Chinese and Western lay concepts of morality: Is morality about impropriety, or sin?

Emma Ellen Kathrina BUCHTEL, Yanjun GUAN, Yanjie SU

Research output: Contribution to conferencePapers


Two sets of studies on lay prototypes of immoral behavior and moral character both suggest that Chinese concepts of morality are unique in ways that must be taken into account when developing theories of the psychology of morality. We suggest that Chinese lay morality concepts emphasize being socially appropriate and cultured, reflecting Confucian concepts of moral cultivation, while Western lay morality concepts instead focus on harm, sinfulness, and their prevention, heavily influenced by the Biblical Ten Commandments. First, a series of studies on lay prototypes of moral character shows that while Hong Kong and Beijing concepts of moral character share factors with that of North Americans-- such as being honest, principled and caring-- there are also culturally unique factors that emphasize role-based behavior. In Hong Kong a unique moral personality factor focuses on courtesy, while in Beijing a unique factor emphasizes family caring (being filial); both of these factors are recognizably similar to Confucian ideas of virtue. Moreover, in both Hong Kong and Beijing but not in North America, being broad-minded and forgiving emerges as an important aspect of moral character, emphasizing one’s ability to get along harmoniously with others. Second, a set of studies on prototypical immoral behaviors found large cultural effects. When university students from Mainland China, Hong Kong, Canada, and Australia listed examples of immoral behaviors, the most frequently mentioned behaviors from Shanghai and Beijing included spitting, swearing, or talking loudly in public places, while Canadian and Australian examples were more serious, with physical harm (e.g. murder), crime (e.g. stealing) and sexual infidelity topping the list; Hong Kong examples fell in between. We discuss how this evidence suggests that important aspects of moral judgments in China challenge recent psychological theories about moral cognition.
Original languageEnglish
Publication statusPublished - Aug 2013


Buchtel, E., Guan, Y., & Su, Y. (2013, August). Chinese and Western lay concepts of morality: Is morality about impropriety, or sin? Paper presented at the 10th Biennial Conference of Asian Association of Social Psychology, Yogyakarta, Indonesia.


  • Morality
  • Moral character
  • Immorality
  • Prototype
  • Culture

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