The profit motive

子曰:「放於利而行,多怨。」
Confucius said: “People who act out of self-interest cause great resentment.”

Even though he lived over 2,000 years ago, Confucius still gets blamed for causing problems faced by modern-day China, most notably the lack of creativity in the education system.

Another charge laid against him is that he made profit (利/) a dirty word with his pointed criticisms of people acting out of self-interest and for their own advantage and thus made business a much less respectable career for a young person to aspire to than becoming an official or scholar.

This suspicion of the profit motive had an extraordinary cumulative effect on China’s economic and social development, diverting most of the country’s talent towards careers in government and leading to widespread disdain for the world of business and commerce.

According to some commentators at least, the antipathy towards business ultimately led to a prolonged period of economic, social, and technological stagnation during the Yuan, Ming, and Qing dynasties that made China totally unprepared for the predations of the Western imperialist countries during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

Confucius was of course looking at the subject from a moral point of view rather than an economic one, and giving very reasonable warnings against the negative impact that the naked pursuit of self-interest can have on society.

As such, it is (to put it mildly) quite a stretch to blame him for singlehandedly holding back the long-term development of China – but, rightly or wrongly, his opposition to the profit motive will always be seen as an integral part of his legacy.

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