Engineering ethics education, ethical leadership, and Confucian ethics



Ethical leadership skills are crucial for professionally competent engineers working in a global context. This article explores the possibility of integrating a non-Western ethical tradition of Confucian ethics into the teaching of ethical leadership in engineering ethics. First comes a brief discussion of the historical origins of Confucianism and its persistence in contemporary Chinese culture. Second is a conceptualization of the major aspects of Confucian ethical leadership including moral power, role modeling, and meritocratic ethical leadership, introducing a prevalent approach to developing ethical leadership in the Confucian tradition: self-cultivation. The practice of self-cultivation often includes three interrelated processes: observation, reflection, and practice. The Confucian development of ethical leadership goes through four different moral psychological stages: beginner, developing learner, junzi, and sage. Finally, I discuss potential implications of the Confucian understanding of ethical leadership for teaching engineering ethics.


Confucian ethics Ethical leadership Self-cultivation Engineering ethics Ethics education 

Introduction: diversifying the cultural foundations of engineering ethics

Many current engineering ethics textbooks start with a discussion of the three ethical theories (consequentialism, deontology, and virtue ethics) central to the Western civilization. Insofar as engineering ethics education originated in the United States, the “American style” has become somewhat of a global standard (Luegenbiehl and Clancy 2017). Less prominent western theories (e.g., moral sentimentalism, pragmatism, feminism) and non-Western ethical resources (e.g., Confucianism, Daoism, Buddhism, Indian philosophy, African philosophy, various indigenous ideas) are significantly underrepresented in the dominant approaches to engineering ethics.

In the contemporary world a diverse professional ethics curriculum will contribute to the more sustainable development of a culturally inclusive engineering education system. A culturally diverse engineering ethics curriculum will increase the engagement of underrepresented student populations and international students in discussions. Incorporating these underrepresented ethical resources can also broaden students’ ethical perspectives, enrich their learning experiences, and enhance their moral sensitivity and imagination, as creative solutions to increasingly challenging ethics scenarios are often enlightened by diverse ethical frameworks.

In addition, the “relational character” shared by most of these underrepresented ethical frameworks will be able to produce theoretical and reflective tools for students who are interested in promoting social justice through their professional practices, including students who are involved in community engagement programs such as humanitarian engineering, engineers without borders, grand challenges scholars (Leydens and Lucena 2018). From the perspective of engineering practice, the integration of non-western ethical theories will be helpful for educating future engineers who are competent in making professional decisions in an increasingly global context when they are working with people from other cultures.

In summary, I want to explore possible approaches to diversifying the cultural foundations of engineering ethics. More specifically, this article explores the possibility of integrating the non-Western ethical tradition of Confucian ethics into the teaching of ethical leadership in engineering ethics. I begin with a brief discussion of the historical origins of Confucianism and its persistence in contemporary Chinese culture. I then conceptualize the major aspects of Confucian ethical leadership including moral power, role modeling, and meritocratic ethical leadership, introducing a prevalent approach to developing ethical leadership in the Confucian tradition: self-cultivation. Confucian self-cultivation includes three interrelated processes: observation, reflection, and practice. The Confucian development of ethical leadership is further manifest in four different moral psychological stages: beginner, developing learner, junzi, and sage. Finally, I discuss the potential implications of the Confucian understanding of ethical leadership for teaching engineering ethics.

Confucianism: past and present

Despite its origins 2500 years ago, the Confucian heritage persists in contemporary China, and is even influential in the practice of a technical profession like engineering. Professional Chinese engineers themselves may not always be aware of the extent to which this is the case, but the revival of Confucianism is being promoted by the Chinese government rebuilding of Confucians temples at home and the establishment of a growing network of Confucian Institutes throughout the world, including in the United States. The independent emergence of an interest in Confucianism more globally is witnessed by the recent publication of philosopher Daniel Gardner’s Confucianism: A Very Short Introduction in the popular Oxford University Press series.

