Writing during the calamitous Warring States period of Chinese history, Mozi was unlike any of his contemporaries. He was ardently opposed to wasteful government spending, loathed aggressive foreign wars, and believed government positions should be held by the best for the job, not just those with familial and political connections. His political philosophy can be characterized as the first‐ever form of consequentialism.
Hello and happy new year to everyone listening. I posted a poll on twitter asking what kind of philosophy people would like to see covered on the show and Chinese philosophy just barely won in a pretty even race. If you want to suggest someone I should cover on the podcast pop on twitter and look up Portraits of Liberty. Without any more stalling. Today I will be covering Mozi, a philosopher from ancient China who challenged much of the traditional mores of Chinese society at the time. Though Mozi was writing over two thousand years ago his ideas of how society ought to be are still relevant today.
Very little can be stated with any real certainty on the life of Mozi. Scholars agree he was born in the state of Lu, what is today known as the Shandong Province in China, at some time around 470BC and died in 391BC. Besides these very basic undisputed details on Mozi and although his life is recorded and discussed by various followers and critics, the precise details of his life are largely unknown to us. But I can’t just say he was born, died, and then call it a day. So I do my best to describe the kind of lad Mozi was according to stories told about him, not a perfect method, but the best and only one at my disposal.
Mozi was born into a lower‐class family or, at the very least, a family that had fallen from any position of prestige or power. There is a wide variance of stories about Mozi, but all portray him as a commoner, not a man of wealth or power. Some have even theorized that Mozi was possibly some sort of laborer or convict due to his name. Mo translates roughly to ink; scholars have extrapolated that his name might have referred to his dark skin from laboring in the sun or possibly a reference to a tattoo or branding mark, punishments reserved for criminals. Stories about Mozi often comment on his lower status, with him having no qualms with hard manual labor, unlike other philosophical types who very much shied away from any form of dirty work. Mozi was also renowned as a carpenter and later even a specialist in defensive warfare, building and designing impressive fortifications. Another hint at Mozi’s common status is that his analogies and metaphors often center around trades that ordinary people and artisans would perform.
Despite his status, through hard work, Mozi served as a minister for a short while. Following this stint as a minister, he established an organization of followers to articulate and spread his message. His followers compiled his philosophy into a book named after him simply entitled Mozi. When we read Mozi, we are, in fact, reading a book compiled by multiple people at different times and refined over time. This is a common occurrence in Classical Chinese philosophy. For example, Confucius’ Analects were attributed to Confucius but compiled by his students and subsequently, followers. But regardless, Mozi was the face and personality of the movement now called Mohism. To understand what kind of philosophy Mohism was, we will need a bit more historical context.
Mozi was born and lived through a period of Chinese history known as the Warring States period, that began with the Zhou dynasty’s weakening, which had started to rely on armies supplied from allied states. The empire comprised a number of states of which the seven key ones, vying for independence and dominion over others leading to a multitude of wars from 535–286BC. Warfare also shifted dramatically, with aristocrats on chariots no longer the norm being replaced by masses of infantry, drawn from the peasantry. With aristocrats no longer frontline fighters essential to protecting the state, their influence waned, and one‐person despotism became more and more common. The continuous war between rulers each attempting the Herculean task of unifying China under their leadership, led to destruction, famine, and death, with, as ever, the poorest bearing the brunt of the misery whilst the nobility remained unaffected in their opulent palaces.
With all of this chaos, people began to think of how they could fix this mess and restore some semblance of order. New schools of thought sprung up to diagnose and cure the disease of this chaos before it swallowed the country whole. Scholars roamed the country, attempting to convince rulers to follow their philosophies and policies. Classical Chinese philosophy tends to stray away from standalone questions like logic, favoring a more grounded approach by focusing on relations between individuals, community, and the state.
Chinese philosophers talked about the Dao or the way, a natural structure of the world that can be uncovered and understood through reflection. Straying from the way is the cause of chaos and disorder. But there were multiple ways to go depending on who you ask. Legalists would tell you to create a strong state with rigid standardization. A Daoist would tell to cultivate wu‐Wei, effortless action. Daoists believed the way could not be understood in terms of language and instead must be found through effortless action, or as we might say, going with the flow to some degree.
Judging by how well he understood their doctrines, it is possible that at one point, Mozi was part of a school known as Confucianism. Some stories say Mozi used to be a Confucian while others make no mention of it, so as always with Mozi, we simply cannot be certain..
