By Yuka Kamamoto
In Chinese moral philosophy, Daoism is often misunderstood as moral nihilism or anti-moralism (Xu 525) with regards to the following passage in Chapter 18 of the Daodejing:
When the great Way [dao] is abandoned, there are benevolence [ren] and righteousness [yi]. When wisdom and intelligence come forth, there is great hypocrisy. When the six familial relationships are out of balance, there are kind parents and filial children. When the state is in turmoil and chaos, there are loyal ministers. (Ivanhoe and Van Norden)
From here, Laozi seems to express skepticism towards conventional views of knowledge, wisdom, cultivation, and status. He further expresses this line of thought in Chapter 38 where the loss of the highest dao is said to deteriorate into ren, yi and li (ritual) – with li being the lowest of morals, because it indicates “the wearing thin of loyalty and trust” and “the beginning of chaos”. In other words, the Confucian moral doctrine of ritual is seen as a moral decline from a lack of trust and camaraderie among ministers, signaling the start of social disorder and unrest. Accordingly, Laozi makes the following proposition in Chapter 19:
Cut off sageliness, abandon wisdom, and the people will benefit one-hundred-fold. Cut off benevolence, abandon righteousness, and the people will return to being filial and kind. Cut off cleverness, abandon profit, and robbers and thieves will be no more… Manifest plainness. Embrace simplicity. Do not think just of yourself. Make few your desires. (Ivanhoe and Van Norden)
This passage has often been interpreted as anti-moral, because Laozi appears to harbor radical hostility towards sagely teachings, moral principles, and clever reason. Instead, he appears to be advocating a return to an earlier golden age in human history, where people’s natural desires were simple and modest. It seems that existing ethical establishments have resulted in “excessive burdens of social and familial obligations”, which have prevented people from living a primitive state of life as destined by dao (Zhang 494). Daoism has been criticized for not establishing any effective moral framework because it rejects “the very moral obligations and responsibilities that are essential to any moral theory” (Baldwin 103).
While we can say that Laozi rejects the moral doctrines of Confucian ren and yi, it is not charitable to say that he is amoral because it does not follow that he does not like true ren and yi either. Rather, I would like to argue that Daoism does provide a holistic ethical framework which endorses moral guidance that is intuitive and derived spontaneously from the self, rather than from pre-established codes of conduct or moral principles (e.g. Confucian ren, or Mohist jianai). Because Daoist ethical framework is ontologically related to the concept of the self as a derivation and a part of the great dao, I will first introduce the concept of de as individualized dao. Following that, I will bring up the concepts of ziran and wuwei to demonstrate how sensitivity towards social distinctions, and spontaneous response are a true exercise in ethical behavior as compared to an automated compliance to conventional ethical norms.
De as Individualised Dao
What makes Daoist ethics unique is that it is closely related to its ontological concepts of dao and de. I shall first begin by introducing the ineffable and impermanent nature of dao. In the opening chapter of the Daodejing, dao is regarded in two different ways – ‘nameless’ and ‘named’. First, daonameless is considered to be “the beginning of Heaven and earth”. In Chapter 25, human beings are placed in relation to daonameless:
People model themselves on the earth. The earth models itself on Heaven. Heaven models itself on the Way [daonameless]. The Way models itself on what is natural [ziran]. (Ivanhoe and Van Norden)
If daonameless is the source of the metaphysical principles of earth and Heaven, then human beings belong in this metaphysical scheme as well. In order for human beings to relate to daonameless, we must constantly “eliminate desires to observe its mysteries”. Secondly, daonamed is called “the mother of the myriad creatures”, or the source of change and multiplicity in the world. And in order for us to relate to daonamed, we must constantly “have desires in order to observe its manifestations”. Thus, the difference between the two views is that former dao comes forth in unity because it remains nameless as an enigma, whereas the latter dao diverges into distinctions because we name it with regards to its manifestations.