As the short introduction argues, Confucius and his followers were mainly concerned with two fundamental questions: (1) What are the responsibilities of individuals to family, community, and society, and how might these responsibilities contribute to a stable and prosperous society? and (2) What makes an effective ruler and a good government? In contrast to some contemporaries, Confucius proposed a role-based communitarian ethics in which harmonies in society and government are based on the conscientious fulfillment of one’s roles (e.g., son, father, and official).

In response to the two questions, Gardner (2014) discusses what makes for a good person and a good government. To be a junzi (superior person, 君子), one must conscientiously participate in moral self-cultivation. A junzi needs to learn about the ancients and their ritual practices. By practicing proper rituals, one gets to know how to treat others appropriately. In government, a good ruler must model the morality that he would like his people to cultivate. This further entails the exercise of good judgment in selecting individuals whose moral character qualifies them for official service. A good official is obliged to assist the ruler in implementing good policies and to remonstrate the ruler when he falls short in goodness. However, when the ruler is hopelessly depraved, the official may refuse to serve the ruler and seek some other “enlightened ruler” to serve. Good government depends on the virtue of the ruler and the officials he appoints.

In Confucian ethics, junzi often serves as the ideal role model for competent leaders in professions such as politics. Cultivating the moral self is fundamental to effective political leadership. For a Confucian person, xiusheng (self-cultivation, 修身) is fundamental to other life-long projects including qijia (keeping families in order, 齐家), zhiguo (governing states well, 治国), and pingtianxia (pursuing peace under heaven, 平天下).

According to political theorist Daniel Bell (2016), such emphasis on the moral dimension of leadership still exists in current Chinese politics, especially in the ways Chinese political officials are selected, evaluated, and promoted. In the business literature, junzi has been widely regarded as the role model for leaders who strive to demonstrate genuine care and concern toward shareholders, stakeholders, and society at large (Ip 2011). Given the close relationship between engineering and business, it is understandable that the moral dimension of Confucian leadership may have a significant influence on engineering practice in the workplace. In addition, many government officials in the People’s Republic of China were educated or trained as engineers. Their promotions to administrative and management posts were often based on evaluations of their performance (both moral and technical) in previous positions in the workplace (Zhu 2017). Against this background, it is appropriate to consider some of the ways in which Confucianism can have practical benefit in the practice of engineering and be important in the teaching of engineering ethics.

Ethical leadership and Confucian ethics

For Confucius, the possession of de (virtue, 德) characterizes the leadership of junzi. The character德in the Confucian tradition often encompasses two meanings. On the one hand, de refers to a variety of virtues that are indispensable for a morally competent leader, virtues that include ren (compassion, 仁), yi (righteousness, 义), and li (rites, 礼). Among all of these virtues, ren is usually considered the most fundamental. On the other hand, de has a dynamic connotation that refers to the active process in which leaders exert moral influence on their followers. Such moral influence is a sort of moral power that allows leaders to “win a following without recourse to physical forces” (Riegel 2013). In Confucianism, morality itself is power. By developing morality, one develops respectfulness and leadership in the community.

The following passage from the Analects well captures the moral power of leaders in influencing and attracting followers:

One who rules through the power of virtue is analogous to the pole star: it simply remains in its place and receives the homage of the myriad lesser stars. (2.1)

Confucian ethical leadership takes effect mainly through role modeling. Philosopher of religion Cheryl Cottine (2016) distinguishes two mechanisms of role modeling in the early Confucian context: imitation modeling and influence modeling. In imitation model, followers focus on a model and try to imitate a moral leader. Influence modeling concentrates on the moral leaders themselves and the need to acknowledge their moral influence and work to be influential.

The ethical leadership of Confucian leaders is expected to exemplify ethical principles. Living in a highly technical and specialized world, it is understandable that leaders are often required to possess knowledge that is indispensable for making informed decisions. However, Confucius argued that ethical leadership is equal or even more important than technical knowledge (Li 2009). Leaders are expected to enact appropriate examples for others in the society.

