Good, Bad or Neither?

In the Analects, the famous Chinese philosopher Kongzi (also known as Confucius) was very tight-lipped on any abstract metaphysical questions. However, the closest he came to making any statement on the matter was at the end of the seventeenth book in the Analects, which he says that “by nature people are similar; they diverge as the result of practice.”[1] Although we can interpret this statement as saying human beings are similar in their natural tendencies and become varied through learning and habituation, he still didn’t seem to indicate what human nature consists of essentially. Such ambiguity was inevitably ripe for debate between his successors.

Mengzi, who later came onto the scene during the Warring States period (476–221 BCE), shared Confucius’ conviction in the transformative power of morality but sought to strengthen it’s appeal by grounding it in an explicit doctrine of human nature — namely, that human nature is good. By contrast, Xunzi, a philosopher alive during the same time-period as Mengzi, took a different approach. Instead of taking a defensive strategy, he sought to appropriate elements of rival schools of thought (Maoism and Daoism, for example) while maintaining a strict Confucian stance. It is traditionally attributed to Xunzi that he concluded human nature to be intrinsically bad, but this is an interpretation I hope to disillusion. In this essay I will compare these two conceptions of human nature argue that although Menzi isn’t wrong, Xunzi’s interpretation is more correct, theoretically and empirically.

Beginning with Mengzi, he believes that the willing acceptance of one’s destiny comes from a good place. To begin to prove this, he offers the following thought experiment:

“Suppose someone suddenly saw a child about to fall into a well: everyone in such a situation would have a feeling of alarm and compassion — not because one sought to get in good with the child’s parents, not because one wanted fame among their neighbors and friends, and not because one would dislike the sound of the child’s cries.”[2]

The main takeaway from this passage is threefold: Mengzi considers the human predisposition to compassion to be innate, genetically inherited, and intrinsically motivated. It is innate because the immediate reaction to a child in danger, as Mengzi sees it, is one of compassion and is thus spontaneous and instinctive. It is genetically inherited (inherent in all healthy human beings) because he states that “everyone” would react the same way, so it must be a trait common to our species. Lastly, it is intrinsically motivated in that Mengzi clearly states that there is no ulterior motive at play in rescuing the child; they want to save the child for the child’s sake. We might say, in Kantian terms, that saving the child is an end itself.

Intuitively, most of us would agree with Mengzi’s thought experiment, but it is susceptible to criticism on several fronts. First, the thought experiment seems to be based on an adult’s response to such an emergency, given that Mengzi makes it explicit that the victim in trouble is a child. However, with adults, it isn’t clear whether such a response comes primarily from nature or nurture, or a mixture of both. The adult’s response itself doesn’t prove that human nature is innately good, and if we would think a child would be less likely to save a child than an adult, this suggests the origins of the response be attributed to nurture.

Secondly, it seems that the interest of the adult witnessing the drowning child isn’t threatened. The reason why this detail is important is that the lack of putting oneself at risk may be the reason why they were inclined to help in the first place. Conversely, what if the adult’s life was threatened, say, if the child was located in a burning building? Then would they still be as inclined to help? Or would they prioritize their own preservation? If we can imagine a scenario where one would put their own self-interest before that of a victim in danger, then we have counter-example to Mengzi’s tri-fold claim. Plato got us thinking of such an examples with the Myth of Gyges: Gyges has a ring that can make him invisible, and thus can do whatever he wants without fear of consequence since no one will see him. Plato asks whether Gyges would then ultimately act immorally.[3]

The fact that people do, at times act immorally, even when they shouldn’t, is a strong counterargument to Mengzi’s view. However, he does a decent job of salvaging his premise. First, he explicitly denies that someone behaving immorally is due to having a flawed human nature; he says “as for their essence, they can become good. This is what I mean by calling their natures good. As for their becoming not good, this is not the fault of their potential.”[4] In other words, we have the innate potential for goodness but that is no guarantee of its realization. Hence, he refers to our “sprouts” of goodness, in the same way that a seed has the potential to grow into a flower, only if it is grown in the appropriate environment (including soil, water, sunshine and cultivation) so too our goodness has the potential to grow. Therefore, Mengzi argues, when humans do not do good this is because they are embedded in circumstances that do not permit it or do not allow their goodness to grow. Such circumstances include external conditions lacking in moral instruction[5] or if not receiving proper motivation.[6]

It is interesting to consider the emphasis Mengzi puts on nurture to bring about our good natures, yet he never doubts innate goodness in human nature nor considers that human behavior is purely a result of the social conditioning he gives so much importance. Returning to the case of a child located in a burning building, it seems that prior to any moral education, our natural predisposition to prioritize our self-preservation would override the inclination to save the child, and thus our natural state would tend towards self-interest. Although, perhaps with sufficient training, say, in becoming a firefighter, we can become capable of putting our lives at risk for the sake of a stranger and society as a whole can come to value and encourage the occupation of such social roles. Nonetheless, this isn’t the argument Mengzi makes.

