Warp, Weft, and Way

A Group Blog of Chinese and Comparative Philosophy

The Daoist Nazi Problem

I am pleased to present a guest-post from Donald Sturgeon. Donald is a PhD candidate in philosophy at HKU and founder, editor, programmer, and general man-behind-the-curtain of the Chinese Text Project (ctext.org), an extremely useful online etext database with which many blog readers are familiar, I’m sure. Donald reports that according to Google Analytics, over the last 30 days the site has exceeded 1 million page views and 100,000 unique visitors! Please address all comments to Donald.


The Daoist Nazi Problem

Donald Sturgeon

Suppose there is a person, or a group of people, committed to practicing what we can for convenience call a “Nazi Dao”: a Dao that, though practically successful from the perspective of its followers, involves commitment to some abhorrent practices that all “right-minded people” would condemn as exemplary immoral acts that should be universally condemned – “killing innocent babies for fun”, for example.

What can a Zhuangist – someone committed to a relativist position about differing practices and the nature of their justification, questioning of conventionally accepted values, and skeptical about certain kinds of knowledge – say about such a Dao? Can he condemn it? Is it a “bad” Dao, and if so in what sense? Or is it just as good a Dao as any other?

Before trying to imagine how a Zhuangist might try to respond, an obvious question to ask might be whether or not these are fair questions to ask of the text at all. Here it is worth pointing out that although the term “Nazi” itself is obviously alien to pre-Qin thought, the idea that a group of people might be committed to practicing what from our own perspective is not only a radically different but also distasteful, morally wrong and twisted set of practices while at the same time themselves seeing these practices as quite justifiable is certainly not – in fact, the Mohists used precisely this kind of thought experiment when arguing against taking conventional mores as a sound basis for morality (Mozi 39/25/75-78). The Zhuangzi itself explicitly questions intuitively plausible candidates for “universal” human values, such as the valuing of life over death or usefulness over uselessness, and seems more than willing to contemplate the possibility of radically different worldviews and the suggestion that the unexpected and unconventional may in fact be being unfairly maligned. In this sense, it does seem that there are legitimate questions here to answer – questions that in some ways are actually quite similar to those that the text explicitly considers itself.

The Zhuangzi, like the Mozi, doesn’t see convention as a useful basis for morality. But unlike many of its contemporaries, the Zhuangzi also emphasizes how differing schemes of commitments and conventions – different Daos – in some sense can only be justified internally; we cannot, as Confucians and Mohists might argue, hope to find some single standard or grounding that would allow us to distinguish what is universally right from wrong in an absolute sense. Justification for differing practices is ultimately relative to a particular Dao – a Confucian might give very good Confucian justification for upholding three-year mourning rituals, and a Mohist might give very good Mohist justification for the opposite stance – but in each case the justification offered ultimately presupposes many aspects of their own Dao. This relativist picture makes a direct response to the Nazi problem difficult for a Zhuangistif he is to avoid making universal claims from within his own Dao that make him appear just as dogmatic as a Mohist or Confucian.

A more serious difficulty in responding to the Nazi in a manner consistent with the Zhuangist position is that the Nazi himself has his own perspective – that of the Nazi Dao to which he is committed – that may very well be internally justifiable. The Nazi too may be able to give very good justification for his practices and actions from within the Dao to which he is committed. If we take seriously relativism of perspective, we can’t just rule out his perspective on the grounds that we find it abhorrent any more than we can argue that our own perspective is the uniquely correct one; many of our own practices might be abhorrent from alternative perspectives – our mass murder of insects with insecticide would surely be abhorrent from the insect perspective. It also doesn’t help to consider an overall natural perspective (i.e. the perspective of tian), because all of these perspectives, and all the actions of those taking them up, ultimately are natural, and nature provides no way of adjudicating between them that might tell us which are right and which are wrong.

One way of dealing with the problem is to simply accept this conclusion, and agree that the Zhuangzi is completely agnostic about competing Daos – no Daos are any better, worse, more or less justified or justifiable than any others. But this response is problematic: why then does the text seem so clearly critical of certain perspectives and Daos? If they are ultimately all equally valid and equally good, why bother criticizing the Mohists and Confucians? Surely we also want to be able to say that there is a sense in which the Nazi Dao might be worse than a Mohist or Confucian Dao, or worse than the Dao of a Daoist sage. It also seems counter to other values that we want to ascribe to the text that it would view these as equally acceptable Daos; a philosophy that genuinely is equally at ease with killing innocent babies for fun as free and easy wandering would seem to be taking moral relativism a little too far.

In a forthcoming paper, I argue that the Zhuangzi’s skepticism about knowledge does not merely have the negative consequence that we should question some of our knowledge commitments, but also suggests that – while still doubting – we can improve our knowledge by considering a wider range of perspectives. Knowledge commitments that hold up from a wider range of perspectives are in some sense preferable to those that fail to do so – though this can never make them absolutely justified or guarantee that they are universally correct.

I want to suggest that what I see as this positive aspect of Zhuangist epistemology can provide the Zhuangist with a consistent and meaningful response in the Nazi case. This response is inevitably not as strong as outright condemnation of the Nazi Dao as bad, or an endorsement of Daos that condemn the Nazi’s actions as good. Rather, the response focuses on two questions that the Zhuangist is better placed to respond to: firstly, as a Zhuangist, can I follow a Nazi Dao, and secondly, can I in any way condemn a Nazi Dao follower. Both of these questions, I argue, can be responded to using a perspectival account of knowledge.

