Afro-Sino Ethics

Celebration of the Chinese new year at the Confusion Institute, University of Lagos. Photo: UNILAG

In Chinese Philosophy, as exemplified by Confucianism, ethical ideals are tailored to suit the demands of practical daily existence. This means that, as with African ethics, Chinese ethics is praxis-driven. That is why Confucianism is characterized as the ethics of virtuous living. Now, the praxis driven ethics or the ethics of virtuous living comes from the works, life and teachings of Kung Fu Zu (Confucius), a Chinese sage who lived between 551 and 479 B.C., in the state of Lu in the Southeastern part of present day Shantung Province of Eastern China. Growing up was difficult for Confucius because of unstable and changing family fortunes and circumstances but eventually he settled down in adult life as a teacher of great renown. From the life and times of Confucius, the rise of Philosophic schools in China was interconnected with the practice of private teaching. Records show that Confucius was the first in Chinese scholarship to teach a large crowd of students in a private capacity. However, there were teachers before him such as the older and influential Lao Tzu who was said to have authored the Tao Te Ching, from which Taoism, as a philosophical school and doctrine, developed and spread like bush fire in ancient China[i].


It is recorded that there was disagreement between Lao Tzu and Confucius regarding the nature and characteristics of the Tao. And from this, two rival schools of Taoism emerged in ancient China. Fortunately, a rich, profound and interesting philosophic climate developed from this rivalry. While there is a common ground between the rivals that the Tao is the informing and organizing principle of nature, they disagreed about the characteristics of the Tao[ii]. While Lao Tzu maintained that the Tao is indescribable and unnamable or rather that the Tao represents the course of nature as the speaking of the speechless and the comprehension of the incomprehensible, Kung Fu Zu averred that The Dao (Tao) is both nameable and describable. The eternal Tao cannot be spoken, says Lao Tzu, because it is indescribable, and unfathomable. For Kung Fu Zu, although the Tao is an abstract universal which permeates all things and flows in every direction, it (the Tao) is equally multiple and refers to the principles which govern each separate class of things in the universe. This is to say that while for Lao Tzu, the Tao is a unitary phenomenon, for Confucius there is a multiplicity of the Tao. On this view, every class of things has its own Tao which is separate from those individual things. For example, the principle which governs all things solid is the Tao of solid things and is distinguishable from the solidity of individual things. Thus, the Tao of Confucian philosophy shares a resemblance with the universal of Western philosophy, which is a general term for things that share certain basic characteristics. This is important because, whether that of Lao Tzu or that of Kung Fu Zu, the theory of Tao is the basis of Chinese ethics.

Lao Tzu’s ethics

But while Lao Tzu’s ethics is reclusive, Confucian ethics is more directly socially oriented and socially friendly. As presented in Literature and for our purpose[iii], Lao Tzu’s system of philosophy inclusive of ethics is called Taoism while that of Kung Fu Zu is called Confucianism. But since Confucianism is steeped in Taoist thinking, it is also called Taoism. So there is non-Confucian as well as Confucian Taoism. Now, the ethical concern of non-Confucian Taoism is the preservation of life and the avoidance of injury. For this brand of Taoism what makes the right conduct possible is the achievement of “personal purity” which in turn results in sageness and longevity. The ultimate purpose of personal purity is for the preservation, sustainability and the enjoyment of life. The individual should at all times strive to be pure by valuing and preserving what is important in life. Earthly possessions and social acquirements count for nothing to the non Confucian Taoists. Injury to the self comes from attachments to worldly things, involvement with earthly possessions and treasures. What it is morally sound to treasure is human life, the life of the individual, because once you lose it, you can never get it back[iv].

Society is both a corrupting and brutalizing influence on the individual and social relations encumbrances on the way of the individual to the destination of personal purity and therefore a huge network of deceits, mistrusts, distractions and betrayals. Society is like a tumor or an ulcer. Nobody can cure it. No value orientation can change the world or heal it of its moral wounds. No matter the quantity of brilliant accountants and auditors that society can train and showcase, frauds and crimes of financial sorts would not abate. On the contrary, the greater and more competent the number of accountants, auditors and financial experts we can boast of, the more embarrassing and scandalous the volume of financial crimes that are perpetrated, even on a daily basis[v]. Thus, striving to save the world or re-order society is a futile endeavour. Such efforts lead to frustration, hypertension and untimely death. In the circumstances, the best strategy to adopt, for the non Confucian Taoists, is to abandon society and retire to the mountains and forests where nobody would impose a prior constraint on one’s human essence. Outside society, a person would be free like the birds, with no imposition of any kind to give him stress and high blood pressure. Then he would be wise and live up to a ripe old age.

