Thursday, February 23, 2006

Morality Against Itself

One of the chief aspects of Taoism that seems to defy the expectations of the typical Western mind is the lack of deference to a code of morality. Unlike the Judeo-Christian tradition, there are no commandments nor creeds nor dictums. There is no middleman (i.e., priest, minister, holy one) between Tao and the masses.

In fact, according to Taoist sages, morality is its own worst enemy. The very act of instructing people how to think and behave encourages them to act or behave in the opposite manner. Like a child testing parental boundaries, morality causes most people to see what they think they can get away with and still fall within the boundary.

More importantly, morality serves as an impetus to "do the right thing" out of self-interest rather than because it's the right thing to do. To illustrate this point, I'm going to use a tool popular with Raymond Smullyan, author of The Tao Is Silent. In often humurous ways, he likes to explain particular ideas via dialogue between two people with opposing viewpoints.

My imaginary conversation is between a Christian and a Taoist.
Taoist: By and large, Christians seem to want to do the right thing based solely on self-interest.

Christian: How on earth can you say that? We desire to do the right thing because its God's will.

Taoist: Let me see if I can get a handle on this. You believe that humanity is flawed and can only find redemption through the grace of God, right?

Christian: Yes. We are so flawed that none of us deserves God's mercy, but he gives it to us anyway, if we only believe in him.

Taoist: If faith is all that's needed, then why worry about doing good works? As long as you have faith, you're saved.

Christian: But good works show that your faith is genuine.

Taoist: Oh, I understand now. You're trying to prove your worthiness to God.

Christian: No! Didn't you hear what I said earler? None of us is worthy!

Taoist: If none of us is worthy and there's no way to prove our worthiness through good works, then why worry about doing the right thing?

Christian: Oh, you amaze me! People should do the right thing because, if we don't, we face an eternity of hell and damnation, estranged from our father.

Taoist: I get it now. You behave properly because you don't wish to displease God.

Christian: Precisely!

Taoist: In other words, you now admit that right behavior is out of self-interest?

Christian: I'm saying nothing of the sort!

Taoist: You just told me that displeasing God by not having faith in him and not performing good works to illustrate the genuiness of said faith is what motivates you to be a good person. In other words, you behave rightly to avoid a sanction or punishment. I'd call that self-interest.

Christian: Aaah! But there's more to it than that. A person has strong faith and right conduct to please God and to go to heaven to live forever with God.

Taoist: Oh, so you behave properly because you wish to please God?

Christian: Now you got it!

Taoist: Just as before, you must now agree with me that you behave rightly due solely to self-interest.

Christian: What? Aren't you listening?

Taoist: I certainly am listening. I'm beginning to wonder if you're listening to yourself. You're now saying that people should behave rightly because they will receive a reward of eternal life with God. Again, the motivation is self-interest.

Christian: No! No! No! It's because we want to do God's will!

Taoist: From what you've explained to me, people try to exhibit right behavior in order to prove themselves to God or to avoid punishment or to gain a reward. Under any and all of these circumstances, right behavior is motivated by a person's self-interest. In Christian thought, you can't escape it.
So, how does Taoist thought differ? Taoists believe that people will do the right thing simply because its the right thing to do. Because we do not believe in a personified God, right behavior isn't performed as a proof of worthiness. Because we do not believe in Hell, right behavior isn't performed to escape a punishment. Because we don't believe in heaven, right behavior isn't performed to gain a reward.

There is no need for morality. There are no oughts or shoulds. There is just Tao, the Way. And we try to walk its path.


  1. It's a pretty common theme actually. Acceptance and action for the Taoist comes from ourselves: from what is inside our own thoughts, actions and beliefs. This is different from an organized religion, government or group imposing behavior using outside rules or beliefs.

    I find it interesting when Religion or Law are used as a means to control people, when by nature we do pretty well and with less hassle just following our own common sense.

    Sadly, concepts like Hell go a long way to helping a person override their own natural belief. After all if you are going to burn in pain for eternity for doing something wrong, then you discover a pretty good incentive to break from your own ideals, or even worse discover a tool of fear to control others...

    That's why I am working hard to help teach people to discover who they are from inside their nature. I wrote a Personal Tao ( as a Taoist tool kit to help people in the modern culture find themselves. I would love to get your feedback to see if I am on the right track :)



  2. Casey,
    I just downloaded the book. I'll take a look at it over the weekend. I took a look at your blog and saw that you're down the road in Olympia. Cool!!

  3. :) the rain promotes Taoism I do believe.

  4. Trey,

    once more, right on :)
    I found it rather funny to see the Christian get cornered by merely simple questions :)


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