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Universality in Chinese Ethics

February 2, 2012

Further to our brief discussion of Chinese ethics, I wanted to note an interesting and telling episode in the history of Chinese philosophy.

Back in the Warring States era (479–221 BC) there was a lot of philosophical ferment. One of the schools that emerged was Mohism (after its founder, Mo Tzu, or Mozi), which taught universal and impartial benevolence. Here is a representative passage:

This is why our teacher Mozi says, “I approve of impartiality. Moreover, earlier I said that, ‘The business of a benevolent person is to promote what is beneficial to the world and eliminate what is harmful.’ And now I have shown that impartiality gives rise to all the great benefits in the world and that partiality gives rise to all the great harms in the world.”

Confucians explicitly rejected the Mohist ideal, insisting, for example, that it is proper to put your own family first (see for instance Mencius 3.A.5). Mohism died out and Confucianism eventually became a state religion. In a sense the Chinese tradition considered, and deliberately rejected, the ideal of universal and impartial love. (Though see the section on China in Skarphedin’s post on Buddhism and charity in China.)

Universal and impartial love is a pretty radical idea. I wouldn’t go for it on philosophical grounds myself.

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The above-linked article at the SEP is typical in suggesting that the Mohist writings propound a moral theory of a Utilitarian stripe. In fact those writings are not philosophically sophisticated enough to offer any theory.

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There’s a nice volume of Mohist writing edited by Burton Watson.

Basic Writings of Mozi

3 Comments leave one →
  1. February 2, 2012 1:54 pm

    But one could make the argument that what the Confucians rejected was the removal of family as the centre of a persons ethical obligations, while at the same time incorporating the more universalistic ethos. I don’t think the two are necessarily exclusive – in a practical sense, that is what everyone has to do. And the most universalistic religions, ie Christianity and Buddhism, are always somewhat awkwardly integrated with the reality of family.

    Looking at Confucianism, take Mencius for example:

    (Mencius. 7A, 45)
    Mencius said, ‘In regard to [inferior] creatures, the superior man loves them but is not humane to them (that is, showing them the feeling due human beings). In regard to people generally, he is humane to them but not affectionate. He is affectionate to his parents and humane to all people. He is humane to all people and feels love for all creatures.’

    I think this is a scheme that represents the Confucian ideal. A humanistic concern for all people, while firmly placing family as the centre of ones moral obligations. I am interested in the the practical and philosophical implications of this ’embedded’ semi-univeralism in comparison to Buddhism and Christianity, but I don’t think I can say at this point what. Especially given that it was China that, of all Buddhist and Eastern lands seems to have had the most charity.

    I already quoted from one of those moral tracts that were very popular in China, but I’ll quote from another “The Tract of the Quiet Way” – I’m cutting out a bunch, so this isn’t just a partial list:

    “Practise benevolence wherever you find an opportunity, and let your deeds of merit be unheeded (yin).
    Benefit all creatures; benefit the people.
    Practise goodness: acquire merit.
    Let your heart be impartial and wide of range.
    Fulfil the four obligations; impartially observe the three doctrines.
    Be faithful and reverential to the ruler. Be filial and obedient to parents. Be congenial and friendly to brothers. Be sincere in your intercourse with friends.
    Relieve people in distress as speedily as you must release a fish from a dry rill [lest he die]. Deliver people from danger as quickly as you must free a sparrow from a tight noose.
    Be compassionate to orphans and relieve widows. Respect the old and help the poor.
    Promote the good and recommend the wise. Be lenient with others and exacting with yourself.
    Save your clothing and provisions that ye may befriend the hungry and cold on the road.
    Give away coffins and cases lest the dead of the poor be exposed.
    Build charitable graveyards for unclaimed corpses.
    Establish philanthropic institutions for the education of children.
    If your own family is well provided, extend a helping hand to your relatives. If the harvest fails, provide for and relieve your neighbors and friends.
    Distribute medicine to alleviate the suffering of the sick. With tea or water relieve the distress of the thirsty.
    Light lanterns in the night to illuminate where people walk. Keep boats on rivers to ferry people across.
    Repair the defiles though for many hundred years they have remained unimproved.
    Build bridges to be traversed by thousands and ten thousands of people.”

    Etc. Etc. If you read the whole thing especially, one thing to note is how syncretistic it is. Secondly, the emphasis on family obligation is not considered incompatible with comments like “Let your heart be impartial and wide of range” or with obligations towards humanity in general.

    So, in the early period we have Mohism, then later we have Buddhism, and through it all, Taoism, all promoting either explicity universalistic ethics, or a tendency in that direction. And I think that Confucianism, while maintaining the centrality of family in the ethical scheme, actually to a great degree took on board that sense of universal obligation.

    So, I guess my point is that yes, they did consciously reject a completely impartial ethical scheme, but I’m not sure that is as significant as it sounds.

    • February 2, 2012 2:24 pm

      I basically agree with all of this. It would be fair to say that Confucianism is universalistic but not ‘impartialistic.’ Which, as you suggest, is a fair description of how most Westerners would think anyway.


  1. Universalism | unsafe harbour

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