Here are three different translations of a key passage that describes the transition of the state of nature to what I'll call elected kingship, in the Mo Zi:
- It was understood that the people lacked government leaders to unify the world’s norms of righteousness, and so the world was in disorder. Thus the most worthy, sagely, and intelligent person in the world was chosen, established as the Son of Heaven, and commissioned to work to unify the world’s norms of righteousness (yi). [(Book 12, “Identifying Upward”; quoted from the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. I assume the translation is by Chris Fraser.]
- Those who understood the nature of this chaos saw that it arose from a lack of rulers and leaders and so they chose the best person among the most worthy and capable in the world and established him as the Son of Heaven. ["Obeying One's Superiors" Translated by Philip J. Ivanhoe in Readings in Classical Chinese Philosophy, second edition, edited by Ivanhoe & B. Van Norden. Hacket, p. 65.]
- It became clear to people that not having leaders of government who could unify the principles of the world brought disorder to the world. This was the reason for choosing the world's most worthy, good sagacious, wise, discriminating and clever man, and establishing him as the Son of Heaven, giving him the task of bringing unity to the principles of the world. ["Exalting Unity II" "Translated by Ian Johnston, in the Penguin edition of Mo Zi; The Book of Master Mo, p. 56.]
Before I say anything else, I should note explicitly that Fraser and Johnston translate 12.2 whereas Ivanhoe translates 11.2; so it's possible that Ivanhoe's translation would deviate less from the the other two if he had included the same passage. For, as you will have guessed, in the Mo ZI, there seem to be three nearly identical chapters (11-13) in which the transition from the state of nature to the election of the Son of Heaven is explained. I have mentioned before that all translation is interpretation, and this is also clear by the different choices of the translators of rendering the chapter titles (which I have given in the brackets above). Because I don't read Chinese and am a beginning amateur scholar, I can't help decide the matter (and the reader should be forewarned that this post is even more tentative than most of my Digressions).
What is pretty clear from context in all three translations is that the state of nature is caused by extreme moral/normative/practical pluralism which naturally develops absent a political order (I'll explain the use of 'order' below). There are four key ideas here. First, we all naturally develop our own idiosyncratic norms of righteousness (yi). [I'll sometimes use 'moral' or 'practical' "exemplary character" or 'righteous' to capture yi.) This is not quite the idea that we all have the capacity to moral goodness (that's developed by Mencius, I think, in response to Mozi), but one can see in Mozi a recognition that all of us have reactive attitudes* that we understand as moral. Second, such moral diversity alone leads to conflict and, in turn, is used to justify further conflict. The state of nature just is this disorder or disharmony (or chaos). For Mozi, thus, the original establishment of political order solves a meta-coordination problem about which and, simultaneously, whose norms are exemplary. (It's, thus, an open question if he can conceptually distinguish between what we would call a legitimate and a just state, although in practice it's clear that he thinks quite a few states are legitimate even if they are wholly imperfect.)
It is notable that Master Mo's state of nature is distinct from that found in Plato's (see Laws, Book III), where people are naturally, at first, kind toward each other (679C) and it is only the establishment of political orders, polities πόλιν (679D) that generates mutual enmity. In Plato's narrative (which is embedded in a much larger eternal return of the rise and fall of civilization), the different moral outlooks, however, are the consequence of an intermediary stage, where propertied, patriarchal clans develop local mores at odds with each other 681bc). For Plato, it's clan/family and property that are the engines of mutual conflict in the state of nature (and, perhaps, he is also recognizing that it is patriarchal versions of these). The establishment of polities solve that problem locally, but at the expense of making even more violent conflict among polities possible.
