This paper is a draft of my contribution to Justin Tiwald, ed., Oxford Handbook of Chinese Philosophy, Oxford University Press. The paper attempts to draw out some of the radical implications of remarks on “benevolence and propriety” found in Daoist texts.
The full draft is available here (revised August 2015). An abstract follows.
A Daoist Critique of Morality
A striking passage from the Daoist classic Zhuangzi likens devoting oneself to benevolence and propriety and seeking to distinguish right from wrong to suffering the ancient Chinese corporal punishments of tattooing the convict’s face and amputating the nose. Commonsense morality is not merely a mistake, the passage implies. It mutilates us, leaving us blind to the features by which to navigate the Way. This astonishing rejection not just of a particular understanding of morality but of the very idea of morality as a guide to action is representative of an intriguing thread of discourse that winds through several of the classical Chinese philosophical anthologies. According to this discourse, benevolence and propriety obscure the Way and impair our ability to follow it. They are a sign of pathology, they interfere with people’s spontaneous capacities, they are redundant, and they are an obstacle to adroit action. This talk aims to elucidate these themes, explain their significance in the context of early Chinese ethics, and relate them to ethical discourse today. I explain how, given early Daoists’ understanding of the structure of action and of the factors that guide it, their critique may be surprisingly plausible. I attempt briefly to situate the Daoist critique in relation to well-known ‘morality critics’ in the West, including contemporary writers such as Nagel, Wolf, and Williams and nineteenth-century figures such as Nietzsche and James. I then consider potential objections to the Daoist position and tentatively suggest how Daoists might respond.