Part 12 of the 2018 interview with Dr. Alan Chan at Bond University, Australia. On the one hand, scholars have argued that human nature is inherently evil and that the state should play a key role in educating and civilising citizens. However, there are also those who argue that human nature is inherently good and that the role and influence of the state should be limited to allow for individuals to fulfil their potentials. In this section of the interview, the various perspectives on human nature in Confucian thought are discussed.
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.