meeting where I presented a short version of the paper. I am also indebted to Diane Grossman and Sheldon George, who kindly offered to read a draft. All their invaluable comments helped me improve the quality of this article.

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Correspondence to Shirong Luo.

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Luo, S. Happiness and the Good Life: A Classical Confucian Perspective. Dao 18, 41–58 (2019).

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