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Mohism or Moism

The basis of Mohism is universal love, which is similar to the belief of Western Christianity. It also has strong utilitarian spirit. Although it has long been forgotten in Chinese history, Mohism and Confucianism were the two major philosophies, despite having opposing ideas.
Mohism at a Glance:

The doctrines of Mohism are to be found in the work Mo-tzu, named after the founder of the Moist tradition Mo Tse (c. 470-390 BCE). Although attributed to Mo Tse, the Mo-tzu was probably composed over a number of generations by Mo Tse's disciples. The Mo-tzu originally consisted of 71 chapters, but 16 of these have been lost.

Universal love.
In contrast to the Confucians, who taught that devotion was particularly due to one's family, Moism prescribed equal love for all people.

Image: Chinese picture of Mohist discourse
Opposition to offensive war.
Mo Tse opposed all forms of aggressive action, particularly in the form of large states attacking smaller ones. He did, however, accept that it was legitimate to use force to defend those who are being attacked.
Opposition to music.
Mo Tse regarded music as a source of extravagance, associating it with dance, flamboyance and a waste of public resources, which could be used to feed, shelter and protect people.

Opposition to elaborate funerals.
Funerals were excessively expensive and the time of mourning excessively lengthy.

Divine retribution.
Mo Tse believed that heaven is a personal force, which knows of the misdeeds that people perform and punishes people for them. Such a belief serves to encourage people to conduct themselves morally.

Unlike Confucius, Mo-tzu did not accept the tradition that emperors derive their mandate from heaven; instead the position of the emperor should be based solely on merit. While the emperor should be obeyed, people have the right to criticize the emperor if his actions are not in accord with the will of heaven.
Image: Mohist philosophy

Mohism: Long Version

Mohism was an influential philosophical, social, and religious movement that flourished during the Warring States era (479–221 BCE) in ancient China. Mohism originates in the teachings of Mo Di, or “Mozi” (“Master Mo,” fl. ca. 430 BCE), from whom it takes its name. Mozi and his followers initiated philosophical argumentation and debate in China. They were the first in the tradition to engage, like Socrates in ancient Greece, in an explicit, reflective search for objective moral standards and to give step-by-step, tightly reasoned arguments for their views, though their reasoning is sometimes simplistic or rests on doubtful assumptions. They formulated China's first explicit ethical and political theories and advanced the world's earliest form of consequentialism, a remarkably sophisticated version based on a plurality of intrinsic goods taken as constitutive of human welfare. The Mohists applied a pragmatic, non-representational theory of language and knowledge and developed a rudimentary theory of analogical argumentation. They played a key role in articulating and shaping many of the central concepts, assumptions, and issues of classical Chinese philosophical discourse.

A later branch of the school (Mohist Canons) formulated a sophisticated semantic theory, epistemology, utilitarian ethics, theory of analogical reasoning, and mereological ontology and undertook inquiries in such diverse fields as geometry, mechanics, optics, and economics. They addressed technical problems raised by their semantics and utilitarian ethics and produced a collection of terse, rigorous arguments that develop Mohist doctrines, defend them against criticisms, and rebut opponents' views.

Central elements of Mohist thought include advocacy of a unified ethical and political order grounded in a utilitarian ethic emphasizing impartial concern for all; active opposition to military aggression and injury to others; devotion to utility and frugality and condemnation of waste and luxury; support for a centralized, authoritarian state led by a virtuous, benevolent sovereign and managed by a hierarchical, merit-based bureaucracy; and reverence for and obedience to Heaven (Tian, literally the sky) and the ghosts worshiped in traditional folk religion.

Mohist ethics and epistemology are characterized by a concern with finding objective standards that will guide judgment and action reliably and impartially so as to produce beneficial, morally right consequences. The Mohists assume that people are naturally motivated to do what they believe is right, and thus with proper moral education will generally tend to conform to the correct ethical norms. They believe strongly in the power of discussion and persuasion to solve ethical problems and motivate action, and they are confident that moral and political questions have objective answers that can be discovered and defended by inquiry.

From his utilitarian arguments, the attacks against war, and the tone of his writing, we can know that Mo Tzu represented the working class, or even the slaves at that time. Even though Confucianism advocated the equality of all class, it tended towards the upper level (aristocracy) in a sense.
Note: As with all Chinese names written in English, there are many different spellings.

