The Violence of the Benevolent Ruler: Classical Confucianism and Punitive Expedition

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In the past two decades, scholars in China and beyond have vigorously demonstrated that the just war discourse is integral to classical Confucianism and that the classical Confucian idea of “punitive expedition” can be best understood in terms of humanitarian intervention. The sceptics, however, claim that in describing the ancient sage-king's bloodless punitive expeditions, what classical Confucians really had in mind was not so much to endorse morally justified forms of aggressive war but to highlight the paramount importance of the ruler's moral self-cultivation and benevolent government. This paper examines closely the disagreement between the two positions and offers a more historically grounded justification for the just war interpretation of classical Confucianism. It pays special attention to the importance of ritual order in classical Confucian political theory and discusses how the Warring States political circumstances led thinkers such as Mencius and Xunzi to shift their attention from ritual order to the well-being of the people.

Original languageEnglish
Article numbere12902
JournalPhilosophy Compass
Issue number2
Publication statusPublished - 2023 Feb

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
The author is grateful to Karyn Lai and two anonymous reviewers for their helpful comments. This research is supported by a research grant provided by the City University of Hong Kong (CityU 9610464). 1

Publisher Copyright:
© 2023 John Wiley & Sons Ltd.

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Philosophy


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