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« No Self, No Other, Gish Jen, and Bipolar Disorder | Main | Legalist "Tiger" parenting is bad for you »

May 03, 2013


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But for that inconclusiveness to make sense, it's not enough that we're unable to know the full consequences of our actions- we have to be unable even to make educated guesses along the lines of "other things being equal, it's probably better if fewer people die." That seems implausible. Either course could turn out to be the best, but that doesn't mean that both are equally likely to.

Applying the same logic to the example you used above, why should we prefer that the great doctor be saved, rather than the mass murderer?

Thanks for the comment. Two thoughts in reply. First, "other things being equal" would make no sense to a Daoist. It is simply an analytic invention of the human mind, a kind of theoretical convenience, that does not accord with the dynamic reality of Dao. For a Daoist other things are never equal, not, at least, in the sense that social science might want to assume. Two, as to whether one should prefer the doctor to the mass murderer, the Daoist answer would still be "no." Because those descriptions, too, may not carry forward into the future. We can't know whether the person who is now a good doctor might be traumatized by the event, suffer survivors guilt, descend into alcoholism and become a killer himself. Yes, that might seem far-fetched, but all sorts of unintended, unknowable things might happen.

So, Daoism has no practical use? Since in any decision we cannot know the consequences with 100% certainty, it seems that we can never take action? Sounds like ideal utilitarianism.

The whole thing smacks of superstition, and attributing some kind of grand design and purpose where I think there is only blind process. They seem to worry that we don't know enough to risk interfering with some unseen hand that has a grand fateful plan we don't know about, therefore the better not to act.

I say hogwash, we are all equally ignorant actors here, and may as well do anything we manage to see fit, which is precisely equally as profound and purposeful and important as any other possible influence could be, and the outcome will be whatever happens to result.

I find myself unsure why I should give a damn about what Daoism says about the trolley problem, or anything else, since it boils down to saying roughly nothing at all, except for perhaps "stand back, you're not qualified". Saying something one way or another, well, who knows what the consequences might be, might as well just leave the mind empty and no bother moving the tongue at all.

I'm actually more inclined to abandon Daoism, along with a whole lot of other thinking from the past that I find annoying, because in all honesty I think we know a little more about the world now than they did then, and we ought to be using that knowledge more, seeing as how there's now 7 billion of us crapping the nest. I'm not saying there's nothing useful to think about in the lot, and the mental / philosophical humility it recommends seems prudent at the least, but I would say also it's time to move forwards, beyond the likes of Daoism. Indeed it seems obvious that many of us have.

We might as well do our best to inform our actions, and do the best we can right now, in hopes we manage to make a good future. And if you want to worry that we might fail, don't worry, there will be no alternative to compare it with, the proposed alternatives never happen, we just have what managed to happen, which includes the things we make happen.

To be clear: Daoism assumes no "grand design" or "unseen hand," not, at least, in the sense of intelligent design or predestination. The notion of "Dao" might be mistakenly interpreted to suggest as much, both those would be mistakes. "Blind process" is actually closer to the Daoist position.

Of course, what makes the trolley problem a problem is that there is no settled answer. Consequentialists might be confident in their arguments, but that confidence does not overcome the basic underlying problem, which is that normative arguments cannot be settled with empirical certainty.

Daoism is a natural philosophy more than 2,000 years old. it sees natural forces way beyond human understanding and influence, therefore it's better not to interfere with nature at best. The Trolley problem can also have a third solution by rapidly switching back and forth and maybe causing derailment and sacrifice the switchman instead. In general there is no right and wrong solution and it's more like the uncertainty principle and deal with the consequences. We today have a modern version of the Trolley problem in global warming. Whether we disregard the warming trend or deal with it and sacrificing jobs (perceived). Today unlike 2,000 years ago we have much more knowledge and capable of influencing nature in much higher degree, so the uncertainty is much less. We awarded Medal of Honor to the marine who fall on a grenade to save his comrades, yet he could have tried to throw the grenade out or save himself by curling up away from the grenade. The consequences are to his family and his comrades' families. While the decisions on global warming are for generations to come and maybe the human race.

What makes the action of doing nothing preferable. If everything is "a part of he fullness and complexity of the way", then choosing to do nothing is just as much of an action, and a choice, as choosing to pull the lever. One has conciously chosen to apply the principles of Daoism by remaining motionless and letting the train takes its course. Making the decision to do nothing is just as much of a decision in this case as pulling the lever is, and choosing not to act is just as much of an action as choosing to act. So what makes the action of doing nothing preferable to the action of pulling the lever?

As someone who is completing his second MA on Chinese philosophy, this article is awful - a total misinterpretation of Daoist philosophy

If that is the case, it would be helpful to know precisely how the post gets Daoism wrong here. Can you provide a more specific critique, or can you point us in the direction of another Daoist reflection on the trolley problem?

I don’t see Daoism as suggesting that one should stand aside because we are not qualified. Instead we should act in accordance to our own personal way. This will be informed by knowledge, prior experiences, and sensory impressions

I don’t claim any great insight but I think we should negate the problem itself. If the world puts such a dilemma, or any other dilemma really, before us we must not be arrogant enough to assume we know the best course of action (the “correct” solution). However if we act to the best of our abilities with compassion, frugality, and humility then our actions will be beyond reproach. In a rough sense I agree with Exploderator's last paragraph except that I see that idea within Daoism instead of viewing it as a rejection of Daoism.

Concerned Daoist, I'm very interested in hearing more of your thoughts.

Tao is so vast and also so minute that everyone seemed to have grasped some of it. And yet without the requisite cultivation what most talk about is not the eternal it.

Those who cultivate both Tao and Te know the merits of saving lives. And wu wei has nothing to do with this. Since lives are precious to Heaven. Those who have saved lives may find that their fate has changed for the better – since Heaven is on the side of the good. Spontaneity depends on their level of cultivating the firm and the yielding – the Way of Earth.

Tao is easy and simple to learn according to Laozi yet many prefer the bypaths - probably because of incorrect thoughts or they love to rely on appealing well orated teachings of the half-baked down the ages. It is unfortunate that the dark side is always alluring.

Sam, perhaps Exploderator unwittingly gave you a title for a next ruminative post: Beyond Taoism in Contemporary American Ethics

Hi Sam,

Interesting post, with (I'll admit) a surprising conclusion. One consideration springs to mind having read your thoughts: Some would argue that consequentialism is precisely an antidote to the kinds of uncertainty you're talking about. A consequentialist might say: You're right, we don't know who these people are, nor what they will make of their extended lives should they survive the trolley, but what we DO know is that five human lives is greater than one human life, and if one even vaguely values *that* difference the "right" course of action is clear.

I guess my main point is that consequentialism may not be inconsistent with all the uncertainty you've brought up; it is actually a way to boil decisions down to what you DO know, and to act accordingly. I'd love to hear your thoughts on this.

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