The Daoist ethic without principles

‘Now the Taoist ideal,’ writes the ever-quarky Raymond Smullyan in his best Lewis Carroll The Tao is Silent, ‘is not so much to feel that he shouldn’t be moral (which is, of course, a morality all its own), but rather to be independent, free, unentangled from moral “principles”‘ (112). The poem from the first chapter of the book represents, he assures us, the ‘quintessence’ of Taoism:

The Sage falls asleep not

because he ought to

Nor even because he wants to

But because he is sleepy. (3)

At the heart of the poem is the Sage’s reason for falling asleep. His reason seems to be that, as a Sage, he desires the good because it is good and that, in this case, means falling asleep. He does not fall asleep because he has a prior desire to do so nor because he ought, just now, to fall asleep. He feels no strain from the fact of falling asleep because some voice is telling him that he ought not to do so perhaps for no other reason than that he has more work to do. For the Sage, there is no such voice to hear.

‘Ought’ and ‘ought not’ are shorthands for moral principles and these the Sage sets no credance by. The moral particularist Jonathan Dancy observes that one conception of the moral principle is the ‘absolutist’ conception. A moral principle, on this understanding, would state that a certain action is always right or always wrong. We could parse this by saying that a moral principle has three features: it is universal, it provides a criterion for determining whether some possible action is right or wrong period, and it is normative. The moral person, acting out of respect for moral principle, does always what he ought to do.

Smullyan’s distaste for oughtishness, like mine, is rooted in the metaphysical distortions wrought by oughtishness. The metaphysical view according to which human beings are, by nature, partially good and partially evil can lead to the practical conclusion that duties and obligations are bulwarks that are necessary for counteracting the inextirpable but tamable egoistical instincts. I hold a different metaphysical view of human beings: that we are, in potentia, beings capable of perceiving and desiring the good but that this potentiality needs to be trained properly in order to be actualized.

Taoists like to complain that Confucians and Legalists, having introduced oughtish morality, law, and bureaucracy into social life, brought to a precipitous end a Golden Age where natural goodness flowed freely among one’s fellows. If taken too literally, talk of a Golden Age can sound untrue, fanciful, or overdemanding. But, as Richard Holloway reminds us, a myth has significance, not truth value:  ‘a myth is a story that encodes but does not necessarily explain a universal human experience.’ Consequently, ‘The wrong question to ask of a myth is whether it is true or false. The right question is whether it is living or dead, whether it still speaks to our condition.’

This myth of natural goodness, to my ear, speaks to our condition. Thus Thomas Merton:

In an age when life was full, no one paid any attention to worthy men, nor did they single out the man of ability. Rulers were simply the highest branches of the tree, and the people were like deer in the woods. They were honest and righteous without realizing they were ‘doing their duty.’ They loved each other and did not know that this was ‘love of neighbor.’ They deceived no one, yet they did not know they were ‘men to be trusted.’ They were reliable and did not know that this was ‘good faith.’ They lived freely together giving and taking, and did not know that they were generous. For this reason their deeds have not been narrated. They made no history. (Quoted in Tao is Silent 113)

Myths such as the one above are intended to be inspirational, to enjoin us to expand our imagination and to cultivate the virtues of simplicity and generosity. But since this community is not ‘given’ to us, we would need to fashion one for ourselves. I am speaking about learning not what has been lost but about bringing into being what is flourishing. The project for my life has been the cultivation of the virtues to the point of beauty. The radiant life, whose quintessence is the harmony of goodness and beauty manifested in the form of second nature, is yet to be realized but, were the radiant life to be so realized, then I would be cutting wood and writing poems and falling asleep when it was time.