Mohism and Self-Interest

I’m posting here an article about the interpretation of Mohism that I published in 2008. It appears in Journal of Chinese Philosophy 35.3 (2008): 437–54. Key points from this article will appear in my forthcoming book on Mohism. A main significance of the article is that it refutes a widespread misunderstanding of Mohist thought — a misunderstanding that is important insofar as it badly distorts our picture of early Chinese moral psychology. An abstract follows, along with a link to the full manuscript.


Chris Fraser


The Mohists are often depicted as regarding human beings as predominantly self-interested, so much so that self-interest amounts to people’s only significant source of motivation. According to David Nivison, for example, the Mohists see human beings as self-interested, amoral “rational calculators,” who have no motivation other than “the desire to optimize material satisfaction.” Benjamin Schwartz claims that, for the Mohists, “all men and women, whether they be fathers, mothers, teachers, or rulers, tend to be nonloving and self-interested.” Other writers maintain that the Mohists think people can be motivated to practice their moral code only, or mainly, by seeing that doing so converges with self-interest. Kwong-loi Shun, for instance, suggests that the Mohists assume self-interest will be people’s main motivation for practicing inclusive care, their signature moral doctrine. In his view, Mòzǐ thought that “once one properly sees its link to one’s own interest, one is moved to practice it.” According to P. J. Ivanhoe, Mòzǐ believed people could be motivated to care about others only by seeing that doing so was part of a system for “the equitable distribution of material goods which guaranteed them treatment in kind.” All of these writers agree, then, that for the Mohists, self-interest is people’s principal source of motivation. I call this interpretive hypothesis the Self-Interest Thesis.

This article clarifies the role of self-interest in Mohist thought, along the way marshaling grounds to refute the Self-Interest Thesis. I examine passages from the Mòzǐ bearing on the role of self-interest in Mohist ethics and psychology and show that, in each case, an alternative interpretation explains them more adequately than the Self-Interest Thesis does. I argue that the Mohists recognize the obvious truth that self-interest figures among people’s basic motives, but they think people also have other important sources of motivation. Self-interest probably plays four main roles in Mohist thought, two normative and two psychological. Normatively, it counts among the goods that are criteria of what is morally right and among the objects of concern for a person who practices inclusive care. Psychologically, I think the Mohists must allow that nonmoral self-interest might be among some people’s motives for conforming to Mohist ethical norms. But they probably think that for most people it will be at most only an auxiliary motivation, since they assume people will generally be motivated on moral grounds. As I explain, the major role of self-interest in Mohist moral psychology is as a kind of constraint on a practicable moral code.

The article first briefly illustrates the Mohists’ assumption that self-interest counts among people’s basic motives and sketches its role in their normative ethics. Next it reviews potential grounds for the Self-Interest Thesis. Three sets of passages in the Mòzǐ are particularly relevant to the role of self-interest in Mohist thought: the “Identifying Upward” essays, the response to the objection that inclusive care is too difficult, and the response to the objection that inclusive care cannot be “applied.” The article discusses these passages in detail, showing that none of them supports the Self-Interest Thesis and that they jointly recognize several sources of motivation other than self-interest.

 To download the manuscript of the paper, click here.