Mohist Rejection of Ruist Fatalism

We’ve just reviewed the way in which Ruists (like Kongzi and Mengzi) understand the concept tianming 天命 and how this supports their understanding of moral actions. Here we will consider the ways in which Mozi rejects the Ruist project and insists on a consequentialist lens for deciding moral actions.

Previously we pointed out that Kongzi looked to the Zhou dynasty as the exemplars for how his contemporaries ought to constitute future governments. And we noted that the Mohists point to the example given to us by the Xia dynasty. The differences between these two examples can be seen in how the Mohists interpret their relationship with Heaven’s will.

The Ruists argue that tianming 天命 is an impersonal force, unconcerned with human affairs, and ultimately it is the role of king—as the intermediary between the human community and the cosmos—to consummate the relationship between us, thus the character for king (wang 王) shows the king in the middle, between heaven and earth. The king can bring about this harmonization between the differences of the heavens, humans, and earth by observing ritual propriety (li 禮) and maintaining the right kind of actions (ren 仁) that promote the flourishing of the human community.

The Mohists argue that what Heaven tian 天 is an anthropomorphic figure who is very much concerned with human actions and regularly condemns us when we fail to meet the appropriate standards. Rather than discussing the mandate of Heaven, 天命, Mozi argues that tian 天wills (zhi 志) things to be as they are. Crucially, this willing (zhi 志) is a predictable inclination, rather than the capricious and ineffable propensity (ming 命) that the Ruists maintain.

It is tianzhi  天志 that underwrites the central ethical principle for the Mohists: yi 義 (righteousness). For the Mohists  it is Heaven that determines everything and so yi 義 (righteousness) is the will of Heaven. Wing-tsit Chan has argued that, “In teaching obedience to the will of Heaven, [Mozi] was the most religious of the ancient Chinese philosophers. No one else relied on religious sanction as much as he did.” (A Sourcebook in Chinese Philosophy, 220–221)

A.C. Graham states the difference this way,
“The Confucian thinks of the right as done for its own sake, and frees himself from the temptation to do wrong for the sake of gain by saying that wealth and poverty, long life and early death, are decreed for him by Heaven and outside his control. He can therefore act rightly with an untroubled mind, leaving the consequences to Heaven. For the Mohist on the other hand, judging all conduct in terms of benefit and harm, there can be no meaning in a morality detached from consequences. He is in a position to discard the fiction that material welfare is unaffected by how one acts, and he sees a fatalism which clings to it as not encouraging but undermining morality. At the same time he is driven in the direction of another moralising fiction, that if you behave rightly you can be sure of your reward.” (Disputers of the Tao, 50)

The Mohists level four critiques against the Ruists:

  1. The Ruists do not believe in ghosts—this leads the ghosts to be upset and this creates chaos.
  2. The Ruists argue that everyone should have elaborate funeral ceremonies for their dead parents, lasting three years, and this costs too much money and other resources.
  3. The Ruists overemphasize the role of musical performances in cultivating good personhood and this has the result of wasting everyone’s resources.
  4. The Ruists have the wrong idea about tian 天, believing that tianming 天命 is an impersonal force that predetermines one’s outcomes. This leads people to accept poverty and misfortune when these outcomes could be avoided by doing the right actions.

Mozi doesn’t disagree with the emphases that the Ruists place on ren 仁 (humaneness, authoritative or consummate conduct) and yi 義 (righteousness or appropriateness). Rather, Mozi argues, in his “Impartial Caring,” that the person who is ren 仁 and yi 義 is the person who shares their concern for others equitably.

If someone is overly committed to their filial networks (which is what Mozi argues that the Ruists are encouraging), the result is often times nepotism or worse, cronyism. Mozi argues that the people rise or fall together and therefore folks should work together to make the greater good better.