Now that we understand dao as an ontological concept, what exactly is its relationship with de? In Confucianism, de is understood as ‘virtue’ or moral goodness. On the other hand, in Daoism, de does not mean moral goodness, but the highest de is considered to be good. Chan proposes the definition of de as individualized dao:
te (de) is Tao (dao) endowed in the individual things. While Tao is common to all, it is what each thing has obtained from Tao, or its te, that makes it different from others. Te is then the individualizing factor, the embodiment of definite principles which give things their determinate features or characters. (11)
In other words, de is an individual’s specificity in the greater context, which is dao. It is also important to note that not only human beings possess de; any creature or thing that can be regarded as an individual also possesses de. We may assess the efficacy of each individual’s de according to “how it realizes itself as it stands in relation to others, within its environment” (Lai 327). More specifically, in terms of morality, de has the lowest efficacy when we form sharp distinctions between self and others (individuation of daonamed); and has the highest efficacy when we emulate ziran and practise wuwei (individuation of daonameless).
Ziran and Wuwei
Referring back to Chapter 25, daonameless is popularly interpreted as a metaphysical concept that models itself on ziran, or what is “natural” (Ivanhoe and Van Norden). This naturalistic interpretation of ziran is problematic because it offers the ethical prescription of “going with the flow” (Wang 78), which seems contradictory to what the Daodejing advocates about rejecting ethical norms. Arthur Waley proposes a more appropriate translation of ziran, which means ‘spontaneity’ or ‘self-so’ (174). It literally combines the two words zi 自 (meaning ‘self’) and ran 然 (meaning ‘so’), to describe the unconditioned, spontaneous self. This interpretation of ziran links back to Chapter 51 of the Daodejing, where de is said to be honored by the myriad creatures “not because this is decreed, but because it is natural [ziran]” (Ivanhoe and Van Norden). As such, de is also modeled after self-so, and to honor our individual de is to encourage spontaneity in the self rather than to impose distinctions on what is natural and what is not. In other words, to possess the ‘highest’ de is to practise wuwei, while to possess the ‘lowest’ de is to act with wei (Ivanhoe and Van Norden Daodejing Ch. 38).
Daoism is often misunderstood to be discouraging moral deliberation or rational decision-making. This is because wuwei is often translated as ‘nonaction’ and misinterpreted to mean passivity or to “accept things the way things are and … [avoid] imposing one’s will on the world” (Baldwin 103). The more proactive interpretation would mean “acting against existing norms and practices” (Lai 332). To get a deeper ethical significance of wuwei, it is helpful to understand its opposite term, youwei 有為. Chad Hansen provides two meanings of wei, the first means to ‘act’ in attempt to bring about socially defined goals (212). The second means to ‘deem’, or to judge or evaluate, which is “socially induced, learned, patterns of response – the opposite of autonomous or spontaneous response” (Hansen 212–3). Therefore, wuwei means to act in a way that is not conditioned by, or restricted to, conventional norms and values. In order to understand the importance of exercising wuwei, it is helpful to recognize the social mechanism of language as Hansen succinctly explains here:
Learning social distinctions typically involves internalizing society’s preferences. Distinguishing between having and lacking, we learn to prefer having. Distinguishing between beautiful and ugly, we learn to prefer beautiful. Learning names shapes our behavioral attitudes, our desires. This is because we learn names by mimicking their use in guiding choices in ordinary contexts. We do not learn them in classes by recitation. Hence we learn to let names guide us to make the same choices that our social models (teachers) do. Our learning consists in daily increasing our mastery of the system of names . . . Language is a tool in society’s project of shaping our behavioral motivations. (212–3)
It is also important to consider the psychological aspect of wuwei in undoing social distinctions and preferences that are embedded in our everyday language. In Chapter 49 of the Daodejing, it is said that “sages do not have constant hearts of their own” because they possess constant virtue and “take the people’s hearts as their hearts”. They are good to people who are “good”, and also to those who are “not good”. In other words, sages practice wuwei by being good to others without adhering to the conventional sense of what is good and bad. By dissolving ethical distinctions that are dictated by society, they are able to “blend into the world” and spontaneously “accord with people’s hearts”.