On my account, a wise and knowledgeable person for the Zhuangzi is someone who, unlike the petty Confucian or Mohist debater each of whom claims that he is right and his opponent wrong, or the small cicada or giant bird each of whom knows that his kind of flying is the best kind, prefers knowledge commitments that remain valid across a wide range of perspectives, including those he does not occupy himself. On this reading, one serious problem with the Nazi’s commitments is their high degree of contingency upon perspective. “Killing innocent babies for fun” is acceptable from the Nazi’s own perspective, but not from many other perspectives, and in particular not from those of the babies themselves, from those of their parents, other members of society, and so on. The Zhuangist criticism of the Nazi is not so much that he is wrong but that he is stupid: a wise Zhuangist would no more follow a Nazi Dao than he would become a fervent and ideologically committed Confucian or Mohist insisting that he knows the uniquely right way for all to follow. For the same reason, he would condemn the Nazi practitioner as a fool who failed to see other important perspectives on his situation. He might – echoing a technique we see repeatedly in anecdotes in the Zhuangzi – point out perspectives from which the Nazi’s commitments fail to hold even from within his own Dao: would the Nazi still think killing innocent babies for fun was acceptable with respect to his own babies, or with respect to himself as an infant? Rather than offering a moral criticism, the Zhuangist can challenge the Nazi with an epistemic and cognitive criticism of his commitments and actions.

This criticism of the Nazi is naturally weaker than a direct moral condemnation of his actions, and also leaves open the possibility that the Zhuangist criticism may itself be open to attack. Perhaps like Zhuangzi who, as he stalks the bird in the forest hunting the mantis that preys upon the cicada, loses sight of his own vulnerability as he himself is pursued by the gamekeeper, we have applied a technique in criticizing the Nazi that someone else may use to criticize us. There is – as always – the possibility that we will some day meet with a “great awakening” in which we will come to see that our past commitments were in fact wrong, and that we too had failed to appreciate other important perspectives on our own situation, and so responded to it in a way we subsequently might come to see was mistaken. Nonetheless, in taking into account a wider range of perspectives than the Nazi did, though we cannot be sure that we are right, we can at least articulate one thing that is wrong with him and his Dao.

October 14, 2012 - Posted by | Daoism, Ethical Theory, Zhuangzi

17 Comments »

  1. Hi Donald,

    Re: “The Zhuangist criticism of the Nazi is not so much that he is wrong but that he is stupid.” I think you are on the right track here, although I would not presume the existence of a “Zhuangist perspective,” since there are many (perspectives and authors). The Zhuangist that is skeptical about different daos will not base any argument on morality, but on effectiveness or practicality. For as you say, the “Nazi’s commitments fail to hold even from within his own Dao.”

    One thing that troubles me a bit is your association of Nazism with baby-killing. We may all dislike both practices, but connecting them does justice to neither. I would choose one or the other as your hypothetical target. Just my opinion.

    I look forward to your paper.

    Comment by Scott "Bao Pu" Barnwell | October 14, 2012 | Reply

    • Thanks Scott!

      I totally agree with your point about the text and the varying perspectives it takes up. I try to deal with this a little in the paper, because I see the perspectival account of knowledge as providing a way of viewing the connections between some of the different perspectives taken up in the text. The paper won’t appear in print for some time, but the full text is available here for anyone interested:
      http://dsturgeon.net/papers/Zhuangzi_perspectives_and_greater_knowledge.pdf

      I should probably have emphasized that I am talking purely about completely hypothetical rational Daoist Nazis of a particular kind, and not actual-world Nazis, but anyway I take your point.

      Comment by Donald Sturgeon | October 14, 2012 | Reply

  2. Hi Donald, O living disproof of the statement that the 君子 is not a tool!

    I don’t know from Zhuangzi, but I want to comment anyway.

    I wonder: does the Zhuangzi evidence the concept of a convention? Roughly: rules or conditional patterns of action such that a key salient reason one has to follow them is that the others around one do, such as driving on the right .

    Suppose for the sake of argument that one action can be really objectively better than another. Now suppose ten of us are rowing a boat, and the sooner we can travel a hundred miles the better (e.g. perhaps lives are at stake). To row effectively, we need to row at the same pace as each other. So it’s best that we have a convention about pace. And there’s presumably a best pace-range for us to have together, that would get us there soonest. But there’s a much wider range of paces such that if everyone else is at that pace, it’s objectively best that I row at that pace too (supposing that we can’t discuss matters). And the same is true of each other person. Let’s say “P” is the best pace for the group and “Q” is some other pace worth not departing from alone. Then both these things are true:

    1. In current actual circumstances it would be objectively better that each member of the group row at P rather than Q.
    2. In the current actual circumstances of each member, it would be objectively worse that she row at P rather than Q.

    I think it’s truths like 2 that confuse people into thinking, mistakenly, that the significantly conventional character of morality counts against morality’s being wholly objective.

    Of course in real cases there isn’t a stark distinction between individual action and group action. What one person does may rub off on others – as in real rowing – and small groups may depart from the conventions of larger groups, etc.

    *

    And as some moral philosophers point out, there are important analogies between the social value of social convention and the individual value of a person’s following the same rules and patterns as herself, over time.

    So there’s a great value to not wandering among lots of perspectives?

    *

    What is it for a Dao or for a convention to be “justified internally”? I’m not sure what’s meant. Here is a menu of four different candidate explications.

    To say that D is “justified internally” means that:

    1) D = D.
    2) Part of D is the acceptance of “Promote result R” as the basic standard, and the rest of D is what in fact best promotes R.
    3) Part of D is some (not necessarily consequentialist) standard taken as fundamental, and the rest of D is what in fact objectively meets that standard.
    4) D is generally followed, and is such that if it is generally followed, each person’s following it is objectively good (which is not to say that some other convention wouldn’t be better).

    I guess Donald and Scott mean (2) – or they mean (3) but think Zhuangzi has mainly (2) in mind?

    *

    “The Zhuangist criticism of the Nazi is not so much that he is wrong but that he is stupid

    I’m not sure how to understand this.

