Mengzi’s Moral Psychology, Part 2: The Cultivation Analogy

Author:  John Ramsey
Categories: Historical Philosophy, Ethics, Chinese Philosophy
Word Count:  959

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

In the first part on Mengzi’s moral psychology, we explored his claim that all people have four moral senses as well as the virtues cultivated from these senses. Here, we explore the central analogy behind Mengzi’s view of ethical cultivation.

Philosophers sometimes ask what makes a person’s life worthwhile or what conditions make for a good life. Mengzi’s answer involves cultivating our innate moral senses into fully ripened virtues of ren (humaneness), yi (rightness), li (propriety), and zhi (wisdom).[1] This cultivation neither is individualistic nor can it happen in isolation: it requires a lifetime of meaningful interactions with other people. In short, one’s ethical cultivation is interdependent with other people, one’s social environment, and whether (and how well) one reflects on the stirrings of their sprouts and extends their previous moral behavior to the current situation.

1. The Analogy

Mengzi responds to a question about why some people are good and others bad (despite all people possessing the moral senses) by outlining a theory of ethical cultivation through an analogy with the cultivation of agricultural crops.

Take barley for comparison. If you broadcast the grains and rake the soil over them, and if the soil and planting times are comparable for all, they will all shoot up and ripen by the summer solstice. If there are differences it is because of the differences in the fertility of the soil, or in the nourishment of rain and dew, or in the labor of the farmer…. why would we suspect it to be any different with people? (6A7)[2]

Mengzi calls our attention to the role of soil, rain and dew, and the labor of the farmer. We can further elaborate the analogy by considering the sun, good weather, and the farmer’s tools, all of which Mengzi discusses in nearby passages (6A6–6A9). One might think that the soil in which our sprouts are planted is our bodies. However, Mengzi thinks each of us is “planted” in a social environment, consisting of our families, particular cultures, and other social factors. In 6A8 Mengzi explicitly connects rain and nourishing, morning dew with nightly rest and restorative qi (vital energy).[3]

To explain why a particular king lacks zhi (wisdom), Mengzi says, “It is but seldom that I have an audience of the king, and when I retire, there come all those who act upon him like the cold” (6A9). Here Mengzi identifies himself as the sun, or role model, for the king’s sprouts. Mengzi also considers an example of two students learning the game Go from Master Qiu. Although Master Qiu provides instruction to both, one student daydreams of hunting swans while the other “gives to the subject his whole mind and bends to it all his will, doing nothing but listening to Go Master Qiu” (6A9). Both students are nourished by a role model but only one takes heed of the role model’s instruction and attentively practices what he learns.

But who, like a farmer laboring on their crops, cultivates our sprouts? Mengzi is not explicit about this, but a plausible answer is that each person does. Moreover, each person must use the proper tools of cultivation, which for Mengzi include the various social rituals and norms endorsed by Confucianism, the Confucian literary classics, and most importantly reflection and extension—Mengzi’s version of moral deliberation.

2. Reflection and Extension[4]

In one of the longest passages in the Mengzi (1A7), Mengzi and King Xuan discuss how the later can become a sage king. Earlier, Xuan had seen an ox about to be sacrificed to consecrate a ritual bell and spared it because he could not bear its suffering, which he compares to an innocent person being lead to execution. His people chastised him for being stingy because he sacrificed a sheep instead. Mengzi disagrees with this assessment and praises the king for reflecting and extending. The process of reflection and extension has four steps, which might be generalized from Xuan’s narrative:

(1) hearing the whimpering of the ox: one witnesses a situation in which one of their sprouts are stirred;

(2) remembering his dismay at the suffering of an innocent about to be executed[5]: one remembers or thinks of a similar situation in which the same sprout stirred;

(3) as king, Xuan has the power to stay the execution just as he has the authority to modify the consecration ritual[6]: one reflects on what power they have to act or how they acted in the similar situation;

(4) spare the ox: one acts in this situation similarly to how they acted in the previous situation.[7]

3. Conclusion

The cultivation of our sprouts involves an individual working to cultivate one’s innate moral senses through the use of reflection and extension, the social norms that govern one’s social milieu, and one’s reliance on others. We are dependent on people directly in two ways. First, rituals and social norms structure our relationships and interactions with others. Second, familial relationships are the “root” of reflection and extension (1A7 and 4A19). We are also dependent on others indirectly: others serve as role models and help create and sustain social environments in which particular persons may flourish.

Mengzi’s analogy helps explain why people do and don’t cultivate their moral senses. Some of us are fortunate to grow up in socio-morally rich social environments and families, whereas others grow up in socio-morally deprived situations. Some of us may benefit from good role models; others choose poor role models. Some practice reflection and extension and others fail to listen to and reflect on their moral senses. Nonetheless, since Mengzi believes that all humans possess the moral senses and can reflect and extend—“the sage and I are of the same kind” (6A7)—we all can cultivate our moral senses, though some face more challenges than others.

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.

fei 非 [not-this, wrong] (“fey”)

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

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

qi 氣 [vital energy] (“chee!”)

Qiu 秋 [a legendary Go master] (“chew”)

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] See Part 1 for a discussion of the four sprouts and their corresponding virtues.

[2] Throughout I follow Eno’s (2016) translation of the text. The text is usually divided into 7 Books with two parts (A and B) and then subsequently arranged by numbered passages. Thus, “2A6” refers to Book 2A, passage 6.

[3] In early Chinese discourse, qi 氣 usually refers to a vapor diffuse in the air and, in particular, human breath. Mengzi uses qi in a more technical sense as a vital energy that affects our emotions and moral senses. In 2A2 he claims that one’s store of qi can move one’s will. Thus, qi can help us act more resolutely when our moral sprouts stir.

[4] Contemporary commentators disagree about how exactly reflection and extension works. For instance, see Ivanhoe 2002 and Wong 2002. The view I offer here is consistent with these interpretations but is simplified for brevity.

[5] The range of situations one can reflect on is not limited to one’s own experiences. Instead, the range of reflection is informed by one’s cultural knowledge and background, including literature and philosophical hypotheticals as well as (for us moderns) situations we encounter in movies and TV series.

[6] The specific power(s) we have in a particular situation is tied to our social roles and relationships. For instance, Mengzi could not spare the ox because he does not have the social standing to do so, but he does have the social power to advise the king to spare the ox. King Xuan continues to follow his social role in consecrating the bell by substituting a sheep, which he hadn’t heard bleating and so didn’t stir his sprout of compassion.

[7] Mengzi sums up the process with an interesting formulation of the golden rule: “Treat your aged kin as the elderly should be treated, and then extend that to the treatment of the aged kinsmen of others; treat your young kin as the young should be treated, and then extend it to the young children of other” (1A7).


Ivanhoe, Philip J. “Confucian Self Cultivation and Mengzi’s Notion of Extension” in Essays on the Moral Philosophy of Mengzi (Indianapolis, IN: Hackett Publishing Company, 2002).

Wong, David. “Reasons and Analogical Reasoning in Mengzi” in Essays on the Moral Philosophy of Mengzi (Indianapolis, IN: Hackett Publishing Company, 2002).

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.

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