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Virtue-Shame Based Culture and Morality Needed

Recent discussion of “National Humiliation” motif in Chinese history lessons got me thinking of the wider implications of some noted cultural differences, particularly involving the concept of “shame” in Asian societies.

So the wider philosophical discussion here:  First, I must qualify that I believe that the Asian societies are mischaracterized as “shame-based”.  I believe it is not all “shame”.  Indeed, the larger part of motivation in Asian societies is “virtue-based”.

“Virtue” is the positive flip-side of “shame” in Asian culture.  If one feels “shame” for doing wrong, then one is honored as “virtuous” for doing right in Asian societies.  And “Virtue”, far more than mere “shame”, is a primarily motivator for people in Asia to better themselves.

Confucius discussed “virtue” extensively.

For example, Confucius said,

“If the people are led by laws and reigned in by punishment, they will try to avoid the punishment, but have no sense of shame. If they are led by virtue and rein in by the rules of morality, they will not only have the sense of shame but also become good.”(Analects 2:3)

Thus, to Confucius, “virtue” defines morality, and shame is a side effect for lack of virtue.

To Confucius, Law by itself is not enough.  Morality must have a basis in “virtue”, or morality is meaningless.

What is “virtue”??  Who is “virtuous”??  Virtue is defined by one’s behaviors primarily toward others.  Whether one is fair in his treatment of his friends and dealings of business, and whether one treats his family well and honors the memories of his ancestors.  EVEN if the favor of “virtue” is not returned.  For Confucius, the ideal “virtuous” man is one who emulates the virtuous legendary ancient Chinese rulers like the Yellow Emperor, who put the needs of his people and his family before himself, who conducts himself properly with discipline and humility.

Thus, as many Asian nations follow the philosophies of Confucius, they adopted the notion that “virtue” is based upon one’s conduct in relationship with others, not merely one’s beliefs.  And in turn, one’s “virtue” (or lack of) defines one’s position and relationship in society, and one’s identity.

A morality meritocracy formed around this idea.  “Virtuous” behaviors entitle one to higher social status and naturally more privileges.  Shameful behaviors lessens one’s social status and decreases likely privileges in society.  This was not a new invention of Confucius.  Afterall, the ancient sage kings of China all only gained their right to rule, because they were considered to be most “virtuous” before they became kings.

Confucius’ notion of “virtue” was practical.  He and his students didn’t just sit around and talk about it.  Attainment of virtue was to be done in practice.

In a sense, if a man is “virtuous” in his conducts, he has “virtue” in his moral core.  And no one cared what else he might believe in.

*In contrast, the Western notion of morality was largely based upon religious text, and the “relationship with God,” in the Judeo-Christian tradition, or rather the “self-identity” formulated from what “God” wants one to be.

Or i.e. WWJD, “what would Jesus do.”

This concept however, assumed that everyone has the same expectation/ understanding of what “God” wants in one’s moral identity.

In the ancient time, this might have been true to a degree, but dissent or deviations were not tolerated.

Violation or disagreements over what “God” wants, caused religious persecutions and revolutions.

In the ensuing religious conflicts, a notion of “Individual Rights” arose mainly as a mechanism to wrestle the right to define one’s own notions of what God wants for oneself.

However, this “Individual Rights” continue to run into conflicts with the traditional and continual expectation that EVERYONE has similar expectations of what God wants.

Thus, while many in the West will affirm openly that they believe each person should be allowed freedom to live as they wish, many also believe that some religious “sins” should be severely punished as they did in the Biblical stories.

In other words, Western notion of “moral identity” is purely based upon one’s beliefs, not based upon conduct in relationship with one another.  One is assumed to have some “moral identity” based upon what he/she believes in, even if one act in contrary to one’s beliefs.  However, this is also why Western history is filled with instances where some beliefs are considered to be wrong and thus the adherents to be “immoral.”  Even in the modern times of tolerance, one often observes many religious sects in the West considering each other to be “immoral” on some religious differences, even when the people largely conduct themselves in similar manners (even similarly in their persecution of one another!)

