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mencius and the sprouts of virtue

Some people might find it surprising that I believe that people are fundamentally good. I”d have to say that my biggest influence in thinking this is in the Mengzi 2A6:

孟子曰:「人皆有不忍人之心。… 惻隱之心,仁之端也;羞惡之心,義之端也;辭讓之心,禮之端也;是非之心,智之端也。人之有是四端也,猶其有四體也。有是四端而自謂不能者,自賊者也

My translation:

Mencius said, “Everyone has a heart that cannot bear the suffering of people… The feeling of compassion is the sprout of human-heartedness, the feeling of disgust is the sprout of righteousness, the feeling of obeisance is the sprout of propriety, the feeling of judgement is the sprout of knowledge. Everyone has these four sprouts, just as they all have four limbs. To have these four sprouts but claim you cannot cultivate them, is to steal from yourself…”

In between the first sentence and the last part, Mencius makes use of his famous example to ‘prove” that everyone has a ‘good” heart. Here it is: Any given person, upon seeing a baby on the edge of well, would have a strong feeling to protect that baby. How convincing you find this isn”t really the point, for me…

For me, a key part of this is the agricultural/plant metaphor of ‘sprouts” within us. For Mencius, we all begin with these sprouts. But like any plant, they must be cared for and nurtured if we want them to grow and blossom. This requires both effort on our part and a suitable environment.

Moving away from the metaphor, the ‘suitable environment” is the culture and institutions around us. Beyond the reality of institutional oppression, this is one of the reasons why I personally tend to stay focused on large-scale institutional changes. Why I usually do systemic analyses, rather than individual.

I do truly believe that, given a better environment, more people would be able to grow their sprouts of goodness. That if we can dismantle the institutions that oppress, if we can change/transform the culture in which we exist, we”ll all have a much better chance of being and doing good. This potential exists in all of us.

The thing about this metaphor, as well, is that it makes it clear that even great effort cannot overcome a toxic environment. Some people within hostile environments can work super super hard to cultivate goodness, but there are limits to this. No ammount of personal effort can overcome the limitations within your environment. In other words, it”d be very difficult, if not impossible, to grow an apple tree in the tundra. Work as hard as you can, then work harder, but you still won”t be eating apples.

The sort of change that I”m hoping to see in the world is a dramatic change in context/environment for everyone, such that we are all in the best possible context to cultivate our goodness. At this point, yeah, it”ll be totally up to individuals to actually work at it.

On the whole, I tend to think this strikes a decent balance in the nature vs. nurture argument. Within this model, both are important and necessary.