Ethics, Revised Edition
Definition: Theory of ethics that rejects conventional moral codes in favor of a natural, simple, spontaneous life
Type of Ethics: Classical history
Significance: Daoism functioned as a major rival to Confucianism in Chinese thought and strongly influenced the ethics of Zen Buddhism and neo-Confucianism.
One of the great classical philosophies of China, Daoism (formerly spelled Taoism) is named after its central concept, Dao, which literally means "path" in Chinese. The philosophy is mainly represented by the books of Laozi (also known as Lao Tzu, the reputed author of Dao De Jing) and Zhuangzi (also known as Chuang Chou, the author of the eponymous Zhuangzi).
Morality and Decline of the Dao
Daoists use the concept of Dao to name both the way of the natural world of reality and the proper way of life, including the way of government and the way of the right social order. To the Daoist, the best way of life is to live in harmony with nature. It is a life of simplicity and spontaneity. According to Daoists, this is how ancient people used to live. As human skill and conventional knowledge developed, however, people came to have more and more desires; the increase of desires led to conflicts among people and conflicts between humans and their natural environment, which made life more difficult. Morality also was introduced to cope with the problems, but morality does not remove the causes of these problems; it creates new problems because it imposes rules on people, thus making them constrained and mentally crippled. Morality should therefore be cast away in favor of a better solution. Thus, Laozi (Lao-tzu) wrote:
Banish wisdom, discard knowledge,
And the people will be benefitted a hundredfold.
Banish kindness, discard morality,
And the people will be dutiful and compassionate.
Banish skill, discard profit,
And thieves and robbers will disappear.
As these three touch the externals and are inadequate,
The people have need of what they can depend upon:
To see the simplicity,
To embrace one's uncarved nature,
To cast off selfishness,
And to have few desires.
Superior De and Inferior De
In saying "discard morality," the Daoist is not encouraging immoral acts. As Chuang Chou puts it, it is better for fish to live in water and be able to forget about one another than to be on a dry road and have to moisten one another with their spit. The De (virtue) of helping each other with spit is inferior to the De of living in accordance with the Dao. Daoist ethics contains teachings that resemble those of other normative ethics. For example, from the Dao De Jing: "In dealing with others, be gentle and kind. In speech, be true. In ruling, get peace. In business, be capable. In action, watch the timing." "I am good to people who are good. I am also good to people who are not good. Virtue is goodness. I have faith in people who are faithful. I also have faith in people who are not faithful. Virtue is faithfulness." Here, however, virtue (De) is not to be understood as moral virtue. The Daoist uses De in the sense of the power or proper function of something. Thus, for example, mercy is considered virtue, because it brings courage, strength, and victory.
Dao of Going Forward Resembles Retreat
"The superior De let go of (the inferior, moral) De, and therefore has (the superior) De." Daoism values freedom, but freedom is to be achieved by having no "self" (desires and expectations) rather than by fighting against restrictions. "Only if you do not fight, no one can fight against you." "This is known as the virtue of not striving." Daoism values happiness, but "the highest happiness has no happiness." It does not come from active searching for happiness. Daoism values true wisdom, but true wisdom does not mean the wisdom of obtaining profits. It is the wisdom of seeing the value of simplicity and spontaneity. To the Daoist, a truly mature person is like a little child who has few desires and less knowledge. Such a person is simple-minded and even looks like a fool, because great knowledge is like ignorance. The Daoist teaches being calm, soft, female-like, desireless, nonaggressive, and content. The Daoist likes the image of water: It is soft, yet there is nothing it cannot penetrate.
Ethics of Religious Daoism
Philosophical Daoism (Dao jia) is the origin of, yet must not be confused with, religious Daoism (Dao jiao). Religious Daoism turned respect for nature into the worship of numerous deities, such as the gods of wealth, war, and longevity. It turned the De of living a simple and spontaneous life into the principles of serenity and calmness in therapeutic techniques and martial arts that could be used to achieve personal advantages (mainly immortality). Misfortunes were no longer considered the result of having excessive desires, but instead were considered mainly the result of magic trespasses.
Chuang Tzu. Basic Writings. Translated by Burton Watson. New York: Columbia University Press, 1964.
Fung Yu-lan. A History of Chinese Philosophy. Translated by Derk Bodde. Vol. 1. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1983.
Graham, Angus C. Disputers of the Tao. La Salle, Ill.: Open Court, 1989.
Hansen, Chad. A Daoist Theory of Chinese Thought: A Philosophical Interpretation. New York: Oxford University Press, 2000.
Lao Tzu. Tao Te Ching: A Book About the Way and the Power of the Way. Translated by Ursula K. Le Guin and J. P. Seaton. Boston: Shambhala, 1997.
_______. The Way and Its Power: A Study of Tao Te Ching and Its Place in Chinese Thought. Edited and translated by Arthur Waley. New York: Grove Press, 1958.
Confucian ethics; Dogen; Laozi; Manichaeanism; Religion; Zen; Zhuangzi.
SALEM PRESS, a division of EBSCO Publishing. · 131 North El Molino Avenue · Pasadena · CA 91101
© Salem Press, Inc. All Rights Reserved.