Xunzi, on the other hand, has a substantially different conception of human nature than Mengzi. Xunzi says: “in every case, the nature of a thing is the accomplishment of Heaven. It cannot be learned. It cannot be worked at. Rituals and the standards of righteousness…are things people become capable of through learning.”[7] Earlier, he also states “that which is so by birth is called ‘human nature.’ The close connection of response to stimulus, which requires no effort but is so of itself, and which is produced by the harmonious operation of the nature, is also called “human nature.”[8] In this view, human nature is merely composed of the cognitive capacities we are born with, such as sensations and instincts. There are no “sprouts” towards goodness or badness, there is only that which “Heaven”- the cosmos, or evolution- has endowed us with, which is inherently morally neutral.

The phrase xing e, which Xunzi uses to characterize human beings is commonly translated to mean “base or bad,” gives the impression that Xunzi is saying human nature is innately wrong, or something to be ashamed of. I believe this is inaccurate because Xunzi is instead trying to draw attention to the fact humans may have an inclination to do things that have adverse consequences for themselves or others in society if their Heaven endowed natures aren’t properly cultivated through upbringing. As John Knoblock writes, “translating xing e as evil often overstates its meaning since the Chinese do not carry the sinister and baleful overtones of the English word… the inborn nature of man must be judged evil not because its inborn qualities are sinister or baleful, but because they lead to evil results.”[9] Therefore, I would argue that Xunzi denies Mengzi claims by asserting that human nature is amoral rather than bad.

Mengzi’s argument for human nature encompasses both a descriptive claim about humanity’s innate potential for moral goodness and a prescriptive claim about what actions ought to be taken in order for that potential to come to fruition. By contrast, Xungzi offers a value judgment about the degree to which unchecked human dispositions are conducive to social harmony. For example, when a person indulges in feelings of envy and hate, these will lead to violence and crime, and eventually, any sense of loyalty and decency will dissipate.[10] Both emphasize the importance of moral education, but whereas Mengzi thinks it should be inherently enjoyable in that it is consistent with our innate aspirations, Xunzi thinks the taming of human desires is often an arduous process that might eventually become enjoyable at a later stage.

All in all, I think Xunzi’s theory is more accurately cashed out in light of what modern, scientific research has uncovered about our cognition and its development. We know we are not blank slates; we have genetic and hereditary tendencies towards certain personality types that have evolved to be conducive to our survival.[11] Most of these can’t adapt fast enough to keep up with the increasingly, rapidly changing cultural and technological environment we find ourselves embedded in, hence the cliché that we are stone-age minds in modern skulls. We also know that there can be evolutionary mismatches, so to speak; conditions, where the social environment either inhibits or lacks the output for dispositional traits our bodies have been equipped with in order to flourish in the kind of environment it expects; environments human beings have inhabited for most of history, namely nomadic, hunter and gatherer tribes. For example, a tendency for homeostasis, to store energy as fat, leads to obesity in the presence of abundant fast-food options.[12]

Xunzi’s characterizing of our natural predispositions as amoral thus seems more appropriate in that they aren’t good or bad, they simply are as they are because that has served our survival well-enough thus far. They are only bad, as Xunzi says, when the social consequences are adverse. If “bad” things are happening it isn’t because a bad society contradicts our inherently good nature, it is because our morally neutral nature physically can’t keep up with the demands or conditions of a changing society. This applies to morality just as much as eating habits. For example, work stress, gambling and drug addiction all exploit the dopaminergic pathways and reward system to release dopamine[13]; circumstances the systems themselves never anticipated and were never prepared to compensate for. Therefore, it won’t always feel good to refrain from such activities, neither may it feel satisfying to do something which is rationally good within the social setting but unusual for our bodily dispositions, such as delaying instant gratification for a long term payoff. In conclusion, Xunzi’s view has less theoretical weaknesses then Mengzi’s, since it doesn’t subscribe to a descriptive value judgment of our natures, and is more empirically sound considering what modern research has revealed.


[1] The Analects, 17:2

[2] 2A6, The Mengzi

[3] Republic 2.359c-2.360d

[4] 6A6, The Mengzi

[5] 1A7, 3A4, 3B9

[6] 6A8 The Mengzi

[7] Xunzi, Chapter 23: Human Nature is Bad, p.299

[8] Xunzi, Chapter 22: On Correct Naming p.292

[9] Xunzi, A Translation and Study of the Complete Works, Vol. 1 [Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1988] Introduction, 99)

[10] Xunzi, Chapter 23: Human Nature is Bad p.298

[11] Pinker, S. (2016). The Blank Slate (2002/2016) . New York, NY: Viking.

[12] Power, Michael L.; Schulkin, Jay (2013–01–02). The Evolution of Obesity. JHU Press.

[13] Pani, L (2000). “Is there an evolutionary mismatch between the normal physiology of the human dopaminergic system and current environmental conditions in industrialized countries?”. Macmillan Publishers Lt.




Undergraduate at The University of British Columbia

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Undergraduate at The University of British Columbia

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