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Mohist Anti-Militarism & Just War Theory

Shaun O’Dwyer takes an unfortunately still relevant look at how to avoid war.

With the return of geopolitics, and with the international institutions built after 1945 to prevent or contain war now being perilously weak, the world again faces growing risks of conflict between industrialized nations - such as the Russian invasion of Ukraine. There have been polarized responses to this conflict. One response has been to denounce Western military support for Ukraine as ‘militarism’. Often such denunciations cloak a hypocrisy which faults Western imperialism while giving a free pass to the imperialism of non-Western powers, such as Russia or China. Yet both hypocritical anti-imperialists and more impartial pacifists frequently conflate militarism – the policy of building armed forces and using them aggressively to advance national interests against other states – with deterrence and just war theories created to counter militarism. There are important philosophical issues at stake in these debates, over for instance the validity of absolutist norms against military violence, or the ethical dilemmas in trade-offs between defending nations’ self-determination and averting escalation to world war. When such debates fall into well-worn ruts, it can be useful to look to alternative perspectives, which can help disentangle familiar conceptual knots. One such novel perspective comes from outside of the Western philosophical canon, and indeed is even from the margins of today’s Eastern philosophical canon.

The Mohists were a community of Chinese thinkers and engineers associated with a philosopher called Mozi. They were prominent in the fifth to third centuries BCE. They developed powerful arguments against militarism. Yet rather than repudiate any military response to militarism as being another instance of it, they also promoted an early version of Just War Theory. With allowance for its very different, ancient, cultural origins, their thoughts might also be relevant for our new era.

How Song Kingdom was Saved

The Athenian historian Thucydides’ reconstruction of negotiations between the generals of an Athenian expeditionary force and the leaders of the island of Melos in 416 BCE, the ‘Melian Dialogue’, has long been remembered as a parable of geopolitical realism and the triumph of ‘might makes right’ militarism. The (mistranslated) truism attributed to the Athenian generals, ‘‘The strong will do what they can, the weak will suffer what they must’’, was amply borne out in the genocidal conclusion to a siege the Athenians waged against the Melians in the fifteenth year of the Peloponnesian War.

Much less known is a dialogue dramatizing events claimed to have unfolded some decades earlier, nearly 8,000 kilometers to the east of Melos, in Warring States-era China. It too concerned a small state threatened with invasion by an imperialist state; yet its very different outcome showcased the effectiveness of Mohist anti-militarism. As related in the ancient Mozi text, the ‘Gongshu Dialogue’ tells how Mozi traveled to the Kingdom of Chu to try to dissuade its ruler from launching an unprovoked invasion of the Kingdom of Song. To the King of Chu and his siege engineer Gongshu, Mozi presented arguments highlighting the immorality and illogicality of unprovoked military aggression: if they agree that it is unjust to murder one innocent person, how can they think it is acceptable to murder so many? Moreover, Mozi argued, a large, rich kingdom like Chu invading a smaller, poorer kingdom like Song, was analogous to a rich man ignoring his sumptuous possessions in order to assault and rob an impoverished neighbour.

The King of Chu and Gongshu seemed moved by Mozi’s appeals, yet still intent on their invasion. An improvised war game of Gongshu’s proposed siege of Song, although won by Mozi, did not change their minds. A frustrated Gongshu hinted that he had another means for beating Mozi. So Mozi addressed the king with his final argument. It is one of the most glorious ripostes in all of classical Chinese philosophy:

“Gongshuzi’s intention is simply that he desires to kill me. If he kills me, no one can defend Song and he can attack. However, my disciple Qin Guli and three hundred others are already equipped with my defense devices and await the Chu raiders on the walls of Song. Even if you kill me, you cannot cut them off.”

(All quotations are taken from Chris Fraser, The Essential Mozi, 2020.)

Knowing that those ‘devices’ included giant swivel-mounted crossbows and traction trebuchets fabricated by Mohist engineers, the King of Chu wisely called off his invasion. The strong would not do what they could. Unlike the Melians, the people of Song were saved.

Anti-Militarist Consequentialism

Landscape with boatmen
Landscape with boatmen Anonymous C.15th C

How can we explain the vehement opposition to war and the argumentative skill the Mohists displayed in texts like the Gongshu Dialogue?

