Daoist Liberalism

I've posted a discussion of the significance of Zhuangist political thought here at "Warp, Weft, and Way." To my knowledge, this is among the few discussions of Daoist political philosophy available on line.

Here is a cross-post of the content:

In comment #14 in this thread, I suggested that “parts of the Zhuāngzǐ are committed to a form of political liberalism, on which all individuals should be allowed to live, without government interference, in a way that comes naturally to and pleases them, provided they allow others to do so as well.”

It occurred to me that explicating this claim might make for an interesting post.

The Chinese political tradition is generally regarded as authoritarian, in cases even totalitarian, in both theory and practice. This view is one basis for certain claims about differences between traditional Asian and contemporary Western political cultures, which have sometimes been cited as grounds for resisting liberal democratic reforms in Asian countries.

According to the “Asian Values” rhetoric of the 1990s, for instance, Chinese political culture is traditionally authoritarian and communitarian. It supposedly emphasizes respect for authority and prizes social harmony, cohesion, and stability. The self-identity of people who live in this political culture is understood to be constituted, at least partly, by their relations to kin, community, and state. Individuals are expected to subordinate their interests to those of the social groups to which they belong, for the good individual life largely just is life as a contributing, cooperative member of the family, clan, community, or state.

These features supposedly contrast with the emphasis on equal respect, individualism, and pluralism embodied by liberal democratic theory and institutions. Liberalism tolerates or even encourages pluralism and individual expression and accepts reasonable disagreement about comprehensive conceptions of the good as a normal feature of political society.

I think the above generalizations about authoritarian and communitarian tendencies in Chinese political thought are a roughly accurate description of certain strands in the Chinese tradition. They are largely true of Xúnzǐ’s 荀子 political philosophy, for instance.

But some of them, at least, are certainly not true of all strands of traditional Chinese political thought. In this regard, I think the example of the Zhuāngzǐ 莊子 is particularly instructive, as it presents a recognizable form of liberalism that dates all the way back to the formative period of Chinese philosophy. (I think related claims can be defended about the Dàodéjīng as well, but I won’t do so here.) Zhuangist liberalism seems to me especially significant for two reasons. First, it is a clear counterexample to any claim that traditional Chinese political ideology is uniformly authoritarian and places little emphasis on individual liberty. Second, it has a distinctive character that sets it apart from familiar Western versions of liberalism. Specifically, Zhuangist liberalism is not grounded in either descriptive or normative individualism — as, for instance, certain versions of liberalism rooted in Kant’s or Mill’s philosophy are. We might call it, instead, a form of communitarian liberalism.

My arguments for these claims are complex and can’t be presented in full here. (Some preliminary arguments are presented in this paper.) But let me point to a few Zhuāngzǐ passages that provide especially direct grounds for them.

Consider, for instance, the second through fourth sections in book 7 of the Zhuāngzǐ, each of which touches on the topic of “governing” (治) the world. (These passages can be found here. For a better English translation, try here.)

Section 2 criticizes a Xúnzǐ-like approach to governing, on which the ruler sets models and standards to be emulated by all, thus guiding their ethical “transformation” (化) into obedient, harmonious members of society. The text dismisses this approach as “fake dé” (欺德) and indicates that it is as impractical or ineffective as trying to walk over the ocean. The implication is that, contrary to Confucian and Mohist political thought, actively imposing ethical guidance on people — whether through “moral charisma” or other means — cannot succeed as a strategy of political rule. (I’ll omit discussion of the passage’s positive recommendations, which are less relevant to my purpose here.)

Section 3 characterizes the proper approach to governing as one in which the ruler “follows how things are in themselves, without allowing any personal attitudes [of his own]” (順物自然而無容私焉). The ruler is not to impose his personal values or view of the good on those ruled, but instead to follow along with their inherent tendencies or patterns of life.

Section 4 characterizes the rule of an “enlightened king” as, among other things, contributing to society while minimizing interference, such that his accomplishments seem not to issue from him personally (most likely, because they fully align with the needs and values of those he assists). Such a ruler creates circumstances in which “things” (including people) are “joyful in themselves” (使物自喜). That is, individuals achieve a form of self-fulfillment.

Passages such as these provide sufficient grounds, I think, for attributing a form of liberalism to the Zhuāngzǐ. But what’s particularly interesting is the basis for this liberalism. The ruler is to “follow how things are in themselves” not out of respect for them as individuals, but out of an understanding of their place, and his own, in the various patterns that make up dào 道, along with an appreciation of the justification for their way of life, which may be as strong as that for his own. Interfering with the “self-so” (自然) way in which his political subjects live is bucking the flow of the holistic dào of which he, they, and other things are parts. For the same reason, the common people should refrain from interfering with each other. Ideally, dào connects (通) everything together into a “community” of 德, the “power” in us exercised in adapting to and flowing along with the changing patterns of dào. (In the metaphysics of book 25 of the Zhuāngzǐ, the analogy of a “community” 丘里 is used to characterize dào; in the deeply romantic political theory of book 9 — which I take to be distinct but related to that of book 7 — people are depicted as living in “shared ” 同德.)

