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Ethics in the Xunzi

Part of the Dao Companions to Chinese Philosophy book series (DCCP,volume 7)


Xunzi’s views on ethics can be approached from at least two different perspectives. One, a more historical perspective, seeks to understand how Xunzi relates to the rest of the Chinese tradition, by way of comparison and contrast with other Chinese thinkers. The other perspective is more philosophical, and is concerned with understanding how Xunzi’s ideas fit together, and what are their strengths and weaknesses. This chapter takes the latter approach, since other chapters in this book cover Xunzi’s relation to his historical context. I first survey the main elements of Xunzi’s ethics and highlight the way that his approach pays attention to rules for behavior, social roles, virtues, and consequences of actions. Next, I offer an account of how these various elements relate to each other in Xunzi’s view, and I discuss some of the challenges involved for classifying his ethics in terms of various well-known forms of normative theory. After this reconstruction, the final section of the essay explores points where people may be inclined to object to his ideas, as well as aspects of his view that may still seem plausible and relevant in today’s world.


  • Good Form
  • Filial Piety
  • Good Order
  • Confucian Ethic
  • Proper Role

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  1. 1.

    For an explanation and defense of this personified way of speaking of Xunzi, see the introduction to Hutton (2014).

  2. 2.

    Some, therefore, might criticize this approach. However, the project here is to understand Xunzi, and not to try to do what Xunzi conceived himself as doing, namely adhering to and defending the Way, so we need not follow his own approach exactly. Also, scholars standardly break problems down into smaller, more manageable pieces, and so unless one rejects that basic practice (which would come at a substantial cost), there should be little objection to singling out part of Xunzi’s view as a part and analyzing that. Other chapters here address other parts, and the task of integrating (and perhaps readjusting) one’s understanding of the various parts is left to the readers of this book, in light of all the discussions taken together.

  3. 3.

    Here I merely report the current situation, rather than endorsing it. The desirability or undesirability of treating ethics as a theoretical inquiry is itself a topic of no small debate, but one that would not be appropriate on this occasion.

  4. 4.

    The discipline of “applied ethics” is arguably closer to what Xunzi is doing, but even applied ethics as commonly practiced today tends to be more theoretical than Xunzi’s own approach.

  5. 5.

    Of course, Xunzi does at times offer reasons for wanting to follow the Way. However, since those remarks pertain more to the question of “Why be moral?” than “What is the content of morality?” (which is my focus in this essay), I will not be discussing them further here.

  6. 6.

    Compare also the similar remark about ritual as “ultimate” at HKCS 19/92/15–16, H 205.163–64. All translations of the Xunzi here are taken or modified from Hutton (2014).

  7. 7.

    The title tianzi 天子 (“Son of Heaven”) was the official title of the ruler of the Zhou dynasty, who was regarded as having authority over the zhuhou 諸侯 (“feudal lords”), to whom he awarded control of particular territories.

  8. 8.

    One reason for why rituals occupy such a prominent place in Xunzi’s ethics is that he believes that human nature is bad, and hence that in general people must depend on tradition and other resources outside themselves in order to learn how to be good. This point is discussed at length in the essays by Tang Siufu and Aaron Stalnaker in this volume, so I will not explore it here. However, in addition to its role as a corrective to human nature , another imporant reason for ritual’s prominent place in Xunzi’s view has to do with how ritual relates to the other elements of his ethics. I discuss this issue further below in the main text, on pp. 75–76.

  9. 9.

    A few passages in the text treat the gentleman as second best after the sage, but many other passages make no distinction between them or even treat them as equivalent. The passages that differentiate the gentleman from the sage appear mostly in contexts where Xunzi is speaking in detail about stages of moral development, whereas the passages expressing Xunzi’s ethical ideals tend to overlook any such distinction. For these reasons, in this essay I will largely bypass the distinction as well, and readers looking for treatment of cases where the distinction is more relevant are advised to consult Aaron Stalnaker’s contribution to this volume.

  10. 10.

    As per note 5 above, Xunzi also offers some reasons for wanting to become a gentleman or sage , and he is explicit that in some sense ordinary “people in the streets” all have the potential for achieving such moral perfection (HKCS 23/116/6, H 254.252). Again, though, I will not discuss those passages here, since they pertain to a different set of questions than the focus of this chapter.

  11. 11.

