Posted: March 18th, 2023
Throughout history intelligent human beings have tried to better understand exactly what it is that makes people human. Some of the questions that are most frequently asked has to do with a supposed universal human nature, a basic idea which somehow is a part of all people regardless of culture, ethnicity, gender, religion, or whatever other divisive characterization that can be thought of. Human nature refers to the ability to think, the feel, to act and react, all the things which elevate people from the rest of the animal kingdom. Thinkers of all ages have tried to clearly explain and solidify the intangible idea of human nature. First these philosophers have questioned whether or not human nature exists and then they further ask whether human nature is inherently good or if it is inherently evil. To be kind and decent to other human beings, is it part of our innate character to take care of one another, or is this need the result of overcoming our human nature for individual self-preservation? All these questions have been asked and asked again repeatedly throughout recorded history and logically it can be assumed that it was posed long before this and the answer to these questions relates back to the culture of the person posing their ideas as to potential responses. Every single culture on Earth has a historical perspective on this question. Four of the different philosophical perceptions on this issue include Confucianism, the philosophy of Xunzi, the philosophy of Mencius, and finally the Christian perspective of human nature, each of which postulates the inherent goodness or lack thereof within human nature.
Confucianism is the philosophical and ethical system of belief based upon the teachings of the Chinese philosopher Confucius. Confucianism as a philosophy completely changed the philosophical, psychological, and sociological perspective of many Chinese people, including leaders of the country who adopted Confucianism as their personal philosophies. In all of Confucius’s recorded statements and writings, only once did he directly address the issue of human nature which is written in The Analects of Confucius. “The Master said, ‘By nature, men are nearly alike; by practice, they get to be wide apart” (Waley 55). The core belief of Confucianism was humanism which is the belief that human beings can change, adapt, and grow but only by self-improvement. No one’s identity or personality is concrete or fixed and anyone can learn from their mistakes and change into a better person according to the five virtues of humaneness, righteousness, etiquette, knowledge, and integrity (Runes 338). This also means that social position is an archaic idea because in a meritocracy the good of the community should move higher up the social ladder while those who behave poorly, regardless of financial position should be on lower rungs. People are asked to make decisions using reason, logic, and critical thinking in all things. Most people who practice Confucianism have the opinion that the purpose of human existence is to become the best version of yourself that a person can aspire to (Ames 30). Whether or not this is counter to what would be considered human nature is unimportant; rather a person is tasked in life with overcoming his or her individual faults in order to be a person of value. According to Confucius, certain characteristic were consistent with all human nature, namely that mankind is social and interactions with other human beings are directly connected to the ability or inability to successfully find a person’s potential. Further, Confucius stated that human beings are innately good, that we want to do right actions for ourselves and for the rest of humanity but that people had the capacity for evil as well, that both parts were within but the individual decision was far more important that what was inherent (Bevir 272). The ethical definition of good or evil was of primary concern as opposed to religious ideas of sin or grace. A person’s responsibility is to respect themselves, other people, and their ancestors. The impetus is on the individual and his or her choices. Confucianism places great importance on each unique person and their choices therefore if good and evil exist in the world it is because of people failing to live up to their potential. Everyone begins life with the same characteristics and the same potential and the success or a failure of that person to live up to their ideal is entirely the responsibility of that person. According to this perspective all people begin with the same chance to be good or to wicked and the results of their actions ultimately determine their ability to develop.
Xunzi was a Confucian philosopher who had a more negative view of human nature than other philosophers before or during his period of history. Rather than innately good, Xunzi hypothesized that human beings were actually inherently wicked and their natural impulses had to be overcome through socialization and education (Cua). For a long period, Xunzi was regarded as a minor philosopher and it is only in research scholarly efforts that his pertinence to the question of human nature has become known. He wrote about how education, which Confucius explained was a necessary component of human endeavor and the only way to achieve social and ethical mobility, was in actuality needed to overcome our human nature. This does not mean that human beings enjoy committing evil actions, but that it is human nature to perpetrate deception or villainy in order to further their own position. Xunzi’s perspective states:
Human nature is bad, but this should not be read as saying that people naturally delight in evil. Rather, his point is that people lack any inborn guide to right conduct, and that without the external restraint of ritual they will fall into wrongdoing and be reduced to a chaotic, impoverished stateâ€¦Since we are not inclined to virtue by nature, the process of self-transformation will be slow and difficult (Ivanhoe 256).
When a person is born, he or she does not understand what is morally right or wrong. They are driven by desire, inclination, and instinct. It is only through the aging process and through development that people come to understand what is expected of them from the rest of society. Being educated both in terms of information and in terms of social expectation and morality allows members of the population to become good people. Those who have been denied education will ultimately retain their innate badness and be more likely to perpetrate acts of wickedness against other people. In addition to the question of education and its important in development of the self, there are other factors which also prevent human beings from becoming good (Machle162). For example, a single life is full of distractions which inhibit a person from doing or being good. There are individual desires which ache to be fulfilled; these can include physical desires, financial desires, social desires, or any of the many things that a person craves for their selves. By striving for these things instead of focusing on self-improvement people are actually prohibiting themselves from reaching their full potential as explained by Confucian philosophy.
