Bell VII: Mozi on Justification
I’ve been reading Mozi this week (prepping a course I’ll be teaching), and when I started taking notes to the section “Rejection of Destiny” Mozi’s discussion of how to justify or confirm the truth of a belief (or practice) made me think of Daniel Bell’s way of talking about justifying the normative standards within cultures (how many people have reminded me of Bell lately?). I’ll explain below.
Mozi suggests that if we want to know if a current belief X is justified, we need to apply a number of tests:
1) Is X traceable back to the sage kings?
2) Can X be confirmed by eyewitness testimony?
3) Does X have any pragmatic value?
Use the case of ghosts (as it is argued in that chapter). Mozi argues that they exist, against the anti-ghost position he takes the Confucians to hold. He argues that (1) is true, and he argues that the sage kings did in fact believe in ghosts be appealing to the content of various poems from ancient texts to argue for this. He argues that (2) is true because there are stories of people seeing ghosts, or at least stories of lots of people seeing a ghost at the same time, and he argues that (3) is true because belief in ghosts keeps people on their “virtuous toes” — at least if one believes that ghosts have as at least part of their function kicking the asses of vicious people in various ways.
Mozi’s epistemic standard here is interesting, but I’m interested here in the case of Bell. When Bell asks “is the application of normative standard X authentic in this context?” I think he can be seen to be using criteria (1) and (3). This doesn’t force him to depart from Mozi, by the way — Mozi himself only appears to use (2) for “existence” claims (like ghosts). For practices he seems willing to just use (1) and (3).
So what about Bell?
Well, when discussing human rights and the question of what normative practice seems justified to use in a certain context, it seems that he certainly argues for (1). Let’s call this the “graft” criterion. A normative claim must be graft-able onto a historical/culture narrative of the people in question. If it fails (1), it is not justifiable.
But Bell also uses (3). The normative practice must meet the “situation on the ground” and actually work to solve real problems. So the use of that practice must have some kind of pragmatic utility (Bell is clearly, in many places, a consequentialist). So if the practice can’t be shown to have such use, it fails (3) and is not justifiable.
Now for me, the really interesting question comes in when we are attempting to weigh (1) and (3) against one another. Let’s say that practice X has limited “graft” potential, but a lot of practical application. Would this make it better or worse than a competing practice Y that has a lot of graft potential but limited practical application?
Moreover, is the “graft” criterion merely a “checkbox” yes or no question or is it a matter of degree (which is assumed in the question above)? Some narratives are more “encompassing” than others historically. Does that mean that practices that graft onto those narratives are better than practices that graft onto more limited narratives? Or is the issue simply one of “being able to graft” at all? From the practical or strategic point of view, you would expect that the capacity to graft onto more narrative is better (because it will have a greater pull on people’s pre-theoretical intuitions). But I’m thinking theoretically, because Bell, I think, has a deeper thesis here (even if he doesn’t directly address it). Does the authenticity of a belief or practice flow from the degree of its graft?
My impression of Mozi, by the way, is that he thinks that “graft” is a yes or no question. So, given that two values succeed in this way, the final determiner will really be the practical utility of those beliefs. So, my take is that Mozi thinks the argumentative ground will not be on determining greater or lesser degrees of historical graft, but on real-world application. In this sense Mozi would be arguing more as an empiricist, arguing in terms of actual data, and not in terms of historical/literary knowledge.