Friday, June 11, 2010

The Confucian Way (5): Did Mencius Have a Sociobiological Concept of Human Nature?

Did Mencius have a concept of human nature?

That's an important question for the scholarly interpreters of Mencius and his contribution to the Confucian tradition. But more than that, it's a question with broad theoretical and practical implications for our moral and political understanding of ourselves in the modern world.

Some people would say that the Western philosophical tradition began with the discovery of the idea of nature--including human nature--by the ancient Greek philosophers. That discovery of nature as distinguished from convention allowed the development of the idea of natural right as an enduring, universal standard of judgment beyond the variability of cultural traditions. Some scholars--for example, Leo Strauss and many of this students (like George Anastaplo)--have expressed doubts as to whether there is any comparable concept of nature (or human nature) in Asian thought, and therefore whether there is anything like Greek philosophical inquiry into nature in Asian traditions.

But if there were no Asian conception of nature independent of Western influence, then one might wonder whether nature is not so much a "discovery" of the Greeks as an "invention." If there is no understanding of nature in the East, does that suggest that what we in the West call nature is only an artifact of Western culture that has no application beyond the West? If we are to avoid a radical cultural relativism, don't we need to see at least some implicit recognition of nature and human nature in the tradition of Asian thought?

This issue has practical, political consequences. If the ideas of nature, human nature, and natural right are cultural inventions of Western tradition, does that mean that we cannot rightly judge Eastern cultural traditons by our Western standards of natural right? The continuing debate as to whether the Western understanding of universal human rights has any application to Asian culture and politics manifests this problem.

For there to be human rights, there must be some common human nature that is universal to human experience. If that is so, then there should be some understanding among thoughtful people in all cultures of that universal human nature as a standard for morality and politics.

That's why the study of Confucianism is so important. If there is no recognition of nature or human nature in Confucianism--one of the most influential and enduring traditions of thought in all of human history--then we have to question whether the Western ideas of nature and human nature are anything more than cultural prejudices.

As George Anastaplo has rightly noted, there is almost no explicit recognition of nature or human nature in the Analects of Confucius (see 5.13, 17.2), although there is sometimes an implicit appeal to human nature, as in the understanding of family life as a primordial ground of human social life. But if Anastaplo had turned to Mencius, he would have seen much more explicit recognition of human nature. More specifically, I think, one can see in the writing of Mencius a biological conception of human nature--and of moral and political order as grounded in human nature--that is close to the modern Darwinian and sociobiological understanding of human nature and morality.

This is a controversial claim. Some scholars of Chinese philosophy--like Roger Ames, for example--argue that there is nothing like the Western concept of human nature in Mencius, because they insist that the dynamic and relational understanding of the world that one sees in Chinese philosophy rejects the static "essentialism" of the Western concept of human nature. But as I have argued in some previous posts, this fear of "essentialism" is mistaken, because it fails to see how the biological conception of human nature (from Aristotle to Darwin) recognizes the contingency and individuality of humanity, while also recognizing the recurrent tendencies that characterize the human species as a natural kind.

In claiming that Mencius does have a concept of human nature that supports his moral and political thought, I agree with scholars of Chinese thought like A. C. Graham, Irene Bloom, and Donald Munro. Munro's writing is particularly interesting from my point of view, because he develops the points of contact between Mencius and E. O. Wilson's sociobiological ethics.

Mencius often refers to "nature" (xing) and "human nature" (renxing). He is most famous for his teaching that "human nature is good." By this he means that while human goodness must be cultivated by individual habit and social culture--and thus, human beings are not good at birth--this moral cultivation nurtures the natural inclinations of human beings. Human beings are born with the natural tendencies and capacities that develop into human goodness when the nurturing environment is hospitable. So, as I would say, nature must be nurtured.

When Frans de Waal argues that human goodness is the development of natural tendencies shared with primates--and so we are "good natured"--he sometimes cites Mencius as agreeing with him. Of course, Mencius was not a biologist, and he knew nothing about genetics or evolutionary science. But by his natural experience, he was able to infer that human morality was rooted in human biology in a way that has been more fully explicated by modern evolutionary theory.

