Why Human Nature Is Good And Its Significance

Alex Chen
18 min readMay 12, 2024

Have you ever wondered if human nature is good or bad? I certainly have.

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From a broad perspective, we all wish to live in a good world, and that means a world full of good people. If human nature is good, then this ideal feels achievable. If human nature is bad, then it feels rather difficult, which decreases our motivation to create a better world.

I also had a friend once lament about how some people are just terrible. It’s because we see so much negative news about psychopaths, murderers, and terrorists, which makes us think that some people are just evil. This view not only makes us feel depressed and powerless, it also prevents any possibility of improvement.

On a personal scale, we all just want to be happy, and how we view human nature influences our happiness. If we believe human nature is good, we will look for and grow the goodness in ourselves and others. If we think human nature is bad, then we will have a much more negative attitude in life.

Given the significant implications of one’s views on human nature, I was very motivated to learn about why the ancient philosopher Mencius argued that human nature is good and how he refuted other theories of human nature being bad or neutral. I discovered that this theory is very thorough, convincing, and practical, and I will share my learnings in this article, split into five sections:

  1. Why Mencius says human nature is good
  2. How Mencius explains “bad” people
  3. How Mencius refutes other theories
  4. How to grow our goodness
  5. Summary of Mencius’s theory
  6. Significance and Implications

I will cite a lot of quotes from the book Mencius because I think it’s important that we get the original message from Mencius. The original book is in Chinese, so I will use the English translation by sinologist Irene Bloom in her 2009 book.

Since I am assuming most readers don’t know Chinese, I won’t bother putting the original Chinese text. If you are interested in the Chinese text, you can easily find it using the book and chapter numbers I provided. Without further ado, let’s get started!

1. Why Mencius Says Human Nature Is Good

If you were suddenly to see a child about to fall into a well, how would you feel?

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This is the famous and classic argument used by Mencius is this thought experiment from Book 2A Chapter 6:

“Here is why I say that all human beings have a mind that commiserates with others. Now, if anyone were suddenly to see a child about to fall into a well, his mind would be filled with alarm, distress, pity, and compassion. That he would react accordingly is not because he would hope to use the opportunity to ingratiate himself with the child’s parents, nor because he would seek commendation from neighbors and friends, nor because he would hate the adverse reputation [that could come from not reacting accordingly].

From this it may be seen that one who lacks a mind that feels pity and compassion would not be human; one who lacks a mind that feels shame and aversion would not be human; one who lacks a mind that feels modesty and compliance would not be human; and one who lacks a mind that knows right and wrong would not be human.

The mind’s feeling of pity and compassion is the sprout of humaneness [ren 仁]; the mind’s feeling of shame and aversion is the sprout of rightness [yi 義]; the mind’s feeling of modesty and compliance is the sprout of propriety [li 禮]; and the mind’s sense of right and wrong is the sprout of wisdom [zhi 智]. Human beings have these four sprouts just as they have four limbs

When we know how to enlarge and bring to fulfillment these four sprouts that are within us, it will be like a fire beginning to burn or a spring finding an outlet. If one is able to bring them to fulfillment, they will be sufficient to enable him to protect ‘all within the four seas’; if one is not, they will be insufficient even to enable him to serve his parents.”

(Trans. Bloom, p.35. All bolding is by me.)

From this excerpt, we can see that Mencius defines “goodness” as the four sprouts: the natural feelings of compassion, modesty, right and wrong, and shame when doing wrong. All people have these innate, natural feelings.

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When we suddenly see a child about to fall into a well, we don’t stop to analyze the pros and cons of saving the child. We just naturally have this feeling of care for the child.

A renowned British sinologist, D.C. Lau, comments:

“Mencius’ purpose was only to show that men have the natural motives to do good; he did not want to exaggerate the strength of such motives. It is worth noticing that Mencius does not say that this feeling of apprehension and pity would necessarily lead to any action at all. This serves to show that this feeling is only literally a ‘beginning’, which needs cultivation before it can become a strong motive force.

(Souce: Lau’s 1953 paper, Theories of Human Nature in Mencius and Shyuntzyy).

