Philosophy 202 - 11.1.2 Mohism in China

Roughly 8,000 miles east of the birthplace of The Republic, a group of thinkers called Mohists were engaged in similar conversations about justice and governance. Mohism arose during China’s Warring States era (481–221 BCE), a period of great social upheaval. Though this conflict was eventually resolved by the unification of the central states and the establishment of the Qin dynasty, the constant shifting of political boundaries led to a massive exchange of cultural, economic, and intellectual information. For this reason, this era is also known as the “‘hundred schools’ of thought” period (Fraser 2020, xi). The chapter on normative moral theory discusses the central tenets of Mohist thought; this section will examine its political ideals.

The Book of Mozi

The central tenets of Mohism can be found in the Mozi, an important text in Chinese philosophy. Compiled by followers of the teacher and reformer Mo Di, or Mozi (470–391 BCE), the Mozi explores a range of topics, including logic, economics, science, and political and ethical theory. Like Plato’s Republic, the Mozi explores what constitutes virtuous behavior and arrives at ideas of universal love and benevolence. Mohists evaluate behavior according to how well it benefits others. Governance should focus on how best to promote social welfare. The morality of an action or policy is determined by its outcome. According to the Mozi, aggression and injury to others, even in military operations, should be opposed.

Connections

The chapter on normative moral theory covers consequentialism in greater detail.

The Mohist Ruler in China

The Mohists believed that individuals are essentially good and want to do what is morally right, but they often lack an understanding of moral norms. Therefore, a virtuous and benevolent ruler is necessary to provide a standard of moral education and behavior. The Mozi describes social disorder in antiquity:

In the beginning of human life, when there was yet no law and government, the custom was “everybody according to his own idea.” Accordingly each man had his own idea, two men had two different ideas and ten men had ten different ideas—the more people the more different notions. And everybody approved of his own view and disapproved the views of others, and so arose mutual disapproval among men. (Mozi n.d., I.1)

To combat this disorder and establish a form of peaceful cooperation, it became necessary to identify a ruler. Thus, “Heaven” chose a sage ruler, “crown[ing] him emperor” and “charging him with the duty of unifying the wills in the empire” (Mozi n.d., II.2).

The sage ruler in turn chose three wise ministers to help him. However, they realized “the difficulty of unifying all the peoples in mountains and woods and those far distant,” so they further divided the empire and appointed feudal lords as local rulers, who in turn chose “ministers and secretaries and all the way down to the heads of districts and villages, sharing with them the duty of unifying the standards in the state” (Mozi n.d., II.2). Once this governmental hierarchy was established, the ruler issued an edict to the people to report moral misconduct among both the citizenry and the leaders. In this way, the Mozi says, people would behave judiciously and act in good character.

In the Warring States period, Mohism competed with Confucianism. With the rise of the Qin and Imperial dynasties that followed, it declined, although many of its tenets were absorbed into Confucianism, whose influence in China lasted over 2,000 years.

The content of this course has been taken from the free Philosophy textbook by Openstax