From The Philosopher, Volume LXXXIV, 1996

Good and Evil
in Chinese Philosophy


The Philosopher has printed many articles in its long history on the exact nature of  'the good'. But the meaning of the words Good and Evil in Chinese philosophy can be quite different to those of the West. Broadly speaking, Chinese philosophy consists of two schools of thought: Confucianism and Taoism. C. W. Chan takes up the story.

The question of human nature, however, is almost entirely sprung from the Confucian school. It's generally regarded that Mencius (c.371-c.289 B.C) developed his entire philosophy from two basic propositions: the first, that Man's original nature is good; and the second, that Man's original nature becomes evil when his wishes are not fulfilled. 

'If you let people follow their feelings (original feelings), they will be able to do good. This is what is meant by the saying that human nature is good. If a man does evil, it's not the fault of his natural endowment' 
A Source Book in Chinese Philosophy, Wing-Tsit Chan
All men, according to Mencius, have a mind which cannot bear to see the suffering of others. For example, if you suddenly see a child about to fall into a well, your first reaction is to save him. You don't do this for the sake of befriending the child's parent or to gain praise from the public; you do it out of your original good nature. According to Lau: because we are caught off our guard, the case is therefore a true manifestation of our original human nature. 

According to R. E. Allinson, in A Hermeneutic Reconstruction of the Child in the Well Example, however, such an example is not intended to prove that all men will actually take some action in such circumstances. What Mencius intends to show in the child-falling-into-the-well example is that all men will at least be moved to compassion by such a sight. It is not an empirical example. It is more of a phenomenological one. In other words, all we need to prove the statement is that we carry out some sort of self-examination or thought-experiment. Once we are convinced, that's the proof. We don't need the results of others to confirm our result. That's a case for science. 

The way man loses his original good nature is like the trees in a mountain that are being subjected to endless disturbances. 

Mencius said, 'The trees of the Niu Mountain were once beautiful. But can the mountain be regarded any longer as beautiful since, being in the borders of a big state, the trees have been hewed down with axes and hatches? Still with the rest given them by the days and nights and the nourishment provided them by the rains and the dew, they were not without buds and sprouts springing forth. But then the cattle and the sheep pastured upon them once and again. That is why the mountain looks so bald. When people see that it is bald, they think that there was never any timber on the mountain. Is this the true nature of the mountain? [Wing-Tsit Chan]'

Likewise with human nature. If a man is constantly subjected to negative influence, his character is bound to be affected accordingly, despite occasional good education. But that is not his true character, or his original nature. His original nature, as Mencius always insists, is good. The evil in him is a result of external influence. 

In fact, as A. C. Graham pointed out in The Background of the Mencian Theory of Human Nature, only on three occasions did Mencius actually affirm that man's original nature is good: firstly, in a debate with Kao Tzu; secondly, during a discussion with his disciples on the three current doctrines; and finally in a conversation with the crown prince in the Pre-Han period (206 B.C - 220 A.D). However, according to Graham, 

'Man's original nature was never referred to as good, bad, without good or bad, capable of becoming either good or bad, or good in some and bad in others, except in controversies between philosophers or in formulae summing up the doctrines of philosophers.' 

In Taoism, everything has it own course of nature: those who follow their own courses of nature or Tao will become good; those who don't will become evil. For example, to lengthen what is supposed to be short or to shorten what is supposed to be long, as in the following passage, will bring only discomfort.

'For this reason, although the duck's legs are short, to lengthen them with stilts would be worry to him; although the crane's legs are long, to trim them would hurt him. Therefore what is long by nature is not something to trim, what is short by nature is not something to lengthen.' 

Thus, by nature, man's orginal nature must be good. Man's original nature becomes evil when his occupation goes against nature. 

In the Great Appendix of the Book of Changes, it says: 

'The alternation of yin-yang is what is meant by the way. What follows next to it is goodness; what has it complete is our nature. When the benevolent see it they call it benevolent, when the wise see it they call it wisdom, the peasants use it every day without knowing.'

