On Mencius and the goodness of human nature

menciusIn this essay, I will elaborate on Mengzi’s belief that human nature is good. For all humans have a natural disposition towards goodness. However, ethical self-cultivation is necessary for an individual to be actually good. This essay will conclude with an exposition of Mengzi’s defenses against the rival philosopher Gaozi.

According to Mengzi, human nature is good because all humans have a natural disposition towards goodness. He illustrates this with the thought experiment of a child falling into a well and claims that “everyone”[1] in that situation would experience a “feeling of alarm and compassion”[2]. These emotions are a reflection of our true nature because the sight of the falling child is “sudden(ly)”[3]. The person could not have had the time to assess the situation pragmatically and react out of self-interest. Mengzi therefore eliminates all reasons that stem from possible self-interest (“not because one sought to get in good with the child’s parents, not because one wanted fame among neighbors and friends…”[4]) and concludes that the person must have felt alarm and compassion out of an instinctive tendency towards goodness.

It is important to note that Mengzi encapsulates this tendency with the analogy of “sprouts”[5] rather than “seeds”. Unlike “seeds”, which suggest that the human potential for goodness is buried deep within, “sprouts”[6] are in their infant stage of growth; fully alive and ready to thrive. They express the idea that humans are born with a natural inclination towards goodness and do not need to “awaken” this potential. To quote Mengzi: “if one is without the heart of (compassion/disdain/deference/approval and disapproval), one is not a human”[7]. Our inherent goodness is a defining trait of what it means to be human and human nature is fundamentally good.

Nevertheless, Mengzi qualifies that the goodness of human nature does not guarantee the actual goodness of an individual. Mengzi remarks: “if one can merely fill (the sprouts) out, they will be sufficient to care for all within the Four Seas. If one merely fails to fill them out, they will be insufficient to serve one’s parents”[8]. Although humans have the capacity for goodness, the individual must expand the “four sprouts”[9] diligently to be virtuous. The analogy of the sprouts is once again crucial to understanding Mengzi’s ideas on human nature. In the case of the falling child, all humans will experience an innate feeling of compassion and that is enough to certify that human nature is good. However, Mengzi does not assert that all humans will act to save the child. There is a distinction between the human tendency towards goodness, which are the “four sprouts”[10], and virtuous actions, which occur when an individual nurtures the sprouts into trees that bear the fruit of goodness. Despite the intrinsic goodness of human nature, the onus is on the individual to self-cultivate and be good.

Gaozi, a philosopher who believes that human nature is ethically neutral, contends Mengzi’s view that humans are predisposed towards goodness. Gaozi asserts: “to make human nature benevolent and righteous is like making a willow tree into cups and bowls”[11]. He suggests that human nature lacks goodness and requires artificial and external intervention before it can be complete with goodness. Mengzi refutes Gaozi’s position by problematizing his simile – to turn a willow tree into crockery, one must “violate and rob”[12] the tree. If turning human nature good is akin to that, it follows that one must “violate and rob”[13] the people to make them “benevolent and righteous”[14]. Gaozi’s philosophy is ultimately self-defeating because humans would view benevolence and righteousness as “misfortunes”[15] if one must violate one’s nature to attain them. For people to desire goodness, goodness has to be natural to them.

In a second encounter, Gaozi underscores the neutrality of human nature with his claim that “human nature’s not distinguishing between good and not good is like water’s not distinguishing between eastern and western”[16]. Mengzi agrees with him that humans can become good or bad when subjected to external influences. This is similar to the “eastern”[17] or “western”[18] movement of water when dams guide it. However, he argues that even though the movement of the water is inconstant, the direction of the water, or the tendency to flow “downward”[19], is fixed. Humans can act in accordance or against their natural disposition towards goodness to become good or bad, but it does not alter their nature of goodness.

Upon his observation that there are good and bad humans such as ruler “Yao”[20] and ruler “Xiang”[21], Gaozi asserts that “there are natures that are good, and there are natures that are not good”[22]. Mengzi reiterates in response that all humans are inclined towards goodness but the environment that they are in, such as the “years of plenty”[23] or the “years of poverty”[24], play a part in shaping people to be “gentle”[25] or “cruel”[26]. An individual’s success at being actually good and “filling out”[27] the “four sprouts”[28] of goodness is contingent on the “richness of the soil”[29], “the unevenness in the rain”[30] and “human effort”[31]. The badness of humans is therefore a result of their failure to self-cultivate or the negative circumstances they are placed in. It is not reflective of the goodness of human nature.

This essay concludes that Mengzi’s belief that human nature is good is based on his argument that all humans are predisposed towards goodness. He distinguishes between human nature and human action, which can be good or bad, depending on the individual’s self-cultivation efforts and the surrounding environment.


Ivanhoe, Philip. “Mengzi.” Readings in Classical Chinese Philosophy. New York: Seven Bridges, 2001.

[1] Ivanhoe, Philip. “Mengzi.” Readings in Classical Chinese Philosophy. New York: Seven Bridges, 2001, p.129.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid p.130.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid p.129-130.

[8] Ibid p.130.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid, p. 144.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Ibid, p. 145.

[16] Ibid.

[17] Ibid.

[18] Ibid.

[19] Ibid.

[20] Ibid, p. 147.

[21] Ibid.

[22] Ibid.

[23] Ibid, p. 148.

[24] Ibid.

[25] Ibid.

[26] Ibid.

[27] Ibid, p. 130.

[28] Ibid.

[29] Ibid, p. 147.

[30] Ibid.

[31] Ibid.


Categories: Philosophy

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