Good, Evil and the Sage

A friend wrote me last week asking for some advice.  While not an orthodox Taoist he has been studying the tradition for many years, and finding himself in a difficult living situation, turned to the I-Ching oracle for assistance. He found the response puzzling and had difficulty reconciling it with his understanding of the Taoist philosophy.   He wrote:

“The Zang Zi seems to advise that rulership as such is a lost cause, one should aspire to the nature of the sage, and then without doing, the kingdom will be in order. It cautions against differentiating between that which is good and that which is bad.

the 44th hexagram in the Yi, encourages a ruler to weed out the evil influence in his court.

How are these reconciled?”


While I have great deal of positive regard for Taoism, I’m not a Taoist, so I don’t think I can resolve this issue from inside a Taoist perspective. There are, however, some points of contact here with the classical Greek tradition that might prove helpful.

First, perhaps we should examine the question of good and evil. The injunction to avoid distinctions of good and evil strikes many as hard to reconcile with our moral intuitions. Yet there are several mystics and philosophers who have denied the validity of these intuitions: from Protagoras to Thrasymachus to Nietzsche to Crowley. Furthermore, in the age of modern relativism, we shy away from any claim to absolute moral authority. It is attractive therefore to try and toss the whole question of ethics overboard and be done with it, even if we still feel uncomfortable affirming the moral neutrality of such practices as rape, murder, torture, theft and genocide. This leads us to a difficult and philosophically untenable position. As a result we usually end up just avoiding the question. But since we have no choice, let us take it up here, if only provisionally and in brief.

How can we understand the injunction to avoid distinctions of good and evil? One way is with the emphasis on the idea of distinction. Here the issue is not so much moral ideology per se, but our human preferences. Following this interpretation we read the injunction as saying that we should not attempt to reach good or bad results, but simply resign ourselves to the working out of fate. After all, the final outcome of events is not up to us. The Stoics compared man to a dog chained to a cart. The dog may pull this way or that, but in the end he will go where the cart goes. He can do so willingly and enjoy the ride, running and sniffing within the boundary the chain gives him, or he can refuse to cooperate, fight the cart, choke himself on the lead and be dragged. This is perhaps the most mystical of the interpretations.

There is, however, a problem here, because without valuation of some kind, we cannot act. The world does not provide us with a fixed direction, but a field of many possible directions and interpretations. While we might ultimately be dragged by fate, the workings of fate are not immediately apparent to us. We must use our reason to determine what is most likely to be beneficial and attainable, and this is an act of valuation. Valuation presuppose a desired and undesired outcome and here we have returned to the question of preference. If we take the injunction to avoid valuation merely at face value the it is grossly nihilistic and must end in either slavery to some directing agent who holds a different philosophy, or in a chaos of moment to moment impulses, or to a wasting catatonia. We must therefore reject this perspective and unhelpful.

There is, however, another option which is to look deeper into the philosophical system and see what rhetorical purpose the injunction serves. For example, there is a sophisticated solution in Stoicism for this problem, which hinges on the concepts of divine providence, duty, the nature of happiness, and the distinction between simply fated and dependently fated events. An important point here is that the Stoics do not deny the validity of ethics, only change its emphasis from the common view of external events as good if pleasant and evil if harmful to one of human character. External events in Stoicism are viewed as neither good nor evil, but indifferent. If we choose to interpret the original injunction in this light, we see it as not so much a definitive an universal axiom, but an attempt to redirect the reader to a different standard of evaluation – one looking not to results but to personal behavior. The form this takes depends on larger metaphysical conceptions. A practitioner of this interpretation might take up Christian quietism, or Roman heroism, or a Taoist amused wandering. That will depend on the rest of the philosophical system and how it puts forward a view of human nature, and therefore an ideal.

Returning to your dilemma and viewing it through this lens, aspiring to the ideal of the sage means viewing external occurrences as indifferent, and focusing on the improvement and satisfaction of your own character. You should not run around trying to “fix” the world, because the state of the world is an indifferent. It will be what it will be. Rather, you should focus on yourself. The advice that the ruler should remove ill influences from his court, that is to say his intimate surroundings, influences that are likely to affect his character for the worse, is rendered rather straightforward and practical. I may be biased, but I see this as perfectly compatible with Taoist precepts.


Another possible interpretation is to place the emphasis not on the act of valuation, but on the distinction of moral worth. Here moral imperatives are viewed as nothing more than human imaginary constructs. Individuals are still however free to regard particular outcomes as good or “evil” for them personally or for their group. Under this interpretation, there are no ideals, but there are desirable and undesirable outcomes. The attractiveness of this view is that it seems to promise us the ability to “eat our cake, and still have it too”. We can still hold to some kind of moral intuition, and avoid all the messy questions of ultimate right or wrong. There are still aspects of our conventional morality we will have to jettison. For example, while we might not wish to be robbed, or live in a society full of robbers, we can’t say there is anything necessarily wrong with our stealing from someone else – provided we think we can get away with it, for instance if we are in another country and unlikely to ever return.

The problem with this view is two-fold. As pointed out earlier, final outcomes are rarely up to us. We can aim for a particular outcome but we cannot guarantee we will achieve it. Therefore this philosophy depends a great deal on “luck” and we are just as likely to be frustrated as to be satisfied. The second problem is that absent an ideal, there is often a great deal of conflicting possibilities, none of which present themselves as the most obviously satisfactory. Some courses of action are immediately unpleasant, but result in a more satisfactory existence in the long term, or at least are more likely to do so. For example, indiscriminate sexual gratification is very pleasant but can result in numerous interpersonal complications, financial obligations or even catastrophic disease. Sexual fidelity is often difficult, but can result in long last satisfying relationships and more stable life over all. Working hard to gain a good career is unpleasant but results in more resources for satisfaction later in life.

It remains an open question whether or not we can maximize the utility of our actions through pure calculation, absent some kind of organizing ideal. Furthermore, what human capacity should we use to make this calculation? If we deny the validity of all ideals, we also deny the validity of the rational ideal. There is therefore no imperative to act rationally. We can pursue power or pleasure, but even here the question jumps out at us: “How? How should we pursue pleasure or power? In what field? In what manner?” We are thrown back on our ability to think strategically and that means to reason, and it is always easier to reason in pursuit of some goal than to try and determine one’s optimal behavior moment to moment. So we arrive at the strange position that even if holding an ethical ideal might not be defensible from all skeptical attacks, it may be more practical to hold one even provisionally, because it focuses one’s energies and simplifies one’s calculations. machiavelli

Putting these doubts aside for the moment, if we return to the original dilemma posed, a denial not of choice but of morality qua morality would argue that the ruler should avoid distinctions of good and evil simply because these are meaningless distinctions. He should rather pursue a practical course of “power politics”. He should root out the evil influences in his court, taking evil to mean here not immoral per se, but threatening to his rule. While coherent I tend to shy away from this interpretation as it would argue for a ruler more like Machiavelli’s Prince than Lao Tzu’s Sage, and that seems counter to the larger Taoist tradition, but I am admittedly not an expert.

Finally, one could simply toss the whole argument as wrong or incoherent. From a Judaeo-Christian perspective the argument is a non-starter.


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