Xunzi’s Take on Human Nature

As one of the few debates all humans can contribute to, the argument over the basic tendency of human nature towards good or bad appears across  philosophical communities, cultures, and time periods. Confucian culture is no different with two of its most recognized sages representing opposing sides of the debate. Arguing for human nature as good is Mengzi, a Confucian scholar, who is often called the ‘second Sage,’ after only Kongzi (Confucius) himself.1 In opposition to Mengzi is Xunzi, who claimed human nature was at its core bad. Though who was, or rather is, correct continues to be discussed to the present day, Xunzi’s central claim contains a major flaw that could be used to finally settle the debate within the Confucian context.

In the Xunzi, a collection of dialogues authored by the man of the same name, the sage begins chapter twenty-three with a bold, fallible statement.

‘People’s nature is bad. Their goodness is a matter of deliberate effort’.2

At first this appears as a fair argument that naturally opposes the claim that human nature is at its base good. If we do not begin with goodness in our nature, then it follows that we must acquire it somehow; to acquire most anything, an individual must deliberately seek it out, which implies a desire for change. However, Xunzi neglects to explain why human beings make this effort to change their nature. He simply claims that it is the influence of teachers and rituals that cause one’s nature to improve.3 This response only delays the need to find a root for humanity’s goodness because logically we must then ask where these edifying rituals come from.

Xunzi’s response in a similar fashion is not defensible. He claims that ‘ritual and the standards of righteousness…are produced from the deliberate efforts of the sage’.3 Yet if a sage is just another human, where did their ability to become good come from? Upon looking deeply, Xunzi argument points towards some people spontaneously acquiring a good nature and then working to teach others. As an explanation for the origin of all goodness in human nature, it is quite unsatisfactory.

What’s more is that in comparison to Mengzi’s argument, Xunzi’s is weaker and relies on similar paths to virtue. Mengzi’s essential claim is, as already mentioned, that ‘There is no human that does not tend toward goodness’.4 Mengzi rests this argument on the description of each of the virtues as sprouts that can be tended to through our actions. So unlike with Xunzi, there is an origin to goodness; we are born with the ability for it, given the proper effort and environment. This aspect of Mengzi’s philosophy also explains why humans try to be good—we have a natural tendency toward it. Which brings us to the similarity of the two paths to Confucian virtue. According to both Xunzi and Mengzi, achieving virtue is a matter of self-cultivation, meaning that it takes a deliberate effort. In either case, an individual chooses to become better, but in Mengzi’s explanation we find a reason for these efforts.

Though initially the two sides of the debate over human nature’s inherent tendency appear evenly matched, at least in the Confucian context, one side is clearly more justifiable than the other. If being good takes deliberate effort either way, then it there must be a cause and a reason for our ability to embody it. Xunzi’s claim does not provide sufficient justification for why human nature can shed its original evil nature. Beyond that, it is much more comforting to think of humanity as more caring and good, than self-serving and violent.


Ivanhoe, Philip J., and Van Norden, Bryan W., (Eds.) Readings in Classical Chinese Philosophy. Hackett Publishing Company, Incorporated, (Cambridge 2005).

  1. Bryan Van Norden, Introduction to Classical Chinese Philosophy, p. 99. []
  2. Ivanhoe and Van Norden, Readings in Classical Chinese Philosophy, p. 298. []
  3. Ibid., p. 300. [] []
  4. Ibid., p. 145 []