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Ancient: Mengzi (Mencius) on Human Nature

What is human nature? Is human nature good or bad? Can human nature be good even if the world contains some notably bad people? Matthew Walker (Yale-NUS College) looks at the views of the early Confucian thinker Mengzi (Mencius).

Speaker: Dr. Matthew Walker,  Assistant Professor, Yale-NUS College.

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  • male robot donald style avatar for user Ernest
    Ah yes. Nature via Nurture I think is what it's called. I don't really believe in " Human Nature". I believe the Environment has the Greatest impact on the shaping of an individuals character. I do believe that it makes more sense to have some type of leaning towards good morals because that will better the chances of a society to survive & be Healthy. But again it ultimately falls to what type of upbringing & environment one experiences. I believe people like Serial Killers, Sociopaths who lack compassion & empathy are just people who where born with certain psychological traits or mental disorders that if raised in a certain environment, these dangerous outcomes can manifest. If they are raised in Healthy Environments, these traits can become dormant. So unfortunately what you see today is a lot of Bad Environmental Conditioning that is producing all types of Aberrant Behaviors. In conclusion, our World is Broken and it's a shame that we still need to ask this question today.
    (4 votes)
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  • piceratops seedling style avatar for user Bashface
    Couldn't the argument work contrary? For example every human being is innately bad or has predispositions to being bad and that things like wisdom and benevolence are interrupting ignorance and malevolence?

    Then I would just say why is it that we need to teach kids to be good, isn't that an indication that we are more predisposed to the ideas of ignorance and malevolence etc etc. Not that it wouldn't be rebutted but I feel like this could just go on like a loop.

    My point is that I feel like we have to encourage kids or people to be wise and benevolent and that if we were to leave humans to be humans than we could just as easily desire the opposite to mengzhi's argument.

    I also feel like it would be more reasonable to suggest that people will be both malevolent and benevolent not just from a subjective standard and all this implies is that human nature is fickle. And the fickleness to me is undesirable so I'd actually label human nature negatively? Does this sound reasonable?
    (5 votes)
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    • mr pants teal style avatar for user Alja Joy
      I guess you could see it the other way around,if you insist. But i think the "story" about Ria and the well showes quite well (see what I did there ;) ? ) that usually people are good and want something good for the other. Human dont want the others to feel bad generally . And you can see that in every age, from 2 to 99 or so . Thats the reason people help each other. There are even cultures where you depend on the helpfullnis of the others to survive .
      (3 votes)
  • spunky sam green style avatar for user Harry Curtis
    Mencius' ideas about human nature seem a little bit naive, plus it begs the question. To assume that humans are predisposed in this way, presents a problem in the term 'nature' or 'natural'. If humans are a product of a process such as evolution and not as a result of, for example, creationism, then it is fair to say that whatever we do as humans is 'natural'. However we behave may be termed 'natural', for we are nature. Is Mencius suggesting that we are influenced by something that cannot be deemed 'of nature'?

    Even our power of reason, which is unique, is not unnatural since it stems from a natural process. We simply lack the evidence to prove that this natural process has occurred elsewhere. I suggest that it isn't unnatural to possess moral vices or to behave in an immoral manner; it is simply immoral. We cannot judge people for not being 'in accordance with nature', because that is impossible. Their existence is predicated upon natural processes therefore they are 'in accordance with nature'. Human nature is whatever it chooses to be.
    (3 votes)
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  • blobby green style avatar for user zayn.taylor
    idk, i might wanna see if the kid would really fall in
    (1 vote)
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  • piceratops sapling style avatar for user Joshthecreator
    How did I get 923 EPs from this?
    (0 votes)
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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