Mencius 孟子 is famous for arguing that human nature is good (xingshan 性善). In this article, I offer a reading of Mencius’ argument which can be evaluated in terms of empirical psychology. In this reading, Mencius’ argument begins with three claims: (1) humans naturally have prosocial inclinations, (2) prosocial inclinations can be cultivated into mature forms of virtue, and (3) the growth of prosocial inclinations is more natural than the growth of their alternatives. I also argue that each of these claims is well supported by empirical psychology. The relevant studies demonstrate, for example, that humans’ prosocial inclinations are not merely products of social conditioning or egoistic concerns; that prosocial inclinations can be cultivated by environmental factors and personal effort; that humans—even preverbal infants—have a natural inclination to prefer prosociality over its alternatives; and that growth in prosociality is positively associated with human health. Finally, I suggest we interpret Mencius’ expression “human nature is good” as a rhetorical tool to capture the totality of such empirically minded claims.
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I am greatly indebted to Roger T. Ames for his extensive help during the preparation of this essay. I am also grateful for the immensely valuable comments of Peng Feng, Wen Haiming, and Tian Chenshan, as well as two anonymous reviewers. They helped me avert many mistakes.
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Mäkelä, I. An Empirical Argument for Mencius’ Theory of Human Nature. Dao 21, 235–259 (2022). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11712-022-09827-x
- Human nature
- Moral psychology