How the Taoist is Moral

Cougar

If ever you find yourself reasoning with someone about what is the most moral way to act when a Cougar falls and can’t get back up, you may say that you should help the Cougar if and only if you are required to do so. Your partner may contrarily say that you should, even though it’s very dangerous, if and only if you want either her know-how or her friendship (with benefits).

I admit the latter being a little silly, but these two conclusions resemble two of the three broad categories in moral philosophy. In the end, these two will help us find the morality of a taoist, but first I want to explain them. The first one is Kantian Deontology, and the second one is Utilitarianism, more specifically, Egoism.


Two Moral Theories

It may be by duty or habit to follow the speed sign, or by consequence of an outrageous fine.

Let’s start with deontology. It may seem odd that in the example above something requires one to act morally as if there is a law, but there is a reason for this. Short and sweet, it’s called the Categorical Imperative. Take an action, universalize it, and see if everything makes sense. For illustrative purposes, let’s test an action: If I don’t help a fallen cougar, and if everyone doesn’t help a fallen cougar, then all would eventually die. However, if there are no fallen cougars, then not helping is impossible and thus immoral. In short, this is the gist of deontology.

Let’s look at Egoism. Egoism differs greatly from deontology because it’s only concerning what arises from your action. In other words, your action is moral if and only if you like the consequences.


The Duty and Desire of a Taoist

But this post is not about cougars and philosophical jargon; it’s about which morality does a taoist use to follow the Great Way. It’s about whether a taoist abides by it because of a duty or a desire. The question can be answered if we look at what pushes him or her to abide. I suspect it’s both a duty and a desire, the magnitude of each’s influence being inversely related. This is true because a novice must first have a will to incorporate Taoism since forcing a philosophy ends, at best, in an insincere approach. As the novice gains comfort in following the Tao, the concepts of nondistinction, inaction, sagehood, etc. become perhaps second nature. This means that since the nowexpert taoist is moved by the Tao, so too is he by duty, having no desire for any consequences but rather a sort of moral law, and in this case, it’s closely related to the Tao. From non-taoist to sagehood, the morality of a taoist varies from desire to duty.

Therefore I say, the Perfect Man has no self; the Holy Man has no merit; the Sage has no fame.

However, some may say this question is silly because not even justice, pleasure, righteousness, majesty, and stink are endorsed in Taoism (let alone morality), but although that’s a big concept in the Zhuangzi and the Tao Te Ching, it’s not in other views. Doubtlessly, a taoist would look at himself or herself and think “I have no morality,” so the significance of the question lies with those who acknowledge morality.


There are many things barely explained or wholly neglected (rational agency and self-love, egoism, volition, implications of depravity, Tao as moral law, “to follow” vs “to abide” vs “to be pushed,” etc.), but this post would be too long otherwise. Yet, it will be explained in later posts of the blog. Feel free to share any feedback and consider following Taopracticed if you like these types of posts.

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7 thoughts on “How the Taoist is Moral”

  1. I don’t think utilitarianism and egoism are the same thing.
    The utilitarian says you should do whatever results in the greatest happiness for the greatest number (Jeremy Bentham), or in the greatest good for the greatest number (John Stuart Mill). The problem is in knowing all the consequences of one’s actions. So a utilitarian, when in doubt, should be a deontologist.

    A Taoist, presumably, knows what to do without thinking.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I see your point, but in choosing the most useful action, it either has to be in respect to the self or the greater self, and I was thinking that any action that is useful wouldn’t contradict the self. Am I right to think that superficially this is egoism and more deeply this is the core of utilitarianism?

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      1. Ah, I see. The egoist does what is best for himself or herself, the utilitarian does what is best for all, but both can never be sure what the best is. Supposedly the Taoist has no such dilemma because the Taoist sees no difference between what is good for himself and herself and what is good for all, and does not need to think about what the best is because he or she is in harmony with the Tao.

        Liked by 1 person

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