Ethics that work

I was recently once again reminded of a Chinese philosopher who was asked what he thought the dominant philosophy of China really might be. He said the question misunderstood the situation; ‘we Chinese are Buddhists in the morning, Confucians at work, Taoists when we come home to our families’ (or to that effect).

It’s a story I’ve noted on this blog before, and like to tell others about it, because I like the flexibility it indicates. A large number of people seem quite comfortable not being pegged into a single philosophical or ideological niche, but rather learning from different philosophies in order to adapt to different situations – and on a regular basis. (Of course the Chinese also have to adhere to the ideology of Maoist Communism; but as China’s policy developments have shown over the past 3 decades, even this adherence is open to re-interpretation and change at the gross level of economics.)

I have heard it suggested, in reply to this story, that Taoism, Buddhism, and Confucianism are at some level really the same philosophy realized in differing expressions, but that can’t possibly be true. Taoist and Confucian philosophers argued strenuously for centuries over whether ‘the way’ was naturally learned or required instruction. The difference here is profound, and each position implicates a different social structure. The Confucian meritocratic system of state exams for public officials which dominated Chinese bureaucracy through several different governments over the centuries, would not be anything like the intuitively determined imperial appointments implicated by Taoist social theory. And Buddhism tends to be apolitical (although this has not always been the case, but is the ground to which it always returns).

The point, then, is that assuming there’s some ‘eternal truth’ expressed differently in China’s dominant philosophies is simply untrue. Granted, there are some socially normative ethical behaviors that one can find in many cultures; indeed, it is doubtful one can have a society where these behaviors are not normative. To get mildly Kantian here, what would it mean to form a society where everyone is permitted to kill anybody they choose for whatever reason?

But ethics is not simply about big problems or big decisions, like whether or not to murder someone you really dislike. It is also about mundane daily questions, like how to care for children, how to educate them, whether to obey certain laws or not others; learning to say ‘please,’ thank you,’ ‘you’re welcome.’

But there are times to leave a tip, because you know the waiter will spit in your food when you come back, if you don’t; times to leave a tip because, despite reasonable service, the food was wretched, and the waiter needs to remind management of this; and times to leave a big tip, because, what the hell, the waiter was charming and personable.

What I’ve come to suspect, over this past year, is that real ethics, as lived, is a complex of motivations – personal, social, emotional, intellectual – and that attempts to reduce this complex to a single motivation, or to a single ‘proper motivator,’ largely miss what people do in actual practice. There is really no reason to doubt when people say of a given behavior that ‘it just doesn’t feel right,’ nor any reason to doubt when they assert a deontological or morally realist claim that ‘such really ought to be done.’ In any given situation, addressing a given behavior, they may mean exactly what they say, no matter how it seemingly conflicts with, or contradicts, something they’ve said in a different situation regarding similar behaviors. (This suggests that psychological or neuropsych studies into ethical motivations and choices will never quite come together with a predictive composite explanation of how people respond ethically.)

Given the great varieties of human behavior, totalistic moralities have to come up with explanations and excuses for perceived ‘aberrant’ behavior. We see this in the history of sectarian conflict in various religions – a push-pull between desires for stricter or looser rigidity in interpretation. But of course there are non-theistic totalistic moralities with similar histories.

If only one moral motivator were truly preferable or realizable, we’d all be in agreement by now.

In a society governed by law, conflicting explanations are useful in politics, agencies and courts as argument, but ultimately the laws themselves are determined by perceived social necessity – that is, the needs of the state itself. But that’s a different discussion.


6 thoughts on “Ethics that work

  1. I doubt, for several reasons, that there can be a single theory describing all aspects of reality. Likewise, I am sceptical about the practicality of deriving a consistent ethical system from a single basis. A pragmatic approach where you remain open (I just read the term “nebulous” on another article, see seems to be what works best. You don’t resolve all inconsistencies all of the time but you may find solutions to the problems at hand. Consistency tends to be overrated.

    In such a view, ethical theory becomes kind of a toolkit to build society and live in it. There is no single tool and no approach that fits every situation. Societies and the systems that form their building blocks are constructed. They are part of culture, so they are artificial aggregate structures. Consequently, there is no ultimate basis for any system of ideas (that is what, I think, the term ideology would originally have meant) to govern them. All such systems are themselves constructions. They can work despite being ultimately unfounded and without resolving all inconsistencies. You can use several systems at the same time (or at different times, if you apply a more finely grained temporal resolution).

    To take Chinese philosophy as an example, as you did: as long as systems (groups) are small and can be intuitively understood, a Taoist approach will work better. On larger scales, where things become too complex to be grasped intuitively, it does not work. Here you need the Confucian approach (hierarchies, rituals (or “processes” in modern terminology), bureaucracy etc.). Taoism is a small-systems approach (the Dao De Ching speaks of villages where you hear the dogs and roosters from your neighbors but you will never go there), where you rely on how things are by themselves (that is what, I think, the Dao means) and intervene as little as possible, while Confucianism is an approach to rule larger states, developed as a response to the disintegration of the Chinese state during the time of the late Zhou dynasty. I don’t know what methods where actually used in China at that time, I guess both of these approaches where never implemented in pure form and there were lots of other schools of thought, especially during that particular time. Reality was probably a lot more complex, but I think that this multy-philosophy approach is what is needed to accomodate this complexity of social and political reality (the Qin, who tried to use only the rather brutal methods of legalist Fa Jia philosophy instead lost the mandate of the heaven rather quickly).