    Scott sees “stupid” here as meaning something like “mistaken about what will in fact promote what.”

    At first I took it in a very different way. I thought the idea was that looking at something from varied perspectives is a fancier, higher intellectual activity than looking at it from just one perspective. Looking from a variety of different perspectives counts directly as smarter looking.

    Thus I took “not so much that he is wrong but that he is stupid” to suggest the case of, say, the competitive young nerd who would rather be wicked than dumb, or rather be thought wicked than be thought dumb. Here there really is a contrast between two kinds of criticism.

    But if “stupid” means “mistaken about consequences,” then I want to ask: why is that a criticism? If it’s because one takes promoting a certain result as the fundamental standard of what one should do, then it seems that stupidity isn’t a different thing from wrongness, it’s a species of wrongness (the main species).

    *

    Donald, if the better Ways are the ones that are acceptable from more perspectives, then everything would seem to depend on how perspectives are to be quantified, how they are to be distinguished and counted. Someone might argue: “There are more ways to be destructive than to be constructive, so destructiveness is acceptable from more perspectives; so your standard favors destructiveness.” How would you respond?

    Comment by Bill Haines | October 14, 2012 | Reply

    • Hi Bill,

      Thanks a lot for your comments.

      I think a lot of what the Zhuangzi says about Daos applies to conventions; of course the text is quite skeptical of the universal value of many established conventions, so the question you raise of what we might think of as “value-neutral” conventions like driving on the right is an interesting one. I think the story about the monkey keeper is relevant here. The monkey keeper tells the monkeys they’re getting three nuts in the morning and four in the evening, and this makes the monkeys angry. He then reacts by offering them four in the morning and three at night, which makes them happy. The text says this is an example of “walking two” (or “both OK”) – probably walking two Daos: in this case, the monkey keeper’s Dao, because he hasn’t changed the amount of food he gives the monkeys, and also the monkey’s Dao, because they are getting a feeding regimen that they are happy with. The same idea would probably apply to driving on the right: my Dao doesn’t give me any special reason to prefer the left or the right, but when I see that driving on the left causes unnecessary problems and conflicts with the Daos of others, I’m quick to change to the other side since it allows me to better get along with others and their Daos, without sacrificing anything important about my own Dao.

      *

      I tend to think that the Zhuangzi actively encourages us to explore as many different perspectives as possible, and to also be open to the possibility that we might want to intentionally change perspective for some reason, or even come to realize that – though we did not intentionally set out to change our perspective – we now occupy a different perspective than we did previously.

      *

      When I say a Dao might be “justified internally”, what I mean is that when giving justification for our own practices, we are going to appeal to various other norms that we are already committed to as part of our own Dao. I might have one basic standard in mind, or I might not, but the point I want to emphasize is that whatever justification I give will generally involve appealing to other aspects of my own Dao. There is a sense in which only if you take up (actually or hypothetically) the Nazi’s Dao – only if you adopt his perspective – will it be possible to make sense of the justification he gives for his actions. Perhaps he will appeal to his belief that the so-called “innocent” babies are actually evil, which he will justify in terms of the fact that innocent babies are the cause of various other problems in the world, and so on. This might bottom out in him appealing to some ultimate standard, or it might not, but as long as he can give justification that is consistent from within his Dao, I’d say his Dao is internally justified. Of course, from many other Daos or perspectives his Dao is not justified at all, which is why I say “internally”. From within my Dao for instance, “babies are evil” is not something that I believe or would accept as good justification for a belief or practice.

      *

      The stupidity that I’m getting at is something like “acted in a way that I would not have acted had I been aware of something / thought more about my situation at that time”. If, hypothetically, the Nazi could be persuaded that his practices are deficient from various perspectives that he agrees are important, and as a result would then decide to give up killing innocent babies for fun, then there is a sense in which looking back on his past actions, even the now-enlightened Nazi would himself see these as having been foolish. This sort of stupidity or foolishness is the same kind that is hinted at a lot in the Zhuangzi – the same kind as Huizi’s throwing away of the giant gourds or dismissal of the useless tree. I think this is different to what we would typically mean by “wrong” when we say things like “killing innocent babies for fun is wrong”.

      *

      In terms of counting perspectives, the point I try to make in my paper is that the Zhuangzi suggests we should try to encompass a wider range of perspectives without overlooking relevant perspectives that we are already aware of. So the idea is more that we should look for the commonalities between the constructive and destructive perspectives or find some way of acting that is acceptable from both these perspectives, not that we should pick one of them and claim it is better than the other. A different Dao might be a better for me than my current Dao if it was still a good Dao from those perspectives from which my current Dao is a good Dao, and in addition was a good Dao from some other perspectives – rather like in the monkey keeper case, where the “four in the morning” Dao is better than the “three in the morning” Dao from the perspective of the monkeys, and is no worse from the perspective of the monkey keeper. So it’s less about objectively evaluating all possible Daos and more about seeing how I could improve my own Dao.

      Comment by Donald Sturgeon | October 14, 2012 | Reply

    • Hi!

      It seems to me that one might fairly find my a priori commenting like this irrelevant and annoying. If so I apologize; I’m doing it to avoid other work.

      *

      On whether the Zhuangzi has the concept of conventions:

      I think the core idea of “convention” is something like, coming together in agreement, literal or metaphorical; I think it’s related to the idea of harmony.

      Though I agree with the monkeys about the nuts, I agree with you that the monkey story looks like it’s meant to bring out the idea of one detailed pattern being no better or worse than another. But I don’t see any pointing to the idea of agreement or coming-together or harmony (among the monkeys).

