Is human nature basically good or bad, and why do we even think about this stuff?
by Scott Cherry—
It seems to be part of human nature to ask, What is human nature? It is a question that has been common to every people of every age, and has been a preoccupation of religion and philosophy alike.
Mengzi said, “To fully apply one’s heart is to understand one’s nature. If one
understands one's nature, then one understands Heaven.” 7A1
An ancient story is told of a man and woman who ate the fruit of a forbidden tree. A great many details could be added and inferences drawn but I offer only a few. Either the fruit or the act seemed to affect their natures. Before it they lived in harmony with God, with nature and with themselves; after it they were at odds with all three. And they were banished. In exile their lives and the lives of their progeny would suffer from then on. Indeed, all of humanity would be plunged into conflict with their own natures and the myriad behaviors that proceed from them in every family and community of every nation, and on every level of human society. Whatever one’s interpretation of it, this story became a deeply ingrained meta-narrative by which a large swath of humanity has viewed its nature.
But the Chinese were not among them. That does not suggest that Chinese philosophers and ordinary Chinese people would not ponder the same questions. It only means that they would view them through other lenses. Indeed, it seems to be part of human nature to ask them: What is human nature?, and what is the nature of a human being? It is a question that has been common to every people of every age, and has been a preoccupation of religion and philosophy alike. For the Chinese it has been predominantly viewed through the lenses of Confucianism. But, although a dominant Confucian lens emerged, there have been more than just one. The predominant lens was that of the philosopher Mengzi (Mencius) of the fourth century B.C. He was not the founder of Confucianism; that was Kongzi (551-479 B.C.), more popularly known as Confucius in the West. But Mengzi was a self-avowed follower of Kongzi and what he called “The Way”. Perhaps he could be called the “Augustine of Confucianism” in terms of status. As we shall see, however, the two figures had diametrically opposed views on human nature.
Is human nature basically good or bad? is the specific question we will be examining. Mengzi believed it was good whose views have prevailed in today’s Confucianism. But other another prominent Confucian disagreed. In this short paper I will expound on Mengzi’s views on the basic goodness of human nature, constrast them with the opposing view, and analyze them by my own criteria. For my part it seems that Mengzi’s views have a ring of truth but do not stand up to scrutiny.
It is interesting to note that Kongzi himself was apparently not interested in the question at hand. Or perhaps he was completely befuddled by it. Or he simply decided that the cultivation and practice of virtue was a better investment of time and energy than trying to understand something that has little to no bearing on the essential priorities of virtue (ren) and ritual (yi). Whatever the case, Kongzi said next to nothing about the nature of human nature, leaving us to infer at best. Indeed, he did not concern himself with metaphysics at all. So, when Mengzi began philosophizing about human nature he was breaking new ground in the Way. Although he claimed to be only an inferior student of Kongzi (having never met him), he seemed to feel it was necessary to supplement his teaching with a theory of human nature. We can know readily ascertain this from his writings.
There are several examples in Book 6 (I will take abbreviated excerpts for the sake of brevity):
Mengzi said, “Human nature’s being good is like water tending downward. There is no human who does not tend toward goodness. There is no water that does not tend downward. [But
water can be externally splashed up and dammed up.] …That humans can be caused not to
be good is due to their natures also being like this.” 6A2
Thus we have an explicit statement from Mengzi about the basic goodness of human nature. On the one hand that should settle the question for us. But does it? It is subject to scrutiny. That humans have an essential nature, as water and other things do, shows only that it has essential properties, or qualities. That it can it be manipulated externally shows that we can add malleable to the list of its properties. This rings true. Psychology and common sense seem to agree that, whatever the answer to the question of basic goodness, human nature is such that it can be either cultivated toward virtue or bent toward vice, and quite probably in turns, in one season virtue, in another vice.