From here, the Taoists espouse a philosophy of uselessness. And it goes like this: if you want to live long and become a sage, you should value self and despise things. To value self and despise things means to abandon society and retire to the mountains and forests where there are no disturbances, where you would flow with nature. Well, it would appear that one would be useless to society if he does so. The Taoist says that such uselessness is valuable for the preservation of life and avoidance of injury. In other words, uselessness or being useless is the authentic clue to longevity. The best way to enjoy oneself, the best way to be happy and the best way to preserve one’s life and live long is to be useless. To reinforce this point of view, we are reminded by the Taoist that the valuable and useful trees in the forest do not last long, but the useless ones grow big and huge and tower above every other tree in the forest and last very long. Now, the story is told of a sacred Oak tree which is reported to have confided in someone in a dream thus: For a long time I have been learning to be useless. There were several occasions on which I was nearly destroyed, but now I have succeeded in being useless, which is of the greatest use to me. If I were useful, could I have become so great?[vi]

The gist of all of this is that self is the only thing ultimately worth valuing and preserving. If one should lose this self, he/she can never get it back. Obviously, this is the Chinese version of ethical egoism which states that actions are good, morally right, if they conduce to the wellbeing of the doer, and that the individual should perform only those acts which are incremental to the wellbeing of the self. On this view, selflessness would be an ethical aberration since it may cause you injury and reduce your life span. Unfortunately, it does not appear that the proposal of a hermit-like existence in the mountains and forests would result in sound ethical living, in which one would totally avoid injury to the self and achieve longevity. In those days, people were killed in the mountain forests by wild animals, scorpions and reptiles. People were killed by floods, avoidable pestilences and sundry other inclemency of the wild and untamed nature. Thus, ethical egoism of the sort prescribed by non-Confucian Taoism would be perilous and self destruct to the individual. However, it is important to note here that this egoistic view represents the early or boyhood phase of Taoism, and one version of Taoism for that matter. This is to say that the early or boyhood ethical view of Taoism is corrected in the middle and more cerebral manhood stages of Taoist morality[vii].

In the middle or second phase of Taoism, for instance, conscious and concerted efforts were made to discover and comprehend the laws or principles underlying the motion or changes of things in the universe. It was noted that things were always in a state of constant motion, constant alteration, but that the laws governing motion must be unalterable and stable. If this is the case then if one understands the laws governing the universe one would be able to guide one’s actions according to them and so, one would be able to turn everything to one’s advantage. Again, there is no absolute guarantee that comprehending the laws of the universe in the manner suggested by the cannons of Taoism would give man complete advantage over the evils and travails of the world. In the life-world, there are always emergences and contingencies which vitiate every attempt to gain advantage over the evils of the world. This is because being sober, being careful and being circumspect is not a proof and assurance that one could not suffer injury. Man’s life, whether he agrees or not is full of irredeemable losses. All this is possible because we are human.

On this point Lao Tzu raises a poser, “The reason that I have great disaster is because I have a body. If there were no body, what disaster could there be”[viii] The point is that we are human beings who exist in flesh and blood. In the more mature and manhood stage of Taoism, there is the realization that neither escape from society to the mountains and forests nor the mastery  of the laws governing the universe could bring about the overcoming of man’s moral predicaments and inadequacies. For advanced Taoism, the ultimate solution to the problem of moral turpitude is the equalization of life with death and the identity of the self with others. To fully overcome the evils of the world, the escape one needs is not from the world to the mountains and forests or in attaining a state of uselessness or purposelessness, but in the abolition of the self or in the fusing of the one into the many. In this state of affairs, man is nature and nature is man. What is, is what ought to be. In this, there is the reversal of self-love of early Taoism to selflessness, from ethical egoism to altruism[ix]. We now return to the Confucian brand of Taoism. In this, there are three essential teachings. First, that the moral exemplar, the philosopher, is not one who contrives fixed doctrines, who imposes ideas and values or who originates something new. The moral exemplar is a transmitter and interpreter of cultural values and heritage. This paints the picture of the modern day philosopher, in the Husserllian fashion, as a passive spectator or observer of cultural practices and traditions, a point of view hotly contested by post Husserllian existentialists. For the existentialist, man is neither a passive observer of moral norms and ideals nor an uncommitted and disinterested transmitter of ethical ideals, but an active participant in the social milieu that he transmits to posterity[x].

