By Marcus Teo
The li refers to the ritual principles that arise from conscious activity, commonly cited alongside yi, or humaneness. His strong emphasis on li and yi remain apparent throughout The Xunzi. Also referred to as appropriate behaviour or ritual propriety (Lai 41 – 43), Xunzi posits that li is necessary in inculcating positive, altruistic behaviours that are otherwise absent in human nature. I aim to critically examine the inherent nature of humanity through Xunzi’s perspectives. I also aim to establish a comparative viewpoint of Xunzi’s perception of human morality and a case for the necessary function of li in any given community.
In chapter 23 of his work The Xunzi (“Human Nature is Bad”; trans. Hutton 248 – 256; see Appendix), Xunzi explicates his pessimistic view of human nature. He states — humans “are born with feelings of hate and dislike in them,” and that “cruelty and villainy will arise, and loyalty and trustworthiness will perish therein” should they indulge in their natural tendencies (Hutton 248). Xunzi argues that deliberate effort is required to reinforce goodness upon humankind; that “it is necessary to await the transforming influence of teachers and models” (Hutton 248). To further emphasise his position, Xunzi cites basic human responses to pleasurable stimuli to their senses. Just as the eyes prefer to look at pretty colours and the ears to beautiful music, so too does the heart desire for that which is self-beneficial – these are universal, trivial truths about the human condition which are immediately apparent to everyone. On the other hand, morality can only be achieved through deliberate action. Xunzi argues that it is only through ritual propriety (li) and humaneness (yi) that one may achieve goodness.
Positing that “the sage transforms his nature and establishes deliberate effort” (Hutton 250), Xunzi argues that the sage engages in intrinsic rumination before arriving at a set of proper models and measures for behaviour. Here, Xunzi refers to the sage as an individual who is more perceptive about human affairs than others.And as such, he conducts himself in accordance to good models and – in extenuation – ritual propriety (Brown and Bergeton 644). His argument of li refers to the actions and interactions that answer to an aesthetic sense of what is fitting (Hagen 376) which, according to the Confucian text The Analects, encompass a “body of rules governing action in every aspect of life” for “past insights into morality” (qtd. Hagen 376). Coupled with his stance on the inherent evilness of humanity, Xunxi seems to have a strong emphasis on developing ritual propriety to the betterment of humanity. He argues that although man is born evil, people desire to become good through external means (see Hutton 250).
A comparative view would extenuate the argument for the positive effects of li on humanity. With reference to Kohlberg’s (1969; qtd. Kail and Cavanaugh 306 – 307) theory of moral development, the first level of his theory – where most if not all children are categorised – is encompassed by the preconventional level of moral reasoning wherein moral reasoning is motivated by external forces (i.e., the belief that figures of authority define what is right and wrong). Given the quantitative data that supports Kohlberg’s theory (e.g., see Walker 1335 – 1336), one may conclude that morality is external to human nature. That is, there is a necessity for deliberate effort to be put into one’s moral development. Arguing that one’s moral development begins with external sources (e.g., parents, teachers) insinuate strongly that humanity is inherently bad – for if the opposite were true, there would be no necessity for external agents of morality to impose moral truths upon us. This line of reasoning leads one to the comparative conclusion that Xunzi’s li refers, in parallelism, to the necessity of external influences for one’s moral development such that it is the duty of a child’s external moral agents (i.e., parents, teachers) to inculcate ritual propriety within a child.
In extenuation, apart from the descriptive claim that li is necessary, a normative claim can be derived from this observation – that is, we should inculcate li. Here, a utilitarian perspective would be useful. Given that humanity is inherently bad with evidence presented above, the expected utility (i.e., the amount of good brought about by completing a course of action, see Martin 276 – 277) of inculcating li seems to take on a more desirable prospect than if we were to engage in inaction. Otherwise put, the expected utility of a community x that inculcates li within its people seems to reap a generally better outcome for a community y that does not. Here, it seems instinctively true that community x will have a happier population due to the sense of moral responsibility from the inculcation of li as compared to that of community y, which would arguably be devoid of humane social interaction. On the other hand, it also seems trivially true that community y will be more likely to be in a state of chaos than community x, therefore lending credibility to the argument that a community has a moral duty to inculcate li, as inaction in this context is clearly undesirable. Not only is there a descriptive claim that li is useful if inculcated into a given culture, but there is also a normative moral duty upon that culture to inculcate li.
In the same chapter of The Xunzi, Xunzi posits that humanity desires goodness due to their inherently evil nature. This raises an important objection to the philosophy central to Xunzi’s work – if humanity is inherently bad, what reason do they have to desire that which is good? If we were to leave a man to his own devices to truly develop into adulthood naturally, will he necessarily crave that which is good? It takes little to imagine that a man, if left in solitude until adulthood, will not know what is good. He will crave that which his bodily senses desire – warmth, shelter, food, water, and the like. While this is in line with Xunzi’s position, his argument that man craves goodness because he lacks it leaves much more argumentation to be desired.
The above question may be solved by undertaking a nonessentialist definition of humanity. Here, Kim-Chong draws an important reference to a fallacy that readers commit when they engage in critical discussion of Xunzi’s work – that is, it is important to keep in mind that Xunzi does not assume an innate moral sense, but rather a species ability within human beings to be moral (72). While it seems unintelligible for humanity to desire (i.e., crave what one lacks) goodness if we were to wholly accept that humanity is inherently bad, this is only true if one upholds an essentialist perspective. A shift of perspective here from “bad” referring to a necessary human condition to “bad” in the sense of the “unwelcome consequences of indulging the desires” (Kim-Chong 74), it seems intuitive that humanity will crave for goodness. It thus stands to reason that Xunzi’s argument of the inherent badness of humanity may coexist with his proposition that humanity inherently craves goodness as long as one accepts a stance that does not necessarily accord “badness” to one’s perception of inherent human nature. With reference to the solitary man rhetoric presented above, this shift argues that the solitary man would not, as a necessarily essential function of his humanity, crave goodness. Rather, he possesses the species capacity as a human being to crave goodness once he is able to experience it. It thus stands to reason that the solitary man, although inherently bad, possesses the capability to crave that which is good.
I have presented a critical discussion of Xunzi’s flagship self-titled work More specifically, I have presented an overview of Xunzi’s li and its derivative functions were presented, followed by a comparison to literature in moral psychology substantiating Xunzi’s view of the inherent badness of humanity. I have also presented a rebuttal to Xunzi’s apparent self-defeating claim that humanity craves for goodness despite its inherent badness, arguing that the reader whom raises such questions commits a fallacy of assuming an essentialist function of Xunzi’s writing, which it does not possess. By accepting the important shift from assuming that the craving for goodness is a species ability rather than an innate, essential quality of humanity, Xunzi’s argument thus remains relevant and stands to reason.
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