Mencius’s perspective on human nature was exactly the opposite of Xunzi although both men followed the teachings of Confucianism and thus they are commonly put up against one another in a debate over the proper interpretation of the human nature question. He rejected a great deal of the traditional beliefs of the Chinese people and instead cultivated a whole new perception on the question of human nature and acceptability. Instead of believing that human beings were inherently bad like Xunzi, Mencius believed that human nature insisted people were born with goodness and kindness (Van Norden 121). It was only through the subversion of their own natures that people became wicked, but even then it was only wickedness in deed. Anything humans desired could be given into without meaning that they were bad, even if the social morality disagreed with it. However, he stated, there was such a thing as ethical decision making and if a person made an unethical decision that this was bad, but that this still did not make them a bad person (Ivanhoe 116). Monzi as he is also referred to by modern scholars believed that human beings were good and that this means more than that they were originally good, but that human beings, no matter what they might choose to do will always be good at the very core of their humanity. According to Philip Ivanhoe, et. al:
He showed little interest in what one would call moral psychology and embraced a simple and highly malleable view of human nature. This led him away from the widely observed Chinese concern with self-cultivation. His general lack of appreciation for psychological goods and the need to control desires and shape dispositions and attitudes also led him to reject categorically the characteristic Confucian concern with culture and ritual (60).
This perception was a completely new one and therefore also a highly controversial one. All cultures up to this point had tried to determine the question of human nature and came up with very different interpretations. However, nearly each one eventually found that there was indeed good and evil in the world. Perhaps they argued about what caused people to perform unkind or wicked actions, but no one disputed that there were definitively good and bad. Mencius argues that although one might do something absolutely heinous, it would not change their nature which would always be good. The individual person could be considered bad, but not their essential human nature.
The Christian idea of human nature has a great deal to do with their religious beliefs. Are human beings naturally good? If so, then how do people who believe in a single all-powerful God make amends for the existence of evil? The greatest example of the Christians’ intent to explain this paradox is in the story of the “The Book of Job.” The writing of “The Book of Job” has led to questions about the nature of human suffering, how it relates to human nature, and indeed the powers of God. According to The Bible, humans are inherently good and decent, but free will gives them the ability to commit acts of evil (Hook). Their actions are often a reaction to their upbringing and all the successes and failures they have known in their lifetimes. People suffer either because they are bad or because God wants to test if they will turn bad and more even than this to investigate the lengths to which people can be pushed before they make poor choices. Author John E. Hartley argues that it is the question of suffering that would have led to the creation of “The Book of Job” in the first place. In his book, aptly called The Book of Job, he writes:
The speeches in the dialogues may reflect the intensity of [the author’s] debate with the traditional approaches to the issue of human suffering. His unwillingness to accept standard answers no doubt brought him into conflict with the established priesthood and the scribes. Like Job, he may have suffered much for his apparently unorthodox insights. Fortunately his insights into the issue of suffering have been preserved for us in the book of Job (17).
There is good in the world and there is also evil. This is an undisputable fact of human existence. The events that have occurred in the United States and the larger world over the last few years show how truly evil some people can be with shootings and terrorist attacks. These terms, good and evil, deserving and undeserving, are also somewhat malleable because they are man-made. The culture in which a person lives determines what is considered good or evil in a given place and it is according to the perception of good and evil that we are taught to expect happiness or suffering. The questions that are raised about God or Yahweh as He is sometimes called are enumerated in the writing of Norman Habel who says:
Yahweh’s arbitrary agreement to afflict an innocent mortal to satisfy a wager with the Satan throws doubt on Yahweh’s capacity to govern with justice. That is precisely the issue which Job raises and Yahweh’s word from the whirlwind exploresâ€¦Most important of all, the basic conflict between hidden decisions in heaven and arbitrary events on earth remains unsolved (29).
It is possible that these questions are beyond answering or that, in fact, there is no answer that will satisfy people as to these questions. Some people say the presence of evil absolutely proves that there is no God and therefore our sufferings are random. After all, if there was a perfect all-knowing entity in the universe, would not he prevent people from performing acts of evil and thereby invalidating the need for punishment which is what suffering is in the first place? Is the fact that evil exists at all proof that there is not greater force in the universe and that humanity is alone as a species and the only good and evil are within the cultural designation? However, those who believe in a Judeo-Christian God see this differently. Humanity has created the singular all-powerful God of the Abrahamic religions; namely Judaism, Islam, and Christianity. What people accept as some omnipotent and ephemeral God is likely really just the evolution of a series of prehistoric beliefs which are no more based in fact than any other religious deities (Hubbard 5). Suffering is perhaps more understandable if there is indeed no God. In the time of the ancients, strict adherence to the laws of the Bible as they were written was expected and if a person did so, and then they should expect God’s blessings. Job, after his many sufferings, is himself ultimately rewarded for his belief in God, reinforcing that no matter how bad things might get, there is always a reason to have faith (Dunn 1491). God of the Old Testament was an angry and often vengeful deity who punished with impunity and was capable of great acts of terror including flooding the earth and killing nearly every man, woman, and child. “The Book of Job” illustrates this component of the mythology regarding the single all-powerful God and its relation to human nature.
