Part 6 of the 2018 interview with Dr. Alan Chan at Bond University, Australia. Countries such as Korea and Japan were historically under the cultural and political influence of China, which brought Confucianism to these countries. In this video, it is discussed whether Confucianism is just as important to the economic and social development of Asian countries outside of China.
The theory of human nature continues to be popularised in philosophical and biological debates. The nature of something refers to the idea that some traits are an expression of an animal’s inner essence, while other traits are developed because of the animal’s environment. For example, one may debate whether particular breeds of dogs are naturally aggressive or whether their environment necessitates that aggression is key to the dog’s survival. The phrase ‘human nature’ refers to something that all humans share universally. It assumes that there is an essential quality in human behaviour that makes humans distinctly human and not animal-like. In medieval scholarship, it was believed that thing that makes humans especially distinct is the existence of the soul– the first principle of life that is present in all of us. Although biological in that the soul makes up part of living organisms, the soul is not material or corporeal, but made of more ethereal properties (Pasnau, 2011). Descartes followed this line of thinking by making a distinction between the natural world, which simply involved bodies in motion, in comparison to the human world, where individuals were believed to possess an immortal soul.
But what is this essential soul like? Is it kind and good-natured or, as Hobbes posited, are humans naturally self-centred and power-hungry? In the text The Fable of the Bees, Bernard Mandeville reinforced the negative view of human beings as innately selfish and unruly. Thus, it was the duty of law and education to civilise or domesticate humans and make them fit to exist in an ordered society. Discourses and systems of thought and knowledge had to be governed by rules, logic, and grammar that, if taught from an early age, would start shaping the consciousness of individuals. Such an approach could instil values of order in humans to help them control their inner urgers or bestial tendencies. While some people are more susceptible to slipping through the system and being overpowered by their nature, becoming victims of uncontrollable sexuality, insanity or criminality, throughdiscipline, punishment, and normalization techniques, bodies can be ordered and made easier to control (Foucault, 1975; Gutting & Oksala, 2018).
In Chinese history, reflections on human nature (xing性) began to enter the literary tradition around the fifth and fourth centuries before Christ, during the conflict period in the Eastern Zhou dynasty that resulted in significant political, economic, and social changes throughout China. According to sinologist A. C. Graham (1967), it was the doctrines of the Individualists that first posed the problem of human nature when reflecting on the role of Heaven influencing people’s private lives. Unlike Confucius whose philosophy was aimed at creating optimal conditions for social harmony and coexistence, Individualists put emphasis on the necessity for people to take care of their health and body to maintain a good quality of life. According to the Lüshi chunqiu, the most important task is “to keep intact what Heaven has [granted]” (1.2), which includes maintaining one’s health, desires, and ambitions. To avoid disrupting Heaven and the natural flow of life. Individualists argued that humans should stick to their nature and seek to satisfy their desires and ambitions with moderation, and avoid involving themselves in any conditioning, such as political and social life, that could negatively impact the sereneness of achieving their life path. The idea here is that human nature is neither good nor bad, but the essence of humans is to achieve their goals and maintain that sense of tranquillity in life that comes from satisfying one’s desires.
In the first century, Chinese meteorologist, astronomer, and philosopher Wang Chong emphasized the goodness and badness of human beings. Human nature in his writings is described as being malleable since taking part in goodness will cultivate good human nature, while taking part in badness is what leads to evil human traits and behaviours (Lun heng, 1.13). Gaozi, who is only known from the Menciusand who Confucianists identified as a Daoist, disagreed with Wang Chong’s views. For Gaozi, the goodness and badness of people and morality itself is socially constructed and based on the culture that people exist in. For instance, some actions may be considered good and noble in culture X, whereas they are shunned and made taboo in culture Y. In this sense, human nature has nothing to do with being good or bad because we all initially have no conception of right and wrong before we are taught that goodness is what is praiseworthy and positive whereas badness is what should be punished. While Xunzi agreed with Gaozi in that he argued that morality is culture-based, Xunzi went further to state that the origins of evil come from negative feelings that are rooted in human nature. That is not to say that humans are evil, rather that they deliberately violate the rules of morality and sometimes even take pleasure in doing so. This is because people have no conception of morality. At birth, all humans are morally blind, and it is only later that we learn what we should do to exist in an ordered society. If people were inherently good, then there would be no need for people to learn rituals and social norms and keep their desires and impulses in check. Xunzi states that people desire order and goodness and since desire comes from a lack (we only desire what we do not have), then it follows that people are not inherently good. In fact, without learning the Way, feelings like fear, jealously, and greed would inevitably lead people into conflict and disorder.