So I think it plausible to call this Zhuangist political vision an indigenous, Chinese form of “communitarian liberalism.” I’m curious to hear what other people think.

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And the main reply to comments:

My thanks to Phil, Steve, Kai, and Bill for these interesting and challenging comments. It’s important to address the sorts of issues their comments raise if we are to take Daoism seriously as a tradition of ethical and political thought (as I think we should). In the following, I’ll try to tie together a few key issues from each of their posts.

A good place to begin is by clarifying what I meant by “liberalism.” I was using the term in the thin, minimal sense of a political view that advocates giving individuals a high degree of negative liberty. Daoist texts express this sort of stance by advocating that the sovereign avoid interfering with people’s “self-so” (自然) way of life and refrain from imposing a comprehensive conception of the good on them. Liberalism as I’m construing it here contrasts with views that advocate extensive control of individuals or that would impose a comprehensive conception of the good on them. In response to Phil, I think it’s not much of a stretch to apply the term “liberalism” in this sense to the Zhuāngzǐ.

By “political liberalism,” then, I meant simply a liberal political stance in the above sense. I didn’t intend to allude to Rawls (and I don’t think we should tie the phrase “political liberalism” to just his particular position). But I did intend to follow Rawls in characterizing a specifically political form of liberalism. In response to one of Steve’s questions, then, I did have in mind liberalism as a political doctrine, not as a comprehensive conception of the good. This reply may seem surprising, so I should expand a bit. I think the Zhuāngzǐ presents a range of conceptions of the good that are, in Rawls’s terminology, “comprehensive” (or at least inclined that way). That is, these conceptions include an overall view of value, tied together with certain epistemological views and metaphysical views about the nature of persons. (I take some initial steps toward articulating one such Zhuangist conception here.) Some of these conceptions of the good are intertwined with the political stance I tried to articulate in the original post. But I think the political stance is sufficiently detachable from them that one need not endorse a Zhuangist conception of the good life in order to endorse the Zhuangist political stance. One need only endorse certain core commitments that support the political stance. From the Zhuangist standpoint, someone committed to embodying the Ruist ideal of the jūnzǐ 君子 (gentleman) in his personal life could without practical contradiction endorse and participate in a Zhuangist political society. (I could be wrong about this, but I think these claims can be sustained.)

My suggestion here parallels the case of contemporary political liberalism, which rests on a narrow core of shared moral values abstracted from broader, more comprehensive versions of liberalism. In Charles Larmore’s political liberalism, for instance, the core values are equal respect for others and a commitment to solving problems through rational dialogue from neutral premises. The analogous core values in the Zhuangist case might be acknowledgment of dào 道 other than one’s own as part of the holistic “Great Dào” of nature, acknowledgment of other persons and creatures as part of the “Great Dào,” and a commitment to interacting with others by finding ways that converge with theirs.

Steve raises a methodological question about how the passages I cited on political issues relate to other parts of Zhuāngzǐ. If I understand the question properly, perhaps I can clarify this way: Various Zhuāngzǐ passages explicitly address the issue of “governing” (治). They don’t all express exactly the same views about it, but a prominent normative theme seems to be that government should avoid interfering with people’s “self-so” ways of life. Other parts of the Zhuāngzǐ address eudaimonistic concerns (how best to conduct one’s own life) and moral ones (how to interact with others), among other topics. Some of these other discussions might be wholly apolitical. But the moral views (such as liǎng xíng 兩行) I think tend to cohere with and support the political themes I’ve tried to articulate. The views about the good personal life treat (among other points) the question of how to cope with “the inevitable” (不得已), which might include the unjustified actions of an authoritarian or tyrannical ruler. In such contexts, the texts might discuss how best to accept and cope with (possibly illegitimate) political authority. But I think that’s a separate issue from the normative political stance I sketched.

Steve asks, might these Zhuangist ideas actually be compatible with authoritarianism? Could a wise ruler be a better judge than individuals themselves of what is “self-so” (zìrán 自然) for them or makes them “joyful in themselves,” such that he could justifiably employ authoritarian means to guide them toward such perfectionist ends? I think the answer is No, not on my construal of “self-so” as a distinctively political concept. On my interpretation, “self-so” is not a normative, perfectionist end to which one could appeal in constructing an instrumentalist argument for an authoritarian political system. I take “self-so” to be a non-normative description, namely, how things are in the absence of external control or interference. (That is, “self-so” or “so-in-itself” 自然 simply refers to the absence of “external force” 外力.) The notion of “following the ‘self-so’ of things” (順物自然) thus excludes interference with the path people themselves take. In reply to another of Steve’s questions, then, I don’t think these views rest on the assumption that individuals are the best judges of what’s self-so for them, and any form of authoritarian control or guidance would by definition fail to be “self-so.”