Let us consider this excerpt from Mengzi:
Gongduzi said, “Goazi says, ‘Human nature is neither good nor not good.’ Some say, human nature can become good, and it can become not good. …Mengzi said, “As for their qing, ‘what they genuinely are’, they can become good. That is what I mean by calling their natures good. As for their becoming not good, this is not the fault of their potential.” [Why not? I ask. Does this not suggest that we have the potential for “not-goodness” too? And if we have potential for goodness and not-goodness alike, why attribute basic goodness to us?] “Humans all have the heart of compassion [benevolence]. Humans all have the heart of disdain. Humans all have the heart of respect. Humans all have the heart of approval and disapproval” [i.e. wisdom]. Benevo-lence, righteousness, propriety and wisdom are not welded to us externally. We inherently have them. It is simply that we do not concentrate upon them. Hence, it is said, ‘Seek it and you will get it. Abandon it and you will lose it.’” 6A6
Mengzi said, “In years of plenty, most young men are gentle.” [Is this true? I ask. It is observ- able in our own country and others throughout history that sustained abundance readily lends itself to hedonism and profligacy]; “in years of poverty, most young men are cruel. It is not that the potential that Heaven confers on them varies like this. They are like this because of that by which their hearts are sunk and drowned.” 6A7
Mengzi said, “What is it that hearts prefer in common? I say that it is fine patterns and righteousness. …[They delight our hearts like meat delights our mouths.” 6A7
Another nuance can be gleaned from these and the collective teachings of Mengzi, Kongzi, and the later Confucians: Human nature is such that it actually requires cultivation to achieve virtue. If left to itself it is very likely to bend toward vice if only as a result of the negative external pressures upon it. Is this not very premise of the Way and the consensus of every philosophy and religion? Human nature—good or bad—left unchecked has a glaring proclivity toward vice and the many other names we use for it, e.g. sin, selfishness, narcissism, crimes of all kinds, prejudice, oppression, self-indulgence and the like. Certainly people have the “potential” for goodness and compassion. The virtues are reinforced by good parents, good company, good leaders and good laws; but they are not easily realized for their own sake. (Plus, the fact of disengenuineness must always be considered. Self-righteousness and hypocrisy are real and ever-present dangers.) By the same token, without strong moral training, and when the external constraints are removed and/or the pressures mount, it is all too easy for even a ‘good’ person to give way to unrighteous behaviors, to use the Confucian term. If this were not so Confucianism and most other religions could be considered irrelevant. They exist because unrighteousness exists.
Further, as I mentioned earlier, Mengzi had detractors. We must now take the views of Mengzi’s most ardent detractor into account, Xunzi. He was the last great Confucian philosopher who lived in China in the 3rd century B.C. Xunzi wrote extensively more than earlier Confucians in the form of essays, and he held quite the opposite view on human nature. For the sake of brevity we shall consider only this one excerpt from Dr. Philip Ivanhoe’s co-edited Readings in Classical Chinese Philosophy, scholar of Asian languages and philosophy at the University of Michigan (Seven Bridges Press, 2001):
For Xunzi, the threats to Confucianism [came] not only from outside the tradition, but also from within it, in the form of Mengzi’s doctrine that human nature is good. In Xunzi’s opinion, such a claim undermines the authority of ritual as a guide to behavior, destroys the necessity of learning, and simply flies in the face of the facts. Xunzi makes the opposite declaration that human nature is bad, but this should not be read as saying that people naturally delight in evil” [a view which he attributes to St. Augustine in his book, Confucian Moral Self Cultivation]. “Rather, his point is that people lack any inborn guide to right conduct…” Xunzi shares Mengzi’s belief that everyone has the potential to achieve moral perfection, only that we are not inclined to virtue by nature, so the process of self-transformation will be slow and difficult. (pp. 255-66)
And there we have it. Xunzi was no proponent of the basic goodness of human nature. He apparently did not view it so far askance as some strands of Christian theology, although in the same text Ivanhoe still likens his view Hobbes’ “state of war” (cf. Leviathan) if not for the merits of rituals. I do not know of a more cynical view of human nature than Hobbes’. On the whole I agree with Xunzi’s assessment, even though it was Mengzi’s that carried the day in Confucian philosophy. Could it be that most people merely prefer to think of themselves as basically good rather than bad? I am certain of it.
