Xunzi on Morality and Human Nature

Author: Sonia Sikka (University of Ottawa)

Xunzi is a Confucian philosopher who lived from 310-220 B.C.E., towards the end of the “Warring States” period in Chinese history. Against Mencius, he claims that human nature is intrinsically evil or bad, and requires reshaping to be made morally good or virtuous. The tool he recommends for that reshaping is “ritual practice,” consisting of study and learning, guided by teachers and models of exemplary individuals. Xunzi offers several arguments against Mencius’ apparently opposed thesis that human nature is intrinsically good. However, since Mencius claims only that human nature contains the “sprouts” of virtue, which must be cultivated with effort and intelligence in order for an individual to become a morally excellent person, the difference between the two Confucian thinkers is more subtle than may at first appear. In part, it seems to rest on different conceptions of “nature.” Mencius judges that human nature is good because it contains the capability for moral virtue, in the form of sentiments and inclinations that can be tutored to achieve moral excellence, whereas Xunzi sees in the fact that human beings need tutoring evidence for his thesis that human nature is intrinsically bad. At the same time, there do seem to be significant differences between their respective positions. This is reflected in Mencius’ use of agricultural analogies suggesting that moral excellence is achieved through the cultivation of natural propensities, which contrast sharply with the crafting analogies favored by Xunzi, such as making pots out of clay, straightening bent wood and sharpening blunt metal.


Primary Sources
Secondary Sources – Online
Secondary Sources – Books and Articles
Compare/Contrast with

Primary Sources:

“Man’s Nature is Evil,” in Xunzi: Basic Writings, trans. Burton Watson (New York: Columbia University Press, 2003); pp. 161-74.

Selection from the Xunzi: “Human nature is evil”


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Xunzi: Basic Writings, trans. Burton Watson (New York: Columbia University Press, 2003).

Xunzi: The Complete Text, trans. Eric Hutton (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2014).

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Secondary Sources – Online:

Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy


Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy



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Secondary Sources – Books and Articles:

Philip J. Ivanhoe, “Xunzi,” in Confucian Moral Self Cultivation, 2nd edition (Indianapolis: Hackett, 2000), pp. 29-42. Compact introductory account of Xunzi’s position in relation to that of Mengzi (Mencius), situated among varying interpretations of the difference between the two.

T.C. Kline III and Philip J. Ivanhoe, eds., Virtue, Nature and Moral Agency in the Xunzi (Indianapolis: Hackett, 2000). Collection of essays by eminent scholars of Confucian ethics. Provides a good overview of interpretative debates about Xunzi’s position and his relation to Mencius.

Brian W. Van Norden, “Mengzi and Xunzi: Two Views of Human Agency,” International Philosophical Quarterly, 32/2 (1992), 161-84. Argues that Mengzi and Xunzi disagree over a significant thesis about human agency, and that this explains what Xunzi means in saying that human nature is evil, and what Mengzi means in saying that it is good.

David Soles, “The Nature and Grounds of Xunzi’s Disagreemtn with Mencius,” Asian Philosophy 9/2 (1999), 123-33. Argues that the debate between Mencius and Xunzi represents not so much a disagreement about human nature as a disagreement about the nature of morality, with Mencius holding a virtue-theoretic conception of morality and Xunzi a rule-based one.

Torbjörn Loden, “Reason, Feeling and Ethics in Mencius and Xunzi,” Journal of Chinese Philosophy, 36/4 (2009), 602-17. Relating the concepts of “reason” and “feeling” to Confucian moral vocabulary, examines the differences between Xunzi and Mencius on the roles of natural humaneness (ren) and the deliberate practice of rites (li) in being moral.

Kim Chon-Chong, “Xunzi’s Systematic Critique of Mencius,” Philosophy East and West, 53/2 (2003), 215-33. Argues that Xunzi offers a cogent critique of Mencius’ view of human nature as naïve, idealistic and incomplete, underlining instead the need for rites and effort to achieve the ability to be moral.

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Compare/Contrast with:

Mencius, Kant, Virtue Ethics
See also: Mencius on Morality and Human Nature, The Analects by Confucius (Kongzi) 


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2 thoughts on “Xunzi on Morality and Human Nature

  1. Pingback: Mencius (Mengzi) on morality and human nature – Global Philosophy

  2. Pingback: The Analects by Confucius (Kongzi) – Global Philosophy

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