Monday, December 21, 2009

Wen Tzu - Verse 89, Part I

from Verse Eighty-Nine
There are no fixed judgments of right and wrong in the world. People each judge as right whatever they consider pleasant and judge as wrong whatever they consider unpleasant. Thus the search for right is not search for truth, but search for those who agree with oneself; it is not a departure from wrong, but a departure from those who disagree with one's feelings and ideas.
~ Wen-tzu: Understanding the Mysteries ~
How different this is from those who hold that morality and absolute truth exist!

One of the aspects of morality that continuously puzzles me is that, on the one hand, it is supposed to be fixed and universal, yet, on the other hand, there always are loopholes that believers drive trucks through.

For example, one major precept of Christianity is to love thy neighbor as thyself. That seems very clear and straightforward. However, its application tends to leave a lot to be desired. Church leaders and believers alike supported the institution of slavery as well as traveling to distant lands to murder "heathens". That doesn't sound to me like loving one's neighbor, but, according to Christendom, it was somehow a-ok.

In the present time, some of the most avid supporters of the "wars" in Iraq and Afghanistan are those who identify themselves as religious fundamentalists. Their motto seems to be "Kill for Jesus," yet, as far as I know, Jesus never advocated killing anybody.

So, what gives?

As the passage above indicates, right and wrong aren't absolutes; we define them based on our own subjective opinions. More often than not, we consider what we each support to be right and what we don't support to be wrong. If we later change our minds, then right and wrong flip-flop.

This post is part of a series. For an introduction, go here.


  1. You say that right and wrong are not absolutes. What's right for one may be wrong for another, and vice-versa. I could see how this would be true for some things, particularly small matters, like your personal preferences, subject to personality or cultural differences.

    But can it ever really be right to commit random acts of violence, rape, or murder, for pleasure? Even if it seems right to the perpetrator, isn't it still wrong? It's a destructive act committed solely out of selfishness, and lack of love and respect for another, isn't that wrong when viewed from a higher and wiser perspective?

    How could it ever be right?

    Aren't there certain qualities and actions that are universally right? Like kindness, compassion, and selfless love? Is compassion ever wrong? To me I see these qualities as being universally right. But would you say these are just my personal preferences, and that things like hatred and cruelty could be just as right?

    To me kindness is right, cruelty is wrong. To take delight in hurting others is wrong, to take delight in helping others is right. When you hurt people, all you get are enemies. When you help people, you get friends. The path of destruction is self-destructive. When you help people you often help yourself, by gaining their friendship, when you hurt people you often hurt yourself, by gaining enemies.

    Maybe the problem is with the terminology. Instead of right and wrong, how about wiser and less wise?

    I'm not just addressing these questions to you, and you don't even have to answer, but just putting this out as food for thought.

  2. My mother used to tell me the Ten Commandments were useful, practical guidelines to live by, not exactly laws for which you would be punished if you slip up. But I can't see how anyone, and any civilized system, could argue that not killing, not stealing, not cheating, not honoring your ancestors, not being sexually malevolent, are not good and proper behaviors.

    Taoist philosophy sometimes appears to be sort of morally situational, relativistic. This may be okay if you can completely withdraw from the world in a monastery or cave. For most of us, in the real samsara world, Red Dust and all, a little Confucianism goes a long way. We should act as if those things (not killing, etc.) are absolutes. I think this is sort of Kantian.

    The WT passage also reminds me of Crowe T. Robot's (MST3K) comment; "People think they're thinking when all they're really doing is rearranging their prejudices."

    Slavery was overcome with the help of a great many "believers." Not that there isn't still a long way to go.

  3. Cym & Baroness,
    It might be one thing if everyone agreed on what compassion or cruelty entails. That's the problem. The definitions of these things are different based on one's culture, religion/philosophy and the situation.

    For example, let's look at the prohibition against killing others. It's not absolute in any sense of the word. Christian extremists think it's okay to kill Muslims and Muslim extremists think it's okay to Christians and Jews. Many people agree that it's okay for the state to kill people. In many US states, if you kill someone who has broken into your house, that's deemed okay. In some cases, if you accidentally kill someone, there's no punishment whatsoever. And many people consider it more than okay to kill non-human life forms.

