Classical Daoism: Amoral Ethos

by Scott Barnwell edited by O Society April 23, 2020

Like other early Chinese thinkers (and people all over the world), most of the authors of the early texts later labelled Daoist appear to have valued a long, flourishing life in either a peaceful and well-ordered[1] society, or an individualistic – perhaps reclusive – life, disengaged from society. Any utopias they described were peaceful and harmonious places, where the people were free, cooperative, guileless and happy.

Thievery or violence never appear as acceptable or welcome practices. Further, they were particularly interested in maintaining one’s peace of mind, and/or what we would today call our mental health. Whatever endeavours they had, they wanted them to be successful and their methods efficacious. They did not value a short, fruitless life in a chaotic, discordant, and dangerous society and they did not want their endeavours to fail.[2]

Given many of them wanted to live in a relatively safe, peaceful, and cooperative society, accepting and following certain standards of behavior with regards to interpersonal and interstate relations and relationships seem like reasonable and effective ways to maintain a relatively harmonious environment to live in, and benevolence, morality/dutifulness and ritual propriety/etiquette – ren 仁 yi 義 and li 禮 – seem to be important standards or practices in this regard.

Yet – especially during the later Han period – the early Daoist tradition was characterized as  opposed to these. In the Han Documents (Hanshu 漢書), chapter 30 “Treatise on Literature” (Yiwenzhi 藝文志), it is said:

道家 … 及放者為之,則欲絕去禮學,兼棄仁義,曰獨任清虛可以為治。

“The Daoist tradition … if taken too liberally, one will desire to disregard ritual etiquette and education, and abandon benevolence and morality, claiming one need only employ purity and emptiness to govern.”[3]

Yang Xiong 揚雄 (53 B.C.E. – 18 C.E.) wrote in the Model Sayings (Fayan 法言), 4:


“As for the Laozi’s words about Dao and de, I have adopted them; as for its attacks on benevolence and morality, cutting off ritual etiquette, and doing away with learning, I have not adopted them.”[4]

And Hanshu 88 (揚雄傳下) records:


“Huan Tan says, “… Long ago, Lao Dan wrote two chapters discussing Nothingness, depreciating benevolence and morality, and criticizing ritual etiquette and learning[5]

The sources for these criticisms would seem to be the Laozi and the Zhuangzi, as we will explore, and instead of ethical excellence, the authors of the Daoist texts were more focused on averting danger and contention (dai 殆, zheng 爭), cultivating serenity/equanimity (jing 靜, etc.), and in “finishing out one’s natural years” (zhong qi tiannian 終其天年).

Paul Kjellberg and Philip Ivanhoe bluntly state the Zhuangzi is “a treatise on how to survive, both physically and spiritually,”[6] which is similar to how D.C. Lau, Angus Graham, and many others have felt about the Laozi. Angus Graham pictured the Laozi as written by a “disregarded unsuccessful man” who fantasized about being a reclusive, sagely advisor. This man, Graham imagines, lived in “perpetual fear,” which he believed pervaded the entire book.[7]

For Graham, the pressing concern in the Laozi was political and personal survival, which D.C. Lau also emphasized. Lau felt much of the wisdom in the book was intended for the “common man,” not necessarily the ruler or his advisors, and thus felt this egoistic (and amoral?) preoccupation with survival was reasonable and/or justified, because of the precariousness of daily life.[8]

Nonetheless, while the sage survives through yielding and submissiveness, Graham felt ultimately, it was not a calculated strategy, but rather the sage “gravitates towards his survival with the spontaneity of natural process.”[9] This natural disposition towards survival and peace of mind is present in the Zhuangzi as well, which, on the other hand, Graham felt exhibited fearlessness.

However, this fearlessness seems most obvious in passages that involve asocial people who refused to get entangled (lei 累) in politics and governing. For example, in chapter 5, Dechongfu 德充符, sages receive their “sustenance from Tian” and thus have little use for others. It is less so in parts that involve social or political engagement. For example, in the fictional dialogue between Confucius and Yan Hui 顏回 in chapter 4, Renjianshi 人間世.