For both Confucius and Mencius, people are born with equal potential to excel in their attachment to the good and become moral leaders (Wong 2017). In particular, Mencius’s moral egalitarianism argues that “[humans] are malleable, since none of them have innate defects” (Munro 1969, 15). It is through learning and environment that people become differentiated.

For Confucius, learning means critically observing how others and oneself make decisions across a wide range of situations. Thus the project of developing ethical leadership involves one’s critical engagement with the “inner world” (the cultivation of the moral self) and the “outer world” (the practical plausibility of moral decisions). In a description common to the Confucian tradition, the goal is to become a sage within and a king without. Ethical leadership is exhibited through the life-long and continuous effort to fulfill social responsibilities embedded in the roles people have in different communal contexts.

As Gardner (2014) rightly points out, the Confucian leader is expected to possess an ability to identify those subordinates whose moral character qualifies them for services. Leaders are selected and promoted based on merit exhibited in their performance in previous positions (Bell 2016). Ideally, the intellectual and moral competencies of leaders are supposed to be higher than those of others in the community. Excellent intellectual and moral abilities allow leaders to provide just judgment on the performance of their subordinates and recommend the best for promotion. In the Confucian tradition, leaders are normally identified and promoted by higher level leaders who are supposed to possess higher intellectual and moral competencies.

Critics from the Western democratic context, especially those who are not familiar with the meritocratic tradition of Confucianism, often feel worried that such allegedly meritocratic systems easily result in serious ethical issues. When leaders are trusted on their own to make subjective judgments about the moral character of others, this can open door to issues such as conflict of interest or cronyism. In the democratic context, leaders are often asked to avoid getting involved in any selecting processes in which a candidate shares a special relationship with leaders, due to the potential ethical issue called “conflict of interest.” This can even cause the selection process to be deprived of relevant knowledge about the personal character of a candidate. Impartiality is an indispensable virtue required for decision-makers in most Western democratic ethical systems.

Nevertheless, this view may tend to oversimplify the meritocratic nature of Confucian leadership. On the one hand, leaders may know much better about the person with whom they have a special relationship than other people in the same organization. For true Confucian moral leaders, it does not make sense for them to avoid involvement in the selection process just because of a close relationship. If leaders feel hesitant to recommend or criticize a candidate simply because a special relationship or not willing to take responsibility for associated moral risks (e.g., the reputation of leaders may be compromised), Confucianists may conclude that these leaders are not truly morally competent leaders and lack mature ethical leadership. For Confucian leaders, getting involved in situations in which a candidate shares a special relationship with them is not something to always be rejected. These situations are critical moments in which leaders can be tested on whether they have true ethical leadership.

Likewise, if a candidate with a special relationship with the leader does not live up to a leader’s trust, the candidate should bear some responsibility. The candidate needs to take a potential risk of tarnishing not only his/her own reputation but that of the leader as well. Business ethics professors Stephan Rothlin and Dennis McCann provide a good example for such potential moral risk:

If an accountant comes from the same village as her boss, it becomes very difficult for her to embezzle the firm’s funds without completely ruining her reputation (Rothlin and McCann 2014, 98).

Compared with leaders, followers often have the role responsibility of jian (remonstrance, 谏) in an organization. As philosophers Henry Rosemont and Roger Ames argue in their study of Confucian role ethics, a loyal minister within the court is often encouraged to remonstrate with the King rather than blindly comply with any orders (Rosemont and Ames 2016, 165). Practicing the responsibility of jian requires followers to possess a certain level of moral sensitivity, imagination, and diplomatic creativity.

Self-cultivation: developing ethical leadership

In the Confucian context, the most effective way to develop ethical leadership is self-cultivation, which according to philosopher Karyn Lai (2007) involves three interconnected processes: observation, reflection, and practice. As indicated earlier, to Confucianists, morality is integral to defining good leadership. Developing moral competency is in itself developing leadership that exerts effective moral influence on others. To become moral leaders, according to Confucius, we need to observe how moral exemplars behave in different situations. We need to observe how experienced moral leaders practice li (social and moral norms, 礼) in different circumstances.

