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 state…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…