In speaking of the apparent goal of personal transformation in the Zhuangzi, Joel Kupperman writes,

“The transformation at the heart of the  Zhuangzi  cannot be understood in terms of moral improvement … The Zhuangzi is, as far as I can see, not about morality. There is no clear suggestion the sage either would violate, or would be sure not to violate, those socially sanctioned rules of conduct that most closely correspond to what the modern West thinks of as morality. There are, it is true, passages like the one in chapter 6, in which Yan Hui is described as having ‘forgotten about Goodwill and Duty [i.e., ren 仁 and yi 義].’ But this forgetfulness certainly cannot be construed as a decision to violate moral norms, and (for all that we are told) is compatible with a pattern of behaving in compliance with moral norms but not as a result of thinking about the norms.”[10]

Indeed, in the mythical utopias the authors imagine, the people act in most of the ways one might consider morally-praiseworthy but are completely ignorant (buzhi 不知) of it.

Returning to the Laozi, Franklin Perkins observes it “most often recommends actions by describing what kinds of consequences they generate … and almost all can be read in terms of self-interest—succeeding in one’s endeavors, having a long life, avoiding shame, and holding a position as a leader and model. In this sense, the Daodejing is a guide for effective rather than ethical action.” Yet Perkins quickly adds, “to read the Daodejing as an amoral guide to success not only seems to violate the spirit of the text but also contradicts specific passages, particularly those concerned with governing, in which actions are recommended because they lead to the good of the people.”[11]

He notes, “It must be admitted some passages justify this concern for the people as a means rather than an end … It is thus possible to read all passages on concern for the people as intended toward securing the power of the ruler.”[12] On the other hand, they could actually be moral prescriptions which are then buttressed by arguments of self-interest, that is, as post hoc justification. I suspect both are found in the text.

“Morality,” (daode 道德 in modern Chinese), is a somewhat narrow concept or field, pertaining primarily to other-regarding interpersonal relations and our obligations or duties to others. Self-interest is secondary, at most. In fact, what the moral thing to do and what furthers one’s self-interest are often opposed. Morality’s purpose seems to be to help people build, maintain and navigate their interpersonal relations in the social world, promoting cooperation and mitigating conflict due to the pursuit of self-interest.[13]

One is expected to be impartial, treating strangers and one’s loved ones the same or similarly. Morality aims for objective standards of conduct, standards usually applicable and binding on everyone, regardless of people’s ambitions, values or their occupations. For the early Confucians, most obligations varied depending on one’s relationship and role, but many applied generally to all interpersonal relations. Finally, morality is often expressed in imperatives that are unescapable. For example, for a Confucian, a son must be respectful to and care for his parents, regardless of how they treat him or how he feels about them.

“Ethics,” (lunli 倫理 in modern Chinese), can be used in a broad sense or a narrow one. The broad sense goes back to ancient Greece and refers to ideas about how to live a flourishing, Good Life. It takes one’s self-interest into account and includes more than just the interpersonal relations of morality.[14]“Ethics/ethical” in modern usage has a narrow focus, being relative standards or principles limited to civic or work life, (whereas “morals/moral” generally pertains to private life).[15]  Thus we have medical ethics, marketing ethics (perhaps an oxymoron), journalism ethics, etc. which are different from ancient ethics and morality.

Most early Daoist texts seem to assume one of a ruler’s responsibilities is, or ought to be, the welfare of the people he or she rules, (although, they do not claim the welfare of the people is of greater importance than his or her own). This would fall under “government ethics,” for they are not claiming everyone, regardless of role or context, should follow this standard or has this (non-moral) responsibility.  That a ruler is advised, for example, to minimize his or her interference in the lives of the people, does not necessarily mean this applies to parents of young children or village doctors.[16]

It is important to note this responsibility to foster the welfare of others is an ethical responsibility and not a moral one: caring for one’s subjects is (claimed to be) in the job description (ming 名) and not a moral imperative for all humans.[17] It also is not necessarily considered part of the Good Life, i.e., “ethical” in the ancient sense. But if ruling over a content populace is taken to be in a ruler’s best interest, then it would be.


