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Taoism versus Morality*


Raymond M. Smullyan


MORALIST: I must say I am intensely disturbed by the way the world is going from bad to worse. All objective moral standards seem to be disappearing. Nowadays, everyone is talking in terms of whats right for me or right for you or right for himnever what it really right in itself. All moral judgmentsthey sayreduce ultimately to purely subjective tastes and preferences. So with the disappearance of any objective code of morality, it is no wonder that civilization is rapidly going to its destruction!

TAOIST: Then you are talking to the right man. I happen to be one of those who do believeand stronglyin objective moral standards.

MORALIST: Really! How wonderful! You have no idea what a relief it is to meet the likes of you in these amoral times. Are you also interested in the logic of ethics? Have you ever considered, for example, the question of whether ethics is finitely axiomizable?

TAOIST: I dont think I follow you.

MORALIST: I mean, can all of ethics be derived from a finite number of assumptionsethical axiomsor are an infinite number of such axiomatic principles required?

TAOIST: Oh, a finite number, definitely! Indeed, only a very small finite numberone, to be exact! All of ethics can be reduced to just one principle.

MORALIST (eagerly): And what is this principlethe Golden Rule, perhaps?

TAOIST: Oh no! My principle is far more basic. It is simply that everyone has the right to do whatever he wants.

MORALIST (after a moment of dazed silence): Oh, my God! Never in my life have I been so fully, so brutally deceived! Here I was prepared to give you all my trust, to accept you as a fellow Moralist, and you come out with the monstrous sentimentnot an amoral sentimentbut positively the most anti-moral sentiment I have ever heard! You will excuse me that I am still in a slight state of shock!

TAOIST: I do not see this sentiment as anti-moral at all.

MORALIST: Of course it is! In the first place, the idea of everybody doing whatever he wants would, of course, lead to anarchy.

TAOIST: Oh, not at all! If the people want laws, they have a perfect right to pass them. The criminal has a perfect right to break them, the police have a perfect right to arrest him, the judge has a perfect right to sentence him to jail, and so on.

MORALIST: Now wait a minute, youre playing a sophistical trick on me! If the criminal had the right to break the laws (which of course he doesnt), then the police would not have the right to arrest him.

TAOIST: Why not?

MORALIST: Because obviously, if a person has the right to do something, then no one else has the right to stop him or punish him for what he has done.

TAOIST: But that obviously cannot be true, since I just told you that anyone has the right to do anything.

MORALIST: Then you are obviously using the word right in a way which is totally meaningless. According to any conceivable notion of right, if a person has the right to do something, then no one has the right to stop him.

TAOIST: But that is not true. According to the notion of right to which I adhere, your statement is simply false, since two different people can want to do conflicting things.

MORALIST: Then you are being inconsistent. There simply is no possible interpretation of the word right according to which everybody has the right to do exactly what he wants.

TAOIST: I will grant that according to your concept of right it is obviously false that everyone has the right to do what he wants. However it is not the case that under no interpretation of right is it true that everyone has the right to do what he wants.

MORALIST: There is no such interpretation!

TAOIST: There most certainly is.

MORALIST: There is not!

TAOIST: Would you care to bet on it?

MORALIST: With all my heart!

TAOIST: Then Im afraid you would lose. Simply define as act to be right if the doer of the act wants to do it. Under that definition, it is trivial that one has the right to do what one wants.

MORALIST: Oh my God, what a cheap sophistical trick! You are playing silly meaningless word games, giving purely abstract arguments which have nothing to do with reality. Of course according to your purely ad hoc definition of right, what you say is trivially true. But who in his right mind would accept such a horrible definition?

TAOIST: You raise several interesting points. In the first place, you did not originally say that under no acceptable definition of right can it be true that one has the right to do whatever one wants, but that under no definition was this the case. Therefore, I gave you some definitionalbeit possibly an unacceptable oneas a counterexample.

MORALIST: But that is exactly what I mean by playing word games! Why should you give me such a definition, knowing fully well that I would find it most unacceptable?

TAOIST: In order to establish an extremely important point! Originally, you were decrying the lack of objective moral standard. I am trying to show you that it is now mere objectivity you want. Many, many different objective definitions of right and wrong can be given, all of them perfectly precise. But for you to accept one, it must pass your own purely subjective standards.

MORALIST: Of course! So what?

TAOIST: Originally you were decrying subjectivity in morals, and I claim that in the last analysis you are being no less subjective than those you criticize. Of course subjective moralists are subjective, but they at least have the honesty to admit it. My main criticism of so-called objective moralists is that they are just as subjective as the subjective moralists, only they dont realize it. They hide their subjectivity behind a cloak of objectivity.