First, we need to understand the context for their anti-militarism. The Mohists arose in a period of intense interstate conflict – and extraordinary intellectual and technological progress. The Warring States period’ was an era in the fifth to third centuries BCE in China during which feudal imperial authority in Eastern China had broken down, to be replaced by competing states whose rulers pretended to ducal or even royal authority. The leaders of these states sought to improve the productivity of their lands and subjects so that they could raise more taxes and equip large conscript armies. Like would-be hegemons of other eras, such as the Medicis, some rulers also elevated their status through conspicuous investment in learning and the arts. These states therefore required officials who could help them raise taxes, train and maintain large armies, render their subjects more harmonious and productive, and rule their states successfully without being conquered or overthrown. Much like the sophists versus the philosophers in ancient Greece, rival groups of experts arose to meet these statecraft needs, competing with each other for the patronage of state rulers, and often moving between states for employment. The most famous of these experts were known to later history as the Confucians; but there were many different factions and schools. Some, like the Legalists, are still well-known today, while others, like the Mohists, disappeared into comparative obscurity around two thousand years ago.

The Mohists distinguished themselves in this competition by developing sophisticated arguments to justify their policies to rulers and rebut their rivals – a sophistication which they refined in different directions, pioneering early epistemological and logical theories. In effect, they were the first Chinese philosophers. Contemporary Confucians such as Mencius (or Mengzi) soon felt compelled to adopt similar methods of ‘disputation’ to advance their own counsel and counter Mohist influence. For rulers concerned with state security, Mohist engineers also offered useful advice on counter-siege technology, and could deploy weapons and other devices for defeating siege operations. Yet the Mohists offered their military expertise only to smaller states threatened by military aggression. Their consequentialism explains why. Consequentialism is the attitude that the moral value of an act derives from or can be calculated specifically from the beneficial or harmful outcomes of the act.

The Mohists envisaged ideal human society as a well-ordered, harmonious hierarchy, in which everyone fulfilled defined duties in relation to superiors and inferiors, ranging from the ‘Son of Heaven’ or supreme ruler down to princely rulers of states, their ministers and officers, village heads, and parents and children. This perhaps represented an idealized vision of the pre-Warring States era of centralized imperial authority.

Atop this social hierarchy was a spiritual realm of ancestral ghosts, then Heaven itself. Thus the Mohists theorized a grand cosmological and moral order for the world. And for the Mohists it was ‘Heaven’s intent’ which provided a universal standard, and a guide for human conduct. Heaven’s intent is for a world ordered so that there is maximum benefit and minimal harm rendered to all impartially.

This benign intent, the Mohists insisted, could be inferred from the observable natural order of the world: in the passage of the seasons and in provision for the growth of life-giving crops and other food sources at their appointed times, and in the growth and flourishing of human populations through ‘mutual love and mutual benefit’. Everyone from the Son of Heaven, down the hierarchy to filial (obedient) children, should follow the standard exemplified by those above them in the hierarchy, with all of them answerable to the standards of Heaven. But, the Mohists insisted, inferiors should also hold superiors to those standards, and remonstrate them when they fail. In doing so, all act benevolently (ren) in accordance with universal love, or ‘inclusive caring without partiality’ (jian ai), and with righteousness or justice (yi) in benefitting others.

Rather than focus on a single criterion of benefit such as ‘pleasure’ or ‘happiness’ as the British Utilitarians would do over two thousand years later, the Mohists upheld a multi-faceted conception of benefit. Mozi claimed that when people act according to ‘inclusive caring’ and “view others’ states as they view their own states… view others’ households as they view their own households… [and] view other people as they view themselves”, with each person striving impartially to benefit others, not just themselves and their own families, communities, or states, the first benefit would be harmony and order throughout the social hierarchy. Other benefits would flow from this harmony and order, including agricultural and economic productivity sufficient for food and financial security and an increasing population. Contrariwise, harms arise when human beings fail to practice inclusive caring, loving only themselves and caring for only their own households, communities, and states, while assaulting others for their own benefit. Selfish extravagance constitutes one source of harm, including the expensively staged rites, musical performances and mourning rituals the Mohists accused the Confucians of promoting. Other harms arise from widespread selfishness, including social disharmony and disorder, manifested in robbery and murder, deprivations of food and security, and war.