Some people might also wonder, “Why did Mencius only mention the feeling of compassion in the well example? What about the other three sprouts?”

One of the key commentaries to the book Mencius is called Correct Meaning of The Mencius, and it comments that the four sprouts are all interconnected. If we have one of the sprouts, we naturally have all four.

I then thought about this child and well experiment further. If I saw a child in distress and didn’t save the child, I would naturally feel emotional anguish. Why? Because deep in my conscience, I have a sense of right and wrong. I know that not trying to save the child is morally wrong, so I would feel bad and ashamed. Assuming I did save the child, and then later the child’s parents thank me, and the villagers praise me, I wouldn’t boast about it. I’d have a natural sense of modesty and say that I was just doing what any person should do. There’s nothing spectacular about me trying to save a child in danger. After I extended this thought experiment, I was convinced that these four sprouts are indeed connected.

In summary, Mencius argues that human nature is good because all people have the four sprouts, which are natural feelings of morality that are not obtained from the outside. However, these four sprouts are just a beginning, and we need to nurture and grow them for them to become a strong motive force. If we do so, we can truly serve and benefit the world. If we neglect our four sprouts, we can’t even make our parents happy (which is quite a shameful thing given how much parents sacrifice for children.)

2. How Mencius Explains “Bad” People

Mencius has two main explanations for “bad” people. The first one comes from Book 6A Chapter 7:

“In years of abundance, most of the young people have the wherewithal to be good, while in years of adversity, most of them become violent. This is not a matter of a difference in the native capacities sent down by Heaven but rather of what overwhelms their minds.”

(Trans. Bloom, p. 125)

In other words, people who do bad or immoral things know deep down in their inner conscience that this is not morally good, but they will justify their actions to convince themselves that what they are doing is acceptable. For example, people know that it’s morally wrong to steal, but if they truly have no other choice due to difficult circumstances, then they will steal.

Mencius does not define good or bad in terms of people’s actions, but rather in their four sprouts. If we want to disprove Mencius’s theory, we need to find evidence of people who are just pure evil, who do evil things without any sense of conscience.

In the movies, we often see some villains who are just pure evil. They want to takeover the world just because. But in real life, no one is born pure evil. People all have reasons for what they do. In that sense, people all have a sense of right and wrong, and thus people can be reasoned with. Besides, all the best villains are those with a good backstory because their backstory is what makes them relatable and explains why they became a villain.

The second reason for “bad” people is mentioned in Book 3A Chapter 4:

“It is the way of human beings that when they have sufficient food, warm clothing, and comfortable dwellings, but are without education, they become little more than birds and beasts. It was the part of the sage [Shun] to grieve anxiously over this. He appointed Xie minister of education in order to teach people about human relations: that between parents and children there is affection; between ruler and minister, rightness; between husband and wife, separate functions; between older and younger, proper order; and between friends, faithfulness.”

(Trans. Bloom, p. 56)

In other words, people might become “bad” due to a lack of moral education or due to bad education. When Mencius says people can become similar to birds and beasts, he means that people don’t have a sense of moral appropriateness.

For example, they are ungrateful to their parents who sacrificed so much for them, they have no sense of etiquette, and they only care about themselves and are insensitive to others’ feelings. However, people won’t be the same as animals because humans have the four sprouts, and if given proper education and good role models, their sprouts will awaken and grow.

The Correct Meaning Of The Mencius also says that although all humans are the same in that their nature is good, they differ in terms of their intelligence. Those of high intelligence are easily able to grow their innate goodness, while those of low intelligence have a harder time. Thus, some people respond very quickly and well to moral education, while others need more time and effort.

In Book 5A Chapter 2, Mencius also gives us an example of a “bad” person named Xiang. The original text translation is a bit cumbersome to read, so I will summarize the story using modern day English.

Basically, Xiang is the younger stepbrother of the sage king Shun. Shun is extremely virtuous, but Xiang, his stepmother, and his father are terribly immoral and often try to kill Shun simply because they don’t like him.

