Can a morally great / virtuous person choose the right thing to do in every situation all by herself, or does she need to follow moral rules as guides?

Texts and Courses

Primary Texts

Mengzi 4A1.1-10

Secondary Texts for Instructor

  • Karyn Lai (2006). "Li in the Analects: Training in Moral Competence and the Question of Flexibility." Philosophy East and West.
  • Hagop Sarkissian (2014). "Ritual and Rightness in the Analects." Dao Companion to the Analects, ed. Amy Olberding.
  • David Wong. "Chinese Ethics - The Centrality of Li or Ritual." Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy
  • Edward Slingerland (2011). "The Situationist Critique and Early Confucian Virtue Ethics." Ethics.
  • Doris, John (1998). "Persons, Situations, and Virtue Ethics." Nous.

Suggested Courses

  • Introduction to Ethics, Ethics, History of Ethics


In our daily lives, we often appeal to different moral rules to help us behave morally (e.g. "don't cheat on the test, no matter what!") Imagine a completely good or fully virtuous person. If this person was in an ethically difficult situation, would she ever need to appeal to moral rules like the rest of us do, or could she (all on her own) decide exactly the right thing to do, just based on her own feelings, each and every time? If you think she could, your might believe in a theory of virtue similar to Aristotle's. But, this way of thinking about virtue has been criticized for not appreciating how deeply random situational factors can influence our behavior.

Confucian ethical theories seem to provide a sensible, interesting middle ground: it seems that being virtuous requires relying on the moral rules of the li.

Discussion Questions

  • Do you have any moral rules that you follow? Have you ever had to follow them in a difficult situation?
  • Do you think a fully virtuous person needs to appeal to moral rules in her own decision-making process?

Activities (optional)

The Perfect Rituals Activity is good for this class.


  • Aristotelian Virtue Ethics
  • Situationist Critiques of Virtue Ethics

Author Information

Seth Robertson (University of Oklahoma)