Breaking into and robbing peoples’ properties is a paradigmatic instance of harming others to benefit oneself. Yet for the Mohists, warfare was the worst source of harms, since invading (that is, breaking into and robbing) other states multiplies and intensifies individual crimes, and thus constitutes the greatest offence against ren and yi. Moreover, as Mozi observed, if the unprovoked killing of one innocent person counts as a capital crime, the killing of ten or a hundred innocents should count as ten or a hundred capital crimes. Yet, the Mohists complained, ‘noble men’ denounce the isolated crimes while glorifying war and calling it just, even though it involves the destruction of states, the plunder of their wealth, and the enslavement or massacre of thousands of innocents. The Mohists would have appreciated the irony in Voltaire’s epigram some twenty centuries later: “It is forbidden to kill; therefore all murderers are punished unless they kill in large numbers and to the sound of trumpets.”

As we saw with the Gongshu Dialogue, the Mohists used such arguments to dissuade would-be expansionists from offensive war. Countering the assertions of rulers who exalted the glory, power, and wealth gained from imperialism, the Mohists also drew on history and contemporary observations to emphasize its risks, including the harms that potentially rebound onto would-be conquerors. The deaths of countless soldiers, not only in battle but also “through cold and hunger, rolled into ditches and gullies to die” is the worst of harms, depriving the state of able-bodied men, depriving families of fathers and sons, and depriving the ghosts of ancestors of descendants to worship them. Moreover, the mass conscription of men into armies takes them away from farms and other employments, depressing economic activity. The need for arms, equipment, and livestock during campaigns needlessly drains state treasuries, and military failure could be followed by retributive attacks and the overthrow of the would-be conquerors.

Peace Sells, But Who's Buying
Peace Sells, But Who’s Buying? by Friedrich Farshaad Razmjouie, 2022

Mohist Just War Theory

Mohist anti-militarist doctrine fed into its pioneering just war theories. They devoted little space to what modern just war theory (that is, since Aquinas in the twelfth century AD) describes as the principle of jus in bello, or the ‘just conduct of war’. It is clear that the Mohists considered it acceptable to totally defeat invading armies, killing, maiming, and demoralizing their troops by any means necessary with the gruesome array of weapons listed in their anti-siege manuals.

However, as some scholars of Mohist thought, such as Chris Fraser, contend, some aspects of Mohist doctrine anticipated modern jus ad bellum (‘justice about going to war’) doctrine, beginning with the principle of just cause. Wars of aggression were never justified according to the Mohist perspective. However, a war waged defensively against invasion is justified, with some reservations that I’ll discuss shortly. The Mohists also believed there could be just cause for punitive war, as punishment for tyrannical rulers of states who have committed outrages against Heaven and their own people, and have driven their own states into disorder.

Critics claimed that this concept of punitive war was no different from that of offensive war. The Mohists countered by arguing that punitive war is only permitted in rare instances, where there are clear signs that Heaven has withdrawn its mandate for those tyrants to rule and given permission for their overthrow. These signs include clear ill omens and portents, natural disasters, and explicit authorizations from spirits to carry out punishment. One example given was of the military defeat and death of the infamous semi-legendary tyrant Zhou.

The Mohists, with their clear-eyed assessment of the tremendous harms wreaked by warfare, anticipated another principle of jus ad bellum – that war should be a last resort. The incident from the Gongshu Dialogue I quoted shows how they used both diplomacy and deterrence-signaling to discourage would-be expansionists. They also counseled rulers of smaller states to cultivate good relations with neighboring states to enhance collective security, and diplomatic submission where defensive war might incur worse harms than would acceptance of unfavorable terms from a potential aggressor. So although they never stated it explicitly, the Mohists thereby subscribed to another modern just war theory principle: that a proposed defensive war ‘have a reasonable chance of success’.