MORALIST: What about the objective moralist who believes in God? He defines the good as concordance with Gods will. Can there be anything subjective about that?

TAOIST: Of course there is! Abstractly it might appear objective. The only trouble is that ones choice of religionthe nature of the God one believes inis determined entirely by subjective attitudes. Hence, when someone says, You should do so and so, not because I feel you should, but because Gods morality demands it, then I feel strongly that he is hiding his own purely subjective feelings behind a cloak of objectivity. Mind you, I am not necessarily against subjectivity, provided it is honestly recognized as such.

MORALIST: If I really wish to hide my subjectivity behind a facade of objectivity, then according to you I have the perfect right to do so! After all, you said I have the right to do whatever I want!

TAOIST: This is a silly attempt at a reductio ad absurdum argument; but Im glad you brought it up since it will serve perfectly to illustrate a point. Of course you have the right to! I am not questioning that. But I dont believe you really want to! I know you well enough to know that honesty is one of your values. I do not believe that you are consciously or deliberately hiding your subjectivity behind a mask of objectivity. You dont know that you are doing this. And the only reason I am trying to convince you is my absolute faith that once you recognize what you are doing, you will no longer wish to continue doing it.

You see, our main difference is that I have far more faith in the essential goodness of human wants than you do.

MORALIST: But really now, the statement that one has the right to do whatever one wants! It is this word whatever that I find so disturbing. Is not your statement honestly equivalent to the denial of morality altogether?

TAOIST: Logically equivalent, possibly, yes. Psychologically equivalent, certainly not! Most people are far more shocked by my statement than by a mere denial of morality. Amoralists have been in existence long enough that they are no longer a frightening novelty to moralists. So when an amoralist denies the objective reality of morality, the moralist will certainly disagree but still take it in stride. But when somebody comes along and admits there is such a thing as right and wrong, and then proceeds to say that anyone has the right to do whatever he wants, this seems not like amorality but like a hideous perversion of morality!

MORALIST: True. Tell me, since you know your remark shocks people, why did you make it?

TAOIST: Because again, I know you well enough to realize that you would not want me to withhold the truthor even what I believe to be the truthjust in order to avoid giving you a shock.

MORALIST: But do you really believe it is the truth? Dont you find anything dangerous in your statement? Dont you realize how it can be used to justify the most horrible behavior imaginable?

TAOIST: I can well imagine how it might appear to, but I am much less frightened than you that it actually will. Again, I feel that our main temperamental difference is that I have far more confidence than you in the fundamental goodness of human nature. Therefore I am less afraid than you of people doing what they really want. Is there really so much difference between my maxim and the well-known (and much more acceptable) saying, Love God, and do as you will?

MORALIST: I am afraid you are being unrealistic. You believe that mans very instincts are good, whereas anyone who, instead of indulging in wishful thinking, knows how things really are, knows that mans natural primitive impulses are extremely dangerous unless checked by reason and morality. A man who is all Id is a menace to himself and society. The Id must be disciplined by the ego and superego to create a truly socialized being.

TAOIST: It seems to me that somewhere I have heard this before!

MORALIST: I am hardly claiming this to be original! The important thing is that it is true.

TAOIST: To me, the more important thing is that it is false.

MORALIST: Are you not being a bit on the dogmatic side?

TAOIST: Of course! But no more than you are being.

MORALIST: Let us not quibble about this childish point! The thing is: how do you know that the point of view I hold is false?

TAOIST: I do not claim to know it; the issue is highly controversial. My own experiences in life have led me to feel that the picture you describe is quite wrongthe picture of the Id as the wild, ferocious, dangerous beast, and the superego as the avenging hero who holds the Id in check. If I think in these Freudian terms at all (which incidentally I usually dont), my picture is rather the opposite: I see the poor maligned Id as really of a sweet and loving nature; but the superego, by chaining and torturing the Id, drives it to respond with counter-hostility and then indeed sometimes to commit acts of violence. Then the superego triumphantly laughs and says, See what a vicious creature the Id really is! You see now why I have to keep it in restraint? Just think how much more damage it would do if I didnt keep it in check!

The situation is perfectly analogous to a man who does not trust his dog and keeps him perpetually chained. The chaining process obviously makes the dog vicious, and the man then says, You see why such a vicious dog has to be chained!

MORALIST: We have discussed the Id and superego. Where does the ego come in all this?

