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September 18, 2017 | by  | in Philosoraptor | [ssba]


The knowledge of philosophy that exists in Western societies tends to be tragically Eurocentric, and not many people are aware of the rich philosophical traditions that exist in other cultures. For example, most people associate the concept of the “state of nature” with Thomas Hobbes, an English philosopher from the 17th century (even if you haven’t heard of the state of nature, you probably have heard Hobbes’ famous quote, that life in the state of nature is “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short”). The concept of utilitarianism — one of the main theories of ethics — is commonly attributed to Jeremy Bentham, a 19th century English philosopher. In reality, though, credit for both of those ideas should go to Mozi, a Chinese philosopher who lived during the Warring States period — around 400 BC, predating Hobbes and Bentham by over 2000 years.

Mozi was a utilitarian who advanced many ingenious and sophisticated arguments for his ethics, which advocated impartial care for everyone — not just your own family members, or the members of your own state. Many objected to Mozi’s utilitarianism on the grounds that they cared more about their own family members than about strangers. To this, Mozi responded: if you truly care about your own family members, you would want everyone in society to be a utilitarian, because then they would care for your family as well, and not just their own. Mozi asks the objector: would you rather leave your child in the care of someone selfish and partial, or someone impartial who would care for your child as much as they care for their own children? This argument of Mozi’s is strikingly similar to arguments advanced by Derek Parfit in the 1980s that “commonsense morality” is self-defeating — so Mozi was 2400 years ahead of his time in his intellectual sophistication.

Quite unlike modern philosophers though, Mozi didn’t restrict himself to just offering dry philosophical arguments. He was the leader of the Mohists, a large group who subscribed to his philosophy and advocated for meritocracy in government and against lavish displays of wealth. The Mohists’ utilitarianism led them to be strongly anti-war; but rather than become pacifists, the Mohists formed military units that rushed to the defense of small cities against military aggression by other states. Mozi himself was a talented siege engineer famous for constructing siege defences for cities and deterring attacks.

Mozi’s legacy was lasting. Unlike most Chinese philosophers at the time, who tended to come from the wealthy aristocracy, Mozi is thought to have come from a poor artisan family. He introduced the practice of reflective philosophical argumentation to China, around the same time that Socrates was popularising similar methods in Greece. The Mohist movement, which outlived him, contained logicians, mathematicians, and engineers as well as philosophers, and impacted Chinese society significantly.

It’s a shame that Mozi is basically unknown in the West, since he’s a fascinating and important figure in ancient philosophy. And how could you resist a philosopher who was also a paramilitary siege engineer?


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