Warp, Weft, and Way

Chinese and Comparative Philosophy 中國哲學與比較哲學

Motivation in Mozi and Mencius

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    Frank Saunders Jr.

    I stumbled across a passage in Mozi Book 16. “Inclusive Care 3” (兼愛下) that got me
    thinking about a passage in the Mencius, 3A/5, and some of the crucial differences between the Mohists and Mencians in terms of moral psychology and normative ethics. This isn’t to say that all of either text is in agreement with either passage I reference, (I’m of the view that much of the Mencius does not agree with itself—same for the Mozi.) but I think a comparison of these two passages reveals much as at least a snapshot of a hypothetical conversation between a Mencian and a Mohist that may very well have taken place in some form at some time, or may as well have. The following lengthy excerpt is a defense of inclusive care (how I understand 兼愛) against the charge that inclusiveness goes against personal relationships, familial relationships being the most at-risk. Of course the Mohists are wholly committed to preserving these relationships, though their critics insist otherwise. (My translation, mostly. May have gotten help from ctext.org. I can’t remember. Apologies for my mediocre translating skills.):

    But those who reject inclusiveness have more to say. They say, “If one is not loyal to benefiting their parents, is he filial?” Master Mozi said, “Let us look into the source and origin of filiality to one’s parents. I do not know with respect to a filial son’s doing for his parents—does he desire that others care for and benefit his parents? Or does he desire that they hate and harm his parents? It is certain that he desires that others care for and benefit his parents. Now what should one do first in order to get this? Does one first takes up caring for and benefiting others’ parents and then in return they would care for and benefit his own? Or first take up hating others’ parents and then they would care for and benefit his own? Of course one should first take up caring for and benefiting others’ parents, and then they will care for his in return. Therefore, those who desire to be filial, if they should choose between [these two], they would first follow caring for and benefiting others’ parents. Does anybody think that all the world’s filial sons are stupid and incapable of being straightened out? If we inquire into the source and root of the former kings’ books, the Da Ya, it says, “No words have no rival. No dé is without reward. If one gives us a peach, we return with a plum.” This says that those who care for others will be cared for and those who hate others will be hated. I still don’t understand why people hear about this doctrine and reject it. What are their reasons?

    Speaking broadly, this passage suggests self-interest as a reason for doing inclusive care. The claim is based on two psychological facts: The first is people’s tendency to care for their own parents. The second is the tendency to reciprocate. Given these two psychological facts, it is in people’s interest of caring for their own parents that they care for others’ parents, and hence practice inclusive care. (I take “care” to not be very demanding.) It’s important to keep in-mind that this passage is more concerned with moral psychology rather than normative ethics. That psychological facts are congenial to inclusive care is not what makes inclusive care the right thing to do, although it does provide people with a reason to do it. We might be able to say that this passage suggests that people have internal reasons to do inclusive care, while what gives people external reasons to do so would be things like appeals to benefit to everybody and social order.

    I’d now like to turn to a famous critique of a Mohist, Yi Zhi, in Mencius, 3A/5. The text
    before the following quote has Mencius critiquing Yi Zhi for giving his parents a lavished
    funeral when Mohists are supposed to share, as a value, moderation in funerals. Therefore,
    Yi Zhi is using something that he doesn’t value in serving his parents, and hence not being filial. Yi Zhi, however, appeals to an interpretation of inclusive care—or some version of it; he says “caring without difference of degree”—on which the caring might be without degree, but serving one’s parents comes first. Therefore, Yi Zhi is using something he values in serving his parents, hence rebutting Mencius’ objection. Mencius’ critique continues:

    Xu informed Mencius of this. Mencius said, “Master Yi—he truly treats others’ closeness to their brothers and sons is like that of their neighbors’ infant? … Heaven gives life to everything—giving it one root, but Yi has two roots. In ancient times there were those who did not bury their parents. Their parents died, and they rolled them into a ditch. Upon walking by at a later date, foxes would be eating them, and flies and gnats biting at them. People’s foreheads would sweat, and they would look away so as to not see. They didn’t sweat due to others, but the center of their xīn had affected their faces and eyes. So they went home and returned with baskets and shovels to cover them. Covering them was indeed right. The filial son’s and the rén person’s covering their parents—indeed this certainly has dào.”

    I see two ways of reading the Mencian complaint. The first is as a rejection of Mohists moral psychology. The second is a rejection of the Mohist distinction between normative ethics and moral psychology.