Mozi and the Mohists
Mohism springs from the teachings of Mo Di, or Mozi (“Master Mo”) about whom little is known, not even what state he was from. The Shi Ji, a Han dynasty record, tells us only that he was an official of the state of Song (Sung) and that he lived either at the same time as or after Confucius (d. 479 BCE), with whom he is often paired by Qin (221–206 BCE) and Han dynasty (206 BCE–219 CE) texts as the two great moral teachers of the Warring States era. Most likely, he flourished during the middle to late decades of the 5th century BCE, roughly contemporaneous with Socrates in the West. ‘Mo’ is an unusual surname and the common Chinese word for “ink.” Hence scholars have speculated that this was not Mozi's original family name, but an epithet given him because he was once a slave or convict, whose faces were often branded or tattooed with dark ink. "Mo" is also Cantonese for "Mao", and given the "Tsu" spelling for "Zi" or "Zhi", you may wish to consider he was originally from the Yue Dynasty of Southeast China?

A strong argument can be made that it is Mozi, not Confucius, who deserves the title of China's first philosopher. Before the rise of the Mohist school, Ru or so-called “Confucian” thought seems to have consisted mostly of wise aphorisms offering moral coaching aimed at developing virtuous performers of social roles as described in traditional li (norms of ritual propriety).

Image: Mozi
Mozi and his followers were the first in the Chinese tradition to point out that conformity to traditional mores in itself does not ensure that actions are morally right. This critical insight motivated a self-conscious search for objective moral standards, by which the Mohists hoped to unify the moral judgments of everyone in society, thus eliminating social disorder and ensuring that morality prevailed. The normative standard through which they proposed to achieve these aims was the “benefit” (lì) of “all under Heaven”: Actions, practices, and policies that promote the overall welfare of society were to be considered morally right, those that interfere with it morally wrong.

This utilitarian standard was justified by appeal to the intention of Heaven (Tian), a god-like entity that the Mohists argued is committed impartially to the benefit of all. Heaven's intention provides a reliable epistemic criterion for moral judgments, they held, because Heaven is the wisest and noblest agent in the cosmos. This basic utilitarian and religious framework motivated a set of ten core ethical and political doctrines, which the Mohists sought to persuade the rulers of their day to put into practice. This article will discuss the motivation for the Mohist philosophical and political project, the central epistemic and logical notions that structure Mohist thought, and the details of the Mohists' ethical and political doctrines, including their strengths and weaknesses.

Primary sources for the thoughts of Mozi and his followers is a corpus of anonymously authored texts collected into a book called the Mozi. Other, less direct sources include anecdotes and comments about the Mohists preserved in early texts such as the Lushi Chunqiu, Hanfeizi, Zhuangzi, and Huainanzi and criticisms of them by two of their major opponents, the Confucians Mencius (ca. 372–289 BCE) and Xunzi (fl. 289–238 BCE).

The Mozi is a diverse compilation of polemical essays, short dialogues, anecdotes about Mozi, and compact philosophical discussions, the different parts of the book ranging in date from the 5th to the 3rd century BCE. For a detailed discussion of the organization, nature, and authorship of the Mozi, see the following supplement:
Texts and Authorship

The Mohist texts provide only the barest handful of clues about Mozi's life. One passage depicts King Hui of Chu (488–432 BCE) refusing to grant him an audience because of his low social status. Several anecdotes in the Mozi and other early texts depict him as a master craftsman and military engineer. The Huainanzi, a Han dynasty text, claims that Mozi was an apostate Ru (Confucian), but the Mozi itself provides no particular reason to believe this.

A more likely conjecture, supported by the frequency of references to the crafts in Mohist texts, is that he was originally an artisan of some kind, probably a carpenter. Indeed, the many examples alluding to crafts, mechanics, trade, work, and economic hardship, the apparent “critical outsider” stance of the earliest Mohist texts, and the nearly total absence of references to the li (courtly ritual, ceremony, etiquette) so central to Confucian thought all tend to suggest that Mohism emerged from a rising class of craftsmen, merchants, and soldiers that grew in size and political influence during the Warring States era, a time of rapid social and political change.

Influence of Social Origins on Mohist Thought

As their movement flourished in the 4th and 3rd centuries BCE, the Mohists branched into a number of groups, each led by a juzi, or grand master. Two early sources, the Hanfeizi (Book 50, ca. 233 BCE or later) and the Zhuangzi (Book 33, perhaps 2nd century BCE), mention a total of six groups of Mohists, who apparently quarreled among themselves over the details of Mohist doctrine. Another early text, the Lushi Chunqiu (ca. 239 BCE), mentions at least three other Mohist juzi. Evidence from the Mozi and Lushi Chunqiu indicates that these Mohist groups were disciplined organizations devoted to moral and practical education, political advocacy, government service, and in some cases military service.