Confucians’ idea of order was based upon everyone understanding and performing one’s role. Now you don’t get a choice in what role you perform. We are all born into our roles, and changing them according to Confucians will upset the order of things. The ideal society for Confucius was one in which “the ruler being a ruler, the minister being a minister, the father being a father, and the son being a son.” Additionally, Confucians believed the best way to train a person to have good character was to follow the example set down by the ancient sage kings of the past. Confucius in Analects says, “I transmit rather than innovate. I trust in and love the ancient ways.” With this reverence for the past came a reverence for tradition, mainly through the practice of elaborate rituals. Confucius advised, “If it is contrary to ritual, don’t look at it. If it is contrary to ritual, don’t listen to it. If it is contrary to ritual, don’t utter it. If it is contrary to ritual, don’t do it.” Confucianism was based upon maintaining order through tradition and a rigid hierarchy. Confucians generally often contrasted the righteous man with the petty man or commoner. They had little faith in the average person when compared to those of high status.
Mozi found himself strongly opposed to Confucianism with its rigidity and constant appeals to tradition. Mozi established his school of thought to counter, what he believed to be, the errors of Confucianism. Followers of various schools usually came from privileged backgrounds, not in Mozi’s case. A man of lowborn status himself, Mozi welcomed artisans, soldiers, and farmers, something unheard of for a philosophical school. Mozi was an enigmatic leader who seemingly inspired great loyalty amongst his followers and who lived an austere life traveling around the war torn lands attempting to bring order again. But Mozi’s followers were not mere scholars; they were soldiers who helped defend against invaders. One account records Mozi walking for ten days straight to reach the state of Chu in an attempt to convince the Chu leader to abandon his plans for the conquest of the nearby state of Song. At the Chu court, Mozi challenged the chief military strategist of Chu to simulated war games. In each of the nine bouts, Mozi defeated the Chu strategist with ease. When threatened with death, he informed those at the court that hundreds of his followers were at Song defending the walls. They have already learned his methods, so killing him would be completely useless. With little choice, the state of Chu was forced to back down from their plans of invasion.
But what exactly did this wandering intellectual, soldier, strategist, and carpenter advocate for? Mozi organized his thought into ten doctrines entitled as follows, inclusive care, condemning aggression, promoting the worthy, identifying upward, moderation in use, moderation in burial, Heaven’s Intent, Understanding ghosts, Condemning Music, and Condemning fatalism. I won’t be discussing all of them, so sorry if you were dying to hear about understanding ghosts. Mozi understood that not every state was the same and told his followers to apply the necessary doctrines. Some states might need one but not the other. Instead of going through each of the ten doctrines individually, I will go through three themes of Mozi’s thought that are of particular interest for classical liberals, the importance of standards, his doctrine of inclusive caring or universal love, and his idea of how a good government ought to act.
Moral beliefs are important but just as important as these beliefs is the foundation they are built upon. How do we establish a basis for what is morally right and wrong? Confucians would answer traditional rituals, manners, and ceremonies are the answer. But Mozi and his followers were not part of the elite and had little interest in traditional elite high culture. Mozi argued that conforming to tradition is no real guarantee of moral behavior. Using the example of an old country to the east, Mozi describes the barbaric customs of this kingdom in which the eldest son of a family is chopped up and eaten. This was apparently deemed to be “advantageous to the younger brothers.” He also explains that when one’s grandfather died in this kingdom, his wife was abandoned because they say, “One cannot live with the wife of a ghost.” Different cultures have different traditions. Suppose tradition is the only standard to which Confucians conform. In that case, people will merely practice what they have always done, no matter how vicious or cruel.
Mozi believed that having reliable standards was the key to reforming society at large; he wrote that “Those in the world who perform tasks cannot do without models and standards. There is no one who can accomplish their task without models and standards.” This is true of all fields, whether it is carpentry or rocket science. Mozi thus wanted to replace tradition with objectivity; he was opposed to spiraling into moral relativism.
How do we know what is morally, right? Some might argue we learn it from our parents, our teachers, or some form of role model like a political leader. Mozi rejects all of these writing “of these three, parents, teachers, and rulers, none is acceptable as a model for order.” Individuals are fallible and partial, meaning they can often lead us down the wrong path even if they believe they are doing good. Mozi proposes that morality can be derived by reflecting on how Heaven will act. If you think that this sounds a bit odd, I’m going to ask you to bear with me. Heaven for Mozi represents the impersonal force that governs the world. This force or God is more reliable than any person or any culture or historical standard. Heaven for Mozi acts impartially. It gives benefits without discrimination. Nature provides all with the resources for sustenance and shelter. Thus like Heaven, our morality ought to center around practicing equal and impartial care for all. For Mozi, the example of heaven “is no different from the wheelwright’s having a compass or the carpenter’s having a set square” it is a reliable moral standard unlike any other. For Mozi, the lack of reliable standards is the cause of much of the world’s ills. He describes the people of antiquity as continually fighting over their differing views with no method of resolving their disputes.
