4 minute read


Asian ThoughtHuman Nature: Good Or Evil?

One of the enduring questions of East Asian philosophy concerns how human nature should be construed: Are humans by nature good or evil? Is morality natural to humans, or must they be taught (or coerced) to do what is right? Confucius never directly answered these questions, but the perfectibility of humanity is a dominant theme in his philosophy, and he clearly thought that humans (or at least male humans) possess the capacity for perfection, although they must consciously strive to actualize it. Mencius (Mengzi, c. 371–c. 289 B.C.E.), the most prominent thinker in the tradition after Confucius, asserted that human nature is good, and believed that people are naturally inclined toward virtue. Unfortunately, the negative elements of society tend to corrupt most people, and only a few are able to overcome them. He compared the tendency toward goodness to Ox Mountain, a hill that was once forested. The trees were cut down in order to make a place for cows to graze, but tree shoots continue to crop up there. The cows chew them, and so the trees never reach maturity, but the potential for tree growth is always present. In the same way, humans have the capacity to pursue sagehood, but most become corrupted and fail to actualize this potential.

According to Mencius, the path to perfection begins with cultivation of the heart/mind (xin), an innate faculty that allows us to discriminate between right and wrong. It operates in harmony with "vital energy" (qi), a universal force that pervades all phenomena and that promotes both personal morality and social harmony. Those who cultivate their heart/mind through study and practice of morality increase the power of their vital energy, which becomes a "flood-like qi" (haoran qi) in sages. As a strong wind bends grass, flood-like qi prompts those who encounter sages to emulate their example.

After Mencius, the notion that human nature is basically good was widely accepted by Confucians, but many of their rivals held other positions. The Legalists, for example, contended that human nature is evil and that unless people are regulated by laws and punishments they will go astray. Society only functions harmoniously when the populace fears the apparatus of state control, and the Legalists counseled rulers to keep their subjects in line by publicly inflicting harsh punishments on those who transgress the laws and by maintaining a powerful and pervasive police force and a network of spies.

A rival position was propounded by Mozi (c. 470–c. 391 B.C.E.), who advocated a philosophy of "universal love" (jianai). He contended that China's problems stemmed from a lack of shared benevolence, and he urged people to recognize that if everyone were to practice love of everyone else, the entire society would benefit. When people pursue their self-interest at the expense of others, everyone suffers, and so he taught that the most rational course of action for individuals is to contribute to the common good so that everyone might prosper.

Responding to Mozi, Confucians characterized his ideas as impracticable. First, Confucians believed that people naturally have deeper feelings for those who are close to them and that it is appropriate to favor them. Second, an appeal to pursue morality out of self-interest is bound to fail because those who are moral for selfish reasons will soon realize that while the whole society may benefit from universal love, an individual who takes advantage of the situation might well profit more than others. Only a universal code of morality will make people behave in a truly moral way.

In responding to the Legalists, the Confucians stated that in their version of society people become morally degenerate. They live according to society's expectations and will only be moral as long as there is a credible threat of punishment. They will not develop a moral sense, which is only possible for people who feel shame when they transgress the moral code. Shame keeps the noble man on track even when there is no one to punish or disapprove of immoral behavior.

Another alternative view of human nature was propounded by the Daoists. Laozi (571?–480? B.C.E.), the most prominent of the early Daoist thinkers, held that humans at birth are like uncarved blocks of wood (pu) and that as they get older, society molds and shapes them. While the Confucians believed that this process is desirable and that education is the key to attaining human perfection, Laozi contended that it brutalizes people and creates the seeds of social turmoil and negative behavior. Trees need no education to grow in accordance with the rhythms of nature, nor does water need to study the classics in order to flow toward its lowest point. Like all the things of the world, humans are born with an innate sense of right and wrong, which accords with the movement of the dao, an impersonal, universal force that pervades all phenomena and regulates how things grow and develop.

In the ideal Daoist society, people do not waste their time with education and moral training; rather, the Daoist ruler works to keep his subjects ignorant so that they remain happy with their simple lives. He ensures that they have enough to eat and he avoids conflicts with neighboring states so that the people are not disturbed by wars or overburdened with taxes. In the perfect society, according to Laozi, the people will be so content in their rural villages that even if they hear the cocks crowing in a neighboring town they have no interest in visiting because they have everything they need at home.

Additional topics

Science EncyclopediaScience & Philosophy: Heterodyne to Hydrazoic acidHumanity - Asian Thought - Human Nature: Good Or Evil?, Revival Of The Tradition, Zhu Xi And The Study Of Principle