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.
michael reidy said:
Full knowledge and full consent are required for sin so children are not capable of serious sin. However patterns of behaviour if tolerated by adults and not corrected can be a problem when the child is grown up. Bad behaviour can also be imprinted on the child. Augustine seems exaggerated on childhood responsibility.
Amod Lele said:
I don’t tend to think with the concept of sin myself very much, so whether babies are capable of sin per se is not something I put a whole lot of thought into. Certainly babies should not be punished for wrongdoing when they are not aware of it, but it is still wrongdoing. Again, they are innocent in the way that a delusional schizophrenic is innocent. That does not say anything particularly good about the delusional schizophrenic or about the baby.
In going on and on about the “jealous” baby, Augustine has overlooked a critical fact.
Augustine had the knowledge that “the source of milk is flowing richly and abundantly”, but does it make any sense to ascribe this crucial piece of knowledge to the baby? It does not!
How can it be “sin” if the knowledge which is necessary for preventing it is lacking in the baby?
The “jealousy” of the baby was simply an instinct of self-preservation. In an adult, given that there is no threat to one’s share of some good, envy at the possession of that good by another is correctly judged irrational, and, hence, bad.
But the baby has no benfit of this knowledge and is simply driven by the instinct of self-preservation in the face of competition. In these circumstances, the “jealousy” of the baby is necessary for its self-preservation, and, hence, not “sinful” at all.
1. Is it always good or rational to cultivate the so-called virtues and always bad or irrational to eschew the so-called vices?
Are some virtues irrational, and, hence, bad in some contexts?
Are some vices rational, and, hence, good in some contexts?
It seems to me dangerously and disastrously naive to think that what is good is absolutely good and what is bad is absolutely bad.
Most of what we deem “good” or “bad” is only conditionally so.
It follows that honesty may be bad in some contexts, e.g., when it jeopardizes someone’s privacy or safety.
It follows that deception may be good in some contexts, e.g., if it is a means to defeat a tyrant.
Anger and hatred may also be good in certain contexts, e.g., in motivating one to protect oneself from abuse, to take action to correct wrongdoing, and bring the perpetrators of injustice to justice.
Jealousy or envy is absolutely bad? Think of the fact that much of economic egalitarianism is driven by jealousy or envy of the rich!!! If jealousy is bad, then economic egalitarianism is also bad!
Jealousy or envy may motivate one to strive to achieve the object one envies another for possessing. Is it still absolutely bad? I don’t think so.
Jealousy or envy also implies an acknowledgment that something is good and that one lacks that good. Now, if this acknowledgment is correct, how can jealousy be absolutely bad? This sort of acknowledgment is a necessary condition of the striving after any good!
As I argued in a post a year or so ago on this blog, whether anger, fear, envy, etc., are rational or irrational is the crux of the issue.
Some vices can keep other and more dangerous vices at bay. Lust can detract or distract from and dissipate rage. It can also temporarily alleviate loneliness and despair. And, of course, it is the source of the procreation of the species, not to mention some great works of art! Is it still absolutely bad?
So, the notion that the so-called virtues are always good and the so-called vices are always bad is seriously and dangerously mistaken.
It follows that any project of self-improvement based on the falsehood that virtues are absolutely good and vices are absolutely bad is dangerously and disastrously flawed.
2. It is important to consider whether it is rational and good to focus on all that is (conditionally) bad in human nature and life at the expense of what is (conditionally) good.
A cynical view, one which emphasizes all that’s (conditionally) wrong in human nature and conduct at the expense of what’s (conditionally) good in it, regardless of its philosophical or religious trappings, is bound to undermine any project of self-improvement and healthy relationships with others.
A person who focuses only on the pettiness of human beings at the expense of their manifestations of charity, nobility, and greatness, offers an eloquent testimony to her own pettiness and cynicism.
A self-righteous person who uses the everyday foibles of people against them offers an eloquent testimony to her own glaring flaw of Moralistic Sadism, i.e., inflicting emotional pain or hurt on others by harping and carping on their wrongdoing.
Nobility is not merely the absence of pettiness. It is also a function of how you deal with pettiness in others. One must not get petty in dealing with other people’s pettiness!
Aesthetic sensibilities such as a sense of humor, a sense of the tragic, an understanding of the “play of opposites” in human character, a tolerant appreciation of the human propensity for drama, may go a long way in counteracting and alleviating the perils of moralistic fanaticism and sadism toward other human beings.
Great works of fiction, e.g., great literature and/or film, can contribute more in this context than any arid moral theory.
“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.”
