Thursday, November 22, 2007

Grayling vs the Mohists

[Update: a clarification from AC Grayling (see below) has rendered this post pretty much redundant.]

I generally agree with a lot (but not all) of what AC Grayling has to say concerning religion and morality. His latest article, on the conflation of those two things, particularly in schools, is no exception.

Most of his argument seems excellent. But then as an aside, he throws in this nugget:

the New Testament (whose "love thy neighbour" was anticipated by several centuries by Mohism in China, without theological reward and punishment to back it up)

Half an hour ago, I hadn’t heard of Mohism, but learning new things is always nice, so I followed the link Grayling gives to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy entry. Some extracts:

An objective standard is needed, one that is not morally fallible in the way that any particular individual or cultural tradition might be. The Mohists propose that we can find such a standard by considering the attitudes of an ideally impartial, benevolent, and reliable moral agent: Tian (Heaven, nature, the sky), whom they revere as a personal god.
…they seek a reliable role model or paradigm against which they can compare their actions and practices. This is why they can propose, as their highest fa or ethical standard, not a normative principle, but Heaven itself, considered as the highest, most reliable moral agent in the natural order.

The Mohists justify their consequentialist ethics by appeal to the intention of Heaven (Tian), which they believe is the objective criterion of morality—utility. Among their reasons for obeying Heaven's intention are gratitude for its gifts, fear of punishment, and their belief that it is the noblest, wisest moral agent in the cosmos.

Gamma minus, professor SEP [see comments below].


ACGrayling said...

Dear Freemania
It is the Guardian editors who helpfully supply links to things mentioned in blog texts, not always with happy results, as in this case: for they attached my remark about the Mohists to a first class example of how wrong someone can be in attributing to Mo Zi and his followers the absurd belief that 'Tian' is some sort of personal deity. That is about as far from the case as one can get. Like 'logos' in Greek Stoicism, a principle of reason, natural justice or rightness, 'Tian' stands for a complex ideal principle at whose centre is a concept something like 'the way things should rightly be', though it has other normative and constitutive features depending on context. A 'personal deity' it is emphatically not; this is the invention of the ancient Jews, though to begin with it only communicated with select individuals; it took Chritianity to make the idea of a 'personal god' truly cosy and general.
Moral: don't always beleive the first internet link you follow.
A. C. Grayling

Tom Freeman said...

In that case I stand very happily corrected. I'd assumed that authors put their own links into CiF pieces. Sorry to have propagated the wrong impression.

All the best,