Origins of Mohism

Mozi (Mo Tzu: circa. 490-403 BC) was China's first true philosopher. Mozi pioneered the argumentative essay style and constructed the first normative and political theories. He formulated a pragmatic theory of language that gave classical Chinese philosophy its distinctive character. Speculations about Mozi's origins highlight the social mobility of the era. The best explanation of the rise of Mohism links it to the growth in influence of crafts and guilds in China. Mohism became influential when technical intelligence began to challenge traditional priestcraft in ancient China. The "Warring States" demand for scholars perhaps drew him from the lower ranks of craftsmen. Some stories picture him as a military fortifications expert. His criticisms show that he was also familiar with the Confucian priesthood.
The Confucian defender, Mencius, (371-289 BC) complained that the "words of Mozi and Yang Zhu fill the social world."

Mozi advocated utilitarianism (using general welfare as a criterion of the correct dao guiding discourse) and equal concern for everyone. The Mohist movement eventually spawned a school of philosophy of language (called Later Mohists) which in turn influenced the mature form of both Daoism (Zhuangzi ca 360 BC) and Confucianism (Xunzi 298-238 BC).
Image: Mozi

The core Mohist text has a deliberate argumentative style. It uses a balanced symmetry of expression and repetition that aids memorization and enhances effect. Symmetry and repetition are natural stylistic aids for Classical Chinese, which is an extremely analytic language (one that relies on word order rather than part-of-speech inflections). Three rival accounts of most of the important sections survive in the Mozi.

Objective Standards and Utility

The "craft theory" of Mohism helps us explain the distinctive character of disciplined philosophical thought in China. As the Mohists analyse moral debates, they turn on which standards we should use to guide our execution of moral instructions. Mozi's orientation was that the standards should be measurement-like, e.g., like a carpenter's plumb line or square. Measurement-like standards lend themselves to reliable application. Experts do better than novices, but everyone can get good results. He tries to extend this reliability-based approach to questions of how to fix the reference of moral terms. Mozi does not think of moral philosophy as a search for the ultimate moral principle. It is the searches for a constant standard of moral interpretation and guidance.

Mozi attacks commonsense traditionalism (Confucianism) as a prelude to his argument for the utility standard. The attack shows that traditionalism is unreliable or inconstant. Mozi tells a story of a tribe that kills and eats their first born sons. We cannot, he observes, accept that this tradition is yi moral or ren benevolent This illustrates, he argues, the error of treating tradition as a standard for the application of such terms. We need some extra-traditional standard to identify which tradition is right. Which should we make the constant social guide (dao)? For it to give constant guidance, we also need measurement-like standards for applying its terms of moral approval.

Mozi then proposed utility as the appropriate measurement standard for these joint purposes. We use it in selecting among moral traditions, neither directly to choose particular actions nor to formulate rules. The body of moral discourse to promote and encourage is the one that leads to social behaviour that maximizes general utility. How does he justify the moral status of utility itself? He argues that it is the natural preference (tian nature: sky = zhi urge).

Constancy and Nature

The appeal to "Tian" thus becomes an important component of Mozi's argument. In ancient China, tian was the traditional source of political authority ("the mandate of heaven"). Early Confucianism had "naturalized" tian from what many assume was an archaic deity to something more like "the course of nature." Its main characteristic (besides its moral authority) was that it's movement was changconstant.

Mozi exploited both the connotations of tian's authority and its constancy. Traditions are variable-they differ in different places and times. If we don't like its traditions, we can flee from a family, a society, even a kingdom. We cannot similarly escape the constancies of nature. Natural constancies thus become plausible candidates to arbitrate between rival traditions. To say a dao was constant functioned a little like saying it was objectively true.

The constant "natural" urge he identified was a comparatively measurable one-we imagine ourselves "weighing" benefits against harms. Thus, he proposed using the preference for benefit as a reliable, natural standard for choosing and interpreting traditional practices. We count as 'moral' and 'benevolent' those traditional discourses that promote utility. The natural urge to utility, he says, is like a compass or a square. It does not depend on a cultivated intuition or indoctrination.

Moral Reform

Society's moral reform takes place when we reform the social dao guiding discourse. People educated in this discourse internalise its and the resulting disposition is called their devirtuosity. (The compound dao-de is the standard translation of 'ethics'.) Our devirtuosity produces a course of action in actual situations. Whether the course produced by discourse like "When X do Y" is successful or not depends on what we identify as "X" and "not-X" in the situation. For social coordination, we train people to make these distinctions in similar ways. The key to reforming guiding discourse is to reforming how we make distinctions, e.g. the distinction between 'moral' and 'immoral'.

