Mengzi’s Moral Psychology, Part 1: The Four Moral Sprouts

Author:  John Ramsey
Categories: Historical Philosophy, Ethics, Chinese Philosophy
Word Count: 988

Editor’s Note: This essay is the first in a two-part series authored by John on the topic of Mengzi’s moral psychology. The second essay is here.

Mengzi (372–289 BCE), or Mencius,[1] an early Confucian whose thinking is represented in the eponymous Mengzi,[2] argues that human nature is good and that all human beings possess four senses—the feelings of compassion, shame, respect, and the ability to approve and disapprove—which he variously calls “hearts” or “sprouts.” Each sprout may be cultivated into its corresponding virtue of ren, li, yi, or zhi.[3]

Here we explore why Mengzi thinks we possess these four hearts and their relation to the cultivated virtues. Next, we explore Mengzi’s theory of ethical cultivation.

1. Mengzi’s Thought Experiments

Mengzi employs thought experiments to demonstrate the existence of these senses except for the ability to approve and disapprove: this ability was widely acknowledged among his contemporaries.

A. Compassion

Anticipating disagreement with his claim that all humans have a sense of compassion,[4] Mengzi asks us to

suppose someone suddenly saw a child about to fall into a well: anyone in such a situation would have a feeling of alarm and compassion—and not because one sought to get in good with the child’s parents, not because one wanted fame among one’s neighbors and friends, and not because one would dislike the sound of the child’s cries. (2A6)

Mencius's Well by Helen De Cruz

Illustration by Helen De Cruz. Used with permission.

Notice that Mengzi stresses that everyone would experience a spontaneous reaction to the situation and not experience the feeling as a result of ulterior motives or moral reasoning.

B. Respect

In advising a disciple debating a Mohist, from a rival school to early Confucianism that critiqued Confucians’ insistence on elaborate rituals and other wasteful uses of material resources, Mengzi invokes the sense of respect by telling a story about a society in which people did not bury their parents, abandoning them in open ditches. Later, when they passed the bodies of their deceased parents and saw “foxes were eating them, bugs were sucking on them. Sweat broke out on the survivors’ foreheads. They turned away and did not look” (3A5). Here their sprouts react to their failure to respect their parents.[5]

C. Shame

And for shame: If food is “given with contempt, even a homeless person will not accept them. If they’re trampled upon, even a beggar won’t take them” (6A10).

2. The Sprouts and Their Virtues

A. Ren : Humaneness (from Compassion)

Translators often render ren as “humaneness” or “benevolence.”[6] A ren person will be benevolent and humane since ren is cultivated from of a sense of compassion or dismay at others’ suffering. Ren, however, involves more than either benevolence or humaneness as it involves doing well by other people. Mengzi tells us that fathers do not formally educate their sons because doing so would undermine the relationship (4A18). Social roles are important for early Confucians insofar as what it means to do well by other people depends on how those people are related to each other. Parents do well by their teenagers very differently than teenagers do well by their parents. A modern parent who has cultivated ren might do well by their teenager by ensuring that they have ample opportunity to express themselves and make their own decisions and mistakes. The teenager might cultivate their ren by respecting their parents, meeting curfew (so not to cause anxiety in their parents), and the like. 40 years later the teenager will be in their 50s and the parent in their 80s. Being ren for either individual involves different behaviors now because the adult child and their parent face different types of suffering.

B. Li : Propriety (from Respect)

Li has two related meanings.

One sense refers to actual rituals, say the various rituals that make up a marriage ceremony or funeral rites, and social norms, such as wearing appropriate clothing or a man’s not touching his sister-in-law’s hands when giving her a gift (4A17).

Another sense of li means performing the ritual or social norm well. Consider the ritual (and norm!) of shaking hands—some people shake hands well, so they have done li (the shaking hands ritual) and they are li (performed the ritual well).

Li is cultivated from a sense of respect. That this sense is innate may seem odd from our contemporary standpoint. But for the Confucians, that li grows out of a sense of reverence or respect made perfect sense because many rituals involved reverence of one’s ancestors or respect to people with more social and political authority.

C. Yi : Rightness (from Shame)

Yi is the cultivated from a sense of shame or, since the feeling is cultivated and not actually felt, the sense that we would feel shame if we failed to act. There are many situations and social circumstances that are not governed by rituals and social norms; in those instances, when one acts well, one is yi.[7] Consider, again, the well thought experiment. There are no li that guide our behavior when we encounter small children teetering on the edge of a well, so we can’t be li in that situation. Though those of us who run and try to save the child would be yi and those of us who don’t will likely feel shame as they watch the child fall.

