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« Go to Dunhuang - Now! | Main | Is the Tao Te Ching Democratic? »

February 22, 2008


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If it is consequentialist, then there must be some good that one (or the group) aims to maximize. So that's where you'd need to begin: what good is supposedly being maximized?

That "good" would be the natural expression and unfolding of Way, which, in its inclusiveness, encompasses all possible "goods" and "bads".


I don't know the text particularly well, so I'm speaking more from the gut on this one. But my "feeling" of Taoism is that the agent seeks to "honor" or to "exemplify" Way. These (honoring and exemplifying) don't sound particularly consequentialist to me, given that the aim is not maximization of any particular states of affairs. Now, of course, if the aim OF Way is the maximization of a more fundamental level of goods, then there's more to the story.

An analogy might be friendship. I might tell the truth to a friend simply because this honors our friendship. Or I might honor the friendship because doing so brings the two of us some further set of goods reliably (pleasure, preference satisfication, whatever). In the first case, I don't see any consequentialism, in the second I do.

But I don't know the Taoist text well enough to know how to correctly apply the analogy.

Hi Sam,

An interesting question.

A general point, of which I'm sure you are already aware: instrumental reasoning is like "micro-consequentialism," because it is reasoning oriented toward an end, or a consequence; but its presence doesn't show a text to be consequentialist. There has to be more systematic thinking about judging or justifying all actions on the basis of consequences.

More particularly about these passages, I'm not sure they are recommendations for action in any case as much as they are descriptions of the effects of the sage's (in)activity. Note that each "action" is described with a negation. As you say, wu-wei seems ill-suited for consequentialism andI think it must be because wu-wei is not, or at least should not be, the product of instrumental reasoning. Of course that leaves the door open for some form of indirect consequentialism, but the more general point applies here. And as Chris has already alluded to, there has to be some good that can be maximized impartially across agents, otherwise it doesn't sound much like consequentialism.

If the Daodejing is a manual for achieving some kinds of states of profundity (as Harold Roth and others argue), then it may be pointing the reader toward means to that end; but that doesn't necessarily make it an ethical theory. Any guide for achieving something will engage means-end reasoning, but "consequentialism" only seems appropriate for an ethical theory.

Oh, one additional thing, if I may, Sam. I haven't read your book, but I'm surprised actually that you take the "uselessness" of the tree in Zhuangzi to provide an open and shut case against utilitarianism. The point of the passage has always seemed to me to be to praise the utility to one's own good, of being useless *to others* and in that sense a candidate for an indirectly consequentialist evaluation of uselessness. "Uselessness" here seems only to be a tease; ultimately, the tree's lack of value to others is of supreme value to itself in its own project of preserving itself--which is at least one of the Daoist ideals. Maybe you're really only talking about Peter Singer's utilitarianism, though I'd be surprised if he didn't say similar things about the Zhuangzi passage, (were he to calculate the benefits of reading Zhuangzi).

Thanks for coming over and commenting.
The point about a good that can be "maximized impartially across agents" is especially helpful to me.
On the useless tree: the kicker for me is the passage, among the various invocations of the useless tree image, that has the warning that we not judge it by "ordinary standards" (Lin Yu tang) or "practicality" (Hinton), which suggests a resistance to utilitarian calculations. Or maybe I just read it through my own anti-utilitarian biases.....

Aren't you falling into the old trap of thinking of the Dao De Jing and the Zhuangzi as the products of single authors? If you see both texts as being like "anthologies" of different voices, then wouldn't it make sense to see some passages as being justified in and of themselves and others in terms of ends?

