Zi lu (Wade Giles: Tzu Lu) commented:

... Not to enter public life is to ignore one's duty. Even the proper regulation of old and young cannot be set aside. How, then, can the duty between ruler and subject be set aside? This is to cause confusion in the most important of human relationships simply because one desires to keep unsullied one's character. The gentleman (junzi) takes office in order to do his duty. As for putting the Way (dao) into practice, he knows all along that it is hopeless. — (Analects 18.7)

Zi Lu is one of Confucius' disciples.

In this statement he argues that political participation is a righteous duty (I think). I'm not sure what he really means and furthermore, which theory about right and wrong does his sentiments constitute? Deontology puts moral duty at the forefront, while in judging a person based on virtue ethics, we prioritize positive character. In this passage, it seems that his sentiment concerns the obligatory duty to serve the state. Furthermore, he denounces keeping one's character unsullied, or pure, by forfeit of political service. Following that, he also states that putting the Way (virtue-based principles) into practice is hopeless. My surmise is that deontology trumps virtue ethics in this particular statement (although Zi Lu studies under Confucianism, a philosophical umbrella that comprises mainly virtue ethics).

  • 4
    Considering that "duty" is mentioned three times, and interchangeably with "proper regulation", while sullying one's character is essentially dismissed as minor, Tzu Lu's choice of duty over virtue seems pretty clear.
    – Conifold
    Sep 3, 2016 at 20:53
  • @Conifold would you want to add that as an answer?
    – Joseph Weissman
    Feb 9, 2017 at 22:13
  • @JosephWeissman This seems like it is too skimpy for an answer. I'd feel more comfortable if I was more familiar with Tzu Lu's ethics, but alas.
    – Conifold
    Feb 10, 2017 at 4:30

3 Answers 3


It is difficult to place confucianism in either Virtue Ethics or Deontology, since in his teaching there is a high emphasis on both( Analects 5.7 & 14.17 ). Although trough my study and understanding of The Analects I believe that the answer is Virtue Ethics. Also the question you have asked , does suit Zilu specifically well :

Analects 15.4.

The Master said, "You [Zilu], there are only a few who understand virtue [de]."

This tells us that Zilu is someone who has the capability to understand virtue since a few pages after this we read :

Analects 15.8.

The Master said, “Not to speak to a man who is capable of absorbing what you say is to let the man go to waste. To speak to a man who is incapable of absorbing what you say is to let your words go to waste...”

Confucious' views on this topic are not always clear but in his comments and defense of Guan Zhong whose actions were not align with what was considered his duty are strong argueements that Confucious leans Virtue Ethics :

Analects 14.17

Zigong said, “Guan Zhong was not humane. When Duke Huan had Prince Jiu killed, he chose not to die, and instead he decided to serve Duke Huan as his counselor.” The Master said, “When Guan Zhong served as the counselor of Duke Huan, he saw to it that Duke Huan would stand as the lord protector among the regional rulers, drawing all the states together under one empire. To this day, people [of all the Chinese states] still benefit from what he accomplished. If not for Guan Zhong, we would be [like the barbarian tribes,] wearing our hair

And in Analects 5.7 we can find insights into Confucious' and Zilu's stance on whether duty trumps the moral way :

The Master said, “If I cannot practice a proper way here in this world, then I shall take to the open sea and drift around on a bamboo raft. The person who will follow me would be You [Zilu].” Zilu was overjoyed when he heard these words..."

Here in 5.7 I argue that we have a denunciation of deontoligy without the moral way. Since if Confucious found that he could not practice the moral way in this world that he would turn away from the world and his duties and sail the sea. Also worth noting is that out of all his disciples he picks Zilu to come with him on this rhetorical journey.

Zilu is one of the three standout early students (Yan Hui, Zigong, Yan Hui) who followed Confucious into his exile. On Yan Hui we have very little probably since he passed away early but he is mentioned in the Analects to Confucious' best student someone who's knowledge might even surpass Confucious( Look Analects 5.9 ), Zigong who has often protested when he did not agree with Confucious( As in 14.7 ), but Zilu is mentioned as a very faitful student who tried to apply Confucious' teaching as mentioned in 5.14

Before Zilu was able to put into practice what he had heard, he only feared that he might hear something else.

Based on this I believe that Zilu's philosophy is reflective of Confucious'. Since we can say that Confucious' philosophy is definitively leaning to Virtue Ethics, we can assume the same for Zilu's.

At the same time we can not deny the presence of deontology :

Analects 4.1.

