In The Study of Human Nature by Leslie Stevenson, Stevenson writes about Confucian philosophy, most notably the Confucian philosophers Mencius and Hsun-tzu. In the several extracts from the Book of Mencius, Mencius to oppose the claim that human nature is neither good nor bad, but instead good. While from the Book of Hsun-tzu, Hsun-tzu states the opposite, that humans are naturally evil. Both books include the writings from these philosophers arguing whether human nature is good or evil.
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In the Book of Mencius, Mencius provides the arguments that show that human nature is indeed good. In the first few selections, Mencius quotes Kao Tzu and then follows to argue against him that human nature is not good or evil. Kao Tzu states that “human nature is like a chi willow” (23), where changing a human’s morality is like turning willow into cups and bowls. Mencius responds by saying that in order for willow to turn into cups and bowl it must be altered, and then you must also alter a human to make him good. Mencius is stating that the words of Kao Tzu are considering that morality is a mutilation of human nature. In addition, Kao Tzu states that “human nature is like whirling water”, it will flow whenever there’s an opening with no preference (23). However Mencius retaliates that it may be true that it has no preference but water will always seek low ground. It is water’s nature to flow downward, and thus there must be a nature for man. Hence, there is no man that is evil, because there is no water that does not flow downward (23). This means it is water’s nature to flow downward, and it is also human nature to be good. However you can manipulate water, whereas by splashing it and forcing the change of nature is like saying that humans can be evil, under forced circumstances (24). Mencius view of human nature can be concluded that all humans are naturally good but sometimes under certain conditions would be bad.
Mencius view is further supported on the rest of the sections. In section 6, Mencius again responds to Kao Tzu about the human nature of people. Kao Tzu uses a real-life example dictating the reign of a “good” and “bad” king. Mencius answers that all men are capable of being good. Mencius brings up the role of the four hearts: Heart of compassion to benevolence, heart of shame to dutifulness, heart of respect to observance of the rites, and the heart of right and wrong to wisdom (24). These four hearts are possessed by all men, however if they do not seek the hearts they will lose it. Mencius is saying that all men differ in development, as there are men who are “five times or countless times better than another man” (24) and that is because “Seek and you will find it; let go and you will lose it.” With that said, Mencius is saying it is not the fault of one’s nature to become bad, instead people who don’t make use of their hearts and follow it would untimely lose the hearts pertaining to doing good.
There are no differences from one’s hearts to the man sitting next to him. Mencius states in section 7 of the Book of Mencius, that all hearts are the same. This means that everyone have the same potential to become good, but it is dependent upon one’s effort whether they take care and tend to their heart. This is analogous to the examples Mencius provided about the growth of barley. Barley’s potential to grow is the same as any other, but it depends on certain criteria such as the nutrients from the soil and the care it receives from humans. Overall, Mencius is stating the theme of human effort into working their way towards the path of good.
According to section 11, men lack the sense to go after their heart after it has strayed. They have the sense to go after his chickens or dogs when they stray, but not when it comes to going after the heart, it must be learned (25). Section 12, expands on a men’s lack of care of their hearts. If they see their own finger’s imperfection they would go to great lengths to fix it, however they would not try to fix their heart if it is not in good shape. Then in section 14, he brings everything together about all parts of a man’s body. He talks about a man prioritizing the parts of his body, as there are others more valuable than others. In these sections, Mencius clearly points out prioritizing is a must if one is to become good. Men don’t prioritize what is most important to a human – the heart. They would prioritize their physical imperfections, their chickens or dogs, or any other body parts. This is probably due to the fact these things are much more explicit and easily comprehendible. While one’s heart requires much more effort and self-evaluation.
From the book of Mencius in The Study of Human Nature, Stevenson included enough excerpts to get Mencius point across. All in all, Mencius believes the nature of man is essentially good but can diverge due to the lack of effort and care. Mencius uses quotes from Kao Tzu who thinks man’s nature is neither good nor evil and examples from nature in order to strengthen his argument. Mencius says nowadays men would put effort into acquiring the honours bestowed by heaven in order to win honours bestowed by man (27). People would develop the traits, known as honours bestowed by heaven in order to acquire nobility in society. However, after acquiring their noble status they would discard their virtues, and Mencius says this would ultimately lead them to losing their status too.
Hsun tzu, however is the total opposite of Mencius. He believes that goodness is the result of conscious activity and not the result of natural endowment (27). He states that men are all born with physical and emotional desires, and if one were to indulge in these desires violence and crime will surely occur. That is why, he says, there is the creation of laws and order in order to suppress theses desires and therefore create “good” people. Basically, if a human were to act upon their instincts and by themselves, they would succumb to evil and crime. It is therefore necessary for humans to undergo a transformation by instructions and education, and if they follow through they will ultimately do well.
One argument that Hsun Tzu poses against Mencius is the difference between nature and conscious activity (learning) and that humans are naturally evil and only good due to conscious activity. Mencius states that people are able to learn solely because they are good nature. However Hsun Tzu retaliates that humans do not learn or seek things if it is already part of their nature. Then he goes on to talk about ritual principles, which has to be learned or acquired by effort (28-9). Therefore if goodness was part of our nature, then we wouldn’t need to learn ritual principles. He believes every man has a desire to do well because of conscious activity and in order to do; one must seek to study and understand ritual principle. If one does not understand or seek these principles, chaos and irresponsibility will result thus, evil is present (31).
Another argument that Hsun Tzu mentions is human desire, and one’s control over these desires. It is man’s nature to desire things they do not have externally, whether that is wealth, power, comfort, or survival. Hsun Tzu gives that it is one’s nature to feel hungry, cold, and tired and it is one’s activity to suppress or satisfy them. Hsun Tzu gives the example of how a man who is hungry would not eat if he is in the presence of his elders (29). Humans will have desires, but because they learned manners and principles they will suppress these desires and do well. If one did not learn these manners or principles, the man will eat regardless of whoever is in presence. Overall this would create disorder and chaos, and hence “evil”.
With both positions, Hsun Tzu definitely provides stronger arguments. This is probably because Hsun Tzu is arguing with reference of Mencius, while Mencius was arguing referring to Kao Tzu. This alone provides a stronger position, and even so Hsun Tzu is non- analogous about his arguments and instead provides real examples. It is easier to understand and connect back to Mencius and see the flaws of his argument. Even so, I personally think the arguments referring to the controversial human nature are correct as much as it is flawed. If Kao Tzu arguments looks so simple to counter and denounced by Mencius, and Mencius by Hsun Tzu, why can’t Hsun Tzu just be the same? In addition, evil and good are defined by society itself. Hsun Tzu repetitively states society will be in chaos if it were not for education and sage kings that develop these rules. Hsun Tzu regards evil as doing fault to others, as he gives those examples about a man sacrificing his desires for the sake of respect. What about the elder’s desires? Why can’t the younger eat first, so they can get to back to work faster? Ritual principles are based on society and differ from every other society.
Personally, I feel that everyone is good and evil. I agree and disagree with some parts of Mencius and Hsun Tzu. I do agree that under society’s guidance, one can become good. However I don’t feel that one needs to go against their desires. Desires are what motivate us and it does not make us evil. What we do to acquire those desires could be consider evil but desires can be satisfy orderly.