The discussion of the meaning of "de" - 德 - "Integrity" continues. Peony has another nice post up that explores the possibilities of understanding "de" as "virtue." In the comments there the question of whether someone can have a bad "de" - however it is translated: bad "integrity" or bad "virtue" - comes up again. This has got me to thinking further, as I have been reading the Daodejing with my class, and I want to offer here a somewhat more involved defense of the possibility of a bad "de," a bad "integrity."
First of all, I like the translation "Integrity" because it gets at that notion of particularity, that each thing is integral unto itself, and thus any sense of "virtue" or "potency" or "efficacy" would follow from allowing a thing to express its integral particularity in Dao (Way).
In the Daodejing there are a number of references to the existence of "bad" people. Here are a few:
Passage 53 (excerpt):
The great Way is open and smooth, but people adore twisty paths: Government in ruins, fields overgrown and granaries bare, they indulge in elegant robe and sharp swords, lavish food and drink, all those trappings of luxury.
It's vainglorious thievery - not the Way, not the Way at all.
Passage 62 (excerpt):
Way is the mystery of these ten thousand things.
It's a good person's treasure and an evil person's refuge. Its beautiful words are bought and sold and its noble deeds are gifts enriching people.
It never abandons even the evil among us.
In their misery, the people no longer fear death, so how can you threaten them even with death?
Let the people fear death always, then if we seize those who follow sinister ways and put them to death, no one will dare live such lives.
The Executioner's killing is perennial, it's true. But to undertake the killing yourself - that's like trying to carve lumber for a master carpenter. Try to carve lumber for a master carpenter and you'll soon have blood on your hands.
From these passages I think we can establish that the DDJ recognizes that there are those among us who "adore twisty paths," "follow sinister ways," or are just plain "evil". In a sense these could be considered "bad" people. Of course it is how we consider them "bad" that matters.
"Bad" for a Daoist would mean exercising human will in such a manner as to obstruct the natural unfolding of things in ways that harm or exploit or perhaps even kill others (i.e. interfering in the unfolding of their particular de in Dao). "Bad" here is not measured in terms of some external moral standard, because the DDJ resists the imposition of any external moral standards. "Bad" things just are bad without reference to a universal notion of "good;" they just are. Moreover, there is nothing much we can do with "bad" persons - we can't kill them (that is the ultimate verdict of passage 74). We just have to let them play out their "badness."
And all of this is prelude to these lines from passage 38, which speaks directly to "de:"
High Integrity never has Integrity and so is indeed Integrity. Low Integrity never loses Integrity and so is not at all Integrity.
And for those of you keeping score at home, here is the Chinese:
What can this mean? To me it is saying that real Integrity ("high Integrity") never aspires to, or even pays attention to, Confucian-defined (or any humanly created notion of) "Integrity" and, thus, is a more genuine (as in keeping with or following Way) Integrity. And just to get the point across: Confucian-defined (or any humanly created notion of) "Integrity" ("low Integrity") never stops imposing and reaching for an artificial (i.e. not in keeping with or following Way) standard of "integrity" and, thus, is not really Integrity at all.
Substitute "virtue" for "integrity" if you like. In either case, the Daoist notion here is warding us off external (i.e. external to the particular experience of any specific individual in Way) standards of "proper" behavior. We should not determine what is right for an individual based upon the experience of some other individual. Should we call this a kind of ethical incommensurability?
There is no recourse to a broader sense of "human nature" here, which is best established by reference to Zhuangzi:
"Can a person really have no nature?" asked Hui Tzu of Chuang Tzu?
"Yes," replied Chuang Tzu.
"But if i you no nature, how can you be called human?"
"Tao gives you shape and heaven gives you form, so why can't you be called human?"
"But if you're called human, how can you have no nature?"
"Yes this and no that - that's what I call human nature," replied Chuang Tzu. "Not mangling yourself with good and bad - that's what I call no nature. Instead of struggling to improve on life simply abide in occurrence appearing of itself (ziran)".
"If you don't try to improve on life, how do you stay alive?"
"Tao gives you shape and heaven gives you form, so why mangle yourself with good and bad?...".....
Let's sum up: each thing has a particular place in Way and each has a unique unfolding in Way. We cannot (or should not) mangle ourselves articulating and applying notions of "good" and "bad". Rather, we should simply let each thing unfold as it will in Way. Some of those things, some of those people, will "adore twisty paths" or "follow sinister ways" or just be plain old "evil." We can't change or stop them. We just have to let them live out their particularity. We have to let them live up to the shape Tao gave them and the form heaven gave them. In that sense, we have to let them realize their "bad" Integrity.
Some things have a "bad" Integrity. Of course, to a Confucian this would be nonsensical at least and deeply immoral at worst. But, for a Daoist, that is the whole point: upending the Confucian notion of de. And why shouldn't the Daoist notion of de have just as strong a claim to our understanding of the meaning of the term as the Confucian notion of de?