Taoism presents a moral philosophy that at first seems very different from most western moral philosophies which, though very different, usually understand morality as a set of restraints on behavior or a common set of principles (common virtues). Western moral philosophy, in general, emphasizes constraining behavior that stems from desire. Taosim's emphasis is dealing directly with controlling ones desire by eliminating them. Taoism and western moral philosophy deal with desire but Taoism deals with it directly and western morality often only tries to stem the effect of desire. Both systems see in man that he does not naturally desire the good and true or the Way. Desire is the root of evil. Only when we desire something bad do we act bad. Thus, as in western moral philosophy, we can provide an incentive to not act on ones desire or, as in the case of Taoism, desire can be eliminated. The result of both moral systems is the same--moral behavior. Both systems of morality try to encourage man to act better than he naturally is. Whether you call it the Way, the Ten Commandments, or the categorical imperative they deal with the same thing. Man's inherent state is fallen, whether he has fallen from grace or lost his Way, all great societies have realized that man is in need of help. This is true for Black Elk who was given a vision to help man and Socrates who felt that man needed to be saved from his own ignorance. Moral systems, by their very nature, have observed and concluded that when man is left to fulfill his individual desires, without respect to others and the greater good, nothing good can come from it. All societies have functioned around this principle from the beginning of civilization. Further, unlike many other moral philosophies, the Tao can not be reasoned or justified for "there are ways but the Way is uncharted; there are names but not nature in words" (Lao Tzu 1983, pg.53). Just as "Thirty spokes will converge in the hub of wheel; but the use of the cart will depend on the part of the hub that is void" (pg.63), so can we never isolate the Way. It is functional like the part of the hub that is void, yet though it can't be isolated, you can't live without it. We can try to give names to the Way or Tao but we can never know the Tao's secrets; it just is. Taoism is self evident and personal, i.e. the Tao is different for everyone and is a "Way of life" that requires a deep psychological inspection of the self. Rather than to try to justify or explain the grounding for Taoism, it would be far better to look at how living the Taoistic life can affect an individual's life, or rather how it has affected my life, even though I never tried to follow a Taoistic philosophy, in particular the Wei Wu Wei. We are asked what the passage, "Those who would take over Nature and shape it to their will, never succeed. . ." means and what are its implications for my behavior are.
Essentially, the meaning of the above passage is that you can't
move a mountain and you shouldn't try or desire to. There are many
immutable things in nature that we as humans can't hope to change, so
instead of trying to control nature, just give up the desire to, then
you will be free and will be, without trying, following the Wei Wu
Wei--action without acting. To follow the Wei Wu is to accomplish the
same thing as trying to move a mountain but by a more yielding means
and without setting yourself up for failure and by following the Way.
A Taoist proverb goes, "to climb is to invite a fall." The world and
nature belong to God and are not supposed to be controlled by man.
Those who try to control the domain of God will most certainly fail.
In a way it is immoral to try to dominate nature which is, manner of
speaking, God. After all, Christians don't tell God how to behave
because God's behavior is what is moral. That man wants
to control nature or the world comes from his desire to do so. But,
if man gives up his desire to control the world, he will never fail
to meet his end and he will be moral."If I were selfless [without
desire], then what suffering would I bear ?" (Lao Tzu 1983,
pg.65). To follow the Tao or Wei Wu is to be like water--you yield at
large unmovable boulders and follow the curve of a river and you end
up in the right place. It would be foolish, though, to try and move
the boulder for you will without a doubt fail. "The highest goodness,
water-like, does good to everything and goes unmummering to places
man despises; but so, is close in nature to the Way" (Lao Tzu 1983,
pg.60). The Wei Wu Wei can again be characterized by water in the
following passage: "The softest of stuff in the world (water)
penetrates quickly the hardest (rock); Insubstantial, it enters where
no room is. By this I know the benefit of something done by quiet
being; in all the world but few can know accomplishment apart from
work, instruction when no words are used" (Lao Tzu 1983, pg.96). (The
parentheses are mine.) Water is like the Wei Wu Wei; it acts without
acting; it does without desiring; the water penetrates rock without
attempting to do so, "the creature simply gives up to its Creator"
(Lao Tzu 1983, pg.96). We can't move a mountain to make a passage,
there are some things in nature that can't be controlled and if the
attempt is made that attempt is certain to fail. Nature is in many
ways impersonal, it doesn't care what you desire, it just is. In face
of this, it is much better to not desire to change what can't be
changed and be like water, yielding and humble, unable to move the
mountain, but without trying and without desiring change, it slowly
erodes a canyon and valley where the mountain used to be and provides
that passage, but this is only done by following the Way or Tao and
Wei Wu Wei. "The Way is always still, at rest, and yet does
everything that's done" (Lao Tzu 1983, pg. 90). "Nothing is weaker
than water, but when it attacks something hard or resistant, then
nothing withstands it, and nothing will alter its way" (Lao Tzu 1983,
Unknowingly, I have over the years, been developing a Taoistic
"way" of life, perhaps as a result of how I was raised. Of course, I
did not realize this until reading Lao Tzu's Tao Te
Ching . Often when I was young, I desired this or that gift or
had high expectations for that gift and when that desire was not
satisfied or that expectation met I used to become extremely
disappointed. Slowly and unconsciously, partly a result of my
upbringing and my own personal development, my behavior has changed.
