Rethinking Human Nature

Kenneth Leong
5 min readMar 23

(Portrait of Mencius, Confucian philosopher)

We live in extraordinary times. The state of affairs in the world is a mess. Every day, I go online to find out what is going on. I rarely find anything encouraging. It is easy to lose one’s spirit in this environment.

Recently, however, I discovered two books that are uplifting. One is titled Born to be good. It is written by social psychologist, Dacher Kelter. The other book is titled Bittersweet. It is written by Suan Cain, who wrote the bestselling book, Quiet, which is about the subtle power of introverts. These two books may prove to be tremendously helpful in getting us through difficult times.

Throughout human history, philosophers have proposed various theories about human nature. By and large, Western thinkers and theologians are not too optimistic about human nature. Most of them think of human nature as selfish, flawed, if not downright evil. Those who think that humans are intrinsically good are in the small minority. This probably has much to do with the fact that Westerners have been living in Christian culture. According to the book of Genesis, ever since Adam and Eve ate the fruits from the Tree of Knowledge, all humans henceforth have been born bad. That is the natural result of the Fall. There are other factors. Ever since Charles Darwin published his work on evolution, there arose a powerful ideology of social Darwinism. From the perspective of social Darwinism, everyone has to fight for his or her own survival. Today, the primary vision under the ideology of social Darwinism is that the world is a zero-sum game — other people’s gain is my loss, and my gain is other people’s loss. It is difficult to cultivate a sense of altruism if one subscribes to such a vision of the world. The rise of the capitalist system only reinforces the sentiment that one has to be selfish in order to do well for oneself.

The situation is very different in China. Ever since the Ming Dynasty, Chinese children have been brought up reciting the Three Character Classic(三字經). The classic text opens with these few lines:

人之初 (People at birth)

性本善 (Are naturally good)

性相近 (Their natures are similar)

Kenneth Leong

Author, Zen teacher, scientific mystic, professor, photographer, philosopher, social commentator, socially engaged human