From Chinese philosophy to ecological change
The importance of Mohism and Confucianism becomes more pronounced by the changes in ecology. As a prerequisite, good governance requires us to revisit our key concepts. According to Mozi, love for the self and love for humanity are both equally important for good governance.
From Chinese philosophy to ecological change
Ancient Knowledge in a Modern World

From Chinese philosophy to ecological change

Mozi (470 BC–391 BC) (Source:Wikipedia)
Attila Grandpierre 18/02/2023 05:00

The importance of Mohism and Confucianism becomes more pronounced by the changes in ecology. As a prerequisite, good governance requires us to revisit our key concepts. According to Mozi, love for the self and love for humanity are both equally important for good governance.

The Zhou dynasty ruled for centuries, but then starting from the 8th century BC the unity of China began to weaken. So Confucius (551 BC–479 BC) and Mozi (470 BC–391 BC) looked for a universal fundamental principle that would be suitable for governing social actions, and could help to make China strong and unified again based on ancient Chinese philosophy. Mohism, which basically follows the ancient tradition and Confucius’ doctrines, is based on the rather profound recognition that the key prerequisite of good governance is the acceptance of the “universal love” in Heaven’s intention as primary. Most of the people believed, and in this sense Mozi’s work strengthened their belief, that the primacy of universal love for everyone is in contradiction with the primacy of universal love for family.

According to ancient Chinese philosophy Dao, the government principle of Heaven is the “source” of the Universe. Mozi relies on the law of Heaven when it comes to stabilising social imbalance and overcoming the ever stronger petty discordance between people. Because Heaven is universal, it is objective and impartial, and since Heaven comes from the principle cosmic life, it has universal and impartial love for all living creatures. The government principle of Heaven is what can serve as the general principle of good governance. It can resolve all contradictions and find a valid decision in all situations that is mutually acceptable to all parties concerned. Mozi believed this concept to be the fundamental principle of a universal lifestyle.

According to his teaching, people should follow universal love towards all fellow humans in all situations and they should consider it to be their guiding principle in whatever they do. However, it seems that this universal love should essentially be without any discrimination because just as the Sun shines on everyone, so is the life of every people, at least as a living creature and as a human, equally important to Heaven. Mozi teaches universal love for everyone which he justified with Heaven’s intention.

However, universal love for everyone contradicts the fact based on common sense and Confucius’ believes that as individuals we are required to love our own parents first and foremost. The apparent contradiction between these two views has been present in the history of Chinese philosophy over the past two and a half millennia.

The boundaries of universal love

The interpretation of Mozi’s “universal love” has given rise to much uncertainty right from the start. Confucius’ first great follower, Mencius says: “Mo's principle is that ‘we should love everyone equally’, which means a denial of the particular love for the father”. As you will see, if you look at the practical aspect of universal love, much of the misunderstanding can be resolved. First of all, the love Mozi is talking about is not a subjective feeling, rather a consistent and dedicated behaviour that is reflected in our actions, and serves everything under Heaven, the Earth and the whole living world on Earth, including humankind and every nation. So universal love taught by Mozi is a commitment expressed in practical actions for everyone.

Though the question arises: how can you perform practical actions for “everyone”? The answer to this is simple: Mozi’s work was written for the wise kings of China. The power of a king affects the whole country; and for a king “everyone” means the people living in his country, the citizens of the state. The misconception might have been caused by the fact that Mozi applies this principle to the family and other relationships with parents, and maintains the principle of universality. How should we think about this universal love? When and how can it be applied in practice?

Mozi (470 BC–391 BC) (Source:Wikipedia)

The limitations of responsibility

In part III of his work on universal love, Mozi explains that universal love means the impartiality of the decisions made by wise kings in recognising the worthy and in punishing the guilty. However, he then elaborates and treads on thin ice when he extends the principle of universal love required from a wise king for good governance, to the parents of others when he writes: “If in everyday life I gave priority to love for the parents of others and to acting in their interest, would the others reciprocate this with loving my parents and acting in their interest? I am sure if in everyday life I gave priority to loving and doing good to the parents of others, they would reciprocate this by loving my parents and acting in their interest.” This is the point where Mozi’s argumentation backfires from a certain point of view.

Our life is organised on different levels. We need to clarify which one we are talking about. As a public official with social powers we need to be respectful, affectionate and impartial, just like a king. However, as private individuals everyone is responsible for their own parents first and foremost, and not for the parents of others. Since if we take the intention of Heaven as our starting point and consider that it was exactly the intention of Heaven that placed us in our family and not in any of the other families, then we can say the intention of Heaven is expressed also in the fact that we are responsible for our own parents first and foremost. Our responsibility towards our own parents is primary, but we are not responsible for the parents of others. Applying the principle of universal love this way has its limitations.

Impartial king

“In ancient times when Wen and Wu ruled, they allocated everything, rewarding the worthy and punishing the wicked, without showing any partiality to their relatives and brothers,” says Mozi. True enough, equality before law excludes partiality even to members of one’s own family. First and foremost the obligation of the ruler, as the ruler about whom Mozi’s work was written, is to be impartial to all citizens. As family members, we need to show unconditional love to our parents, and as public officials we need to treat everyone impartially.

The following quotes feature in the chapter about which Mei Yipao, the first great translator of Mozi’s work said: “These few pages are probably the most difficult reading in all of Chinese literature.” Precisely these pages are the ones that contain the Mozi’s most straightforward explanation as to how the apparent contradiction between “universal love” and the primary love for parents can be resolved.