The implications of a Taoistic philosophy has been rewarding for my
behavior. For instance, nowadays, I no longer desire gifts or have
expectations about what that gift may be and, thus, when I am given a
gift I am never disappointed. Throughout my life I have been
disgruntled when I have not had a desire or want of mine satisfied.
Slowly, many of the desires for things I used to have faded and, as a
result, I am almost always content and happy with my life. While I
have not removed all desire and expectation from my life, I am better
able to deal with things that I desired. There were many things that
I wanted to change as a youth, such as how much TV I could watch, but
after a while I no longer desired to change what I knew was
unhangable. My behavior might also be called more moral as a result
of my loss of desire. For instance, if I desired to take a cookie
from the cookie bowl, I was much more likely to break a house rule
and take it. Without the desire to take the cookie from the bowl I am
no longer in a position to be immoral and am free to follow the
In many ways, Taoism seems existential in that you are responsible for your life, for following the Way. But unlike those existentialists that believe free will comes from making choices and following desire free of restraint, Taoism, validly, points out that free will does not come from acting on desire, it comes from the lack of it. Free will for many individuals is the lack of constraints on their desires. But, we can never completely eliminate constraints on our desire and only by doing away with desire are we free, for then there are no constraints, as there is no desire. To be completely without desire is to be completely free to follow the Way. An example of this is my desire to be a cocker spaniel (intended humorously). I am unhappy that I cannot achieve being a cocker spaniel solely because I desire to be a cocker spaniel. However, I never can be a cocker spaniel, no matter how much I desire to be one. Nature is not going to bend to my desire. This is an unhangable constraint that I am not free of. As the Rolling Stones song goes: "you can't always get what you want." However, if I no longer desire to be a cocker spaniel, I am free, for I no longer desire and it follows that without desire there can be no constraint on my desire and hence no constraint on my behavior. I am no longer unhappy that I can't have what I desire. It is not that I desire not to desire, I just don't desire as much as I used to. It is an unconscious process that results from how you live and introspection into the self. For instance, I desire a grade of A in this course and I will do whatever is in my power to get a course grade of A. I most certainly will be unhappy if this desire is not satisfied but that would reflect on my unsatisfactory efforts at studying not the unchangeable inability to satisfy my desire. In general, however, I have lost much of the desire that I see making the lives of many unhappy, that being the desire for possessions and the unattainable. To be like water, and do without doing; to be without desire; to not invite fall has allowed me to live an extremely happy and contented life where I enjoy life as it comes and not in terms of how often my ephemeral and petty desires are satisfied. By not desiring what is wrong I set myself free from the potential to act immorally, for if I do not desire what I know to be wrong, I will not act wrong and I am able to follow a better "way of life"--one that is moral. This Way of life "I call enlightenment and say that not to know it is blindness that works evil" (Lao Tzu 1983, pg.68).
