Moral Compass US

The North American edition of The Quest for a Moral Compass is published this week by Melville House. I am in New York and Toronto to talk about it. While I am away, I am publishing on Pandaemonium short extracts from the book. This first snippet on Monday was from Chapter 1, and discussed Aeschylus’ Oresteia. This second snippet is from Chapter 6 and explores the ideas of Mo Tzu, a Chinese philosopher lost in history but whose significance is arguably as great as that of Kong (better known in the West as Confucius). I have previously published the opening section of the book and a talk at the RSA in London exploring some of the themes of the book; and here are the first set of reviews.


From The Quest for a Moral Compass, pp 101-106

Where exactly Mo Tzu was born remains uncertain, as do the exact dates of his birth and death. He was possibly born in the state of Lu and he probably lived in the second half of the fifth century BCE, and perhaps into the early part of the fourth; in other words, around the same time as Socrates, Plato and the later Sophists in Greece. This was the period of the Warring States in China, where the disintegration of the Zhou Dynasty had led to all-out conflict between a number of different states, in particular Jin, Chu, Qin and Qi. The turmoil ended in 221, more than a century after Mo’s death, with the victory of Qin, the unification of the various warring fragments and the founding of the first Chinese Imperial Dynasty (though the Qin dynasty itself lasted only fifteen years). ‘Mo’ is an unusual surname, Chinese for ‘ink’. Some scholars have speculated that it was an epithet given to him for having once been a slave or a convict, whose faces were often branded or tattooed with dark ink. Others suggest that Mo took on the name as a way of identifying with the lowest class of people. Most historians now believe that Mo was a member of the lower artisan class who managed to climb his way to an official post. Fung Yu Lan suggests that Mo was a hsieh, a hereditary warrior who had lost his position and title, and made a living by offering his services to those who would employ him. He is certainly thought to have founded a highly organized, quasi-religious, military community that came to the aid of small states under threat, a practical expression of the Mohists’ opposition to military aggression.

Today we know of Mo’s philosophy primarily through a text called Mozi, which was probably written not by Mo Tzu himself, but by successive groups of disciples. The original consisted of 71 chapters, of which only 53 remain. The social turmoil that beset China over several centuries had led Kong [Confucius] to stress tradition and ritual as a means of assuring order and harmony. It led Mo to argue for the very opposite.

Mo distinguished between two principles: that of ‘partiality’ and that of ‘universality’. Someone who held to the principle of partiality, as Kong did, discounted the moral interests of other tribes or other states, or hated or despised them because they were of other tribes or other states. To adopt the principle of ‘universality’ did not mean, as some have suggested of Mo, that one should love strangers as much as one loves one’s family, but rather that the moral interests of strangers, and of other tribes and states, must concern us as much as those of our family, that one should ‘regard others’ states as though regarding one’s state, regard others’ families as though regarding one’s family, and regard other persons as though regarding one’s person’. How, Mo asks, do these two approaches explain ‘the current calamities of the world’, in particular ‘great states attacking small ones, great families overthrowing small ones, the strong oppressing the weak, the many harrying the few, the cunning deceiving the stupid, and eminent lording it over the humble’? Such calamities have not arisen out of people ‘loving others and trying to benefit them’. Rather, they have ‘come from hating others and trying to injure them’. Therefore, ‘partiality is wrong and universality is right’. ‘If men were to regard the states of others as they regard their own’, Mo asks, ‘then who would raise up his state to attack the state of another? It would be like attacking his own.’ Adopting the principle of universality would ensure that ‘Others will be regarded as the self’ and so the need for wars would be greatly reduced, even disappear.

Mo’s philosophy was not a warm, fuzzy embrace of an ‘All you need is love’ attitude. He was much more hard-headed and pragmatic. Why, he asked, should I act to embrace others and to benefit them rather simply to benefit myself? Because, he answered, ‘He who loves others, must also be loved by others. He who benefits others, must also be benefitted by others. He who hates others, must also be hated by others. He who injures others must also be injured by others.’ There are echoes here of utilitarian ideas, and of evolutionary notions of ‘reciprocal altruism’, developed two millennia later.

Mo rejected what he regarded as Kong’s fetishisation of ritual which, he argued, was merely for show and detracted from the changes necessary to bring about a truly harmonious society. What people required was food, clothing, work and peace, not elaborate funerals or rules of etiquette. Mo was even hostile to the playing of music which, he thought, provided amusement for the ruling class but not bread or peace for ordinary folk.

Despite Mo’s pragmatism, there remains something implausible both in his ethical utopianism and in his vision of human nature and of human relationships. Modern universalism is primarily a social and political claim. It requires the acceptance that whatever an individual’s background, and whatever we may personally feel about him or her, we accord that individual the same rights as we would do anyone else, that in meting out justice we do not discriminate on grounds of race, ethnicity, nationality, gender, sexuality, and so on, and that there are certain values, institutions and forms of governance under which all humans best flourish. Insofar as such universalism is plausible, it is because society is well enough developed to be able to steamroller traditional inequalities, differences and hierarchies, to afford equal treatment to all, and be able to think practically of common forms of governance across national and cultural boundaries. It was different in the premodern world. Inequality and hierarchy was essential to the functioning of such societies. The possibilities of social transformation, and of the creation of a society built on the equal treatment of all, would have appeared to most people as fantastical. Universalists were inevitably seen as dreamers and utopians; and dreamers and utopians they were. Universalism necessarily had primarily to be not social but psychological in form, an argument less about how society should be constructed than about how we should regard others. Given the constrained character of society, universalist ideas about regarding others as we regard ourselves could have seemed only fanciful. However pragmatic and utilitarian Mo Tzu’s philosophy might have been, this was true of his claims too. But while Mo’s psychological vision might have appeared implausible, his ethical vision was crucially important, and in many ways more developed and ‘modern’ than those of Stoics or Christians almost half a millennium later.