Here I offer only a few points of critique. Both philosophers agree that moral perfection is possible, though undoubtedly implied that it is improbable for most. It may be compared, I think, to climbing a high mountain or swimming upstream in a river with a strong current. The potential of compassion notwithstanding when one sees an ox being led to slaughter or a child on the edge of a well, true goodness requires more than a feeling of compassion. Besides, there are a many people who would often feel no compassion for a beast or a child, much less do something about it. There is still a child slave trade in many parts of the world, especially in the East. Both philosophers agree that external measures and disciplines are necessary, nay indispensable, to mitigate or counteract the propensity (however modest) of human nature to go sour. This, to me, does indeed resemble the flow of water downward—toward a ditch or a cesspool. It’s only by damming and channeling it can it be made to become virtuous. And I am not at all impressed with the power of ritual to mitigate this tendency (but that is another line of investigation, I suppose).
In the final analysis, the question of human nature’s basic goodness or badness could be compared to the analogy of a glass that is filled to 50% capacity: Some look at it as half full (Mengzi) and others as half empty (even if we adjust the ratio up to 60 or 80%). But I think there are better analogies. If an apple is partly rotten, is that apple basically good or not good? If apples have the propensity to become worm- infested even on a good tree, or ones that have fallen from the tree have the propensity to rot, then there is something inherent in the apples that tend toward the undesirable.
Zooming out, I am fascinated with metacognition—the profound human ability to contemplate and analyze ourselves. On a metacognitive level, it astounds me that humans are beings that can think about our own nature, as Mengzi and Xunzi did. (It is my impression of animals that they do not do that.) This is a major part of what philosophy is all about, or at least some branches of it. And, since philosophy has a ‘cousin’ that shares its concerns, it is also part of theology. Through either lens, or both, we can apply our intrinsic rational powers to think about our own thoughts and even why we think. Historically, people as far back as we can trace have asked, what is it to be human? They seem to have been aware, or at least to have become aware, of our insuperable distinctiveness and then to have pondered what are the qualities that make us human? Or even more fundamentally, what is a nature? What are the basic, or essential qualities of human nature? To my understanding—and I am not alone on this—it seems to be part of our essential nature to ask these questions. Indeed, it is next to impossible not to, I think. It is a defining characteristic of humanity. In their debate, Mengzi and Xunzi exemplified this, as have a great many other philosophers of every school of thought, and an equal number of theologians of every religion. Through the Judeo-Christian lens at least, metacognition is a divine quality that was also bestowed to humans because we are made in God’s image, according to the first book of the Bible (Genesis 1:26-27). God thinks about himself, so we also can think about ourselves. God thinks about his own thoughts, so humans do. God is rational and intelligent, and so we are. God is a moral agent, so humans are moral agents. God shows compassion, so humans can too, plus a host of other qualities. (Here is one point where some people, and some entire belief systems such as Islam, see evidence for the basic goodness of human nature.)
