The Ethics of Mozi: Social Organization and Impartial Care

Author: Henrique Schneider
Categories: Chinese Philosophy, Ethics, Social and Political Philosophy
Word count: 994

Mo Di, or Mozi[1], (墨子, c. 470 – c. 391 BCE) is the founding figure of Mohism, a philosophical, social, and self-defense movement during the Warring States era (479–221 BCE) in China.

Mohism, as much of early Chinese philosophy, ties ethics and political philosophy into a system that has as its goal to establish social order.[2]

Mohists argue that the correct ethical standards are the ones that maximize the well-being of the community, that partiality—believing our primary ethical obligations are towards our own familiesdoes not maximize the well-being of the community, and so the correct ethical standard requires treating people with “impartial care.” Impartial care becomes the main principle for organizing a community or a state.

This essay explains their arguments.

Mozi 墨翟
Mozi 墨翟

1. Rejecting Confucianism

Context helps understand the novelty of Mohism, which was the first philosophical alternative to Confucianism. There are many differences between the two.

Regarding individual actions, Mohists maintain that the moral value of an act depends on its consequences: they are consequentialists. Confucians focus on the virtue of the agent, the social role they perform, and the rituals they follow: they accept a form of virtue ethics.

About political and social philosophy, Mohist consequentialism argues that the value of a political system depends on its increasing good consequences or utility for the whole community. Confucians believe that a social system is a network of people acting virtuously, according to their roles and following religious and social rituals.[3]

These two differences become especially salient regarding Confucian partiality. Confucianism focuses on cultivating emotions and attitudes which align agents with their roles in their families.[4] Confucians believe that people have a primary ethical obligation toward their own families.

The virtue determining this relationship is filial piety. It requires people to develop and act on emotions of special love for their parents, including putting them above other social relationships: e.g., Confucius explains that a virtuous son supports his father, for example by lying or standing by the father’s actions, even when the elder acts criminally.[5]

  1. Partiality as a Problem

Mohists reject this partiality. Instead, they imagine every person to be part of a community of equals: the correct ethical standard maximizes the utility of this community as a whole also benefits all people in that community. This is because a single person’s well-being is a function of the quality of life of the whole community, and not an individual standard.[6]

The utility of the community can be increased if rules, or laws, were common to all and followed accordingly. The Mohist ideal holds that the scope of a community could extend beyond the border of community, country, or culture to encompass, ultimately, all humans.[7]

Partiality, by contrast, benefits some people at the expense of others and, therefore, at the expense of the community. The core Confucian virtue of filial piety urges people to behave partially to their own families. For Mohists, the Confucian example for filial piety (e.g., the son’s lying to benefit the criminally-acting father) shows how partiality leads to arbitrariness and opposing common rules and laws. For Mohists, a son helping his illegally acting father is unethical: it is detrimental to the common good.

The problems of partiality do not end there: it also leads to political factionalism and divisions. People acting with partiality towards their family will try to maximize the family’s political benefits: e.g., they try to endow family members with government posts or with economic stipends. Advancing these partial goals at the expense of the whole community or country is detrimental to the common good, which leads to conflict. Taking this a step further, if each country only watches out for its own benefit at the expense of others, conflict, and even war, results.

3. Jian ai: Impartial Care

The Mohist response to Confucianism focuses on concrete social behavior rather than emotions and attitudes partial to one’s family. The core of these arguments is the concept of jian ai, impartial care (兼愛).[8] There are two main aspects to this idea.

First, addressing individual agents, jian ai involves the attitude of dispassionate concern about the welfare of others. Agents should care equally for all the agents with whom they interact; they ought to be concerned for the welfare of others without making distinctions between self, relatives, associates, and strangers. The same ethical standard dictates all actions, regardless of the agents’ personal relationships. Typical Mohist examples are applying the law and exercising charity. The law should be applied to all people equally, including one’s parents. Charity should be directed to those who need it most, even if they are not one’s relatives.[9]

Second, impartial care includes all people in a community and eventually encompasses everybody in human society. The way for doing so is to begin in one’s immediate community. This occurs by treating each person as equal before the law and each’s needs as equally important—without prejudice in distinguishing between nobility and commoners or by family members and outsiders.[10]

For organizing the community based on jian ai, Mohists rely on a formula: the action to always take is the one that increases the common good because by doing so, the community and the single person therein benefit.