One time, Shun’s father asked him to fix the roof of a granary. After Shun climbed up the ladder and started working, Xiang and his father removed the ladder and set the granary ablaze. However, Shun managed to escape to safety. Another time, Shun’s father asked Shun to dig a well. When Shun dug deep enough, Xiang and his father started to bury Shun alive. Shun escaped without their knowledge.

Xiang thought Shun was dead, so he said to his parents, “It was my genius planning that succeeded in getting rid of Shun! You can have Shun’s oxen, sheep and granaries. I’m taking Shun’s weapons and two wives!”

Xiang then went to Shun’s room, opened the door, and was shocked to see Shun still alive, playing the lute on the couch. He had to make up a quick excuse for coming to see Shun, so he said, “Oh my lord, I was concerned for you!” When saying this, he had an awkward and embarrassed look on his face.

Photo by Alexander Krivitskiy on Unsplash

From this story, we can see that even someone “wicked” like Xiang has a conscience. He wasn’t born an evil murderer. He was taught at a young age by his stepmother to dislike Shun, and that bad education and environment accumulated over time to result in the person that he is. But when his immoral actions were discovered, he felt a sense of shame and embarrassment. That’s his sprout of shame and of right and wrong. So even Xiang’s nature is good.

In a 2003 article titled “The Debate on Human Nature in Early Confucian Literature”, Maurizio Scarpari, an Italian sinologist, comments that Mencius never used the term “evil” or “wickedness” to describe people, only “not good”. Therefore, Mencius explains “bad” people as a “failure” or “inability” to develop one’s own potential. But as mentioned before, if these people receive moral education, their sprouts of goodness can definitely grow.

3. How Mencius Refutes Other Theories

Now that we’ve seen why Mencius says human nature is good and how he explains bad people, we are probably curious as to how Mencius refutes other theories of human nature. The book Mencius recorded many debates of Mencius with other philosophers who had opposing views, and these debates are quite interesting and show the depth and thoroughness of Mencius’s theory.

Book 6A Chapter 1 records:

“Gaozi said, ‘Human nature is like the willow tree; rightness is like cups and bowls. To make humaneness and rightness out of human nature is like making cups and bowls out of the willow tree.’

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Mencius said, ‘Are you able to make cups and bowls while following the nature of the willow tree? You must do violence to the willow tree before you can make cups and bowls. If you must do violence to the willow tree in order to make cups and bowls, must you also do violence to human beings in order to bring forth humaneness and rightness? The effect of your words will be to cause everyone in the world to think of humaneness and rightness as misfortunes.’”

(Trans. Bloom, p. 121)

We can think of humaneness and rightness as two representative virtues of morality. Gaozi is saying that morality is not innate to human nature, but rather comes from the outside, just like cups and bowls are not innate to a tree but requires an external force. Mencius chastised the inappropriateness of this analogy because it implies that we somehow have to harm people’s original nature to make them good.

A sinologist named Liang Qichao comments that from the perspective of causality, we can say that the tree is the cause (analogous to a seed), while the craftsman’s efforts are the conditions (analogous to sunlight, water, and soil), and the cups and bowls are the result (analogous to the fruit). The cup’s cause is the wood, not the craftsman’s efforts, so morality still comes from the nature of humans. If the seed is not there to begin with, or if human nature didn’t have morality to begin with, then no amount of helping conditions would bring out the result of morality.

Book 6A Chapter 2 also records:

“Gaozi said, ‘Human nature is like swirling water. Open a passage for it in the east, and it will flow east; open a passage for it in the west, and it will flow west. Human nature does not distinguish between good and not-good any more than water distinguishes between east and west.’

Photo by kazuend on Unsplash

Mencius said, ‘It is true that water does not distinguish between east and west, but does it fail to distinguish between up and down? The goodness of human nature is like the downward course of water. There is no human being lacking in the tendency to do good, just as there is no water lacking in the tendency to flow downward. Now, by striking water and splashing it, you may cause it to go over your head, and by damming and channeling it, you can force it to flow uphill. But is this the nature of water? It is force that makes this happen. While people can be made to do what is not good, what happens to their nature is like this.”