Unlike other schools of Chinese thought, Mozi and his followers were deeply committed to the power of reason and rational argumentation. This can be felt throughout Mohists’ writings, which differ from their contemporaries by not styling fancy prose but instead focusing on making their argumentation understandable and clear. In some ways, Mozi, more than any other Chinese thinker from the ancient world, comes closer to a westernized approach to philosophy, one in which rational argument trumps appeals to emotion or tradition. More than any other school, Mohists focused on what made a good argument, and they distilled it down into three elements:
It has to conform to the sages of the past.
It has to conform to “the eyes and ears of the people,” or, simply put, it has to appeal to common sense.
It must produce beneficial effects.
In other words, Mozi wanted decisions to be based on evidence of past endeavors, experience, and potential benefits.
This nicely sets us up for the second big theme of Mozi’s philosophy, his doctrine of inclusive caring, or universal love. Confucians heavily emphasized the dichotomies between different social roles and classes, with one often being the superior and the other the inferior.
Mozi writes that “Now there is no difference between large states and small states, all of which are Heaven’s cities; nor is there is difference among the young and the elderly, the noble and the ignoble, all of which are Heaven’s subjects.” Regardless of their role, every person is entitled to a modicum of respect simply because they are a human worthy of dignity. This forms the core doctrine of Mozi’s ethical theory.
Mozi pinpoints the cause of disorder in the world to be human’s tendency to love themselves more than others. He writes that “feudal lords know only to care for their own states … heads of houses know only to care for their own house … individual people know only to care for their own person.” If we only care for ourselves, we all act selfishly, and calamity ensues. Mozi argues people should follow the standards derived from Heaven by “inclusively caring for each other, and in interaction benefiting each other.” What Heaven demands is that we all love one another and interact for mutual gain, repaying kindness with kindness.
Appealing to people’s self‐interest, Mozi frames his doctrine of universal love as worthy because it is not only morally right but also beneficial. Excluding others from our moral concern helps us justify callousness, theft, and violence towards others. Mozi asks us to imagine what people would be like if they treated other states like their own. He explains that if this was the case, “Then who alone would deploy his state to attack others’ states? One would be for others as for oneself. Were people for others’ cities as for their city, then who alone would deploy his city to assault others’ cities? One would be for others as for oneself. Were people for others’ clans for their clan, then who alone would deploy his clan to disorder others’ clans? One would be for others as for oneself.” By thinking of others as an extension of ourselves, we see the wrongness in harming or exploiting them by appealing to a sort of Golden Rule found within Christianity of treating others as you would wish to be treated.
What does universal love look like in practice? Some might say such a phrase gives off a communist or even a hippy whiff. Mozi recommends rulers try to help their people practice universal love by setting a good example and rewarding virtuous people. His rationale is as follows, “If [officers and gentlemen of the world] truly wish for its wealth and abhor its poverty, if they wish the world to be well ordered and abhor its disorder, they should take as right universal love and exchange of mutual benefit.” Now compare this to Adam Smith who wrote “man has almost constant occasion for the help of his brethren, and it is in vain for him to expect it from their benevolence only. He will be more likely to prevail if he can interest their self‐love in his favour, and show them that it is for their own advantage to do for him what he requires of them.” Cooperating with others and showing mutual respect for one another is the foundation of what we today call capitalism.
Universal love does not require us to sacrifice ourselves at the altar of the collective. In fact, it is the complete opposite. We adopt universal love because of the benefits it promotes. “To love others,” Mozi writes, “does not exclude the love for yourself; you yourself are among the loved.” Importantly Mozi argues universal love and impartiality ought to be the guiding principle of those in power because “To follow the way of universality is to govern by righteousness. To follow the way of discrimination is to govern by force.”
This leads us to our third and final theme: how should the government act?
For Mozi, the ideal government is one that produces “the benefit of all under heaven.” Mozi was one of the first‐ever consequentialists, the idea that morality is based on the beneficial actions instead of ephemeral standards of right and wrong. In the 19th‐century, Jeremy Bentham pioneered his consequentialist system known as utilitarianism, which operates under the principle of maximizing happiness. But unlike Bentham, Mozi bases his consequentialism not just on happiness but a range of goods like material wealth, a growing population, and good social order or harmony. All of Mozi’s arguments are backed up by having beneficial consequences, with a special focus for the poor who made up the overwhelming majority of the population at the time.
On the topic of how governments ought to act, Mozi gave three pieces of advice: to provide only what is necessary, to refrain from expansionary wars, and to exalt the worthy.
Mozi takes for granted that resources are both limited and scarce. The sage kings of the past lived frugally, avoiding excessive luxury in their clothing and housing. In contrast, Mozi condemns the rulers of his day for feasting on massive dishes of luxurious food that they can’t even finish and throw away while living in opulent homes and wearing garish clothes that cost a fortune. Mozi knew that this lifestyle was not free. He wrote that those in power “must impose heavy tax demands on the ordinary people, cruelly seizing the people’s materials for clothing and food to make elegant, embroidered, ornamented, colored and beautiful clothes.”
