Leadership Lessons from Confucius: a sense of right and wrong

Men who withdrew from the world: Boyi, Shuqi, Yuzhong, Yiyi, Zhuzhang, Liuxia Hui, Shaolian. Confucius said: “They never compromised their ideals or brought disgrace upon themselves. Does this not sum up the characters of Boyi and Shuqi?” On Liuxia Hui and Shaolian, he commented: “Although they compromised their ideals and brought disgrace upon themselves, they spoke with reason and acted with prudence.” On Yuzhong and Yiyi, he said. “They lived as recluses and spoke their minds. They remained pure in their person and retired discretely from public life. I, however, am different from them because I have no preconceptions about what I can and cannot do.”

There is no single moral or ethical code that you can adopt to govern all your actions. Life is too varied and complex for that to be possible. Indeed, adopting the teachings of a single code too literally can lead you into very dangerous territory.

The key is to develop your own sense of right and wrong so that you can instinctively determine the appropriate action to take when faced with the moral and ethical dilemmas that you will inevitably encounter during your life. Although a moral code can provide guidelines for you to follow, it is up to you to decide how to apply them when the rubber hits the road.


This article features a translation of Chapter 8 of Book 18 of the Analects of Confucius. You can read my full translation of Book 18 here.

(1) The meaning of this passage is quite obscure, but it appears that each of the pairs of men that Confucius names followed a strict moral code that compelled them to withdraw from public life and in one case even commit suicide.

(2) Boyi and Shuqi are the most extreme example, and make a number of appearances in the Analects, including 5.23, 7.15, and 16.12. The two brothers ended up starving themselves to death because the strict moral code they followed did not allow them to eat any food that was the property of their ruler, King Wu of Zhou, who in their opinion had not shown the appropriate levels of filial devotion to his dead father. Their suicide was voluntary in the sense that they chose not to eat; but the strength of their beliefs meant that they had to starve themselves.

(3) Liuxia Hui is probably the same Liuxia Hui featured in 15.15 and 18.1, who was dismissed as a magistrate three times for speaking out against the powers-that-be — though there is no record of how he compromised his aims. As for Shaolian, nothing is known about him except for a possible reference in the Record of Ritual, in which he and his elder brother are described as barbarians who mourned the dead in the proper way.

(4) We don’t know anything about Yuzhong and Yiyi either, though the text implies that they withdrew from public life because of the moral code that they followed. Like Boyi and Shuqi, their decision was voluntary in the sense that it was a conscious choice, but given their beliefs they didn’t have any alternative. At least, in contrast to Boyi and Shuqi, they didn’t starve themselves to death during their seclusion.

(5) Confucius, on the other hand, claims he is “different” because he doesn’t need a specific moral code to govern his behavior. His moral and ethical sense is so keenly honed that he has the unique ability to determine the right action to take no matter what situation he is confronted with. Unlike other mere mortals who need rules to live by, he and only he alone has the ability to decide what he “can and cannot do.”

I shot this image in a hillside temple on the Four Beasts near to Taipei.


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Richard Brown

I live in Taiwan and am interested in exploring what ancient Chinese philosophy can tell us about technology and the rise of modern China.