Zhu Xi’s Ethical Theory: Virtue Ethics Considerations and Kantian Parallels

  • Kirill O. ThompsonEmail author
Part of the Dao Companions to Chinese Philosophy book series (DCCP, volume 13)


Throughout his scholarly career, Zhu Xi 朱熹 (1130–1200) pondered the hallowed Confucian project of self-cultivation in quest of moral realization (see Chan 1976, 1987; Schirokauer 1976). On one level, his understanding of this Confucian project has much in common with modern virtue ethics, which is receiving attention in the scholarship; on another level, he made additional philosophical efforts to justify and ramify Confucian cultivation and moral realization. In making these efforts, Zhu Xi in effect sought to set forth the grounds of genuine moral agency, which in turn led to the formation of what I consider to be his distinctive ethical theory, one that bears parallels with that of Immanuel Kant (1724–1804) and highlights the salience of Zhu’s contribution to ethical theory. The expression “ethical theory” covers a range of accounts of ethics. In the early twentieth century, ethical theorists in the Anglo-American philosophical tradition examined the meaning and uses of the key terms in moral and ethical discourse, such as “goodness” or “the good,” “right and wrong,” “duty,” “responsibility,” etc. The main approaches they took included intuitionism, emotivism, and prescriptivism. Subsequently, ethical theorists have tried more systematic approaches, such as utilitarianism, pragmaticism, deonotologism, and even Marxism in their efforts to explain the enterprise of ethics. In recent decades, virtue ethics has been touted as a truer to life approach to understanding people’s practical moral reflection and conduct.



The present chapter benefitted greatly from the insightful suggestions of the two editors of this volume. James Sellmann also read the manuscript closely and offered useful comments. Finally, the author extends his appreciation to two anonymous reviewers for their comments and suggestions. Any remaining mistakes or problems are owing entirely to the author.


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Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of Foreign Languages and LiteraturesNational Taiwan UniversityTaipeiRepublic of China

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