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Mohism (Chinese: 墨家; pinyin: Mòjiā; "School of Mo") or Moism is a Chinese Philosophy founded by Mozi in the fifth century B.C.E.. It evolved at about the same time as Confucianism, Taoism and Legalism (Hundred Schools of Thought), and disappeared during the Qin dynasty in the third century B.C.E.. Mozi's philosophy was described in the book Mozi, compiled by his students from lecture notes.

Mohism presented a challenge to the dominant Confucian thought, emphasizing the necessity for individual piety and submission to the will of "heaven," or "Shang-ti" (the "Lord on High"), and deploring the elaborate Confucian funeral rites and ceremonies as a waste of government funds which could be better spent on the welfare of the people. Mohists favored a meritocracy led by a virtuous monarch and officials appointed according to their abilities, without regard for status or social origins. They also advocated the practice of "inclusive care," or universal love, declaring that the same degree of care and concern felt for family members should be extended to all of mankind. Mencius bitterly attacked the concept of universal love, saying that it amounted to renouncing one's father and undermined the family loyalty which was central to Confucian ethics.

Mozi and the Mohists

Mohism developed from the teachings of Mo Di, or Mozi (Mo-tzu ,"Master Mo"), about whom little is known, not even what part of China he came from. The Shi Ji, a Han dynasty record, tells us only that he was an official of the state of Song and that he lived either at the same time as or after Confucius (d. 479 B.C.E.). Texts of the Qin (221-206 B.C.E.) and Han dynasty (206 B.C.E.-219 C.E..) often list Confucius and Mozi as the two great moral teachers of the Warring States era. It is most likely that he flourished during the middle to late decades of the fifth century B.C.E., roughly contemporaneous with Socrates in the West. "Mo" is an unusual surname and is the common Chinese word for "ink." Scholars have speculated that this was not Mozi's original family name, but that he might have been given the epithet because he had once been a slave or convict, and their faces were often branded or tattooed with dark ink.

The Ten Mohist Doctrines

The Mohists movement offered a collection of ten key doctrines, divided into five pairs. The ten doctrines correspond to the titles of the ten triads, ten sets of three essays each that form the core of the Mozi. Although the essays in each triad differ in detail, the essence of each doctrine may be briefly summarized:

  • "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). 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 officials appointed on the basis of competence and moral merit, without regard for their social status or origins.
  • "Inclusive Care" and "Rejecting Aggression." To achieve social order and exemplify the key virtue of ren (humanity, goodwill), people must care as much for others' lives, families, and communities as for their own, showing the same love for all of mankind as they do for their own children. In relationships, one should always seek to benefit others. 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." Wasteful luxury and useless expenditures must be eliminated in order to have more resources to devote to the welfare of the people. Seeking always to bring wealth to the people and order to society, the ren (humane) person avoids wasting resources on the extravagant funerals and prolonged mourning which were customary 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. Since Heaven rewards those who obey its intention and punishes those who defy it, people should always 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, the three primary goods that the humane person desires for society. Fatalism must be rejected because it fails to meet a series of justificatory criteria.

The Search for Objective Standards

The essence of Mohist philosophy was the search for objective moral standards by which to guide action and reform society. Mohists believed that that it was possible to find and apply such standards in ethics and in politics. Mohists called these standards fa (models, paradigms, standards). A text from one of the later portions of the Mozi explains the role of fa:

Our Master Mozi said, "Those in the world who perform any task cannot work without models (fa) and standards. To work without models and standards, yet complete their task successfully—no one can do it. Even officers serving as generals or ministers, they all have models; even the hundred artisans performing their tasks, they too all have models. The hundred artisans form squares with the L-square, circles with the compass, straight edges with the string, vertical lines with the plumb line, [even surfaces with the level]. Whether skilled artisans or unskilled, all take these five as models. The skilled can conform to them exactly; as to the unskilled, though they cannot conform to them exactly, if they follow them in performing their tasks, they still surpass what they can do on their own. So the hundred artisans in performing their tasks all have models to measure by. "Now for the most powerful to order (zhi, also "govern") the world and their deputies to order great states and yet have no models to measure by, this is to be less discriminating than the hundred artisans." (Book 4, "Models and Standards")

The Concept of Fa (Models)

The Mohists referred to objective ethical standards as fa (models, standards), a concept central part to their ethics and their views on language, knowledge, and argumentation or reasoning. Mohists compared fa (models, standards) to the instruments used to guide laborers in performing skilled manual tasks, such as drawing a straight line or sawing a square corner. Fa should be simple, objective, reliable, and easy to use, so that with minimal training anyone can employ them to perform a task or evaluate the outcome. Fa alone do not ensure success, nor do they remove the distinction between the skilled and unskilled, or between the virtuous and those still acquiring virtue, but their use makes a person more successful than he would be without them. Fa is among the key notions through which Mohism had an important influence on the late Warring States. Confucian thinker Xunzi and his student Han Fei, leading representative of a style of realpolitik thought that later became known as the fa jia (school of fa, often translated as "legalism").

The emphasis on practical models of ethical behavior reflects the pragmatic orientation which was a fundamental feature of Mohist thought, and of classical Chinese philosophy in general. Early Chinese thought was more concerned with practical utility and performance than with theoretical description or representation. Classical discourse centers on the concept of dao (way), a notion that refers to an ideal way of conducting one’s personal life and of ordering society. Rather than investigating the nature of truth, early Chinese thinkers researched the way in which one should live. The aim was not to grasp an intellectual concept, but to be able to follow a norm successfully. An example that could be emulated was considered as effective as a principle or definition. Anything that guides practical performance effectively can serve as fa.


