A Ku Indeed!

Xunzi’s Notion of Evil

Posted in Chinese Philosophy, Ethics, Mencius, Xunzi by Chris on August 22, 2008

I tend to prefer readings of texts that make people more radical. I’ll just admit it — I don’t smoke anymore, and I don’t drink much anymore, so it’s one of my remaining vices. What can you do. Specifically, in the present case, I tend to prefer readings of Xunzi that have him arguing that morality or goodness is externally imposed upon the agent by the creative hand of the sage, not something that can be discovered and nurtured in the agent in the sense that Mencius seems to suggest. But now I’m not so sure.

A.C. Graham argues that for Xunzi, to argue that xing’e (human nature is bad or evil) is really to say that our natures are mixed — that we have inclinations towards benevolence or duty and inclinations towards profit and selfishness, but the latter type of inclination typically wins out. To move towards goodness, Graham thinks Xunzi is suggesting, means orchestrating it so that the former inclinations are prevalent over the latter ones. And that takes deliberate effort.

I originally thought Graham was way off on this one. But I’ve been rereading chapter 23 in Xunzi and although I won’t say that I’m sold on Graham’s reading (I’m not), I can see hints now of where he’s coming from. To see some credence in Graham’s reading, I think, we have to start 23 by reading “nature” not as “what type of drives are present within” but rather “the overall dispositional tendency of the organism collectively understood”. The difference between the former and the latter is that the latter reading need not reject the presence of benevolent (or righteous) inclination in the organism; instead, it simply has to argue that it never wins out “without deliberate effort”. The former reading, on the other hand, would argue that such inclination doesn’t exist at all in the organism without being introduced by means of “deliberate effort.” In many parts of chapter 23, it seems that different readings can be given, depending on how you presuppose the meaning of “nature”.

For example, at (23/11 – 19) it says:

Thus, if people follow along with their inborn natures and dispositions, they are sure to come to struggle and contention, turn to disrupting social divisions and order, and end up in violence. So it is necessary to await the transforming influence of teachers and models and the guidance of ritual and yi, and only then will they come to yielding and deference, turn to culture and order, and end up under control. Looking at it in this way, it is clear that people’s natures are bad, and their goodness is a matter of deliberate effort.

One way to read this is to say that if people simply go along following the diverse set of individual psychological inclinations they have, they’ll wind up struggling and embroiled in violence. Although those inclinations would be diverse, they would be commonly unified by type — they would all be self-serving in a base way. Here, transformation would have to mean something like learning to desire the world in a fundamentally different way, namely a move from profit-seeking to duty-expression. By this reading, say, “duty-expression” as an inclination would be absent “as a default” psychological mechanism in the individual.

On the other reading, to “follow along” would mean “to continue allowing” in the sense that without conscious deliberate efforts, one is pulled along towards interaction with the world in terms of profit, because desires that oppose this “type” have no “default” mode of expression in behavior. So to “follow along” would be to continue to allow this way of being disposed towards one’s life to happen. There are at least two ways to read this:

1. We might have inclinations towards benevolence, such as the person who is disposed to help the child falling in the well (Mencius’ story), but we don’t feel them — they never express themselves in the ways in which we experience the world. Instead, the other dispositions for profit always win out, phenomenologically.

2. We do feel in the inclinations phenomenologically, but they are expressed in terms of the inclinations of self-interest, which “subdue” them and give them their shape. So, for instance, I feel love for my brother, but that love is expressed and understood in terms of my own plans and projects. I feel duty towards something, but that duty is understood in a self-serving way.

On the former reading, the sages and teachers bring something to the table that we simply don’t have — ritual and yi. They bring the material to form the type of inclinations we don’t have by default. They provide the material needed for the transformation from self-interest to morality. On the latter reading, we need to learn to either bring such inclinations into the light (so that they are expressed, as per reading (1) above) or we need to learn to have those inclinations rule self-interest, so that when they are felt they can be expressed appropriately.

Now, I should add quickly, that my intuition is that the latter reading is even consistent with claiming that the specific form of appropriate expression of morality is external. So — it could be that I have to learn to express my nascent sense of duty in such a way that either (a) it is felt (reading 1) or (b) felt and more powerful than feelings of self-interest, but still (c) such a sense needs to be given content via rituals created by the sage.

Just some initial thoughts, anyway. I think there are a lot of passages in 23 that can me made to fit a Graham-like reading, but I don’t want to make this post endless, since the point here is just to throw out an initial interpretative possibility and see what problems people would have with it.

Also, just to throw this in at the last moment, I don’t think that this makes Xunzi and Mencius indistinguishable on the question of human nature. Mencius, in his child in the well story, doesn’t seem to me to hold to either reading (1) or (2) above about the duan of goodness that we have innately. Instead, he seems to think that the duan are felt in just the right way, from the start (we are pulled towards helping the child) even if we don’t necessarily act on it. Neither (1) nor (2) say this. So for Xunzi, the notion of “deliberate effort” would, in fact, be bringing out something that really isn’t there in a sense that Mencius thinks it is.


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