A reader sent in an interesting email, asking how Daoism might respond to the "Trolley Problem." A great question! Let's think it through.
For those not familiar with it, the "Trolley Problem" (I will link here to the obituary of Phillipa Foot, the philosopher who coined the term) runs something like this: a trolley has lost its brakes and is hurtling down the track; straight ahead of it, five people are stuck on the track; on a siding, one person is stuck on the track; either way the persons on the track will be killed; should the driver of the trolley actively turn onto the siding and kill one person, or allow the trolley to continue forward and kill five people?
This is a classical example of consequentialism, which tells us that our ethical judgments should be determined by the consequences of our actions. On those grounds, the driver should intervene and turn the trolley to kill only one person. Deontological ethical theories have much more difficulty with this scenario.
But what would a Daoist do?
Those familiar with Daoism will immediately say "nothing," given the prominence of wu-wei - 无为 - "doing nothing" or "nothing's own doing" to Daoist thought. And that is generally the first Daoist answer.
The Daodejing gives us some reason for nonintervention in the face of horrible events, even when some sort of action might have an ameliorative effect. We might think that our action is reducing pain and suffering in the world, in preserving five lives when one is lost, but is that really the case? Are we really reducing the sum total of pain and suffering in the world (a consequentialist calculus)? A Daoist would reply that we cannot know, and thus should not act.
To act on the consequentialist logic is to assume that certain factors will not change in the future. We cannot know whether one of the five persons saved might go on to be a mass murderer and produce much more pain and suffering in the world than we realized. And how can we know the possible future accomplishments of the one person we caused to die? Perhaps he was destined to be a great doctor, able to save many lives. The apparent "moral clarity" of consequentialism is a fiction because we cannot know the consequences of our actions beyond the most immediate moment.
The beginning of Daodejing 29 gets at this sentiment:
Longing to take hold of all beneath heaven and improve it...
I've seen such dreams invariably fail. All beneath haven is a sacred vessel, something beyond improvement. Try to improve it and you ruin it. Try to hold it and you lose it.
As does this excerpt from DDJ 23:
Wild winds never last all morning and fierce rains never last all day. Who conjures such things if not heaven and earth, and if heaven and earth can't make things last, why should we humans try?
Both passages suggest something beyond human comprehension: the world moves in mysterious ways; we cannot know, or improve upon those movements, and to try is to court something worse.
And just to be clear that bad things, like capricious deaths as a result of a runaway trolley, are inevitably apart of "all under heaven" we have this from DDJ 62:
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.
That last line is a bit chilling. In the Chinese text,"bad persons" - 人之不善 - is the subject. People who are bad; people who do bad things: they are invariably a part of the fullness and complexity of Way. So, even if the trolley's breaks were fine and the driver was drunk and negligently ran over and killed six people, he would not be beyond the realm of human experience in Way. We might punish him for this specific action (there is a general aversion to killing in Daoism) but we should not expect that we will, thereby, somehow solve the problem of evil in the world. Bad things, like five people dying in a trolley accident that a morally ambivalent driver chose not to avoid, are inevitable and inescapable.
But Daoism does not express a clear principle that can be followed in most cases. It would offer no imperative to act, but it would also offer no imperative not to act. If action occurred spontaneously and immediately, a Daoist would not ask for reasons. There might be many casues of such action.
For example, when Zhuangzi's wife dies, his immediate reaction is to grieve like anyone else; he feels the loss (as Graham has it). After some time, he comes to realize that her passing is utterly natural, and conventional expressions of grief are simply misunderstandings Way. But in that initial emotional response, we might imagine an impulsive, natural action that reflects who he is in that moment. Were she to be standing on the track in front of him, and he were driving the trolley, perhaps he would throw the switch and kill five strangers. He might just do it, unthinkingly, because something within his impelled him to. Or maybe he wouldn't because, somehow, the prospect of five dead innocents might paralyze him. In either case, he simply reacted, spontaneously, to what was before him in Way; and, in either case, that is justifiable in terms of Daoism.
Ultimately, the inconclusiveness of Daoism would be dissatisfying to rationalist consequentialists. But it is not at all clear that consequentialism yields a superior moral outcome, because, as Daoism tells us, we cannot adequately know the full and true consequences of our actions.