Neo-Confucianism on the Human Good and Evil: An Ethical Study on Conditions of Their Existence and of Consciousness

Vol. 50 No. 3  9/2020



Neo-Confucianism on the Human Good and Evil: An Ethical Study on Conditions of Their Existence and of Consciousness


Chen Shih-chen











Key words

the intention to do good or evil, the influence of qi, self-deception, consciousness


Lao Sze-kwang 勞思光 referenced the autonomy of decision-making to criticize Neo-Confucian thought, arguing that Neo-Confucians failed to provide a solution to the problem of good and evil because they maintained that it could only be understood via a subject’s decision to act. In the Northern Song dynasty, the Cheng brothers (Er Cheng 二程) conceived of the material nature (qibing 氣稟) as an existential condition for the realization of moral values; however, several of their contemporaries interpreted it as the source of mental agitation and evil. As Zhang Zai 張載 pointed out, the Cheng brothers’ position only concerned the difficulty or ease of human moral practice. Although Zhang explained human evil as deriving from the decision to either follow or contravene the consciousness of the nature, he failed to reveal the subject of this consciousness. The Ming dynasty thinker Liu Zongzhou 劉宗周 offered a unique perspective on this issue, arguing that human desire was not the cause of evil because human desire always stood ethically behind the decision to give up one’s original mind. For Liu, the root of evil was nothing but the consciousness of this self-decision. The decision to do evil meant that a human being was aware of what should and could be done, but willingly refused to do it. This resulted in self-deception, which belongs to the ego, and it is only through this concept that the possibility of human responsibility can be understood.


Author: Chen Shih-chen
Genre: Article