    So one disagreement here is one of moral psychology rather than normative ethics, as both Yi Zhi and Mencius are in agreement that doing one’s utmost for one’s parents is the right thing to do. The difference is that Yi Zhi thinks he is following inclusive care—and hence would be motivated by at least one of the two motivations discussed above, and perhaps others discussed in Mohist writings elsewhere—whereas Mencius thinks he is following his natural spontaneous affections for his parents and that’s it. We’ve seen above that the Mohists utilize at least two sources of motivation in recommending their inclusive care doctrine, but Mencius thinks this is mistaken: the only source of motivation should be spontaneous and natural dispositions, the natural ones felt by ancient people who witnessed their parents rotting away in the ditches. No other motivation is necessary. Yi Zhi’s “two-rootedness” comes from being motivated by Mohist doctrines and other sources of motivation the Mohists discuss. The Mencian solution is clear: eliminate these sources of motivation and follow only your natural and spontaneous dispositions. Otherwise, doctrines based on other factors tend to conflict—viz., with Mohist moderation in funerals. I don’t think this is a real problem for the Mohists though, as their moral psychology assumes the very fact that Mencius points to in 3A/5—viz., spontaneous affection for one’s parents. For the Mohists though, this is only one reason among many to give your parents an expensive funeral. The Mohist account of moral motivation is thus far more complex than the Mencian one here, and indeed that is why Mencius critiques it.

    On this reading, I think the Mohists’ account is superior, as it ends up with the richer account of moral psychology. But perhaps we can give a more charitable reading of the Mencian objection, as it does carry an insight with it. Recall Williams’ “one thought too many,” objection to utilitarianism. The Mencian complaint about two-rootedness might be speaking to a similar concern: the way you treat your parents when they die really seems to be something that should grow out of natural feelings for your parents, and not something that follows from a particular doctrine. That is to say, appealing to inclusive care just doesn’t seem like what people do when they do the right thing by giving their parents proper funerals, and so in that sense perhaps Mencius thinks Master Yi’s defense is disingenuous. Mencius is just saying that the reason Master Yi gave his parents a lavished funeral is because doing so is a natural outgrowth of spontaneous human reactions to his parents dying, and not, as Yi insists, a result of acting in accordance with inclusive care. Again though, this objection can be taken less seriously when we realize that the Mohists do acknowledge and care about spontaneous affection for parents as a reason for doing the right think; they just also take it to be one reason among many.

    The second complaint I see as a rejection of the Mohist distinction between moral psychology and normative ethics,. The Mencian idea seems to be that people’s natural and spontaneous moral psychology should be the only thing that justifies doctrines. The Mohists, however, separate moral psychological claims from normative ethical ones. As normative ethicists, they are by and large consequentialists. That is to say a doctrine’s being in-line with moral psychology is not what justifies it as the right thing to do. Appeals to benefit and order generally play that role in Mohism. If Williams was a Mohist, he might say that internal reasons base on psychological facts about human beings cannot end up being external reasons that justify moral claims. Mencius doesn’t seem to care so much about this distinction in 3A/5. That an act is in-line with human moral psychology is what makes it the right thing to do. Natural spontaneity gets you to the Way, as the text says. Master Yi is confused by separating moral psychology and normative ethics, since an action or doctrine’s rightness is rooted in its being an extension of our natural spontaneous tendencies. That is, the reason Yi Zhi did what he did was also the reason why it was the right thing to do. A Mohist—at least a Mohist author of Book 16—would reject this.

    So to summarize, we can see two sides to the Mencian critique. On the one hand, Mencius is claiming that the Mohists have a faulty moral psychology, since their account doesn’t actually reflect what people do when they think about how best to serve their parents when they die. On the other hand, Mencius is accusing the Mohists of separating normative ethics from moral psychology. I think the Mohists can handle both critiques. As to the critique of the substance of Mohist moral psychology, they openly acknowledge that people tend to care for their parents—indeed their argument in Book 16 would not work without the assumption. The Mohist claim is just that this fact is neither 1) the only relevant moral psychological fact that we ought to care about (“not the only internal reason to care about”), nor 2) a way of justifying doctrines (“of generating external reasons”). As to the second complaint, the Mohists are right to make an attempt to separate moral psychology and normative ethics. So on that account, Mencius’ collapsing of the two dichotomies is wrong. I’m just curious to hear people’s thoughts on these ideas.

    (Once again though, throughout both texts, the Mencian account is not always this simple, nor is the Mohist account always this complex.)

    Further reading

    Chris Fraser, 2011, “Mohism and Motivation.” in Ethics in Early China.

    Dan Robins, 2001, The Debate over Human Nature in Warring States China, PhD dissertation,
    pp.82-90.

    Bryan Van Norden, Virtue Ethics and Consequentialism in Early Chinese Philosophy, pp.305-312

    PS – I have just started my own Chinese philosophy discussion board on my website, http://www.franksaundersjr.com, and as time goes on I’ll probably start discussions there as well with more frequency than I’d be comfortable starting discussions here.

