The Challenge of Universal Love: An Ancient Chinese Philosophy

The Chinese philosopher Mozi proposed a society based on universal love. But universal love is a tall order.

To my valentine. Credit: Wellcome Collection. Attribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0)

There’s something appealing about the idea of universal love. But as the Chinese philosopher Mo Di pointed out, loving everybody is quite a task.

Philosophy as carpentry

Mozi — more commonly known as Mozi (or “Master Mo”)—lived sometime between the fifth and fourth centuries BCE. The evidence suggests he was born, as was Confucius, in the state of Lu. Many later writers have suggested that he was an artisan—perhaps a wheelwright or carpenter—and was something of an outsider to the high society of the political and intellectual circles in the China of his day.

The idea that Mozi was a craftsman is suggested by his liberal use of metaphors drawn from crafts and trades. As with the stonemason-philosopher Socrates over in Greece, this idea that Mozi was a craftsman suggests he was a thinker who knew something about practicality, who knew how to do stuff other than just philosophizing.

But Mozi was also well aware of the intellectual and literary traditions of his time. He knew the teachings of Confucius, and there are suggestions that he acted as an adviser to rulers. Mozi’s translator Ian Johnston weighs up the evidence and concludes that:

Given the prominence of the school, the most plausible account of his life is that it was passed in travelling and teaching, with perhaps occasional periods in some official position in a particular state.‌‌‌‌

The Mozi: A Complete Translation, p. 21

Whatever the case, it is generally agreed that Mozi died in advanced old age, some time at the end of the fifth century BCE, or the beginning of the fourth century BCE.

Heaven’s intention and universal love

The tradition of philosophy initiated by Mozi is known in English as Mohism. The teachings of this tradition are collected together in a book simply known as the Mozi, which was compiled by the philosopher’s followers.

The doctrines at the heart of Mohism were tian zhi or “the intention of heaven” and jian ai, which is usually translated as “universal love” or “inclusive care.” The basic idea was that to rule the world in accord with the intention of heaven (tian zhi), we need to build our society on the basis of universal love (jian ai).

During the centuries after Mozi’s death, Mohist philosophy was widespread and popular. The Confucian philosopher Mencius grumbled that “The doctrines of Yang Zhu [another ancient Chinese philosopher who was concerned with pleasure] and Mozi fill the world.” But with the rise of the Han dynasty, Confucianism took centre stage, and Mohism went into decline. Nevertheless, of the seventy-one books of the original Mozi, fifty-eight still survive in one form or another.

The intention of heaven

So what is the “intention of heaven”? It sounds mysterious. But for Mozi, this is the idea that the universe is, at the most fundamental level, morally constructed.

Mozi argues that righteousness (you yi) is productive, contributing to the life of the world, while unrighteousness (wu yi) is unproductive. The world is constituted in such a way that rapaciousness, absence of care for others, and greed lead inevitably to “death” — to poverty, disorder and chaos. But love, care and concern for others bear fruit for all of us. This is how Mozi puts it:

How do I know that Heaven desires righteousness and abhors unrighteousness? I say that when the world is righteous, it “lives”, and when it is not righteous, it “dies”. When it is righteous, it is rich. When it is not righteous, it is poor. When it is righteous, it is well ordered. When it is not righteous, it is disordered. So then, Heaven desires its (the world’s) “life” and abhors its “death”. It desires its wealth and abhors its poverty. It desires its order and abhors its disorder. This is how I know that Heaven desires righteous and abhors unrighteousness.‌‌‌‌

The Mozi: A Complete Translation, p. 235

This means that the task of a good ruler is to rule in accord with the underlying moral tendencies of the universe, to bring about a just and moral system of government.

Universal love

This idea of the intention of heaven links closely with one of the Mohists most famous doctrines, that of “universal love.”

The term “universal love” or “inclusive care” is shorthand for a longer, more telling slogan: jian xiang ai, jiao xiang li, or “universal mutual love, connected mutual benefit.”