(Trans. Bloom, p. 121)

Let’s look at one more example from Book 6A Chapter 6, where a student of Mencius named Gongduzi asked:

“Gaozi said that human nature is neither good nor not-good. Others say that human nature can be made to be good or not-good, which is why, during the reigns of Kings Wen and Wu [benevolent sage kings], the people were inclined to goodness, whereas under the reigns of You and Li [tyrant kings], the people were inclined to violence. Still others say that the natures of some are good and the natures of others are not good, which is why, when Yao [a benevolent sage king] was the ruler, there could be Xiang [the terrible younger brother of Shun], while, with a father like Gusou, there could be Shun [a benevolent sage king], and with Zhou [a tyrant king of the Shang dynasty] as the son of their older brother as well as their ruler, there could be Qi, the Viscount of Wei, and Prince Bigan (three benevolent ministers under King Zhou of Shang]. Now, you say that human nature is good. Does this mean that these others are all wrong?”

(Trans. Bloom, p. 123)

In this question, Gongduzi raised three perspectives of human nature:

  1. Human nature is neither good or bad.
  2. Human nature is neutral but can be changed into good or not-good.
  3. The nature of some people is good, while the nature of others is bad.

Mencius replied:

“Following one’s natural tendencies enable one to do good; this is what I mean by human nature being good. When one does what is not good, it is not the fault of one’s native capacities …Humaneness, rightness, propriety, and wisdom are not infused into us from outside. We definitely possess them. It is just that we do not think about it, that is all. Therefore it is said, ‘Seek and you will get it; let go and you will lose it.’ That some differ from others by as much as twice, or five times, or an incalculable order of magnitude is because there are those who are unable fully to develop their capacities.

(Trans. Bloom, p. 124, with modifications)

As mentioned before, Mencius believes that all people possess the four sprouts of goodness (here referred to as “natural tendencies”), thus all people’s nature is innately good. Those who do bad things don’t lack the sprouts of goodness, they simply chose to ignore their inner sense of morality.

Now that we’ve seen how Mencius defended his theory against other theories, lastly, let’s look at how Mencius recommends us to grow our innate goodness.

4. How To Grow Our Goodness

First, it’s worth mentioning why we should grow our goodness. On a personal scale, growing our goodness is pleasurable. In Book 6A Chapter 7, Mencius says:

“What is it that our minds have in common? It is reason and rightness. The sage is just the first to apprehend what our minds have in common. Thus reason and rightness please our minds in the same way that food pleases our mouths.”

(Trans. Bloom, p. 126, with modifications)

Photo by Lidya Nada on Unsplash

Here, “reason and rightness” can be thought of as morality. When we always act in accordance with our conscience, or our inner sense of right or wrong, then we will always have peace of mind and an easy conscience. This is a very joyful way to live. If we make up excuses to justify immoral behavior, deep down we know that we’re just making excuses, and we won’t have an easy conscience, which drains our energy.

On a macro scale, growing our goodness benefits the world. After all, a meaningful life isn’t just about personal pleasure, it’s about leaving a positive impact on the world around us. The first quote mentioned before from Book 2A Chapter 6 said:

“When we know how to enlarge and bring to fulfillment these four sprouts that are within us, it will be like a fire beginning to burn or a spring finding an outlet. If one is able to bring them to fulfillment, they will be sufficient to enable him to protect ‘all within the four seas’; if one is not, they will be insufficient even to enable him to serve his parents.”

(Trans. Bloom, p.35)

Given the importance of growing our goodness for ourselves and for the world, how did Mencius guide us to grow our goodness? The earlier passage from Book 6A Chapter 6 mentioned:

“Seek and you will get it; let go and you will lose it.”

(Trans. Bloom, p. 124)

Photo by Markus Winkler on Unsplash

In other words, we have to want to grow our inner goodness. That means paying attention to our four sprouts, preserving them in our minds, and acting in accordance with them. For example, if we see a child in danger and feel apprehension, act in accordance with that sprout of compassion and go save the child. If we do something bad and feel uneasy, act in accordance with that sense of shame and turn over a new leaf.

