In the new Star Wars movie, two characters form a converse pair: Kylo Ren, son of Han Solo and Leia Skywalker, had been trained as a Jedi Knight but turned to the Dark Side; Finn, on the other hand, had been taken from his family when young and made into a First Order stormtrooper, but he defected to the resistance when confronted with the brutality of his commanders. Kylo Ren started out as a "good" person who went bad, and Finn is an apparently "bad" person who turned to the good. And that contrast tells us something about Confucian morality.
What do we mean when we refer to someone as a "good person" or a "bad person"? Implicit in those constructions is a kind of essentialist assumption: a person is inherently, by nature, "good" or "bad." He or she is defined existentially with a certain moral quality. There is, however, a problem in this way of thinking. Most obviously, a seemingly good person can do something bad. When such things happen, it can surprise us - we never expected that an individual known to be good could act so badly - and we might even pause and question whether the apparently bad act could actually have some sort of hidden virtue that we can't yet comprehend. Our perplexity might inspire a search for mitigating circumstances: surely one so good could only have done something so bad as a result of malign external forces. Ultimately, forgiveness could be a ready option, at least until we see if the purported good person acts badly again. Generally, we want to give the good person the benefit of the doubt when he or she does something bad.
On the flip side, we might also accept the idea that some people are just bad, inherently and irremediably bad. We have expressions for this:
"he's just a bad seed" or "he's bad to the bone." In the US, this sort of thinking could explain the depressing lack of rehabilitative programs for convicted criminals. Although we say we believe in second chances, we also do not want to spend money or effort on people who seem to be immutably bad.
There is another side to this story: the diffuse Christian-inspired belief in forgiveness and salvation. A person who has done bad things, who might be tagged as naturally bad, might be made good again. And this is where Confucianism comes in.
Mencius is famous for asserting that human nature is inherently good. This widely held interpretation is, however, a bit oversimplified, since he also recognizes that humans are complex and have both good and bad aspects. Although this excerpt from passage 6A.14 is referring explicitly to the "body" - 體 - it has implications for human nature and the cultivation of virtue more generally:
Some parts of the body are noble, and some ignoble; some great, and some small. The great must not be injured for the small, nor the noble for the ignoble. He who nourishes the little belonging to him is a little man, and he who nourishes the great is a great man.
If you cultivate what is good in you, through good actions, you will produce good effects in the world, and that will define a certain goodness about you. But the expression of goodness is not automatic. There are parts of us, not just physical parts but psychic parts as well, that are bad and could form the basis for bad actions if we choose to develop that side of our selves.
Goodness, then, is a matter of choice and action, it is performative, not existential. We can see this emphasis on doing good to be good in these excerpts from Mencius 6B.2:
Jiao of Cao asked Mencius, saying, 'It is said, "All men may be Yaos and Shuns;"-- is it so?'
Mencius replied, 'It is.'
Jiao went on, 'I have heard that king Wen was ten cubits high, and Tang nine. Now I am nine cubits four inches in height. But I can do nothing but eat my millet. What am I to do to realize that saying?'
曰：「奚有於是？亦為之而已矣。有人於此，力不能勝一匹雛，則為無力人矣；今曰舉百鈞，則為有力人矣。然則舉烏獲之任，是亦為烏獲而已矣。夫人豈以不勝為 患哉？弗為耳。徐行後長者謂之弟，疾行先長者謂之不弟。夫徐行者，豈人所不能哉？所不為也。堯舜之道，孝弟而已矣。子服堯之服，誦堯之言，行堯之行，是堯 而已矣；子服桀之服，誦桀之言，行桀之行，是桀而已矣。」
Mencius answered him, 'What has this - the question of size - to do with the matter? It all lies simply in acting as such. Here is a man, whose strength was not equal to lift a duckling - he was then a man of no strength. But today he says, "I can lift 3,000 catties' weight," and he is a man of strength. And so, he who can lift the weight which Wu Huo lifted is just another Wu Huo. Why should a man make a want of ability the subject of his grief? It is only that he will not do the thing. To walk slowly, keeping behind his elders, is to perform the part of a younger. To walk quickly and precede his elders, is to violate the duty of a younger brother. Now, is it what a man cannot do - to walk slowly? It is what he does not do. The course of Yao and Shun was simply that of filial piety and fraternal duty. Wear the clothes of Yao, repeat the words of Yao, and do the actions of Yao, and you will just be a Yao. And, if you wear the clothes of Jie, repeat the words of Jie, and do the actions of Jie, you will just be a Jie
Some background: Yao and Shun are legendary sage-kings of exemplary virtue; King Wen is one of the righteous founders of the Zhou Dynasty; Tang is the good king of the Xia period; and Jie is an infamous tyrant.
The key message of this passage is: if you want to be like Yao and Shun, if you aspire to moral goodness of the highest order, just do it, just act like Yao and Shun. There are no unique capacities that they had that enabled their goodness. They simply chose to perform goodness consistently. The reference to the mythical strongman Wu Huo underscores the emphasis on intention and effort as opposed to physical limitation. A weak man, unable to lift a duckling, can become a strongman with focused effort. A bad man can similarly choose to do good and be good.
Notice, too, the opposite possibility: "if you do the actions of Jie, you will just be a Jie." And that's bad. For Menicus, and all Confucians, you really do not want to be a Jie, you should want to be a Yao or Shun. And you can be, if you just do the right thing now and tomorrow and into the future.
And that brings us back to our Star Wars characters.
Finn, it turns out, is the ultimate Mencian: even though he had been coerced into cultivating what was bad in him, he maintained enough moral autonomy to realize he was being made to act badly. And then he chose to do the right thing. That took some courage, given his circumstances, but he illustrates a central Confucian principle: it is always possible to do good, and in so doing, be good.
Kylo Ren is obviously a Jie. He appears to be fully conscious and in control of his decisions and he chooses to do the absolutely worst thing by Confucian standards: he kills his father. Yet, even after that horrific act, he might still be redeemed. Historically, Confucian principles were codified into legal statues in imperial China, and if a son willfully killed a father he would most certainly be put to death himself in punishment. But the moral logic of Confucianism, detached from legal institutionalization, would hold out the possibility of atonement. If he recognizes his terrible transgression, and if he commits himself to actions that clearly exemplify right conduct, if he were to "wear the clothes of Yao, repeat the words of Yao, and do the actions of Yao," then he might still be able to "just be a Yao."
We'll just have to wait for episodes 8 and 9 to see if he comes around to the light side of the Confucian force.