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« Dereliction of Duty | Main | Taoist Physics »

June 20, 2007


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The idea of George Bush as a Taoist Sage is very funny, actually.

But I'm curious; if the Taoist would be against stem cell research because it is non-natural and so are not in accord with the Way, how would a Taoist respond to other medical techniques that aim at prolonging life? Would they, say, be against the development of cures for diseases? Or is the problem here, as you see it, that the harvesting and manipulation of the embryo itself is what the Taoist would see as non-natural?

First, we must distinguish between religious Taoists, who worked hard to find ways to prolong life, and philosohical Taoists, especially Chuang Tzu, who preach acceptance of death. For the latter (and that is what I usually mean when I speak of "Taoists"), I think most kinds of aggressive medical care would be seen as unnecessary. Of course, given the state of current medical technology, it is hard to know exactly where they might draw a line (if drawing lines is even relevant to Taoist ethics) but the whole stem cell thing seems a reach. What this suggests is just how difficult it is to apply Taoism to modern circumstances. Science of all sorts has developed so much over the centuries that we have moved well beyond "doing nothing." Personally, I do not take the "doing nothing" adage literally. Rather, it is more of a skeptical stance....

With all due respect, I'm not sure about your characterization of Daoism. Daoists do all sorts of interventions to ensure health. The whole tradition of alchemy, both internal and external, were as very much aimed at "intervening" into the natural process. The important point is whether the intervention is based on a subtle understanding of the natural processes, or, by using brute force. Even Zhuangzi, who in passages seems to dismiss the value of things like Daoist callistenics, values the subtle knowledge and understanding of the craftsmen.

IMHO, the distinction is not about intervening or not, but rather about whether one does so according to subtle natural processes. The debate between Daoists and other political theorists (such as the Confucians and Legalists) is not whether or not intervention should be done, but rather about whether it is to be done through understanding the subtle, underlying natural processes, or, through brute force.

I think that a Daoist critique of stem cell research would focus less on the science per ce and more on the social forces behind the science. I think that they would be dismissive of "big science" of the sort epitimized by things like the "war on cancer" or the space race. That is, I think that Daoists would question the value of trying to solve scientific problems by throwing money at research. They might argue that human knowledge grows at a normal rate, but that if we try to force it to move faster we increase the risk that we will not understand the subtle consequences for the rest of nature. But insofar as stem cell research is based on a subtle understanding of the natural processes of the genome, and, it is not used to twist nature into something that it should not become, I would suggest that a Daoist would consider it of value.

Think of this in terms of a Daoist garden: it isn't "natural" like a mature forest ecosystem, but on the other hand it works on the same principles. In contrast, a formal European garden, like that at Versailles, requires massive human intervention in order to continue in its present form.


I have to chuckle over this one.

A while ago I actually showed some people how Bush actually, incorporated a few Taoist principles, They were shocked for me to do so. Of course that doesn't make Bush a Taoist, but rather shows , he has cobbled together a complicated practice from many different sources for purposes of power. He might seem to be a fool, but in reality he is a very dangerous person. So even if he has applied a few Taoist principles, he is still far far from being Taoist in practice, As he doesn't show respect or acceptance of others.

Being human at times seems also means to have the capability to twist most anything around to strange ways.

History has shown some Taoist emperors, being not so kindly to the newer upstart Buddhists when Buddism was still new in china.

People are people no matter what practice they overlay upon their souls.


Bush a Taoist Sage? I think not. Embracing wu-wei? The only wei he's wuing is a path of power. He is creating a government that is bigger than it was before, and more intrusive. He launches wars and rumors of wars. He works to make is friends richer, and his veto of stem cell research is political and Christian (fundamentalist), and has nothing to do with "doing nothing".

I don't see stem cell research as un-natural. Science is not un-natural. It is part of Way. It is part of understanding Way. There are times for wu-wei and times for action. If I have a broken arm, I mend it. If I have a heart attack, I expect and hope that someone will use CPR, or shock my heart back to functioning. I live in an apartment that is a construction of natural materials, and manufactured material (not "natural") all made by people. And yet I do not see a single thing here that is un-natural. Bees build hives, beavers dams, and people cities. That is natural. Even the computer on my desk is a natural extension of natural laws.

And just for the record, this Taoist, for one, agrees with very little George W. does, thinks or says. If only he had practiced wu-wei, times would be less stressful now.

Here in South Korea (the most Confucian society on Earth, they say), the main Confucian body joined the Catholic Church in strongly condemning embryonic stem cell research (ESCR). Protestant demoninations were divided and Buddhists supported ESCR.

The qualifier "embryonic" is extremely important here -- there is no major opposition I am aware of to adult stem cell reasearch, with umbilical cord blood or other cells. The word "embryonic" is the key to why Confucians opposed ESCR, if one thinks of the second of the Five Relationships.

Western Confucian,

That's really interesting -- I would have thought that Confucians would not recognize an embryo as a fully embodied human towards which we have the same level of duties that we might have towards adults or children. I would expect some recognition of duty, but not the same as an adult/child such as to allow for an outright prohibition. At the same time, Sam's permissive position strikes me as a somewhat Mohist (general utility), but I could be wrong. I would have thought the policy response would lie somewhere in between.

I like your garden analogy. When I make a case that "Taoism" is generally against medical scienfic intervention, I am drawing more from the philosophical tradition, rather than the religious tradition, which you rightly suggest does indeed endorse all sorts of interventions. Your conclusion about subtlty is well taken. But I just can't get Chuang Tzu's acceptance of demise and death out of my mind...

On the Korean Confucian thing:
I, too, have seen where Confucians, and not just Korean Confucians, have invoked a universalism rather similar to Western Christianity. I wonder, however, if this stance has been influenced precisely by the interaction with Christianity. That is, when confronted with Christian moral universalism ("we are all equal in the eyes of God"), some Confucians emphasized the moral universalism that is to be found in Confucius. albeit not as strongly as in Christianity. Personally, when I read Confucius I find more social relativism there. So, my sense is closer to Chris's: that the Analects and Mencius would tend to support embryonic stem cell research because embryos are not yet social beings and, thus, not of the same moral standing as an extant son or daughter. If there were more good to be gained by those who are already fully social beings, than the research would be permissable.

If anyone is interested, there is a decent (though fairly basic) article on this in the Journal of Medical Ethics (2005). The author argues for a position like the one Sam and I would likely advocate, for similar reasons (a gradualist conception of jen). Here's a link to it:

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