Taoist Ethical Problems: Where Have We Been if not Home?

I have been struggling a bit recently with my chosen philosophical paths. There are some lines of thought pulling at me insistently from the edges and it is beginning to be very clear to me that I can no longer ignore them. This is mostly as a fair warning to my current followers that I will probably be diverting further from photography within the next few posts, and possibly longer, as I struggle to figure out just what this line of thinking will lead me to.

Before I get into the specifics of my current mental turbulence, I think it might be helpful for me to dig around a bit and try to pin down what I think both Taoism and Stoicism have to say about the larger question of Ethics, and what it takes to be a good person in the world. What might a higher good look like as a goal to strive for? What does a person need to do or think in order to live a good life? How relative is all of this judgement and how much of it may lie outside of ourselves?

At the core of Taoist thinking is that every unique individual has his or her own path to walk in this life. The work that we all must do if we want to live an engaged, full, aware life, is to get to know ourselves and to find that path, while also learning about the paths of the world around us, and acting in accordance with the natural flow of all things. An interesting twist that takes place here is that our “attuning” ourselves to our own nature isn’t a journey of action, a rerouting of the choices we have made up until now. It is a changing our our perceptions about the world around us and our place in it. It is largely gaining perspective about the true relationships that people, objects and creatures have with one another so that we can align our expectations with the way things really are and will continue to be, whether we go quietly or kicking and screaming.

Humans, and all objects of creation, are naturally disposed to being within their own flow at all times, and the act of us getting back to that isn’t an action of learning more facts, or doing “virtue calisthenics”, it is actually an action that has to do with getting rid of the unbalancing social constructs that we have built around ourselves within society. Dr. Carl Totton, head of the Taoist temple in L.A. has compiled a wonderful summary of key Taoist concepts with some of his colleages in which he describes this processs:

For Lao Tzu the method of happiness lies in attuning and aligning oneself to the eternal principle of the Tao as it manifests through you and all other manifestation. In order to do this we must eliminate desire and attachment, and practice “daily diminishing.”

Dr. Carl Totton, An Introductory Primer on Taoism

This journey of “daily diminishing” is aided by practices of observation of the natural world, maintaining curiosity and generosity with others, as well as self-reflection and meditation practices to help us to get in touch with deep aspects of ourselves. None of these activities can be taken for us. A deeper understanding of ourselves and our connection to the world around us is always a personal journey and can only be undertaken individually. We may look to others for inspiration, guidance and support, but they can only ever point us in a direction and offer perspective from their own work. One cannot pass enlightenment or being one with the Tao on to another human being. This is a significant piece of Taoist ethics in my understanding: that one must primarily focus on his or her own journey, and not be too quick (if ever) to pass judgment on the position of others.

This places Taoists in an interesting relationship to society around them. Even though terrible things may be happening around them, a Taoist is likely to remain distanced and somewhat neutral. After all, who are we to judge what is positive and negative. Taoists teach that these energies are really only different aspects of the same energy, and that there is always the seed of one within the other, as depicted within the yin yang symbol. Where we see difficulties in the world there may be other opportunities springing up, or following close on the heels. Where we see pain and suffering there may also be growth and development occurring. Likewise, how often do we pass judgment that things are going well when in fact disaster is looming just on the horizon as a consequence?

Amidst all of these judgments a Taoist is likely to say that we must keep perspective on what we can change, and to understand that our perceptions are limited. We must first focus on ourselves, especially because thinking that we can make better choices is often foolish. Please do misunderstand. Taoists are also very compassionate and kind, and would be quick to offer relief to those who are suffering, and support where they can, but they would not presume to try and “fix” a situation or tell others how it should be handled. At least that is where I am coming up against my reading of the philosophy.

Taoism isn’t a philosophy or religion that proselytizes, due to this ingrained belief that to try and influences other’s on their individual paths is both unhelpful and foolish. How then, could a Taoist be an activist for political or social change? How could a Taoist feel comfortable pushing their ideas of what is better onto other who must come to that understanding for themselves?

I think the particular piece of this equation that is most problematic is something that underpins this idea quoted earlier about “daily diminishing”. Ted Kardesh, another Taoist priest, explains in a later passage from the previous quoted introduction how this works to bring us back to a natural state by returning us to the way we were always meant to be.

Taoism states that all life forces tend to move toward harmony and balance because it is in their nature to do so. From the Taoist viewpoint we, as humans, have the choice of consciously aligning ourselves with the Way, or remaining in ignorance and resisting the natural order of the Tao. To choose the latter means to remain disconnected from our own personal processes, our own Tao, as well as life’s grand flow.

Ted Kardesh PhD, An Introductory Primer on Taoism

The implication, as I read it, is that humans should naturally be in this state of awareness as part of the larger flow of existence. Indeed, there are many other writers within the tradition who talk about a time prior to now when presumably Taoism wasn’t needed because everyone was simply at one with the world from the beginning.

In a sense, what we are looking at here, is a sort of original sin, in which we are born into a world unbalanced and given the choice to spend our time digging ourselves back to a place where we can reconnect to the source of all things, or to remain in ignorance and suffering. We are born elsewhere and, if we are able, must try and return to a home that we never knew.

Can the ethical base truly be so narrow as to focus on only one person at a time? True, the belief is there that we are all connected to each other and every other aspect of the world. The work that we do to return ourselves to nature is work that is done to everyone and everything, and the benefits resonate. However, there are millions of Taoists in the world including venerated religious leaders, teachers and sages. Presumably they are exhorting a strong influence on the course of the world, and yet we are still in a position where we must begin at ground zero. We are still in a place that must be significantly out of balance if we need to get back to a place that other creatures are simply born into.

I have some thoughts about how I can turn some other key concepts in Taoism into a larger ethical structure, and I will expand on them in an upcoming post. I am skeptical, however, that moving beyond this self-focused perspective would be embraced by other Taoists.

I am sure I am not the only one struggling with questions about what I can do to make positive change in the world during times like these, and I would be curious to hear from anyone who would like to share how they answer this question for themselves.

4 thoughts on “Taoist Ethical Problems: Where Have We Been if not Home?

  1. Great piece; it really spoke to me.

    I’m new at studying Taoism and Stoicism and I also feel conflicted in regards to things like protesting change, even if it’s for the better. Right now, I’m trying to find the flow so that it can help me personally to figure out what I’m meant to do in my life. This has been helpful with my writing and with my daily presence. I follow a YouTuber called Einzelganger and they have great videos about Taoism and Stoicism. If you haven’t watched their videos, I highly recommend them. I’m still making my way through them, so I’m not sure if they have any regarding Stoicism and ethical principles.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks so much for reading and for sharing that resource, I will certainly check it out. I’m going to outline some ideas about how I am planning to combine Taoism and activism in my mind in one of my upcoming posts once I get some of the ideas sorted out. I am very much still trying to figure out what I am meant to do with my life as well. Here’s to helping each other out on the journey!

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  2. I’m not a student of Taoism although I imagine it would resonate with me, as does Stoicism. Thought: isn’t the act of putting forth the philosophy of Taoism into the world for people to see, by Lao Tzu, Totton, Kardesh, others…with their interpretations, a form of ethical activism? Aren’t they “protesting change” in their subtle way?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I think you’re right about that. The traditional story of how the Tao Te Ching was written in the first place was that a soldier stopped Lao Tzu as he was about to leave the city for good to pursue a life in nature, and he forced Lao Tzu to write down his teachings before he could leave. So, perhaps he was only a reluctant activist 😉

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