Overview Essay


Confucian Environmental Virtue Ethics

Yong Huang, Chinese University of Hong Kong

1. Introduction

Environmental ethics, as an applied ethics, may be regarded as an application of some general ethical theory to specific environmental issues. Alternatively, as traditional ethical theories are basically limited to human beings as moral patients (recipients of action), environmental ethics can also be seen as their expansion, to include the non-human parts of the ecosystem among moral patients. In either case, environmental ethics is closely related to general moral theories. Similar to ethics in general, consequentialism, which focuses on the consequences of actions, and deontology, which focuses on moral rules or principles, dominated much of the initial development of environmental ethics. However, virtue ethics, which focuses on the characters of moral agent, has now become a powerful alternative in environmental discourses (Hill 1983, van Wensveen 2000, Thoreau 1951, Carson 1956, Bardsley 2013), partially due to its own attractiveness and partially due to the respective deficiencies of deontology (see Kant 1997: 212; O’Neill 1993: 22–24, Sandler 2007: 113) and consequentialism (see Zwolinski and Schimdtz 2013), either in these theories themselves or in their applications/expansions to environmental issues.

However, there is also a problem with this virtue ethics approach to environment issues, which shifts our attention from nature to us human beings. We need to acquire virtues, including environmental virtues, because they contribute to or are even constitutive of human flourishing, which is clearly anthropocentric (O’Neill 1993, Rolston 2005, Cafaro 2015). In this chapter, I shall develop a Confucian version of environmental virtue ethics that is not anthropocentric, by focusing on the work of the neo-Confucian philosopher in the Ming dynasty (1368–1644) of China, Wang Yangming (1472–1529). He is commonly regarded as the leader of the idealist school of the neo-Confucian movement to revive Confucianism, starting from the Song dynasty (960–1279), in response to the dominance of Buddhism in the Tang period (see Tu, Cua, and Ching 1996).


2. Being in one body with the ten thousand things

Confucian ethics is primarily a type of virtue ethics. The most fundamental virtue in Confucianism is ren, most frequently translated as humanity or humaneness, the virtue that characterizes a human being as a human being. Different Confucians define this humanity differently, and Wang Yangming’s understanding of it comes more directly from Cheng Hao (1032–1085), a neo-Confucian in the Song dynasty. At the very beginning of his famous essay, “On Humanity,” Cheng Hao claims that, “The first thing all learners need to understand is humanity. A person of humanity is completely in one body with all things,” where there is no distinction between self and things as inner and outer (Cheng and Cheng 1988: 17). To illustrate it, Cheng Hao discusses the lack of humanity, buren, in the medical sense: “medical books regard the numbness of hand and foot as lack of ren. This is the best description” (Cheng and Cheng: 15). When one’s hand is numb, one cannot feel its pain and itch, and this is the lack of ren. Thus when one is not numb, one can feel the pain and itch of one’s whole body, and this is ren. Then he expands it to explain the moral sense of ren: “a person of ren takes heaven, earth, and the ten thousand things all as one body, no part of which is not oneself” (Cheng and Cheng: 15). If someone or something else in the world suffers, and I don’t feel it, that means that I’m numb. In other words, I lack the virtue of humanity. By contrast, a person of humanity will feel the suffering of other things in the world, because he or she is in one body with the ten thousand things.

Wang Yangming adopts and expands on Cheng Hao’s interpretation of ren. He states that, “a person of humanity (ren) regards heaven, earth and the ten thousand things as being in one body (with oneself).  If there is one thing that cannot live its natural life, (he or she believes that) this must be because his or her own humanity is not fully developed” (Wang 1992: 25). When one’s humanity is not fully developed, there are things that one does not feel to be in one body with. One does not regard them as part of one’s body. The reason that one fails to feel being in one body with everything in the universe, for Wang Yangming, is that “one has not fully got rid of one’s selfish desires” (Wang 1992: 110), which blocks one’s original heart–mind, just as clouds block the sunshine.  This means that one’s original heart–mind naturally feels to be in one body with the ten thousand things (Wang 1992: 968).

