The human nature debate: Mencius v.s Xunzi

download (2)In this essay, I will elaborate on Xunzi’s view that human nature is bad. I will then argue that his conclusion is unreasonable. This will be done through an examination of the causal relationship between rituals and standards of righteousness and human nature.

Xunzi believes that human nature is bad because there would be no “rituals”[1] and “standards of righteousness”[2] if human nature were good. His argument is based on the indisputable fact that rituals and standards of righteousness exist, as well as the premise that humans create things only if they have pragmatic value. Rituals and standards of righteousness were invented because of their usefulness in “transform[ing]”[3] people with bad natures. Following this causal relationship between rituals and human nature, rituals would not have been invented in a society where human nature is already good. This is because they cannot “add to the nature’s correctness”[4] and would be of no value to society. Xunzi therefore claims that their existence supports his view that human nature is bad.

Xunzi’s assertion that humans behave virtuously only under the conditions of rituals and standards of righteousness reinforces his argument that human nature is bad. He declares that “doing away”[5] with the mechanisms that govern society will result in nothing but “unruliness and chaos and perish”[6]. In a natural state where externally constructed moral codes and practices are absent, an internal moral compass directs human action. The evil that ensues in such a state suggests that humans lack this internal moral compass. It is important to note that Xunzi’s conclusion that “people’s nature is bad”[7] is always stated in conjunction with “goodness is a matter of deliberate effort”[8]. “Deliberate effort”[9] refers to the external social mechanisms that aim to produce good behavior. This goodness should be natural to humans if it were inherent. In reality, goodness is achieved only through calculated endeavors. Thus, human nature cannot be good.

However, I will argue that Xunzi’s conclusion is wrong because the rituals and standards of righteousness that he speaks of cannot exist if human nature is bad. Xunzi states that the sage-kings “made clear ritual and the standards of righteousness in order to transform [the people]”[10]. These are “produced from the deliberate effort of the sage”[11] and not “from people’s nature”[12]. The sage’s commitment to goodness, as manifested in his/her deliberate effort, is the only quality that distinguishes him/her from the ordinary people because “the sage is like the masses”[13] in nature. This belief that all human nature is bad without exception is problematic because it gives rise to the question of how sages could have created rituals and standards of righteousness, even with deliberate effort. In Xunzi’s attempt to explain where rituals come from, he compares the sage’s deliberate efforts to a craftsman who produces vessels through diligent practice.[14] However, this comparison only shows the craftsman’s mastery of vessel production and the sage’s mastery of ritual production. It does not explain where the craftsman gained his knowledge that vessels can be produced through mixing and molding clay. Similarly, it is unclear how the sage possessed the knowledge to engage in the “reflections”[15] and “deliberations”[16] that would allow him/her to formulate rituals. For rituals and standards of righteousness to exist, sages must know how to create them. This knowledge is possible only if sages have an innate and natural understanding of how to be good.

Furthermore, it is unlikely that the sages would have had the desire to produce rituals and standards of righteousness if human nature were bad. If sages were born with the natural predisposition towards evil, it is not rational to believe that they would go against their nature to pursue goodness. Xunzi attempts to explain this seeming irrationality with the logic that people are “sure to seek for outside”[17] what they do not “have within”[18]. He cites examples such as “the ugly person longs to be beautiful”[19] and “the poor person longs to be rich”[20] to support this principle; in both cases, the individual desires that which he/she does not possess. Thus, if one were to follow this line of logic, people desire to become good because of their bad nature. However, a closer examination will show that the principle that people want what they do not have cannot be applied to bad humans desiring goodness. An impoverished person who desires wealth indeed desires something that is “outside”[21] of what he has “within”[22]. Nevertheless, this desire for wealth can be traced back to the person’s “fondness for profit”[23], which Xunzi claims to be a characteristic of bad human nature. An unattractive person who yearns for beauty indeed desires something that he/she does not possess, but this desire can also be traced back to the person’s “fondness for beautiful sights and sounds”[24]. Though the person desires something that he/she lacks, the desires are consistent with his/her bad human nature. In contrast, a bad person who desires goodness indeed desires something that he/she lacks, but this desire to be good is inconsistent with his/her nature. Due to this inconsistency, Xunzi’s explanation that humans desire goodness because of their bad nature is unreasonable. His conclusion that human nature is bad therefore cannot account for the existence of rituals and standards of righteousness because the sages who produced them would not have desired to produce them.

This essay concludes that Xunzi’s view that human nature is bad is based on an unreasonable argument. He uses the existence of rituals and standards of righteousness to support his view, but it is clear that this view is highly problematic. For rituals and standards of righteousness to exist, human nature cannot be bad.

ACKNOWLEDGMENTS

 I am grateful to my professor Neil Mehta for his valuable feedback.

REFERENCE LIST

Ivanhoe, Philip. “Chapter 23: Human Nature is Bad”. Readings in Classical Chinese Philosophy. New York: Seven Bridges, 2001.

[1] Ivanhoe, Philip. “Chapter 23: Human Nature is Bad”. Readings in Classical Chinese Philosophy. New York: Seven Bridges, 2001, p.302.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid, p.300.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Ibid, p.301.

[14] Ibid, p.300.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Ibid.

[17] Ibid, p.301.

[18] Ibid.

[19] Ibid.

[20] Ibid.

[21] Ibid.

[22] Ibid.

[23] Ibid, p.298.

[24] Ibid.

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