Gaozi and Xunzi were heavily criticized by Mencius, who outlined various positive values that he believed were innate to human beings. Using an agricultural metaphor, Mencius stated that all humans have good tendencies or “sprouts” (2A6). If these sprouts are taught and cultivated, they would inevitably grow and give life to virtues and morality in society. However, if the sprouts failed to develop, then evil would manifest in human relations. In Mencius’s theory, one could take the example of benevolence as being a sprout. All humans, at least on some occasions, feel compassion when humans and animals suffer, and this compassion always has the potential to turn into benevolent action. All humans also have the capacity to feel shame, and these feelings are expressions of righteousness. But as with any seed or sprout, these good tendencies are not fully formed. Our innate virtues are inconsistent and context-dependent. For instance, a father who is kind to a pig and spares its life from slaughter may ignore the suffering of his own hungry family. To allow good human nature to flourish, people should extend their virtuous inclinations in appropriate situations (Van Norden, 2014). The father has a higher duty in Confucian philosophy to protect his family and ensure their survival and so benevolence for family would override benevolence for pig in this starvation scenario. Thus, though we are inclined towards goodness and humaneness, benevolence is not static and involves understanding the long-term implications of certain actions and the number of lives that could be impacted by these actions. Although a difficult calculation to make, Confucianists posit that it is essential to make these calculations and live in a harmonious social order. Therefore, whether humans are innately good or evil is beside the point. All of these perspectives put forward the idea that humans have the capacity for good and that this capacity should be acted upon since it is necessary for the survival of a polity or community to have rules and standards on right behaviour and social conduct.
In Buddhist philosophy, although the Buddha never directly addressed the question of human nature, it was stated that humans have the capacity to do good and, in the right circumstances, will lean towards goodness. This is because the development of goodness conduces people to have a better and more happier life. In the Milinda Panha, a King was said to ask the Venerable sage Nagasena whether good or evil is greater. Nagasena replied that good is dominant and evil less so because doing evil leads to remorse, while doing good does not lead to remorse and when one is free from remorse, a person becomes glad, and from gladness joyful, and from joyful tranquil, and with a tranquil mind and body one can see things as they really are (passage 84). The clarity of this passage can be disputed. For example, what if one does not feel remorseful from doing something evil? Not all ‘bad’ actions cause people to feel remorse, especially if the person believes that what they are doing is a lesser evil or that such an evil is done with principled intentions (like avenging another person’s grievous wrongdoings, for instance). Likewise, some ‘good’ actions may not cause people to feel joy. Often, what one defines as good actions is dependent on the culture and context and may be conducted out of necessity and not out of good-willed intentions.
Finally, one should also ask whether all human natures are the same. A 2006 psychological study by Harris and Fiske found that a small sample size of American university students exhibited less neural activity when they were shown pictures of homeless people or drug addicts compared to when they were shown higher-status individuals. Kteiley et al.’s study also highlighted that people who opposed Muslim immigration saw Muslims as less evolved. Perhaps then the debate on human nature should start with the proposition, what are humans’ naturesconsidering that there are many types of humans and contexts where good and bad inclinations can develop. Are all people whose sprouts fail to develop bad? What about those who are not aware (or even incapable of being aware) of the consequences of their actions? Also, how should we treat people with bad tendencies? Are we obliged to put them in correctional facilities or hide them from society? It seems that human nature is both socially constructed yet constructing, universal yet historically and culturally specific, and so there should be care when making overarching claims about human goodness or badness and what people should do when someone does not fit into the narrative of an ordered, good, and socially acceptable human.
One of the more arresting claims Aristotle makes in his famous exploration of friendship in the Nicomachean Ethics is that you can’t be friends with god. His reasoning is that friendship requires equality, and the gods are vastly superior to us. The argument is a plausible one: it seems difficult or impossible to be friends with a boss, mentor, or teacher in quite the way that one is friends with one’s peers and equals. Indeed we might say that friendship is distinctive precisely in being non-hierarchical. If I am truly your friend, what I am to you is exactly what you are to me.
This thought has been supposed to cause trouble for the followers of Confucius. Confucianism was China’s most influential philosophical tradition for well over two millennia. Its ethical teaching has at its center several hierarchical relationships that were intrinsically bound up with forms of propriety, including rituals. The second most famous Confucian thinker Mencius (372-289 BC) identifies five ‘cardinal relations’, four of which are clearly hierarchical: ruler and subject, father and son, old and young, and husband and wife (Aristotle too sees the latter as an unequal relationship). The odd relationship out is friendship. Friendship seems to fit badly with the Confucian idea of modeling human relationships on family bonds. One possible comparison, which sees friends as having a bond like that between older and younger brother, would not secure the symmetry we’re looking for. Friendship is also anomalous among the cardinal relations in lacking ritual prescriptions, and in being voluntary. You don’t choose your father or (at least in ancient China) your ruler, but you do choose your friends.