    How to understand “virtue” in relation to Chinese texts is a potentially contentious issue that I cannot analyze in depth here. In order to avoid confusion, in this essay I am not using “virtue” as a translation of the Chinese term de 德, though “virtue” is how that word is most commonly translated. Rather, as I deploy it, “virtue” is simply a label for whatever tendencies or dispositions of thought, feeling, and action that a thinker prescribes for people as desirable, good, and/or praiseworthy. I think that this is roughly the shared sense underlying many ancient and modern Western philosophical discussions of virtue. Roger Ames objects to talk of “virtues” in discussing Confucian thought on the grounds that such talk tends to reify and “metaphysicalize” features of actions and/or situations and make them “principles” (Ames 2011: 159–63, 180–83) in a way that he thinks incompatible with Chinese views. As an objection to how many or most contemporary Western philosophers conceive virtues, though, I think that would be grossly unfair. Those philosophers largely take virtues to be features of a person’s psychology, where that view is in turn compatible with various different metaphysical views. Ames himself invokes “propensities,” “inclinations,” and “dispositions” in explaining his views, which actually is perfectly in line with how many contemporary Western philosophers understand virtues.

  12. 12.

    According to the tabulations in Lau and Chen (1996: 783), ren 仁 appears 135 times in the text, making it the 89th most frequently used character (out of a total of 2726 different characters that appear in the Xunzi), which in turn places it in the top 5 % for frequency. Thus, Homer Dubs’ claim that in Xunzi’s thought ren “has almost disappeared” (Dubs 1927: 135) is a vast overstatement.

  13. 13.

    See also HKCS 27/127/27, H 292.115. In addition to these positive characterizations of ren in terms of caring for others, in a number of places the text also stresses how someone who is ren avoids harming others (HKCS 11/49/16–17, H 99.18–21; HKCS 13/65/18, H 139.208–11), or it treats harming others as incompatible with being ren except in the most unusual circumstances (HKCS 13/66/2–3, H 140.241–50). The constrast established in such passages tends to reinforce the idea that caring for others is one of the most salient features of ren. I do not mean to claim, however, that this is its only salient feature. For example, one other significant element of ren that would need to be addressed in a full account of Xunzi’s view is its relation to jing 敬 (“respect,” see e.g., HKCS 13/65/14, H 138.186). I have not ventured to offer such a full account on this occasion because space here is limited and in my opinion other parts of Xunzi’s view are more liable to be misunderstood and hence require more attention in an overview such as this. I do, however, offer some further discussion of ren below in the main text on p. 74, and in notes 25 and 52.

  14. 14.

    See HKCS 16/75/18–19, H 164.54–55 and HKCS 2/6/16, H 12.110. For more discussion of Xunzi’s conception of moral psychology, see my essay on that topic later in this volume.

  15. 15.

    In what follows, I present an argument that I first developed in Hutton (1996). Due to limits of space, the version here is highly abbreviated, but Eirik Harris reviews other parts of it in his essay in this volume, and I hope to present more of the argument in future publications.

  16. 16.

    It is worth noting that elsewhere we find the phrase “the yi of father and son” put in parallel with “the differentiation of husband and wife” (HKCS 23/116/2–3, H 254.245–46) and with “the correct relations (zheng 正) of lord and minister” (HKCS 23/116/10–11, H 254.266–67), so yi is not limited to lord and minister alone.

  17. 17.

    For example, see W 89, 113, 144, 169–70; and K I.153, 2.3; I. 154, 2.6; I.174, 3.2; I.188, 4.4; I.192, 4.10; I.227, 6.11; II. 154, 11.2c; III.35, 18.2; III.64, 19.4c; III.65–66, 19.5b; III.68, 19.7b; III.69, 19.8; III.147; III.158, 23.4b; 159, 23.5a; III.223, 27.66.

  18. 18.

    See HKCS 6/23/15–16, H 43.140 – 44.147.

  19. 19.

    Let me stress that I do not mean to suggest “proper role” as a new translation for yi; given the wide variety of ways in which the word yi is used in the text (as noun, adjective, and even adverb), I think no single term is adequate for rendering it into English consistently in all cases. For this reason, I prefer to leave it untranslated.

  20. 20.

    In addition, it is worth noting that in some places (e.g., HKCS 16/77/5–6, H168.189–90), Xunzi seems to use the word li 禮, which usually refers to the standard of ritual, to refer to the disposition, i.e., the virtue, of adhering faithfully to ritual. As I see it, Xunzi normally uses the compound li yi 禮義 (“ritual and yi”) to refer to two standards, and he uses the compound ren yi 仁義 (“ren and yi”) to refer to two virtues, and his choice to use one compound rather than the other is often explained precisely by whether he intends to discuss standards or virtues in the context.