Other modern just war theory principles, requiring that war be declared by ‘a proper authority’, and that its agents have ‘right intention’, also find their antecedents in Mohist doctrine. The temporal authorization of war would issue first of all with the Son of Heaven – the Emperor – directing or permitting some states to wage defensive or punitive war against renegade states; with ‘right intention’ being determined by whether it accords with signs of ‘Heaven’s intent’. But one objection to this formulation is that in periods of disorder, such as the Warring States era the Mohists lived in, there is no commonly acknowledged Son of Heaven designated to authorize war. The absence of such a line of authority opens the way for diverse states to opportunistically claim ‘proper authority’ and ‘right intention’, and so rationalise wars of conquest as just, punitive wars.

This is a rather troubling ambiguity in Mohist conceptions of just war. But the Mohists did criticize rulers who claimed Heaven’s authorization for illegitimate ‘punitive’ wars. Fraser argues that the stringency of Mohist criteria for punitive war rules out any easy resort to it. Nevertheless, the notion of a Heavenly assent to punitive war is a powerful rhetorical device for moralizing military adventurism, in ancient times and today.

Another question arises concerning how, given the absence of the clear line of authorization described above, the Mohists could claim authority to undertake diplomacy for and deliver arms to beleaguered states, as Mozi does in the Gongshu Dialogue. The Mohists might have answered this by arguing that theirs was a restorative doctrine. By persuading rulers to practice ‘inclusive caring’, by dissuading or deterring their expansionism, and in the last resort, militarily thwarting them, the Mohists may have seen themselves as de facto agents of Heaven’s intent, hastening the restoration of a peaceful hierarchy of states under the Son of Heaven.

The Modern Relevance of Mohist Just War Thinking

Fully cognizant of the harms and horrors of war, the Mohists melded their anti-militarist consequentialism into a just war doctrine. Their calculation was that where diplomacy and deterrence-signaling fails, and invasion will inevitably bring intolerable harms through plunder, destruction of land and habitation, and the massacre or enslavement of innocents, then defensive war will be the less harmful last resort.

Yet there is much in Mohist thought which remains alien to modern sensibilities, potentially limiting its application today. First, the conception of a hierarchical world order under the Son of Heaven, with all obedient to the standard of ‘Heaven’s intent’, is incompatible with modern norms of national self-determination, human rights, democracy, and pluralism, not to mention secularism. Nevertheless, it’s possible to envisage a stripped-down, Mohist-like, consequentialist just war doctrine being adapted to multilateral institutions such as the United Nations. The UN could authorize defensive war by beleaguered states and their allies, or punitive war against expansionist, totalitarian states involved in gross human rights violations. But this role is far from what a weakened and geopolitically compromised United Nations is capable of today. A further Mohist-like restorative argument for United Nations authority would seem to be in order.

Second, the Mohists saw themselves as politically neutral, delivering diplomatic advice, military expertise, and armaments to any smaller state threatened by invasion when they could. Today, no non-governmental organization has such capabilities. It is mostly great powers which can deliver sufficient armaments and expertise to smaller states to defeat the expansionism of other great powers. This raises the problem of how smaller states can avoid becoming proxies in great power struggles, gaining little benefit and with much risk of harm as they cede control over their affairs to the changeable whims of their great power benefactors. Such are the objections fielded by left-wing critics of military aid for Ukraine: that smaller states like Ukraine are becoming tools for the imperialism of the West, specifically, the United States. Yet the Ukrainians are doing just as the Mohists would urge, cultivating diplomatic relations with multiple neighbouring states and with the European Union. In sourcing weapons and expertise from them, they offset the risk of being drawn into the exclusive geopolitical orbit of the United States.

There is also a bleakly persuasive Mohist-like argument that armed resistance is the better alternative than a capitulation or pacifist resistance which leaves territories exposed to the criminal behavior and arbitrary violence of a ruthless, ill-disciplined occupying army. Taras Bilous, a Ukrainian left-wing writer and defender, justifies arming his country by emphasizing the dreadful harms that occur when ‘the weak suffer what they must’: “The more territories the Russian army occupies, the more civilians will be persecuted and murdered. The more missiles our air defences take down, the fewer of them will reach their targets and kill people.”

© Shaun O’Dwyer 2022

Shaun O’Dwyer is an associate professor in the Faculty of Languages and Cultures at Kyushu University, Japan. He is the author of Confucianism’s Prospects: a Reassessment (SUNY Press, 2019) and editor of Handbook of Confucianism in Modern Japan (University of Amsterdam Press, 2022).

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