Philosophy:Role ethics

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Short description: Ethical theory based on family roles

Role ethics is an ethical theory based on family roles.[1] Morality is derived from a person's relationship with their community.[2] The ethics of Confucianism is an example of role ethics,[1] in particular the Three Fundamental Bonds and Five Constant Virtues (Chinese: 三綱五常; pinyin: Sāngāng Wǔcháng; Jyutping: Saam1 Gong1 Ng5 Soeng4; Pe̍h-ōe-jī: Sam-kòng Ngó͘-siông).


Tang Dynasty depiction of Confucius

Confucian role ethics centers around filial piety or xiao, a respect for family members.[3] The concept is elaborated in the Confucian text Classic of Filial Piety: "In serving his parents, a filial son reveres them in daily life; he makes them happy while he nourishes them; he takes anxious care of them in sickness; he shows great sorrow over their death; and he sacrifices to them with solemnity."[4] Filial duty requires the desire to be filial, and not just the act of filial piety.[2] In Confucian societies, filial piety determines the "moral worth" of an individual in a community and acts as a form of social capital.[4]

According to Roger T. Ames and Henry Rosemont, "Confucian normativity is defined by living one's family roles to maximum effect." In Confucian role ethics, morality is based on a person's fulfillment of a role, such as that of a parent or a child. These roles are established as relationships, and are not individualistic. Confucian roles are not rational, and originate through the xin, or human emotions.[2]

The concept of li or ritual propriety is crucial to Confucian roles. Propriety reinforces family relationships, and binds together the community. The performance of li expresses a person's moral commitment as a human being.[2]

In Japan, modern Confucian scholars like Uno Tetsuto and Ichimura Sanjiro have attempted to mix Confucian role ethics with concepts such as democracy and human rights.[5]


Epictetus developed and introduced role ethics into Stoicism, an approach to ethics based on taking seriously the different roles we all play in life. The roles are:

  • the general role of a human being in society (the human cosmopolis) at large;
  • roles that we choose for ourselves, being a father, or friend;
  • roles that the circumstances assign to us, being a son or daughter.

Epictetus’s role ethics was a development of a similar concept developed by Panaetius who was a philosopher of the middle Stoa.[6]


  1. 1.0 1.1 Roger T. Ames (30 April 2011). Confucian Role Ethics: A Vocabulary. University of Hawaiʻi Press. ISBN 978-0-8248-3576-7. 
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 2.3 Chris Fraser; Dan Robins; Timothy O'Leary (1 May 2011). Ethics in Early China: An Anthology. Hong Kong University Press. pp. 17–35. ISBN 978-988-8028-93-1. 
  3. Wonsuk Chang; Leah Kalmanson (8 November 2010). Confucianism in Context: Classic Philosophy and Contemporary Issues, East Asia and Beyond. SUNY Press. p. 68. ISBN 978-1-4384-3191-8. 
  4. 4.0 4.1 Charlotte Ikels, ed (2004). Filial Piety: Practice and Discourse in Contemporary East Asia. Stanford University Press. pp. 3–5. ISBN 978-0-8047-4791-2. Retrieved 21 November 2012. 
  5. Oliver Leaman (2001). Encyclopedia of Asian Philosophy. Taylor & Francis. p. 191. ISBN 978-0-415-17281-3. 
  6. Pigliucci, Massimo (2020). The Stoic Guide to a Happy Life.