Next to Confucius, the most famous Confucian philosopher is Mencius, who lived between 372 and 289 BCE. This was smack in the middle of China’s Warring States period, when rulers were waging brutal, endless wars to enlarge their territories. Everything was up for grabs, and thinkers of the time fiercely debated the best systems of politics, social and family structures, and the meaning of art and life. Mencius lived in the state of Qi, one of the most powerful in China—and the last the Qin state conquered before the unification of China in 221 BCE. Along with Legalism, Mohism, and Daoism, Confucianism was only one of the “Hundred Schools of Thought” at the time, but Mencius wanted to make it the state philosophy.
After studying under Master Zisi, Confucius’s grandson and reputed author of The Doctrine of the Mean, Mencius became particularly attracted to the Confucian concept of self-cultivation. The idea is based on the human potential to better oneself. In short, it says that an individual should embark on a life-long effort to develop a set of cardinal virtues, including consummate virtue (also translated as benevolence), rightness (or righteousness), ritual propriety, wisdom, and trustworthiness (or fidelity). Integrity and a sense of shame are also important. Cultivated persons will create a harmonious family, and harmonious families are the foundation for a harmonious society. Mencius recognized that Confucius’s comprehensive philosophy thoroughly addressed the root causes of immorality, reordered priorities of life, and showed specific ways to reach human excellence. But he also saw that Confucius embodied his teaching himself, walking the principles he espoused. Mencius found Confucius’s personal life to be the most convincing reflection of his philosophy, and he revered Confucius as a singular, unmatched sage. Even so, Mencius was greatly challenged by the prevailing reality of the time, when people were greedy and cruel and generally displayed anything but moral and virtuous traits.
To tackle this critical problem, Mencius probed the fundamental goodness of human nature. Are humans doomed from the beginning by immoral tendencies? Or do we have the ability to truly lead moral lives? If the former, then there is not much we can do but surrender to immorality. But if the latter is true, and we can become moral beings, why do we also commit immoral acts? The central focus of Mencius’s thinking became the question of how to let our goodness blossom, and how to prevent ourselves from falling prey to immorality. To answer, he presented three related arguments.
Mencius first observed people, including rulers, in daily life. After doing so, he concluded that human nature is inherently good. He repudiated his fellow Confucian Xunzi, who thought that people were innately bad, and only could achieve goodness through cultivation. In a conversation with his student Gongsun Chou, Mencius presented the proposition that all humans have a good heart and are unable to bear the sight of human suffering. He offered the following famous example: “Suppose a man were, all of a sudden, to see a young child on the verge of falling into a well. He would certainly be moved to compassion, not because he wanted to get in the good graces of the parents, nor because he wished to win the praise of his fellow villagers or friends, not yet because he disliked the cry of the child. From this it can be seen that whoever is devoid of the heart of compassion is not human. . . .” It is our inherent moral sense, Mencius realized, our gut-level empathy, without the aid of language and social norms, that makes us spontaneously respond to the suffering of others. During the mass killing and moral callousness of the Warring States period, this claim was bold.
Second, being endowed with the capacity for compassion does not mean we can automatically achieve moral excellence. Mencius called such a capacity “the germ of benevolence,” which is only the very beginning—a sprout, and no more. Mencius presented an analogy: When people see Ox Mountain without much vegetation, they believe being mostly bare is the mountain’s nature. He argued that the mountain originally had plenty of growing capacity, but because cattle graze there and people cut down the trees, no matter how much the mountain’s vegetation grows, it cannot outgrow the damage. This damage, however, is not evidence of the mountain’s lack of vitality.
Human nature is similar. All are endowed with goodness. But if left unattended, it may not end up maturing into full-fledged moral sensibility. It might wither and rot. The real difference between humans and nonhuman animals, according to Mencius, is that humans have the capacity to self-cultivate. That is, only a human being can intentionally try to achieve perfection. A hostile environment may stifle the ability for the germination to grow and mature, but Mencius was confident that the endowed potential never fully dies. He stated, “given the right nourishment there is nothing that will not grow, and deprived of it there is nothing that will not wither away.”