To this Su Shih (1036-1101) replied:

'Formally, Mencius' theory that goodness is our nature seemed to me the last word. Only after reading the 'Changes' did I understand that he was wrong. Mencius in studying our nature evidently saw only what follows next to it. Goodness is putting into practice of our nature. Mencius did not get as far as seeing our nature but saw the putting into practice of our nature, and so took what he saw for our nature itself.'

 Thus, as far as the Principle of Yin-yang is concerned man's original nature is neither good nor evil. 

In the willow-and-bowl debate, Kao Tzu argues that man's original nature is like the willow, and his goodness is like its derivative. In other words, the cups and bowls that made from the willow are derived from what was originally endowed on the willow, so that the goodness of man is not his original nature but an outgrowth of his original nature. To this Mencius replies: in order to make anything out of the willow, one must first put to end what was, by nature, belonged to the willow. Hence, what is destroyed can no longer be referred to as Nature.

 Hsn Tzu (c.298-c.238 B.C), on the other hand, takes a different view. Mencius regards man's original nature as good, but Hsn Tzu regards it as evil. 

'The nature of man is evil; his goodness is the result of his activity [Wing-Tsit Chan].'

At one point Hsn Tzu even accuses Mencius for not knowing the difference between man's nature and his effort, and thus claims man's original nature is good. 

Mencius said, 'Man learns because his nature is good.' This is not true. He did not know the nature of man and did not understand the distinction between man's nature and his effort. Man's nature is the product of Nature; it cannot be learned and cannot be worked for. Propriety and righteousness are produced by the sage. They can be learned by men and can be accomplished through work. What is in him and can be learned or accomplished through work is what can be achieved through activity. This is the difference between human nature and human activity .....' Mencius said, 'The nature of man is good; it becomes evil because man destroys his original nature.' This is a mistake. By nature man departs from his primitive character and capacity as soon as he is born, and he is bound to destroy it. From this point of view, it is clear that man's nature is evil [Wing-Tsit Chan].'

 For Hsn Tzu, man's original nature is a manifestation of his desires, which is what is responsible for his misconduct. What is therefore required to correct him is teaching and enforcement of law and order. Even though Mencius and Hsn Tzu differ so greatly in regard to man's original nature, they nevertheless share one common belief, and that is, all men are capable of becoming sages [Mencius, D. C. Lau]. 

Tung Chung-shu (c.179-c.104 B.C), on the other hand, regards man's original nature similar to that of the Book of Changes. Man's original nature is what Tung called the 'basic stuff'. The nature of this basic stuff of man is not necessary good or evil.

'Goodness is like a kernel of a grain, and the nation is like the growing plant of the grain. Though the plant produces the kernel, it cannot itself be called a kernel. Similarly though the hsing (here used in its broader sense, i.e., the basic stuff) produces goodness, it cannot itself be called goodness. The kernel and goodness are both brought to completion through man's continuation of Heaven's work, and the external to the latter. They do not lie within what Heaven itself does. What Heaven does extends to a certain point and then stops. What lies within this stopping point pertains to Heaven. What lies outside of it pertains to the chiao (i.e., teaching, culture) of the sages. The chiao of the sages lies outside the hsing (the basic stuff), yet without it the hsing cannot be fully developed. [From chapter 36 of Ch'un-Ch'iu Fan-lu, A Short History of Chinese Philosophy, Y-L Fung]. 

Unlike Hsn Tzu, Tung Chung-shu does not imply that man's original nature or the basic stuff is actually evil. Goodness, according to Tung, is a continuation of nature. In chapter 25 of Ch'un-Ch'iu Fan-lu, he writes: 'Mencius evaluates the basic stuff of man in comparison with the doings of the birds and beasts below, and therefore says that man's original nature is already good. I evaluate it in comparison with the sages above, and therefore say that man's original nature is not yet good.' Thus the difference between Mencius and Tung, as pointed out by Fung, is that the former says man's original nature is 'already good' and the latter, 'not yet good'.


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