Friday, June 10, 2011

In the Beginning Was the Dao pt. 3: Morality

This is part 3 of a series comparing and contrasting Daoism and Christianity.  For part 2, click here, and for part 4, click here.

In The Abolition of Man, C.S. Lewis writes about ethical standards that are shared across cultures, arguing that they are a part of moral law that everyone knows.  He calls this shared moral law the Tao (a different transliteration of Dao).

I’m definitely a fan of C.S. Lewis, but unfortunately, his concept of the Tao is not at all the same as the Daoist idea.  It bears some resemblance of Confucius’s idea of the Dao (yes, he talked about it too), but much Daoist work was written to contradict Confucianism.

Zhuangzi’s Dao is more like the Force in Star Wars than like a shared moral law.  Just like the Force has the Light Side and the Dark Side, and both are held in balance, the Dao incorporates all opposites, including good and evil.  This is why the yin/yang symbol has a black dot in the white section and a white dot in the black section.  Yin and yang don’t just represent good and evil -- they also include heaven and earth, male and female, hot and cold, etc.  However, the point of the symbol is that for any pair of opposites, even in one extreme there are still some aspects of the other.

Since everything is part of the Dao, this means that distinctions between things are just illusions caused by our inability to perceive the whole Dao at once.  This includes the distinction between good and evil.  Zhuangzi claims that trying to do right and avoid wrong “is like saying that you are going to make Heaven your master and do away with Earth, or make Yin your master and do away with Yang. Obviously it is impossible.”

Zhuangzi sometimes describes the Dao as a principle that governs the way things change.  It itself does not change, but everything else is subject to the “wheel of Heaven,” a cycle of birth, growth, decay, and death that all things pass though.  It applies to everything, including seasons, the lives of individuals, and dynasties.  Zhuangzi believes that it also applies to moral principles, which means that what is currently moral will decay and become immoral, and what is immoral will be reborn and grow into the new moral norm.  Put differently, he thinks that right and wrong are determined by people’s opinions, and opinions are destined to change.  Thus, nothing is objectively good or bad, since each has the power to turn into the other.

Let’s contrast that with Christianity for a moment.  Christianity says that even though everything that is created is subject to change, ethics is rooted in God’s character, which does not change.  Unlike the Dao, which includes everything and does not distinguish between things, God clearly distinguishes right from wrong by giving His people a moral law and sending prophets to evaluate how well they did in keeping it.

Yet these distinctions are not arbitrary choices on God’s part; they reflect who He is.  Lying is wrong because God always speaks the truth.  People should love each other because God exists as three persons who love each other, and yet are one.  Murder is wrong because people are made in God’s image, so an attack on people is effectively an attack on God.  Since God deserves to not be harmed, so do people.  Thus, rather than transcending morality by incorporating both good and evil, the Christian God is inextricably connected with morality.  In fact, for something to be good means that it conforms to God’s character.

On a practical level, Zhuangzi is not consistent with his own denial of absolute morality.  He criticizes the Confucianists for replacing the Dao with manmade rules, and says that people should not pursue wealth or status but should try to follow the Dao.  However, these points contradict his other claims, which I see as a problem within his philosophy itself.  (It’s also a problem with other philosophies that deny objective morality.  Even the staunchest relativist will get mad if you plagiarize their work, for example.)  Maybe Zhuangzi sees these as recommendations, not absolute moral rules, but the strength with which he denounces his opponents suggests otherwise.  I view the issue of morality as Daoism’s single biggest weakness, as well as its most significant difference from Christianity.

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