Kung Fu Zu’s Ethics

An image of Confucius, Kung Fu Tzu hanging in an office of the Confucius Institute. Photo: Unilag

The second principal teaching of Kung Fu Zu (Confucius) is that society needs constant re-ordering and renewal through the science of the rectification of names. This doctrine or science means that people should be made, in their conduct, to behave according to the implication attached to their names. The right principle of governance, on Confucius’ view, is for a ruler to be a ruler in words and in deed, not to be a stooge, a surrogate, or a tyrant and not even to be a boss because a boss is a product of a system of mistrust. A ruler should be one who flows with the citizenry as a guide and not a tyrant. In the same way, a minister should be a minister in words and in deed. The point made by Confucius is that every name in social relationship contains certain implications which constitute the essence of that class of things to which the name applies. A ruler should, ideally, be one who rules, which means that he should conform to “the way of the ruler” without which he will cease to be a ruler. On this view, there is or there ought to be a correspondence between a name and what it stands for. Every name in social relationship implies certain duties and responsibilities. If everyone lives according to his name in social relationship, duties and obligations would be performed as categorical imperatives. This is how to re-order and put society in a sound footing[xi].

The third teaching which is profoundly ethical is anchored on the concept of human “heartedness,” “kind heartedness” and “righteousness.” Here, righteousness is a categorical imperative, which means that there is an toughness implied in our situation. Everyone in social relationship has certain duties which he ought to perform, certain things which he ought to do and which have to be done for their own sake. If a man’s action is motivated by something else other than the moral toughness or obligation then he does not act out of righteousness, but he acts out of the profit motive. This is the most fundamental form of corruption and immorality. You act, not because of the gain or profit in view. You act because it is morally obligatory to do so. Thus, to act for nothing, not for reward is the authentic clue to righteousness in Confucianism.

For Confucius, those who act out of Li act out of the profit motive. This is not good enough. It is unrighteous to do so. But those who act out of Yi, act out of righteousness. For Confucius, the essence of all of these, the essence of moral obligations is human heartedness which means loving others. The man who loves others is one who is able to perform his duties in the society. A ruler acts as ruler in words and in deed because he loves his country men; a father acts the way a father should because he loves his children, and conversely, children act the way they should because they love their father. From this morality of human heartedness, Confucius developed a concept of the man of Jen, a man of moral high ground, a man of all round virtue, an ethical all-rounder, who actually does his duties in society. In expressing the principles which govern the man of Jen, Confucius proposed two forms of moral exhortation, that is, the principles of Chung and Shu, more or less two sides of a moral coin. The principle of Chung is a positive moral exhortation which says “do to others what you wish yourself,” whereas Shu expresses a negative moral exhortation which states that one should not do to others what he would not wish himself.

In this form of ethics, that is, in the practice of Jen, the moral actor or agent applies the principle of the measuring square,” which entails using the self as a standard of morality. It further states, “do not use what you do not like in men of high positions in dealing with men of low rank. Do not use what you hate in men of low birth in relating to men of high rank, do not use what you could never tolerate about your predecessors to await or ambush your successors and vice versa. Do not use what you do not like on the left to affect the right and vice versa. Serve your ruler as you would require your subordinate to serve you. Serve your elder brother as you would require your younger brother to serve you. Set the example in behaving to your friend as you would require them to behave to you[xii].

These moral precepts are taken from the Doctrine of the mean and the emphasis is that, the moral agent should use himself, his likes and dislikes, as a standard of morality, as the guide of his social conduct. The next emphasis in Confucian moral philosophy is on knowing Ming. This aspect of Confucian ethics is intended to assist the individual to achieve mental health and tranquility of the soul. According to Confucius whether our principles in this world succeeds or not depends entirely on knowing Ming. To be happy one needs to know Ming. Success or failure does not depend on doing but on Ming. One may die of frustration and disappointment if one does not know Ming. Knowing Ming entails doing ones duties, performing ones obligations, without bothering about the result of one’s action. Once we have performed our duties, once we have done what is morally obligatory for us to do, it is inconsequential whether we succeed or fail. A concern about non-moral considerations incidental to our actions ruins the oughtness demanded of our situation. So you act for the sake of acting, you act for nothing and not for results. Thus, righteousness comes from the idea or notion of “doing for nothing.” Now, in doing for nothing, the Confucian makes the point that you cannot just fold your arms in the face of insurmountable difficulties. Confucian ethics contends that in spite of the frustrating consequences incidental to acting, it is disingenuous and escapist to just sit down and do nothing as the pure Taoist would prefer. That one does not succeed in getting his principle to work in trying to reform the society, in trying to re-direct human conduct, does not entail that we should sit down and do nothing. If one knows Ming he will not bother about the success or failure of his act. For it is as if man proposes Ming disposes[xiii].

