Posted in Philosophy

Fundamental Benevolence

Mencius, a leading Chinese Confucian philosopher, proposed a thesis that diametrically opposes Xunzi’s theory of fundamental malevolence. He claimed that human beings are fundamentally good. According to Mencius, people are inherently altruistic and courteous, wanting to help a fellow man. He stated that people are born with all the qualities needed to build virtue: compassion, humility, modesty and ethics. Through mental training and discipline, these traits respectively develop into: humanity (yin, 인, 仁), righteousness (eui, 의, 義), courtesy (ye, 예, 禮) and wisdom (ji, 지, 智). Mencius believed that as every man and woman are born with all the qualities needed to become a saint (seung yin, 성인, 聖人), anyone could become a “good person” through disciplining one’s mind. According to this theory, evil is only a product of bad environments and people inherently act benevolently when matured in a good environment with adequate teaching in etiquettes and social order. Thus, the act of harming others and murdering are because the person’s fundamental nature was corrupted by a harsh life and environment and because they lack virtue and discipline. A person who strives to perfect their morality is a gentleman (gun ja, 군자, 君子), a person who does not is a petty person (so yin, 소인, 小人). In Confucianism, gentlemen are highly respected while petty people are shunned.

Are human beings good-natured? The theory of fundamental malevolence states that human beings, like all other animals, are selfish beings who only care about their own needs and will willingly harm others to fulfil their greed. Contrary to this, the theory of fundamental benevolence (성선설, sung sun sul) teaches that people are altruistic animals who will support and help each other. We proved the validity of fundamental malevolence from an evolutionary perspective with the example of a hungry lion. An animal case scenario that supports the theory of fundamental benevolence is the ant.

By observing an ant colony, we can learn that altruism can assist in survival. An ant by itself is quite powerless, but when millions of ants come together to form a colony, they can build great cities to protect themselves, they can farm to feed everyone and they can easily overcome any foe of all sizes. Ants do not become jealous of another ant who has more food. Instead, when they are full, they will store excess food in a social stomach so that they can share it with another hungry ant they come across. Through cooperation, understanding and connection – that is, the philosophy of 1 + 1 = 3 – ants are able to compete and survive in nature. In fact, ants thrive anywhere in the world and can easily adapt to almost any environmental change. When comparing the two ultimate species that dominated nature, human beings and ants, the commonality is that both build societies. To build a society, individuals must get along with each another, and the key to building relationships is goodwill.

Thus, we have proven that fundamental benevolence can also be supported by evidence from nature. If so, are human beings fundamentally good or evil? The more you study people, the less credibility there is for fundamental benevolence. Of course there are plenty of stories of altruistic people, but “generally” people are still selfish animals who prioritise their own gain. No matter how much you say “I care for other people and wish everyone in the world happiness”, the reality is that you will only really care and love for people within your monkeysphere, while not caring nearly as much for the starving child on the other side of the world.

This is not to say that “good” does not exist on this world. It is just that the fundamental nature of human beings is likely to be evil, as Xunzi posited. However, as we grow, we learn social order, etiquettes and morality and we try to suppress our basal instincts as much as possible. Although our efforts are usually successful, we still slip up every now and then. On the contrary, some people do not even make the effort to hide their true nature and we label these people as “evil”.

Whether we are fundamentally good or evil, the truth is that we have both the potential and ability to develop our own character and sense of morality. Whether you will be an ant, who builds great cities and strive for a society where everyone helps each other stay well-fed, or a lion, who stalks prey all alone to feed itself day-to-day; that is your choice.

Posted in Life & Happiness


Can you describe a reed that sways and bends to and fro in the face of wind as strong? Most people associate the word “strong” with something like a tree that stands tall and grand, never bowing to the will of the wind. However, the reed teaches us the important lesson of the strength of flexibility. When a storm strikes, what is left behind are not strips of reed but smashed pieces of wood.

A rigid tree appears strong because it stands so tall and does not move, but in the face of strong winds the opposite happens. As a tree does not bend much, it must face the full force of the wind and ultimately the tree snaps when there is sufficient force. On the other hand, the reed flows and bends in the direction of the wind, deflecting the force away. Not only that, but a reed has both flexibility and elasticity, meaning no matter how much they are bent and beat down, they can stand back up. Ergo, flexibility is stronger than rigidity. Skyscrapers use this concept and they are designed to sway on a windy day. The philosophy is also adopted in martial arts, with deflecting a strike to the side being a far more effective defence than taking the force of the strike directly.

Flexibility has far greater implications than withstanding the wind or a strike. The most important example is personal relationships. A person who never bends and sticks to their opinions may deem themselves “tough”, but they are in fact just a stubborn idiot drowning in a pool of arrogance. Sure, if it is a very important debate then you should stand your ground and state your opinions, but in a normal conversation it is just foolish to angrily state that you are right and never back down. It is far wiser to be flexible like a reed and meet the other person halfway, bending slightly to see their opinions and reach a peaceful agreement. If you stand tall like a tree you will end up standing alone on the same spot forever, but if you can bend to the other person’s flow like a reed, you can have a healthy relationship with them and co-operate. If both sides bend a little for each other, then they can have a smooth conversation and be able to establish co-operation, understanding and solidarity. Flexibility makes both you and the other person happy and allow for co-existence – something that is inevitable in human societies.

The tree may tease and mock the reed for its apparent helplessness and docility against the wind, but after the storm has passed, only the reed still stands. Remember this: instead of ignoring another person’s views and repeating the same words over and over, listening carefully to the other person and being flexible and tolerant is a far wiser and braver act. A wise man is someone who possesses the wisdom and benevolence of being flexible like the reed.

1 + 1 = 3