Many use the two terms interchangeably, despite their differences. In this essay I will consider them more-or-less synonymous, for they both pertain to right and wrong, and, for example, referring to an action as unethical or immoral generally generates the same feeling of wrongness. There is a sense in which it is correct to say that Daoists had an ethics and also correct to say they rejected ethics. For the first, I will use the ancient Greek term “ethos,” which only includes a distinctly subjective kind of right and wrong and as we will see, can better accommodate self-interest and prudence, in contrast to objective, other-regarding senses of right and wrong that are implicit in modern ethics and morality.

Kwong-loi Shun claims that (ancient) ethics “can take different forms and need not be tied to other-regarding concerns or to upholding the social order. Accordingly, even proposals that one should look after one’s own interest or that one should live a life of withdrawal would count as conceptions of the ethical life.”[18]

Of course, this is “ethical egoism,” which is really a quasi-moral theory that says we should always do what satisfies our own self-interest (and may include that of family and friends). This seems to be the closest to that of the early Daoists; however, not only is it too self-consciously self-centred and principled, but seems to entail a devaluation of the welfare of others that is not present in their writings. While the actions of an ethical egoist may be beneficial, detrimental or neutral to the welfare of others,[19] we find no examples in the Daoist texts where the suggested course of action or non-action is detrimental. This is suggestive, but is short of ruling it out. On the other hand, we do find genuine caring or concern for the welfare and/or liberty of others in the texts, and the explicit justification of fulfilling one’s self-interest we often find might have been added post hoc to persuade a self-interested reader (like a ruler). At the same time, sometimes morally laudable ends (like furthering the welfare of others) are achieved by secretive, even devious means, so the moral worth of such actions would seem to be compromised.

Eric Nelson sees the Daoists as not criticizing ethical behavior as such, but rather the “degradation of ethics into arbitrary rules, static hierarchical relations of subordination, and unresponsive rituals,” the bureaucratization, conventionalization and institutionalization of ethics.[20] Heiner Roetz calls this stepping back from conventional morality the “postconventional recourse to the preconventional past.” He sees the Daoists as “exposing the crass shortcomings of the conventional ethos” but naively believing that returning to a more original condition and spontaneity will serve us well. He sees them as trying to escape or evade development and complexity.[21] They would thus be related to what is sometimes called “bioconservatism,” a stance of skepticism of and resistance to attempts to improve human beings through technological means, where, in this case, morality is regarded as an artificial social technology meant to improve human life. The Daoist quietist self-cultivation practices may justifiably be considered contradictory to this stance, having more in common with transhumanist ideals, although by fundamentally different means. While Daoists did see merit in staying closer to our original condition as children, and closer to Nature and spontaneity, they did not appear to consider those who followed the Confucian or Mohist ways, for example, as unethical, at least in the usual sense. Rather, these ways are viewed as unwise or counterproductive.

The rejection of benevolence and morality in the Daoist texts may simply be an example of exaggeration and hyperbole, perhaps with a rhetorical or therapeutic purpose. We saw in the Wuwei essay that some claims regarding “interfering” (wei 為) in the Daoist texts are not intended to be taken categorically but instead understood as correctives. Mengzi criticized what appears to have been an exaggeration of both Mozi’s altruistic tendencies and Yangzi’s individualistic or egoistic views in order to stake out a place for his “more reasonable” position, in the middle.[22] Mohists criticized what appears to be an extreme ethical egoist position where one puts oneself even above loved ones (e.g., family) and will even kill others to benefit oneself.[23] Although perhaps drawn from historical examples where patricide, infanticide and fratricide occurred, it is ultimately a strawman argument. But most, including the Daoists, staked out their positions as contrasts to the more “extreme” positions of others, or more accurately, ascribed to others.

The authors of the Daoist texts shared, roughly, an ethos: a distinctive set of attitudes, preferences and values. Put into practice, or “walked” (xing 行), this was their dao 道: their way, their approach to living. The appropriateness of calling one who followed their way “moral” or “ethical” and one who did not “immoral” or “unethical” is questionable however, since these terms usually imply other-regardingness, duty and objectivity. Many of them seem to have been less than committed to the social world and therefore had fewer moral concerns or use for principles that only apply to interpersonal relations.[24]

While they may have acknowledged the usefulness of some standards of conduct, virtues and obligations, these do not seem to be moral virtues or moral obligations.[25] The distinction is important, and often overlooked. The virtue or practice of wuwei– non-interference, not forcing things to be other than they are of themselves – could be described as either moral or prudent, depending on whether one refrains from, or has an obligation to refrain from, interfering with others for their benefit (weiren 為人) or for the success of one’s own endeavours or goals (weiwo為我).