      Actually I didn’t mean to mention “value-neutral” conventions at all. Rather, with the rowing example I meant to bring out the point that something’s being right because it’s the general practice does not imply such neutrality. In the driving example, since the human nervous system is asymmetrical, it might be that a general practice of driving on the left requires more of people’s attention and effort than the alternative general practice, to maintain an acceptable level of safety. Still what makes it wrong for me to drive on the left is mainly the general practice where I am, not that the general practice here is the better one. Even if the general practice here is by a long way the worse one – maybe our driving on the right trains the sides of our brains in a way that sours social relations – still my driving on the left would be wrong, given what others are doing (even if the fact about souring social relations is common knowledge that the society just hasn’t acted on yet). That’s why convention is an important idea.

      *

      I wonder: does the Zhuangzi ever suggest any possible drawbacks of exploring as many different perspectives as possible?

      Could one offer a coherent reading of the Zhuangzi as aiming to ridicule the ideal of adopting as many different perspectives as possible?

      *

      When I say a Dao might be “justified internally”, what I mean is that when giving justification for our own practices, we are going to appeal to various other norms that we are already committed to as part of our own Dao. I might have one basic standard in mind, or I might not, but the point I want to emphasize is that whatever justification I give will generally involve appealing to other aspects of my own Dao

      Thanks for the explanation!

      If I understand you, there are going to be some different species of this kind of justification.

      a

      In one species, there’s a basic standard, which doesn’t get justified, and concrete practices, which do. We might describe the case this way: The term “a Dao” is sometimes used for a concrete pattern or set of norms, and sometimes used for a bigger thing that includes all that plus a more abstract set of norms. “Internal justification” then is when the concrete Dao is justified on the basis of the part of the larger Dao that is not a part of the concrete Dao. I think it would be more accurate to call such a justification an “external” justification of the concrete Dao, which is the only thing that’s getting justified.

      b

      In another species, the parts of the Dao are like the parts of the simplest card house, or the parts of a machine, or the activities of adherents to a convention: each should be the way it is because of the way the others are. (An ad exec asks a writer to justify her proposed slogan, and she defends it by showing that changing any one of the letters makes a worse whole.) I think it might be more accurate to say that in this kind of case what we have is not internal justification of the Dao, because it’s not a putative justification of the Dao at all. It offers to justify each or any of the parts of the Dao given the rest, but it doesn’t offer to justify the Dao; it doesn’t offer to say why this whole is better than coherent alternative wholes.

      I don’t know if my worries about your phrase matter at all for your purposes. They might not matter much for interpretive purposes regarding images of internality in the Zhuangzi.

      b as a?

      Maybe the point is that for someone who can’t imagine coherent whole Daos that depart much from her current Dao, her own Dao may indeed be the best imaginable, as she can see by looking at the overall drawbacks of slightly different overall Daos, like slogans with one letter changed.

      But on the basis of what standard would one regard a less coherent Dao as worse than the more coherent Dao?

      *

      In terms of counting perspectives, the point I try to make in my paper is that the Zhuangzi suggests we should try to encompass a wider range of perspectives without overlooking relevant perspectives that we are already aware of. So the idea is more that we should look for the commonalities between the constructive and destructive perspectives or find some way of acting that is acceptable from both these perspectives, not that we should pick one of them and claim it is better than the other.

      Here you seem to be supposing that the perspective I start out with is a constructive one. Suppose I start out destructive. How would you respond to my objector?

      Confucians would offer the Golden Rule, which might with some liberty be read as telling me to look through and even privilege the points of view of the people most involved in the actions I’m considering. What’s important is not the number or variety of perspectives in the abstract; nor is there a suggestion that I ought to keep my original destructive perspective in my overall repertoire, for the sake of variety. (What matters rather is the actual perspectives of the people involved (so far as can be surmised), or the overall perspective that can best approximate the actual perspectives of the people involved, or something like that.)

      When I was a grad student, my department invited nearly-finished grads to sit in on interviews of job applicants, to familiarize us with the process. I remember one applicant for a position in political philosophy who was defending a scheme of campaign financing that would offer equal funds for each different viewpoint. He seemed to think that viewpoints could in practice be numbered and distinguished on the basis of their content abstractly considered, not on the basis of, say, their being endorsed by a certain number of signatures on a petition from actual people. Perhaps we misunderstood.

      I wonder if the Zhuangzi says anything to suggest that the aim of encompassing various perspectives should aim to encompass something like the actual variety we find around us, rather than the greatest variety in the abstract that we can manage.

      Comment by Bill Haines | October 15, 2012 | Reply

      • Bill,

        Not at all, it’s great to get feedback from another perspective!

        With the monkeys, I see the example as suggesting that the monkey keeper is actually wise to make the small change in his Dao so as to avoid friction with the monkeys and theirs, and I think there is a sense in which the two Daos under consideration (3-4 and 4-3) are not really equal. They’re obviously not equal from the perspective of the monkeys, but as a result they may also be unequal from the perspective of the monkey keeper, since one of them leads to angry monkeys and the other to happy monkeys. My feeling is that there is a suggestion that – all things being equal – the monkey keeper too will be better off when the monkeys are happy; perhaps happy monkeys are less likely to scratch him or throw bananas at him, for example.

        *

        I do think the text is interested in the consequences of considering many, many perspectives – and in fact I think at times it is ridiculing the suggestion that we could somehow consider all perspectives. The problem as it concerns knowledge is that the more perspectives we consider and demand that our knowledge claims remain valid from, the harder it will be to find any such claims that actually pass the test. Ultimately, we might consider so many perspectives that we end up deciding that, in the end, there isn’t any knowledge around to be had.