By realizing that humans mistake a lack of growth as a lack of capacity, he explained how we can possess this germination and yet also engage in immoral acts. Human moral achievement is a matter of recognizing our moral potential, holding on to it, and growing it effortfully. He cited Confucius: “Hold on to it and it will remain; let go of it and it will disappear.” Once we come to this understanding and engage in this developmental process, we can gain the moral strength needed to defend ourselves against the luring sirens of moral decay. Then, as Mencius says, we will withstand “being led into excesses when wealthy and honored, deflected from our purpose when poor and obscure, and made to bend before superior force.”
Mencius also recognized that a supportive environment is critical for fostering this growth in children. Because life is full of distractions and challenges, children initially need parental modeling and, later, guidance from other social agents, such as teachers, to deepen their self-cultivation. Modern developmental science confirms that humans are born with the capacity to empathize with the suffering of others. Our empathetic capacity initially sets us on the right track. But the next stage is to develop the ability to put aside one’s emotional arousal for empathy, and take action to actually do something about the suffering person. Otherwise, those who are overwhelmed by empathy may be rendered incapable of being able to help those in need. It is remarkable that Mencius had the insight into this developmental process over two millennia ago.
The third and final argument Mencius advanced is that, given our innate capacity toward goodness, and given that we are able to self-cultivate with social support, we must refuse to let our empathy, sympathy, and compassion wither. In other words, Mencius expressed firm confidence in our resilience to rekindle our goodness, even when we have been damaged. He believed this applied to everyone, including our leaders. He stated that “for a man possessing [this germ] to deny his own potentialit[y] is for him to cripple himself; for him to deny the potentialit[y] of his prince is for him to cripple his prince.” For this reason, Mencius tirelessly tutored King Xuan of Qi. Mencius thought that if he could convince the king to adopt Confucianism as the state philosophy, and to govern with the moral principles of righteousness and benevolence, then the need for war would be eliminated altogether.
King Xuan of Qi is best known for going to Mencius for advice. Once, King Xuan asked Mencius how he could achieve his grand ambition of conquering Qin and Chu and ruling over the entire Middle Kingdom. Mencius replied that he had nothing to offer on the subject—but he did have much to say about how one could become “a true king.” The king’s interest was piqued, and he asked to hear more. Mencius knew that during a previous ceremony, the king had been disturbed by seeing a massive ox being led to a sacrifice. As if aware of its fate, the ox shook and struggled. Agonized, King Xuan said the ox looked like an innocent man going to execution. Unable to bear it, he commanded that the sacrifice be stopped. But rather than abandon the ceremony altogether, the king decreed a lamb be sacrificed instead. Because of this incident, Mencius told King Xuan he possessed the innate and undying ability to feel compassion.
Guiding the king through a step-by-step analysis, Mencius explained that there is no difference between an ox and a lamb. The difference was in experience. “You’d seen the ox, but not the sheep,” Mencius told the king. “And when noble-minded people see birds and animals alive, they can’t bear to see them die. Hearing them cry out, they can’t bear to eat their meat. That’s why the noble-minded stay clear of their kitchens.” The reason the king could not bear to see the ox slaughtered was that he witnessed the trembling ox—but he did not see the lamb. Mencius then turned the discussion to the armies King Xuan was sending out, causing death for his own people and his neighbors.
The king claimed he did not take delight in causing war, but that he only waged it to in order to reach his dream. He was incapable of doing otherwise. “When feathers can’t be lifted, someone isn’t using their strength,” Mencius responded. “And when the people aren’t watched over, someone isn’t using their compassion.” Here, Mencius was distinguishing between the unwilling and the incapable. If the king could feel compassion for an animal and save its life, he could feel compassion for people, give up military aggression, and find another way to rule. “If you aren’t a true king, it’s only because you’re unwilling, not because you’re incapable.” He must refuse to let his moral sense wither, Mencius said, and bring his virtue to full fruition. Only then would he be a true king.
Unfortunately, King Xuan of Qi didn’t see the benefit of embracing Confucian philosophy during the period of Warring States. He ignored Mencius’s advice, and continued to engage in wars, only to meet his fatal defeat. In the end, King Xuan was ashamed to face Mencius and lamented his choices. Although he plunged ahead with trying to rule by aggression, I think his admission of shame still attests to Mencius’s philosophy of human innate goodness, our capacity for compassion that never dies.
Jin Li is Professor of Education and Human Development at Brown University. She was one of the six inaugural fellows selected by the Berggruen Philosophy and Culture Center at the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences, Stanford University, in 2015–16, and at Tsinghua University, China,