Mozi understands the training process in several related ways.
(1) We emphasize or make a different set of distinctions the dominant ones--hence we promote different words as disposition guides. For example, he says the ruler should use the word jian universal and not the word biepartial. If he speaks and thinks that way, he will be a more benevolent ruler. Society should make the benefit-promoting words the constant words in our social discourse.
(2) We reform how we make the distinctions associated with terms that remain the same. For example, we will assign different things to shi right and fei wrong.
(3) We can change the order of terms in the guiding discourse--use it to give different advice.

Reform Impasse

Notice that Mozi's posture as a moral reformer puts him in an argumentative bind that is related to one faced by Utilitarianism in the West. He admits he is challenging existing judgments and intuitions. What is the status of the principle he uses in proposing his alternative? How can he make his alternative seem other than immoral to someone from within that tradition? How can a moral reformer get over the impasse posed by conflicting moral intuitions?
One possibility emerges in another of Mozi's philosophical stories. He uses this story to criticize Confucian pro-family and "partial" moral attitudes. He depicts a conscript leaving his family to make war. It argues that if he were concerned about his family, he would want those to whom he entrusts them to adopt an attitude of universal concern. He would, Mozi argues, not seek out a person with "partial" moral attitudes. His family-centred, partial moral attitude is "inconstant" in the sense that it leads him to prefer that others have universal rather than partial attitudes. He would achieve his "partial" goals only if the public morality were altruistic. Confucian partiality is "inconstant" in that it recommends a public dao guiding discourse that is inconsistent with it. It can not consistently recommend itself as the collective social dao.

Mohist Psychology
Image: Mozi represented in a traditional Chinese picture

Mozi's analysis shows Chinese thought has a notion of morality as independent from social conventions and history. However, it neither ties morality to the familiar Western concept of "reason" nor to principles or maxims that function within a belief-desire psychology. His focus is on the contrasting terms, benefit/harm, not on the sentence "do what maximizes benefit." The concept is a standard against which we measure social discourse as a whole. The standard is not a principle of reason; it is a natural preference distinction. The objects of evaluation are not actions or rules, they are bodies of discourse and widespread courses of action.

The psychological and conceptual structure of Mozi's moral analysis treats human nature as social and malleable. Human malleability derives from our tendency to learn, to mimic, to seek support and approval from those we respect-our social superiors. It derives also from the effect of language on "inner programming."

Mozi promotes ren humanity as the appropriate utilitarian disposition-the virtue of benevolence. He links it to his choice of universal over partial "love." Mozi acknowledges that instilling universal moral concern requires social reinforcement - official promotion and encouragement. Mozi's social theory of shang-tong agreeing with the superior describes the system that brings this about. Here Mozi gives a familiar justification of a system of authority.

Political Theory

Why, Mozi asks, do we choose ordered society over anarchy-the original state of nature. His description of the latter is of a state of inefficiency and waste. One important difference from the Western parallel is that Mozi sees humans as naturally moral creatures who disagree on their moral purposes. Prior to society, he says, humans had different yi morality. They end up in conflicts fuelled by moral judgments. They cannot agree on what is shi (right) and fei (wrong). It is clear, Mozi says, that the bad situation arises from the absence of a zhang elder. So [we] select a worthy man and name him tian-zi = natural master. He then selects others of worth and creates the governing hierarchy. The hierarchy organizes us to harmonizes our yi morality., our use of shi this:right and feint-this:wrong. We report "up" what we view as shi this: right and fei not-this: wrong; if the superior endorses it "shi" then we all call it shi. If he defines it "fei" then the subserviants will also, even if I originally designated shi. The judgment that something is right is equivalent to choosing it. Society gains through coordination of behaviour and the efficiency of a "constant" dao guiding discourse.

While we harmonize our shi-fei judgments with those the ruler, he does not have arbitrary discretion in his assignments of shi-fei (right-wrong). He must "conform upward" too and for the ruler the higher authority is tian and the natural standard of utility. Since all humans have access to that natural measurement standard. Ultimately we "conform upward" only when we correctly use the utility standard in judgment. Still, agreement is itself a utilitarian good, so we report our judgments up, and join in the general acceptance of the judgment that comes down.

This difficulty in making the political system coherent illustrates an implicit tension between the reforming utility standard that is accessible to everyone and Mozi's continued need for a traditional social authority. The tension becomes explicit in Mozi's account of three fa measurement standards for yan language. He lists first the model of past sage kings. Second, he observes the importance of standards to which ordinary people have access "through their eyes and ears." Clear, measurement-like standards can be applied by "even the unskillful" with good results. He lists the pragmatic appeal to usefulness third. While it anchors his reform spirit, he clearly recognizes the importance of historical and traditional patterns in determining correct usage.


