The manner in which human nature ought to be construed is among the enduring questions in the philosophy of East Asia. The philosophy of this part of the world asks whether humans are good or evil, and if morality is natural to human beings, or they have to be taught to do what is right (Zhaoyhun 2005). This paper takes the direction of comparing and contrasting the nature of humans as presented by Lao Tzu (commonly known as Laozi) and Confucius, both of whom are early Chinese philosophers.
In Lao Tzu’s point of view, the absence of desire amounts to all things being at peace. In this, Laozi views humans to be materialistic and egocentric, with power being the principal pursuit. An easier and a more convenient way is what humans go for, and, in many cases, this easier way is through both fear and greed (Yourk 2010). In most cases, this materialism ushers one into evil doings. Laozi claims that in case one goes ahead to overvalue his/her possession, there are high probabilities of others beginning to steal. He goes ahead to note that to gain true happiness and become truly powerful, it is imperative for an individual to free him/herself from such things. The only things coming on the way is human nature. On this basis, therefore, Lao Tzu concludes that human nature is naturally selfish since it presents humans with a false sense of power (Yourk 2010).
Laozi’s belief was that the Tao (The Great Way) is easy, but the majority of people prefer sideways. In so saying, he was actually reacting to the manner in which people prefer to go around the true way with ease. In his comments on the selfishness of humans, Laozi states that an ordinary man is unrelentingly looking for power, and there is no single moment in the life of a human when the level of power can be considered enough (Yourk 2010). According to this early philosopher, the characteristic selfishness of humans, even when one has power, will never be enough, and now and then humans make more efforts to gain more power, and this leaves us as humans more unsatisfied (Chan 1963).
Additionally, Laozi thinks that the nature of humans is characterized by restlessness, where a search for peace is our daily pursuit. However, he notes that hardly do we realize this peace because we are ever-restless. In his advisory remarks, he states that when a person gives way for restlessness, he or she loses touch with who he or she is. Here, Lao Tzu is trying to pinpoint the unproductiveness of restlessness (Lau 1963). The philosopher also reinstates that making efforts to control everything is yet another characteristic of the human nature. His advice is that human beings ought to desist from trying to control anything, since the world has a natural balance that is so certain to not only control itself but also to ensure that this control will come by itself. Laozi uses the metaphor of the sea and the streams, stating that the reason as to why all streams flow into the sea is because the sea is always at a lower level than the streams. By this metaphor Laozi explains that besides the sea being bigger, is has control over the streams without making any efforts to control them (Yourk 2010).
Being referred to as the father of Taoism (Daoism), Laozi believed that at birth, humans resemble pu (uncarved blocks of wood), and as they grow older, society assumes the responsibility of shaping and molding them. It is on this belief that Lao Tzu and the followers of Confucius find themselves at loggerheads (Allan 2003). While the Confucians believe that the process of societal molding and shaping is not only desirable, but also principal in helping to realize human perfection, Lao Tzu contends that it brutalizes people and at the same time bears the seeds of negative behavior and social turmoil. Laozi compares humans to trees, which hardly require any education in order to grow according to the rhythms of nature (Hansen 1992). Additionally, he notes that water does not need to study classics for it to flow towards the lowest point - the sea. Through these metaphors, Laozi comes to the conclusion that just like all the living beings of the world, humans are born with a distinctive sense of what is right and what is wrong, which is in harmony with the movement of the impersonal universal force (the dao) that is pervading all the phenomena and regulating the growth and the development of things (Csikszentmihalyi & Ivanhoe 1999).
According to Lao Tzu, people in an ideal Daoist society hardly waste their precious time on education and moral training. Instead, a Daoist ruler is to ensure that his subjects remain ignorant for them to always be enticed by their relatively simple lives. What such a ruler ensures is that his subjects have enough to feed on, and also that he is at loggerheads with neighboring states so that the subjects are not overburdened with taxes or disturbed by wars (Chan 2003). For Laozi, people in a perfect society will be so contented in their rural villages that even on hearing the crowing of the cock from a neighboring town, they will not be interested in going there, since they have everything they need within their homesteads (Lum 2012).