D. Zhi : Wisdom (from the Ability to Approve and Disapprove)

Wisdom is cultivated from our ability to approve and disapprove. The Mengzi is not entirely clear on what this ability involves because its authors assume readers’ knowledge of shi and fei. Here’s the basic idea: we shi something when we think it’s true or right and fei something when we think it’s false or wrong. Imagine an early Chinese mother and toddler: the toddler sees an ox saunter pastand says, “niu!”, and their mother says, “shi!”. If the toddler had said “ma!”, she would say “fei” because ma names horses. The mother says “shi” or “fei” because she knows which word refers to which animal. Mengzi believes that this sense is innate—we’re born with it—because small children clearly have preferences and shi or fei constantly. As they grow up, they refine this ability.

Wisdom, then, is having the correct view about right and wrong, true and false, and this correct view will be informed by one’s ethical cultivation and possession of the other three virtues.

Glossary and Pronunciation Guide

The following is a rough guide for pronouncing the Chinese terms used in this article. A “!” indicates a falling tone and “?” indicates a rising tone. Visit here for audio clips of individual syllables. In the list below the Chinese term is provided both in pinyin (a form of spelling) and in traditional characters followed by an English translation in square brackets and its pronunciation in parentheses.

ci rang 辭讓 [modesty and courtesy] (“ts-ir? rung!” pronounce “ts” as in cats” and “ir” as in “bird”)

fei 非 [not-this, wrong] (“fey”)

gong jiang 恭敬 [reverence and respect] (“gohng jeeng!” or “go” +”ng” followed by “jee” +”ng”)

li 禮 [rituals, social norms, propriety] (“lee?”)

ma 馬 [horse] (“maa” pronouncing the “aa” first with a falling and then with a rising tone)

Mengzi 孟子 [Confucian thinker and text] (“mung!” followed by “dz”)

niu 牛 [ox] (“new?)

ren 仁 [humaneness] (“wren?”)

shi 是 [this, correct] (“shr!” or “sher!” as in “Sherlock”)

yi 義 [rightness] (a long “e!” sound as in “bee”)

zhi 智 [wisdom] (“jr!”as in the first syllable of “Germany”)


[1] Mengzi 孟子 is also known by his Latinized name, Mencius, and lived during the Warring States period (475–221 BCE) in early Chinese history.

[2] It is likely that Mengzi did not write this text and that it was composed, in various stages, by his disciples (Brooks and Brooks 2002). There are quite a few excellent translations of Mengzi, particularly Eno (2016), Lau (2003) and Van Norden (2008). I recommend Eno’s translation because it contains an excellent running commentary on the text and is readily accessible online.

[3] These virtues may be loosely translated as “humaneness”, “propriety” (or “ritual propriety”), “rightness,” and “wisdom,” respectively.

[4] It’s unclear what sort of categorical claim Mengzi offers here. For clarification see Van Norden 2007, pages 214–227.

[5] I have chosen to translate the phrases gong jing and ci rang, which the Mengzi uses interchangeably in describing this moral sprout, as “respect”. Gong jing conveys a sense of reverence and respect, while ci rang suggests modesty and courtesy. All of these connotations might be captured by “deference,” but likely that word is less familiar than is “respect,” which nonetheless captures a key feature of the sprout.

Readers familiar with contemporary western ethical theories, particularly Kantianism, should avoid reading “respect” in light of these theories. For one, the innate sprout of respect is prior to its cultivated virtue of li, which involves performing rituals well (see section 2.B). Second, for the Kantian, respect involves an attitude we take in treating each other as rational and autonomous agents, but for the Confucian respect might be seen as an attitude we take in treating others as social agents.

[6] The Chinese character 仁 appears to be a conjunction of the characters for person (人) and two (二). If this etymology is correct, ren suggests a cultivated form of being with other people.

[7] Sometimes Mengzi and his Confucian contemporaries will say that a well-done ritual is also yi.


Brooks, E. Bruce and Brooks, A. Taeko. “The Nature and Historical Context of the Mencius” in Mencius: Contexts and Interpretations (Honolulu, HI: University of Hawai’i Press, 2002).