    #124224 Reply

    Manyul Im
    Keymaster

    Hi Frank! Thanks for the post. It’s not always clear that Mencius understands the difference between moral psychology and normative principles, so on your reading, he’s possibly making a more sophisticated critique than some scholars think he’s capable of — that’s a good thing, since you’re considering a strong objection from Mencius than something closer to a straw man. However, I always thought the critique of Yi was strongest in this form:
    1) Yi conducts his parents’ funerals with partiality.
    2) By doing so, Yi expresses his belief in the Mohist normative principle that one ought to care most about one’s own parents.
    3) The Mohists have another normative principle that they believe, which is that one ought to care about everyone’s parents with equal concern.
    4) Mohists think they can generate a consistent moral policy that has both normative principles as primary.
    5) But they can’t because one can’t both care most about one’s own parents and care equally about all parents.
    6) And, in choosing the right principle in the case of parental funerals, we should think about how the principle serves a human psychological good (hence, consider the “natural history” of funerals).

    On this reading, Mencius just about understands the Mohist commitments to caring most about one’s own parents and caring about all parents inclusively. I take it the Mohist response would be to question 5, and show that IF one cares most about one’s own parents, then one ought to support an inclusive policy of supporting the care of others’ parents as well, given a (Kantian sounding) meta-principle of universalizability. The Mohist point would — or should — be that no one person cares FOR all parents, but each person can care THAT all parents inclusively are cared for by their own children.

    I think on my reading, the disagreement with yours is with the work that the natural history of funerals is doing rhetorically.

    Anyway, that’s my initial foray into this discussion with you.

    #124230 Reply

    Frank Saunders Jr.

    Hi Manyul,

    Thanks for the response. So it seems like you read the critique as more of a normative one against the Mohists—viz., they hold two normative principles that can’t prescribe the same action in the same situation (4 and 5). This leads into the Mencian alternative (6). I think I’m on-board with it being a normative critique rather than a moral-psychological one, but I’m not sure I agree with the norms you suggest Mencius sees as conflicting. This reading forces me to sharpen and modify my own, for the better I think. Points below:

    Your reading seems to make the conflict between two different versions of 兼愛: 1) where one cares most for one’s own parents, and 2) where one cares about all parents equally. What I think is going on is that Mencius assumes that these two positions are consistent with 兼愛, but that the 兼愛 doctrine as a whole conflicts with the Mohist “moderate funeral” doctrine. So the two roots are two separate Mohist doctrines rather than a conflict between one Mohist doctrine.

    I think a major advantage of this reading is that it doesn’t have Mencius getting the Mohists quite so wrong—at least not as wrong as he does in 3B/14. Consistently, in all three books on 兼愛, the Mohists point to it as a symptom of 兼愛 not being followed is that familial relationships are disturbed. That is, 兼愛 is always supposed to work within the context of special relationships. Regardless, however the Mohists square that circle within the doctrine of 兼愛 itself, I feel like Mencius is granting it here. (The line about the infant seems to do some of this work by claiming why one would care for an infant that bears no relationship to her, which is certainly a Mencian view.) Furthermore, this reading utilizes Mencius’ initial complaint about Yi going against Mohist funeral stinginess.

    So on my reading, I’d suggest revising the argument as follows:

    1) Yi conducts his parents’ funerals with 兼愛.
    2) By doing so, Yi expresses his belief in the Mohist normative principle that 兼愛.
    3) The Mohists have another normative principle that they believe, which is that funerals ought to be moderate.
    4) Mohists think they can generate a consistent moral policy that has both normative principles as primary.
    5) But they can’t because one can’t both care most about one’s own parents [and give them a proper funeral] and promote moderation in funeral.
    6) And, in choosing the right principle in the case of parental funerals, we should think about how the principle serves a human psychological good (hence, consider the “natural history” of funerals).

    So now I’m not so sure about my initial take on the Mencian critique. I think though the “two-rootedness” is a really sophisticated accusation of Yi being a hypocrite, and furthermore that this hypocricy is built-in to Mohism. On the one hand, Yi knows he should give his parents the best funeral he possibly can—of course he should; 兼愛 tells him to. On the other hand, Yi goes around promoting moderation in funerals.

    So according to Mencius, burying his parents according to 兼愛 is the right thing to do, but not for the reason Yi thinks it is, i.e., not because it is consistent with Mohist doctrine (assuming it is). Rather, it’s the right thing to do because of its root in 天, hence the “natural history.” Furthermore, Mencius thinks that these factors are the only ones that we ought to care about in justifying norms, and not other stuff, else we end up with two roots. Heaven gave us one, so just stick with that. I haven’t quite worked it out yet but I feel like this is the kind of work step 6 is doing.

    This reading might also give us more to think about concerning the excerpt from Book 16 of the Mozi I mentioned, since it attempts to ground both 孝 and 兼愛 in moral psychological facts (though I still wouldn’t say “justify”), and even attempts to ground those facts (e.g., reciprocity) in history. I wonder if the overlap of the “root” 本 terminology is significant.

    I guess what I’ll have to try and convince you of the most is my re-writing of the argument, but if it’s plausible then I think there are a lot of interesting implications. That’s all I’ve got for now though.

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