Bridging Cultures: Adam Smith and Confucius

confucius analects just sentiments virtue ethics

Hairuo Tan for AdamSmithWorks

Tan shows the parallels in the thought of two great civilizational moralists, though separated by space, tradition, and more than 2000 years.

"Finding the universal truth in a culture that seems quite different from one’s own does not homogenize the two cultures, but it may harmonize them."

November 22, 2023 
Different cultural perspectives sometimes clash, but universal truths can transcend cultural barriers. Adam Smith theorized from a belief in a universal human nature that spans culture, history, and nation. He levelled distinctions commonly made in his day between the nature of street porters and philosophers, rich and poor, and enslaved and free. He described Europeans and Chinese as “brethren” (TMS 136.4).
If Smith had been able to converse across the centuries with Confucius, they might have found much to appreciate in one another’s ideas. There is in fact common ground between their views on interpersonal relations, propriety, and the cultivation of moral values (Tan, forthcoming). It seems possible that each would perceive the other man’s perspectives as complementary to his own.
Smith did not own copies of Confucius’s work. He possibly was aware of Confucius’s ideas, although this cannot be definitively established. There were during Smith’s lifetime translations of Confucius’s Analects of which he would have been aware. The first translation of The Analects into European languages was published in 1687 in Latin. This translation formed the basis of all later French and English translations available during Smith’s lifetime (St André 2018, 229). Robert Molesworth, who personally knew and influenced Smith’s teacher Francis Hutcheson, seems to have read Confucius. He recommended Confucius in correspondence with William Wishart, who served as principal of Edinburgh University from 1736 to 1753 (Rivers 2000, 176).
Imagine a conversation between Smith and Confucius on moral philosophy. Smith initiates the discussion with his theory of sympathy. He introduces the spectator-agent relation. Moral judgment requires a spectator to inhabit the agent’s situation. He must become “in some measure the same person” as the agent to perceive how the agent is affected and to form a proper judgment (TMS 9.2).
Confucius might respond with his theory of shu, a concept analogous to sympathy in function and importance. Shu “can serve as a guide for one’s entire life”; it is a sense of likeness between human beings (Analects, 15.24). Confucius would elucidate the moral implications of shu: “Do not impose upon others what you yourself do not desire” (Analects 12.2 and 15.24), which implicitly suggests the practice of transposition. One should expect what he himself does not favor is unlikely to be favored by another. As commented by E. G. Slingerland, a translator of The Analects, “The fact that you yourself hate hunger and cold allows you to understand that everyone in the world desires food and clothing” (p. 183). The corollary is that an individual ought to help others secure what she herself desires. Confucius taught his disciples that: “Desiring to take his stand, one … helps others to take their stands. Wanting to realize himself, he helps others to realize themselves” (Analects, 6.30). One guided by the doctrine of shu would initiate an action impacting others, only when he could appreciate the impact of this proposed action if he himself were made the bearer of this action.
Smith might point out that Confucius's account of moral judgment thus far presented crucially lacks an intermediary figure comparable to his impartial spectator, a concept introduced in his own work in the discussion of “noble and generous resentment” (TMS 24.4). Resentment becomes noble and generous only when an impartial spectator approves of the indignation. One’s endeavor in moderating her passion to a pitch that the impartial spectator would approve of will gain her the sympathy of any ordinary spectator who consults the impartial spectator. Proper moral judgment requires a third person perspective.
Confucius would rejoin by noting that a sense of impartiality is inherent, albeit implicit, in shu, which implies “listening to the hearts of the other” (Wu 2013, 433).
As the conversation moved forward, both men would find themselves discussing individuals’ sociability and the common good. Human beings are not isolated islands; they naturally are embedded and active in social life, Smith would say. When conflicts of interests arise during a social interaction, one’s private interest should be advanced only on the supposition that if another were to do likewise, the interests of the community, country, and even universe would advance (TMS 235.3).
Confucius would concur, perhaps recalling a situation in which he criticized two of his disciples for failing to dissuade their master from initiating an unjust war. These disciples erred by failing to reconcile their personal interests and the interests of their master with the higher good, which is the preservation of harmony and peace among different municipality states (Analects 16.1).
The conversation between Confucius and Smith would inevitably touch on considerations of the supreme good. Is there an authoritative standard of the good above the authority of any human judge? Smith would argue that one’s faculty of judgment flows from “[t]he all-wise Author of Nature” (TMS 128.31). Above the “immediate judgment of mankind” exists a higher tribunal of “the supposed impartial spectator” (TMS 130.32). And above this higher tribunal exits “a still higher tribunal,” where is seated “the all-seeing Judge of the world, whose eye can never be deceived, and whose judgments can never be perverted” (TMS 131.33). Smith thus acknowledges a supreme judge endowed with superhuman authority.
Confucius would likely refrain from rejecting such a judge but he would not feel confident in elaborating further. Confucius held spiritual forces in deep reverence (Analects 6.22), although he believed them to be fundamentally incomprehensible (Analects 11.12). He did not teach his disciples anything that he himself could not comprehend, but he believed in judgments made from the above. Even during his travels among municipality states, when he struggled to have his teachings recognized by their leaders, he maintained the belief that tian (heaven) would recognize his efforts (Analects 14.35). On another occasion, when one of his disciples expressed dissatisfaction with his meeting with a woman of questionable reputation, Confucius swore an oath, willing to accept punishment from tian if he had acted inappropriately (Analects 6.28).
While Smith was influenced by Christian writings, and Confucius lived in a time when there was a lack of systematically written theological works, and spiritual forces were often associated with mythological tales, these differing lifetime experiences did not prevent them from finding common ground in acknowledging a supreme judge.
As their conversation evolved, the topic of rules of propriety would come into focus. Smith would argue that propriety is by nature at least somewhat “loose, vague, and indeterminate” (TMS 327.1). Unlike a grammar book that defines rules rather exactly, propriety depends on moral judgments of a less exact nature. The “suitableness or unsuitableness” of a sentiment concerning a particular cause determines the propriety or impropriety of an action (TMS 18.6). A spectator continuously assesses an agent’s behavior, but not only that—the spectator also evaluates his own judgments. Furthermore, each judgment is enriched by past judgments (Matson et al. 2019). Rules of propriety are dynamic and subject to how the spectator adapts his judgments.