  21. 21.

    Contrast the account of A. S. Cua , for instance, who explains Xunzi’s conception of yi as “the virtue of sound judgment . . . not unlike Aristotle’s phrónēsis or practical wisdom” (Cua 1989: 118). Cua’s view is based largely on a line (HKCS 15/71/23, H 155.355–56) where Xunzi says that one who is yi “follows li 理,” and Cua takes li as “reason ” (Cua 1985: 161). However, that reading is not plausible (see Hutton 2002: 368–69), and there li should be taken as (social) “good order” instead. For Xunzi, the norms of yi taken as a whole constitute a proper pattern for organizing society, and that is the sense in which one who is yi “follows good order.” (See also Eirik Harris’ contribution to this volume for more on this issue.)

  22. 22.

    Roger Ames and Henry Rosemont have argued that Confucian ethics should be understood as what they call “role ethics ” (Ames 2011; Rosemont and Ames 2009). Much of their argument depends on their view that, for Confucians, persons are in some sense constituted by their social roles. I am skeptical about their claims, especially as applied to Xunzi, but I lack space here to pursue an extensive analysis of Xunzi’s notion of the person in refutation of their arguments, so I must leave that for another occasion. In the meantime, I grant that social roles are important for Xunzi’s ethics, but not necessarily in the way that Ames and Rosemont think.

  23. 23.

    Some editions of the Xunzi have zhi 治 here, while others have li 理, but since these two words can be—and in Xunzi’s text often are—used as synonyms for (social) “good order,” it makes no difference to the meaning here (and commentators take them as equivalent in this instance), and so I use “good order” to cover both terms.

  24. 24.

    Although this passage comes from chapter 27 of the text, about whose authenticity some have expressed doubts, I think all of its points also find support elsewhere in better attested chapters of the Xunzi, as I indicate in the main text and other footnotes, so here I use it primarily as convenient way of drawing together and summarizing a number of otherwise scattered observations.

  25. 25.

    Similarly, in another passage Xunzi discusses the ideal situation in which “the noble and the lowly are appropriately ranked” (gui jian you deng 貴賤有等), “the more intimate are properly divided from the more distant” (qin shu you fen 親疏有分), and “elders and young have their proper ordering” (zhang you you xu 長幼有序), and he then comments that “one who is ren is ren according to these things” (HKCS 24/119/13–14, H 260.106 – 261.111). See also the passage translated in note 52 below.

  26. 26.

    Compare this line with the remarks about sages establishing ritual as wen 文 (“good form”) for ai 愛 (“care”) at HKCS 19/96/10–21, H 213.467 – 214.489, and the remark about a characteristic function of ritual as mei 美 (“beautifying”) at HKCS 19/94/20, H 210.354.

  27. 27.

    This is certainly the case with ritual, as shown by HKCS 17/82/22 – 17/83/1, H 181.238–41, for example.

  28. 28.

    Contrast Soles (1999), who describes Xunzi’s ethics as “rule-based” as opposed to “virtue-based.” As should be apparent from the preceding discussion in the main text, I think he is mistaken, and his mistake is largely due to completely overlooking the way in which, for Xunzi, ritual and yi are supposed to mediate but also express the caring that is at the center of the virtue of ren. Liu Yuli (2004), on the other hand, argues that given the kind of relationship between ren and ritual described here, Confucian views—and she explicitly includes Xunzi in her claim—should not be regarded as either solely virtue ethics or solely rule ethics. However, I think her rejection of the virtue ethics interpretation is not justified, because it is based on a particular conception of virtue ethics (what she calls a “radical” and “reductionist view”—see Liu 2004: 4, 9n15) that does not exhaust the full range of possibilities for what can be considered a form of virtue ethics . I would raise a similar objection to Mou (2009: 29–30), who adopts a position like Liu’s , arguing that Confucian views should not be classed as virtue ethics alone, but should be regarded as both virtue ethics and “conduct ethics.” My own proposal for how Xunzi’s thought does fit an influential model of virtue ethics can be found in Hutton (2015a). Compare also Wang (2011).

  29. 29.

    I add the qualification “wholly” here in order to allow for cases where the dancer is part of a group performance, and hence the dance does not consist in her movements alone.