But then, what is Ming? For Confucius, Ming means fate or destiny or the total existent conditions and forces of the universe. For our principles to prevail in this world, for the material success of our endeavour, we need the co-operation of these conditions and forces. But such a co-operation is entirely beyond our control. It is foolish, therefore, for us to worry about what is beyond our control. If we know Ming, we would carry out whatever we intend to carry out regardless of whether or not we succeed. This is what Confucius means by knowing Ming. According to him only a superior man can know Ming. Thus, to know Ming means to accept the inevitability of the world as it exists, and so disregard one’s external success or failure. Once we know Ming we would be active participants in the drama of social existence and would care less about the consequences of what is morally obligatory for us to do. Consequently, happiness and sound moral living is a function of knowing Ming[xiv].


Afro-Sino Ethics In Dialogue

It is at this juncture that we return to the concept or idea of dialogue. In what sense is there a dialogue between African and Chinese ethics? Why is it not a comparative discourse? The answer to this is simple. In a comparative discourse you are concerned with what existed or transpired between two currents or thoughts. You are concerned about similarities and differences. That is not my interest in this essay. In the matter concerning Afro -Sino moral outlook, we are not just concerned about what existed, in what areas they looked alike and in what areas they are different. We are concerned about cultural interfusion, a continuum in which ancient wisdom is invited to vitalize the present and the future. It is interplay of past, present and future in which the future is in the past and the past is in the future, of our present engagements. Thus, the sense of dialogue in this discourse is not one between interlocutors in which one talks and the other replies. The notion of dialogue here is in terms of a common ground between two cultures that existed separately in the past but are now in contact to discover that a common affinity binds them together in some fundamental respects. We take a quick look at two moral outlooks that are connected now and which are thrust together into the future and what to make of this understanding:

  1. In African presentation of ethics, the purpose of morality is the consideration of human welfare, the general good and social bonding of society. In Chinese philosophy the purpose of ethics is for personal purity, kind heartedness, righteousness and social bonding.
  2. In African ethics emphasis is on moral values and the preservation of life, mutual interdependence, reciprocal solidarity, mutual happiness and mutual conviviality. In Chinese ethics emphasis is on human heartedness, kind heartedness, empathy, mutual welfare and mutual success.
  3. African ethics is anchored on communal patriotism, that is, the sharing of happiness and sorrows, burden and benefit together. What affects one affects the others. Correspondingly, in Chinese ethics patriotism is demonstrated through the man of Jen, that is, one with a high ethical virtue, who in helping himself helps others.
  4. In African ethics, the ideal man as depicted in Yoruba concept of Omoluabi is contemporaneous with the sage in Chinese moral philosophy. A sage here is the custodian of the cultural heritage of his society as shown by Confucius.
  5. Selflessness in African ethics is the antidote for the problem of corruption. In Chinese ethics, selflessness manifests in the ethical dictum of “do for nothing.” One should see the performance of his duty not from the point of profit but as an obligation.
  6. In Afan ethics the re-ordering of society is achieved through the strict adherence to the hierarchy of forces and man’s placement in the ontological order of beings. In Chinese ethics, the re-ordering of society is achieved by the Confucian doctrine of the rectification of names, that is, man should live up to his name in social relationship.
  7. In African ethics, the Golden Rule is the standard of morality and it means that one should act towards others the way he would wish others to act towards him. In Chinese ethics, the Golden Rule is expressed in the Doctrine of the Mean, the principle of Chung and Shu, which states that, one should do to others what he would wish himself, and conversely, that man should not wish others what he would not wish himself.
  8. In African ethics, the utilitarian principle accepts the happiness of the largest population as the foundation of morality. In Chinese ethics, the utilitarian principle manifests as the perspective that the wellbeing and happiness of men is the basis for sound ethical living.
  9. Most importantly, the concept of Tao in Chinese thought plays similar roles as the notion of vital force in African thought which consist in enhancing moral values that enforce social bonding. The recognition in both framework of thought of an interconnected universe of forces plays an important role in the development of the ethics of social bonding.

