Questioning Human Nature in Confucianism

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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.

On Human Nature- 人性

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Source: Mencius, The Three Moves. Anonymous drawing, China, 20th century. Photo by AKG Images.

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 BeesBernard 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, 1975Gutting & 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.

Confucianism and Critical Rationalism- 儒学与理性主义

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Source: Foreign Policy (2014).

Although Confucius describes himself as a preserver of culture and places significant emphasis on the importance of learning, since learning and devotion for sons are considered key aspects to maintaining the dao (道 – a teaching or skill formula that is key to achieving self-perfection and world transformation), there is no discussion on rationality or logical reasoning in any of the Confucian texts. Commentator A. C. Graham has noted that along with the absence of a theory of reasoning, Confucius generally puts a low premium on thinking when compared to learning. In the modern world, the relationship between thinking and learning are often associated with one another: to learn any new theory or concept, one has to be able to think. That is, to acquire knowledge by discussing, comparing, and contrasting to test how and whether the new information fits in line with already established theories and concepts. The difference between thinking and learning, Graham argues, occurs when we define learning as that involving acquiring knowledge by committing something to memory and being able to recite it when needed, whereas thinking is the act of questioning, testing, and criticising information before accepting it as acquired knowledge.

For Chi-Ming (2017), the Confucian emphasis on hierarchy and harmony in contrast to critical thinking and rationalism has promoted submission and conformity in Chinese society. A review of recent psychological research indicates that people in China are dominated by authority-minded ways of thinking, which means that they are more willing to accept people at a senior level as arbiters of truth or morality and are likely to adopt non-confrontational approaches to conflict resolution (Shi & Feng, 2010; Ng, 2010). As Hall and Ames (1995) put it, one would not expect to read in the works of a classical Chinese [Confucian] scholar anything like Aristotle’s statement, “I love my teacher, Plato, but I love truth more”, for such a declaration would be seen as a form of self-assertiveness which has the potential to threaten social harmony. This raises questions as to whether Confucianism is inherently opposed to critical rationalism or, as some scholars put forward, it entails it.

What is critical rationalism?

 Austrian-British philosopher and professor Karl Popper (1966) put forward a formula for defining critical rationalism as listening to critical arguments and learning from one’s mistakes. This involves admitting that you may be wrong, and that the other person may be right, and with effort to investigate, taking part in inquiry to get nearer to the truth by distinguishing between falsity and reality. Popper considers criticism, or the act of refuting evidence by testing information for contradictions and discrepancies, to be an important part of learning from one’s mistakes and getting nearer to the truth. Without it, one can fall into the trap of defending a mistaken belief and appealing to unsound arguments.

For example, accepting an argument simply because it is advanced by those in authority is erroneous as these arguments may not be related to the truth, or may be advanced by people who claim that they are authorities when they are not. By this standard, it is unacceptable if a teacher is mistaken in making the claim that Australia is part of Africa and the students unquestionably accept the teacher’s claim because he is in a position of authority. Likewise, pro athletes pushing for home loans are likely false authorities as consumers do not know if the athletes have used or use home loans at all, and it can be assumed that the athlete was successful without using the product in the first place. The importance of criticism here comes from the fact that power is inextricably linked to knowledge. Michel Foucault (1977) pointed out that throughout history, knowledge was intertwined with forms of power and domination. Those in power have the resources and influence to determine what is accepted knowledge to justify their positions of authority. In many cases, statements can be dismissed and not even considered not because they are thought to be false, but because it is not clear for those in power what it would mean for those statements to be considered true or false. One only has to look at the example of Galileo discovering that the earth revolves around the sun, and the Vatican’s response that saw him sentenced to indefinite imprisonment until his death in 1642, to see how power and knowledge interacted to restrict scientific discovery.

Although people in positions of authority can help make sense of vast and complex theories and evidence, as courtrooms continue to rely on psychologists and forensic authorities in trials, the perspectives put forward by these professionals should be taken as resources for understanding information, rather than as a final say on debated issues. Criticism, in this sense, can also be used to defend against the fallacy of democracy, which claims that popular ideas are necessarily right, and dogmatism, where one may be unwilling to consider an opponent’s argument because of the assumption that those who disagree with you are biased, while your beliefs remain objective and correct.

Critical rationalism has significant implications for politics and education. Politically, it is a rejection of authoritarianism and any form of governance that rejects freedom of thought and critical inquiry. The key concepts here are rational and reflective, since both suggest going beyond mere acceptance of what others say one should believe. It necessarily requires opposition and alternative viewpoints and is supportive of citizen engagement. In education, critical thinking is about developing intellectual and moral virtues, including epistemic humility (recognition that one’s views may be incorrect), sincerity in the formation of belief, open-mindedness, fairness, and autonomy in reasoning (see Kim, 2003). Without these aspects, reasoning can be easily distorted to support unwarranted conclusions.