The Ethics of Spontaneity
The Daodejing rejects conventional standards of ethics precisely because its principles dictate how people ought to respond. From the Daoist point of view, the indoctrination of Confucian, Mohist and Legalist values restricts the flexibility of the individual to respond spontaneously. On the other hand, the Daoist emphasis on gentleness and non-assertiveness helps the individual to be sensitive and flexible in her interaction with others – the imagery of the newborn, water, rivers, seas, valleys, and the female in the Daodejing inspire qualities of “gentleness” (rou), “fragility” (ruo), “quietude” (jing) and “non-assertiveness” (buzheng) (Lai 335). It is the unique ontological framework of dao and de that allows the individual to recognize the deeper unity of all creatures and his inseperability from other things. To see oneself not as self-dependent individuals but as interdependent moments of the larger whole, which is dao, will dissolve all social distinctions that threaten the realization of one’s de. In Chapter 20 of the Daodejing, Laozi rejects the teachings of other schools of thought as primarily taught normative ethical distinctions:
Cut off learning and be without worry! How much distance is there really between agreement and flattery? How much difference is there between the fair and the foul? … “I have the mind of a fool! Listless and blank! The common folk are bright and brilliant. I alone am muddled and confused. The common folk are careful and discriminating. I alone am dull and inattentive. Vast! Like the ocean! Blown about! As if it would never end! The multitude all have something to do. I alone remain obstinate and immobile, like some old rustic. I alone differ from others, and value being nourished by mother. (Ivanhoe and Van Norden)
Ethical doctrines that only need people to follow dictated norms do not inspire spontaneity. However, that is not to say that the Daoist ethic of wuwei is incompatible with such ethical norms. As I mentioned in the beginning of the paper, Laozi might reject these moral institutions, but it does not follow that he does not value true benevolence and righteousness. These moral values can be considerations in the Daoist ethical framework, but they are only second priority to spontaneity and wuwei. Fixed and formulated moral rules cannot be taken as the final, absolute moral authority, because it is only through the recognition of the other’s distinctiveness, interdependence, and ziran that inspires a mind of openness toward others. The practice of wuwei is the only pragmatic way for individuals to respond flexibly to any immediate situation where the needs of the interdependent other are also at stake. In Chapter 15 of the Daodejing, the process by which the individual self merges with the interdependent other, and where distinctions are reversed, is described:
Poised, like one who must ford a stream in winter. Cautious, like one who fears his neighbors on every side. Reserved, like a visitor. Opening up, like ice about to break. Honest, like unhewn wood. Broad, like a valley. Turbid, like muddy water. Who can, through stillness, gradually make muddied water clear? Who can, through movement, gradually stir to life what has long been still? Those who preserve this Way do not desire fullness. And, because they are not full, they have no need for renewal. (Ivanhoe and Van Norden)
At the beginning, we need to be “cautious” by paying careful attention to the environment where the self relates to the other. Instead of readily following social norms and expectations, we need to be alert to the presence of distinctions that are manifested by daonamed. By leaving behind these preferences and desires that are taught by society and so familiar to us, it is as fearful as “ice about to break” as we tread along the path of what is ziran. If we can overcome this fear towards the enigma of daonameless, we become “reserved” and are visitors at the gate of mysteries. And as we begin to unify with Enigmatic Unity, we become undifferentiated like “muddy water”. The point of reversal is when we “make muddied water clear”. We can once again see distinctions for what they are and be sensitive to its moral implications through the practice of wuwei. There is no need to be fed with moral norms to guide our ethical behavior, and we can conduct ethical activity with the minimum, which is spontaneity.
In taking ziran as a rule to realise the individual’s de in regards to the interdependent other, we can apply wuwei as an ethical practice to undo social norms and ethical distinctions. Daoism does have an ethical framework, where spontaneity is regard as the utmost priority for moral reasoning, and the individual possesses the most flexible ability to respond to any moral situation.