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    Add as FriendAn Empirical Perspective on the Mencius-Xunzi Debate about Human Nature

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    1 : An Empirical Perspective on the Mencius-Xunzi Debate about Human Nature Eric Schwitzgebel Department of Philosophy University of California at Riverside August 26, 2014
    2 : Mencius: Human Nature is Good Mencius: Confucian philosopher, 4th c. BCE. Human nature is good (xing shan ??) is probably his most famous thesis. Some quotes (Van Norden trans., 2001): 6A2: Human nature’s being good is like water’s tending downward. There is no human who does not tend toward goodness. There is no water that does not tend downward. Now, by striking water and making it leap up, you can cause it to go past your forehead. If you guide it by damming it, you can cause it to remain on a mountaintop. But is this the nature of water?! It is that way because of the circumstances. That humans can be caused to not be good is due to their natures also being like this. 6A8: The trees of Ox Mountain were once beautiful. But because it bordered on a large state, hatchets and axes besieged it. Could it remain verdant? Due to the rest it got during the day or night, and the moisture of rain and dew, it was not that there were no sprouts or shoots growing there. But oxen and sheep then came and grazed on them. Hence, it was as if it were barren. People, seeing it barren, believed that there had never been any timber there. Could this be the nature of the mountain?! When we consider what is present in people, could they truly lack the hearts of benevolence and righteousness?!
    3 : Xunzi: Human Nature is Bad Xunzi: Confucian philosopher, 3rd c. BCE. Human nature is bad (xing e ??) is probably his most famous thesis. He begins his essay “Human Nature Is Bad” like this (Hutton trans., 2001): People’s nature is bad. Their goodness is a matter of deliberate effort [wei ? – deliberate effort, conscious activity, the artificial]. Now people’s nature is such that they are born with a fondness for profit. If they follow along with this, then struggle and contention will arise, and yielding and deference will perish therein. They are born with feelings of hate and dislike. If they follow along with these, then cruelty and villainy will arise, and loyalty and trustworthiness will perish therein. They are born with desires of the eyes and ears, a fondness for beautiful sights and sounds. If they follow along with these, then lasciviousness and chaos will arise, and ritual and the standards of righteousness, proper form and good order, will perish therein. Thus, if people follow along with their inborn nature and dispositions [qing ? – dispositions, emotions, essence], they are sure to come to struggle and contention, turn to disrupting social divisions and disorder, and end up in violence (ch. 23, p. 284).
    4 : But What Do They Disagree About, Exactly? And Who’s Right? Themes of this talk: What does it mean to say that human nature is good, or bad? Is human nature, in the relevant sense, good, or bad, or somewhere in between?
    5 : A Developmental Account of the Natural Intuitive examples of natural and unnatural: hair, sexual attraction, foot size. Working definition: A trait is natural to an individual just in case it arises through a normal process of development in a normal nutritive environment rather than as a result of injury, acquired disease, malnutrition, or (especially) external imposition. A trait is then natural to a species if it is natural to normal members of that species in a broad range of normal environments. Normativity of the term. Cases of homosexuality, obesity. Contrast with the “state of nature” account associated with Hobbes and Rousseau: The “state of nature” is unnatural. Mencius and Xunzi use roughly this developmental notion of the natural.
    6 : Metaphors for Moral Development Mencius: growth of sprouts. For example: 2A6: The reason why I say that humans all have hearts that are not unfeeling toward 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. From this we can see that if one is without the heart of compassion, one is not a human. If one is without the heart of disdain, one is not a human. If one is without the heart of deference, one is not a human. If one is without the heart of approval and disapproval, one is not a human. The heart of compassion is the sprout of benevolence. The heart of disdain is the sprout of righteousness. The heart of deference is the sprout of propriety. The heart of disapproval is the sprout of wisdom. 6A9 (Lau trans., 1970): Do not be puzzled by the King’s lack of wisdom. Even a plant that grows most readily will not survive if it is placed in the sun for one day and exposed to the cold for ten. It is very rarely that I have an opportunity of seeing the King, and as soon as I leave, those who expose him to the cold arrive on the scene. What can I do with the few new shoots that come out? And of course Ox Mountain.
    7 : Metaphors for Moral Development Xunzi: straightening a board, sharpening a blade. For example: Learning must never stop. Blue dye is gotten from the indigo plant, and yet is bluer than the plant. Ice comes from water, and yet is colder than water. Through steaming and bending, you can make wood straight as a plumb line into a wheel. And after its curve conforms to the compass, even when parched under the sun it will not become straight again, because the steaming and bending have made it a certain way. Likewise, when wood comes under the ink-line, it becomes straight, and when metal is brought to the whetstone, it becomes sharp. The gentleman learns broadly and examines himself thrice daily, and then his knowledge is clear and his conduct is without fault (ch. 1, p. 248 – the very first passage of the Xunzi). Looking at it in this way, it is clear that people’s nature is bad, and their goodness is a matter of deliberate effort. Thus, crooked wood must await steaming and straightening on the shaping frame, and only then does it become straight. Blunt metal must await honing and grinding, and only then does it become sharp. Now since people’s nature is bad, they must await teachers and proper models, and only then do they become correct in their behavior (ch. 23, p. 284-285).
