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« Breaking Historical Laws | Main | It's Chuang Tzu - Even Though They Don't Mention Him »

March 03, 2006


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Amoral Capitalism

Perhaps it's time to ask if the continuation of world poverty into the 21st Century is values based, and not economic based (as opposed to Marxist thought). Capitalism as an economic model is amoral, and as a working model it far surpasses all other models in producing material goods (ask any Shanghai merchant who long ago retired his Chairman Mao lapel pin). So too a corporation —- amoral. Now those who operate within this economic system are either moral or immoral, decent or indecent folks. A corporation can be driven by ethical folks who use this amoral system to do morally good things. (Adam Smith recognized the limitations of capitalism, for after all he was also a moral essayist, and knowing the danger of an immoral dominance in capitalist economics, he theorized that the 'invisible hand' of society would overcome this.) From Christian teachings, Jesus spoke often of money matters in the Gospels. For the most part He taught wealth itself is amoral (how one accumulates the weath can be done honestly or dishonestly), but what is important is how one uses that wealth. In the end it all comes down to individual humans —- a corporate president, a world leader, a city mayor, a scientist, a musician, a university professor or student, a fast-food worker —- they all have the choice to live morally or immorally. But if a society doesn't value values (the 'invisible hand' of society), if ethics are but the construct of each individual with values and morals self-defined, then perhaps what we read in the daily news of crime and corruption in corporate offices is simply the fruits of our labors. Perhaps we forget, starved souls may be as tragic as starved bodies, but oh, what havoc they can reap upon a hungry world.

hi sam

some notes - perhaps I'll develop them more later, but at work now. first, regarding passage 5:

""heaven and earth use the ten thousand things like straw dogs."

the intention of this passage is as injunction to the sage to do the same. the passage can be easily misunderstood - it is not (according to a taoist teacher i once had) intended to be an injunction to ruthlessness, but to impartiality, and the sage is required to treat all men, INCLUDING HIMSELF, like straw dogs. this is most easily understood in the context of taoism as a process of cognitive discipline and self-guidance, aimed at 'entering into the tao'. (I think this is the stance of the Complete Realiy School), where it serves to command the sage to cease privileging his own position as actor. the sage understands himself and others to be no more than straw dogs under heaven and earth, and accords himself no special importance as a consequence. (the logical proof of this is that if the sage were excluded from the set of things under heaven and earth, then the passage is self-contradictory.)

compare this with the general idea of capitalism, where all actions are measured against a deliberately privileged self-interest, and the contrast becomes evident.


taoism is a system or group of systems with vastly different goals and intention to politically developed capitalism. the latter serves to maximise efficient use of resources, assumes that doing so is the highest goal of people and their communities, claims that letting people do this in an unfettered manner is the most efficient way of achieving this, and bases its various value hierarchies on the assumed importance of resource utilisation.

taoism on the other hand finds human communities irrelevant, addresses itself to them only as an expedient, and therefore encourages those tasked with developing them to do so in the least invasive manner possible, hence the superficial resemblance. taoism however is (generally) concerned with cessation rather than production (unlike capitalism), losing, rather than gaining (ditto) and is essentially radical Luddism (a Luddism that extends to the purposeful abandonment of ‘mental technologies’ as well as physical) enacted in order to achieve a deeply philosophical/spiritual goal.

In order to provide the practitioner with the optimum circumstances for development, taoism delineates a loosely drawn ‘best-case’ world, one that resembles classical anarchism far more than it does capitalism or libertarianism. It is one in which the LEAST competition is undertaken, as taoism recognises that competition for resources is fundamentally inefficient, and posits taoism (or minimal co-operative organisation, allied to a communal reduction in wants) as a step up from organising things on the basis of competition. this view of competition is one that is borne out by biology. predation (competition in its most basic, pure form) is a grindingly hard way to make a living. injury to a predator practically always spells death, and the chances of injury while preying are higher than for a browsing animal. the relative numbers of predator species versus the relative number of non-predator species are proof - if predation were optimum, more species would prey than otherwise. insofar as this in understood in taoism, the Sun Tze is the definitive taoist statement on competition, and it derides it genteelly on practically every page.

similarly, the both the laotze and the chuang-tze repeatedly recommend that, given an option, the path of least work be taken as the route to happiness and success. this is in obvious contrast to the capitalist meritocracy, in terms of which the path to happiness arises from the most/best work.

most of these sharp differences arise from the fact that the taoist value system is fundamentally opposed to any capitalist system. this is nowhere more evident that in the passage quoted by your commenter – I cannot think of a single capitalist manifesto, argument, claim, theory or premise that would accept the absolute, unequivocal equivalence of self and others as a necessary viewpoint for a rational actor.

in short, as i said earlier, there is no greater contrast than between gaining and losing, and taoism and capitalism exemplify these themes. capitalism values gaining because it accepts the 10 000 things as being inherently meaningful and valuable. taoism commands losing things, because it regards the 10 000 things as being pollutants. while the guidelines for individual and communal organisation that proceed from these fundamental premises may occasionally resemble each other, that should never obscure their fundamental opposition.



and a quick shout out to barleby above. you said: "Capitalism as an economic model is amoral"

perhaps the pure capitalism that exists in plato's ideal realm, but ours (state-capitalism) is far from amoral. it builds on local and regional inequalities to leverage and harness work, while at the same time acting to maintain those inequalities (through other channels)in the name of 'free-trade'. this necessarily leads to a layer of working persons whose return on their labour is not commensurate with their labour, and another similar layer whose return on their efforts is vastly greater than their efforts were. this amounts to organised thievery and jesus would have a lot to say about that.

