Mozi (Mo Tzu)
Objective Standards and Utility
Origins of the School
Mozi (Mo Tzu: ca. 490-403 BC) was China's first true philosopher. Mozi pioneered the argumentative essay style and constructed the first normative and political theories. He formulated a pragmatic theory of language that gave classical Chinese philosophy its distinctive character. Speculations about Mozi's origins highlight the social mobility of the era. The best explanation of the rise of Mohism links it to the growth in influence of crafts and guilds in China. Mohism became influential when technical intelligence began to challenge traditional priestcraft in ancient China. The "Warring States" demand for scholars perhaps drew him from the lower ranks of craftsmen. Some stories picture him as a military fortifications expert. His criticisms show that he was also familiar with the Confucian priesthood.
The Confucian defender, Mencius, (371-289 BC) complained that the "words of Mozi and Yang Zhu fill the social world." Mozi advocated utilitarianism (using general welfare as a criterion of the correct daoguiding discourse) and equal concern for everyone. The Mohist movement eventually spawned a school of philosophy of language (called Later Mohists) which in turn influenced the mature form of both Daoism (Zhuangzi ca 360 BC) and Confucianism (Xunzi 298-238 BC).
The core Mohist text has a deliberate argumentative style. It uses a balanced symmetry of expression and repetition that aids memorization and enhances effect. Symmetry and repetition are natural stylistic aids for Classical Chinese, which is an extremely analytic language (one that relies on word order rather than part-of-speech inflections). Three rival accounts of most of the important sections survive in the Mozi.
Objective Standards and Utility
The "craft theory" of Mohism helps us explain the distinctive character of disciplined philosophical thought in China. As the Mohists analyze moral debates, they turn on which standards we should use to guide our execution of moral instructions. Mozi's orientation was that the standards should be measurement-like, e.g., like a carpenter's plumb line or square. Measurement-like standards lend themselves to reliable application. Experts do better than novices, but everyone can get good results. He tries to extend this reliability-based approach to questions of how to fix the reference of moral terms. Mozi does not think of moral philosophy as a search for the ultimate moral principle. It is the searches for a constant standard of moral interpretation and guidance.
Mozi attacks commonsense traditionalism (Confucianism) as a prelude to his argument for the utility standard. The attack shows that traditionalism is unreliable or inconstant. Mozi tells a story of a tribe that kills and eats their first born sons. We cannot, he observes, accept that this tradition is yimoral or renbenevolent. This illustrates, he argues, the error of treating tradition as a standard for the application of such terms. We need some extra-traditional standard to identify which tradition is right. Which should we make the constant social guide (dao)? For it to give constant guidance, we also need measurement-like standards for applying its terms of moral approval.
Mozi then proposed utility as the appropriate measurement standard for these joint purposes. We use it in selecting among moral traditions, neither directly to choose particular actions nor to formulate rules. The body of moral discourse to promote and encourage is the one that leads to social behavior that maximizes general utility. How does he justify the moral status of utility itself? He argues that it is the natural preference (tiannature:sky zhiurge).
Constancy and Nature
The appeal to tian thus becomes an important component of Mozi's argument. In ancient China, tian was the traditional source of political authority ("the mandate of heaven"). Early Confucianism had "naturalized" tian from what many assume was an archaic deity to something more like "the course of nature." Its main characteristic (besides its moral authority) was that it's movement was changconstant.
Mozi exploited both the connotations of tian's authority and its constancy. Traditions are variable-they differ in different places and times. If we don't like its traditions, we can flee from a family, a society, even a kingdom. We cannot similarly escape the constancies of nature. Natural constancies thus become plausible candidates to arbitrate between rival traditions. To say a dao was constant functioned a little like saying it was objectively true.
The constant "natural" urge he identified was a comparatively measurable one-we imagine ourselves "weighing" benefits against harms. Thus, he proposed using the preference for benefit as a reliable, natural standard for choosing and interpreting traditional practices. We count as 'moral' and 'benevolent' those traditional discourses that promote utility. The natural urge to utility, he says, is like a compass or a square. It does not depend on a cultivated intuition or indoctrination.