Confucius (551-479 BC) would also have had some reason to think that friendships should be unequal. For him the purpose of friendship is the cultivation of virtue. It seems a natural thought that we should therefore befriend those more excellent than us, so as to learn from them. Yet like Aristotle, Confucius insists on symmetry in true friendship, advising, “do not have as a friend anyone who is not as good as you are.”
It’s been argued that in light of this latter rule, Confucius himself could never have made friends at all. His disciples were certainly dear to him, as we see from a passage in his Analects, when he openly grieves for one of them who has died. But does that mean he was this disciple’s friend? David Hall and Roger Ames would say not. In their book Thinking Through Confucius, they asserted, “Confucius is peerless and hence, friendless. To assert that Confucius had friends would diminish him.” His relation with his students was arguably more akin to a hierarchical, familial one, as shown by the fact that he referred to them as his xiaozi, meaning ‘little masters’, or ‘sons’.
In keeping with the equality of friendship, Confucius identifies trust (xin) as its distinctive attitude, whereas a familial relationship would be characterized by an asymmetrical virtue such as filial piety (xiao). Confucius would thus discourage parents from trying to befriend their children, a common trend in modern-day family life. Just as a father cannot be the teacher of his son because their relation is too intimate, so being overly familiar is no way to be familial.
But how exactly do I cultivate excellence by befriending someone who is equal to me? After all it would seem that I have nothing to learn from my moral peer, at least not in the way Confucius describes in this passage from the Analects: “in strolling in the company of just two other persons, I am bound to find a teacher. Identifying their strengths, I follow them, and identifying their weaknesses, I reform myself accordingly.” Instead, it must somehow be that sharing with equal others in the excellent moral life, or at least in the pursuit of virtue, is itself a spur to the good life, or even a constitutive part of it.
Confucius seems to have been convinced that this is so. For one thing, no less than other relationships, friendship gives us an opportunity to exercise virtue. Confucius himself aimed “to bring peace to the old, to have trust in my friends, and to cherish the young,” and in advising us on examining our own character he speaks of reflecting on whether we have always kept our word with our friends. Friendship is also a source of delight, as is made clear in this line from the opening passage of the Analects: “to have friends [peng] come from distant quarters: is this not a source of enjoyment?” Yanguo He informs us that the word peng has a strong implication of ‘like-mindedness’, and may especially indicate the bonds between the students gathered around one master.
This is a hint towards a deeper importance of friends, namely that they are embarked with us upon a joint project of self-cultivation. We do not improve morally by looking to friends as a model for imitation, as we might with a superior. Rather, our affection for them is based on a recognition that they share with us our greatest pursuit. To illustrate this idea, the scholar Xiufen Lu gave the example of the tale of Bo Ya, a musician whose mastery was fully appreciated only by his friend Zhong Ziqi. When Zhong died, Bo Ya smashed his instrument, on the grounds that playing without being understood is pointless.
Likewise, Confucius occasionally complained about being unappreciated by the morally inept. This may come as a surprise, but is simply the counterpart of the joy he took in associating with those who shared his values. Birds of a feather really do flock together, ideally by taking wing towards the heights of virtue.
© Prof. Peter Adamson 2018
Peter Adamson is the author of A History of Philosophy Without Any Gaps, Vols 1, 2 & 3, available from OUP. They’re based on his popular History of Philosophy podcast.
*This original article can be found here.
The shape and meaning given to physical bodies constitutes the primary way that Western societies organize themselves socially. Although in Western thought, one may understand the body to be inessential compared to the importance placed on the rational, disembodied subject; physical bodies, as Nigerian feminist philosopher Oyeronke Oyewumi (1997) says, “are always social bodies” (p. xii). What she means by this phrase is that society in the West tends to be organized by a hierarchy that differentiates between the kind of bodies present so that biology is thought to equal social destiny. Difference from the standard male subject is expressed as degeneration or “a deviation from the original type” (p. 1) because women/females are defined as the Other: the antithesis to men/males who represent the norm. In this self/other distinction, which is central to Western metaphysics, there is a lack of space for women to articulate themselves as subjects. Luce Irigaray (1985), for example, stated that “I am a being sexualized as feminine” (p. 148) is not able to be articulated because women are socialized to accept the subordinate positions offered to them within patriarchal discourse.