For the Mohists, knowledge of something did not require a definition or a description of it, but simply the ability to distinguish what it was not. Mohists did not seek the essence or definition of yi (right, duty), but only sought how to determine what was not yi. They believed this could be done by indentifying appropriate models for drawing the distinction between yi and not-yi and teaching everyone to emulate them. Such models might be based on practical experience, independent moral grounds, or simply on the conviction that the actions of exemplary moral agents, such as Tian (Heaven) and the ancient sage kings, could not be wrong. Mohism did not require justification to prove that knowledge was true. Instead, knowledge was treated simply as correct judgment, the accurate distinction of yi fro non-yi. This accuracy had to be consistent in a variety of cases over time. A person of great knowledge could be relied on to make accurate judgments in every circumstance.

Now suppose there is a man here, when he sees a small amount of black, he says "Black," but when he sees a large amount of black, he says, "White." Then surely we would take this man to not know the distinction between black and white. Or suppose that when he tastes a small amount of something bitter, he says "Bitter," but when he tastes a large amount of something bitter, he says, "Sweet." Then surely we would take this man to not know the distinction between sweet and bitter. (Book 17, "Rejecting Aggression")

Inclusive Care, or Universal Love

The Mohists are most well known for the ethical principle of jian ai, sometimes translated as "universal love," but probably better understood as "inclusive care." Jian (together, jointly) in this context has the connotation of including everyone in society together within a whole. Like the English word "care," the Chinese word ai (love, care) may refer to a range of attitudes from strong affection to detached concern. In Mohist, texts the word typically seems to refer to a dispassionate concern about the welfare of an object. In its complete form, the Mohist doctrine was that people should follow the fa (standard, model) of "inclusively caring for each other, and in interaction benefiting each other." Mohism saw the psychological attitude of care and the beneficial behavior that results from this attitude as two sides of the same coin, since the presence of one was sufficient condition for the other. There is an important difference between the two; the attitude of care is all-inclusive, encompassing everyone, but beneficial behavior is not all-inclusive since it directly benefits only those individuals with whom we interact. In practice, then, the slogan called for reciprocally beneficial interaction with the immediate society around you, while maintaining an attitude of concern for all mankind.

Ancient critics of Mohism objected mostly to their frugal, austere lifestyle, opposition to music, and plain burial practices, which recognized no differences in social rank. Little was said about their core ethical doctrines. Mencius, however, is reported to have equated the doctrine of inclusive care with renouncing one's father, and to have dismissed Mozi as a "beast.” Later Confucian critics followed Mencius in attacking the idea of universal love, maintaining that it runs counter to human nature and undermines family loyalty, which is an essential aspect of Confuian ethics. Confucians maintained that a child should have a greater love for his parents than for complete strangers.

The Mohists justified “inclusive care” (universal love) with two types of arguments. One was that universal love was Heaven's intention. The other, applied in all three of the "Inclusive Care" texts, appealed to the good consequences of such an attitude. Excluding other people, families, cities, and states from the scope of moral concern results in social harm and leads to injustice, injury, crime, violence, and failure to practice the virtues associated with the fundamental social relations. By practicing “inclusive care,” it would be possible to eliminate these harms and promote "benefit to the world." If every person had an attitude of universal love to all other people, everyone would be respected and have their needs taken care of.

Mohists believed in the heavens as a divine force (Tian), which knew the immoral acts of man and punished them, encouraging moral righteousness. Their belief in spirits was at best vague, but they were wary of some of the more atheistic thinkers of the time, such as Han Fei Zi.

Political Organization

Mozi posited that the organization and regimentation of society reduces the wastes and inefficiencies found in the natural state. Conflicts are born from the absence of moral uniformity found in the natural state of man, a state in which he is unable to distinguish what is right (是 shì) from what is wrong (非 fēi). We must therefore choose leaders who will surround themselves with righteous followers, who will then create the hierarchy that harmonizes Shi/Fei. In that sense, the government becomes an authoritative and automated tool to create harmony. Mohism was opposed to any form of aggression, especially war between states; it was, however, permissible for a state to use force in legitimate self-defense.

In addition to creating a school of philosophy, the Mohists tried to realize their ideals by forming a highly structured political organization which consisted of a network of local units in all the major kingdoms of China at the time, made up of elements from both the scholarly and working classes. Each unit was led by a juzi (literally, "chisel," an image from craftmaking). Within the unit, a frugal and ascetic lifestyle was enforced. Each juzi appointed his own successor. However, there was no central authority beyond the writings of Mozi. Mohists developed the sciences of fortification and statecraft, and wrote treatises on government, about topics ranging from efficient agricultural production to the laws of inheritance. They were often hired by the warring kingdoms as advisers to the state. In this way, they resembled the other wandering philosophers and knights-errant of the period, but were unique because they hired out their services not only for gain, but also in order to realize their own ethical ideals.

Mohist thought has inspired some modern pacifists.

The Logicians

One of the schools of Mohism that has received some attention is the Logicians school, which was interested in resolving logical puzzles. The main philosopher of this school was a late Mohist, Gongsun Long. Little survives from the writings of this school, since problems of logic were deemed trivial by most subsequent Chinese philosophers. Historians such as Joseph Needham have seen this group as initiating a precursor philosophy of science that was never fully developed, but others believe that recognizing the Logicians as proto-scientists reveals too much of a modern bias.


External links

All links retrieved November 9, 2022.

General Philosophy Sources


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