Van Norden, Bryan W. Virtue Ethics and Consequentialism in Early Chinese Philosophy (New York, NY: Cambridge University Press, 2007).

Further Reading

Mencius, trans. D.C. Lau (New York, NY: Penguin Classics, 2003).

Mencius: An Online Teaching Translation, trans Robert Eno, 2016.

Mengzi with Selections from Traditional Commentaries, trans. Bryan W. Van Norden (Indianapolis, IN: Hackett Publishing Company, 2008).

About the Author

John Ramsey is an assistant professor in philosophy at University of Northern Colorado. He studies early Chinese philosophy and contemporary social philosophy. Some of his work has appeared in Philosophy East and West, The Journal of Chinese Philosophy and Asian Philosophy.

2 thoughts on “Mengzi’s Moral Psychology, Part 1: The Four Moral Sprouts

  1. Pingback: Mengzi’s Moral Psychology, Part 2: The Cultivation Analogy – 1000-Word Philosophy

  2. Someone asks, “How would Mengzi explain why at appears that at least some people wouldn’t be moved at all by the drowning child?”

    John responds:

    As for Mengzi’s response, there’s two things he might say. One might be that someone who isn’t moved does experience the feeling of compassion, but is either inattentive or doesn’t recognize the feeling as such because they have “cultivated” the wrong habits, etc. Mengzi considers this possibility via analogy in 6A8, the famous Ox Mountain parable. I’ve copied that below from Eno translation:

    “Mencius said, “There was once a time when the woods of Ox Mountain were lovely. But because they lie close beside the capital of a great state, the ax and adze hack away at them – could they remain lovely long? By dawn and evening they are nourished by the rains and the dew, and surely there is no lack of shoots that spring up. But then cattle and sheep follow and graze, and thus it remains barren. When people observe how it is barren, they assume it could never have been covered with lumber, but how could that possibly be the nature of a mountain?

    “And could what exists within people possibly be without humanity and righteousness? That a man may have let go of his original heart is indeed like the hacking of ax and adze on the mountain’s woods – morning after morning, how can its beauty remain? Despite the rest such a man may get between day and night, and the restorative qi that the morning brings, the things he does day after day destroy these effects, and in time little will he resemble other men in what he likes and hates. When this destruction is repeated, the qi he stores up each night will not be enough to preserve what was originally in him, and when the night qi can no longer preserve that, he is not far from a beast. Others see that he has become a beast and they assume he never possessed a human endowment, but how could that possibly be the nature of a person?

    “There is nothing that does not grow when it receives its proper nourishment, and there is nothing that does not shrivel when it loses that which it was nourished by. Confucius said, ‘Grasp it and you will preserve it; let it go and it will vanish; when it comes and where it goes, no one knows.’ Was it not the heart that he meant?”

    The second possibility, which is suggested in the above passage and also mentioned in conjunction with the sprouts elsewhere, is that the individual is not a person (it’s unclear whether he means capable of being a moral agent or whether he’s denying that they are fully (biologically) human). The general idea is that such a person is missing something that makes them human; they are a “mere animal”. Here’s a representative passage—actually, it’s from 2A6, which includes the Child and Well example, and immediately follows that example:

    “Now by imagining this situation we can see that one who lacked a sense of dismay in such a case could simply not be a person. And I could further show that anyone who lacked the moral sense of shame could not be a person; anyone who lacked a moral sense of deference could not be a person; anyone who lacked a moral sense of right and wrong could not be a person.

    Now the sense of dismay on another’s behalf is the seed of ren planted within us, the sense of shame is the seed of righteousness (yi), the sense of deference is the seed of ritual li, and the sense of right and wrong is the seed of wisdom. Everyone possesses these four moral senses just as they possess their four limbs. For one to possess such moral senses and yet to claim that he cannot call them forth is to rob oneself; and for a person to claim that his ruler is incapable of such moral feelings is to rob his ruler.”

    The ambiguity—whether not a moral agent or not human—is a function of how Mengzi and his contemporaries understand renxing which gets translated as “human nature”. The debate at the time was really about (a) what abilities humans have that distinguish them from other creatures and (b) whether this xing could be transformed/developed into a moral nature. So, we might say, that Mengzi’s contemporaries believe our nature is non-moral and quite a few believe we could become moral agents. Mengzi comes along and argues that (a) includes moral senses/abilities and we’re moral agents by nature (hence the unclarity). He (and his disciples) seems to be the only early Chinese thinker that defended such a view.

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