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Chris Fraser

Thank you for posting these insightful remarks about an important strand of early Chinese political thought. I enjoyed reading this piece and agree that it’s well worth discussing in what respects or to what extent the Mohist account of the transition to political society from the state of nature might converge with different variants of a social compact view. (My own interpretation is a little more nuanced than the post suggests.)

For reference, the three versions of the transition story in the Mozi run roughly like this:

Book 11. “[Someone] understood that that by which the world was disordered arose from a lack of government leaders. Thus [someone] selected one who was the world’s [most] worthy and approvable and set [him] up to be Son of Heaven.”

Book 12. “[Someone] understood that, the people lacking government leaders to unify the world’s norms, the world was disordered. Thus [someone] selected the world’s [most] worthy-good, sagely-knowing, discriminating-intelligent person and set [him] up to be Son of Heaven, making [him] work on unifying the world’s norms.”

Book 13. “Thus, the world desiring to unify the world’s norms, thus [they?] selected a worthy and set [him] up as Son of Heaven.”

As these rough translations indicate, you are right that the texts leave it unclear who understood the source of disorder, who selected the ruler, and how they managed to do so, given various communication and coordination problems and their original disagreement. There’s no implication that some preselected group of electors did the selecting.
The lack of clarity might be more easily explained if the state of nature scenario were a thought experiment rather than a historical hypothesis. Unfortunately, this point probably can’t be settled definitively either. The texts include phrasing that can be read either way.

As I read them, the texts don’t stipulate that the Son of Heaven absolutely has to be the finest candidate available. It’s sufficient for him just to meet some reasonably high standard. Also, I suspect the word “select” (xuan) here is compatible with a scenario in which a charismatic leader simply asserts himself and others go along with his leadership.

The key points in your post are that (1) perhaps the Mohist scenario could plausibly be interpreted as grounding political authority in the collective consent of the people in the state of nature, and (2) since in the book 12 version, the leader is chosen and then assigned the task of unifying norms, it’s not too much of a stretch to call this a social contract.

My interpretation is that since the texts don’t mention people’s consent, a covenant between them, or a contractual arrangement between them and the sovereign, the Mohists probably don’t subscribe to a consent-based explanation of the justification of political authority or a contract-based explanation of why the people should obey the ruler. It’s clear that the ruler is installed through the consensus of the community, but I think that here and elsewhere in Mohist writings political authority is justified by whether the ruler practices and teaches unified norms associated with promoting wealth, a thriving population, and social order for all. So I suggest that for the Mohists, the deciding factor that determines whether authority is legitimate is reliable promotion of good consequences, not people’s consent or choice.

That being said, community consensus is definitely a crucial element in Mohist political thought, and you are right to emphasize that its role may converge in some respects with social contract views. Later in Book 12 (here http://ctext.org/mozi/identification-with-the-superior-ii#n3651 and here http://ctext.org/mozi/identification-with-the-superior-ii#n3652), the Mohists claim that if people perceive their ruler as acting in his own and his cronies’ interests instead of the interests of the community, they will cease to identify with the ruler’s norms — they no longer “identify upward” — and will instead ally together in identifying with their own norms, those of the community. They revert to norms different from the ruler’s, and the state’s system of rewards and punishments collapses, since people reject the evaluations on which rewards and punishments are based. According to the text, this scenario amounts to a reversion to the state of nature. This is tantamount to claiming that legitimate political authority can be sustained only if the community collectively endorses, or at least does not actively reject, the ruler’s evaluative judgments, because they perceive them as based on appropriate norms.

Collective agreement is thus an important element of the Mohist conception of political authority, which is directly reflected in the titles of these writings: “identifying upward” or “exalting conformity.” Authority exists to unify norms and thus bring about good consequences. This is what I suggest justifies it for the Mohists. But they also seem to see it as partly constituted by people’s collective agreement on norms and thus support for a system that enacts the norms. The comparison to social contract views helps to cast light on this side of their picture.

Eric Schliesser

Dear Chris,
Thank you for your generous response.
Yes, your view is richer than I represented it being (which is why I linked to it so people can read your view in your own words).
I'd like to make two observations in response:
1. 'Collective agreement' is a nice way to capture the kind of view I wish to attribute to Mozi/Mohists. But from what I have read, I don't think the Mohists believe it's possible for the people to reach collective agreement on norms; I think they think it's possible to reach collective agreement on the exemplary person who will unify the norms (even if this presupposes some agreement on the norms). And I think your point about not actively rejecting the ruler’s evaluative judgments is very important. It is, in practice, a kind of (to use an 18th century term) *passive* collective agreement (so not an active consent).
2. We agree that the consequentialist justification is very important, and I understand why you emphasize it. But I wanted to bring out a feature that is not intuitive for moderns, but intelligible to earlier thinkers--namely collective election (popular acclaim) of the ruler founded on common agreement. This actually fits the Mohist views on the charismatic leader and his authority. (And I think this kind of the achetype of how people not influenced by Athens thought about democracy.)

Chris Fraser

Thanks again for these follow-up musings.

It does seem that for the Mohists, the very idea of reaching agreement on norms is intertwined with political authority, as they understand it. Dialogue between peers cannot produce sufficient agreement to sustain civil society. The needed level of agreement can be produced only by instituting political authority and entrusting it to a leader, who will then assert the shared norms. Conversely, for the leader to maintain authority, he must rule according to norms that will, minimally, attract passive agreement. A breakdown in agreement is a breakdown of authority.

This is an intriguing and understandable picture. The role of people's agreement sets it apart from, say, Xunzi's Ruist view, in which sage-kings simply emerge and exert authority (by solving distribution and coordination problems). It's also distinct from a stance we find in some of the Zhuangzi writings, which maintain that people can get along together perfectly well without authority or norms imposed from above.

Eric Schliesser

yes, Chris, thank you for helping me understand what I really ought to be saying he here. I would add one elaboration. After you write, "The needed level of agreement can be produced only by instituting political authority and entrusting it to a leader, who will then assert the shared norms." I would write, "who together with the social hierarchy that is the governing class/apparatus then assert shared norms." Part of Mohist understanding of leadership is to see it as a collective enterprise (of course, top-down, but still).

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Here's a link to my past blogging (and discussions involving me) at: New APPS.


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