This chapter lays the groundwork for succeeding chapters by sketching three central, pervasive themes in Mohist thought: the Mohists’ concern for sociopolitical order, their search for objective moral standards by which to bring about that order, and their belief in the efficacy of human action, grounded in their theology.
As we saw in the introduction, the fundamental motivation for Mohist thought is practical, not theoretical. The Mohists’ basic project was social and political reform, not inquiry for inquiry’s sake. Mòzǐ and his followers did not set out to examine philosophical issues in ethics, politics, or epistemology and develop theories about them. They were interested primarily in social and political problems. Their theories emerged from a reasoned attempt to solve those problems and to persuade others to adopt their solutions. Philosophical inquiry is a significant part of their project but not the main end.
What is that end? Ultimately, it is to achieve a world in which everyone reliably conforms to moral righteousness (yì 義
). More immediately, it is to stop the intolerable military aggression, feuding, crime, and injury to others that the Mohists believe mar their society. They call such immoral conduct “disorder” (luàn 亂
), a word that refers to disruption, disturbance, or chaos. In ancient Chinese thought, “disorder” is not a value-neutral description. To call a situation “disorderly” is to express a normative judgment: something is
wrong with it. The contrasting, good state of affairs is called “order” (zhì 治
), a word that refers to things being orderly, well governed, or under control. For the Mohists, order overlaps with righteousness in that what is in order is usually thereby morally righteous, and when things are righteous, they are also in order.
Several passages from the Mòzǐ help to elucidate the Mohists’ conception of disorder—and, conversely, order—and indicate what they see as its two major, interrelated causes, which are addressed by two major tenets of Mohist thought. According to the first of the three “Inclusive Care” books—likely among the earliest Mohist writings—disorder refers to a range of disruptive behaviors, including subjects and sons failing to show proper filial devotion (xiào 孝) to their rulers and fathers; rulers and fathers failing in turn to show paternal kindness (cí 慈) to their subjects and sons; brothers failing to treat one another considerately; crimes such a robbery and theft; feuding between clans; and military aggression. In each case, the Mohist diagnosis is that disorder is caused by the offenders’ selfish disregard for others. They care only for their own interests or those of their circle—their family, clan, or state—and so feel free to injure others in order to benefit themselves:
Subjects’ and sons’ not being filially devoted [xiào] to their rulers and fathers is what’s called “disorder” [luàn]. Sons care about themselves and don’t care about their father, so they injure their father to benefit themselves; younger brothers care about themselves and don’t care about their elder brothers, so they injure their elder brothers to benefit themselves; subjects care about themselves and don’t care about their ruler, so they injure their ruler to benefit themselves—this is what’s called “disorder.”
Even fathers being unkind to sons, elder brothers being unkind to younger brothers, rulers being unkind to subjects—this too is what the world calls “disorder.” Fathers care about themselves and don’t care about their sons, so they injure their sons to benefit themselves; elder brothers care about themselves and don’t care about their younger brothers, so they injure their younger brothers to benefit themselves; rulers care about themselves and don’t care about their subjects, so they injure their subjects to benefit themselves. Why is this? It all arises from not caring about each other.
Even in the case of those in the world who are robbers and thieves, they too are so. Robbers care about their house and don’t care about other houses, so they steal from other houses to benefit their house. Thieves care about themselves and don’t care about others, so they injure others to benefit themselves. Why is this? It all arises from not caring about each other.
Even in the case of high officials who disorder each other’s clans and the various lords who attack each others’ states, they too are so. The high officials each care about their clan and don’t care about other clans, so they disorder other clans to benefit their own. The various lords each care about their state and don’t care about other states, so they attack other states to benefit their own.