Smithian propriety finds a counterpart in Confucius’s treatment of li (ritual propriety). Despite its literal translation, which suggests a grammar-like sense, li possesses elements of recursiveness, adjustment, and spontaneity. Confucius famously advocated “to return to li” (Analects 12.1), but this wasn’t a call for a rigid return to the past. Adhering to li involves more an internal moral improvement than an external adherence to fixed rituals. What is considered “abiding by li” today might be seen as “against li” tomorrow. One who refuses to update his perception on li will eventually fail to act as li requires.
Confucianism, the philosophical tradition which borrowed the name of Confucius, failed to transmit the heritage of Confucius in its originality. One significant departure from Confucius’s teaching is the diminishing emphasis of the dynamism in li. When the influence of Confucianism peaked in Imperial China, li, instead of guiding individual’s moral improvement, became an instrument employed by authoritarian rulers to regulate the external conduct and suppress the internal mindset of their subjects. Mistaking Confucianism for Confucius’s teachings can make Confucius antagonistic to the classical liberal tradition. Studying Confucius’s own words unmolested by any self-declared admirers of Confucius overcomes this artificially made conflict.
Smith might utilize his description of the prudent man (TMS 213–217), emphasizing the role of prudence in fostering habits of industry, steadiness, and moderation, while alleviating the anxiety, busyness, and restlessness that stem from the love of praise (Hanley 2009, 103). A prudent man is an industrious learner, driven by a genuine desire “to understand whatever he professes to understand, and not merely to persuade other people that he understands” (TMS 213.7). Confucius would say that he too believed in the central importance of prudence, pointing out his teaching on the pleasure of studying and practicing what has been learned at the right time (Analects 1.1). Confucius considered himself a lifelong learner, and never discriminated when choosing his teacher. He was ready to emulate any passer-by in whom he could find merits (Analects 7.22). Confucius might also supplement with his account of avoiding the love of praise. Confucius once reminded his disciples that they should not be worried about how their abilities were recognized by others but should be more concerned whether they paid enough respect to others’ abilities (Analects 1.16).
Smith would emphasize another trait of the prudent man: the avoidance of factions or cliques. A prudent man connects himself with little clubs or cabals only when compelled by self-defense (TMS 213-214.7). Confucius would appreciate this quality, as he taught the importance of seeking harmony with neighbors without seeking their favor by trying to become like them (Analects 13.23). Smith might add that when one discusses a topic of his expertise, one cannot expect his audience to share the same familiarity or fascination with it, necessitating a degree of reserve and avoiding excessive enthusiasm (TMS 33-34.6). Confucius would consider reserve not only a matter of expediency but a virtue to be cultivated. He stressed the importance of careful speech, advocating that one should be slow to speak but quick to act and should feel shame if his conduct does not align with his words (Analects 4.24). Additionally, Confucius would suggest that reserve can sometimes provide protection. This concern is likely rooted in the turbulent time he lived in. Confucius taught that when a state is governed along the wrong path, one’s speech should be conciliatory (Analects 14.3). In other words, one is not expected to challenge the authorities with audacious criticism.
Another noteworthy characteristic of a prudent man likely to find resonance with Confucius is that, as Smith says, a prudent man “confines himself, as much as his duty will permit, to his own affairs” (TMS 215.13). Such confining should not be interpreted as selfishness, but as a prudent man’s awareness of what the society demands of him. Confucius would likely express a similar viewpoint, particularly with an emphasis on political affairs. He advised: “Do not discuss matters of government policy that do not fall within the scope of your official duties” (Analects 8.14 and 14.26). Not holding a government position, Confucius refrained from providing advice on policy matters. This shared perspective emphasizes the importance of recognizing one’s role and responsibilities within the broader social context.
Smith and Confucius could further exchange their thoughts on self-command. According to Smith, passions that need to be commanded can be placed into two classes. The first class includes fear and anger, and the second class love of ease, pleasure, and applause, and of many other selfish gratifications (TMS 238.3). Confucius, in response, would highlight the valor of an individual who is not driven by fear (Analects 9.29) and would acknowledge what Smith wrote about the valor of “[t]he heroes of ancient and modern history, who… have perished upon the scaffold, and who behaved there with ease and dignity” (TMS 238.5). Smith would then share the story of the poor man’s son. The poor man’s son sees that the rich and the great people have more means of happiness, and thus he strives to become rich. He forgoes “the humble security and contentment,” only to find himself in no better situation, since “wealth and greatness are mere trinkets of frivolous utility” (TMS 181.8). True happiness, according to Smith, consists in tranquility and enjoyment: “Without tranquillity there can be no enjoyment” (TMS 149.30). The poor man’s son’s pursuit of wealth and greatness can merely bring him the “pleasure of vanity and superiority,” which are “seldom consistent with perfect tranquillity” (TMS 150.31).
In response, Confucius might recount the story of his disciple Yan Hui, whom Confucius praised for his unwavering moral character. Living a simple life with only a humble bowl of food and a modest place to rest, Yan Hui’s joy remains undisturbed (Analects 6.11). Smith may recognize in Yan Hui a resemblance to the philosopher-beggar, “who suns himself by the side of the highway [yet] possesses that security which kings are fighting for” (TMS 158.10). This exchange of stories would underscore the shared perspectives on the importance of self-command and the true sources of happiness.
At the end of their conversation, Confucius might reflect on the supreme objective of his teaching, guiding his disciples to become more like a junzi, an exemplary person who is capable of all virtues and is perfect in morality. Social status, occupation, and upbringing are all rendered inessential in the pursuit of becoming a junzi. Confucius himself was always ready to bring knowledge to anyone seeking education. What truly matters is what resides in one’s heart and his dedication to constant self-reflection and moral cultivation. The moral improvement and virtues discussed throughout this hypothetical conversation all contribute to the qualities of a junzi, but are insufficient to make one a junzi, as a junzi is an ideal too perfect to find in real life.
Here I have offered several comparisons between Smith and Confucius. The chief comparisons are presented in the following figure:

Having proposed an imaginary conversation between two great thinkers of different times and cultures—Smith as an indispensable contributor of the Western liberal tradition and Confucius as a crucial mind of ancient Chinese civilization—this article hopes to provoke further explorations on cross-cultural communications. Finding the universal truth in a culture that seems quite different from one’s own does not homogenize the two cultures, but it may harmonize them. It helps to harmonize the diversity of human cultures. Different civilizations may then live in greater harmony, and peace. To strive to truthfully consult Smith’s impartial spectator or to behave more proximately to the standards as required by Confucius’s junzi will not create two sets of human beings with an identical mindset. But those determined to pursue either track will likely find their counterpart pursuing the other track to be praiseworthy.

Hairuo Tan is a fifth-year PhD student and graduate lecturer in economics at George Mason University. She received an M.S. in economics in 2018 from Trinity College, Dublin and a B.S. in Metallurgical and Materials Engineering in 2016 from Colorado School of Mines. Her dissertation on Adam Smith compares Smith and Confucius and assesses the paternalistic element in Smith’s moral and political philosophy.

This essay is part of the AdamSmithWorks series Just Sentiments curated by Daniel B. Klein and Erik Matson. New essays will be published on the fourth Wednesday of the month. You can read more about the series in this Speaking of Smith post, "Just Sentiments- Welcome!". Klein and Matson lead the Adam Smith Program in the Department of Economics at George Mason University, in association with the Mercatus Center. In the program, they study big ideas in jurisprudence, politics, ethics, and economics as they were pursued during the original arc of liberalism, especially in the 18th century in Britain.

Confucius. 2003. Confucius Analects: With Selections from Traditional Commentaries. Translated by Edward Gilman Slingerland. Indianapolis, IN: Hackett Publishing Company Incorporated.

Hanley, Ryan Patrick. 2009. Adam Smith and the Character of Virtue. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Matson, Erik W., Colin Doran, and Daniel B. Klein. 2019. “Hume and Smith on Utility, Agreeableness, Propriety, and Moral Approval.” History of European Ideas 45 (5). Routledge: 675–704. doi:10.1080/01916599.2019.1589238.

Rivers, Isabel. 2000. Reason, Grace, and Sentiment: Volume 2, Shaftesbury to Hume: A Study of the Language of Religion and Ethics in England, 1660–1780. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Smith, Adam. 1982. The Theory of Moral Sentiments. Edited by Raphael and Macfie. Indianapolis, IN: Liberty Fund.

St André, James. 2018. Translating China as Cross-Identity Performance. Honolulu, HI: University of Hawaii Press.

Tan, Hairuo. Forthcoming. Adam Smith and Confucius on morality: A comparative study of The Theory of Moral Sentiments and The Analects of Confucius. In The Adam Smith Review (Vol. 14). Routledge.

Wu, Meiyao. 2013. “Ren-Li, Reciprocity, Judgment, and the Question of Openness to the Other in the Confucian Lunyu.” Journal of Moral Education 42 (4): 430–42. doi:10.1080/03057240.2013.791261.