A man is hiking in the countryside when he suddenly sees a toddler about to fall into an abandoned well. What will he do? Many people will instinctively run toward the toddler to save him. However, some people will simply panic, freezing in the moment of crisis. A handful of people might start to move toward the child, but then stop, because they realise that the crumbling old well could collapse under their weight. Their initial impulse to save the child competes with their desire for self-preservation.
The fact is that we cannot be entirely sure what a human in this situation will do. What we can be sure of is what a human in this situation will feel: alarm that the child is in danger, and compassion for any potential suffering. What if someone did not have these feelings? What about someone who could look upon a child about to fall into a well with nothing but indifference, or perhaps even amusement? We describe those who are this unfeeling as ‘inhuman’, more like a beast than a person.
This thought experiment was formulated by the ancient Confucian Mengzi, the most influential philosopher in world history whom you have probably never heard of. He uses it to argue that, contrary to egoists, and to those who believe that human psychology is a tabula rasa, human nature is hard-wired with an incipient tendency toward compassion for the suffering of others.
Although Mengzi was born long after Confucius died, he is referred to as the ‘Second Sage’ because he shaped the form that Confucianism would take for the next two millennia, not just in China, but also in Korea, Japan and Vietnam. Also known as ‘Mencius’ (the Latinisation of his name given by early Jesuit missionaries), Mengzi is attracting renewed interest among Western philosophers.
Not only does Mengzi provide an intriguing alternative to Aristotelian accounts of the virtues and their cultivation, but his claims about human nature are supported by recent empirical research. Beyond the intrinsic philosophical interest of Mengzi’s thought, it behooves us to learn more about it because Chinese culture is increasingly abandoning the radical Marxism of the Mao era and returning to a reverence for traditional systems of thought such as Confucianism.
Confucius (551-479 BCE) did not regard himself as founding a school. In the Analects (the collected sayings of Confucius and his immediate disciples), Confucius said: ‘I transmit but do not innovate. I am faithful to and love antiquity.’ Of course, no one with a mind as brilliant as that of Confucius simply repeats the past. All explanation is re-interpretation. But both Confucius himself and his later followers conceived of him as transmitting the Way – the right way to live and to organise society – that had been discovered by sages even more ancient than Confucius. This Way is based upon what contemporary philosophers such as Thomas Nagel refer to as ‘agent-relative obligations’: the filial piety that I owe to my mother and father precisely because they are my parents; respect for those who are elder to me; the loyalty I owe to my friends and to my spouse; and the special affection I have for my children.
This does not mean that I should be indifferent to strangers. The whole point of the child-at-the-well story is that our compassion extends to all humans. However, as one of Confucius’s disciples put it: ‘Are not filial piety and respect for our elders the root of benevolence?’ In other words, it is in the family that our dispositions to love and show respect for others are first incubated.
For Confucius, the cultivation of virtue was intimately connected with the problem of good government. He lived during a time when China was divided into distinct states that incessantly warred against one another for dominance. One response to this situation, illustrated by the Art of War (a work of the fourth-century BCE attributed to Sunzi), was for rulers to seek dominance by perfecting military strategy.
However, Confucius argued that the Way to security and peace is by getting virtuous people into positions of government authority. These people would work to benefit the common people, and would lead through moral inspiration rather than brute force.
Mengzi was born in 372 BCE, so he never met Confucius. However, Mengzi was so inspired by Confucius’s Way that he took it upon himself to explain and defend it to the people of his generation. In the eponymous Mengzi (the collection of his dialogues, debates and sayings), he complains that ‘the words of Yang Zhu and Mozi fill the world!’ Mozi, the first systematic critic of Confucianism, was best known for advocating ‘impartial caring’, the view that we should care for everyone equally, regardless of whether they are members of our family or complete strangers. (Mohism, the school of thought Mozi inspired, is similar to Western utilitarianism in being ‘agent-neutral’ rather than ‘agent-relative’.)
Both Mozi’s impartial caring and Yang Zhu’s egoism are indefensible, as they assume an impoverished conception of human nature
Mengzi argued that Mozi’s impartial caring makes ethical demands of humans that are impractical, given the limitations of human nature. In a debate with a follower of Mozi, Mengzi asked whether he ‘truly believed that a person loves his neighbour’s child as much as his own nephew’. Mengzi also argued that the Mohist position is ultimately incoherent. Both Confucius and Mozi agreed that the Way is dictated by Heaven, a more or less anthropomorphic higher power. But human nature is implanted in humans by Heaven, so there can be no justification for morality other than what is implicit in our Heaven-given nature. In short, there is only one foundation for the Way (our innate dispositions, which favour our friends and relatives), but the Mohists act as if there were a second one (the doctrine of impartial caring, which warps our nature).
Yang Zhu, the other major critic of Confucianism during Mengzi’s era, was an egoist. We are naturally self-interested, Yang Zhu claimed, and both Confucianism and Mohism pervert our nature by demanding that we sacrifice ourselves for others. Mengzi agreed with Yang Zhu that Mozi’s philosophy ignores the constraints that human nature places on morality. But where Yang Zhu went wrong, according to Mengzi, was in the mistaken belief that there is nothing to human nature other than our self-interested desires. As the thought experiment of the child-at-the-well suggests, compassion for other humans is part of human nature. Mengzi also argues that humans have a sense of shame that can at least compete with our self-interested motivations.
As evidence, he notes that even beggars who are barely surviving day-to-day are ashamed to accept handouts given with contempt. In short, both Mozi’s impartial caring and Yang Zhu’s egoism are indefensible, because both assume an impoverished conception of human nature. Mozi ignored our innate partiality toward friends and family, while Yang Zhu ignored the moral emotions that clearly are a part of our nature.
Mengzi does not naively assume that all humans are fully virtuous. He acknowledges that our innate compassion and sense of shame are only incipient. We often fail to have compassion for those we should, or fail to be ashamed of what is genuinely despicable. Using an agricultural metaphor, he refers to our innate dispositions toward virtue as ‘sprouts’.
This metaphor is carefully chosen. The sprout of a peach tree cannot bear fruit, but it has an active tendency to develop into a mature, fruit-bearing tree if given good soil, the right amounts of sun and rain, and the weeding of a prudent gardener. Similarly, the ‘sprout of benevolence’ – manifested in our spontaneous feeling of alarm and compassion for the child about to fall into a well – and the ‘sprout of righteousness’ – manifested in a beggar’s disdain to accept a handout given with contempt – are not fully formed, but can develop into genuine virtues given the right environment and cultivation.