Philosophy 169 - 9.2.1 Mohism

A map of the Warring States period in ancient China(ca. 475-221 BCE) shows parts of China with social unrest and discord.
Figure 9.2 The Warring States period (ca. 475–221 BCE) saw intense warfare as older states located along the Yellow River declined and Qin, Qi, and Chu rose until Qin conquered the others in 221 BCE and established an imperial government. (attribution: Copyright Rice University, OpenStax, under CC BY 4.0 license)

The Warring States period in ancient China (ca. 475–221 BCE) was a period of widespread social unrest and discord, one characterized by warfare, suffering, and a fractured society. Thinkers in ancient China responded by exploring ways to unite people and discover (or rediscover) moral norms and standards that would promote a better life and social harmony. Philosophies like Mohism, Confucianism, and Daoism were developed, making it a period marked by intellectual and cultural expansion. These philosophies, while different in important respects, are similar in that each is born as a response to the social disharmony and widespread suffering experienced during the Warring States period. Each one shows a desire to facilitate and foster change in order to overcome social challenges and improve the lives of the people.

Very little is known about the founder of Mohism, Mo Di or Mozi (ca. 430 BCE). He lived around the time of Confucius (ca. 479 BCE), the founder of Confucianism, and Laozi, the founder of Daoism. Mozi, like Confucius and Laozi, was considered a great teacher. He and early Mohists sought to establish rational, objective standards for evaluating actions and establishing ethical norms.

Four Concepts of Mohist Ethical Theory

Four interrelated concepts are at the heart of Mohist ethical theory: morality, benefit, benevolence, and care. Morality (yi) is determined by benefit (li), which shapes how we understand our duties and define what is right. Benefit (li) is defined loosely as a set of material and social goods, including virtues and practices that strengthen social order. Benefit, in turn, rested on the concept of benevolence or kindness (rèn), which requires that we look outside our own interests and treat others with care (ài). Practicing kindness is crucial for promoting social order and fair treatment. Mohists believed that we are more likely to achieve social stability and general welfare when we focus not simply on ourselves, but the betterment of others and the community.

Mohists thought ethical norms should be established by looking at what increases overall benefit. To this end, Mozi argued that we should promote the immediate welfare of individuals and consider the welfare of all when acting. If people are suffering or in need now, it makes sense, Mozi thought, to address those issues first.

As the theory developed, Mohists also came to associate benefit with happiness or delight (). However, most essential to Mohism is the value of impartial care of all, or universal love. They thought we should treat everyone impartially and that we shouldn’t give preference to some people’s welfare over others. Mohists opposed the rulers and elites during the Warring States period who had focused only on their own pleasure and gain to the detriment of everyone else.

Normative Practices: The Ten Doctrines

There are ten doctrines that form the core of early Mohism. These ten doctrines correspond to Mozi’s original work, and they were treated as central even by later Mohists who developed and expanded upon early Mohist thinking. The ten doctrines are normally split into five pairs as follows:

  1. “Promoting the Worthy” and “Identifying Upward”
  2. “Inclusive Care” and “Condemning Aggression”
  3. “Moderation in Use” and “Moderation in Burial”
  4. “Heaven’s Intent” and “Understanding Ghosts”
  5. “Condemning Music” and “Condemning Fatalism”

The “Promoting the Worthy” and “Identifying Upward” doctrines highlight the Mohists’ concern for a meritocratic system. They believed that an individual should be appointed to a position based on their performance and moral goodness. These officials should serve as models to all. Mohists assumed that people are motivated to act in ways that conform to their beliefs about what is right. They therefore believed that people needed proper moral education informed by rational, objective moral standards. Once people possess the proper knowledge, they conform their behavior accordingly. This, in turn, would address the social upheaval and disharmony that plagued their world. Mozi realized that if people adopt the same morality, they will use the same standards to judge their own actions and the actions of others, which will improve social order and harmony.

The “Inclusive Care” and “Condemning Aggression” doctrines affirm the importance of considering and caring for everyone equally. They reinforce the idea that it is not just the individual’s own benefit that matters, but the benefit of all people. Mohists therefore condemn aggression because others are harmed in the pursuit of personal benefit. During a period in which warlord battled against warlord, Mohists condemned these attempts at military conquest as selfishly immoral.

Mohists promoted the practices of “Moderation in Use” and “Moderation in Burial.” They rejected lavish funerals, customs, and practices that were wasteful. Resources should be used to the benefit of individuals and society. They viewed excessive displays of wealth that only benefit the few as selfish.

Mohists use the ideas of “Heaven’s Intent” and “Understanding Ghosts” to argue that there is an objective moral world order that individuals and society should hasten to emulate. Heaven acts as their principal standard for evaluating and understanding our moral responsibilities.

Early Mohists, in particular, also saw heaven as way to motivate individuals to act selflessly, as moral deeds would be rewarded, whereas immoral ones would be punished. Later, however, Mohists seemed to abandon or at least put less emphasis on this appeal to heaven to justify ethical norms and principles, favoring a greater emphasis on rational argumentation.

Finally, Mohists promoted the norms of “Condemning Music” and “Condemning Fatalism.” The Mohist views on music stemmed from their condemnation of the powerful for being wasteful when they enjoyed lavish displays and luxuries. They felt those with wealth had a responsibility to others and should behave morally.

Mohists also believed in social mobility, such that capable, moral individuals should rise. Their support of meritocracy further underscores a belief that the individual has the power to change, to direct their own life, and to determine their own path. The Mohists condemn fatalism because it suggests that human effort is futile and undermines Mohist goals of achieving social order and a large and economically thriving population. Mohists believed that our lot in life is not set in stone, nor does fate determine our path (Fraser 2020).

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