The Tao of Green: Building the Foundation for an Environmental Ethic with Taoist Philosophy Stephen Wolkwitz Religion

182 - East Asian Religion & Philosophy 29 April 2009

The Taoist environmental ethic that can be named is not the true Taoist environmental ethic. Can Taoism be pointed to as providing an environmental ethic? Though one should not equate Taoism with environmentalism, I argue that Taoist thought provides a basis for a relationship between man and nature, on which a modern environmental ethic can be built. Modern philosophers and environmentalists have, in the past few decades, begun to examine Taoism as a source for their environmental ethics. I will attempt to articulate the Taoist concept of nature, and how it is affected by ontological and metaphysical elements of Taoist thought. Using this conception of nature, I will provide evidence for how Taoism suggests humans should relate to the environment in a way that could form the groundwork for environmental ethics and

1 also address criticism of Taoism as environmental philosophy. I will finally review my argument as a coherent proposal for a Taoist-inspired environmental ethic. Taoist philosophy could prove to be a key in reshaping how humans think about the physical world and how they act in it, which could help to solve the many environmental problems we are faced with today. In the modern world, environmentalism has become a powerful ideology as peoples and governments contemplate their relationship with the natural world. Many have turned to the ancient Chinese Taoist philosophy as a source of wisdom, looking to it to advise humanity on how to act and deal with the environment.1 Environmentalists often see in Taoism a philosophy that encourages “oneness with the universe” and a sense of “harmony with nature.”2 Of the environmentalists who have examined Taoism for support, some have interpreted Taoism as naturalism, a philosophy that views the universe as subject to the “order of nature” that creates and governs all things.3 Others have tried to see in Taoism a separation between human and nature and a direction for humans to act in accordance with the way of the natural world.4 Others have tried to argue that Daoism held even more different views of nature. These modern disagreements on how to interpret Taoist metaphysics and its human/nature relationship have lead to a serious undermining of the capability for Taoism to deliver a coherent message to contemporary environmentalism. In what follows I hope to clarify the Taoist conception of nature and address criticism to its applicability with environmental concerns. Understanding how Taoism views nature is essential to developing any ethical attitude towards the environment based on Taoist principles. To begin to comprehend nature in a

1

Lai, Karyn L. "Conceptual Foundations for Environmental Ethics: A Daoist Perspective." Environmental Ethics 25 (2003): 247-66.
2

Cooper, David E. "Is Daoism Green?" Asian Philosophy 4 (1994): 119.

3

Peerenboom, Randall P. "Beyond Naturalism: A Reconstruction of Daoist Environmental Ethics." Environmental Ethics 13 (1991): 4-5.

4

Ibid.

2 Taoist sense one should start with the concept of the Tao itself. The Tao, which translates to “the way,” is the central concept of Taoism, giving the tradition its name. The Tao is explained as eternal and nameless. It is the “mother of the universe,” which is in operation everywhere and dependent on nothing.5 Taoist descriptions of the Tao portray it as an all-pervasive, lifesustaining, and nourishing force.6 We must be careful not to take the Tao as something that can truly be described with words, however. Lao Tzu, who wrote the Tao Te Ching, the main doctrine of Taoism along with the book of Chuang Tzu, tells us “the Tao that can be told is not the true Tao.”7 Lao Tzu refers to the Tao as nameless and intangible, due to its infinite nature.8 Only finite objects can be assigned to a name in Taoist thought, since giving something a name serves to tie it to a definite identity.9 Since the Tao “cannot be told” and has an infinite and all-pervasive nature it “rejects all names.” Lao Tzu even tells us that the only reason he refers to the Tao as the Tao is because he does “not know its name.”10 The

Tao is really the underlying pattern of the universe, or a type of cosmic law from which all things are derived. Everything is derived from the Tao and everything is a part of the Tao. We can read this in the words of the Tao Te Ching, which tells us “the Tao is like a well, used but never used up.” It is also like an “eternal void, filled with infinite possibilities” and the “great mother which gives birth to infinite worlds.”11 The Tao, by its nature, cannot be explained or comprehended like any finite thing can. Instead we must recognize the infinite mystery of the Tao as existing in

5 6
7

Lao Tzu. Tao Te Ching. Trans. Stephen Mitchell. New York: Frances Lincoln, 1999. Chap. 25 Ip, Po-Keung. "Taoism and the Foundations of Environmental Ethics." Environmental Ethics 5 (1983): 336.

Lao Tzu. Ibid. Chap. 1 Ip, Po-Keung. Ibid.