Moreover, just as a cloud cannot completely block the sunshine, selfish desires cannot completely block one’s original heart–mind, which is characterized by the virtue of “humanity.” Wang explains this in the following famous passage:

“When a superior person sees an infant about to fall into a well, he or she will definitely have the heart that feels the alarm and commiseration. This is because his or her ren makes him or her to be in one body with the infant. You may say that this is because the infant is of the same species as the superior person. However, when he or she sees a bird or land animal making sad sound and having frightened appearance, he or she will definitely have a heart that cannot bear to let it happen. This is because his or her ren makes him or her to be in one body with the bird or animal. You may say that this is because the bird and animal are also sentient beings. However, when he or she sees a blade of grass or a tree breaking, he or she will definitely have the heart that feels pity. This is because his or her ren makes him or her to be in one body with the grass or tree. You may say that this is because they are also living beings. However, when he or she sees a tile or stone getting broken, he or she will definitely have the heart that feels regret. This is because his or her ren that makes him or her to be in one body with the tile or stone.” (Wang 1992: 26; 968).

In this passage, Wang Yangming repeatedly emphasizes that the reason that a person is concerned with the wellbeing of others when something bad happens to them is not simply that they belong to the same species, but that the person has ren, the sensibility toward the suffering of others.

Since Wang Yangming’s conception of being in one body with the ten thousand things is used to explain ren, the most fundamental virtue in Confucianism , his ethics is a virtue ethics. Since the object of one’s concern goes beyond human beings to include heaven, earth, and the ten thousand things, it is also an environmental virtue ethics. However, the familiar version of environmental virtue ethics that we see in contemporary Western discussions is largely Aristotelian. In contrast, Wang Yangming’s version of environmental virtue ethics is a sentimental one, since its central concept, being in one body with the ten thousand things, is essentially a concept of empathy. In contemporary moral psychology, empathy is understood to be a kind of emotion or an emotion-generating entity. An empathic person is one who is able to feel the pain and suffering of another person, not merely to feel about the pain and itch of that person, which is characteristic of sympathy. Thus an empathic person is naturally motivated to help the other get rid of the pain, just as anyone who feels itch in his or her back will naturally move his or her hand to scratch it. As we have seen, this is precisely how Cheng Hao and Wang Yangming describe the person who is in one body with the ten thousand things.

In appearance, Wang Yangming’s neo-Confucian version of environmental virtue ethics, with empathy as its central concept, also suffers anthropocentrism and even egoism. In such a version, an environmentally virtuous or empathic person is concerned about both other human beings and non-human beings because he or she feels pain that others suffer as his or her own. In this sense, it may be claimed that this virtuous person’s concern with and help for others is really also egoistic in the narrow sense and anthropocentric in the broad sense.

Defenders of this Confucian version of environmental virtue ethics may be tempted to appeal to Daniel Baston and his team, who have conducted a series of experiments to show that an empathic person’s concerns with others is not due to a selfish desire to escape aversive arousal, or social disapproval, or guilt, or shame, or sadness, or to increase vicarious joy. Instead, such a concern is purely altruistic: an empathic person’s concern with others is for the sake of others (see Batson 2011). However, when applied to environmental virtues, one would ask, why should a virtuous person take care of non-human beings for their own sake? Is this because they have intrinsic values and not merely instrumental values to human beings? However, a thing’s having intrinsic value does not necessarily mean that it has the right for our care or that we have duty to take care of it. A virus also has its own intrinsic value, but it does not automatically have a right for our care.

Wang Yangming’s environmental virtue ethics, with the central idea of being in one body with the ten thousand things, can avoid the problem of anthropocentrism or egoism in a different way. Anthropocentrism assumes the separateness between human and non-human beings or between self and other. However, since a virtuous person in Wang Yangming’s sense feels to be in one body with the ten thousand things, there is no such separateness. The whole universe becomes the virtuous person’s single body, and the ten thousand things in the universe become different parts of this virtuous person’s own body. So, a virtuous person’s taking care of the forest, for example, can be seen as both for the sake of the forest and as for the sake of himself or herself, since this forest is already part of his or her body.


3. Love with Distinction

However, Wang does not think that this Confucian empathic person loves, or should love, the ten thousand things equally. Some sacrifices have to be made, especially when conflicts arise among the ten thousand things, now all different parts of a virtuous person’s body.

