On the central Mohist text, collecting the teachings of Mozi (aka Mo Tzu), from the Chinese Warring States period around 430 B.C.E., with guest Tzuchien Tho joining Mark, Wes, Dylan, and Seth. The full book is very long, so we used the portions translated by Burton Watson in his Mo Tzu: Basic Writings (1963).
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Tzuchien was previously on our Confucius (aka Kongzi) episode, and as we’re next planning to do Mencius (aka Mengzi), the most prominent proponent of the Ru tradition after Confucius, Tzuchien suggested we cover Mozi, who was arguing with the Ruhists (Confucians) in between the two figures.
Whereas Confucius recommends respect for one’s parents as the prime ethical duty, Mozi argues that we should love everyone equally, not giving special weight to our family members. Like the other Chinese Warring States period philosophers, Mozi was especially interested in providing advice to leaders, and he warned against picking people for high office based on nepotism or wealth or beauty. Instead, pick the most qualified person, wherever they may come from.
Mozi is often considered the first consequentialist. A doctrine should be pursued, or a belief should be held, insofar as it will help the people. He attributed all the war that was happening at the time to partiality, to favoring one’s clan over others. War-mongering helps no one, or at least causes far more hurt than help, so only defensive wars should be waged.
In addition to looking to the practical consequences of a doctrine, Mozi (like his opponents) relied heavily on the models of ancient sage kings. Some of these kings had in fact waged war, and not always defensively. Mozi explained that in these cases, the sage-kings were acting out the Will of Heaven in punishing wicked leaders. The Mohists believed that Heaven rewards the virtuous and punishes the unrighteous. Why? Mozi claimed this was observable fact, recorded in ancient texts. It’s also common sense: The Will of Heaven is manifest in the reactions of the people. A bad leader by definition is one that’s abusive to the people, and if the people don’t support a regime, it won’t last long. If such a regime is invaded, the people will be happy to have new, less cruel leaders.
However, the more fundamental reason to believe that Heaven rewards the good and punishes the bad is, for Mozi, the fact that such a belief will motivate people to act well. Mozi argues against those who believe instead in fate: that one’s success in life is fundamentally out of our control, determined by a Heaven that doesn’t care if we act well or not. This doctrine, claims Mozi, drives people to stop trying; it leads to failure, and so is a bad doctrine. Mozi doesn’t actually make explicit this distinction between the truth of a doctrine and whether it has beneficial effects. Rather, he argues that both are the case: We should accept a doctrine because of its effects, because we can confirm it by observation (which mostly involves testimony, i.e. others’ observations), and because some of those observations concern the activities of the sage kings, which both Mozi and his opponents believed were models of virtue that we should emulate (though they therefore had different interpretations of what those virtues involved).
Another important Mohist doctrine is the idea that subordinates in a state should go along with the opinions of their leaders. Of course, the leaders should be virtuous (following their superior, the Son of Heaven, i.e. the Emperor, who in turn should be following Heaven itself), but conformity is important in itself, even if the superior is in error, because Mozi thought that diversity of thought leads to chaos, which (like for Hobbes) is so destructive so as to be avoided at all costs.
Mozi was also against music and excessive funeral rites, as these were just self-indulgence by the wealthy and did not contribute to the good of the people. Mozi says explicitly that human needs are for food, clothing, and shelter (enabling rest); he ignores any emotional or spiritual needs that might overrule these fundamental physical needs. Apart from these innately human physical needs, Mozi implies that human nature is wholly malleable, and that people will tend to (correctly) follow their leaders (and if they don’t, use physical punishment). So claiming that people just do inherently love their families more than others, that we are partial according to human nature, just doesn’t work for Mozi. People are perfectly capable of being impartial, and his argument for this is that impartiality produces the best effects: If you value your parents, the best way to care for them is actually to care for others’ parents too, because then the offspring of those other parents will reciprocate by caring for your parents. Because this doctrine (altruistic impartial love) is most beneficial to you, you can and should follow it, even if your love seems currently confined to your own family.