How could Augustine be sure that the baby was jealous and bitter? Accustomed as he was to see “sin” everywhere, Augustine may have seen jealousy where there was none. This may well be another curious example of the human tendency, induced by beliefs, to see a pattern where there is none!
The baby may have simply been staring intently (and babies tend to do that!) at his brother sharing his mother’s milk. Augustine may have imagined that this was a “glare of jealousy and bitterness”.
Augustine does not tell us whether the baby in question had already fed on his mother’s milk. If the baby in question was not fed first and was hungry, its reaction at seeing its brother feeding is entirely natural.
Seeing “sin” everywhere is the deadliest sin!
In the paragraph “And this is only to speak of…”, are you missing half a sentence in the parentheses there?
Amod Lele said:
Yes. Thank you. Fixed.
The Buddhist view as I understand it (which may or may not be the same as Mencius’ view) is that the fundamental goodness of human nature is not the opposite of evil. Rather, evil is an expression of this fundamental goodness when our experience becomes frozen and fixated on a mistaken view.
Evil arises from fear; the fear is based on a fundamental perception of impermanence. But fear is not the only possible reaction to impermanence and the inevitability of death. In fact, it is possible to relate to impermanence from a broader view. In fact a series of progressively broader views are possible. Because the fear based views are based on a mistake, a Buddhist would say that the broader views are more accurate and that a goodness itself that is not dependent on evil for its definition is basic to human nature.
Amod Lele said:
I would note that this is not the Buddhist view, though it is certainly held by a number of East Asian Buddhist traditions; I think it’s quite at odds with the views of the historical Buddha as best we can reconstruct them. We previously discussed the point a bit in reference to this post.
This view is fundamental to the Buddhism I have been practicing for 30 years. It is fundamental to Tibetan Buddhism and is reflected in the Mahayana in the Uttaratantra shastra.
Furthermore, no Buddhism that has a concept of enlightenment that is true and unconditioned can have a view other than that enlightenment, goodness or Buddha nature is the basic state — obscured by confusion. Otherwise, the practice path to use a traditional metaphor) would be like trying to clean a piece of coal with soap and water.
What texts are you relying on to conclude that Theravadin Buddhism has a view of human nature as being intrinsically evil?
Amod Lele said:
I don’t think that early Buddhism has a view of humans as intrinsically evil. The previous post may have implied that more than it should have, and you’re right to call me on that. The point made in many Pali suttas, and probably even more so in the Abhidhamma, is that human nature is not intrinsically anything at all – it’s a collection of aggregates of various kinds. As it turns out, though, those aggregates happen to be structured in such a way that continually and reliably leads to ignorance and suffering – and, much more rarely, to a way that leads out of that ignorance and suffering. But when that way out is spoken of in the suttas, its result is usually spoken of in elliptical terms of what it is not; what is never, ever said is that that result (nibbāna/nirvana) corresponds to a good basic underlying nature. That would be way too close to an ātman. There isn’t such a metaphysical construct to be found anywhere in the early texts that I am aware of. To the extent that we can speak of a “basic state”, it is the one in which we (to the extent that “we” can be spoken of at all) all begin enmeshed, the normal state of ignorance, craving and suffering. A few individuals get the rare opportunity to get out of this state and into a better one, and such an opportunity is to be cherished, but it doesn’t happen without the extraordinary and gruelling work of a buddha (whether a pratyekabuddha or a full buddha), which happens once in an eon, if that. There is nothing basic about that extraordinary state.
What you describe sounds right.
In particular, the use of negations to describe nirvana is also used in the Mahayana to describe shunyata. Buddha nature is non-dual — it is not created and does not exist as something that can be grasped in a conceptual way. But the use of negations does not imply nothingness.
There is a difference in focus and certainly method between the Theravadin approach and later Mahayana approaches. But I don’t think that they are inconsistent.
Bat Ben Zoma said:
In this schema, I’m not sure where to fit in the view that human beings are simply born morally undeveloped or “unfinished.” This, to me, seems closest to the position of Judaism (rabbinic) or Eastern Christianity. Judaism, to generalize, emphasizes the dual elements of human nature, with an inherent tension between the yetzer ha-ra and the yeter ha-tov. These are usually translated as “evil inclination” and “good inclination,” but it’s a bit more subtle than that. There is discussion in the Talmud about how, without the yetzer ha-ra, the world would cease to exist. In Genesis Rabbah, the rabbis say that without the yetzer ha-ra, no one would marry, build a house, or start a business.
