This is the penultimate extract from my almost-finished book on the history of moral thought. This is from chapter 6 – another of the chapters I am publishing out of sync – which explores early Chinese philosophy. This extract is about two philosophers, one of whom is well known as China’s most famous thinker – Kongzi, or Confucius as he is known in the West – and the other who has been almost forgotten, even in China, but who should not be – Mo Tzu.


He is known in the West as Confucius, thanks to the sixteenth century Jesuit missionaries who Latinized his name. He is revered in China as Kongzi or ‘Master Kong’. And he was born as Kong Qui around 551 BCE in Zou, in the state of Lu on the eastern seaboard. He lived at around the same time as the Buddha though neither, of course, knew of the other. This was in China the middle of Zhou dynasty, a time known as the Spring and Autumn period, after the Spring and Autumn Annals, a chronicle of the state of Lu. Not only were there struggles between the fragmenting parts of the Zhou dynasty but also between fiefdoms inside and outside Zhou territory.  The conflicts that marked the second half of the Zhou  period were part of a complex transition to imperial rule and the unification of China.  By the time of Kong’s birth, Lu was in a state almost of anarchy.

Almost nothing is known of Kong’s background or early life. It is likely that he was born into an impoverished branch of minor nobility, and eked out a living as a petty official.  Frustrated, he became in his fifties a peripatetic teacher. He soon gathered large numbers of students around him, perhaps eventually as many as 3000.

Like most Chinese philosophers, Kong was concerned primarily with ethics rather than metaphysics. The central theme of his philosophy is the behaviour needed to create a harmonious society. At the heart of it are two human qualities: jen and li.

Jen, the highest Confucian principle, is perhaps best translated as humaneness, or loving kindness. It is related to the Greek concept of agape, the Christian notion of ‘love’ and Kant’s idea of ‘goodwill’.  An individual who possesses jen, possesses sympathy for others and empathy for their needs and desires. But he must possess much more than simply that. Jen embodies all the qualities necessary for one human being to express ideal behaviour towards another.  Asked if there was a single act that one should practice throughout one’s life, Kong responded, ‘Reciprocity perhaps? Do not inflict on others what you yourself would not wish done to you’. It is a version of the ‘Golden Rule’ that appears many times in Kong’s teachings.

For Kong, ideal behaviour could not be behaviour that was universal, as perhaps it was for a Stoic or a Christian. Rather, it expressed precisely how one individual ought to behave towards another given their respective social roles. And this takes us to the second of the two pivots of Confucian ethics, li, meaning propriety, the following of tradition, ritual, and conventional mores. ‘If one is courteous but does without ritual, then one dissipates one’s energy’, Kong suggested; ‘if one is cautious but does without ritual, then one becomes timid; if one is bold but does without ritual, then one becomes reckless; if one is forthright but does without ritual, then one becomes rude.’

Kong is expressing here two distinct ideas. The first is the belief that nothing should be done in excess, a notion reminiscent of Aristotle’s ideal of the mean, and of li as the means by which to ensure moderation. Second, Kong is suggesting also that accepting the social structure defined by li is crucial to be able properly to express jen. To be humane is not only to show empathy and love towards others; it is also to perform the duties and obligation required of one’s role or station in life. Kong called this ‘the rectification of names’, meaning that there should be a correspondence between a person’s title and his behaviour. ‘Let a ruler be a ruler’, he wrote, ‘a subject a subject, a father a father, a son a son’.  The whole of Confucian teaching is focused upon the cultivation of the moral character necessary to rule, to administer and to follow.


There were for Kong five relationships (wu-lun) critical for the maintenance of social harmony and order: those between father and son, husband and wife, older brother and younger brother, older friend and younger friend, and ruler and subject. Out of these relationships society was built. And in them were incubated the duties and obligations upon which harmony was founded.  Each of these relationships Kong understood in terms of the traditional Chinese contrast between yin and yang, concepts shared by different schools throughout the history of Chinese philosophy. Yin and yang refer to the complementary forces – dark and light, hot and cold, weak and strong, active and passive – through the interaction of which the universe operates at every level of existence.  In each of the wu-lun relationships, Kong sees one partner as yin, the other as yang, one as dominant, the other as submissive. A son must be submissive to his father, a woman to her husband, a subject to his ruler. Dominance and submissiveness are aspects not of an individual but of the social role. The same individual can be dominant as a father but submissive as a subject.  Submissiveness, in particular, was a requirement of li, and without being properly submissive an individual could not express his or her jen. ‘To subdue oneself and return to ritual’, Kong insisted, ‘is to practice humaneness.’ Living as he did in a period of great social turmoil, Kong worried that many in society, women and the poor in particular, were incapable of subduing themselves and behaving with propriety. ‘Women and small men [men of low birth] seem difficult to look after’, he observed. ‘If you keep them close, they become insubordinate; but if you keep them at a distance, they become resentful’.

