Mencius
Human Nature is Good

 
Mencius (372-289 BCE) flourished more than 100 years after Confucius. He became the second most important philosopher in the Confucian tradition. Mencius not only defended Confucius’ view against other competing schools at the time, he also expanded it into a more systematic theory. ... Mencius made it his lifelong mission to advocate Confucius’ ideals to contemporary rulers and to other intellectuals of his time. Like Confucius, he focused on two aspects of moral cultivation: how to be a good ruler and how to be a good person. Both teachings are based on Confucius’ conviction: humans are perfectible. Mencius tried to answer the question: why are we perfectible? The reason given was that we are fundamentally good by nature. Therefore, Mencius’ main argument was to establish the claim that human nature is good. This claim would later become the hallmark of Mencius’ philosophy. [ICP, 65]
 
 
2A:6  All human beings have a mind that cannot bear to see the sufferings of others. The ancient kings had a commiserating mind and, accordingly, a commiserating government. Having a commiserating mind, a commiserating government, governing the world was like turning something around on the palm of the hand.
       “Here is why I say that all human beings have a mind that commiserates with others. Now, if anyone were suddenly to see a child about to fall into a well, his mind would always be filled with alarm, distress, pity, and compassion. That he would react accordingly is not because [or more literally, This is not because (fei suo yi 所以)] he would use the opportunity to ingratiate himself with the child’s parents, nor because he would seek commendation from neighbors and friends, nor because he would hate the adverse reputation. From this it may be seen that one who lacks a mind that feels pity and compassion would not be human; one who lacks a mind that feels shame and aversion would not be human; one who lacks a mind that feels modesty and compliance would not be human; and one who lacks a mind that knows right and wrong would not be human.
       “The mind’s feeling of pity and compassion is the beginning of humaneness (ren); the mind’s feeling of shame and aversion is the beginning of rightness (yi); the mind’s feeling of modesty and compliance is the beginning of propriety (li); and the mind’s sense of right and wrong is the beginning of wisdom (zhi).
       Human beings have these four beginnings just as they have four limbs. For one to have these four beginnings and yet to say of oneself that one is unable to fulfill them is to injure oneself, while to say that one’s ruler is unable to fulfill them is to injure one’s ruler. When we know how to enlarge and bring to fulfillment these four beginnings that are within us, it will be like a fire beginning to burn or a spring finding an outlet. If one is able to bring them to fulfillment, they will be sufficient to enable him to protect ‘all within the four seas’; if one is not, they will be insufficient even to enable him to serve his parents. [SCT, 129]
  • Is someone who lacks moral impulses still human?
  • If our “natural” impulses are essentially “good,” then where do our “bad” (i.e. immoral) inclinations come from?
 
 
6A:8 Mencius said, “The trees on Ox Mountain were once beautiful. But being situated on the outskirts of a large state, the trees are hewn down by axes. Could they remain beautiful? Given the air of the day and the night, and the moisture of the rain and the dew, they do not fail to put forth new buds and shoots, but then cattle and sheep also come to graze. This accounts for the barren appearance of the mountain. Seeing this barrenness, people suppose that the mountain was never wooded. But how could this be the nature [xing] of the mountain? So it is also with what is preserved in a human being: could it be that anyone should lack the mind of humaneness and rightness? If one lets go of the innate good mind, this is like taking an axe to a tree; being hewn down day after day, can it remain beautiful? Given the rest that one gets in the day and the night, and the effect of the calm morning qi, one’s likes and dislikes will still resemble those of other people, but barely so. One becomes fettered and destroyed by what one does during the day, and if this fettering occurs repeatedly, the effect of the night qi will no longer be enough to allow him to preserve his mind, and he will be at scant remove from the animals. Seeing this, one might suppose that he never had the capacity for goodness. But can this be a human beings natural tendency? Thus, given nourishment, there is nothing that will not grow; lacking nourishment, there is nothing that will not be destroyed. Confucius said, ‘Hold on and you preserve it; let go and you lose it. There is no appointed time for its going out and coming in, and no one knows its direction.’ In saying this, was he not speaking of the mind?” [SCT, 151]
  • What does the parable of Ox Mountain tell us about how we should nurture our innate nature (i.e. the innate goodness of the heart-mind)?
6A:15 Gongduzi asked, “All are equally persons, and yet some are great persons and others are small persons — why is this?
       Mencius said, “those who follow the part of themselves that is great become great persons, while those who follow the part of themselves that is small become small persons.”
       [Gongduzi] said, “Since all are equally persons, why is it that some follow the part of themselves that is great, while others follow the part of themselves that is small?”
       Mencius said,
The faculties of seeing and hearing do not think and are obscured by things. When one thing comes into contact with another, they are led away. The faculty of the mind is to think. By thinking, one gets it; by not thinking, one fails to get it. This is what Heaven has given to us. When we first establish the greater part of ourselves, then the smaller part is unable to steal it away. It is simply this that makes the great person. [SCT, 153]
  • Are moral responses (at the most basic level) innate or learned?
  • Is “selfishness” an innate tendency or is it the result of the mind and the senses not performing their “proper” functions? What about “selflessness”?