Philosophy 53 - 3.3.4 Mohism

The school of Mohism is named after the philosopher Mozi (c. 470–391 BCE), who lived immediately after Confucius and was critical of the Confucian school. Less is known about Mozi than Confucius because even the earliest Chinese histories relegated him to relative obscurity. He appears to have been a tradesman who was skilled in his craft and slowly rose through the ranks of civil society. He was trained in Confucianism but resisted the way Confucius was overly wedded to ritual and hierarchy. Mozi was a universalist, insisting on the equal value of all people, without preferential treatment for family, neighbors, and country. He was followed enthusiastically by his disciples, many of them tradespeople who found solace in his egalitarian approach to philosophical questions.

Mozi’s followers, known as Mohists, were numerous and intensely loyal during his life and immediately afterward. Stories from this time indicate that he held strict control over his disciples (Fung 1952). Mohism has had a much smaller influence on classical Chinese ethics and philosophy than Confucianism. The absence of immediate cultural relevance should not indicate that Mohism lacks philosophical importance. In fact, it may be argued that in many ways, Mozi is more philosophical in the contemporary sense of the word than Confucius. Whereas Confucius transmitted and codified the ritualistic values and customs of the Zhou dynasty, Mozi challenged traditional values by insisting on a more rational approach to ethics and a rejection of hierarchical norms. He derived his ethical system from first principles rather than tradition. Followers of Mohism developed an interest in traditional areas of philosophy that were neglected by the Confucians, such as logic, epistemology, and philosophy of language.

What is known of Mohism is derived from a collection of texts with obscure authorship, simply titled Mozi. The collection originally consisted of 71 texts written on bamboo strip scrolls, though 18 are missing and many have been corrupted through natural degradation. It is unclear how many of the texts were written by Mozi himself or even during his lifetime. It is likely that many of the doctrines surrounding epistemology, logic, and philosophy of language are later developments. The core of the texts consists of 10 three-part essays expounding on and defending the 10 main doctrines of the Mohist school. Those doctrines are presented in five pairs of principles: “Promoting the Worthy” and “Identifying Upward,” “Inclusive Care” and “Condemning Aggression,” “Moderation in Use” and “Moderation in Burial,” “Heaven’s Intent” and “Understanding Ghosts,” and “Condemning Music” and “Condemning Fatalism” (Fraser 2020a). The doctrines of inclusive care and anti-aggression are discussed below.

Inclusive Care and Anti-aggression

Perhaps the most central doctrine of Mohist philosophy is the principle that every human being is valued equally in the eyes of heaven (tian). With minimal religious or theological commitments, Mohists believe that heaven constitutes the eternal and ideal beliefs of a natural power or force that created and governs the universe. According to Mohists, it is apparent that heaven values every individual human being with exactly the same worth. In contrast to Confucius, who emphasized the importance of care with distinctions, Mozi advanced the doctrine of inclusive or impartial care, sometimes translated as “universal love.”

The doctrine of inclusive care leads directly to the doctrine of anti-aggression because the greatest threat to human well-being and care is aggression and war. Mozi lived during the period known as the Warring States period, immediately following the decline of the Zhou dynasty. During this period, local rulers fought for power in the absence of a strong central government. Mozi reasoned that the greatest calamities of the world are the result of wars between states, aggression between neighbors, and a lack of respect among family members. These calamities are the result of partiality in care—that is, thinking that one group of people has a greater value than another. Partiality of care is the basis of loyalty among families and nations, but it is also the source of enmity and hostility between families and nations (Fung 1952).

In defense of the principle of inclusive care, Mozi offers a sophisticated philosophical argument, developed in dialogue form. He starts with the observation that if other states, capitals, or houses were regarded as if they were one’s own, then one would not attack, disturb, or harm them. If one did not attack, disturb, or harm others, this would be a benefit to the world. Those who benefit and do not harm others are said to care for others and, therefore, to express inclusive or universal rather than partial care. Thus, inclusive care is the cause of benefit, while partial care is the cause of harm. The virtuous person should benefit the world, so the virtuous person should adopt inclusive care (Fung 1952). Mozi adds another argument by thought experiment: Imagine two people who are sincere, thoughtful, and otherwise identical in thought, word, and deed, except one of them believes in inclusive care while the other believes in partial care. Suppose you had to put your trust in one of the two people to protect yourself and your family. Which would you choose? He concludes that everyone would choose the person who believes in inclusive care, presumably because it would guarantee that their family would be protected and cared for just the same as anyone else. Trusting someone who believes in partial care only works if you know that the person is partial to you.

One of the key aspects of Mohist ethics is that Mozi asks about the appropriate rational basis for moral principles. Instead of starting from tradition and developing a system of ethics that conforms to and explains traditional views, as Confucius had, Mozi prefers to seek a rational ground for his ethical views. In particular, he asks about the appropriate “model” for ordering and governing society. He rejects any of the usual models, such as parents, teachers, and rulers, concluding that one cannot be certain that any of these people actually possess benevolence and therefore provide the right standard for ethical action. Instead, Mozi insists on finding an objective standard that is not fallible in the way a particular person or cultural tradition may be. Ultimately, the only acceptable model is heaven, which is entirely impartial in its concern for all human beings.

This sort of rational reasoning has led scholars to classify Mohism as a form of consequentialism, a philosophical approach that looks at the consequences of an action to determine whether it is moral.


The chapter on normative ethical theory explores Mohism as a type of consequentialism in further depth.

Think Like a Philosopher

What doctrines within Mohism and Confucianism might have made Confucianism the more popular choice for Chinese rulers?

Mohist Epistemology

The search for “models” sets Mohism apart in terms of its philosophical grounding. Mohists consider a wide range of possible candidates for models, including a rule, law, or definition; a person (i.e., a role model); and a tool or measuring device, such as a yardstick or compass. There are three different types of standards or models for assessing the value of anything: its root (the historical precedent), its source (the empirical basis), and its use (whether it produces benefit). The third standard has priority and reinforces the pragmatic character of Mohism. The purpose of a model is to help a student better follow the way (dao). The fact that there are so many different types of models reflects the fact that there are so many different practical contexts in which one needs to understand the appropriate way to act. Models are applied to practical situations not as a principle or premise in an argument but rather as a prototype for the purpose of selecting things of a certain kind and casting off things that do not conform to that prototype. “The central questions for early Chinese thinkers are not What is the truth, and how do we know it? but What is the dao (way), and how do we follow it?” (Fraser 2020a).

Knowledge, for Mohists, is based on the concept of “recognition” or “knowledge of.” This sort of knowledge involves being able to reliably pick out what a given word means rather than understanding or conceptualizing the word. This can be illustrated by a passage in which Mozi says that the blind do not know white and black, not because they are unable to use the terms white and black correctly, but because they are not able to select the things that are white and differentiate them from the things that are black. For Mohists, there is little value in investigating the conceptual or ideal nature of terms like white and black. The focus is, instead, entirely practical: they want to be able to distinguish the things that are white from the things that are black. It is not necessary to know the essence or nature of something in order to be able to reliably distinguish it from other things. Similarly, Mohists have little interest in seeking justifications or foundations of knowledge. Such justifications are unnecessary in order to make the correct distinctions, which is the primary aim of knowledge. Reliable and consistently correct identification is what counts as knowledge, not having access to the right rational justifications or definitions (Fraser 2020a).

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