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Hi nannus – “I doubt, for several reasons, that there can be a single theory describing all aspects of reality. Likewise, I am sceptical about the practicality of deriving a consistent ethical system from a single basis.”

    The whole point of a metaphysical theory is that is is general – describes all of reality, so I see no other way to do it than start from a single basis or axiom.

    Which only goes to show how opinions vary.

    I’d want to disagree about Chinese philosophy so cannot be too enthusiastic about the article. I’d agree that Taoism is more suitable for individuals since it is metaphysically sound and can take us all the way, while Confucianism is mostly stripped of any metaphysical justification and operates at a social level, but I’d still want to argue that Taoist metaphysics is necessary for a justification of Confucianism. Maybe not in this tiny text box. 🙂


    • Hi PeterJ, let me first reply about the topic of Chinese philosophy. I am going to address the question of metaphysics and the (im-)possibility of complete theories in a separate reply.

      The main topic of Chinese philosophy -at least at the times of people like Kong Zi (Confucius) and Lao Zi, seems to have been practical philosophy, not metaphysics. You write “Confucianism is mostly stripped of any metaphysical justification and operates at a social level”. But this is the case for Daoism as well, at least for Daoism as we find it in the Dao De Ching and the Zhuangzi. It is not a metaphysical system in the first place, but practical (and political) philosophy. While Zhuangzi might have been less interested in how to run a state and more in the attitude to personal life (and that can be seen as practical philosophy as well),. the main topic of Lao Zi is how to govern. The name “Dao De Ching” contains the word “De” at the second place, a term normally translated as “Virtue”. This is pointing into the direction that the text is about human action.

      At a later time, Buddhists used terms from Daoist philosophy to translate Buddhist (Mahayana) philosophy into Chinese. This probably affected both the interpretation of the Buddhist texts and the interpretation of the Daoist texts as well, which might have become somewhat more metaphysical and mystical. In their reception in the West, the Daoist texts where taken out of their original historical, social and political contexts and often given mystical interpretations. I think these where to a large extent misunderstandings.

      There is something like a “metaphysical” component in the Daoist texts, e.g. in the talk about the relationship between heaven and human, but you find this also among Confucian thinkers like Meng Zi and it is also connected to the question of government (when they write about the unity of heaven and ruler, for example).

      The different schools of Chinese thought originated during the time of the Zhou dynasty when the Zhou state disintegrated into many small local states (which finally started fighting among each other during the Warring States period). People started to think about how this could have happened and what could be done about it. If you read the Dao De Ching from this perspective, many of the strange-looking statements in it start to make sense. I think the Dao is not in the first place a transcendent or metaphysical concept, but simply the way to go and the way things are going “by themselves” (see if not impeded or mixed up by human action.

      The central topic of Chinese philosophy is not how the world is (i.e. metaphysics or natural philosophy) but how to act (wei) and how to govern (wang). And this applies not only to Confucianism but to other schools (Moism, Legalism) as well. It also applies to Daoism. The Dao De Ching is primarily not about what is but about what to do.

      What I meant in my comment can maybe be understood from the example of traffic. A central idea of Daoism is that it is generally preferable to let things go their own way and not impede with the normal flow of things by rules and regulations. Confucianism, on the other hand, is strongly based on such regulations. On a small crossing, you do not need much regulation, not even traffic signs. People will figure out by themselves and in cooperation what to do. If you have a large crossing with a lot of traffic, however, introducing traffic signs or red lights and a more sophisticated set of rules becomes necessary. You can see here what is going to happen if you apply a Daoist approach to a big junction. This relies on what people do if left to themselves (ziran). People must perfect themselves (have a high level of attention, be cautions, compromising, cooperative, courageous etc., i.e. have some “De”) but add a little bit more traffic and the system will collapse. Introducing a red light and causing everybody to respect it, on the other hand, would solve the problem (and free up a lot of space). That would be the “Confucian” approach to traffic. Introducing the regulated solution (the red light) on every small crossing, junction, drive and parking lot, on the other hand, would be just as disastrous for traffic as introducing the Daoist solution to every large crossing. You need both approaches.


    • Hi PeterJ, You are writing: “The whole point of a metaphysical theory is that is is general – describes all of reality, so I see no other way to do it than start from a single basis or axiom.“

      I am not sure what kind of metaphysics you have in mind, but let me assume it is a scientific world view. Based on that assumption, instead of answering you here, I have written a blog article instead of an answer “in this little box”, see

      Liked by 1 person

      • On my “Bubbling” blog, i am not so considerate of my audience. On the Asifoscope and my other blogs, I am trying to be understandable, but I have noticed that sometimes this stops me from making progress with my writing and my thoughts, so I started the “Bubbling” blog (see To some extent, some of the articles there are more or less private notes, containing compressed thoughts and notes.
        I am going to try to unpack the thoughts in this article into a form that takes the readers into consideration and will be easier to understand.
        One problem might be that I am not coming out of any of the tranditional branches of philosophy, but out of computer science, so my terminology and way of thinking might be unusual for somebody whose background is traditional philosophy. Although I delved into philosophy for the first time when I was 13 or 14 years old, I did not really start getting into it until recently, so my thinking did, to a large extent, not develop out of any of the flavours of traditional philosophy, like analytic or continental philosophy. My main influence has been the work of Kurt Ammon, who is a mathematician.
        I am working on translating my thoughts into a form that is more accesible, but it might take some time.


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