I'm not sure that the two points of view are as easily separated as your question would think. It might be that there are some values in and of themselves that invariably result in negative consequences for the people who hold them, but surely such philosophies would be extremely short lived because people would drop them like hot potatoes. ;-)

Conversely, isn't part of the practical value of a philosophy the fact that it can be grasped and propagated throughout society as a way of unifying it? A strictly utilitarian code would be darn near impossible to teach to our children or use to justify our laws. (Think about it, would we have to do a period of intense sociological research before anyone could say that a specific behaviour is either good or bad?) So by its own criteria, a strictly utilitarian code would not be utilitarian. ;-)

Good topic! (And thanks to Manyul for the pointer.)

One of the funny things about the DDJ is that sometimes it seems to take very conventional values for granted as goals, and claim that the way to achieve those goals is to aim in the opposite direction (so the reversal applies to the means, not the ends). "Do nothing and nothing is left undone" implies that even wu-wei is justified (at least partly, some of the time, and maybe not for all the writers of the DDJ) because it helps you achieve conventional goals (including the goal of ruling over an ordered society). As Manyul says, this doesn't get you consequentialism (for that you'd have to figure out what's supposed to justify the goals, and the DDJ is silent on that). But it's pretty interesting.

I think the uselessness material in ZZ is a bit more complex than Sam and Manyul are allowing. The issue of uselessness gets raised in two quite different ways in ZZ, and we should distinguish them. (The Cloudwalking Owl's comment is appropriate here, because Sam seems to be thinking of the first of these ways, Manyul the second.)

First, you have passages such as the Zhuangzi/Huizi dialogs at the end of Book 1: Huizi says, "Your words are big and useless!" And Zhuangzi replies, "You don't know how to use big!" (Epitomised from memory.) The point being that when you judge something to be useless, you're likely missing something, a non-conventional way of finding a use in it. Generalized, the point would be: everything is useful, from one perspective or another.

Second, you have passages such as the encounter between Carpenter Shi and the old tree in Book 4, where you get the idea that being useless to other people can be very useful to you---because if you are useful to other people, they are likely to use you, and that can be bad for you.

Aside: read through that story in ZZ 4 carefully. It's extremely well done how it uses the tree as a metaphor for men considering entering politics. "That's a good-for-nothing tree!" "What, are you comparing me to those cultured trees? They get cut down and disgraced." (Again, paraphrasing from memory; and I can't remember how well the metaphor comes across in the various translations.)

Now, you might think there's a tension between these two ways of talking about uselessness: if it there's no such thing as something that's absolutely useless, how can it make sense to advocate uselessness? And this tension seems to be the occasion for the story that opens ZZ 20.

(Zhuangzi sees a tree, tells his followers that it's useless, and that's how it's managed to live for so long. Later, they're at a friend's, and the friend tells his child to kill a goose for supper. The child asks: the goose that can sing, or the goose that can't? Well, the goose that can't sing, of course. As Zhuangzi's followers point out to him, it's the useful goose that gets saved.)

The answer, presumably, is that what matters is what and who you're useful for (just for eating? for singing also?). The ZZ 20 story seems to get at this idea when it has Zhuangzi say he'd like to find a place between usefulness and uselessness---the point being that you can't absolutely commit to either, you have to be ready to shift between them. I take this to be an argument against the idea that it makes sense to just be useless.

(Notice that besides the ZZ 20 story, it's only the passages that imply that nothing is absolutely useless that figure the character Zhuangzi; the use-of-the-useless passages involve other figures, or are just anonymous prose. A possibility I'd take seriously: we have in the ZZ 20 story a passage written by one ZZ author arguing against another ZZ author.)

Just to tie this long post together: notice that the point of being useless (in the second group of passages) is that it supposedly helps you achieve the thoroughly conventional goal of staying alive (a goal that in other parts of ZZ gets called into question).

Taoism is not consequentialist in my opinion. Cause, effect; these are all distinctions and as such obfuscate the Tao in their particularity. This-then-that pulls apart the unity of this-that-ness. Wu wei is about acting from the intuitive and non-grasping mind because it deals better with the whole. The intuitive mind is less presumptive and acceptingly embraces our nature and the natural state around us.

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