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Moral Education in Confucianism

Plakshi Jain compares ‘reflection’ and ‘learning’ as means of becoming good.

“If it receives its proper nourishment, there is nothing which will not grow. If it loses its proper nourishment, there is nothing which will not decay away.” – Mengzi (trans. James Legge)

“Blunt metal must await honing and grinding, only then does it become sharp. Since people’s nature is bad, they must await teachers and proper models, only then do they become correct.” – Xunzi (trans. Eric Hutton)

This article attempts to compare the views of two significant Chinese philosophers, Mengzi and Xunzi, on the importance of moral education.

Both were followers of Kongzi (551-479 BCE) better known in the West as Confucius. His ‘Way’ has been popularized as Confucianism for hundreds of years via the Analects, a text written by his disciples to put forth his teachings. The Way of Kongzi advocates many things for society, but for this article we will focus on the cultivation of ethics.

Kongzi believed society can be improved only when people in authority are virtuous, and he developed educational techniques to inculcate kindness and wisdom as well as knowledge. Having said that, his statement, “If you learn without thinking about what you have learned, you will be lost. If you think without learning, however, you will fall into danger” has generated a lot of debate among Confucian scholars on how much emphasis must be given to thinking and learning respectively. This is where a comparison of the views of his disciples Mengzi and Xunzi comes in.

Chinese Landscape
Chinese Landscape acquired by Henry Walters 1915 Creative Commons

Growing With Mengzi, Grinding With Xunzi

Mengzi’s use of the word ‘grow’ quoted at the start to connote the process of education, and of ‘nourishment’ to connote its importance, in contrast to Xunzi’s words ‘grinding’ and ‘correct’, pinpoint the key difference in Mengzi’s and Xunzi’s philosophies of ethical cultivation.

Mengzi or Mencius, lived in the fourth century BCE and is known as the ‘Second Sage’ (i.e. second to Kongzi). He believed that human nature is predisposed to be good just as water is predisposed to flow downwards. This doesn’t mean humans can’t be bad, just as water can be dammed up on a hillside. Yet when humans do bad this can’t be blamed on their nature, but on their circumstances. Evil isn’t innate, but a perversion due to a bad environment, such as childhood trauma, or lacking basic needs.

How can Mengzi say that our nature is generally good? He claims that just as all humans have roughly the same feet, or roughly the same tastes, their hearts too basically share the same potential for righteousness. He builds this claim from universal moral impulses, such as the momentary compassion everybody would feel on seeing a child fall into a well (except sociopaths, who are by definition mentally ill). He calls such sudden compassion ‘the sprouts of benevolence and righteousness’. These shoots have the potential to grow and develop if given the right guidance – that is, the proper ‘nourishment’ – or they will decay away, and the person will succumb to evil.

Mengzi wants to cultivate wisdom, not knowledge of specific facts. The guidance he offers comes in form of moral education through reflection. Through reflection, one understands one’s own innate goodness, and extends it levelly in relevant directions. Reflection as moral self-cultivation strengthens our kind and righteous motivations when we respond to them with awareness and approval.

Impediments to this growth include a lack of effort, or rejecting the value of virtues. Mengzi uses the illustration of a chess game where one player puts his whole mind into the game while the other is distracted by a swan, thinking of shooting it. Although they learn together, they differ in apparent skill, but not because of a difference in intelligence.

Prince Zuko begins the show Avatar: The Last Air Bender (2005) banished by his father, and on an impossible quest to earn his honor back. To capture the Avatar and end his banishment, Zuko commits despicable acts. Then his Uncle Iroh acts as his mentor/guide, providing him the nourishment of love and wisdom he needs. Zuko’s gradual gaining in wisdom through reflection is shown throughout the movie, and in the end he decides to help the Avatar restore balance in the world. How Zuko learns to act out of kindness nicely illustrates Mengzi’s view of the importance of on internalizing ethical cultivation through reflection and thinking.

On the other hand, Xunzi (third century BCE) believed that human nature is predisposed to be self-interested, and hence bad. If people follow their inborn dispositions and obey their natures, they will create chaos and disorder. He says that, if someone is hungry, they desire satiety, and that is our inborn nature. We come to give away food to others only by following artificial social conventions. Therefore, Xunzi says, “It is necessary to await the transforming influence of teachers, models, and guidance of ritual [artificial social conventions] and standards of righteousness [yi]: only then they [students] come yielding, turn to proper form and order, and end up becoming controlled”. Rituals created by sages provide the proper form in which to express oneself, in a controlled and restrained fashion for the smooth functioning of society. Xunzi also advocates repeated deliberate efforts to conform one’s actions with the commands of the Analects, in a slow and difficult process that opposes our natural impulses – a grinding, if you like.

Mengzi and Xunzi clearly differ over the comparative importance of learning and thinking in ethical cultivation. Because he believes human nature to possess the sprouts of goodness that we simply need to cultivate, Mengzi emphasizes personal reflection. By contrast, because he believes our inborn disposition to be self-interested, even bad, and needing deliberate effort to correct it, Xunzi emphasizes learning from teachers.