The practices of li emerged in the early Zhou dynasty through the ritualization of ancestor worship, and in particular through the ritualization of sacrifice. Such worship, and such sacrifice, was rooted in the belief that deceased family members had a continued existence, that the spirits of deceased ancestors would look after the family, and take an interest in the affairs of the world, and that they possessed the ability to influence the fortune of the living. Over time, the ruling class established a set of rules and practices by which the veneration of ancestors was formalized. Everyone had ancestors; but only the nobility had ancestors whom they could trace and name through a family tree. Li became therefore also a mandate for rule, as only the ruling class could perform the rituals.

The significance of Kong lay in his expansion of the meaning of li, in his application of the concept not simply to a small set of practices by which the king and the nobility found justification for their rule but to all activities in life. There were rules about how a son greeted his father, and a husband his wife; rules about how to bow when meeting a stranger; rules about what colour of clothes to wear on certain days; rules about how to eat certain foods; and so on. Li was a form of etiquette by which life was structured, relationships regulated and harmony established. But it was far more simply etiquette. Through li, all of life began to take on a religious, ritualized quality. Through li all of life became ‘sacred’ in a sense. And through li Confucian ethics took on the aura of a religion.

 * * * * *

The notion of humaneness, as it developed in Greek, Christian and, to a certain extent, Buddhist, thought, was closely related to the desire to break down social barriers, to the development of ideas of universalism and cosmopolitanism. For Kong, and for his successors, such cosmopolitanism was contrary to both nature and to the ground rules of propriety. As Hsun Tzu, a third century BCE philosopher and one of the most important early interpreters of Kong, put it, what makes ‘man truly man’ is that ‘he makes social distinctions’:

Birds and beasts have fathers and offspring, but not the affection between father and son. They are male and female, but do not have the proper separation between males and females. Hence in the Way of Humanity there must be distinctions. No distinctions are greater than those of society. No social distinctions are greater than the li.

mo tzu

It was through another Chinese philosophical tradition, the Mohist school, founded a century after Kong by the philosopher Mo Tzu, that universalist ideas emerged. Mo taught that jen should be shown to others without distinction or favouritism, and that the needs of distant strangers should rank as highly as those of family or clan. It was a remarkable argument made three centuries before similar ideas began to develop in the Greek and Christian traditions.

Where exactly Mo was born remains uncertain, as do the exact dates of his birth and death. It is now thought that he was born in the state of Lu, the same birthplace as Kong, and that he lived in the second half of the fifth century BCE, and possibly into the early part of the fourth century; in other words around the same time as Socrates, Plato and the later Sophists in Greece. This was in China the period of the Warring States, where the disintegration of the Zhou Dynasty had led to all-out war between a number of different states, in particular Jin, Chu, Qin and Qi. The turmoil ended in 221, more than a century after Mo’s death, with the victory of Qin, the unification of the various warring fragments and the founding of the first Chinese Imperial Dynasty (though the Qin dynasty itself lasted only fifteen years). ‘Mo’ is an unusual surname, Chinese for ‘ink’. Some scholars have speculated that it was an epithet given to him for having once been a slave or a convict, whose faces were often branded or tattooed with dark ink.  Others suggest that Mo took on the name as a way of identifying with the lowest class of people. Most historians now believe that Mo was a member of the lower artisan class who managed to climb his way to an official post. The philosopher and historian Fung Yu-Lan suggests that Mo was a hsieh, a hereditary warrior who had lost his position and title, and made a living by offering his services to those who would employ him. He is certainly thought to have founded a highly organized, quasi-religious and military community that came to the aid of small states under threat, a practical expression of the Mohists’ opposition to military aggression.

The social turmoil that had beset China over several centuries had led Kong to stress tradition and ritual as a means of assuring order and harmony. It led Mo to argue for the very opposite. Today we know of Mo’s philosophy primarily through a text called Mozi, which was probably written not by Mo Tzu himself, but by successive groups of disciples and their followers. The original consisted of 71 chapters, of which only 53 remain.