Particular love

According to Mozi: “It follows the principles if we feel ‘strong’ love for our parents.” And: “the model (method) of the wise is to take his mind off of his parents when they die, and turn it to the benefit of the world. Particular attention to one’s parents is a controversial idea. By turning away his mind from his parents, he makes effort to ensure benefits [for the whole world]. When benefits are ensured ‘strongly’ and ‘weakly’, and not ‘in the proper order’ (or there is ‘no difference in degree’), that is for the self.”

In other words the wise ruler acting as a ruler should dedicate his whole life primarily to the public upon the death of his parents, and his private life should play a secondary role, while in his decisions, he should follow the principle of impartiality.

According to Mozi “in language, rules are constant. (These include) the dismissal of the ‘white horse/horse’ (argument), we do not say ‘while we are looking for the horse, we can turn our attention to the foal’, and we dismiss (the argument) that the murder of a puppy is not a murder of a dog. These three things need to be stated, they are enough for life.”

If we try to interpret these three sentences separately, they prove to be difficult to understand. But if we try to find a common idea that connects them to each other and to universal love, it will become clear what Mozi wanted to say. The universal, general category (i.e. every “horse” is a horse to the same extent), does exclude the existence of white horses or even horses of other colour. However, while being a “horse” is universal among horses, being a “white horse” is not. The same applies to the example of the foal and the puppy: every foal is a horse, but not every horse is a foal, or every puppy is a dog, but not every dog is a puppy. To sum it up: the main idea of this paragraph is that universal love is a non-discriminatory, equal and general category given by Heaven; while particular love is a special kind of love that is present simultaneously with universal love.

Heaven, in other words, the Universe is reality itself. And since reality is and has to be the basis of our idea of reality, reality is given priority over the social world made up and created by humans, which in this sense is secondary. Heaven deserves unconditional respect, society deserves it as far as it conforms with reality, i.e. to the extent it reflects the intention of Heaven. And another question arises: does someone’s particular love for their parents conform with the intention of Heaven?

Statue of Confucius (Photo: iStock)


The special importance of Heaven’s universality in good governance is further emphasised by the fact that in addition to being the fundamental principle of good governance, the principle of universal love is extended by Mozi to the search of what is best for the individual, the family, the state, relationships between states, humanity and Heaven. What actually happened was that Mozi used universal love to extend the concepts of the “Dao”, heavenly law.

So for example in the chapter titled “Intention of Heaven III”, he explains as follows: “To follow the path of universality is nothing but to govern fairly. To follow the path of discrimination is nothing but to govern with force. If you ask what fair governance means, I can tell you that it means that the big do not attack the little, the strong do not take advantage of the weak, the many do harm the few, the wise do not deceive the dumb, the noble do not look down on the lower classes, the rich do not boast to the poor, and the strong do not take from the old. So the many nations of the world will not use water and fire, poison and potions, arms and weapons to harm each other. If these conditions are met, then Heaven above, spirits in the middle realm, and humanity below will benefit. If these three good deeds are done, there is nothing that would not benefit from a good deed. This is called ‘heavenly virtue’.”

As you can see the fundamental levels of human life are Heaven, humanity, nation, family and the self, and in one way or other universal love must be present on all levels in order to keep life in its proper course. How do these levels of life relate to each other? As far as love for the self and for humanity is concerned, Mozi argues for “appropriate order”, which means equal measure.

“Love for humanity does not exclude the self because self is in everything that we love. If self is in what we love, than love will ‘add’ to self. As he says there is an ‘appropriate order’ in love for self and in love for humanity (or the love for self and the love for humanity are not different from each other”.

Mozi is of the view that love for the self and love for humanity are both equally important for good governance. In other words our lifestyle is good, and the head of state exercises good governance if the welfare of the individual, the nation and humanity are taken into consideration with equal measure. This is where the apparent contradiction arising from the nature of the question lies; the wise should consider the interest of the individual, the nation and humanity a priority. Although at first glance we can easily say that the priority of one would exclude the priority of the other, in reality they exist simultaneously because according to “heavenly virtue” the principle of universal love must take precedence on each and every level in order to have life flow in the appropriate manner.

This scientific ideology covers all key aspects of life and the world and requires an interpretation that aligns Mohism and Confucianism. According to this, universal love can be understood as an inherent part of the principle of cosmic life. Life principle is the fundamental principle of ethical behaviour. The ethical fundamental principle implies universal acceptability. Such universal acceptability can only be granted by the Living Universe.

The importance of Mohism and Confucianism becomes more pronounced by the changes in ecology. Nations and states can be governed in many different ways just like our life. As a prerequisite, good governance requires us to revisit our key concept, our deepest self-identity, our ideas about family, the notion of nation, our idea of a human, our relationship with Nature, and our ideas about the Universe.

All these concepts and ideas need to be fundamentally re-evaluated. These key terms are taken by Mozi, Confucius and Chinese philosophy, and also comprehensive science, and placed into the order of Nature, this way creating a more complete picture of reality. The future of humanity basically depends on understanding the most essential contexts of reality.

The author is the Research President of the Budapest Centre for Long-Term Sustainability.

The article is a short summary of the study published in the 13th International Mozi Luban Conference and Global Forum on Confucianism (2020) Proceedings.

This article was originally published in our Hungarian-language magazine Eurázsia in 2022.

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