The gentleman is conscious of [not breaking] the law, while the common man is conscious of what benefits he might reap [from the state].”

The idea that Zilu comes to realize in Analects 18.7 is a core belief in Confucious philosophy, that public service is a part of the moral way. The word Junzi can also be translated as a person of high standing, or ruler. But not everyone who is in public service is a moral person similar as in :

Analects 14.4

The Master said, “A person who has integrity is sure to have something to say, but a person who has something to say does not necessarily have integrity."

Further understanding of what a Junzi is, and how public service is a part of the moral way can be found in Analects 14.2 where Confucious is again talking to Zilu :

Zilu asked about the gentleman [junzi]. The Master said, “He cultivates himself in order to acquire a respectful attitude.” “Is that all?” “He cultivates himself in order to give ease to those around him.” “Is that all?” “He cultivates himself in order to give ease to the people. To cultivate oneself in order to give ease to the people—even the sage rulers Yao and Shun found it difficult to do.”

And the final sentence is something I have not yet understood myself but Zilu it is very much reflective of Confucious again, as in Analects 14.3 ( With Zilu again )

Zilu spent the night at the Stone Gate. The gatekeeper asked him, “Where did you come from?” Zilu said, “From the Kong family.” “Is that the person who knows that what he is working toward simply cannot be realized?”

The gatekeeper's comment is in refference to Confucious.


It has been a long time since I read the Analects, but as I remember it, for Confuscianists what we translate as 'duty' is something quite different from what Western philosophy usually calls duty, (judging from those who used it most clearly -- The early Utilitarians and Kant.)

Aristotle's 'virtue' is something some individual develops or inherits, and Kant's 'duty' is something everyone must do regardless of who they are born or what office they fill.

But in a world of expectations as dense as China of the time seems to be the Confucian 'duty' falls to you because of who you are, like Aristotle's virtue. And for the Taoist successfully navigating all of those control structures requires the 'virtue' of casting off the excessive leverage of human expectations and acting in accord with nature beyond humanity, something like Kant's duty to respect autonomy or Bentham's duty to increase happiness.

The 'duty' is to specific groups to which you owe your existence. It differs in content between individuals, only the gentleman incurs this duty and serves in this way. Western philosophical 'duty' is to God or Humanity, and is either uniform or chosen.

So even though they are translated the opposite way around much of the time, I see Taoism as deontological, and this as virtue ethics, the virtue being obedience and freedom from arrogance.


Deontology does not promote compliance with orders from people in more powerful positions in society, if the orders disrespect the ideas Truth and Love. Deontology means respecting good ideas, i.e. Truth and Love, which are above all people. If a person in a more powerful position than selves orders selves to disrespect Truth and Love, and selves obey, it would be a transgression of deontology. The reason for respecting good ideas above all people is sustainability. Creativity is not effective without the idea Truth, which causes corresponding communication. Love, which was the origin of social contract theory and the law, is the idea, which i.e. cause protection of creative individuals against nihilist groups. Each individual is always weak due to singularity. Therefore without Love, creativity is not effective and sustainability for current large populations can become problematic if respect for Love is not a norm of society.

"Most virtue ethics theories take their inspiration from Aristotle who declared that a virtuous person is someone who has ideal character traits." (From: http://www.iep.utm.edu/virtue/ on 7 Sep 2017)

"Whilst defining the word 'false' Aristotle wrote in parenthesis, when quoting a deceptive argument in the Hippias as follows: 'that the man who is able to speak false is false (and this, of course, is the man of knowledge and good sense)'" ... "'Used of a false thing. On the one hand, either because it has not been assembled or because it would be impossible for it to be assembled.'" (Aristotle)... "Accounting .. ideas rejects Aristotle's statement in De anima (1986: 140; 406b) that something, which is good for self, cannot be good for another." (From: http://www.africahead.co.za/Africahead/AccOfIdeas_files/2014PienaarMDIntequismsAccountingOfIdeasFairUse.html on 7 Sep 2017)

From the above it can be seen that Aristotle's philosophy was against creativity. Creativity can benefit self and others at the same time. Sustainability is not possible without creativity. Virtue ethics, which "take their inspiration from Aristotle" can therefore be rejected as far as sustainability is concerned.

In the light of the above, Zi Lu's view can perhaps be classified. In my view Confucianism is closer to deontology because Confucius promoted the Golden Rule (Love) and according to his biography, Truth was important to him. Taoism is closer to virtue ethics.

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