Manyul Im’s Chinese Philosophy Blog

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(Back at it!) Mencius and Mozi

Here’s some of the stuff I was working on the past month. It’s part of a set of arguments for Mencian consequentialism as an accurate and fruitful reading of Mencius. I’ll be working next on arguments against Mencian virtue ethics as an accurate and fruitful reading, part of a larger book project on Mencius and ethical theory.


Given the prominence of consequentialist arguments within Mohist views, it is striking that in his discussions of Mohist doctrines, Mencius expresses no objections to justifying particular teachings or practices by consideration of the consequences of adopting them. There are two main points Mencius argues in those discussions, both of which are compatible with consequentialist positions:  (a) that the Mohists have an implausible psychological element in their teachings, and (b) that taking benefit as the goal of one’s actions has bad consequences. In the case of the latter, as we will see, Mencius actually argues for the point with a consequentialist argument of his own.

Mencius’s explicit discussion of Mozi (i.e. actually referring to Mo by name) is restricted entirely to (a)—the criticism of Mozi’s doctrine of “inclusive love,” jian ai 兼愛 (or as is more commonly translated, “universal love”). This was a key element of Mozi’s view that one ought not to display exclusivity or favoritism, say, toward the members of one’s own family. What is important, on Mozi’s view, is not just that one ought to behave so, but that one ought to feel love inclusively toward all in the kingdom:

“But what is the way of universal love and mutual aid? [Mozi] said:  It is to regard the state of others as one’s own, the houses of others as one’s own, the persons of others as one’s self. When feudal lords love one another, there will be no more war; . . . when individuals love one another there will be no more injury. When ruler and ruled love each other they will be gracious and loyal . . . . When all the people in the world love one another, then the strong will not overpower the weak, the many will not oppress the few, the wealthy will not mock the poor . . .. ”

Mozi’s ethical view, then, requires love for all—not just in one’s own kingdom, but for all humankind regardless of state boundaries. Mozi explicitly contrasts partiality with the inclusivity (jian) of the love one ought to feel.  As Mencius understands it, this means that one ought to take the very same love one feels for members of one’s own family, ruler, or state, and feel that same way inclusively toward all people. Hence, by Mencius’s rendering of Mozi, one ought not to have partial feelings at all toward anyone.

This was a radical view, as far as Mencius was concerned; he thought it assumed an implausible empirical psychology, requiring a psychologically impossible task of people. It is this point that Mencius objects to in this explicit discussion of Mozi’s views.  In 3A5, Mencius discusses the actions and beliefs of a follower of Mozi’s teachings, Yi Zhi:

“[Mencius said:]  I have heard that Yi Zhi is a Mohist. In the matter of funeral arrangements, Mozi teaches that one ought to be sparing. . . .Nevertheless Yi Zhi buried his parents in a rich manner and so he served his parents in a way he disparages.

Xu Bi reported this to Yi Zhi. Yi Zhi said:  The Ruists teach that the ancients ruled like they were caring for children. What does this mean? It means that one ought to love without differences of degree. In carrying this out, the starting point is affection for family. Xu Bi reported this to Mencius. Mencius said:  Does Yi Zhi sincerely believe that a man’s affection for his brother’s child is like his affection for a neighbor’s child?”

The fact that Mencius’s complaint against Mozi really is this—that it is futile to expect people to be able to feel love impartially—is further supported by the Mohists’ own description of their detractors:
But the gentlemen (jun zi) of the world say:  “So far so good. It is of course very excellent when love becomes universal. But it is only a difficult and distant ideal.”

In the two other places where Mozi is specifically referred to by name,  Mencius identifies in passing the objectionable part of Mozi’s view by referring to Mozi’s principle of inclusive love, jian ai—not by referring to the motive of benefit, li 利. So it is clear that Mencius was dubious about the plausibility of humans being able to love impartially. He does not seem concerned, at least explicitly, with Mozi’s consequentialist standards of justifying or criticizing feelings and actions that center on benefit.

It might be thought that Mencius was content only to address the doctrine of inclusive love and not worry about addressing Mozi’s consequentialism, because the latter is founded on the former. Hence, if Mencius can argue against the psychological underpinnings of Mozi’s consequentialism, he would undermine it. But there are two obstacles to this argument. First, it is clear that it is the other way around: Mozi’s consequentialism underwrites his view about what one ought to feel. Mozi actually gives a consequentialist justification for the view that one ought to feel love inclusively. Each of the three chapters on inclusive love compiled in the text of the Mozi begins with an analysis of the cause of disorder and argues that the cure for disorder is impartial love. In chapter 16 we find a nice summing up of the argument of Mozi:

“When we come to think about the several benefits [to the world] in regard to their cause, how have they arisen? Have they arisen out of hate of others and injuring others? Of course we should say no. We should say they have arisen out of love of others and benefiting others. If we should classify one by one all those who love others and benefit others, should we find them to be partial or universal? Of course we should say they are universal. Now, since universal love is the cause of the major benefits in the world, therefore [Mozi] proclaims universal love is right . . .. We have found out the consequences of universal love to be the major benefits of the world and the consequences of partiality to be the major calamities in the world; this is the reason why [Mozi] said partiality is wrong and universality is right.

So on Mozi’s view, one ought to feel love inclusively because that would result in benefit for the world, i.e. better consequences; and one ought to bring about the better consequences. Mozi does not run his argument in the other direction–that one ought to bring about the better consequences because one ought to feel love impartially.  So Mencius would have to have terribly misunderstood the Mohists’ position if he thought that he would undermine their consequentialism by arguing against the inclusive love doctrine. Of course he might have been so confused. But here is where the second obstacle to this argument is relevant. Mencius doesn’t actually display any objections toward the view that one ought to bring about the better consequences. On the contrary, he himself takes for granted that one ought to do so…


As always, comments are welcome!


September 18, 2008 Posted by | Chinese philosophy | 5 Comments