Thus, in the West, “rights” are considered “inviolable”, because they are defined by “God” /faith traditionally.

But in Asian societies, privileges/rights are granted socially as reward for “virtue” in relationship and conducts.

In a sense, Confucius “virtue” is also the Golden Rule of “do unto others”:

-To serve my father, as I would require my son to serve me: to this I have not attained; to serve my prince as I would require my minister to serve me: to this I have not attained; to serve my elder brother as I would require my younger brother to serve me: to this I have not attained; to set the example in behaving to a friend, as I would require him to behave to me: to this I have not attained.

In this, it is not about shame, but about reciprocity of moral behavior, about mutual social expectations of behavior.

Shame is thus a self-measurement of how much one must improve against the ideals of “virtue”, as Confucius himself repeatedly admitted, “to this I have not attained,” regardless of what Confucius believes.

Confucius warned us, Law by itself is not sufficient.  And his words appear to be prescient to the modern conditions, particularly in the Western “rule of law” systems.

If the people are led by laws and reigned in by punishment, they will try to avoid the punishment, but have no sense of shame.

Yes, indeed.


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  1. pug_ster
    July 27th, 2013 at 08:03 | #1

    I find it that many Westerners in general have this cavalier, shameless, cocky, I’m right you’re wrong attitude which reflects in their history and how they do things. This kind of attitude reflects in its media and movies. Unfortunately, because of this kind of attitude, many westerners never learn from history and they repeat the same mistakes again and again.

  2. pug_ster
    July 27th, 2013 at 14:33 | #2


    Lol, as I said, shameless politicians in the US.

  3. fivewillows
    July 27th, 2013 at 18:26 | #3

    Nice post, that might benefit from a less Western translation of Analects 2.3. Your translator (who, by the way?) writes: ” they will not only have the sense of shame but also become good.”

    Most translations I’ve read don’t use the word “good” at the end, but instead translate it the whole line as “will learn a sense of shame and of participation.” I think that hits a far higher ethical point than the empty generality, “become good”–to be good is to participate in proper relations, rites, social conduct.

    I’m also curious about the second Confucius quote in your piece. I’m pretty sure it’s not in the Analects, so what’s the source for it?

  4. Black Pheonix
    July 27th, 2013 at 18:38 | #4

    子曰。「道不遠人。人之爲道而遠人、不可以爲道。『詩』云。‘伐柯伐柯、其則不遠。’ 執柯以伐柯、睨而視之、猶以爲遠。故君子以人治人、改而止。忠恕違道不遠、施諸己而不愿、亦勿施於人。君子之道四、丘未能一焉。所求乎子以事父、未能也。所求乎臣以事君、未能也。所求乎弟以事兄、未能也。所求乎朋友先施之、未能也。庸德之行、庸言之謹、有所不足、不敢不勉、有餘不敢盡。言顧行、行顧言、君子胡不慥慥爾。」

  5. July 28th, 2013 at 05:19 | #5

    I don’t know what most people will get from this post. I can see it read as something deep … as well as something superficial…

    My problem is that when we discuss concepts on “virtue” in Chinese philosophy, a quote here and there is never sufficient. Virtue can’t be defined. It comes from practicing, as you noted, but also from examples … lots of examples. The examples evolve with time … and society. Unfortunately, in modern China (mainland as well as Taiwan), I don’t know how much of this is still practiced. I don’t know how the notion of virtue is living.

    Consider an example that a friend of mine recently just went through. He is a small business owner in California. He recently laid off an employee who claimed she was disabled (had pain when sitting working in front of computers for any extended amount of time). She failed to show to work for over a month, calling in sometimes every day, some times every few days, to explain why she didn’t show. She got a doctor’s notice that said the patient is basically day to day. After 6 weeks, he asked what she wanted to do. She said she didn’t know. He asked about when she could work. She said she wasn’t sure. He pointed out the doctor’s note that said that she was already cleared to work by that date. She shrugged, saying she needs another doctor’s note. He told her he can’t afford keeping her with her not working. He is, besides paying for her insurance premiums out of his pocket, also terribly stressed. She eventually offered that he could fire her, that way -at least she could collect disability indefinitely. He fired her. She continued collecting generous disability paycheck from the government.

