Warp, Weft, and Way

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

Fatalism in Mozi


This is my first post here so I will begin by thanking the Steve and Manyul for first inviting me (and gently reminding me to post), and begging everyone’s indulgence since I wanted to post something less weighty.

So I was reading Ian Johnston’s new complete translation of the Mozi to write a review (out next year in PEW) when I came across this passage in the introduction:

Mo Zi’s argument against Fatalism is very simple. To a significant extent, the simplicity is a result of Mo Zi’s failure to provide, in any of the [“Feiming”] essays, a clear exposition of what Fate actually is or might be. The discussion is really only in terms of what a belief in Fate is presumed to entail. There is no semblance of any argument about determinism and free-will more generally, although the existence of the latter is certainly implied in Mo Zi’s social prescription. (lxv)

It’s a small point in a compact overview of Mohism so I didn’t think it’s necessary to make too much of it (no, what follows is not in my review). But I can’t help but think that Johnston had committed the common error of conflating fatalism with determinism. But that’s not really my point in this post (having just concluded a semester’s teaching on free will and determinism, I think I’ll take a rest from that mess.) Rather, it’s the point that the Mozi text lacks a clear exposition of what Fate is that bugged me. What follows are some relatively unpolished thoughts I had when thinking about Mozi, “Feiming” and Johnston’s complaint.

First of all, while it is true that the “Feiming” chapters do not lay out a systematic “exposition of what Fate is”, version A does contain this very suggestive passage:

The doctrine of those who hold to the notion that There is Fate (you ming) says: If wealth is fated then [there will be] wealth, if poverty is fated then [there will be] poverty, if a large population is fated then [there will be] a large population, if a meager population is fated then [there will be] a meager population, if order is fated then [there will be] order, if disorder is fated then [there will be] disorder, if longevity is fated then [there will be] longevity, if an early death is fated then [there will be] an early death. If there is Fate then even if one is strong and unyielding, of what use could that be? (35.2 in Johnston; my trans. [Subsequently edited for clearness in the English.])

I would like to submit that the above presents a fairly clear (if not particularly elaborated) statement of fatalism (and not determinism; but that’s another story). The series of conditionals together with the final rhetorical question in the passage suggests the following definition of what it means for something to be fated:

X is fated just in case X is or will be the case however hard one works against X (strong and unyielding as one might be, so to speak).

Or perhaps a more general formulation:

X is fated just in case X is or will be the case whatever anyone does about it.

[Addendum: Thanks to comments from Bill Haines (See details in comments), a better statement of the above should probably go:

(FF) X is fated just in case X would be the case whatever anyone were to try to do about it.

The argument below can also be updated accordingly. I wonder if the RHS should be: X will be the case, and X would be the case whatever anyone were to try to do about it, but that’s probably a bit redundant. /end addendum]

That is, if one is fated to live long (or die young), then those things will be the case whatever anyone does about it. And the general doctrine of Fatalism (i.e., “There is Fate”) will be the thesis that many things—whether one is going to be wealthy or poor, live a long life or die young, or whether a state is going to be orderly or disorderly, have a large or meagre population—fall under the “X” in the above.

Note that the idea described above is a descriptive thesis about the way the universe works. In ordinary usage, “fatalism” also denotes the psychological states associated with a belief in such a thesis, viz., the feeling of powerlessness with regards to one’s future, and attitude of acceptance or submission in face of the thought that since such and such is fated, there is really nothing that I can do to make it otherwise—my actions do not matter. It can also refer to a sort of practical counsel: since the world works in such a way, there really isn’t much point in trying hard to bring about some favored outcome. So relax!

And these associations seem to be implied by the “Feiming” quote as well. The ending rhetorical question does not merely implicate that the world works in a certain way, but also urges a sort of surrender: what can strength and unyieldingness do in face of fate? In this regard, we can even construe the entire passage as implying an argument to the following effect:

(1) Whether or not A will die young or live a long life is a matter of fate (Instance in Thesis of Descriptive Fatalism).

(2) If A is fated to die young, then he will die young whatever he (or anyone else) does about it; but if A is fated to live a long life, then he will live a long life whatever he (or anyone else) does about it (From Definition of what it means for something to be Fated)

(3) If A will die young whatever he (or anyone else) does about it, then any effort taken to live a long life (eat healthy, exercise, avoid danger, etc.) will be futile, while any effort taken to avoid a long life (extreme sports, embedded reporting in a war zone, etc.) will be redundant.

(4) Ditto if A will live a long life whatever he (or anyone else) does about it.

(5) Whether A is fated to die young or live a long life, whatever he does about is either futile or redundant ((1)-(4))

(6) A has no reason to apply effort to bring about a preferred outcome or to avoid an undesired outcome (From (5))

We can think of (6)–and the force of the rhetorical question “What can strength and unyieldingness do in face of fate?”–as either a sort of practical counsel to people that they really should relax, or as a sort of justification for one’s already doing so.

More, however, can be said regarding the how the purely descriptive thesis of fatalism connects up with its more psychological and practical dimensions. I won’t claim that what follows are even suggested by the text even if they are at least consistent with the passage. But if they are not in the background, I suspect that analogous thoughts would be involved.

Note that the domain of things that are fated—especially if the descriptive thesis is meant to be associated with its attitudinal counterpart—has to be within the domain of things that are supposed to be at least partly up to human decision and action. So even though, for instance, 2+2=4 whatever anyone wishes or does, it seems strange to think of the arithmetic fact as “fated”. The fact that no one can do anything about the fact that 2+2=4 doesn’t have quite the same psychological bite as thinking that wealth or poverty, order or disorder is fated: it is supposed to be the case that what people do have an impact on whether they end up wealthy or poor. Similar things can be said about, say, the constancies of heaven (especially if you are inclined to Xunzi’s views as expressed in Ch. 17 of his text).

Conversely (and ironically), the above also suggests that descriptive fatalism has the psychological bite and practical import it has only when it doesn’t overreach. That is, even though whether one ends up wealthy or poor might be a matter of fate, what one does in the lead up to that outcome is in some sense “up to us”, so that what one does can be either redundant or futile, and hence there is a point in urging surrender rather than resistance in face of one’s fate. The upshot is that in a world in which there is nothing that is even supposed to be “up to us”—either among the outcomes, or among the things we can do leading up to them—fatalism cannot arise as an issue. That is, the psychological bite of descriptive fatalism seems to trade on the perceived discrepancy between the supposition that something is supposed to be up to me and the thought that it really isn’t.

A lot more can be said regarding the logical structure of fatalism and how it relates to the arguments used by the Mozi text to denounce it. (For instance, I believe that arguments attacking the descriptive aspect of fatalism, and others that focus more specifically on the practical dimension, can both be found.) But this post is already longer than it should be, and there are many things that I am still unsure of, so I shall stop now. If you have stayed with me, thank you for your patience.


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