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The Confucian View of Human Nature

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1 The Confucian View of Human Nature
Philosophy 224 The Confucian View of Human Nature

2 Confucius (K'ung Fu-tzu)
Historians usually date Confucius’s life from B.C.E.. He lived during the end of one the longest lasting of the Chinese dynasties: the Zhou. This was a period of great social upheaval and dissolution of many traditional social forms. His life exhibited this collapse. Born into a traditional noble family fallen on hard times, he spent his early adulthood seeking an answer to the question: On what basis can a stable, ordered and enduring society be established?

3 The Analects Confucius’s answer is presented in a book of aphorisms compiled by his disciples entitled Lun Yu (usually translated as Analects). Here’s a characteristic example: The master said: “Lead the people with administrative injunctions and keep them orderly with penal law, and they will avoid punishments but will be without a sense of shame. Lead them with excellence and keep them orderly through observing ritual propriety and they will develop a sense of shame, and moreover, will order themselves.” Scholars argue about whether Confucius actually said any of the things attributed to him. Regardless, the Analects does present a picture of reality and the person that we can summarize as the Confucian THN.

4 The Confucian Universe
Though the primary focus of the Analects is on questions of human wellbeing, and little is said about the basic nature of reality, there are important assumptions made in the Analects about the world we live in. Fundamental amongst these is the operative assumption that we live in a morally ordered universe, “Heaven is the author of the virtue that is in me” (VII.23). Building on a traditional Chinese concept, “The Decree of Heaven (t’ien ming),” the Analects extend this ‘decree’ to cover all familial and social roles. All of us are governed by a transcendent morality that specifies the shape and character of our lives. We can come to understand what the decree requires of us and conform our actions to it. In addition to this moral order there is another force operating in reality: Destiny (ming). This ‘ming’ points to those aspects of reality that are beyond our understanding and our agency.

5 The Place of the Person The distinction between decree and destiny has important implications for the Analects ontology of the person. The human person is defined by its ordination by decree and susceptibility to destiny. In the case of the former, humans are specified by the capacity to understand and order themselves. The fact that we can come to understand what the heavens decree for us means that we can all become the Sage: a person who acts with extreme benevolence (VI.30).

6 Anyone is not Everyone This account of humans as potential sages stands in obvious contrast to the actual state of human affairs. “I have no hopes of meeting a sage” (VII.26). Relative to their potential as sages, the lot of most human beings is fairly desperate. The Analects don’t do much to explain this. To the extent that there is an explanation offered, our attention is directed to the freedom of humans to acknowledge and accord with the Decree of Heaven. Fundamentally all alike, humans come to differ from each other according to their choices, and the forms of life that result from them. Importantly, the moral character of this “being alike” is not specified. Later Confucian thinkers (like Mencius and Hsun Tzu) produced widely divergent accounts of human nature to explain this gap between potentiality and actuality.

7 Social Discord The focus of the Confucian diagnosis is social, rather than individual in nature. On this view, the human condition is one of social discord caused by selfishness and ignorance. In other words, humans are not in accord with the Decree of Heaven. More specifically, the Analects identify 5 endemic causes for this discord. People are attached to profit (domination of selfish motives). Society lacks filial piety (selfishness leads to rejection of natural and social bonds). Word and action are disconnected (gap allows for lies, makes it difficult to trust). The Way (Tao) of the Sage is ignored/unknown (people ignore or reject the lessons offered by history and the examples of the sages). Benevolence is absent from human affairs. (Jen is the most important virtue a human can possess; achieving it is a state of human moral perfection. It’s fundamental sense is relational. Might be better translated a humaneness.

8 In Pursuit of Jen The only solution for the discord characteristic of human existence is self-discipline, “He cultivates himself and thereby brings peace and security to the people” (XIV.42). As there are 5 ills, there are 5 areas where self-discipline is required. In response to self-attachment, the Confucian injunction is moral rigorism: acting in accord with obligation itself and nothing else, “doing for nothing.” In response to the failure of filial piety, the injunction is to strive to be a good family member. In response to the gap between language and act, the injunction is to integrity of word and deed. In response to ignorance, the injunction is to educate oneself. In response to the failure of Jen, the injunction is threefold: strive always for the virtue; observe the Golden Rule; knowing and following the appropriate rituals.

9 Mencius on Human Nature
As we’ve already noted, the lack of specifics in the Analects account of human nature allowed late Confucian thinkers to formulate their own, often differing, views. Mencius was one of the earliest and remains one of the most influential interpreters of Confucianism (He was known as the “second sage.” His account was regarded as orthodoxy by most later Chinese philosophers.

10 Good or Bad? The question addressed by the excerpts we have in the text concerns the fundamental moral situation of humans: Are we basically good or basically bad? Though this could be an exhaustive dilemma, Mencius recognizes that it isn’t (24). Rejecting both the possibility of moral neutrality and intrinsic badness, Mencius argues that, “Human nature is good…There is no man who is not good” (23). Good in what sense? Good in the sense that he possesses natively the capacity to be good (Confucian optimism) cf., p. 24.

11 Reasons of the Heart Mencius identifies this capacity with the heart, for him the seat of reason and choice. The sage is ruled by the heart, that is, by reason. Just as the heart is the key to the capacity to be good, it is also, as the capacity to choose, the explanation of why human life is so commonly characterized by discord (cf., 25 and 26-7).

12 Hsun Tzu Unlike Mencius, Hsun Tzu’s relationship to Confucianism is heterodox. Most prominently, he rejects the notion of a morally ordered universe, asserting that ‘heaven’ is simply the natural world. His work also marks a shift in classical Chinese philosophy away from aphoristics to rigorous and exhaustively argued essays.

13 Bad! Given his different metaphysical assumption, it’s not surprising that Hsun Tzu offers a different answer to the question about our basic moral orientation, “Man’s nature is evil; goodness is the result of conscious activity” (27). Hsun Tzu specifies that this evil nature is evident in four innate tendencies shared by all humans: profit, envy, hatred, and desire (27-28). “Hence, any man who follows his nature and indulges his emotions will inevitably become involved in wrangling and strife, will violate the forms and rules of society, and will end as a criminal” (28).

14 The Straightened Board
As pessimistic as this seems to be, Hsun Tzu ultimately confirms a key Confucian insight that education, particularly in ritual practice, can shape human behavior (28). His disagreement with Mencius is thus not about the desired outcome, but about where we start. For Hsun Tzu, Mencius’s error is to fail to observe the difference between nature and nurture (28-9). He also makes an interesting conceptual point about the relationship between desire and lack. We desire to be good only because we lack goodness. If we had it, we wouldn’t desire it (30).

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