        *

        There could certainly be different kinds of justification, but their important common feature for my purposes is that – however and to what extent any Dao is justified – the justification for a Dao can never be absolute and universal justification that would be accepted by everyone from any Dao, but instead always presupposes some aspects internal to the very same Dao. Even whether or not a Dao needs to be coherent, and if so coherent in what sense, might be something that varies between Daos. I tend to agree with Putnam when he argues that “coherence and simplicity and the like are values”. I might subscribe to an incoherent, irrational Dao, but still be able to give reasons – justification – for my following it; perhaps it makes me feel good and laugh a lot, for instance, or maybe – if it really is an incoherent, irrational Dao – I choose this Dao because I like the invisible yellow submarines that keep flying through themselves in the sky. And that’s precisely the point I’m trying to make: my incoherent and irrational justification for this Dao would not be something that someone following a coherent and rational Dao would find persuasive. If that were my Dao, I wouldn’t find your reasons for following your rational and coherent Dao at all persuasive either, since in my Dao justification always involves an appeal to yellow submarines that tend to be invisible.

        In that sense I think the Zhuangzi is skeptical that there is any way a Dao could be externally justified – and I think I agree with it on this.

        *

        “Here you seem to be supposing that the perspective I start out with is a constructive one. Suppose I start out destructive. How would you respond to my objector?”

        The argument I’m trying for is actually aimed more narrowly at knowledge than at choosing between Daos in general. So in your example, we would have someone who claims to know that “being destructive is a good way to live”, or something like that. The response would be to show him perspectives from which that isn’t the case – perhaps there are ways in which his destructiveness causes harm to himself, for instance. The aim is to suggest that what he takes to be “knowledge” is not really as strong a form of knowledge as he thinks it is, and that he should give it up in favor of knowledge that doesn’t have such a high contingency upon perspective.

        Comment by Donald Sturgeon | October 16, 2012 | Reply

      • Well, my question was whether you think the monkey story in some way suggests the idea of a convention. Or at least that it has something to do with convention. Or whether there are other passages that clearly evidence the idea of convention.

        *

        This is the important section I think!

        I do think the text is interested in the consequences of considering many, many perspectives

        OK, but does the text show any sign of interest in possible disadvantages (epistemic or otherwise) of considering as-many-perspectives-as-possible? If not, it’s hard to think of the text as displaying serious thought or serious concern about whether considering as-many-perspectives-as-possible is a good idea (epistemically or otherwise); so that rather than saying that the text is interested in the consequences, we should say positively that it is not. The text is interested in some consequences.

        and in fact I think at times it is ridiculing the suggestion that we could somehow consider all perspectives.

        Among the few things I think I remember about the Zhuangzi is that Zhuangzi sings a happy song shortly after his wife dies, and gives a philosophical defense; something about necessity. As I remember just that much, it occurs to me that one might consider the possibility that the story is meant as a reductio ad absurdum attack on the philosophy in question. Now, I’m sure this possibility didn’t occur to me when I read the story, and probably it’s not justified. But it seems to me worth a moment’s thought, on general principles of hermeneutic responsibility. I mean, just think of the look on Mengzi’s face. Anyway my point here isn’t that this sort of reading of the Zhuangzi is a live possibility. My point is that when somebody fails to consider the drawbacks, that’s a strong sign of non-seriousness insofar as she had signs that there might be important drawbacks, and in this case the signs are very strong indeed. Also of course it seems true in general that when considering radical proposals one ought to look to see whether something can be said against them – if only out of minimal respect for one’s neighbors. So charity would seem to demand that students of the Zhuangzi struggle hard against the view that the Zhuangzi doesn’t think hard about drawbacks – at least about epistemic drawbacks, if the claim is purely epistemic. And if the Zhuangzi doesn’t weigh drawbacks, then charity suggests withdrawing the thesis that the Zhuangzi genuinely asserts or supposes that considering as many perspectives as one can is more (epistemically) valuable than not doing so, or is a good idea (from a purely epistemic point of view).

        *

        My overall proposal about justifications had nothing at all to do with whether they are good justifications or crappy ones, nor with who might or should accept them.

        (I think you made it clear that by “justified” and “justification” you meant only “sincerely putatively justified” and “sincere putative justification” – that is, any sincere argument, good or bad.)

        Rather, my proposal is that the kind of thing you’re calling “internal [sincere putative] justification of a Dao” either does not claim to justify the Dao in question, or is not internal (as you explained that term) to the Dao it claims to justify; and so is not correctly called “internal [s.p.] justification of a Dao.”

        I choose this Dao because I like the invisible yellow submarines that keep flying through themselves in the sky.

        And I want to say that if the liking of the submarines is part of what the speaker means by “this Dao,” she’s only pretending to say why she chooses the Dao. She is really only saying why she chooses the rest of it, and giving an external reason for that.

        Maybe the right reply to this is that Bill has agreed to allow bad justifications, and one kind of bad justification is a circular one.

        Here’s a worry about that reply. I imagine that insofar as the text means to make a point about (putative) justifications, it isn’t really talking about verbal arguments. Rather it’s talking about something else, that we who think in terms of arguments might want to express as an argument. So what can we even mean by “putative justification”? We’re talking about reading an argument into someone, so some charity must be involved, and that might involve not attributing to people the putative justification “X therefore X.”

        *

        in my Dao justification always involves an appeal to yellow submarines that tend to be invisible. In that sense I think the Zhuangzi is skeptical that there is any way a Dao could be externally justified – and I think I agree with it on this.

        It’s not clear to me what the relation is supposed to be between Daos and perspectives. When you talk about perspectives, the idea seems to be that a perspective isn’t or needn’t be a perfectly global thing for a person; that is, one can have several, try some on for a while, have nested sets of perspectives, etc. A perspective is not by definition a person’s overall perspective. But when you talk about Daos, the ideas seems to be that a Dao is by definition one and global for a person, or for a person at a time. So that, for example, it would be a misuse of the word to call my concrete pattern of action toward contemplating the submarines a “Dao” that I externally justify (however mistakenly) on the basis of my enjoyment of contemplating the submarines (which may be part of a broader Dao that includes the narrower one). Is that right?