Although they often show some concern for the welfare of others, Daoist sages are not portrayed as exceptionally compassionate or altruistic. Instead, they are often characterized as indifferent, and nearly every time any reasons or ends are given for following the Daoist dao they are for one’s own benefit or personal welfare (e.g., survival, efficacy, inner peace), whether one is a woodcarver or emperor of the known world. In the Zhuangzi, people are often mocked for thinking or acting in ways that will frustrate their own interests. However, no moral judgments appear to be involved. So, from Daoists’ own descriptions, “prudent” and “imprudent,” “wise” and “unwise” are more appropriate (than moral/immoral, ethical/unethical).


On the other hand, there is no reason to doubt that there were things Daoists wouldn’t do, for reasons other than self-interest or inefficacy.[26] Their negative view of thievery and violence (daozei 盜賊), for example, does not seem to be justified by reference to self-interest. On the one hand, they may simply have disliked it, but sometimes they seem to judge it (morally) wrong (e.g., Laozi 53),[27]  just as Mengzi called stealing “not right” (feiyi 非義).[28] The regret felt when masses of people are killed in battle (Laozi 31) does not seem to be because one was ineffective at winning the war, even though defending one’s territory with minimal to no casualties would certainly be celebrated as the height of efficacy or adeptness (shan 善). Rather, one should not want to kill or take joy in killing. The disavowal of greed/acquisitiveness, intemperance/discontentment, overreach and aggressive ambition (see esp. Laozi 46), in addition to being regarded as detrimental to one’s own self-interest, seem to also be regarded as moral transgressions: one ought not to be greedy or ambitious.

As mentioned earlier, if one is going to live in a community, it is likely in one’s best interest that it be a peaceful and orderly one. Like most people, Daoists preferred to have hearts/minds that were peaceful and “orderly” (zhi 治) and not “disordered” (luan 亂). Some may have moralized their preference for this peace and order, feeling that it was intrinsically valuable and prescribing its desirability, that is, claimed that all of us shouldor must strive for this (whether we all agree or not). Certainly, they took it for granted that most if not all people felt the same. Finally, while efficacy is said to be enhanced when a lack of self-consciousness and purposefulness obtain (e.g., Laozi 7, 22/24), there are places where there is an endorsement of an almost moral purity of motive, of naturalness, of genuineness, that do not seem to be linked to one’s personal welfare or efficacy in the world. That is, they sometimes seem to be regarded as something one should aspire to. Again, it is often unclear whether they would feel that people who did haveulterior motives (either selfish or benevolent) or were disingenuous or contrived were immoral or unethical. If they felt that what is natural and spontaneous is good and right and what is unnatural and contrived is bad and wrong, then these would indeed be moral judgments; not only that, they would be fallacious moral judgments.

However, they clearly did not elevate all things natural as models to emulate or actions to undertake. The destructive power of floods or tsunamis are not held up as an ideal way to deal with others. Clumsiness and anger, although natural, are nowhere recommended. Thus, they would seem to have either projected their own values on Nature, as the Mohists did and as some have accused the ancient Greek Stoics of doing,[29] or simply “cherry-picked” the aspects of Nature that they admired or found useful and ignored the others. As Dieter Birnbacher points out in his Naturalness: Is the “Natural” Preferable to the “Artificial”?, there is a danger here: “Because examples of every possible form of behavior, be it the most philanthropic or the most misanthropic, can be found in non-human nature, appealing to “nature” or “naturalness” gives every possible ethical opinion the opportunity to surreptitiously justify itself by appealing to a seemingly higher instance.”[30] Nevertheless, if they did cherry-pick aspects of Nature that they admired, they chose none that are misanthropic or malevolent.[31]

