Philosophy 224

• Historians usually date
Confucius’s life from 551-479
• He lived during the end of one
the longest lasting of the
Chinese dynasties: the Zhou.
• This was a period of great social
upheaval and dissolution of many
traditional social forms.
• His life exhibited this collapse.
Born into a traditional noble
family fallen on hard times, he
spent his early adulthood
seeking an answer to the
question: On what basis can a
stable, ordered and enduring
society be established?
• Confucius’s answer is presented in a book of aphorisms
compiled by his disciples entitled Lun Yu (usually
translated as Analects).
• Here’s a characteristic example:
• The master said: “Lead the people with administrative
injunctions and keep them orderly with penal law, and they will
avoid punishments but will be without a sense of shame. Lead
them with excellence and keep them orderly through
observing ritual propriety and they will develop a sense of
shame, and moreover, will order themselves.”
• Scholars argue about whether Confucius actually said
any of the things attributed to him. Regardless, the
Analects does present a picture of reality and the
person that we can summarize as the Confucian THN.
• Though the primary focus of the Analects is on questions of
human wellbeing, and little is said about the basic nature of
reality, there are important assumptions made in the Analects
about the world we live in.
• Fundamental amongst these is the operative assumption that
we live in a morally ordered universe, “Heaven is the author of
the virtue that is in me” (VII.23).
• Building on a traditional Chinese concept, “The Decree of Heaven
(t’ien ming),” the Analects extend this ‘decree’ to cover all familial
and social roles. All of us are governed by a transcendent morality
that specifies the shape and character of our lives. We can come to
understand what the decree requires of us and conform our actions to
• In addition to this moral order there is another force operating
in reality: Destiny (ming). This ‘ming’ points to those aspects of
reality that are beyond our understanding and our agency.
• The distinction between decree and destiny has
important implications for the Analects ontology of
the person.
• The human person is defined by its ordination by
decree and susceptibility to destiny.
• In the case of the former, humans are specified by the
capacity to understand and order themselves.
• The fact that we can come to understand what the
heavens decree for us means that we can all
become the Sage: a person who acts with extreme
benevolence (VI.30).
• This account of humans as potential sages stands in obvious
contrast to the actual state of human affairs.
• “I have no hopes of meeting a sage” (VII.26).
• Relative to their potential as sages, the lot of most human beings is
fairly desperate.
• The Analects don’t do much to explain this. To the extent that
there is an explanation offered, our attention is directed to the
freedom of humans to acknowledge and accord with the
Decree of Heaven.
• Fundamentally all alike, humans come to differ from each other
according to their choices, and the forms of life that result from them.
• Importantly, the moral character of this “being alike” is not
• Later Confucian thinkers (like Mencius and Hsun Tzu) produced widely
divergent accounts of human nature to explain this gap between
potentiality and actuality.
• The focus of the Confucian diagnosis is social, rather than
individual in nature.
• On this view, the human condition is one of social discord caused by
selfishness and ignorance.
• In other words, humans are not in accord with the Decree of Heaven.
• More specifically, the Analects identify 5 endemic causes for this
People are attached to profit (domination of selfish motives).
Society lacks filial piety (selfishness leads to rejection of natural and
social bonds).
Word and action are disconnected (gap allows for lies, makes it difficult
to trust).
The Way (Tao) of the Sage is ignored/unknown (people ignore or reject
the lessons offered by history and the examples of the sages).
Benevolence is absent from human affairs. (Jen is the most important
virtue a human can possess; achieving it is a state of human moral
perfection. It’s fundamental sense is relational. Might be better
translated a humaneness.
• The only solution for the discord characteristic of human
existence is self-discipline, “He cultivates himself and thereby
brings peace and security to the people” (XIV.42).
• As there are 5 ills, there are 5 areas where self-discipline is
In response to self-attachment, the Confucian injunction is moral
rigorism: acting in accord with obligation itself and nothing else,
“doing for nothing.”
In response to the failure of filial piety, the injunction is to strive to be
a good family member.
In response to the gap between language and act, the injunction
is to integrity of word and deed.
In response to ignorance, the injunction is to educate oneself.
In response to the failure of Jen, the injunction is threefold: strive
always for the virtue; observe the Golden Rule; knowing and
following the appropriate rituals.
• As we’ve already noted, the lack of specifics in the
Analects account of human nature allowed late
Confucian thinkers to formulate their own, often
differing, views.
• Mencius was one of the earliest and remains one of
the most influential interpreters of Confucianism (He
was known as the “second sage.”
• His account was regarded as orthodoxy by most later
Chinese philosophers.
• The question addressed by the excerpts we have in
the text concerns the fundamental moral situation
of humans: Are we basically good or basically bad?
• Though this could be an exhaustive dilemma,
Mencius recognizes that it isn’t (24). Rejecting both
the possibility of moral neutrality and intrinsic
badness, Mencius argues that, “Human nature is
good…There is no man who is not good” (23).
• Good in what sense? Good in the sense that he
possesses natively the capacity to be good
(Confucian optimism) cf., p. 24.
• Mencius identifies this capacity with the heart, for
him the seat of reason and choice.
• The sage is ruled by the heart, that is, by reason.
• Just as the heart is the key to the capacity to be
good, it is also, as the capacity to choose, the
explanation of why human life is so commonly
characterized by discord (cf., 25 and 26-7).
• Unlike Mencius, Hsun Tzu’s relationship to
Confucianism is heterodox.
• Most prominently, he rejects the notion of a morally
ordered universe, asserting that ‘heaven’ is simply
the natural world.
• His work also marks a shift in classical Chinese
philosophy away from aphoristics to rigorous and
exhaustively argued essays.
• Given his different metaphysical assumption, it’s not
surprising that Hsun Tzu offers a different answer to the
question about our basic moral orientation, “Man’s
nature is evil; goodness is the result of conscious activity”
• Hsun Tzu specifies that this evil nature is evident in four
innate tendencies shared by all humans: profit, envy,
hatred, and desire (27-28).
• “Hence, any man who follows his nature and indulges his
emotions will inevitably become involved in wrangling
and strife, will violate the forms and rules of society, and
will end as a criminal” (28).
• As pessimistic as this seems to be, Hsun Tzu
ultimately confirms a key Confucian insight that
education, particularly in ritual practice, can shape
human behavior (28).
• His disagreement with Mencius is thus not about the
desired outcome, but about where we start.
• For Hsun Tzu, Mencius’s error is to fail to observe the
difference between nature and nurture (28-9).
• He also makes an interesting conceptual point about the
relationship between desire and lack. We desire to be good
only because we lack goodness. If we had it, we wouldn’t
desire it (30).