Home » Blog » Neglected Virtue (1) Filiality – “Why Not Be a Good Child?” Sungwoo Um (Duke University)

Neglected Virtue (1) Filiality – “Why Not Be a Good Child?” Sungwoo Um (Duke University)


Sungwoo Um is a PhD Philosophy candidate and  Assistant Director of the Center for Comparative Philosophy at Duke University.

Why Not Be a Good Child? – Filiality as a Relational Virtue

Filiality (or filial piety; xiao; 孝) is the virtue that a good child has in relation to his or her parents, which consists of living in the way that expresses love, respect and support to them. It has been regarded as a central virtue in Confucian traditions. Confucius even says that filiality is “the root of virtue and all [ethical] teaching grows out of it”.[1] But it has been largely neglected especially in the Western culture, partly due to its alleged danger of undermining autonomy or independence of the children. If it really requires unreasonable things—such as absolute obedience to one’s parents—and thus unavoidably undermine other liberal virtues like autonomy or independence, negligence on this virtue may be well-deserved.

However, there can be many different conceptions on what it takes to be filial. The existence of problematic views on filiality does not make this virtue less important. No matter how people have thought about what it takes to be filial, it seems reasonable to say that there is something of important value in it. Many admit that intimate personal relationships such as parent-child relationship is integral to human flourishing. But not all such relationships constitute human flourishing: only good ones do. A good personal relationship would be one in which each party functions well as the respective role requires. Thus, a good parent-child relationship is one in which the parent has the virtue of ‘parentalness’ and the child has the virtue of filiality. In this sense, a virtue like filiality bears close relation to human flourishing.

If filiality turns out to be an important virtue, what we should do is to look for a better way to make sense of filiality, rather than to pay little or no attention to the virtue itself. I suggest that we understand filiality as a relational virtue, by which I roughly mean a virtue required for each participant of intimate personal relationships. Most of virtues that have enjoyed the limelight are either individualistic (e.g. temperance or autonomy) or other-regarding in a one-sided way (e.g. benevolence or generosity). Relational virtues are distinguished from those virtues in that they presuppose particular intimate relationships and can be cultivated and exercised only within those relationships. Insofar as having good personal relationships is important part of living a flourishing human life, in-depth study of relational virtues like filiality would be a matter of crucial importance. It can shed light on how to make sense of reciprocal character of personal relationships in terms of virtue.

[1] THE HSIÂO KING, Or Classic of Filial Piety (2001) (Translated by James Legge), Ch1., Blackmask Online.

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