2012 Conference

China and Inner Asia Session 353

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Classical Daoism and Ethics: A Critical Dialogue

Organizer: Matthew L Duperon, Susquehanna University, USA

Chair: Harold D. Roth, Brown University, USA

Discussants: Sarah Allan, Dartmouth College, USA; Brian Hoffert, North Central College, USA; Judson B. Murray, Wright State University, USA

Classical Daoism has often been read by comparativists and scholars of Daoist Studies as an amoral or non-moral tradition, exclusively concerned with escaping socio-political realities and/or cultivating psycho-spiritual experiences. The commentarial tradition and the reception of Daoism in the West, particularly its Orientalist legacy, have contributed to its characterization as a tradition without an ethics or even a normative sensibility. This panel examines the interpretive barriers to appreciating early Daoist texts like the Zhuangzi, Daodejing, and Huainanzi as ethical works and attempts to present alternative methodological directions in recovering the moral or normative elements of early Daoism, especially in regard to the realm of moral psychology and the role of emotions and affective states in a flourishing life. To this end, the panel will ask whether the contemporary understanding of “morality” as a special system of obligations does hermeneutic justice to early Daoist thought; and if not, which methodological alternatives exist in capturing the rich normative dimensions of early Daoist philosophy. Approaches centered in the virtues, aesthetics, psychology, and cosmology will be considered as well as understandings of early Daoism that tend to cast its normative shape in the language of self-cultivation. The format focuses on creating optimal dialogue, pairing each presenter with an individual discussant.

"Daoism, Dewey, and the Ethics of Participation”
Matthew L Duperon, Susquehanna University, USA

In early Daoist literature and in the writings of "classical" American pragmatism, many readers notice a rejection of moralizing and tendency toward pluralism in ethics. According to some traditions of moral philosophy, this is tantamount to a rejection of morality and acceptance of a relativistic "anything goes" or "do what you feel" attitude in ethics--a blank check for self-indulgence. In the case of early Daoist materials, this conclusion leads many to discount or overlook the important moral insights of early Daoism. The writers in both of these traditions, however, would reject the above conclusions and uphold their approach to the theory and practice of the well-lived human life. Pragmatism has a more easily accessible history of refuting charges of relativity, so we can look to it for tools in recovering the positive ethics of early Daoism. In this paper, I focus on the work of John Dewey and the expression of early Daoist ethics found in the Huainanzi and parts of the Zhuangzi. I argue that Dewey offers an "ethics of participation" that focuses on the quality of interaction between an individual and her environment to describe ethically meaningful action, and that this model describes well the stance taken by the authors of early Daoist texts. From this perspective, I demonstrate how the early Daoist approach to ethics is neither self-indulgent nor strongly relativistic. Indeed, it provides a robust account of the well-lived human life that systematically rejects self-indulgence in favor of mutually beneficial interactions with one's environment.

“The Ethics of Attunement: The Case for Early Daoism as a Moral Tradition”
Jung H. Lee, Northeastern University, USA

This paper examines the ethical dimensions of early Daoism, arguing in essence that our inherited notions of “morality” as a special system of obligations fails to capture the normative structure of early Daoist texts and that a new methodological approach needs to be adopted before we can fully appreciate early Daoism as an ethical tradition. The paper will first outline the dominance of our received views of “morality” and trace its influence in how we tend to read early Daoist texts as amoral or non-moral works that address issues of mysticism or spirituality but not the moral life per se. The paper will argue that while “morality” does not capture the ethical dimensions of early Daoism, we can flesh out the normative dimensions of early Daoism by describing early Daoist ethics as an “ethics of attunement” centered around conforming one’s actions and behavior in accordance with the Way. Although Daoist ethics cannot be described in the language of “morality” as a system of obligations based on principles and rules, the normative quality of Daoist living can be captured in the vocabulary of attunement that emphasizes the fittingness and propriety of actions and behaviors rather than their fidelity to procedural rules and abstract principles.

“The Moral Psychology of the Sage General in Huainanzi 15, ‘An Overview of the Military’”
Andrew S. Meyer, City University of New York, Brooklyn College, USA

Chapter 15 of the Huainanzi, “An Overview of the Military (Bing lue),” purports to be a synthesis of all the inherited military wisdom of the classical era. The overall perspective of “Bing lue,” however, breaks from the orthodox teachings of the military classics in key respects. The Huainanzi rejects the proposition that military force can be applied effectively according to purely materialistic and amoral strategic and tactical principles. Following along with the cosmological outlook of the Huainanzi as a whole, “Bing lue” asserts that the structure of the cosmos places organic constraints on the use of military force. A military mission that violates the cosmically-determined shape of human society is doomed to failure. Any short-term success it does enjoy will ultimately be undone by the mechanism of resonance (gan-ying). Given this context, “Bing lue” greatly emphasizes human psychology, identifying the apophatic personal cultivation of the commander as the “root” of all military affairs. Unlike the ideal commander of the Sunzi bingfa, whose effectiveness is derived from his knowledge and intelligence, the commander of “Bing lue” achieves victory through his “spiritlike” and “enlightened” insight into fundamental cosmic realities. In this respect, the commander of the Huainanzi bears more resemblance to the “sage” or the “genuine person” of the Laozi or Zhuangzi than to the ideal general of the early military texts. This essay will explore the ways in which the Huainanzi draws upon Daoist theories of psychology and personal cultivation to construct an alternative morality of military affairs.