When entering into a conversation or argument, the subject of a successful discussion must be the same for all parties involved. For instance, suppose we choose to discuss need and want and its bearing on our behavior through morality. Before we can give eloquent speeches about the virtues and the pitfalls of the two, we must make a distinction between them. That is, we must define need and want. If this is not done, if we don't know the meaning--the definition--each of us gives to the words and ideas we discuss, we can't know what we are talking about. We don't even need to agree on the common definition of a word or idea, we need only know what the other thinks and, from there, proceed into a discussion or argument on need and want. The consequence of not making distinction and not defining words can be found in medicine. Often, in medicine, a study will be done on a disease such as schizophrenia and promptly, a few years later, another study will come out claiming the previous study was incorrect in, for example, its treatment of the disease. A while later, another study will be done finding that the two previous studies were wrong, and so the cycle will continue. But when a careful review of the last three studies is performed, it is all too often found that the studies have failed to define accurately the disease that is being studied and that each study without including it in their research, defines the disease differently and thus the different studies come to different conclusions. Thus, it is important to have a standard definition of a disease for which all doctors can agree on (the actual result of this is the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual in psychiatry).
Let us explore and try to make a distinction between need and want. Need is often thought of as "the want of something" (Webster's New Collegiate Dictionary, 1976). I think, though that we can immediately dismiss this as being the improper definition of need, for it follows that if need is different than want, it would not be described as want. To need is not to want, but to want is to desire what one doesn't have. Need, on the other hand, refers to something that is required. If a car is to be driven, it needs gasoline. A car using an internal combustion engine cannot operate without gasoline. This is not dependent on desire and want but just is. If a man wants to survive, he needs food and water. Regardless of whether or not he wants to survive, he nonetheless needs food and water to carry out his want. Need can almost be thought of as a means to an end. The end is to drive a car (the want), the means is to put gas in the tank so that the car can move (need). So want can be considered the desire for something or failure to posses it. Need can be thought of as the absence of something that is required and is often derived from want.
With a good distinction between need and want we are now capable of using both terms in an argument or conversation. Let us see how need and want apply to how we live our lives through moral laws. Kant makes an argument about the position of need and want (which he calls inclination) in morality. The justification of a moral action, for Kant, cannot be subjective and differing for each individual, for morality is a set of constraints which we place upon ourselves and each other so that we may live in a society. Such things as happiness have no place in moral law, for happiness is subjective and cannot be made into an end by which mankind lives--everyone has a different conception of happiness. Instead, Kant says, "act only according to that maxim whereby you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law" (Kant 1993, pg.30). Happiness can't be a universal goal of happiness because what makes people happy differs, and it is possible to act morally without being happy or without making others happy. "In brief, he is not able on any principle to determine with complete certainty what will make him truly happy, because to do so would require omniscience" (Kant 1993, pg.28). Happiness is also conditional and is uncontrollable, subject to contingencies and thus not suitable to be a moral end.
Kant makes, here, a distinction between two imperatives, the categorical and the hypothetical imperatives. The categorical imperative is: "Act as if the maxim of your action were to become through your will a universal law of nature" (Kant 1993, pg.30). A categorical imperative is itself necessary without any reference to purpose. "A hypothetical imperative thus says only that an action is good for some purpose, either possible or actual." Thus, lying is immoral because if it were made a universal maxim, everybody would lie, and if everybody lied, the constraints upon which moral beings agreed upon in order to live in a society would break down and society would not be able to function. Lying is not a categorical imperative, it can't be made a universal law, but it can be a hypothetical imperative in that it can be used to accomplish something.
Now that a further distinction between categorical and hypothetical imperatives has been made, we can see where need and want fit into Kant's moral philosophy, and thus how we should behave according to Kant. Quite simply, what man needs is derived from what he wants. While man needs food to survive, he need not necessarily want it, and may wither and die. Want or inclination, as Kant calls it, is subjective. It is not a categorical imperative. Want, from which need follows, is the desire for something with the end frequently being happiness. But happiness, for which want desires, is not a categorical imperative and thus not a foundation for moral action. Furthermore, desire itself is subjective. We all desire something different or don't desire at all. Hence, desire can't be made a universal law of nature for it cannot be universally applied. Following this, want and need can not be categorical imperatives, they can't be the dictates of moral duty, for they are subjective and cannot be willed as universal law. That we need to eat to survive is a practical imperative (hypothetical), it is prudent, but it is not a categorical imperative--it is not moral.Want and need, then, can be relocated to the realm of hypothetical imperatives.