Mo distinguished between two principles: that of ‘discrimination’ and that of ‘inclusive care’. Someone who held to the principle of discrimination, as Kong did, discounted the moral interests of other tribes or other states, or hated or despised them because they were of other tribes or other states.  To adopt the principle of ‘inclusive care’ did not mean, as some have suggested of Mo, that one should love strangers as much as one loves one’s family, but rather that the moral interests of strangers, and of other tribes and states, must concern us as much as those of our family, that one should ‘regard others’ states as though regarding one’s state, regard others’ families as though regarding one’s family, and regard other persons as though regarding one’s person’. How, Mo asks, do these two approaches explain ‘the current calamities of the world’, in particular ‘attacks on small states by large ones, disturbances of small houses by large ones, oppression of the weak by the strong, misuse of the few by the many, deception of the simple by the cunning, and disdain towards the humble by the honored’? Such calamities have not arisen out of ‘caring for and benefiting others’. Rather, ‘they have arisen out of hate of others and injuring others’.  Those who hate others and injure others are those who embrace the principle not of ‘inclusive care’ but of discrimination. Is not, then, Mo asks rhetorically, ‘“mutual discrimination” the cause of the major calamities of the world?’ Therefore, he concludes, ‘the principle of “discrimination” is wrong’.  On the other hand, he asks, ‘when everyone regards the states of others as he regards his own, who will attack these other states?’  Adopting the principle of ‘inclusive care’ will ensure that ‘Others will be regarded as the self’ and so the need for wars would be greatly reduced, even disappear.

warring states period

Mo’s philosophy was not a warm, fuzzy embrace of an ‘All you need is love’ attitude. He was much more hard-headed, pragmatic, even utilitarian. Why, he asked, should I act to embrace others and to benefit them rather simply to benefit myself? Because, he answered, ‘He who loves others, must also be loved by others. He who benefits others, must also be benefitted by others. He who hates others, must also be hated by others. He who injures others must also be injured by others.’  There are echoes here of utilitarian ideas, and of evolutionary notions of ‘reciprocal altruism’, developed two millennia later.

Mo rejected what he regarded as Kong’s fetishisation of ritual which, he argued, was merely for show and detracted from the changes necessary to bring about a truly harmonious society. What people required was food, clothing, work and peace, not elaborate funerals or rules of etiquette. Mo was even hostile to the playing of music which, he thought, provided amusement for the ruling class but not bread or peace for ordinary folk.

Despite Mo’s pragmatism, there remains something implausible both in his ethical utopianism and in his vision of human nature and of human relationships. Modern universalism is primarily a social and political claim. It does not require that we love strangers as we would our parents or children; it requires rather the acceptance that whatever an individual’s background, and whatever we may personally feel about him or her, we accord them the same rights as we do anyone else, that in meting out justice we do not discriminate by virtue of race, ethnicity, nationality, gender, sexuality, etc, and that there are certain values, institutions and forms of governance under which all humans best flourish. Insofar as such universalism is plausible, it is because society is well enough developed to be able to steamroller traditional inequalities, differences and hierarchies, and to afford equal treatment of all, and to be able to think practically of common forms of governance across national and cultural boundaries.  Not so the premodern world. Inequality and hierarchy was essential to the functioning of such societies. The possibilities of social transformation, and of the creation of a society built on the equal treatment of all, would have appeared to most people as chimerical.  Universalists were inevitably seen as dreamers and utopians, and they were dreamers and utopians. And universalism necessarily had primarily to be not social but psychological in form, an argument less about how society should be constructed than about how we should regard others.  Given the constrained character of society, universalist ideas about regarding others as we regard ourselves could have seemed only fanciful. However pragmatic and utilitarian Mo Tzu’s philosophy might have been, this was true of his claims too.  But while Mo’s psychological vision may have appeared implausible, his ethical vision was crucially important, and in many ways far more developed and ‘modern’ than those of Stoics or Christians almost half a millennium later.

Mo criticized Kong not simply for his conservative adherence to tradition and his support for social discrimination but also for his rejection of God. Growing disbelief in the power and providential character of God and of the spirit world, he believed, had led to widespread immorality and social chaos, not just because it coarsened human behaviour and ethical thinking but also because it ‘displeased’ God and the spirits. God’s will, Mo insisted, was that all humans should love one another. He rewarded with good fortune those who obeyed His commands, punished with calamity those that defied His will. There is something of the Old Testament about Mo’s vision of a personal, judgmental, vengeful God who sets in stone the meaning of right and wrong, punishing the wicked and rewarding the faithful. And yetMo’s faith  was quite unlike that demanded by the Old Testament. Good and bad, for Mo, were not simply arbitrary notions defined by God. That which is good is good because it promotes peace, harmony, order and proper governance. Had he been faced with Socrates, Mo’s answer to the Euthyphro dilemma would have been clear. What is right is right not merely because Heaven intends it. Rather, Heaven intends it because it is right.