But when it comes to human badness the analogy stops there. To state it in oversimplified terms, many people agree that sin is universal. And literally everybody agrees that humans commonly do bad things, or at least hurtful things, to themselves and to others (leaving aside the good things we ought to do but do not do). Why? This is precisely the reason for the debate between Mengzi and Xunzi. According to Christianity, ‘badness’ is not inherited from God but from our progenitors. It was introduced into the global gene pool by the first humans, the parents of all mankind (refer back to paragraph 1). Since then, badness has become inherent to our nature, but not from the original nature, which was good. Rather, like a congenital disease, it spread from a corrupted nature, a good apple gone bad in a barrel of apples. It was infectious. On this score Xunzi was much closer to the mark, and he put much more effort into defending his view in writing than did Mengzi. And this shows that Xunzi considered the problem to be more serious than Mengzi did. While Islam and many people today more readily agree with the latter, Christianity sides with the former, at least up to a point. If Xunzi was right, then resolution is what we humans and humanity need. But no matter which of them was right or wrong, we still have the problem of human badness. The observable facts speak for themselves. Either people cannot resist the urges to act unrighteously, or they consistently fail to master their unrighteous urges, or they consistently fail to employ the rituals and disciplines necessary to empower their inner goodness, or they are simply weak (i.e. the Muslim view); they lack the moral resolve to consistently overcome the outside pressures and allurements of their circumstances. Whichever the case, as I have expressed already, the outcome is the same. In light of this reality it’s impossible for me not to agree with Xunzi, to see something inherently negative about human nature. Not everything, but something.
Let’s zoom out again. The fact that the Confucians and many others throughout history have wrestled with these problems on behalf of humanity points to several truths. 1) Humans are moral agents who are prone to analyzing themselves through a moral lens (among other lenses). If this were not so then the ratio of goodness to badness would be total irrelevant. Nobody would care at all. But the Confucians did care, as did the Platonists, as do many of us still today. 2) That we care is strongly indicative of a moral human framework. 3) A moral framework is indicative of a moral order, which in turn, 4) is indicative of a moral ‘sourcecode’ as it were. A Master Code.
In my opinion, Xunzi was right. Yet Xunzi did not believe in God. His concern was for a just society leading to lasting peace and temporal human flourishing, or maximal happiness, as it was for Hobbes. Everybody wants that, in theory. His concern was not for any eternal benefits or consequences that may result from unrighteousness. So, setting aside the question of God and whatever moral standards he may have for us: Can human flourishing be realized as long as the root problem goes untreated, i.e. the moral disease inflicting all human beings? Yes, he believed so. But how he could believe so is beyond my comprehension. Xunzi got the diagnosis right, but he failed to address the root cause of the disease. Doctors tell us that however well the prescribed medicines may treat the symptoms, the symptoms cannot be eliminated until the disease is cured. On the other hand, if the disease cannot be cured, or if the cure is not known—or if it is rejected—pain management is the best-case scenario.
Now, zooming out one last time, let’s consider human flourishing, or maximal happiness. The fact that the Confucians and many other thinkers have idealized and searched for the moral ingredients for it points to several things: 1) Human flourishing exists universally as an idea, and therefore also as a potential reality. 2) As such it is the highest possible, temporal good for all humanity and inestimably worthy to be sought after. 3) It is inextricably linked to individual and communal morality, i.e. the mutual esteem for and consistent practice of virtuous living. 4) It does not presently exist, or only in intermittent pockets and waves if it does, because of human badness, or sin. The world is not as it should be. Human flourishing is a universal longing for something that many believe can and should exist, and even pessimists would prefer it. But its lack of realization produces angst. 5) There must actually be a root problem that prevents us from obtaining it.
In short, the Christian message, or gospel (lit. “good news”) exists to address the root problem, to give resolution to every human and to all humanity in a unique and exclusive way. It was wrought for us vicariously through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ in time-space. It does not address the root problem by means of rituals, learning, heightened moral practices, self-discipline and determination, though these are all necessary and have their benefits. It is far too pervasive and insidious for external remedies. Rather, the gospel targets the heart, or soul, and aims to transform it. When the power of the gospel is believed and applied to the heart by faith it simultaneously brings forgiveness, justification and imputed righteousness until the character is conformed to God’s standards. Personal transformation ensues. Thus, Christ’s actions on our behalf produced the resolution the Confucians sought. Of course, having preceded Christ by respective centuries, they had no knowledge of him. But I can't help wondering what they would have thought?