Wow. Lots of hits for my post on a Daoist response to the Trolley Problem. It was put up on the Reddit Philosophy page and that brought a deluge of readers, many, I imagine, first-time visitors to this blog. Hundreds of comments were generated over there, too many to process here. But it all brought some further thoughts to my mind and I want to record them here.
It seems that many of the Reddit commenters either did not read the post carefully or did not read the whole thing through. Lots of people jumped on me for intepreting wuwei as "doing nothing". I certainly realize that wuwei does not mean that we must always literally do nothing. Indeed, few seemed to notice that I had a second translation there, one that I had hoped suggested the active aspect of wuwei: "nothing's own doing." This is David Hinton's term, and I have always apprecitated it.
So, yes, I agree, wuwei is not an absolute restriction on action. Later in the post I make this explicit:
[Daoism] 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.
But I think the rather stark "doing nothing" serves a certain purpose. Often, in whatever circumstances we might face, we can feel an urge to "do something," to take some action to change what is unfolding before us. The default assumption is that we can intervene to make things "better". This is what Daoism resists. By positing a notion of wuwei, it pushes back against our feel-good assumptions about the likely efficacy of our actions in the world. How often have we heard of unintended consequences overwhelming what, at first, appeared to be a happy ending? Time is an especially harsh adversary in this regard. What might appear effective at one moment can emerge, a year or two or ten later, as folly. We must do something to get rid of Saddam Hussein! We must act! And act the US did, with baleful results.
The Trolley Problem is, of course, highly abstract. We have no sense of context, no sense of particulars, no sense of history. As such, it if fairly meaningless: we live and act in particular contexts, and those contexts certainly shape our reactions. I, personally, have never been in a situation anything like the Trolley Problem. I have no idea, really, how I might actually behave in a moment like that. The whole thing is set up, in my estimation, to privilege consequentialist thinking. If "all else were equal" and the stark choice of one death versus five deaths were before us, what would we do? Well, "all else" is never equal. Life is always more complex.
Daoism, and Confucianism for that matter, are much more contextually sensitive than consequentialism. Ethical calculations from either of these perspectives (yes, I realize Daoism is not a fully formed ethical theory, nor is it meant to be...) would seek to understand the surrounding circumstances more fully, before action is taken, because right action must be attuned to context. In the peculiar conditions of the Trolley Problem hesitation might produce inaction. But, without further knowledge of the particulars, we cannot judge the ultimate goodness or badness of such inaction. One of the five saved does not have to turn out to be a mass murder but just, perhaps, a negligent driver who inadvertently kills a child ten years in the future. How would the mother of that child judge the earlier hero of the Trolley Problem? How can we know what good or bad will come, years from now, from our actions today?
The bottom line is this: to simply assert that killing one to save five is necessarily correct, is to live in a world of abstractions that has no real relevance for how life is actually lived.
Some commenters have suggested that Daoism is just not suited for a construct like the Trolley Problem. I understand this contention, and I partially agree with it. I agree that the Daodejing and Zhuangzi fundamentally resist the very idea of a consistent and universally applicable set of principles that might be used for resolving moral dilemmas. To the contrary, they embrace dilemmas as a basic feature of the fullness and complexity of Way. But for all of that I still believe that these books can be used to inform how we live our lives now. They are very much about being in the world and, as such, can give us some insights - though never hard and fast rules - for how to act or not act as Way unfolds around us. However imperfect, I think there can be Daoist responses to the ethical problems we face now.
And I very well understand how many people, perhaps especially Americans, will be dissatisfied with Daoist nonaction or minimalist action. For those who are searching for clear answers to vexing problems, dissatisfaction will be their first reaction to a philosophical perspective that rejects the very possiblity of clear answers. In chapter seven Zhuangzi writes: "You mean you're only now realizing that there are no answers?"