Considering The Differences

Painting of Mengzi by Kano Sansetsu, Japan, 17th century
Creative Commons Attribution 4.0

Thinking as an internally-sourced process, and learning as an externally-sourced process, can be understood to exemplify the difference between wisdom (internal) and knowledge (external). Mengzi says, “Seek and you will find them. Neglect and you will lose them”, while Xunzi says, “The ugly person longs to be beautiful. The poor person longs to be rich. That which one does not have within oneself, one is sure to seek for outside. People desire to be good because they are bad.” So I would say that Mengzi and Xunzi agree on the need to seek wisdom and knowledge, but differ on where to seek it. The difference is largely due to the perceived nature of intrinsic desire. According to Mengzi, people must develop their natural desire for righteousness, whereas Xunzi’s self-interested people must learn to override their innate desires. So here their understandings of righteousness also diverge, since for Mengzi righteousness is an expression of our innate inclinations, but for Xunzi it is artificial, constructed to meet the needs of society. And both views can be contrasted with other schools of thought prominent in China at the time. Laozi’s Daoism aligns more with Mengzi’s internal reflection and rejects Xunzi’s external restraint as pretentious, while the perfector of Legalism, Han Feizi (a student of Xunzi’s) aligns more with Xunzi’s external learning, which is very teacher-oriented, and so authority based.

Perhaps their conflict can be better understood by examining the metaphors used by the scholars. In the quote at the beginning, Mengzi compares the process of education with growth of a plant, and when provided the necessary ingredients, the plant will grow itself (this is very similar to the Daodejing’s creation without creating and the Iching’s concepts of Qian and Kun). Here the environment plays an important role, as illustrated by Mengzi in his story ‘Mengzi’s mother moved thrice’ – to live in the best environment for the intellectual growth of her son, which she deems to be near a school.

Xunzi criticizes Mengzi’s view that emotions and desires require nurturing, rather than being promoted to us in a morally packaged way by teachers; but here Xunzi is misinterpreting what Mengzi is saying. In truth, they both advocate nurturing and guidance, that is, the proper environment – but in different forms. Both scholars use metaphors for moral education which are slow processes happening gradually over time – either vegetative growth or the sharpening of metal. Both imply permanent incremental progress so long as there is no toxicity in the environment, rather than a pattern of relapse or relearning. But the methods differ. Xunzi connects the process of moral education with grinding and honing metal, or the straightening of wood – things that cannot happen on their own accord, as the growth of a sprouting plant does. The grinding and honing of metal or straightening of wood is done against the wood’s nature, or against the metal’s hard resistance. Meanwhile, Mengzi’s cultivation of growth is to be in harmony with the natural inclinations of the sprouting plant.

This is exactly where they differ in their model of moral education. Mengzi suggests a self-discovery model that uses a more ‘liberal’ approach: a child taught good values grows up in a healthy environment where those values mature in him as he does. (This approach can be seen in Mengzi’s discussion with King Xuan about the slaughter of an ox.) Xunzi meanwhile suggests a more ‘authoritarian’ model, where morality cannot be discovered by oneself and so one must be told what’s right and wrong. For Xunzi, morality must be imposed from the outside through education to correct and restrain us, and only through a deliberate effort to learn will we be able to become good. This view is implicit when Xunzi says, “I once spent the whole day pondering, but it wasn’t as good as a moment’s worth of learning.” But for him education is not such a pleasant matter as it is for Mengzi, since for Xunzi it involves suppressing your innate desires and learning to deviate from them every day.

However, Mengzi and Xunzi both emphasize education as a gradual process that can’t be rushed. Xunzi says, “Learning must never stop. Blue dye is gotten from the indigo plant, and yet it is bluer than the plant. Ice comes from water, and yet it is colder than water. The gentleman learns broadly and examines himself thrice daily, and then his knowledge is clear and his conduct is without fault.” Meanwhile, Mengzi says, “One must work at it, but do not aim at it directly. Let the heart not forget, but do not help it grow.” He gives an example of a misguided farmer who pulls his wheat to make it grow faster.

If I want to lose weight and I go to the park and run for hours one day, then eat pizza as a reward for working so hard, all my exercise won’t have helped me. It will only make my legs hurt the next day, making me unable to run, while the pizza makes me gain more weight. If I want to lose weight, I’ll need to run every day and manage my diet. Similarly, for humans to be good and society to be ordered, then whether goodness is an inborn disposition or not, we need to let moral education take its course from our childhood, and as we mature gradually, so will the benevolence in our hearts and our actions. As Frederick Douglass put it, “It is easier to build strong children than to repair broken men.”

In conclusion, Mengzi and Xunzi aren’t as divergent as one may initially think, both being Confucians. On a deeper reading, they both advocate education as being important for people to be moral and good, and for society to achieve harmony (he) in turn. Where they do differ concerns the way such education influences one’s ethical cultivation – whether predominantly through thinking or predominantly through learning.

It is a part of the function of education to help us escape the intellectual and emotional limitations of our own time. These limitations are what both Mengzi and Xunzi see beyond in their own thinking.

© Plakshi Jain 2022

Plakshi Jain is an Indian-trained lawyer and a recent LLM (Master of Laws) graduate from the UC Berkeley School of Law. Check out her poetry on her blog The Greyness of Life at thegreynessoflife.wordpress.com.

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