  4. This is a very complex topic, that whole books could be written about, and there still would be much disagreement, and little resolution. But the fact is, right or wrong, death is rarely pleasant, no matter what its cause. And so our primary imperative in life is survival, self-preservation and the preservation of our loved one's.

    I'm neither a hunter or a meat eater, however, I see a big difference between 1) someone who kills in self-defense because they are in a kill or be killed situation, or someone who kills for survival when the only choice is to either hunt or perish, and 2) someone who kills entirely unnecessarily for pleasure or out of hatred or revenge. That's premeditated murder. Big difference. The difference between the two is intention. The intention underlying the action, is just as much important, if not more important then the action itself.

    And you're right Rambling Taoist, different people and culture's disagree on what is right and wrong, and so, people will disagree just as much on what is wise or unwise.

    If one person's definition of good differs from another, there's bound to be some misunderstanding and disagreement. So until people can agree on the meaning of words, there can be little constructive communication.

    But what about the forces of destruction and construction? Or between that which heals and that which harms. Can there be some universal agreement on these things? A broken leg is still a broken leg, regardless of what religion or country you live in. If you're dying from some deadly disease and have horrible symptoms all over your body, only a crazy person would insist that they are in the best health of their life. Most people in this situation would agree that this is not good, certainly not right.

    I see that which heals and enhances life, as being equal to that which is good and right. And that which harms and reduces the quality of life, as being equal to that which is evil and wrong. Although destruction does have its place two, like compost that breaks down to fertilize the soil. In this particular case, destruction actually enhances life, so its a positive form of destruction, there is no malicious intent. When a hawk kills a rabbit, it's not doing it out of hatred, or as some religious crusade, it's acting entirely on a survival instinct. It's killing because it's hungry, not because its angry.

    Right and wrong applies to people, because we are thinking animals, we have the ability to make choices based on reason. I think this Taoist text that you are quoting from here, applies to nature only, the purely instinctual reactive world of plants and animals. Humans are part of nature too, but our ability to think and reason and make independent choices not based on instinct makes us different, not necessarily above nature, but just different, unique in our own right.

    Sorry for this long comment, I got carried away. But as someone who experiences recurrent periods of writer's block, whenever I feel compelled to write, I'm gonna go with it. So thanks for being my muse for the day.

  5. Oh by the way, my comments here were more so a response to what you wrote in your post, rather then the verse itself. After rereading Verse 89, Part 1 again, I see that I may have misinterpreted it. My first impression of it was that by denying right and wrong, it was also denying truth and falsehood. Basically nihilism, that everything is relative, and nothing matters. And my response was mostly questioning that perspective. But nowhere does it actually say there is no such thing as right or wrong, true or false, just that people tend to disagree on these matters to such an extent, that there is no universal agreement, and thus no absolute fixed judgment, at least not from a human perspective, can be made.

    So again, sorry for my long winded comment.

  6. Long-winded comments are quite alright. This space is provided without strings attached!!

    In one of your paragraphs, you wrote, "If you're dying from some deadly disease and have horrible symptoms all over your body, only a crazy person would insist that they are in the best health of their life. Most people in this situation would agree that this is not good, certainly not right."

    My response is that it all depends on one's perspective. Some people who become very sick see life in a whole new way and feel that their heart/soul/essence is healthier when sick than it was when their body was "well".

    Conversely, there are some whose body is the picture of fitness, yet their heart/soul/essence is very sick. So, which condition is healthier?

  7. My point is really that if you do these "prohibited" things -- killing, lying, cheating, stealing, etc., shit happens. I think Lao Tzu/WenTzu/Jesus/Buddhawould agree.

    What extremists (or governments) think is right isn't the point. KIlling (and I'm talking about people killing each other, killing to eat is another issue) is wrong. Period. You know it and I know it. But people kill each other and persuade themselves they are right to do it. They are wrong. But sometimes wrong things happen and are accepted. It is the nature of this "post-heaven state."

    Precepts and their applications are different things.

    Funny, you are having this conversation with two female Sagittarians.


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