And Mozi's approach to the state of nature is also distinct from the famous version found in Leviathan. Hobbes, too, recognizes the importance of disagreement over norms in the state of nature (where normative words are used to describe personal preferences), but his is fundamentally driven by natural equality ("nature hath made men so equal in the faculties of body and mind as that, though there be found one man sometimes manifestly stronger in body or of quicker mind than another, yet when all is reckoned together the difference between man and man is not so considerable as that one man can thereupon claim to himself any benefit to which another may not pretend as well as he") and natural scarcity, which drives mutual enmity ("if any two men desire the same thing, which nevertheless they cannot both enjoy, they become enemies") and, thus, mutual fear.
Not unlike in Plato, the Hobbesian social contract solves the problem of local mutual enmity, but by generating a more ferocious international political order--something Hobbes does not emphasize. (Hobbes thinks no or almost no property is possible in the state of nature.) The escape from the state of nature in Master Mo's account is more general because, the Son of Heaven rules over an empire (now quoting Ivanhoe's translation, an 'entire world' which is 'so vast" across many "different regions"). It is tempting to see in this Chinese exceptionalism (in which the rest of us are vassals). But if one is less chauvinist, one can also see in Mo recognition of the conceptual point that only a world-government gets us out of the state of nature and really solves the problem of moral diversity.
As an aside, unlike Hobbes and, more akin to Plato, Mozi leaves it a bit ambiguous if the story he is telling stands outside history (as a useful myth, conceptual thought experiment) or, less likely, is meant to tell a historical account of the origin of the first emperor (Son of Heaven). I return to this at the very end of this post below.
What's useful about Mozi's account for those of us comfortable with modern narratives of political pluralism and raised on Plato (property) and Hobbes (conflicting desires) is to see how existentially and politically important normative differences may well taken to be. People will fight over moral disagreement. (Since the war of religions, Enlightenment thinkers tend to claim this is due to religious disagreement in which religion is used by politically ambitious to ferment disagreement; Mo's analysis suggests that the tinderbox is already lit.) I am not ready to concede Mo's analysis, but it is worth taking seriously. (I also think his analysis is domesticated if it is merely seen as the concern with the way moral language is corrupted in favor of partial or ideological concerns.)
Third, I think, but I am less committed to this, that Mozi is committed to the idea that any ruling exemplar is better than no exemplar. This is not because he is a relativist--there is, in fact, in his writings (i) a persistent search for an optimal account of yi and jianái (impartial benevolence/care) to be combined in the character of the best sort of ruler (and thereby the political order guided by this Son of Heaven), and (ii) a willingness to judge any political order on its consequences (in terms of diffusion of wealth, population growth, and social harmony). His whole teaching is an attack on the bad political rulers of his day (the age of so-called Warring States) and also bad past rulers (all of whom guided by partiality of one sort or another). So, any ruler who is capable of reducing the major source of conflict is better than no ruler. Now, clearly this is not the point of the quoted passage at the top of this post. There the point is to elect the best first exemplar.
Fourth, this is so because Mozi embraces what we may call a normative/practical trickle-down theory. (I have noted this is also popular in various ways in the early modern world.) Rulers are both standard setters and exemplars, and by their practices and political appointments (of judges, magistrates, feudal lords) shape the political order of society. And, in fact, they show their wisdom by using incentives (rewarding the virtuous by advancing them politically and paying them well; getting rid of bad judges, etc) to promote their political order which will involve also prudential planningagainst natural disasters. The moral/normative/righteous trickle down of yi, is reinforced by lots of good economic and agricultural consequences (prosperity, good harvests, etc.) which generate virtuous cycle (and so become sanctioned by Heaven).
Now, if we return to the translated passage(s). We see that there are three crucial ambiguities (and one clear problem) among them:
- It is unclear who in the state of nature understands that the problem is moral/normative diversity. Ivanhoe's translation suggests it is a sub-set of people generally, and presumably an intellectual elite of some sort. The other translations suggests there was, in fact, widespread recognition of the source of the state of nature.+
- It is unclear who are, for lack of a better term, the electors of the First Son of Heaven. I think this is unclear in all versions I have read. But it must be folk who are capable and willing of electing the most worthy (etc.). So, it seems the electors would have to be some kind of (moral) elite. [If one is following Ivanhoe on 1, then it is natural to assume that the electors are those capable of recognizing the source of the problem.]