The disorderly things in the world are all just these and nothing more. If we examine from what they arise, they all arise from not caring about each other. (Mz 14/4–12)
This is a diagnosis of the causes of disorder, not a general indictment of humanity or a depiction of untutored human nature. The text does not imply that people are inherently selfish or that everyone is disposed to sacrifice others’ welfare for their own. The claim is simply that disorder arises from people’s selfish failure to “care about each other.” This problem is addressed by the doctrine of inclusive care, one of the Mohists’ central ethical tenets (discussed in chapter 6
Interestingly, in the course of describing people’s disregard for others, the passage also shows that the Mohists share the characteristic early Chinese assumption that human beings are inherently social in nature. People are seen as naturally caught up in a web of hierarchical political and kinship relations, the central ones being between father and son, ruler and subject, and elder brother and younger brother.1
They interact with others mainly as performers of these social roles. Ideally, their conduct is guided by the behavior and attitudes appropriate for each role—mainly subordinates (sons, younger brothers, subjects) showing filial devotion and loyalty to superiors (fathers, elder brothers, rulers), who in turn show them kindness. (This framework of paradigmatic kinship and political relations is sometimes misleadingly labeled “Confucian,” but as this passage shows, it is fundamental to Mohist ethics as well.) People are seen as normally caring about and identifying not only with themselves but also with various social units—their immediate family, their clan, and their state. Some may be selfish, but in general people are not regarded as atomistic or self-centered individuals.
As depicted in the foregoing passage, disorder comprises mainly two sorts of behavior: failing to exercise filial devotion and paternal kindness toward those within one’s circle of kinship and political relations and injuring those outside one’s circle through crime or violence. Mohist political theory expands on this initial depiction in several ways. Outside the family, disorder includes failure to follow the norms of conduct for rulers and subjects, superiors and subordinates, and elders and youth, while within the family it is failure to
observe the ceremonial proprieties governing fathers, sons, and brothers (Mz
12/5). In the most extreme circumstances of disorder, people live in a state of nature, “like animals” (11/5). Family members resent one another and split up, unable to live in harmony; people physically injure one another “with water, fire, and poison”; and community members refuse to share good teachings, surplus labor, and surplus resources (11/3–4).
Since order is the opposite of disorder, the Mohists’ characterization of disorder also indicates how they understand order. At minimum, order requires that people care about others’ welfare enough to refrain from harming them and that they perform their social roles virtuously, being devoted to superiors and kind to subordinates, within the family and without. Order may also require that family members live in harmony and community members share knowledge, surplus labor, and surplus resources. Since the absence of these circumstances characterizes extreme disorder, however, we cannot be sure the Mohists see them as part of the minimal conditions for order. Beyond these features, texts from the middle to late strata of the “Triads” tell us that order requires that the noble and wise govern over the foolish and lowly, rather than the other way around (Mz 9/2), and that rewards and punishments be distributed properly, the good being rewarded and the vicious punished (13/6). Moreover, since a central claim of their political thought is that order is achieved by leading everyone to follow unified moral norms, the Mohists may hold that order fully obtains only when such norms are generally observed. The achievement of order in this fullest sense would thus coincide with the universal practice of righteousness.
Besides linking disorder to disregard for others, the Mohists make a second, broader claim about its causes. In their political theory (described more fully in chapter 3
), they trace the roots of disorder to general disagreement about moral norms, or standards of righteousness. In a state of nature, they suppose, before government is established, people all act on different views of what is righteous. Members of society are all stubbornly convinced that their view is correct and others’ are wrong. This disagreement leads to rancor, violence, and thus disorder. So the root cause of disorder is disagreement about what counts as righteous.