TAOIST: That depends on the individual. Your ego is obviously on the side of the superego; mine is on the side of the Id.

MORALIST: Tell me honestly, why are we moralists such a threat? What do you really have against us? Is it merely what you already said about our hiding our subjectivity behind a cloak of objectivity?

TAOIST: No, it is far more than that! You may remember George Berkeleys penetrating criticism of philosophers, They first raise a dust, and then complain that they cannot see. My criticism of moralists is very similar, though perhaps even more drastic. You recall that our whole conversation started by your complaining about the increasing immorality in the world. Most moralists are constantly complaining about the worlds so-called immoralities, but it is my sober contention that the moralists themselves are the primary source of this trouble. They, more than any other group, cause men to act immorally, despite the fact (or rather because of it!) that they preach morality. They are causing the very trouble they decry.

MORALIST: This is honestly the most unfair accusation I have ever heard in my life!

TAOIST: Im sorry, but I must be honest. The situation is not without parallel. One medical expert recently said that the greatest health hazard of these times (next to cancer) is bad doctors. I am not qualified to say whether or not this is true, but it wouldnt surprise me! I have also heard that nineteenth century medicine has killed and sickened far more people than it has saved. This is certainly most plausible!

It is not out of the question that economists may have been the prime cause of many of the worlds worst economic problems. Parents who go to psychiatrists sometimes find outto their utter horrorthat they are the primary cause of their childrens juvenile delinquency and other neurotic problems. Psychiatry itself has not been immune to a similar sort of attack. Some people feel that psychiatry itself has been the major cause of the increasing neuroses of our civilization, despite the fact that it has indeed helped a few individuals.

And so it seems that the phenomenon of raising a dust and then complaining that one cannot see is hardly confined to the philosophers alone. Why then should you moralists feel so immune from this criticism?

MORALIST: But all you have given me is analogies! You have not told me how the moralists are causing the moral problems of the world.

TAOIST: I have already indicated this somewhat. Recall what I said about the superego keeping the Id chained up like a dog, thus causing the Id to become vicious, and then blaming the Id as being initially vicious. Let me now say moreand in less Freudian terms.

The key point to observe is that there is all the difference in the world between being moralistic and being humane. I think the word humane is central to our entire problem. You are pushing morality; I am encouraging humanity. You are emphasizing right and wrong; I am emphasizing the value of natural love. I do not assert that it is logically impossible for a person to be both moralistic and humane, but I have yet to meet one who is! I dont believe in fact that there are any. My whole life experience has clearly shown me that the two are inversely related to an extraordinary degree. I have never yet met a moralist who is a really kind person. I have never met a truly kind and humane person who is a moralist. And no wonder! Morality and humaneness are completely antithetical in spirit.

MORALIST: Im not sure that I really understand your use of the word humane, and above all, I am totally puzzled as to why you should regard it as antithetical to morality.

TAOIST: A humane person is one who is simply kind, sympathetic, and loving. He does not believe that he should be so, or that it is his duty to be so; he just simply is. He treats his neighbor well not because it is the right thing to do, but because he feels like it. He feels like it out of sympathy or empathyout of simple human feeling. So if a person is humane, what does he need morality for? Why should a person be told that he should do something which he wants to do anyway?

MORALIST: Oh, I see what youre talking about; youre talking about saints! Of course, in a world full of saints, moralists would no longer be neededany more than doctors would be needed in a world full of healthy people. But the unfortunate reality is that the world is not full of saints. If everybody were what you call humane, things would be fine. But most people are fundamentally not so nice. They dont love their neighbor; at the first opportunity they will exploit their neighbor for their own selfish ends. Thats why we moralists are necessary to keep them in check.

TAOIST: To keep them in check! How perfectly said! And do you succeed in keeping them in check?

MORALIST: I dont say that we always succeed, but we try our best. After all, you cant blame a doctor for failing to keep a plague in check if he conscientiously does everything he can. We moralists are not gods, and we cannot guarantee our efforts will succeed. All we can do is tell people they should be more humane; we cant force them to. After all, people have free wills.

TAOIST: And it has never once occurred to you that what in fact you are doing is making people less humane rather than more humane?

MORALIST: Of course not, what a horrible thing to say! Dont we explicitly tell people that they should be more humane?

TAOIST: Exactly! And that is precisely the trouble. What makes you think that telling one that one should be humane or that it is ones duty to be humane is likely to influence one to be more humane? It seems to me it would tend to have the opposite effect. What you are trying to do is to command love. And love, like a precious flower, will only wither at any attempt to force it. My whole criticism of you is to the effect that you are trying to force that which can thrive only if it is not forced. Thats what I mean when I say that you moralists are creating the very problems about which you complain.