        *

        Bill: “Here you seem to be supposing that the perspective I start out with is a constructive one. Suppose I start out destructive. How would you respond to my objector?”
        Donald: … in your example, we would have someone who claims to know that “being destructive is a good way to live”, or something like that. The response would be to show him perspectives from which that isn’t the case – perhaps there are ways in which his destructiveness causes harm to himself, for instance. The aim is to suggest that what he takes to be “knowledge” is not really as strong a form of knowledge as he thinks it is, and that he should give it up in favor of knowledge that doesn’t have such a high contingency upon perspective.

        Here by “I” and “the objector” I meant two different parties. By “how would you respond to my objector?” I meant, not “What would you/the Zhuangzi do upon encountering someone destructive?” but rather “What is the reply to the objection-argument I had presented earlier?” Here’s that earlier presentation:

        “If the better Ways are the ones that are acceptable from more perspectives, then everything would seem to depend on how perspectives are to be quantified, how they are to be distinguished and counted. Someone might argue: ‘There are more ways to be destructive than to be constructive, so destructiveness is acceptable from more perspectives; so your standard favors destructiveness.’ How would you respond?”

        Your recent response seems not to try to address this objection, which seems to me important. The objection is not that there are unanswered questions about what counts as maximally accessible variety. (That’s an objection that my story about the job applicant would suggest, and in that way my story was misleading.) Rather, the objection supposes that we can sort of tell what counts as greater or lesser variety, and suppopses that there are more ways to be destructive than constructive. On these grounds the objection argues that the general favoring of variety inherently tends to favor destructiveness over constructiveness. The fact that someone might offer me a constructive perspective doesn’t seem offhand to address the objection.

        Comment by Bill Haines | October 16, 2012 | Reply

      • Hi Donald,

        I think some of what I wrote just above isn’t quite fair.

        For example, if I now understand you right, you are not saying the Zhuangzi’s view is that what’s epistemically best is to take account of, or quasi-occupy, as many perspectives as possible; you’re only saying “very many.” That makes the claim both less definite and less potentially objectionable.

        But epistemic drawbacks of doing too many perspectives still seem relevant. Here are some examples of the kinds of drawbacks I have in mind.

        An important part of what helps us be knowledgeable is our ability to absorb information, retain it, and have it readily accessible where relevant. Stable organization of a worldview is important especially for the latter two abilities. Aimless wandering among worldviews can leave us pretty empty-headed. (A special problem for people studying philosophy is that it’s hard to remember things without organization, but in a way the whole point of the field is controversy and confusion over what principles of organization are appropriate.)

        Much of our important practical knowledge is by way of sensibility. Effective sensibility depends on having regular affective dispositions and strong personal relationships; it depends on our being tuned to other people so that we can feel through them. It depends on our not being very detached. (See my paper on Confucian moral intuition; reference in my Contributor blurb.) Aimless wandering among perspectives makes all that hard.

        What you’ve said above already suggests an answer to these worries: it’s that what the Zhuangzi advocates is (not aimless wandering among perspectives but?) finding a perspective that can somehow encompass a great variety of other perspectives. Events often push us from one perspective to another. If we only ever had perspective A, and we’re pushed out of it into B, that’s disorder; but if we have super-perspective C that encompasses and somehow gives a place to each of A and B, then we may be able to ride the shifting tides of events without losing our bearings.

        Comment by Bill Haines | October 16, 2012 | Reply

  3. Re: “the Zhuangzi seems to be promoting greater knowledge as something preferable to lesser knowledge”
    Chad Hansen has argued that “Zhuangzi’s description of the small bird’s world, however, is too rich and empathetic for us to explain it by a simple minded bigger-is-better absolutism. Zhuangzi’s point is the inaccessibility of other points of view from this one. It is just as impossible for the great bird to understand what flying means to the small bird, flitting joyfully from branch to branch. It is just as impossible for the giant sea turtle to know the frog’s life in the wonderfully slimy, cool well as vice versa. That certainly suggests the inaccessibility of any universal point of view.” (A Daoist Theory of Chinese Thought, p. 272-3) However, I find Hansen to be clearly mistaken. This story illustrates that there are some whose understanding and experience is far beyond us, and the dozens of “scenes of instruction” anecdotes and parables throughout the Zhuangzi assume this to be the case (with Qiwulun author being more cautious). Every “story” in chapter One seems to have been compiled for this reason, including the criticism of Liezi and Songzi and Zhuangzi’s criticism of Huizi: they are all limited, or as you say, do not take into consideration enough different perspectives. Lian Shu 連叔 even defends Jie Yu’s 接輿 incredulous claims about the Shenren of Gushe Mountain (姑射之山,有神人): “We can’t expect a blind man to appreciate beautiful patterns or a deaf man to listen to bells and drums. And blindness and deafness are not confined to the body alone – the understanding has them too, as your words just now have shown.”

    Comment by Scott "Bao Pu" Barnwell | October 15, 2012 | Reply

    • I’m not sure if it comes across in my paper, but – if I’m reading him correctly – I actually agree with Chad on this point. The suggestion isn’t (as some people have argued) that the big bird is somehow “right” in that he sees things as they really are, and that the small bird is mistaken because he only sees his own little part of things, but that *both* of them are seeing things only from their own narrow and incompatible perspectives, neither of which is any more or less correct than the other. The big bird knows about and endorses “big flying” – flying across vast expanses; the small bird knows about and endorses “small flying” – flying from branch to branch. Neither of these is universally “right”; but taking up either of the two perspectives and then saying “Ha, that other perspective is really silly, doesn’t he know that my kind of flying is the best flying?!” is precisely the sort of narrow-minded attitude that much of the Zhuangzi is highly critical of. So the suggestion is that both of these perspectives are limited, which I think is part of Chad’s point, and can also be understood as a failure to take into account differing perspectives.