secondly, the proponents of capitalism frame it in explicitly moral terms, thus rendering its claimed amorality moot. 'happiness to all men', 'fairness', 'reward' and so on are all moral concepts. your own argument in favour of its retention ("it far surpasses all other models in producing material goods") presupposed that producing material goods is a moral good.

the idea that any societal organising system can be amoral is inane. the moment you're organising groups, people are required to submit to some or other dictate. for this to be an intelligent submission, it must be for their own good. defining what their own good is, is a moral task. end of discussion.

this fascination with 'amorality' is essentially an appeal to authority, in this case the authority of a claimed scientific infallibility (which is conceptually linked with impartiality and amorality). the USSR and communism claimed the same 'amorality' and the same distant, 'scientific' authority and failed as miserably as capitalism now fails. the two are complementary, not opposed, and are both the fruits of the western enlightenment.

many good things arise in consequence of the enlightenment, but this is not one of them. the idea that societies should be impartial is idiotic under scrutiny - societies have always been, and will always be partial, and rightly so - if they're going to be anything at all, they should be partial to those things which further human greatness and work strongly against those things that hinder it.

the western enlightenment (as a reaction against the tyranny of church, superstition and feudalism) was a move in the right direction. however, it imposed a new tyranny, one we suffer from now - the tyranny of the 'impartial'. to be impartial, in a strictly biological sense is to be dead.

adam smith, often co-opted as a poster child for capitalism, was (as you point out) a moralist. he feared the market and thought it was only useful if hedged around with numerous checks and limitations, which limitations he expected to be provided by the moral code of the society. the capitalist vision we currently suffer under recognises no such checks and limitations, and claims to provide us with our values. it is necessarily immoral, not amoral, and represents our lowest drives and least praise-worthy attributes, enshrined.

Your analysis of Taoism and Capitalism is stunning. You have clearly pushed the argument further along: it is hard to see an effective counterargument that might resuscitate the claim that Taoism is like Capitalism and vice versa. I will certainly not mount such an effort. I wonder if Dror is game...
Just two minor edits in your marvelous comment. I don't think it is quite right to say: "taoism on the other hand finds human communities irrelevant..." Human communities are relevant, insofar as they are extant, but, perhaps, no more relevant than any other group of things in Tao. Also, you say: "...taoism commands losing things, because it regards the 10 000 things as being pollutants." That last term seems a bit odd to me. The ten thousand things are simply element of Tao, they are, each in and of themselves (Te), expressions of the wholeness of Tao. So, they are not "pollutants."
Beyond those quibbles, I look forward to learning more from you.

hi sam - doing it all on the fly, as i warned, so i slip :).

ref. your comment (1), by 'irrelevant' i don't mean anything derogatory - merely that taoism is not directly concerned with the management and organisation of communities, except insofar as such activity can be co-opted by the sage as 'training'. hence expedient, and hence 'irrelevant to the main aims of taoist practice. i take your edit, though.

ref. your comment (2), again no derogatory sense is implied. i use pollutants as a description of function, not as value judgement or indication of preference. i use it in the same sense that the buddha and brahma discuss the dust in men's eyes, when debating whether the buddhist awakening can be taught at all, and as chapter 12 of the laotze implies when it says that "Too much colour blinds the eye, Too much music deafens the ear, Too much taste dulls the palate, Too much play maddens the mind, Too much desire tears the heart." (trans. Peter Merel, online.) as you correctly point out, a better, less laden word is called for.

you're not going to learn anything from me :) you'll learn from you, as you always have. and from your wonderful life, and your wonderful son, all of whom are all right, exactly as they are.

Hi, I will try to be short because the hour is late and I need to get to bed. I enjoyed reading the comments above. I am afraid, however, that they do not address the point I made in my article.

I quoted a few verses from the DaoDeJing to point out the similarities in attitude in LaoZi’s approach to nature and the logic of things and Capitalism’s ideal of non-intervention and letting things take their course. This natural course does not mean that everyone is passive, just like a lion in the jungle is not passive. It does mean that the less one tries to affect ( intervene ) this process, the closer it is to the way it should be. It is true that capitalists take action in order to change their position in society, but this is not a unique trait of capitalism. Every organism in nature has its role and acts accordingly Again, this does not mean that the result will not be brutal, ruthless, positive or negative, as all these concepts exist only in the human mind and are irrelevant to the nature of things. Taoism, unlike most human “isms” bar capitalism, is not a utopian religion that aims to create a world that will be perfect in the eyes of humans. What it aims to do is help humans understand that the world is perfect as it is, and the less they try to change about it, the better. The DaoDeJing undermines the judgment people pass on the world, as this judgment is the cause for all distinction ( good-bad, beautiful-ugly,etc. ), it does not aim to cancel the laws of nature ( like the Christian idea of redemption when predators and other animals will leave in peace), but simply to help people see them clearly.

On top of that, I would recommend reading the DaoDeJing in Chinese, or at least read several different translations before jumping to conclusions ( if at all ). Most ( or all ) of the translations impose a meaning on the text, a meaning that has to do with their author’s ideology, which is often very loving, sensitive, and emphatic.

Compassion, caring for the weak, and other modern-liberal ideals are great, but that does not mean that the DaoDeJing supports them.

In addition, readers with a Christian worldview ( not necessarily religious, but who grew up in a Christian society where words like god, spirit, love, and compassion have a very specific meaning ) tend to bring too much baggage of their own when reading the DaoDeJing.

I hope this makes things clearer, although I can already see how this too will be misunderstood. In any case, this is it from me on this matter.

Best of luck,



"I am afraid, however, that they do not address the point I made in my article."


On top of that, I would recommend reading the DaoDeJing in Chinese, or at least read several different translations before jumping to conclusions ( if at all ). Most ( or all ) of the translations impose a meaning on the text, a meaning that has to do with their author’s ideology, which is often very loving, sensitive, and emphatic.

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