Nevertheless, observation does not mean “just looking” or imitation. We are advised to critically evaluate and reflect on these behaviors in different situations and understand the reasons to act. In this sense, for Confucius, observing moral failures or incompetent leaders is as useful as observing moral successes or exemplars. A person should work to avoid becoming like the failures. Reflection is supposed to develop moral sensitivity to others and situations and it helps the moral learner tease out the morally significant factors in particular situations.

Practice is also critical when moral learners apply what they have observed and learned in new situations. Through practice, moral learners are able to integrate the moral sensitivity developed from previous experiences and test to what extent their understandings of the morally significant factors work in new situations. In general, the reiteration of the three processes cultivates the inner virtues of a person. At the same time, such persons gain moral respect from the community and develop ethical leadership.

Cultivating respectfulness (jing, 敬) is certainly crucial for leaders to construct an effective organization. Nevertheless, Confucius argued that the development of ethical leadership should not stop at respectfulness. The value of ethical leadership is always outward, pragmatic, and caring. Confucius argued, as moral leader, the junzi “cultivates himself to bring peace to all people” (14.42). To Confucius, competent ethical leadership is the key for leaders to win respect from their followers. It is difficult to imagine that people will feel comfortable and secure to be led by leaders with immature and unstable moral competence. No harmonious society is to be led by morally incompetent leaders. In this sense, cultivation of moral leaders is socially required. As pointed out by contemporary Chinese philosopher Chung-ying Cheng, a good society and a righteous government, from the Confucian perspective, “must start with and hence be founded on the moral perfection of the human person” (Cheng 2004, 124).

From the perspective of self-cultivation, the development of ethical leadership goes through four different stages: beginner, developing learner, junzi, and sage (Lai 2003). The first level beginner often emphasizes complying with Confucian norms li and acting within circumscribed contexts. Beginners are followers under apprenticeship to leaders. The second level developing learner has acquired some inner moral dispositions such as ren (compassion, 仁) and moral sensitivity. Through interactions with others, the developing learner exhibits the moral character he/she has acquired in “nurturing” the moral self. The developing learner is in the process of taking on some ethical leadership and has increasing potential to become a moral leader. The third level junzi is able to draw upon one’s own resources in deliberations. To the junzi, norms are often flexible. The junzi sometimes is able to improvise on existing moral norms. The junzi has developed most or all virtues that a competent leader needs to possess. Sage is a higher stage than junzi which has a higher level of flexibility in moral action. To the sage, moral principles are no longer constraints. What the sage desires is what exactly the principles stipulate. The ways the sage behaves can be moral principles for others. The sage level is extremely hard to attain and it often serves as the ideal personality for leaders. The whole developmental model of four stages well captures the process of how followers can become leaders in moral practice.

Ethical leadership and engineering ethics education

What implications may be drawn from the theory of Confucian ethical leadership for engineering practice and professional ethics education? As I have tried to show in an empirical study, Confucian ethical leadership still plays a crucial role in the workplace of current Chinese engineers. For instance, in the Chinese workplace, engineers on project teams who have demonstrated excellent technical and moral competence can potentially be promoted to manager positions. Furthermore, there is a large chance that these engineers will be asked to leave their own teams and lead (sometimes create) new teams. To some extent, this finding helps validate the influence of meritocracy in the engineering profession. For instance, as described by Qiang,1 a participant in my study who was a lead engineer in a private engineering company:

Suppose you are excellent in technological development… However, the company might expect you to assume more responsibility. You are expected to extendyour moral power or influence. The way you extend your influence is to lead a new team. You transfer your influence to others. Or, by leading a team, through your project, by using your own deep and broad understanding of technology, you teach your team members competency.