    My friend was ok with all this until last week when he found from one of his customers how cruel my friend was in laying a poor single mom (who the employee was) off after she got disabled. Turns out the client’s child go to the same school as the child of the employee. The employee complained at scholl functions what a sad life she had … divorce, this and that … and now a cruel employer. My friend was furious.

    Did he do the right thing firing her? Yes. I mean he has a business to run. Does the employee have a right to complain? I suppose so. She was fired because she couldn’t work, and she couldn’t work because she claimed she was disabled.

    What is the virtuous thing to do here? If stand in the shoe of either, you can probably argue for each. We need modern, living examples of what is virtuous, not just old examples. Quoting anadelct without more is no better than quoting Yoda in Star Wars mouthing off euphemisms….

  6. Black Pheonix
    July 28th, 2013 at 10:41 | #6


    I agree. Virtue is not some empty concept only discussed. Even saints and Confucius were often accused of being immoral or non-virtuous.

    And it is thus very important to study the examples in history, lots and lots of examples, as you say.

    Without knowledge of history, with all of its shames and virtues of humanity, how would any of us know what is truly “virtue”, and what should be “shame”.

    *another problem with Western “guilt-based” culture is that if God is the only thing required to define morality, then there is little reason for one to study history and its complexity.

  7. ho hon
    July 28th, 2013 at 23:57 | #7

    Thanks for the article. I like reading it.

    > “… Asian societies are mischaracterized as ‘shame-based’. I believe it is not all ‘shame'”.

    I agree with you if you are talking about traditional Chinese culture. For Japanese, they inherit only part of the Chinese culture and Japanese is very much a shame-based society. It is a another PhD discussion on itself.

    > “As many Asian nations follow the philosophies of Confucius, they adopted the notion that ‘virtue’ is based upon one’s conduct in relationship with others, not merely one’s beliefs.”

    1. I have hesitation to put “belief” in contrast with “relationship”. Ancient Chinese have strong beliefs as reflected in those listed in Shi-ji (史記 列傳). In parallel, those heroic figures did not ignore inter-personal relationships.

    2. Source of “virtue”. As reflected in this Mencius text: “今人乍見孺子將入於井,皆有怵惕惻隱之心;非所以內交於孺子之父母也,非所以要譽於鄉黨朋友也”. (A brief translation: true good will is not motivated by social relationship). According to Confucius all virtues are based on “Ren” (仁) which is deep inside one’s existence. It resembles Immanuel Kant’s categorical imperatives. Kant said:”Two things awe me most, the starry sky above me and the moral law within me”. “Virtue” and “relationship” are related but not equal.

    For your kind comments.

  8. Black Pheonix
    July 29th, 2013 at 06:42 | #8

    @ho hon

    I agree re. “true virtue” may come from one’s deeper self. But I think Asian cultures (far more the Western culture) tend to formulate the “self” according to one’s perceived expectations in social relationships.

    Additionally, “virtue” as an enforcement mechanism of morality and ethics tend to work largely in a social relationship context.

    Thus, Confucius also emphasized on the value of choosing friends who are equal or better in virtue, because doing so forces one to elevate the expectation of one’s own virtues.

    Otherwise, a man would tend to become too relaxed in the standards of his virtues.

    While what Mencius and Kent said are philosophically true, society cannot enforce “virtue” or morality by “self-regulation”. (As much as corporations cannot “self-regulate”).

    Thus, we see the wisdom of social enforced “virtue” according to Confucius.

  9. ho hon
    July 29th, 2013 at 11:18 | #9

    Okay, I see what you mean. Metaphysically true virtue has internal basis, but practically a community help maintaining a higher standard. In ancient China, families, samgha are the networked communities for Confucius and Buddhist cultures.

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