How critical rationalism differs from Confucianism

 If Confucianism values learning and not thinking (and if the two can be implicitly contrasted as suggested), then it follows that Confucius’ philosophy is at odds with contemporary education and critical rationalism. Learning without thinking is likely to involve processes of blind accumulation of information and the memorization and retention of ideas. Without inquiry, this is likely to lead to the acceptance of false ideas, prejudice, and ideology that serves those in power. In chapter 1, book VII of the Analects, Confucius states that he is only a transmitter rather than an innovator, looking to antiquity to solve the problems of his day. The idea is that knowledge is accumulated from watching, listening to, and reading from past ideas that are believed to hold ancient wisdom that can be adapted and applied. Though Confucianism highlights specific virtues that should be transmitted, without thorough knowledge of past information and its contexts, the past can be simply accepted because it comes from unquestionable authority, making criticism impossible.

Furthermore, whereas critical rationalism seeks to establish democracy and rule of law, Confucianism does not necessarily uphold either a democratic society nor protect the freedom of people. The Confucian idea about the effectiveness of teaching and learning, as revealed in The Documents (Shang shu 尚書), which states that everyone can become a Yao, Shun or Yu (all are legendary model rulers in ancient China), reflects a preference towards the power of education over rationalism, and the development of an undemocratic government that is based on filiality, benevolence, and the ruling class. While critical rationalism argues that criticism is the best means of establishing truth, for Confucianism, criticism is at best seen as an effective way of realizing benevolence, which is considered the ultimate goal of learning and achieving harmony. The outcome of critical discussion here is not aimed towards truth, but stimulating conversation that leads to moral effectiveness, which requires one to always be loyal and trustworthy in discourse (Knoblock & Zhang, 1999).

 The view that Confucianism entails critical thinking

For many Confucian scholars, the discovery of things as a form of thinking and learning can be compatible with Confucius’ admiration of antiquity and does not necessarily involve uncritically accepting and holding on to past knowledge. Despite the many differences between the two schools of thought, Confucianism and critical rationalism do share some significant similarities in theory. For instance, in line with critical rationalist values, Confucianism values epistemic modesty, courtesy to opponents, and respect for critical inquiry, although forbidden subjects and tabooed names are not to be discussed (Knoblock & Zhang, 1999). The Xunzi states that problems should be solved by rational and impartial inquiry rather than with emotions since desires and aversions are considered to be flaws of the mind’s operation.

It should be noted that while the Confucian tendency to draw from the past is often criticised as being conservative, it can also be an effective way of establishing critical thought. An emphasis on the past reflects a concern for continuity that can be used to shape the future instead of seeking to retain the past unchanged. In Book III, Chapter 14 of the Analects, Confucius says that the Zhou dynasty was built on the successes of two previous ruling dynasties: “How splendid was its pattern! And we follow the Zhou.” The past is seen as a useful resource for teaching moral lessons, and any change should be enacted by reflecting on previous practices and traditions. Rather than attack all forms of old thought, as was done under Chairman Mao during the Cultural Revolution, critical thinking can align with examining past approaches.

Finally, a key aspect of Confucian living that resembles critical rationalism is the importance of communication in rational discussion. The concept of wisdom (zhi, 智) in Confucianism is associated with thinking and is linked to inquiry. The character 智 indicates not only the ‘mouth’ (kou, 口) and ‘saying’ (yue 曰), which highlights the importance of communication in accumulating knowledge, but also that of the ‘arrow’ (shi 矢), which is made up of the characters for ‘people’ (ren 人), suggesting that wisdom entails a community of inquirers instead of knowing on one’s own (Ames, 2011). The idea is that learning and thinking is a social process and while thinking can take place on one’s own, self-reflection is only one aspect of learning from one’s mistakes and getting nearer to the truth. In the Analects Book VI, chapter 27, Confucius notes that once a cultivated person studies broadly in patterns in line with li, “he will never turn his back on them”, which demonstrates that practising li involves promoting social communication and order to achieve truth, rationalism, and harmony.

Although Confucianism does not align perfectly with Popper’s modern conception of critical rationalism, the two schools of thought are not completely in opposition. Without dismissing the claims put forward by Hall and Ames (1987), which state that Confucianism prioritizes aesthetic over logical ordering, and the emphasis on harmony reinforces affirmative versus critical thinking, the importance of wisdom in Confucianism, which involves conversing in an open-minded and logical manner, along with communicative critical discussion can be seen as aspects of the philosophy that promote a non-quarrelsome, studiousness, and impartial approach to inquiry. Taking Confucius’ lesson of learning from the past, Confucian ideology itself can be used in the present by negotiating what aspects of the philosophy align with modern values over those that do not. For some, such an approach is the only way to apply Confucian philosophy to solve contemporary problems, while for others using Confucian texts in different contexts to support arguments that may have not been relevant during Confucius’ time reveals the plurality and imprecision of meaning in interpreting ancient philosophy. Whether Confucian philosophy promotes or runs counter to critical rationalism is therefore dependent on how the reader chooses to interpret Confucian texts.