This view of Wang Yangming’s is made most clear in one of his conversations with his students. The Great Learning, one of the Confucian classics, calls for cultivating the self, regulating the family, governing the state, and harmonizing the world. It then states that “everyone, from the emperor to common people, should regard cultivation as the root. It is impossible to have a distorted root with ordered branches, and there has never been the case when less intense care is given when the more intense care is called for or the more intense care is given when the less intense care is called for” (Wang 1992: 108).  According to Zhu Xi (1130–1200), one of the most influential neo-Confucians, while root refers to self-cultivation, the branches refer to regulating families, governing the state, and harmonizing the world. While intense care is meant for family members, the less-intense care is meant for other people in the state and the world. Having learned about Wang’s teaching, one of his students asks: “since a great person feels being in one body with (the ten thousand) things, why does the Great Learning still talk about the distinction between more and less intense care” (Wang 1992: 108).

Here is Wang’s response in a well-known passage, directly related to our concern with environmental issues:

“There is a reason (daoli) for this natural distinction between the more and the less intense care. For example, all in one body, we use our hands and feet to defend our head and eyes. It is not that we are discriminating against our hands and feet. There is a reason for being so. We love both birds and animals on the one hand and grasses and trees on the other, but it is bearable for us to feed birds and animals with grasses and trees. We love both human beings and birds and animals, but it is bearable for us to kill birds and animals to feed parents, to sacrifice for rituals, and to entertain guests. We love both our parents and strangers, but it is bearable for us to save our parents and not the stranger when there is only one single dish of food, with which one can live and without which one will die. Things are so for a reason. The distinction between the more and the less intense care in the Great Learning is the natural vein (tiaoli) of one’s innate moral knowledge (liangzhi), which is the moral rightness that cannot be transgressed.” (Wang 1992: 108)

So while calling upon us to cultivate empathy with the ten thousand things, Wang does not go to the extreme that we should treat everything in nature, including us human beings, equally or impartially. Yet other than his view about animals (which may be killed to feed our parents, etc.), Wang’s view is something even the most radical ecologist would accept. Clearly, hardly any environmental activist would object to our cutting a tree if this tree contains elements that alone can cure cancer suffered by numerous patients. The question we have is on what basis Wang develops his partialist view.  Just as his view of being in one body with the ten thousand things does not assume the equality of the intrinsic values of the ten thousand things, his partialist view is not based on his conception of inequality of intrinsic values of the ten thousand things. While we may be tempted to think that Wang has a hierarchical  view of intrinsic values of different beings when we see him allowing us to feed birds and animals with grasses and trees and kill animals for human purposes, thinking that humans have higher intrinsic value than animals, and animals have higher intrinsic values than plants. However, we have to abandon this assumption when we see him talking about the preferential treatment of our parents over strangers along the same line, as he certainly would not think that our parents possess higher intrinsic value than strangers. If so, precisely what does he mean by the “natural reason” (daoli or tiaoli) for such a partiality that he repeatedly talks about?

We can begin to understand it by realizing that our empathy with and empathic care for the ten thousand things is naturally a gradual process starting from the near and dear. This point is made clear in another conversation between Wang Yangming and one of his students. The student asks: “Master Cheng (Hao) says that ‘a person of ren feels to be in one body with the ten thousand things.’ How then is the Mohist idea of impartial love not ren?” (Wang 1992: 25).  From the student’s point of view, to be in one body with the ten thousand things means to have impartial love for them, and, if so, it must be right for the Mohists to advocate impartial love, which, however, all Confucians regard as problematic. In response, Wang Yangming emphasizes the gradual nature of our empathy with things, with an analogy:

“Take a tree as an example. At the beginning, there is sprout, from which the vitality of the tree originates; from the sprout grows the trunk; and from the trunk grow the branches and leaves; and then its life cycle continues ceaselessly. If there is no sprout, how can there be trunk, branches, and leaves? And there can be sprout only if there is root. Only with the root can the tree grow; without the root, the tree will die. If there is no root, how can there be sprout? The love between parents and children and among siblings is the beginning of the vitality of human heart/mind; it is like the sprout of a tree. Starting from the beginning, one can be humane to all people and love all things; it is like the tree’s growing the trunk, branches, and leaves. The Mohist idea of impartial love without distinction sees one’s own parents, children, and siblings as no different from strangers; as a result there is no beginning (of love).” (Wang 1992: 25–26)

