The Tao Is Silent, by Raymond M. Smullyan Chapter 21, Taoism Versus Morality MORALIST: I m
The Tao Is Silent, by Raymond M. Smullyan
Chapter 21, Taoism Versus Morality
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 what's right for me
or right for you or right for him--never what it really right in itself. All
moral judgements--they say--reduce 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 believe--and strongly--in 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 don't think I follow you.
MORALIST: I mean, can all of ethics be derived from a finite number of
assumptions--ethical axioms--or are an infinite number of such axiomatic
TAOIST: Oh, a finite number, definately! Indeed, only a very small finite
number--one, to be exact! All of ethics can be reduced to just one
MORALIST (eagerly): And what is this principle--the 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 foully, 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 sentiment--not an amoral sentiment--but positively the most
ANTImoral 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 antimoral 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, you're playing a sophistical trick on me! If
the criminal had the right to break the laws (which of course he doesn't),
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
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 I'm 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 definition--albeit
possibly an unacceptable one--as a counterexample.
MORALIST: But that is exactly what I mean by playing word games! Why
should you give me such a definition, knowing full well that I would find it
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
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 don't realize it. They hide their subjectivity behind a cloak of
MORALIST: What about the objective moralist who believes in God? He
defines the good as concordance with God's will. Can there be anything
subjective about that?
TAOIST: Of course there is! Abstractly it might appear objective. The
only trouble is that one's choice of religion--the nature of the God one
believes in--is determined entirely by subjective attitudes. Hence, when
someone says, "You should do so and so, not because I feel you should, but
because God's 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
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 I'm
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 don't
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
don't 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 that
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
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 truth--or even what I believe to be the truth--just
in order to avoid giving you a shock.
MORALIST: But do you really believe it is the truth? Don't you find
anything dangerous in your statement? Don't 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 man's
very instincts are good, whereas anyone who, instead of indulging in wishful
thinking, knows how things really are, knows that man's 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 created 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 wrong--the 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 don't), 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 counterhostility 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 didn't keep
it in check!" The situation is perfectly analagous 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 Berkeley's
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 world's 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
TAOIST: I'm 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 wouldn't 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 world's
worst economic problems. Parents who go to psychiatrists sometimes find
out--to their utter horror--that they are the primary cause of their
children's 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 more--and 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 don't 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: I'm 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 empathy--out 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 you're talking about; you're talking about saints!
Of course, in a world full of saints, moralists would no longer be
needed--any 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.
Of everybody were what you call "humane," things would be fine. But most
people are fundamentally not so nice. They don't love their neighbor; at the
first opporunity they will explot their neighbor for their own selfish ends.
That's 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 don't say that we always succeed, but we try our best. After
all, you can't 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 can't force them to. After all, people have free
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! Don't 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 one's "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. That's what
I mean when I say that you moralists are creating the very problems about
which you complain.
MORALIST: No, no, you don't understand! I am 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 don't live in such a world. Therefore morality is necessary. But I
am not commanding one to love one's neighbor--I know that is impossible.
What I command is: even though you don't 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 contempible! 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
TAOIST: We've been through this before. My whole point is that humaneness
cannot be preached. Preaching is just the thing to destroy it. I'm afraid
you still don't get my central point.
Let me quote you another Christian source. In "Christian Ethics," by Waldo
each and H. Richard Neibuhr occurs the following wonderful passage about St.
In a sense Paul's 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
injuctions 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: I'm 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 religion--even
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, that's 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
wake, 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 disciplin 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 one's 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 don't believe
MORALIST: Of course you don't! That is your whole fallacy! You regard
goodness as something that grows spontaneously like a beautiful flower or a
tree. But it doesn't. 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 true--harsh as it may sound.
TAOIST: It certainly does sound harsh! It not only sounds harsh, it is
harsh! I'm 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. That's 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
harshness--not 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 Laotse. When chiding
Confucious for his "morality," Lao-tse said, "Gove up all this advertizing of
goodness and duty, and people will regain love of their fellows." That is my
philosophy in a nutshell! Give up advertizing 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. I'm 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 one's 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 didn't 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." That's 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.
E-Mail Fredric L. Rice / The Skeptic Tank