Such Confucian notion of leadership in current engineering practice in China is well aligned with the “influence modeling” discussed earlier. On engineering teams, lead engineers are expected to exert moral influence on their followers. At the same time, if lead engineers know that they are being followed, they are often motivated and required to uphold higher moral standards. Otherwise, the political legitimacy of serving as leaders will be significantly challenged. For example, in my study, another interviewee Fenqiang argued that moral responsibility in the workplace is often prescribed by the position or the role one possesses in the organization. Hence, he pointed out, “as the higher position you move up to, the more you will be responsible for… Otherwise, how can you effectively arrange production and manage the organization or the team? You will then certainly be challenged by your subordinates.”

As standard engineering ethics textbooks have pointed out, the divergence of the management profession and the engineering profession in American corporate context sometimes leads to a typical issue in engineering ethics: the conflict between engineering decision-making and business decision-making (Harris Jr. et al. 2014). The communication between engineers and managers in the workplace can often be challenging, since the two groups use different sets of vocabularies and languages. A possible solution for this conflict might be cultivating ethical leadership skills in the early careers of the engineers who aspire to the management positions in the future. Thus, when these engineers become leaders, they have acquired both technical and moral skills. Every engineer has some potential to develop leadership in certain ways. The sociologist Rudi Volti (2008) points out that most people go into the engineering profession with the eventual intention of becoming managers. Confucian moral egalitarianism argues that anyone can achieve the stage of junzi (a moral leader) regardless of privilege, wealth, and status (Olberding 2012). In fact, engineers may better fit some management positions than traditional managers insofar as they acquire the knowledge of both the technical and the managerial aspects of engineering through observing and learning from peers. To Confucius, reliable ethical leadership is often acquired, tested, and stabilized in everyday reflective practices rather than books, doctrines, or (business) schools. Confucius might well argue further that most ethical issues arising from the conflict between managerial and engineering decision making can be resolved if manages are selected from experienced engineers who have demonstrated technical and moral excellence in previous roles.

Nepotism is often considered a questionable issue for ethical leadership in engineering and other professions. A typical question would be whether hiring a person with whom the engineer has a pre-existing relationship is morally acceptable or not. A classic engineering ethics textbook suggests that the hiring engineer should take a “creative middle way” between moral rigorism and laxism: “hiring one, only one, family member… seems like an acceptable creative middle way solution. It makes a concession to the deeply held convictions of many people in a tradition-oriented culture, and it promotes harmony in the workplace (and perhaps economic efficiency in this way)” (Harris Jr. et al. 2014, 201).

However, this suggestion does not provide a convincing moral justification for the practice of hiring only one (not none, two, or more) family member. Also, if we universalize this advice across the whole organization (e.g., every employee is allowed to bring a relative to the company), are we not still subject to the accusation of violating a justice principle? Nevertheless, this ethical charge may not be as much an issue for Confucianists as for Western ethicists. If the hiring manager happens to have a close relationship with one of the candidates, then it will be a good opportunity to really test the ethical leadership of this hiring manager. A morally competent leader should be able to provide sound judgments about the credentials of the candidate by considering but not being distracted by the close relationship with the candidate. Confucianists would argue that “juxian bu biqin (selecting virtuous people does not avoid relatives).” After all, the hiring manager knows more and better about the candidate than anybody else in the firm. A special relationship between the hiring manager and the candidate is not sufficient grounds for recusing the manager from some involvement in the process.

For early career engineers who serve as followers on teams, codes of ethics often serve as guidelines for their decision making. Nevertheless, codes of ethics often require interpretation and good judgment (Martin and Schinzinger 2005). Such requirement brings challenges to early career engineers who lack moral experience. Confuciansts would suggest that these junior engineers identify colleagues who are more experienced moral leaders and observe and reflect on how these moral leaders contextualize codes of ethics across circumstances. These junior engineers are then able to discern the morally significant factors in diverse situations and test their findings in new situations. While observing moral leaders, junior engineers will also have opportunities to ask themselves what kind of leader they want to become and what leadership skills they want to develop. Harris Jr. (2008) argues that there are at least four aspects of engineering professionalism that cannot be captured by rules or codes of ethics: sensitivity to risk, awareness of the social context of technology, respect for nature, and commitment to the public good. From the perspective of virtue ethics, these aspects often come from experience of life. A possible way for less experienced early career engineers to develop these competencies can be critically observing other engineers in and out of the organization, especially those who are more experienced moral leaders.

