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Mencius on Morality and Human Nature

Human nature is a question of high interest and an issue of intensive discussions for many philosophers. Ancient philosophers tried to give an answer to this question and had developed their concepts of human nature origin. In fact, there are many philosophical streams that had also framed the new concept of human nature. For example, the Chinese philosopher Mencius developed one of the most significant theories. Mencius or "Master Meng" is also known as one of Confucius' most prominent followers. He managed not only to interpret Confucius' philosophic views and ideas but also to develop and represent them according to his personal understanding. What makes Mencius a significant figure in the history of philosophy is his contribution to the development of human nature idea. The key point of Master Meng's view on human nature is that each human being is born initially good. Initially, human nature is good which means that there are primary features in personality that should be followed, developed and turned into the important virtues.


Master Meng's philosophy has been supported by various approaches and schools. The general formula of the human nature concept is that the nature of any individual, which might develop under the circumstances of positive or negative environment, is good. Owing to this fact, the philosopher claims that the right features of human being's nature are internal and exist in person from the very beginning.

Another important point of Mencius' concept is the statement that despite the initial existence of goodness in human nature, it may fail to be developed due to the unfavorable environment (Graham, 1967). The philosopher presents a simple example to explain it. For instance, each fruit tree has a potential to bear fruits. However, not every tree can bear fruits, as the conditions, such as weather, geographic location, and surroundings, influence the trees fertility. This example illustrates that a human being despite the existence of a good nature is also dependent on a number of the external factors.

Due to the human dependence on the external, the philosopher coins three elements of human nature goodness: teleology, a virtue theory, and moral psychology (Norden, 2004). The idea of teleology depicts a heart-mind nature of each person and his or her ability to feel compassion. While forming this concept, Mencius relies on the experience and reason. Considering the experience, the thinker describes a potential situation: if a child falls into well, a person automatically feels sorrow for this child. The roots of this sympathy do not have any selfish interests; this is a feeling, which derives from the human nature. Referring to the reason, Mencius comes to the conclusion that there are features which enable to define a creature as a human being. Only those who are aware of sympathy, shame, compassion, judgment to others may be called human beings (Graham, 1967).

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These are the features that develop four essential virtues. Therefore, co-humanity derives from sympathy, rightness derives from shame, prudence comes from deference to others, and decency comes from the approval and judgment. Mencius claims that those, who are capable of developing these virtues, may protect the entire world while those, who fail to develop them, are useless, even for the assistance of their parents. Moral psychology as an argument for the goodness of human nature shows the possibility of human mistakes and offers the way to avoid them. The main mistake for Mencius is a failure to develop heart-mind (Norden, 2004). The further development and strengthening of initial human nature depend on both cultural and biological aspects. Philosopher's approach to moral psychology is based on the belief that human nature is good and may become better. Culture and biology should be considered while human nature is improving. Mencius shows how the failures of human nature may be solved depicting the great rulers, one of which once said that his sin was an addiction to wealth. Mencius' solution is to make all other people in the country have enough resources for a decent level of life. When every citizen in the county has enough and the condition is fulfilled, ruler's desire to be rich is normal and understandable (Graham, 1967). The purpose of this example is to show that person's wish does not have any wrong or evil intentions initially. Each intention and desire are neutral. However, its rightness or wrongness is determined by its outcomes for the individuals or society in general. Therefore, it is necessary not to neglect personal wishes but to make them compliant with the well-being of others.

Although Mencius' theory of human nature is widely recognized as an important contribution to the development of philosophical discussion, there are many opponents, who criticize the proposed concept of human nature. The most significant threats to the preservation of Confucian tradition, including Mencius' theory, were the philosophical approaches presented by Mozi and Yang Zhu.

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Mozi's concept is based on the assumption that human nature is initially not impartial and, subsequently, not good. According to Mozi, impartiality is a feature of goodness, which a person does not have as people are usually more devoted to their own families, friends, and lives (Norden, 2004). Though, Mozi believed that human nature may be influenced and changed to the good one through the encouragement of positive behavior and discouragement of the opposite one. According to Mozi's theory, the development of fairness to all the people and readiness to help anyone without subjective preferences is a key element of reaching balance in the society. Although Confucians and Mohists, the followers of Mozi, have different thoughts about the origin of human nature, they both do not argue about the fact that an appropriate way of living is determined by Heaven. They also agree that this way of living requires self-denial and sacrifices from a person who follows it.

Yang Zhu defines another concept. According to the philosopher, self-preservation is the most natural characteristic of a human being. As a result, if it is a demonstration of the human nature, it should be inspired by Heaven in accordance with the appropriate way of living. Thus, the pursuit of self-preservation instinct by an individual is the highest level of Heaven's will of fulfillment. Mencius' concept of good human nature was developed as a response to Mozi and Yang Zhu that is based on the Confucian philosophical statements (Norden, 2004).

Mencius agrees with Yang Zhu that human nature is predetermined. However, he refuses the idea that human nature has other motivations than a self-interest. The basic argument for this is a situation of a child falling into a well. Mencius strongly believes that a person who sympathizes a child does it without any secret intentions. The person proves that people are able to express good human nature in any situation. However, those who do not feel pity in this a situation do not deserve to be called human beings. Consequently, Mencius supports the idea that human nature is the result of Heaven's will, but he forms his own theories about the specifics of human nature.

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In contrast to Mohists, Mencius claims that human nature places various limitations on ethical doctrine. This is explained with a question whether a person may really have the same feelings to own baby and neighbor's baby. Obviously, as the answer is no, it is clear that a person has naturally stronger affection to own relatives and family. Therefore, any ethical approach, which requires impartiality, does not have practical value.

The theories show that Mencius' concept of human nature has both strong and weak sides. It questions whether the concept of good human nature is persuasive and reasonable enough. Philosophical nature of this question does not give a definite answer. However, the goodness of human nature, supported by the philosopher, contains strong points which are difficult to refute. A child is a bright example of initial human nature untouched by the influence of external factors. There is no doubt that each child is a source of kindness, helpfulness, and innocence. Besides, regardless of person's character, he or she is able to feel sorrow for another person. It is supported by philosopher's example with a child and a well. Each person has both positive and good features, which are either developed to virtues or neglected and turned into negative features in the future. Mencius' theory reflects the reality of human existence which makes it credible enough.

It is necessary to admit that an issue of human nature origin is a complicated issue which has many aspects. Philosophers have been trying to find an answer to this question for centuries, but there is no definite approach. Every thought about human nature has competitive arguments which might be true. However, it is due to a person to decide which concept is more convincing than the others. The goodness of human nature is based on the observations of person's behavior, attitude to other people, and inner feelings. As all human beings are capable of sympathy, it is possible to believe in the natural goodness of a human.

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