Last time we talked about the debate on human nature between the two most central Confucians after Confucius. Mencius argues that human nature is good (love) while Xun Zi argues that human nature is evil (desire). Today we will focus on Mo Zi, Master Mo of the Moist School of Chinese Philosophy, and his arguments for universal love against the Confucians.
Not much is known about Master Mo, founder of Moism, one of the schools of the Period of the Hundred Philosophers. His disciples collected his sayings and dialogues to make the Mo Zi text, just as the disciples of Confucius and Mencius did. It is believed that Mo Zi lived sometime between the death of Confucius in 479 BCE and the birth of Mencius in 372 BCE and that the Moist school was flourishing around the year 400 BCE (the same time as Plato and Aristotle in ancient Greece).
One ancient work says that Mo Zi studied under Confucians at a Confucian school, but then became disgusted and developed his philosophy in opposition to Confucianism. We know that Confucianism and Moism were both flourishing and in competition at the same time from texts like the Zhuang Zi (one of my favorites, in which Zhuang Zi states that what the Confucians call right the Moists call wrong and vice versa). Like Confucius, Mo Zi likely traveled to schools and noble courts expounding his philosophy and seeking disciples. Nobles and other wealthy individuals would often put on banquets and debates for education and entertainment.
Because Mo Zi was a great critic of the excesses of the powerful and champion of the common people, some scholars have speculated that Mo Zi was an ex-convict and Mo meant tattoo like the sort used to brand ex-cons (thus, Mo Zi would mean Master Tattoo or Master Tat). These scholars are likely thinking of Zhuang Zi’s use of ex-con teachers countering Confucius while playing the Moists and Confucians against each other. While Mo Zi criticized the luxurious excesses of dancing girls and music of the wealthy, particularly in light of the suffering of the poor and oppressed, it is unlikely that an ex-con would have access to the noble courts and fine houses that Mo Zi frequented in seeking to expand the influence and membership of his school of thought.
How could Mo Zi get away with criticizing the powerful? Like the ancient Egyptian proverb, “Trust no one by birth, judge a person by their actions”, Mo Zi argued (as did the Confucians) that it is behavior that makes one a good person and not high birth. As in ancient Egypt and India, the top ranks of power are in constant struggle with the up and coming powers. In India, Buddha, Mahavira and other great philosophers were second class educated who were critical of the upper class and older traditions. In ancient China, Moism and Confucianism (as well as other schools) appealed to the newer and lower nobles and wealthy who did not have the finest families but surrounded themselves with the talented and new artists and thinkers. Unfortunately, it may have been the hard-lining Moist stance against the top levels of society that ultimately resulted in the downfall of Moism when the Han unified China and endorsed the Confucians and Daoists but not the Moists. Moism was neglected for 1,500 years afterwards. It was only in the times of Neoconfucianism (1100 CE), ironically, that Mo Zi was reexamined along with Buddhism and put in a Confucian context.
Like Xun Zi, Mo Zi was exceptional at examining the validity of beliefs. He had a system of three tests. First, asking the origin of the belief (remember, the ways of the sage kings were highly valued and used by most schools of ancient Chinese thought). Second, the empirical validity of the belief (how well the belief corresponds to what we have discovered to be true). Third, the practicality and applicability of the belief (identical to the Utilitarianism of John Stuart Mill).
The Moists are famous for their doctrine of universal love. Mo Zi had the hard task of trying to convince rulers and common people alike that they should not only love others as themselves, which the Confucians also teach, but that they should love other families as they love their own families and love people of other countries as they love the people of their own country. The Moists believed in both debate and warfare, and they excelled in both logic and military science, but only for the purpose of self defense and defending the weak against the strong. Remember that the period of the Hundred Schools was also the warring states period, a time of instability when many who were weak were being abused and killed by local wars and bandits. Today, the Swiss embody this stance on war the best as they spend a decent amount on defense and bases from which they launch jets out of mountains but they never go on the offensive.
Mo Zi says that universal love is practical and could be put into practice if enough rulers are convinced that it is in their own interest as well as in the interest of their people. Mencius seems terrified by Moism, his major rival in Northeast China at the time, writing that the ideas of Mo Zi and other thinkers are found across the countryside (Mencius 3B:9). Mencius argues that loving everyone as one loves one’s own father means that one has no father. Considering the emphasis that Confucians such as Mencius put on following one’s father, this would be a great evil. This is strikingly similar to philosophers who believe in absolute truth and fact saying that if there is no absolute truth but only relative truth then there is no truth whatsoever.
In the section Universal Love of the Mo Zi, he begins by stating that the good person seeks to promote what is good and reduce what is harmful (identical, again, to the Utilitarianism of John Stuart Mill). He argues that the greatest harm is powerful states and families attacking the weak states and families and the strong oppressing the weak. All this comes about not by love but by hate, not by universality (caring about the whole) but by partiality (caring about part of the whole as opposed to another part). Partiality must be, therefore, replaced with universality. Note that all of this is very similar to the Communism of both Marx and Mao.
Mo Zi argues that this can be put into practice or even he would be critical. We naturally trust the universal person with our family and possessions more than the partial person. Therefore, we naturally love and trust the universal ruler more than the particular ruler. There is, however, a problem with this view that Mencius mentions: we do in fact see people naturally loving their own more than their neighbor, just as we do see people trusting partial rulers rather than universal ones. Mo Zi says there are no fools in the world like this, but experience does show us otherwise. However, he argues that if the people saw rulers that fed and clothed everyone equally, there could be radical change in society within a single generation.
In the section Against Offensive Warfare, Mo Zi says that everyone knows that it is wrong to steal from one’s neighbors, but that when it is called warfare it is praised. If it is true that killing one person is a crime, then killing a hundred is far more of a crime. People are truly confused about right and wrong if they consider warfare to be justice.
In the section Against Confucians, Mo Zi argues that the Confucians are wrong about degrees and gradations of love based on one’s relationship to one’s other. Mo Zi argues that it is wrong to love one’s family and state more than other families and states. He argues that both Confucius and Confucians are hypocritical and often pay more attention to matters of ritual than to the deeper underlying problems of society. He attacks Confucian practices of mourning, weddings, and fatalism and says they produce contradictions and hypocrisy. He argues that the ancient ways were once new ways, so why should we honor the ancient heroes and sage kings for invention, innovation and change by sticking to the old ways? Mo Zi believes that the Confucians are drawn into caring about the trivial while at other times supporting the substantial revolution that society requires. At times, they believe in silence and deference to authority even when it is wrong, but at other times they endorse rebellion.