For subordinates on engineering teams, a classic dilemma in textbooks is that they are asked by their team leaders to conduct unethical behaviors such as faking tests. Subordinates are thus confronted with a dilemma: “either they agree and lose their self-respect or refuse and threaten their jobs” (Healy 1997). From the Confucian perspective, followers need to exercise the responsibility of jian (remonstration). Such responsibility of jian prescribed by the role of being followers asks for more empathetic and communicative actions such as asking their team leaders what pressures the leaders are facing, how followers could help leaders respond to these pressures, and how followers could help leaders make better sense of the ethical problems associated with the given situation and the leaders associated requests. Such more communicative approach to dealing with the relationship between leaders and followers questions the limitations of dominant decision making strategies in traditional engineering ethics literature such as whistleblowing.

In the public sphere, engineers are often portrayed as “problem-solvers.” The social image of problem-solvers focuses on the instrumental value of engineering. Professional engineers are able and ready to use what they learned at school and work to solve social problems and serve humanity as a whole. Engineers utilize the knowledge and skills from four different realms (basic sciences, design, social sciences, and practical realization) to solve problems for the public (de Figueiredo 2008). What is often missing in these social images is the “self” dimension of engineering or “self-knowledge” (Mitcham 2014). In addition to questions such as how they can transform the world, engineers also need to think about other questions such as how they can transform themselves in their everyday practice. What we can learn from Confucian ethics is that engineers need to be aware of and critically examine the transformative power of their expertise in the society and how their own moral identities are transformed in engineering practice. Cultivating ethical leadership in engineering needs to incorporate the “self” dimension into engineering education and teach future engineers to reflect on what constitutes ethical leadership in engineering and what type of engineer they want to become.


In conclusion, morality is integral rather than supplementary to Confucian leadership. To Confucianists, effective leadership is in itself moral. Confucian leaders often have charismatic moral influence on their followers. By observing and reflecting on the everyday practice of leaders, followers tease out, test, and cultivate ethical leadership skills in practice and eventually some followers become moral leaders. Confucian ethical leadership challenges dominant approaches to engineering ethics that emphasize the individualistic moral reasoning of engineers while overlook the influences these engineers receive from and exert on the moral development of others.

What is critical for effective ethical leadership in Confucianism is the cultivation of the moral self. In this sense, to become an effective leader in the engineering profession is to realize and critically examine the powerful role of engineering expertise in transforming the self, others, and the world. Future engineering leaders need to possess what philosopher Carl Mitcham calls “self-knowledge” (Mitcham 2014). They need to ask self-reflection questions such as what it means to be an engineer leader, what constitutes a good engineer leader, what kind of engineer leader they want to be, what kind of engineering they and their companies want to practice, and what technical artifacts they and their companies want to make. Today as the natural environment is undergoing a human engendered transformation, as Mitcham also argues, this self-reflection also needs to involve reflecting on what kind of world we want to design, construct, and manage.


  1. 1.

    All names of these research participants in this paper are pseudonyms.



An earlier version of this paper was presented at the 19th Annual Conference of the Society for Ethics Across the Curriculum in Grand Rapids, Michigan, October 5-7, 2017. Part of the section “Confucianism: Past and Present” was adapted from my review of the book Confucianism: A Very Short Introduction which was published in the journal China Report, volume 51, issue 3, 2015. The author would like to thank Carl Mitcham for his constructive comments which helped improve the quality of this manuscript.

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Conflict of interest

The corresponding author states that there is no conflict of interest.


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Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Ethics Across Campus Program, Division of Humanities, Arts & Social SciencesColorado School of MinesGoldenUSA

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