views updated


MOZI . Very little is known about the life of the fifth-century bce Chinese thinker Mozi (Master Mo), although a number of clues suggest that he may have been trained as an artisan. He was the first major thinker to challenge the heritage of Confucius (551479 bce) and is best known as the founder of the Mohist school or lineage of thinkers that flourished in the fourth and third centuries bce, but he fell into obscurity soon after. Although the teachings attributed to Mozi, under the eponymous title Mozi (the core of which is held to represent Mozi's own writings rather than elaborations and accretions by later Mohists), were transmitted to posterity, they exercised little influence after the third century bce and were largely ignored until the nineteenth century.

Whereas in early Confucian writings it is the figures of the ruler and the father that served as authority models, Mozi appealed to a higher authority: tian (heaven). For him, it was the ideal model of what is constant, reliable, objective, measurable, and equally accessible to all (Hansen, 1992, p. 100). Many of Mozi's arguments are backed by an appeal to tian or (shang) (supreme ancestor). This is one of the reasons that Mohism has often been described as a religion. Mozi's concept of tian is conventionally understood as a morally normative force with authority above the ruler, which expressed its wishes through a variety of mechanisms, including portents and the appearance of spirits.

There is, however, a real question as to whether Mozi did, in fact, believe in a normative tian. A more pragmatic interpretation would be that he actually believed that if people act as if tian is a normative force, then they will be more inclined to act in ways that conform with Mozi's own philosophical principles. It is important to note that Mozi does not talk of tian's decrees (ming), but only of its intentions or goals (zhi). From a moral point of view this affords people the responsibility to make their own moral choices. Further supporting the pragmatic interpretation is the fact that order in the world is only achievable through strenuous effort on the part of both humans and tian. For Mozi there is no pre-existent order of things: an ordered human society is produced and maintained by the purposeful cooperation of tian, spirits, and humans, who work together in the face of the constant propensity of things to revert to a state of chaos (Schwartz, 1985, p. 141). The social upheavals of the times would certainly have reinforced this view.

The message is clear: if humans want order, they, like tian, must work at it, and the model they should follow is the one that tian itself has shown them: favoring utility and benefit over harm. Moral conduct was defined as acting so as to benefit others, which ultimately will benefit oneself. For Mozi's utilitarianism to work, it is crucial that people believe that their efforts can make it work. Utility/benefit provides a measurable standard that anyone can use with accuracy. For Mozi, utility included such things as food and shelter, peace, and the material conditions of life. The benefit-harm distinction also appeals as being a standard that is natural or pre-social rather than conventional. As such, it seems to offer a neutral basis for ranking alternative proposals about what is the best course of action. Confucian moral standards, by contrast, are derived from the teachings of so-called sages, or culled from tradition. Another weakness with Confucian ethics is that moral concern is graded according to one's relationship with someone, and family members always come first. Mozi argues that morality must involve equal concern for all people. Indeed, Mozi's most celebrated doctrine is the doctrine of ungraded concern for others (jian ai). He maintained that the world's disorders are the product of human selfishness and a lack of mutual concern. Mozi's panacea for these ills requires people to be as concerned about others as they are for themselves.

Mozi had four main criticisms of early Confucians: (1) they did not believe in the existence of shangdi (supreme ancestor) or spirits, thus incurring the displeasure of these anthropomorphic powers; (2) they insisted on elaborate funerals and practiced three years of mourning when a parent died, resulting in a waste of resources and energy; (3) they attached great importance to music, another extravagant waste of resources; and (4) they believed in predetermined fate, which leads to laziness and resignation.

Mozi applied three standards to gauge the value of any doctrine: its basis, its verifiability, and its applicability. Take the example of fatalism, which Mozi criticizes on the following grounds: (1) Fatalism is not in accord with the intentions of tian or the teachings of the ancient sage kings. This is proved by quoting ancient writings that record the teachings of the ancient sage kings. (2) The real existence of fate cannot be proven by any means. It cannot be proven empirically by the senses of hearing and sight, for no one from the beginning of time to the present could testify that they had ever seen or heard directly from such a thing as fate. Moreover it cannot be proven using moral arguments because moral arguments require the nonexistence of fate. (3) Fatalism is the creation of tyrants, used by bandits and other wrongdoers, and welcomed by lazy people. Although it has been claimed that these three standards are the earliest known example of an attempt to formulate principles of reasoned argument in early China, it should be noted that the appeal to ancient authorities still occupies first place (Graham, 1978, p. 11).

Although Mozi's writings have often been criticized for being dull and repetitive, he did use consistent and rigorous arguments. Positive assessments of his legacy note his attempts to justify his philosophical ideas; his efforts to submit traditional morality to the test of social utility; his defense of innovation; his support for the new kind of centralized state, with merit rather than birth as the grounds for preferment; and for introducing reasoned argument into classical Chinese thought (Graham, 1978, p. 4).


Fraser, Chris. "Mohism." In The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, edited by Edward N. Zalta. Stanford, Calif., 2002. Available at: Authoritative and informative overall of the Mohist school and its doctrines.

Graham, A. C. "Introduction." In Later Mohist Logic, Ethic and Science, pp. 372. Hong Kong, 1978. Succinct and authoritative introduction to the historical background of the Mohist school and its canon.

Hansen, Chad. A Daoist Theory of Chinese Thought: A Philosophical Interpretation. New York, 1992. See chapter 4 for an impassioned analysis that provides Mozi with his strongest philosophical voice in English.

Mei, Y. P., trans. Ethical and Political Works of Motse. London, 1929; reprint, Westport, Conn., 1973. Translation of chapters that are held to represent the thought of Mozi.

Schwartz, Benjamin. The World of Thought in Early China. Cambridge, Mass., 1985. Comprehensive introductory overview of Mozi's thought.

Watson, Burton, trans. Mo Tzu: Basic Writings. New York, 1963. Partial translation of chapters that are held to represent the thought of Mozi.

Wong, David B. "Universalism versus Love with Distinctions: An Ancient Debate Revived." Journal of Chinese Philosophy 16 (1989): 251272. A philosophically insightful partial defense of Mozi's ungraded concern (jian ai) thesis.

Wong, David B. "Mohism: The Founder, Mozi (Mo Tzu)." In Encyclopedia of Chinese Philosophy, edited by Antonio S. Cua, pp. 453460. New York, 2003. A balanced and succinct overview of Mozi's thought.

John Makeham (2005)