    8 : Cultivating Sprouts vs. Straightening Wood Cultivating Sprouts: slow process, permanent change source of change is internal, though with environmental nutrition works with the inclinations does not require a pre-existing standard or model Straightening Wood: slow process, permanent change source of change is external, though requiring a certain internal structure works against resistance requires a pre-existing standard or model
    9 : Inward-Out vs. Outward-in Mencius: Moral development is an inward-out process of self-discovery. Xunzi: Moral development is an outward-in process of conformity to norms. Mencius 6A15: The office of the heart is to concentrate (si ? – think, reflect, ponder, concentrate). If it concentrates then it will get [Virtue]. If it does not concentrate, then it will not get it. Xunzi Ch. 1: I once spent the whole day pondering (si) , but it wasn’t as good as a moment’s worth of learning (p. 249). Xunzi Ch. 2: If you do not concur with your teacher and the proper model but instead like to use your own judgment, then this is like relying on a blind person to distinguish colors (p. 256). Story of King Xuan (1A7). Mencius tells him to measure his heart. As in the child in the well case, the sprout of compassion is already there. He just needs to think clearly. Similarity to contemporary “liberal” and “conservative” models of moral education.
    10 : Mencius on Evil; Xunzi on Maturity Mencius does not deny that people can perform evil: King Xuan, splashing water, Ox Mountain. Recall our definition of the natural: A trait is natural to an individual just in case it arises through a normal process of development in a normal nutritive environment rather than as a result of injury, acquired disease, malnutrition, or (especially) external imposition. This provides a catalog of the processes leading to vice. To say human nature is good is not to say most people are good, but rather that evil is a perversion. Likewise, Xunzi does not say that people can’t learn to desire the good. First they’re forced; then they force themselves; then they are straight without effort. E.g., not speaking in class, waiting in the queue.
    11 : Summary of the Mencius-Xunzi Dispute about Human Nature Is moral learning a natural process of development, requiring environmental support, but primarily the maturation of inclinations we all share and discover when we reflect (Mencius’s view)? Or is moral learning an artificial process of being forced to conform to norms (and then later forcing oneself),a process that runs contrary to one’s inclinations and requires that norms be discovered or imposed from outside? Empirical consequences: In child development: Which approach actually works better? Among adults: Does free reflection lead one away from (or to regret) evil?
    12 : Evidence from Child Development? There’s broad consensus among educators and developmental psychologists for something like the inward-out view rather than the outward-in view. Piaget: There can be no doubt that co-operation and social constraint deserve to be far more sharply contrasted than they usually are, the latter being perhaps nothing more than the pressure of one generation upon the other, whereas the former constitutes the deepest and more important social relation that can go to the development of the norms of reason…. [Co-operation with mutual respect] frees the child from the opinions that have been imposed upon him while it favors inner consistency and reciprocal control (Gabain trans., 1963, p. 104 and 107). Kohlberg: The teaching of virtue is the asking of questions and the pointing of the way, not the giving of answers. Moral education is the leading of people upward, not the putting into the mind of knowledge that was not there before (1981, p. 30). Damon: Morality is a fundamental and important part of children’s lives from the time of their first relationships. It is not a foreign substance introduced to them by an outside world of people who know all the answers (1988, p. 1).
    13 : Evidence from Child Development? (cont.) Empathy and concern do seem to appear early and spontaneously (e.g., newborn emotional contagion, caretaking in 12-month-olds). But so also, apparently, does cruelty. There has never been a direct, controlled test of the effectiveness of the inward-out vs. outward-in approach to moral education. Part of the problem (but only part) is: How do you measure morality? Measures of morality in terms of capacity for explaining one’s moral reasons (as in Piaget, Kohlberg, and Damon) seem to tilt the field toward the inward-out view. Also, outward-in may disguise itself as inward-out – may in fact be the conservative educator’s best tool.
    14 : Evidence from Adults Borderline case: Juvenile delinquents encouraged to reflect (Schwitzgebel 1964; Samenow 1984). I would like to think that something like the inward-out view is right – in my personal reflection, in teaching philosophy. But I worry that the evidence might be against it. For example: Unrepentant Nazis: Gröning interview Speer’s Inside the Third Reich Police Battalion 101 (Browning vs. Goldhagen interpretation) Approval of mistreatment of outgroups: genocide in the Bible celebration of aggressive warfare The mediocre virtue of ethics professors.

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