MORALIST: No, no, you dont understand! I do not command people to love each other. I know as well as you do that love cannot be commanded. I realize it would be a beautiful world if everyone loved one another so much that morality would not be necessary at all, but the hard facts of life are that we dont live in such a world. Therefore morality is necessary.

But I am not commanding one to love ones neighborI know that is impossible! What I command is: even though you dont love your neighbor all that much, it is your duty to treat him right anyhow. I am a realist.

TAOIST: And I say you are not a realist. I say that right treatment or fairness or truthfulness or duty or obligation can no more be successfully commanded than love. Even Jesus, in his more enlightened moments, realized the profound significance of this point. His attitude towards harlots and sinners was not, Shame on you, you are contemptible! I cannot love and accept you the way you are. If you want my love and acceptance you must first change. No, his whole attitude was, I love you and understand you perfectly, and I understand why you sin. I love you and accept you as you are now. Since I love you, I hope, for your sake, that you stop sinning because I know your sinning is making you unhappy.

MORALIST: You are a fine one to interpret Jesus! Do you think Jesus would ever have said, Everyone has the right to do whatever he wants?

TAOIST: No, I do not believe he would. But in the context in which I said it, my motives were to the same effect. I was knocking down morality insofar as it goes counter to true humanity.

MORALIST: But why must morality go counter to humanity? Do we not preach humanity?

TAOIST: Weve been through this before. My whole point is that humaneness cannot be preached. Preaching it is just the thing to destroy it. Im afraid you still dont get my central point. Let me quote you another Christian source. In Christian Ethics, by Waldo Beach and H. Richard Niebuhr occurs the following wonderful passage about St. Paul:

In a sense Pauls whole thought on the law may be interpreted as a development of Jesus idea that a good tree brings forth good fruit and that no amount of external conduct can make men really good. In so far as the imperative moral law remains something external to man, an affair of You ought and You ought not, it cannot make him good at the core; it cannot transform his motives. The imperative form of the law, not its content, is a relative thing which presupposes the presence in man of a desire contrary to the intention of the law. Moreover, the giving of injunctions to men is likely to arouse their self-will and so tempt them to transgress the law. Where there are imperatives, adults as well as children are tempted to see how close they can come to the edge of the forbidden. Again, imperative law cannot produce that innate, unforced graciousness of conduct evident in Jesus Christ which is so much more attractive and so much more fruitful than self-conscious goodness.

I find this passage most remarkable! It expresses my ethical philosophy better than anything I have said. This represents a vein of Christianity which, to my utter amazement, is not well known to many practicing Christians.

MORALIST: Im glad you said a vein of Christianity, because it is hardly the whole of Christianity. To identify the whole doctrine with this one thread would be most misleading.

TAOIST: Yes, I realize this, unfortunately.

MORALIST: Why do you say unfortunately?

TAOIST: Because I find it painful to have to reject any religioneven atheism. I wish I could accept them all, even though they all contradict one another. Each is a composite of many strains, some good, some bad, some indifferent. The best I can do is to pick the finest veins of each and synthesize them as well as I can. In particular, the above passage on Saint Paul emphasizes just that aspect of Christianity which I love.

MORALIST: Of course! You pick just that aspect which suits your purpose. You keep making the same mistake over and over again. Consider the last line of the passage you read: Again, imperative law cannot produce that innate, enforced graciousness of conduct evident in Jesus Christ which is so much more attractive and so much more fruitful than self-conscious goodness. This is fine for beings like Christ, but I wish you would get it through your head that you and I are not Jesus Christ. We are human beings whose natures are partly good and partly evil. Of course the spontaneous goodness of Christ is more attractive and fruitful that self-conscious goodness. Yes, that is fine for Jesus Christ, but we are not Jesus Christ. We mortals have to learn the hard way. Even though spontaneous goodness is better than self-conscious goodness, self-conscious goodness is better than no goodness at all. And since most mortals can learn goodness only in a self-conscious way, at least at first, thats the way it unfortunately has to be.