Scholars like Roger Ames and Jung Lee argue that the Daoists claim that what one – usually a ruler – should (always?) do is attune oneself to or emulate the Dao. This is certainly true, to a degree, but if we ask why, the answer we find in the texts is usually that it is the most effective, efficient way to be, act or govern. Thus, this still seems like it is founded on survival, self-interest, etc. Emulating the Dao never results in failure, death or disorder. Philip Ivanhoe believes that purposely emulating the Dao in order to achieve the Daoist’s ideals of “general health or human flourishing—for example, living out one’s allotted span of years, keeping oneself physically whole and free from a variety of harms and deprivations, and enjoying psychological ease, comfort, and contentment,” is doomed to fail and thus rejects this “instrumental” or egoistic interpretation.[32]However, the criticism of deliberate striving for these ends is actually based instead on the Paradox of Egoism and/or the Paradox of Virtue.[33] This paradox is a point emphasized in the Daoist texts, and may be more appropriately called simply the Paradox of Striving. Striving for self-interest or virtue is regarded as often self-defeating or counterproductive. It is thus still judged instrumentally. This is neither a rejection of self-interest nor virtue. An archer aiming for a distant target will fail to hit the centre if he aims directly at it, more so if he or she puts undue pressure on himself or herself, but it doesn’t follow that hitting the target is an inappropriate goal.

Yong Huang has argued that Zhuangzi and his followers recognized that different living things have different needs and preferences; consequently, we should respect those needs and preferences and believed that “no one should impose his or her own values on others, whether out of good or ill will.”[34] If true, they would thus be committing what nowadays is called the “Naturalistic Fallacy,” whereby one derives a “should” or “ought” from a simple fact or facts. It seems to me to be better read in hypothetical terms: if one cares about the needs, preferences or interests of others, then one should treat them accordingly. There is no moral imperative that we must or should care about their interests. Huang claims that this “ethics of difference,” as he calls it, avoids “endorsing or tolerating” actions we would normally consider despicable and does not “respect any ways of life that do not regard other ways of life as having equal worth.”[35] If this is the case, there is no actual recognition of equal worth: the adherent of this ethical stance actually disrespects and disvalues those who don’t share their own values.[36] While it is not unthinkable that the authors of the Zhuangzi committed this fallacy, I believe Huang is trying too hard to find a moral theory in the text.

          On the other hand, perhaps they have moralized their own preference for freedom from interference, resulting in recommending a dao that discouraged imposing oneself or one’s values on others. This could help explain their disdain of both thievery and moralism: they endorsed a world where people are left alone, free from having what they need or value taken from them, (by thieves or governments), and free from having a stifling moral code imposed upon them, (by elite moral authorities). Confucius is recorded as saying “What you yourself do not desire, do not do to others (己所不欲,勿施於人。).[37] If the Daoists affirmed this prescription as well and their reason was: “because it is right (yi 義),” this would be a moral prescription, perhaps derived form their own preference to not be imposed on and left alone. Yet it could be a hypotheticalimperative, where it should be interpreted as: “If you don’t desire to be treated a certain way, it would be best (for you) not to treat others that way.” This would be “prudentialism” or “enlightened self-interest,” the theory that taking others’ interests into account is in our own best interest. To the extent that people need the cooperation of others to realize their own self-interest, especially their long-term interests, including maintaining their personal (and family’s) welfare, giving weight to and accommodating others’ interests and welfare may be prudent. Thus, taking others’ interests into account, engaging in prosocial behavior or following a code of conduct we might consider moral or ethical, does not mean that one is acting from moral motivation or even that genuine concern for others is present. Also, educator Nel Noddings has argued that genuine caring – natural caring – is not, by itself, moral or ethical.[38] In other words, one can have genuine concern for others and treat them accordingly, but not be a moral person, that is, not do so because one judges it right.

The authors of the Daoist texts seem to have assumed that every person is born with a genuine concern for their own welfare and their own interests, and most of their recommended states of mind, perspectives or courses of action (or nonaction) seem to be rooted in that. But we have no reason to doubt that they accepted that people are also born with, or develop naturally, a concern for, or a disposition to accommodate (or benefit) the welfare of others and their interests. This is what Nel Noddings has referred to as “natural caring.” Daoists seemed to have found that problems arise when this caring becomes “ethical caring,” or moral: when we intellectualize, formalize and “ornament” our concerns for others, making them prescriptions, proscriptions and duties. Altruism, also, can become pathological, doing more harm in the long run. Thus, perhaps they were simply against interference, for example, because they simply cared about others, and not because they judged interference morally wrong (feiyi 非義). Non-interference can indicate a lack of care for others, but not necessarily so: Noddings writes, “I may or may not act overtly in behalf of the cared-for. I may abstain from action if I believe that anything I might do would tend to work against the best interests of the cared-for.”[39] As we will see, this policy of non-interference does not offer any guidance when one is a bystander, when others are imposing their will on or harming others, infringing on their freedoms. We may “naturally care” for these others and act appropriately, but the Daoist texts do not say we have an obligation to come to the aid of others; indeed, occasionally we find passages that discourage trying to help others if it seems likely we will be harmed or not survive. Nevertheless, there is no general principle to refuse helping others.