mo tzu

Mo criticized Kong not simply for his conservative adherence to tradition and his support for social discrimination but also for his rejection of God. Growing disbelief in the power and providential character of God and of the spirit world, he wrote, had led to widespread immorality and social chaos, not just because it coarsened human behaviour and ethical thinking but also because it ‘displeased’ God and the spirits. God’s will, Mo insisted, was that all humans should love one another. He rewarded with good fortune those who obeyed His commands, punished with calamity those that defied His will. There is something of the Old Testament about Mo’s vision of a personal, judgmental, vengeful God who sets in stone the meaning of right and wrong, punishing the wicked and rewarding the faithful. And yet Mo’s faith was quite unlike that demanded by the Old Testament. Good and bad, for Mo, were not simply arbitrary notions defined by God. That which is good is good because it promotes peace, harmony, order and proper governance. Had he been faced with Socrates, Mo’s answer to the Euthyphro dilemma would have been clear. What is right is right not merely because Heaven intends it. Rather, Heaven intends it because it is right.

Kong was not a humanist in the modern sense, but he talked little of God or of the spirit world, and neither played a role in his moral philosophy. What he was, was a deeply conservative thinker who sought to rationalize the ways of the past. ‘I transmit but do not create’, he wrote. ‘Being fond of the truth, I am an admirer of antiquity’. For Kong, truth was to be found by excavating the past, reason a means of ensuring that social mores were not overturned. Mo possessed a mystical view of God, and of the spirit world. But he was forcefully radical, challenging traditional mores and trying to develop a rational argument for a radical universalism. The relationship between Kong and Mo expresses the complexity of the relationship between faith, reason and morality, particularly in the premodern world.

For all his radicalism, there was also something quite authoritarian about Mo’s morality. We can see this most clearly in his fascinating parable about the origins of, and the necessity for, the state. Through the parable Mo set out a political argument superficially similar to that of Thomas Hobbes almost two millennia later. Both Mo and Hobbes saw humans, in the state of nature prior to the creation of society, as living in a condition of constant warfare. But where Hobbes saw conflict as arising out of the untrammelled pursuit of self-interest, Mo saw it as the consequence of discord over values. ‘Before there were any laws or governments, every man’s view of things was different’, wrote Mo. ‘One man had one view, two people had two views, ten men had ten views — the more men, the more views. Moreover, each man believed that his own views were correct and disapproved of those of others.’ As a result people were ‘unable to live in harmony’ and ‘people all resorted to water, fire, and poison in an effort to do each other injury’.

To overcome this disorder, ‘the most worthy and able man in the world was selected and set up as Son of Heaven’. There could be only one standard of morality in this state, based on the principles that ‘What the superior considers right, all shall consider right. What the superior considers wrong, all shall consider wrong’, and ‘Always agree with the superior; never follow the inferior’. This Mo calls ‘conforming upwards’. Mo’s state is absolutist, and the authority of its ruler absolute.

Like the implausibility of Mo’s conception of human nature, so the authoritarian character of his ideal state reveals the limitations upon ethical thinking in the premodern world, largely the result of constraints upon social possibilities. In a world in which neither the understanding of the self nor the potential for social transformation were well-developed, the concept of individual rights had no more meaning to Mo than it did to most ancient thinkers, and universalism could only be understood in terms of social order imposed by fiat.

mo tzu

There is an argument to be made for thinking of Mo Tzu, rather than Kong, as China’s first philosopher. He, not Kong, was, as the philosopher Chris Fraser observes, ‘the first Chinese thinker 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 [his] views’. He, not Kong, ‘formulated China’s first explicit ethical and political theories’. And he advanced the world’s earliest form of consequentialism, remarkably sophisticated for its time.

Mo was, however, one of history’s losers. During the Era of the Warring Sates, Mohism was influential, vying with Confucianism for the ear both of rulers and the masses. With the unification of China in 221 BCE, and the creation of imperial rule, Kong’s star rose, while Mohist ideas were seen not just as irrelevant but as dangerous, too. The conservatism of Confucianism, its appeal to tradition and ritual, its usefulness in training for government officials, all found favour with the imperial court. Konzi became, as the literary critic and human rights activist Liu Xiaobo observes, the ‘court guard dog’ for two thousand years. Mo’s radicalism, and his distaste for li and for traditional concepts of order, provoked fear. Under the Han Dynasty that followed, Confucianism was adopted as the official imperial ideology, while Mo’s teachings were suppressed. Kong came to be venerated as China’s greatest sage, even as a god. In the 450s, the imperial government built the first Confucian temple, and within a century no city of respectable size was without its temple to Kong. New temple rituals were established to celebrate everything from Kong’s birthday to the spring equinox to success in civil service exams. Mo Tzu and his school fell into neglect and obscurity, their texts largely unread. The Mozi was nearly lost to history. It was paradoxically, growing familiarity with Western philosophy in the nineteenth century that led many Chinese scholars to excavate their own intellectual history in a search for untapped intellectual within their own traditions, and to rediscover Mo Tzu’s legacy.



  1. Doug Puchowski

    Where in NY are you speaking? I looked on the Melville site but found no mention of a talk there. Thanks,

    • I know this will be too late for you, but I spoke at NYU’s Stern School. I hope to be over again. When I am, I will post details on Pandaemonium. And thanks for your interest.

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