Morality is a substitute: Løgstrup and the Daodejing

In Løgstrup’s ethics morality is a substitute.  He writes, “In any given situation, before duty can begin to be relevant, the spontaneous expression of life – trust, mercy, sincerity, and so on – is called forth” (Beyond the Ethical Demand, pp. 75-6).  In other words, the “ought” of a situation, which is what morality concerns itself with, only arises when we resist our natural and immediate response to a sovereign expression of life.  Løgstrup uses the story of the Good Samaritan as an illustration.  The Samaritan immediately comes to the aid of the robbery victim on the road, in and through mercifulness.  The Samaritan’s attention is strictly concerned with helping this man who needs help; no moral codes intrude, or are consulted.  By way of contrast, Løgstrup postulates a “Kantian” Samaritan whose self-reflection leads him to perform an act of duty under the same circumstances.  The Kantian Samaritan’s attention is divided: concerned with helping the victim, to be sure, but also concerned with measuring himself against moral principles.  “Granted,” Løgstrup writes, “it is better than brutality or indifference, but it is inferior to the immediate realization of mercy’s sovereign expression of life” (p. 76).  Of course, some people – Kantians, for instance – would disagree with Løgstrup on this point.  They would ask: If the end result of helping the victim is the same in either case, why is the dutiful act inferior to the merciful act?  I knew that philosophers have been arguing this question for a long time, but I didn’t realize until recently how long.

The ancient Chinese work known as the Daodejing (Tao-te ching) is very old.  Its precise age is a matter of debate, but it must have been written or compiled between the 6th century and the 3rd century B.C.E.  I first read an English translation of it when I was in my teens (almost forty years ago) and I was instantly captivated by it.  Since then it has never been far from my consciousness.  Of course, the same is true for an untold number of people.  More than just a work of philosophy it is a classic of world literature.  It is said to be the most widely translated piece of writing, other than the Bible, in history.

I returned to it just the other day, reading chapters from it at random.  When I happened to read chapters 18 and 19, I was suddenly struck by the relevance of what I was reading to Løgstrup’s idea of the sovereign expressions of life, and his assertion that morality is a substitute.  I had never thought of the Daodejing in those terms before.  I quickly reread the whole text and found other convergences, particularly in chapters 38 and 51.

There are so many extant translations of the Daodejing that one can literally get lost in them.  I know I did, here.  I’m an “Arthur Waley” man myself, from way back.  His translation (from 1934) is getting a bit long in the tooth, but it still works for me, and for many others too.  It has staying power.  But at the site linked to above, I looked at all 112 English translations, at least briefly.  A few are not even translations – more like free-style renderings, with jumping-off points into anachronism.  One even mentioned “electrons.”  But there are some very good translations out there that I didn’t know about.  I may have to reevaluate my loyalty to Waley.

One translation that particularly caught my eye is by Léon Wieger, by way of Derek Bryce.  Wieger was a French Jesuit missionary and Sinologist who lived the last forty-six years of his life in China (Waley, for all his linguistic brilliance, never set foot in China).  Wieger’s French translation of the Daodejing was published in 1913.  An English translation, by Derek Bryce, of Wieger’s French translation, was published in 1999.  Based on what I saw at the link above, I purchased an electronic copy of the Wieger/Bryce translation via  Any translation of a translation requires justification, the more so when the source translation is this old.  In his introductory chapter, Bryce defends the effort by citing “the exceptional clarity of his [Wieger’s] translations,” his consistent use of terminology, and his unusual ability (for a Westerner) to penetrate Chinese thought, as attested by no less an Oriental authority than Ananda Coomaraswamy.  If you’re looking for an aesthetically pleasing translation of the Daodejing, look elsewhere.  But after reading this translation, I agree with Bryce: it is exceptionally clear.  And since it resonates so well with my current topic, I will quote chapters 18, 19, 38, and 51 of the Daodejing from it, at the end of this post.

Also just the other day, I found this wonderful entry in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (online edition), written by Alan Chan.  It is a long, but dense, scholarly overview of the current state of our knowledge about, and our interpretations of, the Daodejing.  Of most interest in the present context is the part of the article introduced by this sentence:

The following presents some of the main concepts and symbols in the Laozi [Chan refers to the work using the traditional author’s name] based on the current text, focusing on the key conceptual cluster of Dao, de (virtue), ziran (naturalness), and wuwei (nonaction), in a way that highlights their philosophical significance and suggests a degree of coherence.

I’ll cite at some length Chan’s discussion of Dao and de, and how Daoists and Confucianists interpreted these two concepts differently, because I think it reveals a sort of “distant mirror” for the modern dispute that Løgstrup and his critics have had over the way in which ethics should be grounded:

To begin with Dao, the etymology of the Chinese graph or character suggests a pathway, or heading in a certain direction along a path.  Most commentators agree in translating dao as “way.”  . . .  The concept of dao figures centrally also in Confucian writings, and as mentioned some parts of the current Laozi represent a critique of the Confucian school (especially chs. 18 and 19).  In general, whereas dao signifies a means to a higher end in other schools of Chinese philosophy, the Laozi sees it as an end in itself.  This distinction is captured in the Oxford English Dictionary (online edition), which defines “Dao” as follows: “In Taoism, an absolute entity which is the source of the universe; the way in which this absolute entity functions.”  “In Confucianism and in extended uses,” however, the term means “the way to be followed, the right conduct; doctrine or method.”  . . .

