Mozi’s dao entailed “taking upon oneself all the troubles of the world” and this, according to the author of the Tianxia, was in agreement with “the ancient Arts of the Dao”. When it comes to socio-political ethics—how engaged we should be in furthering universal flourishing—nothing could be more all-embracing.

And yet, something doesn’t seem quite right here. And that is reflected in another so-called attribute of the Dao—disciplining oneself “as if with ropes and cords”.

We could say that there are two kinds of “troubles”, those that are inflicted upon us, and those which we inflict upon ourselves. Of the latter, there are many that are disconnected from the former—hypochondria might be a good example. Taking every “suspicious” symptom as a dread disease and psychologically dying a death of a thousand cuts is certainly troubling ourselves unnecessarily. Daoism offers its remedy to this kind of malady, but that doesn’t directly address the subject at hand.

“Troubles inflicted upon us”, in the context of Mozi’s dao, speaks to the vast multitude of injustices in the world. Starvation, poverty, exploitation, pre-mature death, the impacts of war, voicelessness—these are some of the troubles that Mozi took upon himself and sought to remedy. They are all injustices, because they are all unnecessary. Their existence evinces our collective lack of true and practical universal caring.

Does Daoism advocate for true and practical universal caring? No. It advocates for an experience of cosmic unity—a kind of cosmo-centrism—that issues in universal caring. The distinction may seem subtle, but the implications are vast. In a very real sense Daoism has no “ethics” at all, because doing what is “right” is understood as a secondary consequence of the flourishing of our own humanity. The end is putatively the same, but the motivational means are radically different—and this makes for significantly different results.

Mozi was strong on ethics, and consequentially his universal caring became tyrannical. (“Morality” inspires enforcement.) His pacifism resulted in his armies being among the most feared in China. (Mohists, being “pacifists”, would come to the defense of states deemed unlawfully attacked.) And his own self-flourishing was greatly diminished. Having taken all the world’s troubles upon himself, he himself was troubled. He took all the fun out of life.

Cosmo-centrism—an identification with both the “world under heaven” (Tianxai) and “heaven” itself (the great ambiguity)—moves us in two directions at once: We are instilled with a universal caring, and we are freed from the tyranny of all troubles—ours and the world’s.

Our self-flourishing issues in caring for the flourishing of the world—if it were otherwise, it would not be self-flourishing, but mere egoism.

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