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After Confucius’s death, the great debate in classical Confucian philosophy was over human nature: between Mencius, who, broadly speaking, thought humans were naturally good, and Xunzi, who thought we were naturally bad. In a liberal democracy suffused with the individualism of the sixties, I think most people lean much closer to Mencius’s view. But we miss something very important if we ignore Xunzi’s.

Mencius famously tells us:

The reason why I say that humans all have hearts that will not bear [the suffering of] others is this. Suppose someone suddenly saw a child about to fall into a well: everyone [in such a situation] would have a feeling of 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. (Mencius 2A6, Van Norden translation)

This seems like a plausible example. But actual human behaviour makes it seem less universal. There are numerous observed cases of the bystander effect, where people had the opportunity to save an innocent and, whether or not they had the feeling of compassion, did not do anything about it. The twentieth century gives us countless examples of human beings who inflicted unspeakable horrors on one another. We like to think they were exceptions, somehow deviant from normal situations, but the evidence of social psychology – most notably the Milgram experiment – suggests that perfectly normal, perfectly ordinary people are perfectly capable of committing atrocities in the right situations.

And this is only to speak of rare life-and-death situations, the kind so beloved by analytic philosophers discussing the trolley problem. Leah Libresco has a wonderful recent post examining how this sort of extreme situation is really not characteristic of the situations that call for morally good action. If we think primarily of this sort of choice, we might be tempted to think morality is easy (though various counterexamples – the bystander effect – should give us pause even there). But Libresco points out how easy it is to slip into doing the wrong things in everyday life:

I wasn’t talking being tempted to steal or kill at random, but about repeating a funny, unflattering story about a friend or lashing out when someone doesn’t seem to be listening to your answer to their question or responding to a friend letting you down by just resolving to rely less on other people in the future. People who know me in person will recognize a rogues gallery of my own weaknesses in the above, and I’m sure you can come up with other examples of petty-seeming sin.

It’s not even just our behaviour toward others – what’s traditionally called “morality” – where human behaviour is regularly bad. We are often our worst enemies just in fulfilling our own wishes; we suffer from what the Greeks called akrasia. We know that procrastinating an important project is contrary to our goals, but we still do it. We find it very difficult to get out of bed even when we know it’s the best thing for us to do. Everyone has different weaknesses, but we are all self-defeating. Some such weaknesses – addictions, for example – are more severe than others, but all are significant problems, ways we fall short of what we ourselves know we should be. This is a key reason I am sympathetic to certain forms of hypocrisy: virtue is hard, and it is understandable and normal that one may preach it with total sincerity yet still fail to live up to it. And all these sorts of behaviours are key to the appeal of the chastened intellectualism shared by figures as disparate as Augustine, Xunzi and Freud: knowing the good, for oneself or others, is not sufficient to doing it.

It is clear, then, that human behaviour, even in “normal” and “natural” contexts, is deeply distorted and disturbed. And it seems to me that the worst mistake we can make in examining this behaviour is to think that it all comes from the influence of social conditioning and bad ideas: that we are all fine as babies, that others’ poor thinking is all to blame. Mencius is traditionally held to have said “A great man is one who retains the heart of a new-born babe.” I have noted that Bryan Van Norden disputes this translation, and on Mencius’s original words I remain neutral, but there is no dispute that a great deal of later Mencian tradition has held this sentiment to be true: that a human exemplar is childlike. And I submit that something is deeply wrong with this view. Compare Augustine’s discussion of newborns:

for an infant of that age, could it be reckoned good to use tears in trying to obtain what it would have been harmful to get, to be vehemently indignant at the refusals of free and older people and of parents or many other people of good sense who would not yield to my whims, and to attempt to strike them and to do as much injury as possible? There is never an obligation to be obedient to orders which it would be pernicious to obey. So the feebleness of infant limbs is innocent, not the infant’s mind. I have personally watched and studied a jealous baby. He could not yet speak and, pale awith jealousy and bitterness, glared at his brother sharing his mother’s milk. Mothers and nurses claim to charm it away by their own private remedies. But it can hardly be innocence, when the source of milk is flowing richly and abundantly, not to endure a share going to one’s blood-brother, who is in profound need, dependent for life exclusively on that one food.

But people smilingly tolerate this behaviour, not because it is nothing or only a trivial matter, but because with coming of age it will pass away.You can prove this to be the case from the fact that the same behaviour cannot be borne without irritation when encountered in someone of more mature years. (Confessions I.vii, Henry Chadwick translation)

I think Augustine’s views in this passage are quite correct. Newborns are not “innocent” in most of the senses in which we usually use that term. They are full of the petty, mean, spiteful impulses that we rightly condemn in adults; if we do not condemn these impulses in infants, it is only because the infants have the excuse of not knowing any better, and because their physical weakness means that the impulses have no significant consequences. They are innocent in the way that a delusional schizophrenic is innocent: they know not what they do.

Augustine rightly shows us in this passage that it is not merely learned behaviour that causes the majority of our problem behaviours. One of the worst – most false and most dangerous – philosophical positions I can imagine is the one apparently advocated by Jayarāśi, and sometimes suggested by twentieth-century “ordinary language” philosophy: that most of our problems come from philosophical theorizing, and we would be ready to live good lives if we were free of them. This is a disastrous kind of naïveté, itself, I think, brought on by the kind of bad philosophical theorizing it despises. We need to better ourselves, and serious reflection is a helpful part of that process. Xunzi is wise to point out that we cannot rely on our natures for goodness. We need deliberate cultivation, we need artifice.

EDIT: In the first version of this post, I left the reference to the bystander effect missing, with a blank in the middle of the sentence. Oops. Thanks to Ben for catching that.