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Ancient: Mengzi (Mencius) on Human Nature

Video transcript

(intro music) Hi everybody, I'm Matt Walker. I teach philosophy and humanities at Yale-NUS College in Singapore. Today, I'm going to take a look at Mengzi's views on human nature. In particular, I'm going to take a look at Mengzi's defense of the claim that human nature is good. Mengzi, also known as "Mencius," was an early Confucian philosopher. He lived in the 300s BCE. Like Confucius, Mengzi was concerned to defend a certain conception of the good life for human beings. Call this conception of the good life "the Confucian way," or "the Confucian Dao." According to the Confucian way, possessing virtues like benevolence, righteousness, propriety, and wisdom are central to a life well-lived. When Mengzi says that human nature is good, Mengzi's thought is that human beings have innate potentials, or predispositions, toward such virtues. We naturally tend toward these virtues. As Mengzi says, benevolence, righteousness, propriety, and wisdom are not welded to us externally. We inherently have them. In presenting this view, Mengzi uses an agricultural metaphor. He describes these potentials and predispositions as sprouts of virtue. Mengzi, in turn, locates these sprouts of virtue in the heart, or heart-mind, which Mengzi identifies as the seat of our cognitive and affective dispositions. Mengzi's thought is that if we fully cultivate our sprouts, if we tend to our predispositions toward virtue and become fully virtuous, then we will bring our human nature to full fruition. We will flourish as human beings. But what evidence does Mengzi adduce for the view that human nature is good? On what basis, in other words, does Mengzi think that we have such predispositions toward benevolence, righteousness, and the like? Here, I want to take a look at one of the most famous arguments in the Mengzi. It appears in Mengzi 2A6. Like some other famous arguments in the history of philosophy, it involves a thought experiment. I'll call Mengzi's thought experiment the "child and the well case." Ladies and gentleman, meet little Ria. Suppose that little Ria is toddling right along through this field. And suppose further that she's heading obliviously right toward this scary-looking well. There's the well, there's little Ria toddling along, getting closer. Ahhhh! I guess I should add that what you saw was only a dramatization. According to Mengzi, anyone who saw little Ria about to toddle into that well would have an immediate, non-reflective gut reaction. As Mengzi says in 2A6, anyone would feel a surge of alarm and compassion. Indeed, simply imagining the child in the well case vividly to yourselves, you might feel something of this alarm. Okay, so what should we conclude from Mengzi's child and the well thought experiment? According to Mengzi, our non-reflective gut reaction to little Ria's looming danger shows that we have innate predispositions toward benevolence. On Mengzi's view, our response to little Ria's potential disaster is hard-wired. Human beings, by nature, are simply predisposed to respond with alarm and compassion when they see defenseless innocents about to face harm. And our alarm and compassion, Mengzi insists, reveals the sprout of benevolence in human nature. To be sure, it doesn't show that we possess the fully-developed virtue of benevolence. But Mengzi thinks that it reveals the germ or bud of benevolence, the kind of proto-version of benevolence that can be cultivated to maturity. Mengzi recognizes, however, that one might offer different accounts of our reactions. According to one alternative proposal, perhaps one's response to little Ria's danger is instrumentally motivated. In other words, maybe one feels alarm and compassion for little Ria because one has certain ends in view, or because one has ulterior motives. Mengzi, however, rejects this instrumental account. Hearing about little Ria, Mengzi says, one would feel 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. What's important, Mengzi thinks, is that our alarmed and compassionate response is spontaneous and unthinking. That shows that our response emerges without calculation. Still, Mengzi's view of human nature faces another challenge. It seems demonstrably false that human nature is good. If human nature is good, then vice should be rare. We shouldn't often see brutishness, plunder, banality, selfishness, petty tyranny, and other nasty traits. But vice isn't rare. Hence, it might seem Mengzi's view is wrong. Contrary to Mengzi, it might seem human nature is bad. When faced with this kind of challenge, Mengzi's strategy is to get human nature off the hook. If human beings are bad, Mengzi argues, it's not because their nature is bad. Mengzi puts the point this way: "As for their essence, human beings can become good. "This is what I mean by calling their nature's 'good.' "As for their becoming not good, "this is not the fault of their potential." Or, as Mengzi puts the point elsewhere, it is not the case that only the worthy person has this heart, that is, the heart or sprout of courage. All human beings have it. The worthy person simply never loses it. In other words, Mengzi is fully aware that the world is full of bad human beings. But Mengzi suggests, don't blame human nature for such badness. Instead, blame the stunting of human nature for such badness. Human nature does have predispositions toward virtue, but these predispositions can be corrupted. To spell out this response, Mengzi offers a parable, the Parable of Ox Mountain, which appears in Mengzi 6A8. Here's Ox Mountain. By nature, it's verdant, and woody, and it's soil is rich. But if hatchets and axes and grazing oxen and sheep have their day at the vegetation on Ox Mountain, you shouldn't be surprised if the mountain becomes barren. Here, Mengzi holds, there's no reason to think that Ox Mountain is naturally barren. Likewise, Mengzi insists, human beings, by nature, have predispositions toward benevolence, righteousness, propriety, and wisdom. But if one grows up in a chaotic environment, neglected by narcissistic parents, surrounded by too much money, and free to run wild with impunity, then don't be surprised if one's own good nature similarly loses its capacity to blossom. Yet, as with Ox Mountain, Mengzi believes, there's no reason to think that human beings are naturally bad. For Mengzi, cultivating virtue does not constitute a mutilation or radical transformation of one's human nature. Cultivating benevolence and righteousness is not like making a willow tree into cups and bowls. In other words, ethical education is not a kind of maiming. On the contrary, Mengzi thinks that ethical education is like good gardening. It constitutes a tending that enables innate tendencies to reach fruition. So, to return to the point about the willow tree, ethical education is more like caring for and nurturing the willow tree so that it reaches its full growth. Subtitles by the Amara.org community