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.