The yetzer ha-ra, then, can be understood more as the animal self, or the appetitive self, and not as ‘evil,’ per se. In more Buddhist terms, the yetzer ha-ra could be said to be the desiring, striving self, the part that craves food, sex, and wealth. These aren’t seen as bad things by the rabbis, but things to be had in moderation, urges to be moderated and sanctified.
However, there is also the notion that humans are born primarily with the yetzer ha-ra and must develop the yetzer ha-tov through maturity and cultivation, with the idea that it doesn’t start to really show up until around bar mitzvah age or even in one’s 20’s. So, there is a recognition of something like cognitive development and moral development which Augustine does not seem to reflect in the passage cited there.
Similarly, Eastern Christianity focuses more on the unfinished nature of human existence. Adam & Eve were not finished products of undefiled human nature, as they tend to be perceived in the Christian west, but were, effectively, children – morally and developmentally. Instead of heading down their intended path of moral progress, however, they took a serious wrong turn, which is only “healed” by the Incarnation. The Incarnation enables human beings to work toward the original potential of human nature, which is on a trajectory toward theosis or deification. This is achieved in part trough the cultivation of virtue.
Forgive me for the long digression, but your post left me reflecting on these views, which seem not to receive as much play as the Augustinian Christian model. Are they a middle ground between simply calling human nature ‘good’ and ‘bad,’ or is calling human nature unfinished/undeveloped a third category?
Amod Lele said:
Welcome to the blog, Bat Ben Zoma, and thank you for your thoughtful reflections. I think what you’re describing is indeed a middle ground, and that some sort of middle ground is exactly what we should be aiming for – but not just any middle ground. As you’ll see in next week’s post, while I think Augustine and Xunzi are getting at an important truth, I ultimately don’t think that they are right. Human nature is neither good nor is it bad – but, importantly, neither is it blank or neutral, as a Lockean theory might suggest. The theory you discuss sounds like it has close resonances with what I’m looking for, so I’m intrigued by the concepts you speak about. I have vague recollections of them from Jonathan Schofer’s book, but haven’t had enough exposure to Jewish tradition to have been able to make much of them yet. To start with, what are the literal translations of ha-ra and ha-tov?
Bat Ben Zoma said:
Thanks for the welcome, Amod.
Unfortunately, I can’t think of a good book that explores these subjects in depth…I’m not sure what Shofer has written on them (I only overlapped with him briefly at HDS). But the literal translations of ha-ra and ha-tov are, respectively, evil and good.
Amod Lele said:
Thank you. That’s interesting. I rather like the idea that there’s a necessary place for evil inclination – that the world would cease to exist without it. That sounds a lot like the view I am persuaded by, that there is truth in everything – related to Aristotle’s virtue as a mean between vices.
I seriously doubt whether it is meaningful to make the claim that “human nature” is morally good, or that it is morally bad.
First, the term “human nature” is very broad in its range of reference and includes a complex set of basic dispositions, faculties, capacities, cognitive and affective processes, instincts, needs, etc., shared by all human beings.
Second, it is not meaningful to claim that a complex set of dispositions or propensities, faculties, capacities, processes, etc., is itself morally good or morally bad because it is a category mistake to ascribe moral goodness, or badness, to a set of faculties, capacities, dispositions, etc.
Third, it is not even meaningful to consider dispositions or propensities, e.g., the propensity and capacity for jealousy, or love, morally good or bad in itself.
Particular instances or expressions of jealousy, or love, may be judged morally good or bad, but the propensity and capacity for jealousy, or love, or fear, cannot be meaningfully judged as morally good or bad in itself.
Particular intentions or motives may be judged morally good or bad, but the capacity for having intentions or motives cannot be meaningfully judged morally good or bad.
It may be sensible to abandon talk of “human nature” being good or bad and focus on the moral status of particular motives, attitudes, and behaviors or actions.
I think “Witters” (as Austin used to truncate “Wittgenstein”) correctly identified the source of confusion on these sorts of issues: our CRAVING for generality or generalization.
“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)”
M’s key premise is that people have a natural tendency or disposition to assist those who are in need of help.
I think this is true. But whether they will act on and fulfill this natural inclination in any given circumstance depends on other factors, e.g., risk of danger, punishment, etc. Of course, sometimes, people ignore even those factors and act spontaneously to save others from distress regardless of the costs or risks to themselves.
M,in fact, is only saying that people naturally feel compassion and concern at the sight of someone in distress or about to fall into distress, not that they will always act on those feelings and seek to alleviate or prevent that distress.
But even if M is right, it does not follow from this that “human nature” is good, for the reason that “human nature” is not constituted by a single disposition.
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