Thus, one aspect of Wang’s “natural reason” for the partiality in our empathy with and empathic care of the ten thousand things is that we have to start from those near and dear to us and then gradually expand our empathy and empathic care to others. However, by itself, this does not imply any preferential treatment of those near and dear to us; it only stipulates a temporal order: we love our family members first and others later. Indeed, this is not something that Mohism really has any problem with when it argues against Confucianism. For example, the Mohist Yizi in the Mencius states that “we Mohists hold that there should be no distinction in love, although our love can start with parents” (Mencius 3a5; emphasis added). In other words, it is fine to first love those who are near and dear, as long as such a love is equal to our love for others, which happens later. However, this is clearly not what Wang Yangming in particular and Confucians in general have in mind with their idea of love with distinction. In the passage quoted above, Wang Yangming argues that we should have more intense love for those near and dear to us than for others, especially when our love for the former comes into conflict with our love for the latter. For Wang Yangming, there is also a “natural reason” (daoli or tiaoli) for this, although Wang may take such a reason as self-evident and thus does not fully explain it.

Indeed, to explain why we ought to have more intense love of those near and dear to us may be what contemporary philosopher Bernard Williams regards as “one thought too many”. Suppose I’m in a situation in which my wife and a stranger are in equal peril and yet I can only rescue one of them. I’ll naturally save my wife without any further thought. If my motivating thought, fully spelled out, is, in addition to the fact that she is my wife, in situations of this kind it is permissible to save my wife, it is “one thought too many” (Williams 1981: 18). The situation that Williams imagines is almost identical to the one conceived by Wang Yangming: when there is only one dish of food, with which a person lives and without which a person dies, one can bear to use it to save one’s parent and not one’s stranger. This natural tendency of partiality toward those near and dear to us has recently received empirical support from contemporary moral psychology of empathy. As Martin Hoffman, one of the most influential moral psychologists studying the phenomenon of empathy, points out, there is evidence “that most people empathize to a greater degree (their threshold for empathic distress is lower) with victims who are family members, members of their primary group, close friends, and people whose personal needs and concerns are similar to their own” (Hoffman 2000: 197).

So the second aspect of Wang Yangming’s “natural reason” is that we naturally tend to have stronger empathy with those near and dear to us. However, this is still not enough. What we are naturally doing or tend to do is not necessarily what we ought to do. When Williams claims, in relation to the above-mentioned case of a husband’s rescuing his wife, that “some situations lie beyond [moral] justification” (Williams 1981: 18), he considers, at least from Susan Wolf’s point of view, what the husband does is a non-moral good, which is as important as a moral good and so should not be trumped by the latter (Wolf 2012).  In this respect, Hoffman goes a step further, thinking that this aspect of empathy is a bias that comes into conflict with moral philosophy’s criterion of impartiality. Since for him, “empathic morality, at least empathic morality alone, may not be enough” (Hoffman 2000: 206), and so it is important for empathy to be supplemented with or embedded in the moral principle of justice. Even in Williams’s case, while he considers it absurd for us to require the person to provide a justification for his action of rescuing his wife instead of the stranger in addition to the fact that she is his wife, he does not say that this action itself is justified from a moral point of view.

However, when Wang Yangming says that there is a “natural reason” for us to be partial to those who are near and dear to us, this natural reason is clearly not merely descriptive but also normative. This is the third aspect that I would like to highlight. Why should we give preferential treatment to those who are near and dear to us? There are a number of reasons. Love or empathy, by its nature, is more intense to those who are near and dear to and less so who are far from and unknown to us. Assume this is a deficiency of empathy or love; and then let us imagine a world in which such an empathy or love exists and another world in which it does not exist. Other things being equal, in which world do we prefer to live? I think the answer is clear: we would like to live in a world in which such empathy or love exists, even though we know it is partialistic. This line of thinking is consistent with the contemporary moral sentimentalist philosopher Michael Slote when he says that “our high moral opinion of love is inconsistent with accepting morality as universal benevolence, and I take that to constitute a strong reason to favor caring over universal benevolence” (Slote 2001: 137).

