Mozi I: Im/Partial Caring
I’m working my way though the Mozi (I’m doing some course preparation on it). Of the people I know who have read it, many of them complain about its style, but I rather like it. Sure, it lacks the poetical flair of the Analects, but Mozi was a different kind of guy, representing a different set of interests. In any case, I’m going to try to make note here of aspects of the work that stick out to me for one reason or other. One of the first things to jump out at me is in Chapter 16, on “Impartial Caring.” This is a central plank in Mohist ethics, but I’m having a tough time getting my head around some of the fundamentals here (at least those below the immediate surface).
First, I should introduce the problem as Mozi sees it. Right at the start of chapter 16, Mozi puts his finger on the problem society is full of too many of what he calls “great harms.” He says:
“It is things such as great states attacking small states, great families wreaking havoc on lesser families, the strong robbing the weak the many doing violence to the few, the clever deceiving the ignorant, and the noble acting arrogantly towards the humble.”
With all of these “great harms” being couched in terms of the language of abuse of power (each seems to be an abuse of some form of hierarchy from top to bottom), Mozi is pretty clearly a social-justice oriented kind of guy. As befits his social-justice orientation, Mozi wants to get rid of all of this abuse. How? Well, we need to find the cause of the harms. As Mozi puts it, the cause can’t be caring — for who plunders another person/state that he/she cares about? So the cause, he thinks, must come derive from hating and stealing (lack of concern or care).
So what causes hatred and stealing? These come from partiality, Mozi argues. So the answer is simple: to get rid of the “greatest harms” in society we must, he says, get rid of partiality and replace it with impartiality. As Mozi puts it (using the example of states, which is meant to generalize to other cases):
“If people regarded other people’s states as in the same way that they regard their own, who then would incite their own state to attack that of another? For one would do for others as one would do for oneself.”
This makes sense. If X’s level of concern for Y is equal to X’s concern for Z, it would make little sense for X to plunder or abuse Z to benefit Y.
But this way of understanding “partiality” – seeing the other as not as yourself — hides a lot of different versions, I’d think. Here are some options. To consider a few, let’s assign “care numbers” to a number of different individuals. Let’s say that you care for yourself 10 CU (care units), you care for your family 8 CU and for some unknown stranger 1 CU. From here, there are a number of different ways to understand “partiality”. If you are a partialist:
A. You do not care or have concern for anyone with CU less than 10. Since no one else has this many CU, you only have concern for the self.
B. When your own basic needs are met, your care turns to those with the most CU less than 10. So, after your own basic needs are met, you meet the needs of your family. When theirs are met, you meet those of strangers.
There are doubtlessly more ways to construe partialism, but this will do for now. With this in mind, let’s turn to the next quote from Mozi. He constructs a thought experiment:
“Suppose there were two people: one who maintains partiality and one who maintains impartiality. And the person who maintains partiality would say: “How can I possibly regard the well being of my friends as I do my own well being?” How can I possibly regard the parents of my friends as I do my own parents?” And so when his friends are hungry, the partial person does not feed them. When his friends are ill, he does not nurture them. When his friends are cold, he does not clothe them.”
This quote seems to argue for interpretation (A), which is wildly implausible as an interpretation of what most people would call partialism. Here, Mozi seems to be saying that you can’t expect the partialist to do anything for anyone, because no one will ever measure up as being of equal concern to that person as he is to himself.
With this in mind, the rest of the thought experiment makes sense, where Mozi wonders whether the partialist – if called to war – would entrust the care of his family to another partialist or to an impartialist. Mozi thinks only a fool would trust his family to the partialist, and so the n0n-foolish partialist turns out to be inconsistent (endorsing partialism in word, but impartialism in action).
But if Mozi’s doctrine is meant as a counter to Confucius’ doctrine, it is implausible. Confucius’ doctrine does not suggest that a person does not care for anyone with less “care units” than he assigns to himself. It is rather that one’s care or benevolence is “graded” – an interpretation more in line with (B). And if we were to think in terms of (B), it wouldn’t be so “foolish” to leave one’s family in the charge of a partialist. One would simply assume that, as long as the basic needs of his family were met, he would care also for the friend’s family. And this seems reasonable.
I’m guessing that I must be missing something here. How is Mozi understanding partialism here in this chapter?
A final note: as far as I can tell, it’s not even clear that the impartialist is as obvious a choice for the care of your parents. After all, the impartialist loves everyone equally; as a result, the behavior of care will not be apportioned by degree of the emotion of care (which stems from one’s special relationships). Instead, it will be apportioned by need, or by whatever happens to maximize utility overall. As a result, if there are others in the general community who happen to need care more than your parents, your parents might find themselves without any help at all!