A key aspect to this system of organization is the emphasis placed on Cartesian dualism or the mind/body difference, which categorically separates material and mental substances as two separate things. Certain valuational schemas are encouraged by this difference, namely, that the body, often linked to the female/maternal/natural, is thought to be inferior to reason and the mind, a domain that has been traditionally reserved for males. One outcome from such a schema is that gender becomes an oppressive hierarchical dichotomy in which women cannot be anything other than the material negative to the rational man (Coetzee & Halsema, 2018). Another outcome is that with the body devalued and associated with death and deception, patriarchy is cut off from nature so that the universe of language and symbols “has no roots in the flesh” (Irigaray, 1993, p. 16). With humans (man) sitting at the top of the natural hierarchy, nature and the environment have long been considered to be outside of moral consideration. The result has been an unsustainable relationship with nature as environmental destruction from Western-centric development policies are accepted as inevitable for the price of progress and modernity, even if this has meant excessive exploitation of natural resources, deforestation, the loss of biodiversity, freshwater shortages, and damage to the ozone layer.
Examples of Alternative Value Systems
For Confucian scholar Tu Wei-Ming (1992), the dialectic of Enlightenment that started with the celebration of rationality before moving to the Faustian drive to seek total dominion over nature and other human beings is what eventually led to our current situation, impelling us to “raise the agonizing question: Are human beings a viable species?” (p. 88). However, it should be noted that gender and body as a system based on division and hierarchy between man/reason and woman/nature is not a concept that is indigenous to many cultures and was generally imposed on societies through Western colonial rule. In Nigeria, for instance, bodily differences were not hierarchical in precolonial Yoruba culture (Oyewumi, 1997; Dogo, 2014). Instead of putting women in a single group characterized by shared interests, desires, and social positions, people were classified into social groups depending on the roles they chose and the kind of people they were. Thus, a subject in Yorubaland was not primarily thought of as a man or a woman, but rather a trader, hunter, cook, farmer, or ruler—all of which were equally accessible to every citizen. Oyewumi (2002) further describes the traditional Yoruba family as non-gendered since power within the family was diffused and not gender-specific. The main organizing principle within the family was seniority. Unlike sex, seniority as an organizing principle is context-dependent as “no one is permanently in a senior or junior position; it all depends on who is present in any given situation” (Oyewumi, 1997, p. 42). As a result, identity in Yoruba culture was understood as fluid, relational, contextual, and shifting. Seniority is only comprehensible as part of relationships and is not “rigidly fixated on the body nor dichotomized” (p. 42), whereas gender as it is featured in Western culture fixes power relations by confining certain categories of people (women) to limited roles and spaces.
Although there are many different interpretations concerning the status of women in China depending on which aspect of Chinese culture one is studying (see Ortner, 1974), the differentiation between reason and nature is not indigenous to the Chinese-world view. Without simplifying Chinese ideas of non-dualistic thinking and dynamic processes, Chinese cultural heritage has a lot to say about physical nature. For instance, self-cultivation as a form of mental and physical catering that involves exercises such as rhythmic bodily movements and breathing techniques in the form of Tai Chi is an ancient Chinese art form. Chinese medicine is also not only concerned with curing diseases and preventing sickness, but with restoring vital energy (qi) that is essential for maintaining the body in a healthy state. As Tu (1992) notes, because the level of qi required for each individual is dependent on sex, age, weight, height, occupation, time, and circumstances, the wholeness of the body is a situational and dynamic process rather than a static structure.
Values about undifferentiated wholeness and completeness are foundational to Chinese philosophy. On the surface, philosophy in China seems to be exclusively concerned with issues of correct behaviour, familial obedience, political order, and world peace, but as Wing-tsit Chan (1963) suggests, a more comprehensive characterization of Chinese philosophy and humanism is “not the humanism that denies or slights a Supreme Power, but one that professes the unity of man and Heaven” (p. 3). In contrast to Western humanism, which is based on secularism and devalues things that are associated with nature, the spiritual and naturalist dimensions in Chinese thought are incorporated into a comprehensive vision of the relationship between human beings and the natural world. Even the aesthetic components of music and dance that Confucius included in his curriculum are intimately linked with the ritualised aspect of human-nature relatedness. Kim (2006) highlights that the noble person (junzi) is one that is awakened to the beauty of humanness and the universe, and “it is because of this awareness that he ‘sets his mind on the Way [dao, 到], depends on virtue [de, 德], relies on ren [人] and enjoys the arts [you yu yi]’” (p. 111; Analects, 7.6).