      In the same way, I wonder whether in the case of the blind man the suggestion might not just be that “he cannot see things as we see them”, but also that “we cannot see things as he sees them” – there is an important reciprocity in play here: a blind or deaf person may perceive things in ways that we do not – perhaps he may be more sensitive than we are to certain types of sensation, for instance. I think for the Zhuangzi this doesn’t in itself imply that we are right and he is wrong (or vice versa), merely that we perceive things differently. Of course, there might be a sense in which the blind man with his superior hearing – for instance – is “far beyond us” – or, in terms of sight, we beyond him – but if I am not the sort of being that possesses some particular exceptional capacity to begin with, there may be little sense in my spending time worrying about my lack of it beyond understanding and appreciating the fact that others may possess it.

      Comment by Donald Sturgeon | October 15, 2012 | Reply

      • While I can agree that the giant Peng may not have access to the sparrow’s little world and thus cannot judge it wrong, she can, arguably, judge it more limited. But even if not, I would still argue that that is not the point the author(s) is making. You mention ““Ha, that other perspective is really silly, doesn’t he know that my kind of flying is the best flying?!” is precisely the sort of narrow-minded attitude that much of the Zhuangzi is highly critical of.” But who expresses this view? It is the little sparrow, not the giant Peng, which I think is significant.

        And again, the blind and deaf may have other attributes or senses that surpass ours, but I doubt that is the point the author(s) is making. Songzi, Liezi, Huizi, the man from Song, are all portrayed as less adept, as more limited. And as I said, the fact that so many “scenes of instruction”occur in the text show that someone, the master, has a better understanding, has something to teach (though this doesn’t always mean that the student is more limited).

        Comment by Scott "Bao Pu" Barnwell | October 15, 2012 | Reply

  4. I have two questions. The first is a question about a potential issue that the Zhuangist epistemic universal-perspectivism may not cover, and thus which may allow Nazi/infanticidal-thrill-killing Dao.

    It addresses this paragraph, and this claim in particular:
    “[H]e would condemn the Nazi practitioner as a fool who failed to see other important perspectives on his situation [, like that of the baby, that of the innocent, etc.].”

    I get a lot of mobility out of seeing problems recursively, so pardon in advance if my response is predictable.

    The issue is that Zhuangzi seems committed to a perspective, namely one that we should be able to legitimize a certain Dao under every (or maximally many) perspective(s). But can we legitimize Zhuangzi’s so-understood Dao under every perspective? Shouldn’t the wise Zhuangist take into account the wants of the Nazi soldier or infanticidal thrill-killer, and see that not everyone could adopt that universal perspective, or that a great majority more people see their lives through much more closed lenses? It seems that, then, we could legitimize personal partiality in our decisions just as much as we could legitimize personal impartiality. It seems that the Dao of seeing things from our own perspective is easier to legitimize for more perspectives than a Dao of seeing things from many more perspectives.

    Do you find that Zhuangzi or you have a response to that kind of issue?

    My second question is about the grounding problem that you describe. If we do have a problem with fitting standards for correctness of a Dao outside of each given Dao’s internal consistency, we seem to be setting up Zhuangzi’s own Dao for this kind of potential dismissal. I read your last paragraph to indicate as much. Does Zhuangzi, then, believe that such internal consistency is a universal Dao, or that every Dao can define its consistency how it pleases, as well? Is Zhuangzi a fallibilist, a trivialist, or does he align himself anywhere between those two positions at all?

    Comment by Joshua Harwood | October 15, 2012 | Reply

    • Thanks for your questions Joshua.

      I probably should have emphasized more that my perspectival account is primarily aimed at questions of knowledge and only applies indirectly to the problem of which Dao we should actually follow. In thinking about knowledge, the wise Zhuangist should indeed take into account the Nazi perspective, which is why he can’t just say “everyone agrees that killing innocent babies for fun is wrong!” and be done with it.

      The criticism I’m proposing of the Nazi is epistemic – he’s claiming to know more than he’s entitled to – and not a moral claim that it’s wrong for him to kill people or that he should become a Zhuangist. It’s a much weaker criticism, and even leaves entirely open the question of whether it’s actually wrong for someone to claim knowledge they aren’t entitled to. The same kind of criticism could certainly be used against the Zhuangist too – but it would have to be aimed at something he is committed to, and I think this is where his caution pays off in allowing him to escape similar criticism himself. He isn’t committed to the statement that “killing innocent babies for fun is wrong”, he just knows that there’s a serious problem with the claim that “killing innocent babies for fun is acceptable”. If you accept his account of knowledge, then it seems that he is correct about this – there is indeed such a problem with that claim.

      Were the Zhuangist instead to boldly claim that “killing innocent babies for fun is wrong”, then he would become the target of the same criticism, because that claim fails to hold from the Nazi perspective.

      Regarding the grounding problem, I think the Zhuangzi does leave this possibility open. It’s entirely possible that I will, in the future, find that I was mistaken about all sorts of things to which I am at the moment deeply committed, and I should be aware that this is at least a possibility. I tried to say a little about justification of Daos in my reply to Bill above; I think there’s definitely a sense in which we could say the Zhuangist account is in part a fallibilist one. The text makes quite radical suggestions about what we might be wrong about, for instance when it asks how do we know that the dead do not mourn life. In general I think it is deeply skeptical of the possibility of any “universal Dao”, at least in the form of any one such Dao that gives genuine guidance appropriate to a recognizably human form of life.

      Comment by Donald Sturgeon | October 16, 2012 | Reply

      • Thanks, Donald, for the replies.

