In my tutorial, which has been working through the Tao Te Ching of late, a student (thanks Raff!) suggested that the text is consequentialist. I was initially taken aback, but, upon further reflection was drawn to the possibilities of the question.
First of all, for anyone who wants a quick backgrounder on consequentialism, this Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy entry is a good staring point.
I have confronted this issue before, in Aidan's Way, where in chapter 9, "Mastering Uselessness," I use Chuang Tzu - and especially his story of the useless tree - against Peter Singer's utilitarianism. So, it seemed a fairly clear open and shut case, when I read the student's suggestion, that Taoism is not consequentialist.
But then I looked at the text. And it is true that some passages, perhaps many, suggest a consequentialist sensibility; that is, there is an implicit assertion that allowing Way to express itself would create better outcomes or consequences than obstructing its expressions. Conversely, taking "twisty paths" or "mountain roads" (i.e. paths through life that turn away from the open and broad avenue of Way) diverts us into unnecessary, humanly-created badness. Yes, Way is all inclusive and envelops the "bad" along with the "good," but the text certainly tells us that some human actions are un-Way-like, and that "masters of Way" can avoid such actions.
Here's a couple of concrete examples from the text.
Passage 22 (from the Hendricks translation), excerpt:
Therefore the Sage holds on to the One and in this way becomes the shepherd of the world.
He does not show himself off; therefore he becomes prominent.
He does not put himself on display; therefore he brightly shines.
He does not brag about himself; therefore he receives credit.
He does not praise his own deeds; therefore he can long endure.
Sure seems like the phrases that come after "therefore" are consequences that create a positive value for the actions (nonactions) that precede them.
Here's another example, an excerpt from passage 3, which is what caught my student's eye:
By not elevating the worthy, you bring it about that people will not compete.
By not valuing good that are hard to obtain, you bring it about that people will not act as thieves.
By not displaying the desirable you bring it about that people will not be confused.
There are many such consequentialist-seeming passages, which reasonably provoke the question: is the Tao Te Ching consequentialist?
I think I still have to answer "no," even though I now see more clearly the traces of consequentialism in the text. My primary reason for still saying no is the centrality and significance of wu-wei in the text. I like Hinton's translation of the term as "nothing's own doing." We could also invoke his translation of ziran: "occurence appearing of itself." While I agree that these terms do not necessarily demand absolute nonaction, they do suggest that our understanding and judgment (yes, I believe the text is ultimately providing us with an ethical framework of sorts, even as it swears off formalized ethics) should focus not on the consequences of human action but, rather, on the radical reduction of the consequences that human action creates. We need to get out of the way of Way.
There is a consequentialist quality to that advice (if we get out of the way of Way, then things will unfold naturally and that is preferable to the effects of humanly-created action). But the goal is to ultimately erase consequences, at least in their human form. An old Maoist turn of phrase comes to mind here: the Tao Te Ching is waving the consequentialist flag to defeat consequentialism.
It could also be argued that the general avoidance of formalized ethics weakens the consequentialist claim. But I would not go so far as to say there is no moral message in the text. At the very least it is asking us to relinquish conventional definitions of "good" and "bad" and understand them anew in the broader context of Way.
But that's just me. And I may be too much influenced by Chuang Tzu along these lines. What do you think: is the Tao Te Ching consequentialist?