(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!

5 replies on “(Back at it!) Mencius and Mozi”

  1. Manyul, this seems to me an exciting and promising project.

    One minor worry I have is whether it is in fact clear that we ought to read Mozi’s term ‘ai’ 愛 as referring to feelings rather than, say, practices of taking-care-of, or attitudes of concern. But this worry doesn’t look to me like a serious problem for your main argument.

    Another worry is that even if Mencius thinks what is right will always have the best consequences, that still might not be in his view what makes it right. (Compare his view that while benevolence is this or that king’s most promising path to empire, that’s not what makes it good.)

  2. Hey Bill,

    I suppose, in response to your first worry, that my argument does depend on 愛 referring to a feeling, because I do want to argue that Mencius finds 兼愛 psychologically implausible. Now, maybe Mencius is misreading the Mohists; but I do think that is how he construes them.

    Your second worry is deeper. I think benevolence as the “path to empire”–or better, the idea of empire as an end to be attained “through” benevolence, is complicated by the role of benevolence. I have another argument about that in the works, wherein I construe Mencius as including benevolence–i.e. its expression and exercise–as an important *aspect* of the good that is to be promoted. So, on the one hand, benevolence could be thought of as instrumental to the king’s ends, or on the other hand as I argue, as *part of* the resulting end. In the latter case, it is easier to think that the consequence sought is the “right maker.”

    That oversteps a traditional account of consequentialism as a theory concerned with maximization of the non-moral good, if benevolence is in some important sense a moral good. So, I try to argue as well that the notion of the moral good is ambiguous between a certain type of motive that is good from “the moral point of view” and a certain type of feeling and associate motive that is *admirable*. Admirability, I try to argue, differs both from desirability (which underwrites non-moral goodness) and rightness of motive (which underwrites moral goodness that is judged from “the moral point of view).

    Those are aspects of the project you haven’t seen yet; but I’ll post them eventually, I think. I would still be happy to hear your initial responses to these programmatic remarks…

  3. I have time only for a quickie —

    Is the picture that there are two or more kinds of thing that have some goodness not because of their expectable consequences, and one of them is the disposition to do whatever maximizes expectable good consequences?

    I wonder whether what you’re calling consequentialism would be the idea that the best consequences crucially include the virtue of all, or the best consequences for me to aim at crucially include the virtue of me, or the best consequences for me to aim at now crucially include the virtue of me now. The second and third cases don’t sound to me like consequentialism, unless we take 7A3 as claiming that we’re powerless to affect anything outside of ourselves.

  4. I love your writing, very clear and logical.

    I have one small issue in your last paragraph:

    “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.”

    I’m not sure this is fair. It’s perfectly possible to oppose an argument not by attacking its internal logic, but by suggesting that some of its premises are false. It could be that Mencius understands Mozi’s consequentialism, and disagrees with it, but doesn’t feel the need to address this difference, because he has another argument against Mozi: Mozi presupposes that jian ai is possible, and Mencius thinks it isn’t.

    If jian ai is not psychologically possible, and has never occurred, then Mozi is (a) advocating an impossibility (which would make him useless as an advisor to a ruler), and (b) incorrectly attributing the benefit/li experienced by the people of well-ordered states to jian ai, when the causes of this benefit actually lie elsewhere. I think this combination of logical error and practical uselessness would be a completely adequate argument against Mozi, without ever having to address the issue of consequentialism either way.

  5. Phil,

    Great point. Maybe I should say instead that given the way Mencius argues against the Mohists, either he severely misunderstood how to undermine their consequentialism, or he has no real objection to it. I know this is argument from absence; someone might even back peddle more by saying not that he has no real objection to it, but that there is no clear evidence that he objects to it. Given the thrust of my argument, however, that Mencius actually uses consequentialist reasoning himself, I certainly wouldn’t back peddle that far.

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