Perfect Rituals


The activity helps motivate the Confucian focus on the relationship between ritual activity (li) and ethics.

Background Information


Students (and more than a few philosophers) tend not to think of everyday social interactions as the paradigmatic realm of ethics, but for the early Confucians, small-scale social interactions were of central ethical importance.


This is best done as a group activity, but could be done as an individual or pair activity.

Texts / Connections

Relevant texts:

The Analects

The Mengzi

The Xunzi


This activity can be juxtaposed with the common focus on big-picture, difficult ethical dilemmas that recieve much attention in mainstream Western ethics. It can also be a useful activity for a unit on philosophy of manners.

Courses and Topics

  • Introduction to Philosophy, Introduction to Ethics, Ethics

Activity Plan

As an individual activity (for roughly 4-8 minutes), give students the following prompt:


Select one of the following scenarios. Imagine what would be an absolutely perfect response, if you had all the time in the world to think of what to do. Write down, in as much detail as possible, what this response would look like (use a list form, like it's a recipe). Be sure to include for each step things like (a) what will you say? (b) what facial expression will you have? (c) what emotion should you be feeling? (d) what posture should you have? (e) what value (e.g. care, respect, dignity, etc.) should your action be embodying?

Scenario 1: Your best friend, who lives 10 miles away from you, calls you at 9 AM to tell you that they just broke up with their romantic partner of 4 years.

Scenario 2: As a sophomore in college, you feel your professor gave you an unfairly low grade on an essay. Make your case during office hours.

Scenario 3: Last night, you drank too much at a party and were obnoxious to your close friend. It’s now the next morning and you want to apologize.

Scenario 4: Your friend poured their heart into studying for her test, and got a C+. You got an A. Your friend asks you what you thought of the test.

Students should aim for a list with at least 10 steps.

After the students complete their list, have them share the list with the class. Then, ask the students to imagine what society would be like if we did this same task, for 1000 of the most common social interactions, came up with perfect lists of instructions for all of them, and taught people as part of their standard education to follow these instructions. Would people treat each other more ethically?

This, in a nutshell, is the Confucian ethical project. These instructions were the li, the rules of ritual. The skill that one developed as one gained expertise in them is also called li (sometimes translated as "ritual propriety" for clarity).

Discussion Questions (optional)

  • How is li (ritual AND ritual propriety) similar and different from etiquette and manners?

  • Could such a system really improve people's moral behavior? What about the problem of people not genuinely following the rules?


Seth Robertson (University of Oklahoma)