Kong was not a humanist in the modern sense, but he talked little of God or of the spirit world, and neither played a role in his moral philosophy. What he was, was a deeply conservative thinker who sought to rationalize the ways of the past. ‘I transmit but do not create’, he wrote. ‘Being fond of the truth, I am an admirer of antiquity’. For Kong, truth was to be found by excavating the past, reason a means of ensuring that social mores were not overturned. Mo possessed a mystical view of God, and of the spirit world. But he was forcefully radical, challenging traditional mores and trying to develop a rational argument for a radical universalism. The relationship between Kong and Mo expresses the complexity of the relationship between faith, reason and morality, particularly in the premodern world.

For all his radicalism, there was also something quite authoritarian about Mo’s morality. We can see this most clearly in his fascinating parable about the origins of, and the necessity for, the state. Through the parable Mo set out a political argument superficially similar to that of Thomas Hobbes almost two millennia later. Both Mo and Hobbes saw humans, in the state of nature prior to the creation of society, as living in a condition of constant warfare. But where Hobbes saw conflict as arising out of out the untrammeled pursuit of self-interest, Mo saw it as the consequence of discord over values. ‘People have different moralities’, wrote Mo. ‘Thus for one person, there was one morality; for two people, two moralities; for ten people, ten moralities — the more people, the more things they called “moral”. Thus people deemed their own morality right and on that basis deemed others’ morality wrong.’ As a result people were ‘unable to get along harmoniously’ and ‘all injured each other with water, fire, and poison’.

To overcome this disorder, ‘the most worthy, wise, and intelligent man in the world was selected, established as the Son of Heaven, and commissioned to unify the world’s morality’. There could be only one standard of morality in this state. The rule is that ‘What the superior thinks to be right, all shall think to be right. What the superior thinks to be wrong, all shall think to be wrong’, and ‘Always agree with the superior; never follow the inferior’.  This he calls ‘conforming upwards’.  Mo’s state is absolutist, and the authority of its ruler absolute. Like the implausibility of Mo’s conception of human nature, so the authoritarian character of his ideal state reveals the constraints upon ethical thinking in the premodern world, largely the result of constraints upon social possibilities. In a world in which neither the understanding of the self nor the potential for social transformation were well-developed, the concept of individual rights had no more meaning to Mo than it did to most ancient thinkers, and universalism could only be understood in terms of social order imposed by fiat.


There is an argument to be made for thinking of Mo Tzu, rather than Kong, as China’s first philosopher. He, not Kong, was the first Chinese thinker to engage, like Socrates in ancient Greece, in an explicit, reflective search for objective moral standards and to give reasoned arguments for his views. He, not Kong, formulated China’s first explicit ethical and political theories. And he advanced the world’s earliest form of consequentialism, remarkably sophisticated for its time.

Mo was, however, one of history’s losers. During the Era of the Warring Sates, Mohism was influential, vying with Confucianism for the ear both of rulers and the masses. With the unification of China in 221 BCE, and the creation of Imperial rule, Kong’s star rose, while Mohist ideas were seen not just as irrelevant but as dangerous too. The conservatism of Confucianism, its appeal to tradition and ritual, its usefulness in training for civil servants and government officials, all found favour with the imperial court. Mo’s radicalism and his distaste for li and for traditional concepts of order provoked fear. Under the Han Dynasty that followed, Confucianism was adopted as  the official imperial ideology, while Mo’s teachings were suppressed. Kong came to be venerated as China’s greatest sage, even as a god. In the 450s, the imperial government built the first Confucian temple, and within a century no city of respectable size was without its temple to Kong.  New temple rituals were established to celebrate everything from Kong’s birthday to the spring equinox to success in civil service exams. Mo Tzu and his school fell into neglect and obscurity, their texts largely unread.

One comment

  1. “But where Hobbes saw conflict as arising out of out the untrammeled pursuit of self-interest, Mo saw it as the consequence of discord over values.” Interesting contrast… and in this light Mo’s thinking does seem progressive.

    Not to sound overly simplistic, but it seems to me that modern intellectual circles might have divided into similar camps. On the one hand are the ‘universal darwinists,’ who believe that morals/values are largely an expression of psychobiological programs and selfish genes, and on the other, those who argue that morals/values are more free to be manufactured by culture (e.g. by either faith or reason).

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