Analects of Confucius Book 4: virtue never stands alone


Confucius made regular use of the device of comparing the lofty values of a leader (君子/jūnzǐ) with the base instincts of a petty person (小人/xiǎorén). In 4.11, for example, he comments that while the former pursues virtue and justice, the latter only cares about the accumulation of material possessions and gaining favors. Leaders thus focus on improving themselves in order to better contribute to the common good of society, while petty or small-minded people are only concerned with extracting as many personal benefits as possible from it.

In 4.25, Confucius reiterates the transformational nature of virtue. “Virtue never stands alone” because it automatically attracts “neighbors” like a magnet as a result of its intrinsic moral power. To use a more contemporary analogy, it’s akin to a modern-day online platform that is constantly expanding its user base through smart new applications and services that enable people to transform their thinking and behavior.

Given the rapid developments in connectivity, IoT, AI, big data, and deep learning technologies, the idea of a platform that stimulates and reinforces virtuous behavior is becoming increasingly possible. Indeed, we are already seeing embryonic versions of such platforms in the form of personal healthcare apps and China’s social credit system.  

Just like in the age of Confucius, however, the challenge lies in defining the right moral principles and values that such a platform should be based on and the types of behaviors that it should reinforce. The obvious danger is that even if one is set up based on the purest of motives, it will end up becoming hostage to a variety of political, social, religious, and economic actors fighting to gain control over it.

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