On the other hand, the Confucian doctrine of human nature combines dao (the theory of human nature to yield) with a political theory. It is a prescriptive doctrine. However, it is only once that Confucius directly addresses this matter of human nature, and more so to the chagrin of his followers, who happened to be so eager to hear more of his thoughts on human nature (Ader 2012). Despite having never directly addressed the issue of whether humans are good or bad at one given point of time, one of the core themes in his philosophy is the perfectibility of humanity. In his Analects book XVII, Confucius notes that humans are ordinarily born with more or less similar faculties and needs. However, he does not assume the existence of exceptions at either of the extremes (Richey 2008).
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For Confucius, humans, and more so, male humans, are in possession of the perfection capacity. However, in order to actualize this perfection, they are obliged to consciously make every effort. Confucius contends that despite the fact that we are very similar at birth, the feedback we receive to our actions as well as the revisions in our personal behavior according to this feedback pave the way for the divergent pathways different humans take (Allan & Crispin 2000). Besides shaping our experiences, the action-feedback-revision process does craft our outstanding individual lives. What Confucius is putting across is that by nature, all humans share potential for growth; however, the individual growth degrees is what makes us different (Ader 2012). The nature of humankind, according to Confucius, is the same; but the sole thing setting them apart is education - what he refers to as the love for education.
In the perspective of Confucius, a good man is the one who hardly acts for the sake of being praised but rather because of the experience (education) such person has. His argument in this reasoning is that the education showed such a person the right path to walk through. His contention is that a good man ought to praise others for the good they do, since in so doing, such a person becomes an active part of the above mentioned feedback process. This recognition and its subsequent reinforcement of virtue happen to be among the core methods of perpetuating such qualities (Henricks 1989).
It is worth noting that the teachings of Confucius as pertains to human nature were not grounded on faith, but entirely on evidence. In the situations where evidence was missing, he opted to refrain from discussing such topics or drawing any conclusions. In his opinion, education (which entails hearing and seeing) ought to be gained by everyone (Emerson 1995). Nonetheless, he emphasized the importance of the correct application of these experiences. In so doing, an individual is assured of a good life as contrasted to material rewards. Confucius comes the closest in addressing human nature when he states that he had hardly come across a person who really cares for goodness or is repulsed by wickedness. In his thoughts, it is unlikely for any individual to take into consideration goodness that would prioritize other considerations. On the other hand, he believed that any person abhorring wickedness would be engaged in consistently and devotedly doing well (Gilbert 1991).
It is thus clear that, according to Confucius, man has a capacity of doing good and wicked things, and not the capacity for perfection in the form or type of goodness. The argument he avails for this is that such nature among humans is not a result of inherent deficiency of strength, but rather a result of the deficient dedication. According to Confucius, in case an individual is committed to pursue something which is good, the chance of indulging into wickedness will always be low, as is the case with Socrates (another philosopher of the ancient times). Confucius had a feeling that education plays a key role in promoting ethical behavior among humans. Through learning the experience of others, we equally get to learn how similar we are. Confucius notes that if this knowledge is applied correctly, we would definitely treat others as we want others to treat us (Ader 2012).
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In yet another scenario addressing human nature, Confucius says, “Those erring on one side of strictness are indeed few…” (Ader 2012). He actually reports that as in the case with water, humans have a tendency of seeking the paths with least resistance as compared to remaining enthusiastic on a right, higher ground path. Here, he is in agreement with Laozi. Emphasizing the role of education in human perfection, Confucius argues that a gentleman always takes time considering his words before uttering anything, but the same gentleman is quick to react if action is required. In his opinion, moral integrity attracts resonance, meaning that other individuals with high moral integrity are likely to be attracted to a good company (Ader 2012).
As for the political facet of the Confucian doctrine, it is the rule to bear the responsibility for the people’s well-being, peace, and order (Shun 2004). The presupposition of the Confucian philosophy on human nature is that humans are ordinarily social creatures, with their social interactions being so molded by a ritual or convention (li). It is this convention that institutes value distinctions as well as avails a prescription of the activities responding to these distinctions (Hansen 2013). Education in social rituals fosters propensity to naturally good behaviors, and this resultantly makes people naturally incline towards virtuous behavior models. This leads to the creation of a hierarchy of merit, which further spreads natural moral education (Ching 1977). People can principally be likened to sages in case they act in accordance with the convention and without conscious effort. At such a point, Confucius argues that these people would have attained humanity (ren), the top-most level of moral development and that their natural inclinations will remain being in line with dao. However, whether human nature is good or bad, this remains to be a point of debate in Confucianism. All the same, what counts much is the nature of morality (Nivison 1996). Both Lao Tzu and Confucius offer deep insights on the human nature.