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.
Increasingly, news agencies are operating in an environment where they are competing to be first with the news as the 24 hour news cycle continues to redefine the work of international reporters. Despite this obsession with the news and daily events, only a few news broadcasts have reported on Confucianism in the past three months. Here are five recent news articles that discuss issues relating to Confucian thought.
- The Buddhist roots of Confucianism (La Trobe University News, 01/03/2017)
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In China and throughout the world, Confucianism is presented as a native system of ideas that developed independent of external cultural influence for over two thousand years. Indeed, despite being vilified for much of the twentieth century, Confucianism is thought to represent true and ideal Chinese cultural values that are an integral part of China’s social and cultural identity.
However, in this article, Professor John Makeham from the Chinese Studies Research Centre at La Trobe University argues that despite being thought of as a set of traditions that can only be understood by its internal norms and premises, Confucianism was in fact shaped and influenced by Indian Buddhist philosophy.
While the short article only references the Treatise on the Awakening of Mahayana Faith, a key Buddhist text, as “pivotal…in the construction of modern forms of Confucian philosophy” without providing further information about which passages directly link to Confucian thought, the idea that Confucianism was influenced by Buddhist traditions runs counter to many interpretations of Chinese history that see Buddhism as an “anomaly that led China astray from her ‘predestined’ humanism” (Hu Shi, 1937 in Lai, 1975, p. ii).
In that sense, without dismissing Makeham’s claims, further research should be focused on finding how different legacies of thought have made up China’s rich and complex philosophical traditions.
2. Confucius blocks change in South Korea (The Japan Times, 02/03/2017)
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The 2006 corruption scandal around Chung Mong-koo, the chairman of the Hyundai Motor Co. Ltd., is now an old example of the ongoing bribery and corruption scandals in many of South Korea’s “chaebols” or family-run business groups. However, as the author of the article Michael Schuman states, even with the many recent reports on chaebol-related crimes including tax evasion for Korean companies, chaebols are expected to stay.
“The much-maligned conglomerates that dominate South Korea’s economy may be facing investigations…and unprecedented public anger [but] unless the culture that binds management, investors and other stakeholders changes dramatically, the chaebol will almost certainly survive.”
For Schuman, the main cultural influence that has informed chaebol structure and performance is Confucianism, which stresses loyalty to authority. In other words, reverence for the emperor and obedience to one’s superiors (see The Analects 1:2, 1:7 and 1:13), has for many South Korean workers directly translated into obedience to company founders and their families, who Schuman argues, “are treated like royalty”.
While this opinion-piece does not offer many sources or examples of how Confucianism directly leads to corrupt business practice, similar arguments have been presented by Chinese writers like Jin (2011), who link guanxi connections or informal networks that are “deeply rooted in Confucianism” (p. 2), as inherent to economic corruption.
However, to go beyond the simple binary of ‘Confucianism as corrupt’ versus ‘Confucianism as not corrupt’, these writers should examine the many different interpretations of Confucianism and how the importance of relationships (renqing) can be used, but is not in itself necessary, for corrupt business practices.
3. Hard times for feminists in China (Sup China, 08/03/2017)
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In January this year, more than half a million people showed up for the Women’s March in Washington D.C. to protest against American President Donald Trump’s remarks about women and abortion rights. While similar protests were seen around the world, women’s voices in China were notably silent.
With nearly one-sixth of the world’s female population, women in China struggle to have their voices heard as mass rallies and street protests are rarely allowed in public spaces. Online, Chinese feminists also note that one needs to be careful about writing certain words or phrases. As Asian Studies Ph.D. student Cecilia Xu states in Feng’s article, “we couldn’t even include words like march (游行 yóuxíng) or protest (抗议 kàngyì) in our group’s name.”
Indeed, any discussion on women’s rights is at the risk of being blocked by censors. Despite this, public attention through online discussion boards has remained the main tool that women use to talk about women’s issues at a time when the ‘one child’ policy has been abandoned in an effort by government to boost birth rates and curb the demographic decline.
According to Feng, it is clear that much of the government’s rhetoric about women’s roles finds its roots in Confucian ideology, which enhances its legitimacy. For example, “the Confucian family value that the government aims to instil in women’s minds is nothing other than stay-at-home motherhood”. Obedient wives and the ‘right’ way of conduct for women is thought to be not only at the core of a stable family, but a building block of a harmonious society.
While some academics (see Li, 1994 as an example) do state that the Confucian ethics of ren (benevolence, humaneness) directly relates to the feminist ethics of care, Feng highlights that there is little hope on the horizon for Chinese women. With increasing counter rhetoric against women online, the ongoing arrest and detention of women’s groups like the Feminist Five, and a general decrease in women’s rights even in liberal societies such as the United States, suggests that the future for Chinese women remains stuck in a period of uncertainty.
4. Foot-binding and Ruism (Confucianism) (The Huffington Post, 17/03/2017)
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Even though it is difficult to find statements in classic Confucian texts that promote the practice of foot-binding, Confucian philosopher and practitioner Bin Song argues that “the sociological and philosophical foundation of Ruism (Confucianism) did provide a rich soil that allowed foot-binding to flourish.”
In particular, the aim of creating harmony and stability in society meant that Confucianism was used to justify a hierarchy of social class and familial relations, which included relations between husband and wife. As a result, the basic form of Confucian ethics allowed the increasing popular practice of foot-binding as it was seen as a means of cultivating womanly virtues such as chastity and female propriety.
Despite this, Bin also notes that opposition from Confucian scholars did exist through the development of the foot-binding custom. Most notably, the well-known Ruist Che Ruoshui (1210-1275 C.E) is known for his comment on Mencius’ thought about accumulating rightful deeds when he argues:
“If people cannot help having a feeling of alarm and commiseration when they see a baby falling into a well, can we not help having exactly the same feeling when we see our young daughters have to bind their feet?”
In other words, as well as going against the practice of humaneness, which is about the flourishing of human life in dynamic and harmonious relationships, as well as filiality, which includes “not injuring one’s body”, the article concludes that contemporary Confucian scholars have a responsibility to be aware of harmful social norms that can be justified through particular interpretations of Confucian texts.
5. The Indian Communist (Millennium Post, 24/03/2017)
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In this article, Dr. Arniban Ganguly, director of the Dr. Syama Prasad Mookerjee Research Foundation which focuses on issues that are of importance to India’s national interest, argues that unlike Indian communists who call to break up the motherland and overthrow the very idea of India, Vietnam has a “unique capacity of blending Marxism with Confucianism and Nationalism…[striking] deeper roots in their civilizational identity and wisdom, while also working to evolve themselves in a modern nation state”.
In that sense, what can be learned from Vietnam’s and possibly China’s ability to retain their civilizational rootedness while driving their countries forward is the ability to use past knowledge and tradition to adapt to evolving times and “be remarkably open to the wider world”.
For India, Prime Minister Modi’s new foreign policy that is inspired by India’s “civilizational ethos” has sought to blend ideas like realism, co-existence, cooperation, and partnership, which have developed from classical Hindu texts and writers including Kautilya and Gandhiji.
However, as the author notes, India’s ability to move ahead is restrained by many groups such as the communists who reject Bharat (India) and refuse “to acknowledge her civilisational dimension”. While the author’s conclusion that the promotion of India’s many nationalities may be its undoing, the article does provide an interesting discussion point on the use of tradition in modern politics, and whether in the long-run arguing for a particular interpretation of the classics may do more harm than good.