A Ku Indeed!

Mozi I: Im/Partial Caring

Posted in Chinese Philosophy, Ethics, Mozi by Chris on January 3, 2009

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. https://oolongiv.wordpress.com/wp-includes/js/tinymce/plugins/wordpress/img/trans.gifRight 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!  


2 Responses

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  1. Justsomeguy said, on January 3, 2009 at 9:00 pm

    I could be mistaken (it has been a long time since I read the Mozi) but I think an unvoiced (?) assumption is also that people are absurdly greedy. That is why the Mohists always stressed frugality.

    Let’s suppose that your family has been entrusted to a partialist behaving in the manner Mohists assume a partialist would. Over the course of the war, there is a death in the guardian’s family. All of a sudden, all of the guardian’s wealth would be directed towards the lavish Confucian burial rituals instead of taking care of your family. Those three coffins aren’t going to pay for themselves! Furthermore, the guardian won’t be working for a period of time (up to three years, depending on who died!) and somebody has to tend the farm, so why wouldn’t he use your family as slaves to do that? All of a sudden, you have a great family wreaking havoc on a lesser family.

    Since resources are limited and people are greedy, the partial person will always divert resources away from someone they have less. So even with the CUs, someone will always lose out. It becomes a game of diminishing returns for those lower on the scale. What people conceive of as their ‘basic needs’ is too high for Mozi. Couple that with partiality and you’ve got the great harms.

  2. Chris said, on January 5, 2009 at 6:56 am

    Hi JS:

    Don’t forget the zitherns. The partial are too busy sitting on their butts all days playing, while there’s work to be done!

    I think you’re right about the Mozi’s basic assumptions regarding motivation — essentially greedy and so needs to be reigned in, hence all of the stress on frugality and moderation in expenditures and rituals and such.

    In your second paragraph, you’re right, if follow through the chain arguments that Mozi puts together for why failure to moderate is bad. It is entirely conceivable that he would use an argument exactly mirroring the one you lay out (following the “and then X would happen, and then Y as a result, followed inevitably by Z” formula).

    Still, in the section on impartial caring, Mozi seems to be making a stronger claim. It’s not just — it seems anyway — that partial people wind up blowing through their cash, or their own energy, and then at the end of the day there’s little basic material left (for one reason or other) for those below. He seems to rather argue that the partial person just wouldn’t have any reason to help the friend’s family at all, in terms of motivation.

    I could be wrong here, but that’s what I’m curious about here. It sounds as if Mozi is suggesting that partiality itself, as a form of motivation, is itself the problem. In a way,t he wastefulness issue, if this is right, might even be superfluous. If X isn’t motivated to help Y anyway, it wouldn’t matter if X had sufficient material to help in the first place.

    Of course, if the (B) reading is right for Mozi (which would make his attacks on Confucianism have the right targets at least), then I think the material question would again become important. X might be motivated to help Y (just less so than some other person Z, say), and then it might become an issue if X is burying people with 5 outer coffins, given that when X’s and Y’s basic needs are met, there won’t be enough material left to help Z anyway.

    But if (A) is the right reading, I’m sure you see that the material issue becomes mute; moreover, it seems as if Mozi’s “partiality” claim is so strong that it seems (a) unreasonable and (b) not directed at Confucius (but rather at Schconfucius or someone similar).

    It always takes me 3x as long as necessary to say what I need to say for some reason. Perhaps 1/2 a cup of coffee contributes.

    In any case, taking 3x as long to compose a response would not make Mozi happy. Just think of all the yard-work I didn’t get done just then! 🙂

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