Analects of Confucius Book 4: Confucius on profit

Confucius on profit

Profit (利/lì) was a dirty word for Confucius. He strongly opposed the pursuit of personal gain or advantage, arguing that it tempted people into wrongdoing and led to social instability.

In 4.12 of the Analects, he points out: “People who act out of self-interest cause great resentment.” In 4.16, he goes on to say that “a leader is concerned about what is right,” while “a petty person is concerned about what is in their own interest.” If everyone focused on working for the common good rather than lining their own pockets, society would function a lot more smoothly and the world would be a better place to live in.

As a result of his criticisms of the profit motive, Confucius has been blamed by many commentators for creating such a strong antipathy towards business that he was responsible for holding back China’s economic development and thus rendering the nation unprepared to resist the domination of the Western imperialist powers during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

Confucius was of course looking at the subject from a moral point of view rather than a purely economic one, and giving very reasonable warnings against the negative impact that the relentless pursuit of self-interest can have on society. As such, it is quite a stretch (to put it mildly) to blame him for singlehandedly holding back the long-term development of China – but, rightly or wrongly, this will always be seen by many as an integral part of his legacy.

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