Society's moral reform takes place when we reform the social daoguiding discourse. People educated in this discourse internalize its and the resulting disposition is called their devirtuosity. (The compound dao-de is the standard translation of 'ethics'.) Our devirtuosity produces a course of action in actual situations. Whether the course produced by discourse like "When X do Y" is successful or not depends on what we identify as "X" and "not-X" in the situation. For social coordination, we train people to make these distinctions in similar ways. The key to reforming guiding discourse is to reforming how we make distinctions, e.g. the distinction between 'moral' and 'immoral'.
Mozi understands the training process in several related ways. (1) We emphasize or make a different set of distinctions the dominant ones--hence we promote different words as disposition guides. For example, he says the ruler should use the word jianuniversal and not the word biepartial. If he speaks and thinks that way, he will be a more benevolent ruler. Society should make the benefit-promoting words the constant words in our social discourse. (2) We reform how we make the distinctions associated with terms that remain the same. For example, we will assign different things to shiright and feiwrong. (3) We can change the order of terms in the guiding discourse--use it to give different advice.
Notice that Mozi's posture as a moral reformer puts him in an argumentative bind that is related to one faced by Utilitarianism in the West. He admits he is challenging existing judgments and intuitions. What is the status of the principle he uses in proposing his alternative? How can he make his alternative seem other than immoral to someone from within that tradition? How can a moral reformer get over the impasse posed by conflicting moral intuitions?
One possibility emerges in another of Mozi's philosophical stories. He uses this story to criticize Confucian pro-family and "partial" moral attitudes. He depicts a conscript leaving his family to make war. It argues that if he were concerned about his family, he would want those to whom he entrusts them to adopt an attitude of universal concern. He would, Mozi argues, not seek out a person with "partial" moral attitudes. His family-centered, partial moral attitude is "inconstant" in the sense that it leads him to prefer that others have universal rather than partial attitudes. He would achieve his "partial" goals only if the public morality were altruistic. Confucian partiality is "inconstant" in that it recommends a public daoguiding discourse that is inconsistent with it. It can not consistently recommend itself as the collective social dao.
Mozi's analysis shows Chinese thought has a notion of morality as independent from social conventions and history. However, it neither ties morality to the familiar Western concept of "reason" nor to principles or maxims that function within a belief-desire psychology. His focus is on the contrasting terms, benefit/harm, not on the sentence "do what maximizes benefit." The concept is a standard against which we measure social discourse as a whole. The standard is not a principle of reason; it is a natural preference distinction. The objects of evaluation are not actions or rules, they are bodies of discourse and widespread courses of action.
The psychological and conceptual structure of Mozi's moral analysis treats human nature as social and malleable. Human malleability derives from our tendency to learn, to mimic, to seek support and approval from those we respect-our social superiors. It derives also from the effect of language on "inner programming."
Mozi promotes renhumanity as the appropriate utilitarian disposition-the virtue of benevolence. He links it to his choice of universal over partial "love." Mozi acknowledges that instilling universal moral concern requires social reinforcement--official promotion and encouragement. Mozi's social theory of shang-tongagreeing with the superior describes the system that brings this about. Here Mozi gives a familiar justification of a system of authority. It will remind us of Thomas Hobbes state of nature.
Why, Mozi asks, do we choose ordered society over anarchy-the original state of nature. His description of the latter is of a state of inefficiency and waste. One important difference from the Western parallel is that Mozi sees humans as naturally moral creatures who disagree on their moral purposes. Prior to society, he says, humans had different yimorality. They end up in conflicts fueled by moral judgments. They cannot agree on what is shiright and feiwrong. It is clear, Mozi says, that the bad situation arises from the absence of a zhangelder. So [we] select a worthy man and name him tian-zinatural master. He then selects others of worth and creates the governing hierarchy. The hierarchy organizes us to harmonizes our yimorality, our use of shithis:right and feinot-this:wrong. We report "up" what we view as shithis:right and feinot-this:wrong; if the superior endorses it (shi-s it) then we all call it shi. If he fei-s it, I do too, even if I originally reported it as shi.