Such a justification may still not be enough, as it may be considered that we are here forced to make a choice of the lesser evil. The ancient Chinese philosopher Mozi thus provides an alternative: imagine a world that practices Confucian love with distinction and another world that practices impartial ai, which literally means love, but should be more appropriately translated as care, since love as an emotion cannot be impartial by its nature. To respond to the Confucian objection that one’s parents would not receive as much love in a world practicing the Mohist love as in a world practicing Confucian love, since their children now are not allowed to provide more care to them than to anyone else, Mozi says that this is a misunderstanding. While parents will indeed receive less care from their children, since their children need to care for other people as much as they care for their parents, they will receive more care from people other than their children, since other people will also care for them as much as their children care them and as much as their care for their own parents. This, however, is also a misunderstanding from the Confucian point of view. In order to care (to say nothing about love) for someone appropriately, one needs the relevant knowledge of the person, i.e., what the person needs, likes, prefers, etc. Clearly one knows better, and therefore can care better, for those who are near and dear than for those who are far and unknown, fellow human beings than animals, animals than plants, and living things than non-living things.

Moreover, on the one hand, to say that we love our parents, human beings, and animals more than other human beings, animals, and plants, respectively, does not mean that we don’t love the latter. It only means that we love them less intensively, and (at least part of) the reason is that we don’t know the latter as well as we know the former. On the other hand, even when we face the dilemma in which our love for the former requires that we make some sacrifice of the latter, Wang Yangming uses the term ren (a character different from the one that means humanity), translated as “bear” (“bearable”) above, which is quite illustrative. To bear to do something implies that enduring something unpleasant in doing it.

Thus, when he says that “we love both birds and animals on the one hand and grasses and trees on the other, but it is bearable to feed birds and animals with grasses and trees,” he means that we still have empathy with grasses and trees, since we also love them; otherwise there is no reason for us to bear to see them being fed upon by animals. A similar thing can be said about what immediately follows in the passage, about our bearing to see animals being killed to feed parents, etc., and about bearing to see a stranger starve when the only dish of food is used to prevent the starvation of our parents. We need to make an effort to “bear” such things when they happen indicates that, even though we allow or even make them happen, they are things we would like to prevent if possible at all.

The point that Wang Yangming makes here echoes what contemporary virtue ethicist Rosalind Hursthouse calls “moral residue” or “moral remainder,” or, more appropriately, the latter echoes the former. When people face dilemmas such as those mentioned by Wang Yangming, Husrthouse states, “whatever they do, they violate a moral requirement, and we expect them (especially when we think in terms of real examples) to register this in some way—by feeling distress or regret or remorse or guilt, or, in some cases, by recognizing that some apology or restitution or compensation is called for. This—the remorse or regret, or the new requirement to apologize or whatever—is called the (moral) ‘remainder’ or ‘residue’” (Hursthouse 2001: 44).


4. Conclusion

In this chapter, by drawing on the ideas mostly developed by the neo-Confucian philosopher Wang Yangming, I have argued that Confucian environmental virtue ethics can avoid some pitfalls of deontological and consequentialist approaches to environmental issues as well as those of other versions of environmental virtue ethics, particularly the Aristotelian ones. Central to this Confucian environmental virtue ethics is the idea of being in one body with the ten thousand things. A virtuous person in this sense feels the pain and itch of the thousand things, just as he or she feels the pain and itch on his or her own back. Such an ability to feel either (both) the pain and itch of the ten thousand things or (and) to be in one body with the ten thousand things is ren, the cardinal Confucian virtue that characterizes a human being. It is not merely cognitive but also affective for both humans and the more-than-human world. Thus, a person who feels the pain of a bird, for example, is not merely a person who knows that the bird is in pain but also a person who is motivated to help the bird get rid of the pain. So a Confucian environmental virtuous person takes care of the ten thousand things not because of their intrinsic values but because they are part of his or her own body. Despite its appearance, such a person is not self-centered, as there is nothing outside the person, or, to put it another way, everything is part of the person, while egoism assumes the separateness of the self from others.



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Header photo: Wenmiao Temple in Jianshui, Yunnan, China. One of the oldest Confucian temples in the world