I think the following considerations may be helpful here. Kant made a significant distinction between what he called a good will and a holy will. A man with a good will is attracted to duty and virtue for their own sake, but that does not mean that he does not have base or ignoble impulses. However, by virtue of his good will, he overcomes his less worthy natural impulses by discipline and self-denial. It is a painful process, but he has the character to overcome this pain. Now a person with a holy will would have no desire to do a wrong act in the first place. He has no evil desires to overcome, for he has no evil desires at all. So, for example, a man with a good will may have a desire to steal from his neighbor, but he will overcome his temptation to do so because he knows it is wrong. The man with a holy will will not even desire to steal from his neighbor.

TAOIST: Of the two, I prefer the holy will.

MORALIST: Naturally. So do I. The holy will is the greatest blessing one can enjoy. But it is something which must be earned! What have you or I done to deserve the privilege of having a holy will? A holy will belongs to beings like God or Christ or angels or saints. We mortals are rarely if ever born with a holy will; we are lucky enough if we have a good will. One must first struggle through the stage of the good will and by a great effort of discipline overcome ones baser impulses. Then one may be rewarded with a holy will. But the holy will is the reward. Remember that!

TAOIST: I understand perfectly what you are saying. I just dont believe it.

MORALIST: Of course you dont! That is your whole fallacy! You regard goodness as something that grows spontaneously like a beautiful flower or a tree. But it doesnt. Like other valuable things in life, it requires deliberate cultivation. It requires sacrifice and discipline.

TAOIST: That is about the last thing in the world I believe!

MORALIST: It is your privilege to believe what you like. Nonetheless, what I say is trueharsh as it may sound.

TAOIST: It certainly does sound harsh! It not only sounds harsh, it is harsh! Im glad you brought up the word harsh because I believe it is the key to our entire conversation. Yes, my main criticism of moralists is that they are too harsh. Thats it exactly! Most moralists agree with me that human kindness is ultimately the most valuable thing of all. But our methods are as different as night and day.

I think that my entire ethical philosophy can be paraphrased in one brief sentence: Kindness cannot be taught by harshnessnot by any amount of harshness. I think this is what I have struggling to tell you all along. To attempt to teach kindness by harsh measures is like the proverbial war to end all wars. Harshness only encourages harshness; it never encourages kindness. I believe this is the central message of Christianity. It certainly is the central ethical message of Taoism. The Christian passage I just read you on Saint Paul can be summarized in the following single sentence of Lao-tse. When chiding Confucius for his morality, Lao-tse said, Give up all this advertising of goodness and duty, and people will regain love of their fellows. That is my philosophy in a nutshell! Give up advertising goodness and duty, and people will indeed regain love of their fellows.

MORALIST (after a pause): I did not realize you were this strongly Taoistic. Im afraid it is then rather hopeless for me to convince you of the necessity of the sterner, more heroic virtues of life, like duty, discipline, and sacrifice. I am indeed a moralist in the true Western style, and my views are truly dualistic. But this duality is something quite real, not something of my own making, as Taoists would claim. There really is a conflict between duty and inclination, and to simply close ones eyes to it does not make it vanish; it only leaves it unresolved. But as I have said, I have little hope that you will see this.

It is now getting late, and we must soon part. There is one last thing I must clear up which is still sorely bothering me. I cannot reconcile your change of attitude as this conversation has progressed. You started out with this monstrous statement Anybody has the right to do whatever he wants; and then as the conversation developed, you spoke more and more of the virtues of humaneness, kindness, sympathy, empathy, and love. Now, although I regard all your ideas of spontaneous goodness, gracious unself-conscious virtue, and so on, as childishly unrealistic, I nevertheless realize that your motives are admirable. How then can you possibly reconcile all this with your original horrid statement?

Please be really honest with me and tell me absolutely truthfully: Do you really believe that anyone has the right to do whatever he wants, or were you merely being provocative?

TAOIST (laughing): In a way I was being provocative, and in a way I meant it. I didnt realize this statement was still bugging you!

Look, let me put it this way. The statement itself, isolated from any context, is not one I would say I believe, nor is it the statement I would normally make. But it does make sense in certain contexts. I would make the statement everyone has the right to do what he wants only to people who I feel are overly moralistic. I then make the statement only to counterbalance what I believe to be unfortunate tendencies in the opposite direction. I am particularly apt to say this to moralists who are overly strict with themselves rather than others. All I am really trying to say to them is, I wish you would let yourself alone and stop beating yourself on the head; I believe you would be better off. Thats all I really mean by Everybody has the right to do whatever he wants.

Perhaps a still better way of conveying my real message is to say that if one believes he has the right to do what he wants, then he is more likely to want to do what is right.

*** *** ***


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* Chap. 21 of the book: The Tao Is Silent, by Raymond Smullyan.


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