Human nature in the philosophy of legalism

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The second pillar of Legalist political philosophy is their view of human nature. Legalists eschew the discussion of whether or not human badness or goodness are inborn, or whether or not all humans possess fundamentally similar qualities. What matters for them is, first, that the overwhelming majority of human beings are selfish and covetous; second, that this situation cannot be changed through education or self-cultivation; and, third, that human beings’ selfishness can become an asset to the ruler rather than a threat. That “the people go for benefits as water flows downwards” (Shang jun shu 23:131) is a given: the task is to allow the people to satisfy their desire for glory and riches in a way that will accord with, rather than contradict, the state’s needs. Shang Yang explains how to attain this:

Wherever name/fame and benefit meet, the people will go in this direction. … Agriculture is what the people consider bitter; war is what the people consider dangerous. Yet they brave what they consider bitter and perform what they consider dangerous: it is because of calculations [of name and profit]. … When benefits come from land, the people exhaust their strength; when fame comes from war, the people are ready to die (Shang jun shu 6: 45–46).

The people covet wealth and fame; they are afraid of punishments: this is their basic disposition (qing 情). This disposition is not to be altered but to be properly understood and then manipulated: “When a law is established without investigating the people’s disposition, it will not succeed” (Shang jun shu 8: 63). To direct the populace toward the pursuits which benefit the state, namely agriculture and warfare, even though they consider these “bitter and dangerous,” one should establish a combination of positive and negative incentives. The entire sociopolitical system advocated by Shang Yang can be seen as the realization of this recommendation.

The Legalists’ view of the people as covetous and selfish was not exceptional to this intellectual current: it was shared, among others, by as significant a Confucian thinker as Xunzi 荀子 (ca. 310–230 BCE) as well as by many other thinkers (Sato 2013). Yet in marked distinction from Xunzi and from other Confucian thinkers, the Legalists dismissed the possibility that the elite—rulers and ministers alike—would be able to overcome their selfishness. The topic of the ruler’s quality will be discussed below; here, suffice it to focus on that of the ministers. For thinkers from the entire spectrum of Confucian thought, it was axiomatic that the government should be staffed by morally upright “superior men” who would serve out of commitment to the ruler above and the people below. For the Legalists, it was equally axiomatic that this cannot be the case. Shen Dao explains:

Among the people, everybody acts for himself. If you [try to] alter them and cause them to act for you, then there will be none whom you can attain and employ. … In circumstances where people are not able to act in their own interests, those above will not employ them. Employ the people for their own [interests], do not employ them for your sake: then there will be none whom you cannot make use of (Shenzi, 24–25).

Shen Dao dismisses the possibility that the ministers will be driven by moral commitment; on the contrary, such exceptional individuals should not be employed at all. This sentiment recurs in Han Feizi, a text that expresses with utmost clarity its belief that every member of the elite—like any member of society—pursues his own interests (cf. Goldin 2005: 58–65; 2013). Morally upright officials do exist, but these are exceptional individuals: “one cannot find even a dozen upright and trustworthy men of service (shi 士), while the officials within the boundaries are counted in hundreds; if one cannot employ but upright and trustworthy men of service, then there will be not enough people to fill in the offices” (Han Feizi 49: 451). This awareness is the source of the thinker’s great concern with regard to the ongoing and irresolvable power struggle between the ruler and the members of his entourage (see below), and is also a source of Han Fei’s (and other Legalists’) insistence on the priority of impersonal norms and regulations in dealing with the ruler-minister relations. Proper administrative system should not be based on trust and respect for ministers; rather they should be tightly controlled. A political system that presupposes human selfishness is the only viable political system.

Legalism is at times compared with modern social sciences (Schwartz 1985), and this comparison grasps well some of its characteristics. Angus C. Graham (1989: 269) notices that Legalists are the first political philosophers in China “to start not from how society ought to be but how it is.” Indeed, this was the most practical-oriented of all preimperial intellectual currents. Its proclaimed goal was to create “rich state and powerful army” (fu guo qiang bing 富國強兵), which would be the precondition for future unification of the entire subcelestial realm. The thinkers’ focus was on how to attain this goal, and less on philosophical speculations. Consequently, their writings are generally devoid of overarching moral considerations, or conformity to divine will—topoiwhich recur in the writings of the followers of Confucius 孔子 (551–479 BCE) and Mozi 墨子 (ca. 460–390 BCE). Cosmological stipulations of political order, which became hugely popular after the Laozi 老子 (fourth century BCE) are of slightly higher importance for the Legalists than morality or religion: they are referred to in some of Shen Buhai and Shen Dao’s fragments and, more notably, in several chapters of the Han Feizi. Yet these speculations are not essential for these thinkers’ arguments: hence, pace attempts to consider cosmological digressions of Han Fei as foundations of his political philosophy (Wang and Chang 1986), it would be more accurate to see them as argumentative devices that were “not fully assimilated” into Han Fei’s thought (Graham 1991: 285; cf. Goldin 2013: 14–18). Generally, Legalist thinkers display considerable philosophical sophistication only when they need to justify their departures from conventional approaches of other intellectual currents. In this regard their views of historical evolution and of human nature are highly engaging.

By Yuri Pines

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