There are several other areas of common concourse not highlighted here. No one can exhaust everything, nor should anyone claim to know everything. Suffice it to state that this is an ongoing conversation between two cultures that appear to have an understanding arising from a common moral outlook. None of the two cultures appears to want to conquer anyone. Each of the cultures simply wants to be allowed a space in the world to exist freely as human beings.

African and Chinese Ethics: Conclusion

Both the African and Chinese ethics parade sound ethical principles and great moral exemplars an  cherish the wisdom of the ancients. None of these moral outlooks presents notorious historical figures as their ethical flag bearers. This is to say that all human cultures treasure men and women of high moral standards. The problem now, from the conduct of people in cultures where these high moral ideals originated, is that the most rigorous morality appears to be accepted by everyone when there is no question of putting it into practice. In other words, the conducts of many people from African and

Chinese descent and even beyond, are not particularly ethically impressive. It raises the question whether such ethics truly works. If they do not work, why do people treasure and preserve them? If they do work, why do we have so many cases of corruption, immorality and misconduct in societies where these ethical theories were spurn? Or could it just be that they do work but that man is morally too weak to abide by them? Are they afflicted by the ethical disease of akrasia?[xv]

These questions are pertinent because of the following experience with which we are all familiar. Modern day United States of America, for instance, is reputed to be efficient and successful in every sphere, especially in the realm of strict regulation and control. Yet, we can recall vividly the huge fraud perpetrated by Emroy and the recent mind blowing financial crime committed by Maddoff. All this happened in a society peopled by wiz kid Harvard-trained and Goldman Saachs-mentored financial experts, accountants and auditors. Correspondingly, with the famous Coopers and Lybrand, two notable accounting associations (ICAN & ANAN) and several high brow accounting and auditing firms in Nigeria, the society is daily constipated by the Halliburton scam, the Bunmi Oni—Cardbury financial fraud, the Tafa Balogun saga, and a host of others too numerous to mention. As if to add insult to injury, Chinese manufacturers and merchants, in collaboration with Nigerian profiteers, have inundated every market with sub-standard and fake products, such as GT Radial Tyres, that are life threatening. This is not good enough, coming from peoples who lay claim to rich cultural heritage of high ethical values and ideals[xvi]. There is therefore a need for genuine cultural renewal and ethical reorientation, to make people practice what they preach and live by the ideals which they purport to hold dear. For after all said and done, the ethics of character and integrity, of mutual interdependence, of reciprocal solidarity, of mutual conviviality, of civilized progress and mutual success, which African and Chinese people proclaim would be a ludicrous sham if the ensuing conversation, the ethical dialogue, leaves the poorer partner poorer and the richer partner richer.

[i] L. Tzu, Tao: A New Way of Thinking: A Translation of Tao Te Chang, Trans by Chang Chung Yuan (New York: Harper and Row Publishers, 1975)

[ii] For details of this and what follows see C. Chung-yuan, Tao: A New Way of Thinking: A Translation of the Tao Te Ching, New York: Harper and Row, 1975; and F. Yu-Lan, A Short History of Chinese Philosophy, DerkBodde (ed.), New York: The Free Press, 1948.

[iii] See F. Yu-lan, A Short History of Chinese Philosophy (New York: The Free Press, (1948).

[iv] . L. Tzu, Tao: A New Way of Thinking

[v] Jim I. Unah, Metaphysics in Ancient Chinese Philosophy, Jim I. Unah (Ed.), in Metaphysics, Phenomenology and African Philosophy (Ibadan: Hope Publications, 1996), pp. 155–180.

[vi] L. Tzu, Tao: A New Way of Thinking

[vii] A. Watts, The TAO of Philosophy: The Edited Transcripts (USA: Charles E. Tuttle Company Inc., 1995)

[viii] F. A Short History of Chinese Philosophy, p.64.

[ix] Ibid

[x] J. I. Unah (ed.), Metaphysics in Ancient Chinese Philosophy Metaphysics, Phenomenology and  African Philosophy, Ibadan: Hope Publications 1996, p.184

[xi] See F. Yu-lan, A Short History of Chinese Philosophy

[xii] Ibid

[xiii] Jim I. Unah, Metaphysics in Ancient Chinese

[xiv] J. I. Omoregbe, A Philosophical Look at Religion (Lagos: Joja Educational Research and Publishers Limited, 1993)

[xv] S. O. Tamuno and I. E. Nelson, Social Ethics and Nation-Building, SOPHIA: An African Journal of Philosophy, 8.2 (2005): 93–97.

[xvi] See Jim I. Unah, Ontologico-Epistemological Background to Authentic African Socio-

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