The Mohists assume everyone will agree that disorder is disastrous for all. Moreover, they imply, people generally assume there should be a single, unified set of moral norms. In the state of nature, disorder arises precisely because people incessantly condemn one another for following what they each take to be the wrong norms—namely, norms different from their own. Accordingly, in the Mohists’ view, people value order enough that they will set aside
whatever else they disagree on to support a policy that eliminates disorder. The aim of the Mohist political program is to remove the second basic cause of disorder—disagreement about moral norms—by unifying everyone’s norms of righteousness. People will then agree in their value judgments, eliminating potential reasons for conflict. The plan is to use the political system to promulgate unified, objectively justified moral norms. If everyone can be persuaded or trained to follow these norms, society can be brought to order. At the same time, the first cause of disorder—acting with selfish disregard for others—can be resolved, since the Mohists hold that the norms adopted will not permit acting without regard for others. In their view, self-interest alone cannot provide practicable standards of righteousness (for more on this, see chapter 5
The emphasis on social order reflects the social or communitarian orientation of the Mohist project. For the Mohists, ethical issues are framed primarily at the level of society as a whole, not the individual agent. On this point, Chad Hansen rightly contrasts the Mohists with Socrates, the first Greek thinker to reflect critically on conventional mores in the way that Mòzǐ
did in China.2
Where Socrates’s question is individualistic—how should one live?—the Mohists’ is social: what system should we follow? Accordingly, the Mohist “Triads” are not directed mainly at individuals pondering how to live their lives or seeking to improve themselves. They are political tracts, addressed to “kings, dukes, ministers, officers, and gentlemen of the world”—that is, rulers, high-ranking officials, lower-level bureaucrats, and others of elite social status, who, if persuaded, had the power to change how society operated and bring order to “all the world.” In this respect, Mohist texts also contrast with Ruist and Daoist texts. Though deeply concerned with political issues, Ruist anthologies such as the Analects
, along with portions of the Xúnzǐ
, devote more space to addressing individual practitioners of the Ruist dào 道
, one of their chief aims being to coach them along the path. The Zhuāngzǐ
too takes up the question of the good life for the individual. By comparison, with the exception of some parts of the “Dialogues,” the Mòzǐ
approaches even personal moral improvement through the lens of society as a whole, asking not how I as an individual can become a better person but how all of us together can come to practice the dào
. The implication is not that the Mohists see individual moral development as unimportant; their doctrinal books do address individual agents, particularly officials of various ranks. But their theoretical and practical focus is social and collective. They see the dào
as inherently social and human life as inherently communal. The project of implementing the dào
and thus bringing order to the world is a collective, political undertaking, which can succeed only with staunch, judicious political guidance and broad community engagement.
Objectivity and Impartiality
The Mohists are clear that the moral standards by which we unify society and achieve order cannot be chosen arbitrarily, for if people see that the standards do not genuinely promote social and moral order, they will defy them (see chapter 3
). So a crucial question is, how do we determine the content of the unified norms of righteousness?
One possible answer is to appeal to ritual or ceremonial propriety (lǐ 禮
), a traditional code of etiquette specifying behavior appropriate for various social roles and situations. The Rú and perhaps other “gentlemen of the world” criticized by the Mohists maintain that we take the norms of ceremonial propriety, guided by the situational discretion of the virtuous gentleman, as a standard of conduct. The Analects
famously depicts Confucius as saying that benevolence (rén 仁
) lies in “overcoming the self and returning to ceremonial propriety.” Asked to elaborate, he says, “If not in accordance with ceremonial propriety, do not look. If not in accordance with ceremonial propriety, do not listen. If not in accordance with ceremonial propriety, do not speak. If not in accordance with ceremonial propriety, do not move” (LY
This suggests that the norms and practices of ceremonial propriety provide a comprehensive guide to conduct for someone aspiring to be a morally good person. Numerous passages describe the gentleman as someone who assiduously regulates his conduct by ceremonial propriety.4
One passage describes ceremonial propriety as the concrete means by which one practices righteousness: “The gentleman takes righteousness as his substance, puts it into practice through ceremonial propriety, expresses it with modesty, and completes it with trustworthiness” (15.18). The practice of ceremonial propriety is among the keys to effective government: “If one can govern a state by ceremonial propriety and deference, what difficulties can there be?” (4.13). For “if superiors are devoted to ceremonial propriety, the people are easy to command” (14.41).5
For some early Rú, social disorder might have amounted largely to a failure to conform to ceremonial propriety, which for them was a fundamental guide to proper behavior.6
Ceremonial propriety has a place in Mohist thought, but only a peripheral one. In a passage cited previously, for instance, disorder is associated with failure to conform to the ceremonial proprieties governing social relations (Mz
This passage thus takes the proper performance of at least some aspects of ceremonial propriety to be a constituent of social order. Since (as we will see in chapter 5
) the Mohists take order to be a basic good that partly determines
moral value, they may treat some aspects of ceremonial propriety as elements of the morally right social dào
Overall, though, the Mohists found the sort of conservative, traditionalist stance embodied in ceremonial propriety an unconvincing mora...