Another difference from Hobbes is the absence from Mozi's account of any notion of law or retributive punishment. The superior punishes people in Mozi's political world for failing to join in the utility-preserving system that coordinates attitudes, but not for violating anything like promulgated rules. He "promulgates" only moral judgments and social agreement is analogous to judicial conformity to precedent and higher court rulings. The judgment that something is shiright is equivalent to choosing it. Society gains through coordination of behavior and the efficiency of a "constant" daoguiding discourse.
While we harmonize our shi-fei judgments with those the ruler, he does not have arbitrary discretion in his assignments of shi-feiright-wrong. He must "conform upward" too and for the ruler the higher authority is tian and the natural standard of utility. Since all humans have access to that natural measurement standard. Ultimately we "conform upward" only when we correctly use the utility standard in judgment. Still, agreement is itself a utilitarian good, so we report our judgments up, and join in the general acceptance of the judgment that comes down.
This difficulty in making the political system coherent illustrates an implicit tension between the reforming utility standard that is accessible to everyone and Mozi's continued need for a traditional social authority. The tension becomes explicit in Mozi's account of three fameasurement standards for yanlanguage. He lists first the model of past sage kings. Second, he observes the importance of standards to which ordinary people have access "through their eyes and ears." Clear, measurement-like standards can be applied by "even the unskillful" with good results. He lists the pragmatic appeal to usefulness third. While it anchors his reform spirit, he clearly recognizes the importance of historical and traditional patterns in determining correct usage.
Mozi applies his standards in a famous set of arguments concerning 'spirits' and 'fate'. He appeals to what the sage kings and old literature say, what people in general say, using their "eyes and ears" and, most importantly, what effects on behavior will result from saying "spirits exist" vs. " spirits do not exist" or "there is fate" vs. "there is no fate." Mozi acknowledges that there may be no spirits. Still, he argues, the standards of language all weigh in favor of saying 'exists' of them. He characterizes his conclusion as knowing the daoway of 'existence-nonexistence'. Knowing how to deploy this distinction is knowing to say 'exists' of spirits and 'does not exist' of fate. We change the content of discourse via making the 'exist-not exist' distinction in a particular way.
Mohism died out when the emerging imperial dynastic system promoted a Confucian orthodoxy. Mozi's long-term influence is controversial. Confucian histories treat Mohism as a brief, inconsequential interlude of "Western Style thought." However, his influence arguably shaped Confucian orthodoxy as much as Confucius did. Mozi forced later classical Confucians thinkers to defend their normative theory philosophically and in doing so, they adopted his terms of analysis and many of his key ethical attitudes. Paradoxically, the vehicle for the absorption of Mohist ideas was his chief detractor, Mencius, who effectively abandoned traditionalism and constructed a Confucian version of benevolence-based naturalism that was implicitly universal.
Daoism, similarly, grew out of a relativistic analysis of the Confucian-Mohist debate. Arguably, we owe to Mozi the fact that Chinese philosophy exists. Without him, Confucianism might never have risen above "wise man" sayings and Daoism might have languished as nothing more than a "Yellow Emperor" cult.
Mei, Y. P.. 1929 The Ethical and Political Works of Mo-tse (London: Arthur Probsthain) .
Graham, Angus. 1978 Later Mohist Logic, Ethics and Science (Hong Kong and London: Chinese University Press) .
Hansen, Chad. 1989 "Mozi: Language Utilitarianism: The Structure of Ethics in Classical China," The Journal of Chinese Philosophy 16 pp. 355-380.
Hansen, Chad. 1992 A Daoist Theory of Chinese Thought (New York: Oxford University Press)
Mei, Y. P.. 1934 Mo-tse, the Neglected Rival of Confucius (London: Arthur Probsthain) .