More Mencius and Mozi

Here’s some more of the argument for Mencian consequentialism that I’m working on. I’m happy to hear comments…


The evidence that Mencius takes consequentialist reasoning for granted in his critique of Mohism is somewhat subtle, for two reasons. First, it occurs in passages which do not explicitly mention Mozi or his followers, but which do involve the term that is prominent in the Mohist views:  li 利, ‘profit’ or ‘benefit’. Second, there is subtlety in those passages because Mencius ostensibly argues against someone’s acting for the sake of benefit. But if we look at the passages, it is clear that Mencius considers the consequences of acting consciously for the sake of benefit to be counter-productive of the goal of attaining benefit and that is the reason not to act with that motive. In 1A1, Mencius visits King Hui of Liang and is greeted by the king with the suggestion that Mencius has come all this way with counsels “to benefit my kingdom” (li wu guo 利吾國). To this Mencius replies:

Why must the king say “benefit”? One may also simply have benevolence [li 仁] and propriety [yi 義]. If the king wonders, “How will I benefit my kingdom?” the superior officers will wonder “How will I benefit my clansmen?” The scholars and the many will say “How will I benefit myself?” Those above and those below will struggle with each other for benefit and the kingdom will be endangered. . . . There was never one who had benevolence but neglected his family. There was never one who had propriety but put himself past his lord. The king may also simply speak of benevolence and propriety. Why must he say “benefit”?

Likewise, in 6B4, Mencius corrects a fellow scholar, Song Keng, who is about to try to stop the kingdoms of Qin and Chu from their hostilities. Song Keng tells Mencius that his plan is to try to persuade the rulers of the two kingdoms that warfare between them is “not to their benefit” (qi bu li ye 其不利也]). Mencius responds:

Your aim is great, but your plan is inadvisable. If you speak of benefit to the kings of Qin and Chu, the kings will be pleased with the thought of benefit and stop their armies . . .. Then this will make the ministers [of those kingdoms] to serve their lords while harboring desire for benefit; it will make sons to serve their fathers with thoughts of benefit. . . . Because of this, lords and ministers, fathers and sons, and elder and younger siblings will discard benevolence and propriety and cherish benefit in their interactions. In such a state, there has never been a kingdom that did not fall to ruin.

Mencius thinks that the widespread adoption of benefit as the goal of action is to the detriment of the social fabric. His argument seems to rest on an empirical claim which may or may not seem plausible–namely that once people start thinking in terms of benefit, they will end up acting largely for the sake of personal benefit and hence will start to disregard their duties and other moral concerns. But whether or not the latter is plausible, it is clear that Mencius’s objection to acting for the sake of benefit is that it produces bad consequences; far from producing benefit it produces social chaos by breaking down important hierarchic relationships.

But Mencius does not stop there. In addition to objecting to acting for the sake of benefit because of its bad consequences, Mencius goes further in 6B4 to recommend acting from benevolence and propriety because doing so brings about good consequences:

Take benevolence and propriety and speak to the kings of Qin and Chu about them. Then the kings, taking delight in the benevolent and appropriate, will stop their armies . . .. This will cause ministers to serve their lords while cherishing benevolence and propriety, [etc.] . . .. So lords and ministers, fathers and sons, and elder and younger siblings will put aside thoughts of benefit and cherish benevolence and propriety in their interactions. In such a state, there never has been an unsuccessful sovereignty. Why must anyone speak of benefit?

Benevolence and propriety are important because they sustain the relationships that Mencius thinks important for the well-being of a kingdom. They are motives derived from valuable emotional responses, as Mencius 2A6 tells us:  “The heart of compassion is the tip of benevolence; the heart of shame and disgust is the tip of propriety. . . .”