For the Mohists, benefit does not have to be a zero-sum game. If I benefit from a situation, it doesn’t mean you necessarily lose out. What we should be aiming for are win-win situations where we all benefit. And Mozi argues that it is possible to build a society characterised by universal mutual love and care—a society that will benefit all equally. Such a society is in accord with the intention of heaven. And it is the maximally functional (or minimally dysfunctional) form of society.

The Mozi puts it as follows:

Undoubtedly what Heaven desires is that there be mutual love and mutual benefit among people. What it does not desire is that there be mutual hatred and mutual harm among people‌‌‌‌.

The Mozi: A Complete Translation, p. 27

Love, punishment, and war

The Confucians objected to all this. They argued that partiality is not a flaw, but is instead central to human care. The Confucian argument is forceful. The Confucians argued that it is right and proper that we should be more partial to our family or our intimates than we are to strangers. This is not a shortcoming or a moral lapse. Instead, it is a guarantor of order. Within Confucianism, social order is based upon a network of interlocking relationships of care, each of different intensity.

The Confucian view makes a lot of psychological sense. We naturally and spontaneously care more for those closest to us. One indication of this is that we don’t need to be told to care for those close to us. We simply do care. But when it comes to people who are more distant, we have to be told or persuaded to care.

But this partiality (or differential care) also brings problems in its wake. One such problem is nepotism. We overlook faults in those close to us, and we favour those with whom we have closer links. For the Mohists, this partiality is problematic. And if we want to address these problems, universal love is the way to go.

Up to this point, you may be in agreement with the Mohists, and willing to give universal love a shot. But if you accept the Mohist argument for universal caring, the question is this: how are we to put in place a society characterised by this kind of universal love?

Love and force

It is at this point that the Mozi makes an uncomfortable suggestion. To establish a society based on universal love, the text argues, what is required is a system of rule that impartially rewards impartiality, and equally impartially punishes partiality.

A fierce battle between soldiers on horses. Gouache painting by a Chinese artist, ca. 1850. Credit: Wellcome Collection. Attribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0)

Now things like universal mutual love and the exchange of mutual benefit are both beneficial and easy to practise in innumerable ways. I think it is only a matter of not having a ruler who delights in them, and that is all.

If there was a ruler who delighted in these things, and encouraged people with rewards and praise, and intimidated them with penalties and punishments, I think the people would take to universal mutual love and interchange of mutual benefit just like fire goes up and water goes down and cannot be stopped in the world.”‌‌‌‌

The Mozi: A Complete Translation, p. 163–5

It might seem, at first glance, that the Mohists’ concern with universal love would translate into a kind of pacifism. But nothing could be further from the truth. Mozi leads us to an uncomfortable situation where a society of universal love is a society characterised by penalties and punishments. The Mohists were so keen on the idea of universal love, they believed it should be protected by force. This is why Mozi was also a military strategist: because if there’s any good reason to go to war, it is to defend universal love.

What can we take away from this? One thing is this: universal love might seem a worthy goal, one that we might aspire to. But we should be careful what we wish for. Because, if the goal of universal love needs to be underwritten by intimidation or warfare, this raises uncomfortable questions about its viability as an end for human life.

Further Reading


The quote from Mencius comes from Bryan Van Norden’s translation, Mengzi: With Selections from Traditional Commentaries (Hackett 2008), p. 88.

Ian Johnstone’s The Mozi: A Complete Translation (The Chinese University Press 2010) is beautifully readable and comes with the Chinese text. For the translation only, try Johnstone’s The Book of Master Mo (Penguin Classics 2013).

This story was first published in slightly modified form on Looking for Wisdom, which sends out free bursts of philosophy by email every Thursday. Sign up at the link below.

Writer & philosopher. PhD philosophy. Stories & ideas to make the world a better place. Next book Hello, Stranger (Granta 2021). Twitter @willbuckingham

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