  30. 30.

    Modern readers are especially likely to feel tempted to approach Xunzi’s discussions about creating order as solely a matter of causes producing distinct effects, like when people debate whether increasing the number of armed citizens will lead to a reduction in crime. I would hazard that this temptation is due to the widespread ideal nowadays of approaching government problems “scientifically,” which often involves thinking in terms of causes and effects, and especially treating the effects as something that can be characterized in fairly simple behavioral terms, objectively observed, and quantitatively measured, so as to be amenable to statistical analysis. However, we should resist this temptation when reading Xunzi (and many other ancient texts). Both Soles (1999) and Robins (2014) seem to me to fail to appreciate this point, which then leads them to label Xunzi a consequentialist. As I argue below in the main text, if Xunzi is a consequentialist at all, he is not one in any typical sense of that term.

  31. 31.

    And of course, Xunzi does speak of the “embodiment” of the Way at the level of society as well. See HKCS 12/60/10–18, H 124.271 – 126.322, though there the word used in Chinese is xing 形 rather than ti 體.

  32. 32.

    That Xunzi is not a typical act consequentialist is especially clear from the chapter 3 passage quoted above, since act consequentialism typically allows, even demands, “trade-offs” between acts that would normally be prohibited and the good consequences that follow from them: e.g., if in a particular circumstance one can maximize social order by doing something that would, in most other circumstances, decrease social order, then according to the theory one should do that act—but such behavior is what Xunzi explicitly rejects in that passage.

  33. 33.

    For Xunzi’s awareness of this facet of Mozi’s thought, see HKCS 10/44/20 – 10/45/14, H 88.216 – 90.273. That passage is discussed extensively in Hui-chieh Loy’s contribution to this volume.

  34. 34.

    Xunzi himself occasionally uses the term with this sense, such as HKCS 10/43/13, H 86.122; 12/60/3, H 124.250; and 19/90/7, H 201.15, among other instances.

  35. 35.

    The description here is highly reminiscent of Aristotle’s famous “doctrine of the mean”—see Nicomachean Ethics II.6, 1106b21–23.

  36. 36.

    Paul Goldin has claimed that Xunzi’s ethics are deontological on the grounds of “his commitment to the dao as the infallible standard of right and wrong conduct” (Goldin 2001: 497), but that comment is rather obscure. Elsewhere, Goldin appeals to Xunzi’s cosmology in claiming that he is not a utilitarian (Goldin 1999: 71, 134n. 49), and he appears to read Xunzi as akin to a natural law theorist (Goldin 2011: 81–86), and perhaps that is what the comment is referring to. I am afraid, though, that as a reason for calling Xunzi a deontologist , this reasoning confuses metaethics with normative theory: natural law is most properly considered a metaethical view, whereas utilitarianism is a normative theory, and the two are in fact not incompatible. Alternatively, Lee Ming-huei has argued that Confucian ethics (including Xunzi) must be classed as deontological , on the grounds that consequentialism and deontology are exclusive and exhaustive possibilities for normative theory, and Confucians cannot be classed as consequentialists (Lee 2013). For a response to that argument, see Van Norden (2013) and Hutton (2015b).

  37. 37.

    Xunzi does not name any particular figures whom he takes to have committed this error, but his criticisms of other ru 儒 (commonly translated as “Confucians,” here left untranslated) at HKCS 6/24/24 – 6/25/2, H 46.219–29 perhaps come close to the sort of case in which a person focuses on wen to the extent of missing the Way.

  38. 38.

    Indeed, even when Xunzi offers his own positive characterizations of the Way rather than criticizing the views of others (for example, see HKCS 8/28/15–16, H 55.101–3; 12/59/11 – 12/60/2, H 123.204–42; 16/77/5–6, H 168.189–90), he does not provide any clearer answer to this question, and those other passages only raise more questions about how the aspects of the Way that they discuss relate to each other as well as to the considerations listed in chapters 17 and 21.

  39. 39.

    Compare HKCS 17/82/20, H 181.227–31.

  40. 40.

    HKCS 8/32/11, H 62.373–74; 10/43/19, H 86.143–44; 12/58/6, H 121.137; 12/62/20, H 131.503; and 20/99/1, H 218.28.

  41. 41.

    See HKCS 12/57/3–9, H 117.1–29. For more discussion of that passage, see Hutton (2002: 363–65).