I should add that parts of the Dàodéjīng (such as chapter 3) may express a different view, on which the sovereign shapes the environment within which individuals follow a purportedly “self-so” way of life. In that view, the sovereign indirectly guides people toward a particular conception of the good. I think that view is inconsistent with other ideas in the Dàodéjīng and Zhuāngzǐ.

In raising the issue of how to relate the natural to the political, Kai touches on a gulf between Enlightenment liberalism and certain strands of ancient, Romantic, or communitarian political thought. Views that treat political society as natural, rather than as, as Kai says, the artificial creation of human beings, sometimes tend also to conceive of society as an organic whole, within which individuals are regarded primarily as parts. The state possesses natural authority over individuals, much as parents possess authority over their young children. Such views tend to devalue individual liberty, as individuals’ identity is regarded as stemming primarily from their place within the whole.

In this context, Kai’s question may be prompted by construing zìrán 自然 as meaning roughly “natural.” I myself don’t interpret it that way, though; I read it as “self-so,” as explained above. So I’d approach Kai’s issue by considering the relation between either tiān 天 (nature) or Dào and rén 人 (humanity). The Zhuāngzǐ presents several distinct views on the relation between nature and humanity. One is that we should maintain a balance between the two (天與人不相勝), while recognizing that humanity is fundamentally natural, that our dé 德 — the “power” that is the heart of the Zhuangist conception of agency — issues from nature, and that the highest exercise of dé lies in action that flows along with natural patterns and structures. Maintaining a balance between nature and humanity requires that we exercise dé to “navigate” our way through natural conditions intelligently and harmoniously. I think the link between nature and the political for the Zhuāngzǐ comes with the observation that other people are part of the natural structure of the world and that they too exercise dé, and so we must “navigate” our way with each other. As with all our actions, nature does not fix how we are to do this, but only sets certain general conditions under which we proceed.

Human beings thus must exercise their own agency to determine how to interact politically. Now it turns out that, like all other classical Chinese thinkers, the only form of political society the Zhuangists envision is a monarchy. But they suggest that the appropriate way for the ruler to interact with his subjects is to follow along with the patterns they themselves are inclined to follow. This advice is directly analogous to the the suggestion, in the Pao Ding story, that the appropriate way to cut up an ox is follow along the natural structure of its body. This approach also allows the members of society to exercise agency (Phil’s worry).

Can the Zhuangist political vision aptly be called “communitarian”? I agree with Phil that this is a stretch, insofar as the “community” in question is quite different from what communitarians usually have in mind. But we should expect the Zhuāngzǐ to defy conventional categories, and I think there are reasonable grounds for extending the word “communitarian” this way. The Zhuangist idea of community may be more ecological than social, but it is a kind of community nonetheless: people (and other creatures) are disparate, heterogeneous parts of a whole, and both parts and whole flourish when a balance is maintained among the parts and they are allowed to follow their particular “patterns.” (The animal metaphors that bother Phil I take to underscore the continuity between human social life and other parts of nature and the potential variety of “natural” ways of life. I agree that a few “primitivist” passages apply animal imagery to articulate a prelapsarian, romantic ideal of natural harmony that might leave little place for human agency.)

Bill asks, in his third point, whether the recognition and toleration of alternative values and the emphasis on non-interference that I find in Zhuāngzǐ are in fact prominent in the text and whether they had any impact on the later tradition. The interpretation I give in the paper I linked to is subtle, I agree, because of the complexity of book 2 (Qíwùlùn 齊物論). But these basic themes seem to me prominent and easy to find in the Zhuāngzǐ. Related themes are also prominent in the Dàodéjīng, Guǎnzǐ, and Huáinánzǐ. As to their historical impact, through the Táng 唐 dynasty they have an explicit influence. Beginning in the Sòng 宋 they are partly appropriated, in various ways, by the dào xué 道學 movement and its successors and critics. As Kai points out, motifs such as zìrán 自然 play a role in Zhūxī 朱熹. There are clear influences on Wáng Fūzhī 王夫之 and Lǐ Zhì 李贄. Zhāng Bǐnglín 章炳麟 explicitly lists Zhuāngzǐ among his influences. Reconstructing just how early Daoist themes are reflected in later thought would be an interesting project (Chén Gǔyìng has done some work along these lines). But beyond such influences, I’d underscore a point Kai touches on: certain Laoist and Zhuangist ideas, such as “follow what’s self-so” (順其自然), simply permeate Chinese culture, much as other Chinese values such as filial devotion do.

As to liberal-like tendencies in the Analects, without disputing the features Bill attributes to the text, I don’t see that it advocates non-interference with individuals’ ways of life. I think it advocates imposing a comprehensive conception of the good on them: All are expected to bend before the force of the ruler’s dé 德.

For the full discussion, see the original post and comments.