From the information gathered, it seems that Confucianism is the most logical argument about the truth of human nature. While it would be nice to agree with Mencius that all human beings are good, this does not seem to be so. He felt that not only were humans good, but that their nature remained good no matter what choices they made. This is unsatisfactory because it cannot be argued that human beings absolutely perpetrate abject misery against one another. A person who makes the choice to commit such acts is not a good person. In addition, modern psychologists understand that there are people who are born sociopathic or antisocial who do not have what would be considered normal emotions or normal understandings of acceptable or unacceptable behaviors. Something within that person causes them to act violently or maliciously even within a supportive, functional household. It is hard to think that such people have good natures. On the other hand, Xunzi explained his view that humans were innately bad and have to overcome this nature to do the right things. However, this does not seem to work either, as young children are the ones closest to the beginning of a life and if Xunzi were right then they would be the most evil because they have yet to come to understand what is expected of them by the rest of society. It also gives people who do wrong something of an excuse. If horrible choices and the ability to terrorize are part of human nature, then they can say it is not their fault that they have committed evil. The more likely explanation of the ones available is that within each person there is the capacity for good and the capacity for evil, which being a human means that people have the ability to choose to do what they know is right or to do what they know to be wrong. This is what separates humanity from lesser creatures, the ability to think and interpret and decide rather than merely react to stimuli.
Human nature is an extremely complicated question which has yet to be solved entirely. Although philosophers have tried to answer this riddle since before the time of recorded history, no one has been able to provide a satisfactory answer. Confucius states that human beings are inherently good but that they could choose to be bad if they do not live up to their potential. His disciple Xunzi believed that human beings were naturally wicked and that human beings only became good through hard work and struggle in order to overcome their natural impulses. In complete opposition to this, Mencius said that people were innately good and that their choices did nothing to change this. Through the course of a lifetime, a person might make all the wrong choices and themselves be considered a bad person. However, their inherent humanity does not become changed because of these choices. Another perspective of human nature is from the Christian religion which is perhaps the most widely accepted because it has a larger number of practitioners. According to this perspective human beings have the potential to be good and must choose goodness, even in the face of abject suffering and misery. In all philosophies part of humanity is in the ability to choose and this illustrates that despite their difference is perspective all of them agree on at least this one component. Whether or not a person is innately good or innately bad then does not matter; because a successful or unsuccessful life will ultimately come down to their choices.
Ames, Roger T., and Henry Rosemont, Jr., trans. The Analects of Confucius: A Philosophical
Translation. A New Translation Based on the Dingzhou Fragments and Other Recent Archaeological Finds. Classics of Ancient China. New York: Ballantine, 1998. Print.
Bevir, Mark. Encyclopedia of Political Theory. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, 2010. Print.
Cua, Antonio S. “Human Nature, Ritual, and History: Studies in Xunzi and Chinese Philosophy.”
Studies in Philosophy and the History of Philosophy. 43. Washington: Catholic University of America Press, 2005. Print.
Dunn, J. & Rogerson, J. Eerdman’s Commentary on the Bible. Cambridge, U.K: Eerdmans
Publishing. 2003. Print.
Habel, N. The Book of Job. Philadelphia, PA: Westminster. 1985. Print.
Hartley, J.E.. The Book of Job. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans Publishing. 1988. Print.
Hooke, S.H. The Bible in Basic English. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1982. Print.
Hubbard, R. The go’el in ancient Israel: theological reflections on an Israelite institution.
Bulletin for Biblical Research. 1991. 3-19. Print.
Ivanhoe, Philip J., and Bryan W. Van Norden. Mozi, in Readings in Classical Chinese
Philosophy, ed. Indianapolis, IN: Hackett, 2001, 55-107. Print.
Machle, Edward J. Nature and Heaven in the Xunzi: A Study of the Tian lun. SUNY Series in Chinese Philosophy and Culture. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 1993. Print.
Runes, Dagobert D. Dictionary of Philosophy. Philosophical Library, 1983. Print.
Van Norden, Bryan. The Essential Mengzi: Selected Passages with Traditional Commentary.
Indianapolis, IN: Hackett Publishing Company, Inc., 2009. Print.
Waley, Arthur. The Analects of Confucius. CreateSpace Independent, 2013. eBook.
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