Mozi hones in on two practices, music and funerals. This sounds bizarre at first, but at the time, Confucian practices dictated lavish and costly funerals with bodies being buried wrapped in silk with all kinds of jewellery that could often impoverish entire families. Worse yet, tradition dictated observing certain extremely restricting practices. For example, if one’s parent or eldest son died, they ought to mourn for three years, meaning no productive work. Mozi says that if everyone observed this practice, the whole world would come to a grinding halt, and the production of goods would dramatically slow. Chastising how detached Confucians are from reality, Mozi writes, “the common people have three worries: those in hunger cannot get food, those in coldness cannot be clothed, and those belabored cannot have rest.” Mozi believed that every penny of government money should go towards benefitting the people and that if this was achieved, there was no need to raise taxes further. This sounds very simple and logical, but try telling that to any politician in DC.
For Mozi, aggressive war is a great tragedy and loss of life, and a colossal waste of precious resources. Mozi was befuddled by constant double standards surrounding people’s perception of war. If I was to steal your phone, that would be wrong, and if I stole your car, it would be even worse. By the same token killing, a single innocent person is wrong; killing ten innocent people is heinous. But Mozi observed when the state wages wars that destroy the lives and prosperity of thousands, rulers might even say that their war is righteous and virtuous. When a ruler punishes a murder but then presumes to wage a war claiming it to be just, Mozi believes this to be akin to calling a speck of black “black,” but then seeing a gargantuan blob of black and somehow calling it white!
Mozi believes that leaders pursue wars because they wish for “the fame of conquest and wish to reap the benefits.” Appealing to their selfish side, Mozi explains the massive opportunity cost of war. Armies cost a fortune to equip and feed. Even if you are lucky, a military campaign will last a substantial amount of time and take a considerable amount of resources. In short, as Mozi observes, “if you consider the resources wasted in military activity, this harms the foundations of life of the people, and the depletion of the resources of the world in the ordinary people is incalculable.” Now Mozi was no pacifist; he had no issue with defensive war, but he saw no reason for rulers to go out and seek conflict to enrich themselves because it was not only morally wrong but foolish due to the massive opportunity costs.
Lastly, in terms of how governments ought to act, we have exalting the worthy. For the government to run smoothly, it has to hire those who are fit for the job. In Mozi’s day, the issue was that most people gained positions of power through their families, wealth, and social status. Familial ties and political favors often decided who was in what position — good old fashioned nepotism! .
For Mozi, the only relevant criteria for a person was that they had the proper skills and moral fiber to conduct their business. Those who can perform the job well deserve whatever positions are on offer. This was what Mozi called exalting the worthy. Who your parents are or how much money you have should have no bearing on one’s abilities to perform your job. Unlike his contemporaries, Mozi thought that the sage kings “greatly honored the principle of exalting the worthy” and that “They employed the virtuous and capable, forming no cliques with their fathers and brothers, showing no partiality to the rich and noble, nor favoring those with handsome features.”
Overall, government business for Mozi consists of promoting the best talent available to maintain a state in which there was no wasteful expenditure either on lavish frivolities or aggressive wars. Seems like Mozi was an early advocate of a meritocracy.
The tragedy of Mozi is that his philosophy of Mohism never achieved a position of intellectual dominance in the same manner as Confucianism. During the 3rd and 4th centuries, Mohism hit its peak with critics like my previously covered Mencius groaning that everyone was Mohist in his day. But despite Mencius’ complaints, the challenge of Mohism stimulated positive growth as other schools grappled with Mozi’s unique positions.
But by the unification of China under the Qin dynasty in 221BC, Mohism declined and almost vanished entirely. By 136BC Confuciuciansm had become the dominant tradition and Mozi was quickly forgotten. The works of Mozi only survived by chance because it was copied into a collection of Daoist scripture.
Mozi is by no means perfect. He took for granted monarchy as the best form of government, and some of his thought at times idolizes dutifully obeying one’s superiors. But for all the bad, there is an awful lot of good. Mozi was one of the first Chinese thinkers to argue through rational means and universality. For this alone, Mozi deserves a gold star. On top of this, he articulated an ethical system based upon the mutual respect and benefits we render unto each other in a well‐functioning society that grants every person the dignity and respect they deserve. He also gets another gold star for being one of the first‐ever consequentialists in the world. His advice for governments in ancient China still applies today. Only provide what is necessary, avoid foreign wars, and promote the best person for the job, not just the person with connections.
This sounds awfully simple, but even today, people ignore the simple logic and wisdom of Mozi. Today, he is a rarely discussed name. But I think classical liberals ought to admire Mozi for his philosophical originality, his undying commitment to proto‐egalitarianism, and his disdain for pointless wars.