John Stuart Mill handles need and want and their position in morality quite differently. For Mill, happiness for all of man is the end for which morality strives. Mill grounds his philosophy by claiming the exact opposite of Kant--that happiness is objective! Happiness is an objective end of morality because everyone desires it, every one wants themselves and others to be happy, even though no one is certain why (Mill 1979, pg.35). All other acts are merely an end or become an end to the bringing of happiness for the self and others (Mill 1979, pg.35). Further, Mill claims that the reason we believe that happiness is moral is "we may answer, the same as of all other moral standards--the conscientious feelings of mankind" (Mill 1979, pg.28). In other words, what is moral, i.e. what will bring the greatest happiness to the greatest number in the greatest quality, partly comes not only from that we believe happiness is moral, but from we have innate feelings that are shared by mankind which determine, through common agreement, what is moral. Thus, since happiness is moral, and want is desiring of what will bring happiness, and since need follows from want, it can be inferred that want and need, in the philosophy of Mill, are moral, and, in fact, required to be moral. How else, without want of happiness, can happiness be achieved? That we need to eat or should want to is moral because it leads to greater happiness than starvation. (Which wants and needs are the proper dictate of our behavior is to be determined by the "greatest happiness principle": the greatest good for the greatest number. A cost/benefit analysis. Not all wants or needs can be moral if they bring only happiness to only one individual while making the rest of mankind suffer.)
Since we have made a distinction between want and need and have found a strong connection between desire and want, we can also look at the status of need and want in Lao Tzu's "Tao Te Ching." If we recall the previous part of this exam on Taoism, we will remember that though we desire or want something because it will make us happy, by desiring and trying to satisfy selfish impulses we only set ourselves up for failure to achieve. In the world and in life, we have many desires and wants that can't be satisfied because we do not have control over the natural world or the social world. Constraints on our desires and wants originate from the inability to alter the condition of nature so that we cannot fulfill our wants and desires. The best way to solve this problem is to do away with desire and want, for they are only selfish impulses and desires that often entail constraint on the satisfying of these desires and wants and thus lead to an unhappy life. It is, also, only when we desire what is wrong that we act wrong. By eliminating desire completely we are no longer inclined to act wrongly. Without desire and want, there are no constraints and one is totally free and able to live the proper "Way of life" or Tao. If one does away with desire and becomes enlightened, it no longer becomes necessary to want for food or to have the need for food--need and want become an irrelevant part of life.
By making distinctions about words and ideas, we are then able to enter into a mutual discussion about the same topic. This is regardless of whether or not both parties in the conversation come up with differing definitions of words. In order to share a similar conversation and to speak clearly on the topic, it is only necessary that both parties are able to relate to each other and understand what the other is saying. From this, a fruitful conversation may evolve. Confucius wrote, "If language is incorrect, then what is said does not concord with what is meant, what is to be done cannot be effected" (Confucius 1989, pg.171). George Orwell wrote in Politics and the English Language on the topic of clear meaning in language and thought: "[The English language] becomes ugly and inaccurate because our thoughts are foolish, but the slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts." In other words, if you want to think and communicate clearly you need to be able to clearly say what you mean. Distinctions have to be made. Once this is done, you are free to indulge in conversation, which will be clear and understood. Distinctions mean we are enabled to observe the status of need and want in the moral philosophies of Kant, Mill, and Lao Tzu. We have made distinctions about what need and want mean and are thereby able to relate it properly to the texts of the mentioned philosophers. These distinctions have allowed us to understand how need and want bear on Kant, Mill, and Lao Tzu's moral philosophy and how, under these moral guidelines, we should behave.
Kant, Immanuel. 1993. Grounding for the Metaphysics of Morals, On a Supposed Right to Lie because of Philanthropic Concerns, 3rd Edition. Indianapolis, Indiana: Hackett Publishing Company, Inc.
Mill, John Stuart. 1979. Utilitarianism. Indianapolis, Indiana: Hackett Publishing Company, Inc.
Lao Tzu. 1983. The Way of Life . New York, New York: Mentor, Penguin Group
Confucius. 1989. The Analects of Confucius. New York: Vintage Books a Division of Random House, Inc.
George Orwell. 1946. Politics and the English Language . Found on WWW.