A lot of Taoism of late, here at The Useless Tree. That's because I am wrapping up a month-long class on it, centering on the Tao Te Ching and the Inner Chapters of Chuang Tzu, for the Summer Humanities and Social Science program here at Williams.
So, think for a moment about this passage from the Tao Te Ching, number 53:
Understanding sparse and sparser still
I travel the great Way,
nothing to fear unless I stray.
The great Way is open and smooth,
but people adore twisty paths:
Government in ruins,
and granaries bare,
they indulge in elegant robes
and sharp swords,
lavish food and drink,
all those trappings of luxury.
It’s vainglorious thievery –
not the Way, not the Way at all.
This passage expresses a paradox of human nature. One the one hand, it is natural for humans to exercise their free will in ways that are hurtful of others. “People adore twisty paths” which lead to inequality and injustice. Yet on the other hand, this natural tendency produces unnatural outcomes, which are “not the Way, not the Way at all.” If Way encompasses everything – good and bad alike– then it should follow that the bad effects of willful human behavior are in keeping with Way. But this passage suggests that through our free will we can choose to violate Way and that some portion of our bad behavior is “not the Way.” This does not mean that humans are somehow outside of Way; but, rather, that the human condition, unlike perhaps anything else in Way, can uniquely defy the natural unfolding of Way.
It further suggests two kinds of bad occurrences in the world: 1) Those "bad" things that happen as a part of the natural unfolding of Way. This would include most "natural disasters," and other things that happen regardless of human intentions. 2) Those bad things that result from willful selfishness and hurtfulness on the part of humans, things that are "not the Way."
If we accept this distinction (I know: Taoists are supposed to avoid analytic distinctions because, following Chuang Tzu, those who divide things cannot see; but I am going to make this point in any event...), then we might push one step more to say that this would provide a basis for a positive ethics of Taoism, one that can invoke a standard of "good" versus "bad". The latter would not include some of the conventional understandings of the term: there is much "bad" that is a natural result of Way. But it would include intentional, humanly-created "bad" that is not in keeping with Way. Of course, we will face a continuing debate about how we can know what is or is not "naturally" consonant with Way. But it is a starting place.