It is here where it is best to remember that the advice given seems mostly to be offered as correctives to existing problems and ways to discourage or at least not contribute to them. But texts are not people: as much as many parts of the Zhuangziargue for leaving people alone and not interfering in the natural course of things, I believe it safe to presume that Zhuangzi (or even the “ethical egoist” Yangzi) would come to the aid of his wife, children or those he cared about. There is also no reason to believe he would not help perfect strangers in distress; for example, a child who had fallen into a well, (to use Mengzi’s example[40]). Further, “Daoist parents” might not have responded radically different from most parents when they find their child treating other children poorly (e.g., hurting, deceiving, or stealing from them). They would plausibly impose and enforce some sorts of standards of behaviour. Perhaps these “moral crutches” are needed at the beginning stages of human development but need to be transcended as one matures. The texts, however, are silent on child-rearing, and we have no evidence either way if they felt parents had a moral obligation to care for their children or whether children have a filial duty to their parents. Obviously, most parents do love and care for their children spontaneously, and although Daoists might have felt contempt for negligent, cruel or malicious parents, they may not have morally judged them as contemptible or bad.[41]

Confucians and Mohists found this development or extension (of natural caring to ethical caring) necessary for human societies to flourish (as have most moral philosophers across the world). Indeed, philosopher Richard Joyce suggests that those who believe they have a duty to help others may do so more reliably than those who rely on “moral” sentiments or desires.[42] The (felt) duties to help, be fair, honest, etc., or have a “concern for the status of our character”[43] are what many consider hallmarks of morality. The Laozi and Zhuangzi seem to argue for a reversion to informal, pre-intellectualized, spontaneous and premoral sentiments. They believed that there are inherent problems that come with the intellectualization and embellishment of sentiments, pro-social emotions, and of what may be considered “elite” ethics/morality. Confucians felt we would degenerate into beasts (qinshou 禽獸) without moral development.[44] Moreover, as he/they is/are portrayed in the Zhuangzi, Yang Zhu 楊朱 and his followers were those who “intellectualized” and formalized the natural concern people have for their own welfare into what might be called “ethical egoism.” Daoists apparently saw the inherent problems with this approach as well and argued that it is more prudent to put all self-concern out of mind or into the background, or “forgotten” (wang 忘).

The critiques of “knowledge” (zhi 知), the preference for “emptiness” (xu 虛), and advocacy of “forgetting” in these texts strongly suggest that ideally, taking this stance or approach to living (dao) is not done completely by choice or deliberately, but rather manifests spontaneously and naturally, from a relatively empty mind. Thus, it is not for the sake of (wei 為) anyone. This is what we find in the various mythical utopias described in the Zhuangzi. There are (ideally) no virtuous or selfish motives or justification; no deliberate, self-consciousness of “doing good” or “acting selfishly” and the distinctions between right and wrong are often problematized, (but not held to be wrong). One follows the Daoist dao unconsciously and spontaneously and thus is neither moral or immoral, altruistic or selfish. In a way very similar to the aforementioned utopias described in the Zhuangzi, Richard Joyce writes:

“We can easily imagine a community of people all of whom have the same desires: They all want to live in peace and harmony, and violence is unheard of. Everywhere you look there are friendly, loving people, oozing prosocial emotions. However, there is no reason to think that there is a moral judgment in sight. These imaginary beings have inhibitions against killing, stealing, etc. They wouldn’t dream of doing such things; they just don’t want to do them. But we need not credit them with a conception of a prohibition: the idea that one shouldn’t kill or steal because to do so is wrong.”[45]

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