        I thought my questions were directed toward the epistemic matter, but I can always clarify my meaning. It seems from the reading above that Zhuangzi does have a committed epistemic position, which he himself would criticize as “petty,” just as those that coherentists and foundationalists debate, or just as those that relativists and absolutists debate. In this sense, Zhuangists would themselves have to consider their own stupidity in that epistemic commitment and acknowledge some sort of absolutist position about the correct view of an epistemology of different Daos, rather than the ethics of different Daos.

        Recursion aided my conclusion in the following way: It sounds as if Zhuangzi makes a criticism of the sort: “Commitments which do not hold true in the Daos of maximally many people are intellectually misguided.”. Call that P. The Nazi baby-killer can then respond, “P does not hold true in the Daos of maximally many people.” It would follow that P is intellectually misguided.

        But this assumes that Zhuangzi is obeying a standard logic, that they’re all playing by the same rules of inference. Zhuangzi could simply say of his own Dao, “The grounds for internal logical consistency are not the same as others are.” This would superficially immunize him from the Nazi’s (or anyone else’s) criticism, but it would eliminate any means for him to make a point of contact upon which to criticize others, as different people, with differently perceived systems of internal justification could say the same thing.

        The main difference between fallibilism and trivialism, as I describe them, is modal. Fallibilists claim that every theory could be wrong, and so any other theory could be right. Trivialists claim that every theory is wrong, and so any other theory is right. Most of us would reject trivialism because just allowing true contradictions doesn’t advance any one perspective (and I don’t know of many who accept that they believe contradictory things). Zhuangzi doesn’t sound like he’s okay with true contradictions, so I wouldn’t assume that he is openly endorsing trivialism.

        Perhaps he is a fallibilist, then. However, his fallibilism would be an impotent one, since approaching a Dao which says, “But that’s just my perspective; I could be wrong,” against any other Dao which says, “Every perspective which is not mine is wrong,” will not really offer the kind of criticism that would be necessary to disable Nazi baby-killing perspectives. It would have to show that Nazi baby-killing is wrong, even if we use “being wrong” to mean “inconsistent when considered beyond one’s own perspective.” Zhuangzi would have to strictly negate some claim which affects the internal consistency of a Nazi Dao, and it’s not clear to me that Zhuangzi can negate other epistemologies in his aforementioned fashion without negating his own.

        Does this relate more directly to your work?

        Comment by Joshua Harwood | October 16, 2012 | Reply

        • Thanks Joshua.

          “Recursion aided my conclusion in the following way: It sounds as if Zhuangzi makes a criticism of the sort: “Commitments which do not hold true in the Daos of maximally many people are intellectually misguided.”. Call that P. The Nazi baby-killer can then respond, “P does not hold true in the Daos of maximally many people.” It would follow that P is intellectually misguided.”

          I think that there’s a sense in which this is right – the same sense in which all commitments will inevitably fail from some perspective. In other words, all knowledge is limited in this way, and there is always the possibility of someone showing us that actually our own perspective is in fact narrow and dogmatic, and that we failed to appreciate some other relevant perspectives on our situation – just as when the text questions whether (from some future perspective we may have after we die) we may regret our having valued life. Certainly the Nazi could try to argue that the Zhuangist’s epistemological stance is itself invalid, perhaps by saying “well, in our Nazi Dao, not-P”. I’m not sure that the Zhuangist would agree though that, were I a Nazi, it would be the case for me that having my knowledge commitments hold from more perspectives rather than fewer would not be a good thing for me. In other words, it’s not clear to me that P is actually false from a Nazi perspective. One could certainly try to construct a perspective from which not-P that might be more or less persuasive.

          Really the point I am trying to make is just that someone who thinks there is something to the Zhuangist ethical stance is able to consistently object to the Nazi’s stance. I certainly accept that the same kind of criticism may be leveled at him, and I think the authors of the text realize this.

          “Zhuangzi would have to strictly negate some claim which affects the internal consistency of a Nazi Dao, and it’s not clear to me that Zhuangzi can negate other epistemologies in his aforementioned fashion without negating his own.”

          I’m not trying to suggest that the Zhuangist wants to “negate other epistemologies” as such; what I want him to be able to criticize is specifically the Nazi’s commitment to the practice of killing innocent babies for fun. I suspect that to achieve the objective of satisfying someone looking for “the kind of criticism that would be necessary to disable Nazi baby-killing perspectives”, he would have to make exactly the same kind of absolutist moral condemnation that the text is so critical of. I want to suggest that he can’t consistently do that, and shouldn’t try to, since this clearly would contradict his position, but that he can instead consistently offer a weaker form of criticism, even though he acknowledges that a similar form of criticism might also be leveled against himself in another context.

          Comment by Donald Sturgeon | October 17, 2012 | Reply

          • re: “what I want him to be able to criticize is specifically the Nazi’s commitment to the practice of killing innocent babies for fun.”

            I can imagine this sort of response…

            Zhuangzi said to the Nazi, “Remember Adolf Baby-killer in ancient times? He killed many babies for fun and his neighbours weren’t too pleased. Many tried to stop him, but he was a member of an aristocratic family that protected him. Then one day he killed his brother’s baby girl for fun. His brother was furious, and together with his other brothers and uncle, they tied Adolf to several horses and had the horses gallop off in different directions, thus tearing him to pieces. Afterwards, they executed all of his children and left no one to offer him sacrifices. He ended up losing everything. What a fool!”

            and maybe: “He would have been better off wandering in the realms of the nine heavens, doing whatever he pleased, not letting likes and dilikes enter his Spirit Storehouse.” 😉

            Comment by Scott "Bao Pu" Barnwell | October 17, 2012 | Reply

          • I took some time to think about this matter, and about one week ago, I scribbled down an alternative that I think might meet what you’re wanting in a Zhuangist criticism of other Daos: http://theyangist.blogspot.tw/2012/10/an-alternative-zhuangist-rejection-of.html

            Comment by Joshua Harwood | November 3, 2012 | Reply


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