Ruist and Mohist Interpretations of Tianming 天命

Week 8, Lecture 2

Learning Objectives

  1. Define utilitarian ethics.
  2. Discuss consequentialism and fatalism found in Mohist and Ruist philosophies.

Utilitarianism: the right action is that which produces the overall greatest happiness of the greatest number of people. Happiness is understood to be the same thing as pleasure. The overall pursuit is to structure society in a manner that motivates people who are self-motivated by their self-interest, to work toward maximizing general happiness.

Utilitarianism is a mode of a branch of ethics called consequentialism. Consequentialism holds that the consequences of our actions are what determine whether or not our actions are justifiable or not. The common expression “the ends justify the means” is the spirit of consequentialism.

Against consequentialism we may productively contrast fatalism. Fatalism is that body of thought that argues that resistance to the inevitable is futile. A chain of events prior to our birth has set the stage such that there is little one can do to alter the future—it is our fate or destiny.

When contemplating what course of action we should take from a consequentialist perspective, we ask ourselves about the outcome that we are about to generate and whether or not the results of our action generates the appropriate outcome we desire. This, then, is the rubric for determining whether our action is good or bad.

When contemplating what course of action we should take from a fatalist perspective we recognize that our actions do not generate the outcome because the outcome is predetermined by our fate. So, we must assess whether or not our actions are good or bad by a metric different from that used by the consequentialist. Our actions are deemed good or bad not by the effects of our actions but rather because our actions are good or bad actions in-themselves.

Kongzi is a good model for us to understand this fatalist position because he did not achieve what he set-out to achieve before his death. As FUNG Yu-lan states:

“Confucius’ own life is certainly a good example of this teaching. Living in an age of great social and political disorder, he tried his best to reform the world. He traveled everywhere and, like Socrates, talked to everybody. Although his efforts were in vain, he was never disappointed. He knew that he could not succeed, but kept on trying.” (A Short History of Chinese Philosophy, 45)

We can get a more robust sense of what is meant by fate or destiny by discussing the concept of tianming 天命, which is often translated as “the mandate of heaven.”

Let’s look at the Book of Songs, number 267:

The Mandate of Heaven [tianming 天之命],
How beautiful and unceasing!
Oh, how glorious
Was the purity of King Wen’s virtue!
With blessings he overwhelms us.
We will receive the blessings.
They are a great favor from our King Wen.
May his descendants hold fast to them.
(from Wing-tsit Chan’s A Sourcebook in Chinese Philosophy, 6)

What we see with this Book of Songs example above is an ancient documentation of a strong cultural belief in China, tianming 天命.  Tianming 天命 is here presented as an anthropomorphic force that exerts its will in the affairs of the human community. The kings of ancient China can secure the favor of tianming 天命 by observing proper ritual conduct and this includes practicing sincere veneration of one’s ancestors.

Kongzi looked to the Zhou dynasty (1111–770 BCE) as the exemplars whose model all future kings ought to aspire. The Duke of Zhou argued that it was because the Yin dynasty (1384–1112 BCE) had lost the Mandate of Heaven tianming 天命 that it was now possible for the Zhou dynasty to ascend to a position of primacy in the region. From earliest records we see that tianming 天命 has long served as an explanatory principle for rationalizing why political change occurs in the region.

While Kongzi encouraged his students to observe the model created by the Zhou dynasty, Mozi, on the other hand, looked to the Xia dynasty (2183–1752 BCE). The difference is significant because we see that what tianming 天命 means changes fundamentally between these two models.

For the Ruists, tianming 天命 comes to mean the way (dao 道) or moral order that cosmos itself observes, independent of human concerns. The role of sage king is to foster and enhance the relationship between the human community and the greater cosmos. Indeed, one way we can understand the character for “king” (wang, 王) is that the king is the intermediary between heaven and earth.

What tianming 天命 dictates, or what fate tianming 天命 has in store for us, is beyond our control, as we see expressed in Analects 14.36:

“The Master said, ‘Whether or not the Way (dao 道) is to be put into action is a matter of ming 命, fate. Whether or not the Way (dao 道) is to be discarded is also a matter of fate.” (Slingerland translation)

We see also that, because tianming 天命 is beyond our control, that the proper way for the Ruist is to do nothing that would disturb the way tianming 天命 is unfolding:

Analects 16.2
Kongzi said [….] “In a world world which follows the Way, political initiative does not belong to the ministers; in a world which follows the Way, there is no need for commoners to dispute over politics.” (Simon Leys translation)

The people do not debate the affairs of the state because there is no need for them to debate the way the state is operating: the people are flush with crops, the elderly are cared for, the young are being raised in the appropriate manner, etc. In short, when the way guides human affairs, the human community flourishes.

Analects 20.3 argues that if we do not learn how to harmonize ourselves with the what tianming 天命 intends, then we will not be able to become an exemplary person (junzi 君子), “One who does not understand the Heavenly Mandate lacks the means to become a [junzi 君子].” (Slingerland translation)

Fung argues that, “to know ming 命 means to acknowledge the inevitability of the world as it exists [rather than how we wish it existed], and so to disregard one’s external success or failure. If we can act in this way, we can, in a sense, never fail. For if we do our duty, that duty through our very act is morally done, regardless of the external success or failure of our action.” (A Short History of Chinese Philosophy, 45)

This embrace of fatalism is in part what Mozi despised about the Ruist project. Click here to continue our lecture and learn more about the Mohist position.