- Ivanhoe's translation suggests (perhaps this is unintentional) that the Son of Heaven is, in fact, elected from a pre-selected group of would be worthies (chose the best person among the most worthy and capable in the world). This solves some of the decision problem (in 2) by pushing it back a level (who does the pre-selection and on what grounds).
- The clear problem is that because Master Mo emphasizes in the very same paragraph that follows from the choice of the Son of Heaven that geographic distance creates communication problems (and so justifies a political hierarchy in which some of the tasks of the Son of Heaven are delegated down to local agents), it is unclear how such communication problems are overcome in 1-3.
In reading Fraser (here), it seems clear that the ambiguity is in the original text. But Fraser also notes that problem 2 is addressed in the third version of the chapter (so chapter 13): "all under heaven wished to select" (Johnston writes, "the world's desire"). And so rather than the worthy selecting the most worthy, it's everybody selecting the worthy. This is structurally very similar to Hobbes's (and later Hume's) insistence that the original contract involves "every man with every man." And it solves the problem of electing the electors in the context of wide disagreement.
Of course, I am undoubtedly not the first to note that if diverging conceptions of yi is causing a belligerent state of nature, it seems unlikely that (even leaving aside communication problems) in the state of nature all people or even a considerable sub-set will agree on the person with the best yi or who the electors might be. I think Master Mo recognizes this problem (about which another time) which is why I doubt he is treating it as a historical/empirical event.
Let me close with a final terminological-conceptual point. Fraser is adamant that we should not conceive of the transition from state of nature to political order as a social contract because he wishes to prevent the idea that political authority rests on people's tacit/explicit consent (and that's because for Fraser authority and legitimacy are grounded in consequentialist success of the existence of social order.) And if one takes social contract theory and consequentialism as contraries (as Fraser does, but I don't)++ this point is almost tautological. There are two further reasons (both suggested by Fraser) to resist social compact talk because (i) there is no sign that in Mohism voluntary contracts are treated as exemplary of the normativity of political life, and (ii) there is no obvious route from it to a kind of (normatively salient) individualism (with a theory of rights lurking in the distance) or contractual legalism (although impartial law is important).
Even so, the first Son of Heaven is explicitly chosen and so is -- when viewed from the Platonic tradition (recall Al-Farabi; Ibn Rushd)-- properly understood as an elective kingship. Elective kingship is grounded in consent of the electors as a group. (This is why elective kingship is treated as democracy by the Platonic-Islamic thinkers.) This is how Islamic thinkers conceived of the first Ummah with the four righteous caliphs.
In addition, the first Son of Heaven is explicitly tasked by the electors with a project (to impose Yi and social order). He is, in fact, given associates (the Three Dukes/Imperial Ministers, and more local feudal lords) to execute this task. That is to say, a social-political hierarchy is granted in order to produce a certain desirable outcome which benefits all. If one is cautious about how one understands what follows from this (so no individual rights, etc.), I don't see why one could not call it a social contract. Above I noted that the historical status of Mozi's claim is ambiguous; but it is compatible with his views (perhaps not the traditional interpretation) that one way to understand Master Mo is, thus, that such a social compact in which a proper Son of Heaven is chosen by society always remains a live possibility.
*I use this term to signal the importance of resentment and condemnation in Master Mo's analysis.
+What one can and cannot understand in the state of nature is a serious issue (and part of Hume's critique of Hobbes, and Smith's critique of Hume).
++Fraser's position is natural for those of us writing after Rawls (where the social contract tradition is opposed to utilitarianism). But in the early modern period one can find plenty of hybrid social contract/consequentialist thinkers (Hobbes, Locke, Beccaria, De Grouchy, etc.) and so I so I am less cautious on this point.