Moreover, the Confucian and Daoist emphasis on spontaneity and living in harmony and natural ease is highlighted by both the life story of Confucius, who at seventy followed his heart’s desire without overstepping his bounds (Analects, 2.4), and the Daoist notion of following the Way. In chapter 25 of the Dao De Jing, it states that “Human follows the way of the earth; the earth follows the way of the heaven; the heaven follows Dao; Dao follows the way of nature” (translation by Wang, 2013, p. 70). Spontaneity and following the way of nature means to seek the growth of the whole and cultivate one’s relationship with animate and inanimate things. To do so is to maintain the underlying harmony that interfuses between man and man, and between man and things (Chang, 1963). For modern Confucianism, attempts to revitalise the tradition of human-nature relatedness can be seen through the concept of ‘heart-mind compassion’ (buren ren zhixin, 不忍人之 心) and ‘unity with all things under Heaven’ (yu wanwu yiti, 與萬物一體). Just like one’s responsibility towards filial relationships and society, humans are believed to have a moral duty to recognise the independent value of nourishing the Heaven and Earth in order to maintain nature, an essential component to living in a healthy human community. Thus, rather than domination, caring for ‘all things under Heaven’ is a moral demand that humans are required to respond to.
The Problem with ‘Sustainability’
However, applying these theories to contemporary life is difficult. The concept of ‘sustainability’ and ‘sustainable development’ is subject to many interpretations and takes on different meanings depending on the interest group and society involved. Traditionally, the definition provided by the United Nations, which states that sustainability is the ability to meet “the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs”, is used without critically examining the meaning of ‘needs’. For instance, it is unclear if needs refer to maintaining quality harvests over time or improving human living standards in which case protecting natural resources and the environment is only part of the story. From an anthropological point of view, sustainability should concern maintaining social and cultural systems (aboriginal skills and knowledges) and applying these skills to solve real world problems.
Combining all of these under the term ‘intergenerational equity’, American lawyer Edith Brown Weiss (1989) argued that sustainability should be understood as a holistic term that involves the human species passing on the natural and cultural environment in an at least comparable condition to that in which it was received. But with short-term thinking that characterises political and development decision-making, there has been a widening gap between necessary measures to protect the natural and cultural environment and policy. International law has struggled to respond effectively as most environmental agreements either fall into non-binding declarations or preambles of multilateral environmental agreements. Governments like the United States have shown how easy it is for states to pull out of such agreements without any serious ramifications. Furthermore, the idea of passing on the current environment in ‘an at least comparable condition’ has been interpreted by some to mean that all that matters in the end is that the aggregate gains outweigh the aggregate losses. So, if a project generates more wealth than the monetary costs of environmental damage, then the project should be able to go ahead since the loss of the environmental is made up for by the wealth that is generated (Beder, 2000). For utilitarian philosopher David Pearce (1991), the equivalent of this principle in practice would be to allow the Amazon forest to be removed so long as the proceeds from removing it “are reinvested to build up some other form of capital” (p. 2).
These are not equitable solutions for local communities or the environment. Such ‘sustainable’ development policies are strongly influenced by economists of the neoclassical school and only reinforce existing inequalities. Robert Bullard (1993), professor of sociology at the University of California, claims that people of colour in the United States “are disproportionately affected by industrial toxins, dirty air and drinking water, and the location of noxious facilities” (p. 25) since polluting facilities are often placed in working class areas. Women and girls are also disproportionately impacted by climate change. By constituting two-thirds of the world’s poor, women are more reliant on natural resources which means that the scarcity of these resources makes it more difficult for women to support their families and communities. The estimation that in Africa alone, women walk forty billion hours a year to bring water home puts this considerable toll into perspective (Zoloth, 2017). Despite being disproportionately affected, government programs and financing mechanisms that are aimed at environmental sustainability are often not gender-informed. A 2012 assessment of the Climate Development Mechanism found that only five of 3,864 projects had gender considerations within their programming, which shows that there is a clear inconsistency between the ethic of sustainable development put forward by intergovernmental agreements, and the way that economists and policy-makers are achieving these goals.
Western religious and cultural discourses have been pointed to as a reason for current environmental problems. Oyewumi’s writings point out that the reason over nature hierarchy and the repression of the female/maternal is neither inevitable nor universal. The fact that development policies that are directed at environmental sustainability continue to negatively impact the lower class, women, and people of colour highlights that what is needed is a cross-continental dialogue between scholars and philosophers who can put forward alternative perspectives to Western culture’s oppositional logic in order to produce enriching and original insights. There is also a need to put these principles into action through enforceable policies by both communities and states. In part two of this article series, sustainability from a Confucian perspective will be discussed as well as a critical overview of China’s recent environmental projects.