Also, Book 7A Chapter 15 says:

“What people are able to do without having learned it is an expression of original, good ability. What they know without having to think about it is an expression of original, good knowledge. There are no young children who do not know enough to love their parents, and there are none who, as they grow older, do not know enough to respect their older brothers. To be affectionate toward those close to one — this is humaneness. To have respect for elders — this is rightness. All that remains is to extend these to the entire world.

(Trans. Bloom, p. 147)

Here, Mencius gave us a sequence for cultivation. First start by cultivating our love and respect to those closest to us, which is our family, and then gradually extend that love and respect outwards towards relationships outside the family, until eventually, we love and respect all people in the world.

5. Summary of Mencius’ Theory

That was a lot of information, so let’s do a brief summary of Mencius’ theory on human nature:

  1. Human nature is good in that every person has the four sprouts. These are the natural feelings of compassion, of modesty, of right and wrong, and of shame when doing wrong, and they are not obtained from the outside or via thinking.
  2. People do bad things because of environmental influences and a lack of moral education, but their four sprouts of goodness will always be there and can be drawn out through virtuous examples and education.
  3. These sprouts of goodness need nurturing to become a strong motive force, and doing so gives us peace of mind and an easy conscience.
  4. We can nurture the four sprouts by paying attention to them, holding onto them in our mind, acting on them, and undergoing moral education.
  5. In terms of sequence, we should start by cultivating our sense of love and respect towards the people closest to us first (parents and siblings), then extend outwards towards the rest of the world.

6. Significance of Mencius’ Theory

As briefly mentioned in the introduction, Mencius’ theory has significant implications for our happiness, specifically from the perspectives of self-esteem and of relationships.

Self-Esteem

Firstly, the way we think about ourselves influences our sense of self-esteem, which is basically how we think about ourselves. A 2017 study on self-esteem states:

“It is concluded that self-esteem and performance are related with each other, self-esteem is highly correlated with happiness, life satisfaction and well-being.”

A lot of people have low self-esteem because they focus on things like outer appearance, wealth, grades, results, and so on. But Mencius taught us that these aren’t the standards for goodness. We should instead evaluate ourselves on our ability to preserve and nurture our four sprouts, which everyone has.

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When we believe in our inner goodness, we will think more positively about ourselves. Then, we would be happier, more satisfied, and more successful in life.

Relationships

Secondly, our beliefs impact our relationships, which is one of the most important factors to our happiness. Happiness expert Gretchen Rubin said,

“Ancient philosophers and contemporary scientists agree that a key — maybe the key — to a happy life is strong relationships.”

The Harvard Study of Adult Development is the longest study on happiness, and the director Robert Waldinger said,

“The clearest message that we get from this 75-year study is this: Good relationships keep us happier and healthier. Period…The people who were most satisfied with their relationships at age 50 were the healthiest at age 80.”

In psychology, there is a term called “confirmation bias”, which basically means that people tend to only look for information that confirms their pre-existing beliefs.

In other words, if we believe human nature is good, we will look for the good in others, we can notice the four sprouts in others; as a result, we will treat others more positively, resulting in better relationships. Conversely, if we think the other person is “just bad”, then we would pay attention to the bad in others, and that causes us to treat them negatively, which makes them return negativity towards us, ultimately damaging the relationship.

For example, when others do something bad, if we believe that they are “just a bad person”, then we will criticize them harshly. As a result, they feel bad and argue back, and it becomes an exchange of pain and hurt. But if we believe human nature is good, and that people do bad things due to difficult circumstances or due to a lack of virtuous role models, then we wouldn’t criticize them so harshly.

Instead, we would try to set a virtuous role model for them to bring out their sense of shame. We could also calmly discuss with them what is morally right to do in the situation, not in a blaming way, but simply to help them notice their inner sense of morality. Thus, when we believe in their goodness, we will treat them with positive intentions, creating a more harmonious relationship.

Photo by Tim Mossholder on Unsplash

Based on the above reasons, we can see why our belief about human nature is so important. So if we ever doubt the goodness of ourselves or others, we can remind ourselves of Mencius’ teachings and grow the goodness in ourselves and others.

Originally published at https://www.weeklywisdomblog.com on May 12, 2024.

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Alex Chen

Passionate about self-cultivation, happiness, and sharing wisdom.