  42. 42.

    Paul Goldin has remarked, “Xunzi avoids lengthy characterizations of the Way because it is ultimately ineffable” (Goldin 1999: 103–4). I think this observation is basically right, but whereas Goldin does not make much of this point, I think that the Way’s ineffability—or as I would prefer to call it, “uncodifiability,” to borrow a phrase from McDowell (1979)—is actually a key part of Xunzi’s view that underlies much of his approach to ethics.

  43. 43.

    Xunzi spends more time discussing the role of ruler than any other role, and passages like HKCS 12/59/11 – 12/60/2, H123.204–42 get close to a fairly systematic and comprehensive account of that role, but when read against the background of all of Xunzi’s other remarks, it is clear that even that passage captures at best only part of Xunzi’s understanding of the role of a ruler .

  44. 44.

    It might be proposed that Xunzi does not spend much time talking about the details of ritual because he thinks that people can simply learn them by consulting the body of ritual lore that existed in early China. Although such an explanation cannot be excluded, I think there are textual grounds for doubting that it can be the whole story, as I go on to note in the main text.

  45. 45.

    One could of course try to “fill in” Xunzi’s picture of what the rituals demand by looking to the bodies of ritual lore that have come down to us, such as those preserved in the Liji , the Zhouli, the Yili, and other received texts, as well as texts that have been recovered in recent archaeological finds. However, since the Xunzi contains descriptions of rituals that do not match any of those texts, and even those texts may not contain all the rituals that Xunzi envisions, it would not be entirely reliable to try to fill in his view in this way.

  46. 46.

    Again, see HKCS 12/57/3–9, H 117.1–29 and my discussion of that passage in Hutton (2002: 363–65).

  47. 47.

    There are some disputes about the reading of this line. For an explanation of my reading, see Hutton (2014: 379n d).

  48. 48.

    Although Xunzi does not discuss these other rituals elsewhere, the implication of the sentence would seem to be that some non-sage-kings (perhaps bad or mediocre rulers?) had also tried their hand at creating rituals.

  49. 49.

    Mark Berkson’s contribution to this volume is an excellent example of such a discussion.

  50. 50.

    That is to say, we must approach the evaluation of Xunzi like that of Aristotle and other thinkers who do not have as their primary aim in discussing ethics the provision of necessary and sufficient criteria for right action. In the case of Aristotle , McDowell trenchantly states, “It is sometimes complained that Aristotle does not attempt to outline a decision procedure for questions about how to behave. But we have good reason to be suspicious of the assumption that there must be something to be found along the route he does not follow” (McDowell 1979: 347–48). The same point can be made in defense of Xunzi as well.

  51. 51.

    To this extent, there is at least a substantial overlap between Xunzi’s view and what is known as “care ethics .” Whether Xunzi’s view should, moreover, be classed as a form of care ethics is an issue that is too complicated to analyze here, but the question surely deserves further reflection, and even if one decides that Xunzi’s position is not a form of care ethics , there is arguably much that those developing care ethics might still find of interest in his thought.

  52. 52.

    See also HKCS 27/127/26, H 292.104–7: “To treat relatives as is appropriate for relatives, to treat old friends as is appropriate for old friends, to treat servants as is appropriate for servants, to treat laborers as is appropriate for laborers—these are the gradations in ren.”

  53. 53.

    For example, in chapter 19 (HKCS 19/97/7–12, H 214.510 – 215.530) he provides an extended explanation for why one’s lord deserves to be mourned to a degree that matches what would otherwise be reserved for only one’s parents. Part of this passage is translated below on p. 90.

  54. 54.

    Shun is mentioned in the context immediately prior to passage I quote here. The story of being hated by his parents is mentioned at HKCS 27/137/22, H 316.713–14.

  55. 55.

    See HKCS 19/96/10–21, H 213.467 – 214.489.

  56. 56.

    Compare also HKCS 4/13/4, H 24.40–41. Nowadays, one might be more tempted to use the love between spouses as the proper model for understanding care. It is worth asking whether that would indeed be a better model than the parent-child relationship, but I cannot pursue those issues here.

  57. 57.

    HKCS 19/92/17–18, H 206.167–71.


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Hutton, E.L. (2016). Ethics in the Xunzi . In: Hutton, E. (eds) Dao Companion to the Philosophy of Xunzi. Dao Companions to Chinese Philosophy, vol 7. Springer, Dordrecht.

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