Why the Military Needs Confucian Virtues

Journal of Confucian Philosophy and Culture 40:181-202 (2023)
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There are few institutions that talk about virtues as much as military organizations. These military virtues are not, however, possessed by individuals in isolation; they are inculcated and influenced by the countless ways in which values are shared, both among military members and between individuals and the military itself. Unfortunately, a normative framework that is extremely well-suited to capture this significant link between individual virtue and shared valuing, namely Confucian virtue theory, is too often underappreciated in militaries in general and in military moral education in particular. Focusing on the normative significance of ritual and decorum, I analyze this shortcoming and consider how more explicitly incorporating Confucian virtue theory into military education could provide a sturdier foundation for the essential link between individual virtue and collective valuing. Analyzing the Confucian the virtue of princispled ritual etiquette (li 禮), I demonstrate that while such attention to ritual might seem questionable when considering the classic rituals often used as examples, once the pervasive presence of military rituals becomes apparent, such attention to principled ritual etiquette begins to seem far less anachronistic. Analyzing principled ritual etiquette in relationship to righteousness (yi 義) and benevolence (ren 仁), I argue that Confucian virtue theory provides a significant and distinct way to analyze modern military virtues, concluding with an analysis of how that framework can highlight the significance of ritualistic behavior on virtue development without promoting excessive and corrosive subservience.

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Marcus Hedahl
United States Naval Academy


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