The proper contrast for Mencius between acting from benevolence and acting with the goal of benefit must lie in the difference between, on the one hand, responding to some other particular person or group of people’s needs and, on the other hand, taking benefit as such as the end for which one acts. This would explain why Mencius thinks taking li as one’s motive would make one think of one’s own benefit. For example, if one takes benefit as such as the goal, it may not matter from the point of view of the agent whether her own benefit is sought or that of another. Propriety, yi 義, bears a more straightforward contrast to the motive of benefit. Shame or disgust at the impropriety, say, of groveling for one’s life is the motive for choosing one’s own death in this example from Mencius 6A10:

Life is . . . something I desire, as also is propriety; if these two are offered but I cannot have both, I will forgo life and take being proper. . . . If among the things people desire there were nothing they desired more than life, then what would prevent them from using any means whatsoever to keep their lives? . . . But in fact there are means that they will not use for the sake of life and there are things they will not do to avoid peril.

One might, for the sake of benefit, agree to some impropriety–say, giving one’s approval to a ruler for attacking and annexing a neighboring state. But if one were acting instead from shame, one could not allow oneself to do so.

What we see is that through the things Mencius says both explicitly and implicitly about Mozi’s views, the Mencian position relative to the Mohists’ is not defined by opposition to consequentialist justification for norms of action and feeling. On the contrary, it is defined by opposition to what we might call the specifically Mohist strategy for producing better consequences; and the reason for Mencius’s opposition is the ineffectiveness of that strategy for producing a better kingdom or a better world for all under Heaven. For on the one hand, Mencius doubts that people have the ability to feel inclusive love. On the other hand, he thinks acting with benefit as such as the goal is counterproductive.

2 replies on “More Mencius and Mozi”

  1. Hi Manyul!

    Looking to attack what you say, I’ve come up with the following, which I haven’t thought about or checked against the Mencius any more than I lay out here.

    Don’t make benefit your maxim, Mencius says in 1A1, because that will reduce benefit. Mencius might be appealing tacitly to either of two attractive ideas:

    1. Have only maxims that serve the purpose of benefit.
    2. Have only maxims that serve their own purposes.

    A 3d possibility is that Mencius recognizes that the only concern the king is prepared to recognize in himself (and hence the only one he is ready to act on; cf. 1A7, 2A6) is benefit. So Mencius appeals to that, as a device to lead the king toward new ideas more consonant with his nature.

    Now, Mencius seems to rely in 1A1 on the idea that the lower-downs will copy the king. But what counts as copying the King? The king speaks of “benefiting my state.” Others could have copied him by seeking what benefits the state, i.e. by asking what they can do for their country. That would be at least as accurate a copying-job as what Mencius actually lays out. But Mencius doesn’t seem to notice this possibility.

    That suggests to me that when Mencius hears “benefit” in 1A1, he is not even reminded of the idea of promoting the general good. That is, he is not reminded of the Mohist technical term. And that in turn might suggest that he is at least not self-consciously siding with indirect as against direct Mohism.

    On the other hand, the evidence I’ve offered is puny.
    And the psychological story of the viral benefit meme is obscurer in 6B4.

    And maybe he shouldn’t notice the other kind of copying (everyone seeking what benefits the state), because it’s psychologically unrealistic. If A cares about A, B cares about A, and C cares about C, A and C are psychologically more similar than A and B.

    Anyway here’s an alternative interpretation of Mencius’ view. He assumes that the only “reasons we can share,” the things whose individual and collective pursuit tends to promote success rather than working counter (cf. 7A3), are those given by our basic nature, which he specifies variously in 2A6, 6A6, and other places. He may be a little confused about whether the concern of benevolence is the well-being of others or benevolence itself (7A3 again). The concern of justice (yi) may waver similarly between that virtue, particular actions of that virtue, and people’s being treated justly. The concern of ritual propriety may be the smooth working of the ritual order. Don’t ask me about wisdom. But anyway his picture might not be consequentialism so much as locating and satisfying our real desires, which might be in some part desires about what to do now, or whether people are being treated justly, rather than total consequences. Alongside benevolence there are the aims of duty, rites, and wisdom (whatever those might be).

    And then principle 2 might be closest to what’s in the back of the mind of Mencius at 1A7 and 6B4.

    Here’s that 7A3 (which I’m thinking of only because I mentioned it in a previous comment):

    7A3: “Seek and you will get it; let go and you will lose it. If this is the case, then seeking is of help to getting and what is sought is within yourself. But if there is a proper way to seek it and whether you get it or not depends on Destiny, then seeking is of no help to getting and what is sought lies outside yourself.”

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