The Daodejing is concerned with both Dao and de.  The graph de has also made it into the Oxford: “In Taoism, the essence of Tao inherent in all beings”; “in Confucianism and in extended use, moral virtue.”  De has been translated variously as virtue, potency, efficacy, integrity, or power (for an etymological study, see Nivison 1978-79, and Hall and Ames 1987, 216).  The Confucian usage is quite clear; virtue is a matter of moral character and presupposes self-cultivation.  The Laozi seems to be suggesting a “higher” de against any moral achievement attained through repeated effort (e.g., ch. 38).  . . .

The marriage of Dao and de effectively bridges the gap between transcendence and immanence.  Traditional commentaries beginning with the Hanfeizi often play on the homonymic relation between de (virtue) and another graph also pronounced de, which means to “acquire” or “obtain” something.  De is thus what one has “obtained” from (the) Dao, a “latent power” by “virtue” of which any being becomes what it is (Waley 1958, 32).  In this sense, the Laozi speaks of de as that which nourishes all beings (e.g., ch. 51).  . . .

[T]he concept of de emerges as a Daoist response to the question of human nature, which was one of the most contested issues in early Chinese philosophy.  . . .  [T]here is a prescriptive side to de.  The empowerment enables a person to conform to the way in which Dao operates.  When realized, “virtue” signifies the full embodiment of the Dao or the flourishing of authenticity.  As such, Dao points not only to the “beginning” but also through de to the “end” of all things.  . . .

[E]thical ideals are anchored in a non-empirical view of nature, which raises the concept of de to a higher level than “virtues” in the sense of moral attainments.

There are real differences, to be sure, between the ancient dispute (Laozi vs. Confucius) and the modern dispute (Løgstrup vs. his critics), but aren’t the similarities striking?  I think so, anyway.  I think the sovereign expressions of life and de serve much the same role in the respective ethical philosophies of Løgstrup and Laozi.

I’ll close with the chapters from the Daodejing I promised earlier.  Note: in Wieger’s terminology, Dao = Principle, and de = virtue or action of the Principle.

From Tao-te-ching / Lao-Tzu; translated by Derek Bryce, from the French by Léon Wieger:

Chapter 18

A.  When action conforming to the Principle declines (when people cease to act with spontaneous goodness and fairness), artificial principles of goodness and fairness, prudence and wisdom are invented.  These artificial principles soon degenerate into politics.

B.  When parents no longer live in the ancient natural harmony, they try to make up for this deficit by inventing artificial principles of filial piety and paternal affection.

C.  When states had fallen into disorder, they invented the stereotype of the loyal minister.

Summary of Commentaries: Conventional morality, with its principles and precepts, useless in an age of spontaneous goodness, was invented when the world fell into decadence, as a remedy for that decadence.  The invention was somewhat unfortunate.  The only true remedy would have been to return to Tao, the primordial Principle.  . . .  All the Taoist writers have declaimed against artificial goodness and fairness, the passwords of Confucianism.

Chapter 19

A.  Reject (artificial, conventional, political) wisdom and prudence (in order to return to primal natural uprightness), and the people will be a hundred times happier.

B.  Reject (artificial) goodness and fairness (conventional filial and fraternal piety), and the people will come back (for their well-being, to natural goodness and fairness), to spontaneous filial and paternal piety.

C.  Reject artfulness and gain, and evildoers will disappear.  (With the primordial simplicity, they will return to primordial honesty.)

D.  Renounce these three artificial categories, for the artificial is good for nothing.

E.  This is what you should hold on to; being simple, staying natural, having few personal interests and few desires.

Summary of commentaries: This chapter follows the preceding one.  It is perfectly clear.  The commentators are in agreement.  This material is developed at length in the book of Chuang-Tzu.

Chapter 38

A.  That which is superior to the virtue of the Principle (the Principle itself, considered in its essence), does not act, but holds virtue in a state of immanence within itself.  All those which are inferior to the virtue of the Principle (artificial rules of conduct) are only a palliative with which it has nothing in common.

B.  That which is superior to the virtue (the Principle) does not act in detail.  (The artificial rules) which are inferior to the virtue (of the Principle) exist only for action in detail.

C.  When nature, with its natural good instincts, has been forgotten, artificial principles come as palliatives for this deficit.  They are, in descending order, goodness, fairness, rites and laws.  (Artificial Confucian goodness is superior to artificial fairness which, in struggling to cope with the diverse inclinations of men, has produced rites and laws.)  Rites are but a poor expedient to cover up the loss of original uprightness and frankness.  They are more a source of trouble (in etiquette and rubric) than they are of order.  The last term of this descending evolution, political wisdom (making laws) was the beginning of all abuses.

D.  He who is truly a man, holds himself to uprightness and natural good sense.  He is contemptuous of artificial principles.  Using discernment, he rejects this (the false) in order to embrace that (the true).

Summary of commentaries: This chapter is directed against Confucianism.  Total good natural sense is unity.  Artificial moral precepts are multiplicity.  The next chapter [not quoted here] is going to show that multiplicity ruins, and that unity saves.

Chapter 51

A.  The Principle gives life to beings, then its virtue nourishes them, until the completion of their nature, until the perfection of their faculties.  Therefore all beings venerate the Principle and its virtue.

B.  No one has the eminence of the Principle and its virtue bestowed on them; they have it always, naturally.

C.  The Principle gives life; its virtue gives growth, protects, perfects, matures, maintains, and covers (all beings).  When they are born, it does not monopolize them; it lets them act freely, without exploiting them; it lets them grow, without tyrannizing them.  This is the action of transcendent virtue.

The commentaries add nothing.

This entry was posted in Daoism, Løgstrup, K. E., Philosophy (uncategorized), Theology (uncategorized). Bookmark the permalink.

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