What do the new Millennium Development Goals and Mencius have in Common?

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The UN announced the 2015 eight Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) on Monday July 6th. The goals range from halving extreme poverty rates to halting the spread of AIDS and providing universal primary education. (To view all 8 goals and a summary of the MDG Report click here.) The UN works with governments along with the civil society and other partners to carry out the 2015 agenda. This brings us to the question of whether we can be held socially responsible to help advance the goals of improving the lives of people everywhere? Better yet, do we all have what it takes and the goodness of our hearts to make a difference without expecting something in return?

If we asked the ‘Second Sage’, Mencius, he would say yes, as he believed in the goodness of all humans. Mencius, a Latinization of the Chinese “Mengzi,” meaning Master Meng was a famous Confucian philosopher, second to Confucius himself. His full name was “Meng Ke” and his ideas are recorded through the Mengzi (Mencius), a collection of his dialogues, debates, and sayings. Mencius’ book is much longer than the Analects of Confucius and very rich in ideas. Among Mencius’s most important expansions of the vision of Confucius was his belief that all human nature is good (1).

Mencius image 3

Mencius said that innate goodness could be seen through the example of a person naturally wanting to save “a child about to fall into a well”; and that this was because people “will without exception experience a feeling of alarm and distress—not so they may gain the favour of the child’s parents, nor to seek the praise of their neighbours and friends, nor from fear of a reputation of having been unmoved by such a thing.” (2)

If Mencius was correct that all human nature is good, does that mean we should be more responsive to the world’s problems? Like the child in the well, Mencius would believe that it is part of our being human to help others in need.

But what about people who have lost their original good nature and cause harm to others? Are people like this capable of offering their benevolence to the greater good of society? One argument is that if a person is “constantly subjected to negative influence”, there will be a negative impact on his or her character. This does not reflect a person’s “true character” or their “original nature”, which according to Mencius is good. In other words, a person becomes bad as a result of “external influence.” (3)

Besides the issue of dealing with destructive external influences, such as through education, how can productive ones be encouraged? One Confucian (and universal value) value that stands out is learning to help others without expecting anything in return. Corporate social responsibility (CSR), for example, should be an active component of every business. Not all businesses take CSR seriously, arguing instead that their first responsibility is to their shareholders, and that entails making a profit. Countries, too, think of national interests as their first priority. Foreign aid and humanitarian assistance are often considered secondary.

As Mencius had said, “Heaven sees according as the people see; Heaven hears according as the people hear.” (p. 357). Therefore “the people are the most important element in a nation; the spirits of the land and the grain are the next; the sovereign is the lightest.” (p. 483).

The eight MDGs would sit well with the teachings of Mencius. Armed with this attitude, do you think we can make a difference?

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