This formula applies on an individual as well as social level, implementing impartial care in practice. This, in turn, leads to a series of political consequences, such as the rejection of offensive warfare, the call for public duty for “commoners” and “nobles” alike, and the relationship-independent application of the law. In Mohism, ethics lead to the organization of the community.

4. Conclusion

The community is scalable. The Mohist goal is to turn all communities into one. If all communities were organized along the same principles, they would eventually merge and become a “global” political conglomerate built upon jian ai, and therefore, ordered as well as peaceful. While not advocating a “global government” Mohists think of a “global community.” Mohism aspires to be a general philosophy encompassing all-under-heaven, tian xia (天下), or, the whole of the world.

Notes

[1] Mo Di was the name of the person. The attribution of the title zi, “Master”, to him, turns his Chinese name into Mozi, “Mo, (the) Master.” According to the contemporary norm, Mo Di refers to the person while the Mozi refers to the book in which the person’s teachings are recorded. Mohism, yet another term, refers to the school of thought based on the book of Mozi. While the book is attributed to the person Mo Di, it is a compilation of his teachings as well as his followers’ interpretations and additions. Both the nomenclature as well as the reception of a master’s oeuvre are usual in early Chinese philosophy. For further biographical and bibliographical history of the Mozi, see Knoblock and Riegel 2013.

[2] Refer to Fraser 2016, “Chapter 3: Political Theory: Order Through Shared Norms.”

[3] Fraser 2016.

[4] Rosemont 2016.

[5] Confucius, Analects, 13:18.

[6] Mohism, and early Chinese philosophy in general, does not have a conception of the individual. The single human person is an agent always embedded in a community. The question is, then, what is the community? Confucians consider it to be the kinship group, Mohists the whole human society.

[7] In Mohism, there are two ways of understanding the community. Regarding ethics, the community is the whole human society. Regarding political philosophy, the community is the state. This differentiation has to do with the specific context in which Mohism operates. While on the one hand it develops a general philosophy and ethics, on the other, it is practically geared at giving advice to the political states of its time. Mohism, however, does not perceive this dual understanding of the community as a problem, since the aims of both, the increase of welfare, are able to be aligned – and indeed, should be aligned if everyone it to be treated equally.

[8] “Jian” means together, or jointly; and “ai” means love, or care. “Jian ai” has been translated into English as “universal love” as well as “impartial care”, the latter being more adequate, since Mohism is more concerned with concrete behavior than with emotional or mental states.

[9] Fraser 2016, “Chapter 6: Inclusive Care: For Others as for Oneself.”

[10] Knoblock and Riegel 2013.

References

Fraser, Chris. The philosophy of the Mòzĭ: the First Consequentialists. New York City: Columbia University Press, 2016.

Ivanhoe, Philip J. “Mohist Philosophy.” Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy. London and New York: Routledge, 1998.

Knoblock, John, and Jeffrey Riegel. Mozi: A Study and Translation of the Ethical and Political Writings, Berkeley: Institute of East Asian Studies, University of California, 2013.

Rosemont Jr. “Henry. Rights-Bearing Individuals and Role-Bearing Persons.” Confucian Role Ethics: A Moral Vision for the 21st Century? (Henry, Rosemont Jr. and Roger T. Ames eds.). Göttingen: V&R unipress, 2016: pp. 33-58.

Slingerland, Edward (Trans.). Analects: With selections from traditional commentaries. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing, 2003.

For Further Reading

Defoort, Carine, and Nicolas Standaert. The Mozi as an evolving text: Different voices in early Chinese thought. Leiden: Brill, 2013.

Johnston, Ian. The Mozi: A Complete Translation. Hong Kong: Chinese University of Hong Kong Press, 2009. A reworked translation has been published as a Penguin Classic: Mo Zi: The Book of Master Mo. London: Penguin, 2013.

Harris, Eirik, and Henrique Schneider (eds.). Special Issue on Chinese Philosophy: The Philosophy of Mozi – Impartial Caring in the Warring States Era. The Philosophical Forum Quarterly Volume 51, Issue 1, 2020.

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About the Author

Henrique Schneider is a professor of economics at the Nordakademie in Elmshorn and Hamburg, Germany. His research addresses economics and philosophy, as well as early Chinese philosophy, especially Legalism. His book on a Chinese legalistic philosopher, Hanfei, An Introduction to the Political Philosophy of Hanfei (Cambridge Scholars Press) was published in 2018. https://www.nordakademie.de/die-nordakademie/team/ 

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