Mozi applies his standards in a famous set of arguments concerning 'spirits' and 'fate'. He appeals to what the sage kings and old literature say, what people in general say, using their "eyes and ears" and, most importantly, what effects on behaviour will result from saying "spirits exist" vs. " spirits do not exist" or "there is fate" vs. "there is no fate." Mozi acknowledges that there may be no spirits. Still, he argues, the standards of language all weigh in favor of saying the exist. He characterizes his conclusion as knowing the dao way of 'existence-nonexistence'. Knowing how to deploy this distinction is knowing we can change the content of discourse via making the 'exist-not exist' distinction in a particular way.

Mohism died out when the emerging imperial dynastic system promoted a Confucian orthodoxy. Mozi's long-term influence is controversial. Confucian histories treat Mohism as a brief, inconsequential interlude of "Western Style thought." However, his influence arguably shaped Confucian orthodoxy as much as Confucius did. Mozi forced later classical Confucians thinkers to defend their normative theory philosophically and in doing so, they adopted his terms of analysis and many of his key ethical attitudes. Paradoxically, the vehicle for the absorption of Mohist ideas was his chief detractor, Mencius, who effectively abandoned traditionalism and constructed a Confucian version of benevolence-based naturalism that was implicitly universal.

Daoism, similarly, grew out of a relativistic analysis of the Confucian-Mohist debate. Arguably, we owe to Mozi the fact that Chinese philosophy exists. Without him, Confucianism might never have risen above "wise man" sayings and Daoism might have languished as nothing more than a "Yellow Emperor" cult.
The Ten Mohist Doctrines

As their movement developed, the Mohists came to present themselves as offering a collection of ten key doctrines, divided into five pairs. The ten doctrines correspond to the titles of the ten triads, the ten sets of three essays that form the core of the Mozi. Although the essays in each triad differ in detail, the gist of each doctrine may be briefly summarized as follows.

• “Elevating the Worthy” and “Conforming Upward.”
The purpose of government is to achieve a stable social, economic, and political order (zhi, pronounced “jr”) by promulgating a unified conception of morality (yi). This task of moral education is to be carried out by encouraging everyone to “conform upward” to the good example set by social and political superiors and by rewarding those who do so and punishing those who do not. Government is to be structured as a centralized, bureaucratic state led by a virtuous monarch and managed by a hierarchy of appointed officials. Appointments are to be made on the basis of competence and moral merit, without regard for candidates' social status or origins.

• “Inclusive Care” and “Rejecting Aggression.”
To achieve social order and exemplify the key virtue of ren (humanity, goodwill), people must inclusively care for each other, having as much concern for others' lives, families, and communities as for their own, and in their relations with others seek to benefit them. Military aggression is wrong for the same reasons that theft, robbery, and murder are: it harms others in pursuit of selfish benefit, while ultimately failing to benefit Heaven, the spirits, or society as a whole.

• “Thrift in Utilization” and “Thrift in Funerals.”
To benefit society and care for the welfare of the people, wasteful luxury and useless expenditures must be eliminated. Seeking always to bring wealth to the people and order to society, the ren (humane) person avoids wasting resources on extravagant funerals and prolonged mourning (which were the custom in ancient China).

• “Heaven's Intention” and “Elucidating Ghosts.”
Heaven is the noblest, wisest moral agent, so its intention is a reliable, objective standard of what is morally right (yi) and must be respected. Heaven rewards those who obey its intention and punishes those who defy it, hence people should strive to be humane and do what is right. Social and moral order (zhi) can be advanced by encouraging belief in ghosts and spirits who reward the good and punish the wicked.

• “Rejecting Music” and “Rejecting Fatalism.”
The humane (ren) person opposes the extravagant musical entertainment and other luxuries enjoyed by rulers and high officials, because these waste resources that could otherwise be used for feeding and clothing the common people. Fatalism is not ren, because by teaching that our lot in life is predestined and human effort is useless, it interferes with the pursuit of economic wealth, a large population, and social order (three primary goods that the humane person desires for society). Fatalism fails to meet a series of justificatory criteria and so must be rejected.

Related Pages
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• Mohism - This Page
Taoism / Daoism
The Swastika
Buddhist Breaks in China
Kung Fu Breaks in China
Please Note:
The main text of this article is as edited and adapted by China Expats from the following resources and is reproduced under Collective Commons licence:
Please also see the excellent wikipedia for further information:

This information is as supplied by China Expats and Wikipedia, as dated May 2010, and/or other reliable sources.

Please check this information yourself as it may alter without notice, and whilst we try our best to ensure it is correct, please do not hold us responsible for any errors - this is intended as a simple guide only
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