Munro has shown how closely this comes to Ed Wilson's account of sociobiological ethics as an "empiricist" view of ethics as grounded in human nature, by contrast with the "transcendentalist" view of ethics as sanctioned by some cosmic order of Reason, Nature, or God.

I agree with Munro in noting at least six points of agreement between Mencius and sociobiological ethics. First, Mencius takes an empirical approach to ethics in the sense that he appeals to empirical arguments based on practical human experience. Second, he understands human experience as manifesting a common human nature. Third, he explains morality as motivated by innate emotional responses (such as sympathy and indignation). Fourth, he sees the primacy of kinship relations and the empathy that arises from kinship ties. Fifth, he sees the mind as primarily evaluative in being directed to practical engagement with the world. Sixth, he sees that while the natural concern for others can be extended broadly, it is structured by an in-group bias--we tend to feel more concern for those close to us than for those outside our group. On all of these points, Munro rightly sees coincidences with Wilson's sociobiological ethics.

Munro does see, however, one point of possible dispute between Mencius and sociobiology. Following traditional Chinese cosmology, Mencius often appeals to "Heaven" (tian) as the source of human nature and natural morality, which suggests that the human nature of morality has a cosmic or religious source. Munro rejects this as unsupported by modern science or by any sociobiological conception of ethics.

Here is where I find Mencius hard to interpret. At times, it seems he really is appealing to some religious source in "Heaven" for human biological nature and natural morality. But at other times, he suggests (to me, at least) that his "Heaven" is nothing more than the Nature that gives rise to human nature, and so it's not clear that this has any religious sense. In any case, it is clear that "Heaven" is not a personal, transcendent God like the God of the Bible; and there is no conception of rewards and punishments after death. So there is nothing like Plato's religious cosmology of eternal rewards and punishments. This is why many people have wondered whether Confucianism is really a really a religion.

Mencius indicates that one sure sign that a ruler has lost the "Mandate of Heaven" is when he has become so hated by the people that he can be easily assassinated (1A1, 1B7-10, 4A2, 5A5-6, 5B9). By contrast, those rulers who accept limited government and low taxes, and thus leave people free to live as they please, have no enemies; and those who have no enemies are "the agents of Heaven" (2A5). One might be reminded here of what John Locke says about the "appeal to Heaven" as the ultimate recourse in disputes over governmental authority. Ultimately, government rests on violence and war.

Even if Mencius is a religious thinker in invoking "Heaven," his religion could be accounted for in Darwinian terms as a "natural religion," as a product of cultural evolution in which religious belief reinforces group morality (along the lines suggested by Darwin and by David Sloan Wilson). As far as I can see, the "Heaven" of Mencius does nothing but support what we could know by natural human experience alone.

Long after Mencius, in the Song Dynasty (960-1279), the "School of the Way" (the Neo-Confucians) pushed Confucian thought towards a religious cosmology quite different from what one finds in Confucius or Mencius. Buddhism had become a powerful presence in China. The Chinese Buddhists adopted the Chinese term for "pattern" to refer to the cosmic web of interrelations. The Neo-Confucians incorporated this idea in declaring that "Heaven" corresponded to the cosmic "Pattern" that pervades and guides the universe. In doing that, they transformed Confucianism into a much more metaphysical or Platonic position than what was taught by Confucius and Mencius. Like Plato, they taught that the true philosopher orders his soul to conform to the "city in speech" as manifesting a "Pattern in Heaven" (592b).


Irene Bloom, "Mencian Arguments on Human Nature," Philosophy East and West, 44 (Jan. 1994): 19-53.

Irence Bloom, "Human Nature and Biological Nature in Mencius," Philosophy East and West, 47 (Jan. 1997): 21-32.

A. C. Graham, "The Background of the Mencian Theory of Human Nature," in Studies in Chinese Philosophy and Philosophical Literature (SUNY Press, 1990), 8-66.

Donald Munro, A Chinese Ethics for the New Century (Hong Kong: The Chinese University Press, 2005).

Some related posts can be found here, here, here, here, and here.

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