8

9 10
11

Ip, Po-Keung. "Taoism and the Foundations of Environmental Ethics." Environmental Ethics 5 (1983): 337. Lao Tzu. Tao Te Ching. Trans. Stephen Mitchell. New York: Frances Lincoln, 1999. Chap. 1

Ibid. Chap.1-14

3 all things and making them one. Many

ecologists look at the Tao as the source that nourishes, sustains, and transforms beings.12 Because of this, they hold, a natural relationship is built between the Tao and all the myriad things that are a part of it. This arises out of the Tao’s infinite nature as described previously because it is limitless, and so reaches all things, and because it gives “birth” to all things, becoming a nourishing “mother” as Lao Tzu described. The Tao can also be thought of as a process of change. The interactions of the Tao’s cosmic principles of Yin and Yang govern everything in the universe and cause them to exist in a constant transformative process.13 This transformative process is illustrated in the Chuang Tzu, in a story where a man is dying and Master Lai comes to see him while his family has gathered around to lament. “Hush, get out! Do you want to disrupt the process of change?” says the master.14 He goes on to glorify the Tao as the “maker of all” and wonder what it will transform this man into next.15 The way in which Master Lai tells the family not to disturb the process of change has important repercussions for the way environmentalists view the way man should act toward nature. The process of change is natural and a part of the Tao, therefore disrupting the process through human intervention is unnatural and, in an ethical environmental view, should be avoided.16 It is this feeling that has led to a wide interpretation of Taoism as naturalism, a philosophy that advocates acting in accordance with nature. The Tao follows tzu jan, or “natural spontaneity,” which is the movement of the Tao as it underlies the unity and life of all things.17 Since the Tao will change and move things naturally, the way in which it doe this is spontaneously through tzu jan. Things have relative freedom of self-movement within the Tao,
12

Ip, Po-Keung. Ibid. Ibid. Chuang Tzu. The Book of Chuang Tzu (Penguin Classics). Trans. Martin Palmer. New York: Penguin Classics, 2007. Chap. 6 Ibid. Ames, Roger T. "Taoism and the Nature of Nature." Environmental Ethics 8 (1986): 317-49.

13

14

15

16

4 which allows them to act in such a spontaneous way so as to always be in accordance with their own nature. Since the type of action that arises from tzu jan comes naturally, it is therefore the easiest course of action, and the most effective. Using this principle we can understand how “the Tao constantly does nothing, and yet everything is being done.”18 In order to understand how a person could follow the Tao better, and become like a sage, we need a deeper understanding of what its “nature” is exactly. “The Tao doesn’t take sides, it gives birth to both good and evil.”19 Because the Tao is eternal and all encompassing it is also unbiased and impartial. The Tao is the source of all things, both good and evil, as illustrated in the passage above. Thus a person following the Tao will avoid making distinctions such as that between good and evil, or right and wrong. The Tao Te Ching supports this when it states, “the sage doesn’t take sides, he welcomes both sinners and saints.”20 Instead of trying to make distinctions of right and wrong in order to act correctly, a true sage doesn’t have to think about their actions, they just act. The Tao, essentially, is nature and what comes naturally, without thought, is the Tao. This will prove to be an important point for the human-to-nature relationship that interests modern ecologists. This is because many ecologists have interpreted this notion as “acting in accordance with nature.”21 Acting in accordance with nature leads, such ecologists say, to harmony and an ethical relationship for humans to follow.22 The Taoists refer to this principle as wu wei, literally meaning “non-action”,
17

Cheng, Chung-ying. "On the Environmental Ethics of the Tao and the Ch'i." Environmental Ethics 8 (1986): 356.

18 19 20

Lao Tzu. Tao Te Ching. Trans. Stephen Mitchell. New York: Frances Lincoln, 1999. Chap. 37 Lao Tzu. Tao Te Ching. Trans. Stephen Mitchell. New York: Frances Lincoln, 1999. Chap 5 Ibid.

21

Ip, Po-Keung. "Taoism and the Foundations of Environmental Ethics." Environmental Ethics 5 (1983): 339.

22

Cooper, David E. "Is Daoism Green?" Asian Philosophy 4 (1994): 119.

5 which I will elaborate on later, in the context of its full value to modern environmentalism. Not making distinctions is a very important principle of the Tao. The Taoist master Chuang Tzu said, “The Tao is in all things, in their divisions and their fullness. What I dislike about divisions is that they multiply, and what I dislike about multiplication is that it makes people hold fast to it.”23 Chuang Tzu is saying that regardless of whether you look at things from the point of view of their “divisions” (the ways in which they differ) or from the point of view of their “fullness” (the ways in which they are the same), they are still the Tao. Chuang Tzu goes on to state that he does not like looking at “divisions” because this multiplies into endless classifications that people tend to place their belief in. This undermines people’s ability to see the larger picture of the infinite and eternal nature of Tao. The bigger problem arises for Chuang Tzu when people begin to study all these distinctions and believe they are gaining true knowledge. Chuang Tzu says, “knowing that knowing is unknowable is true perfection.”24 This means that a true master will recognize nature itself as ultimately unknowable and be content in his ignorance. What Chuang Tzu is explaining is that when we view things from the point of view of their diversions we see things in a dualistic manner and blind ourselves to the ultimate truth. When we see things from the point of view of their fullness we see nature as one. The importance of non-dualism in shaping the way Taoism proposes for us to see nature is paramount.25 The Té is another central

concept to Taoism that is important to understand in the way it helps shape the Taoist conceptualization of nature. The Té can be described as the power or potency of the Tao that

23

Chuang Tzu. The Book of Chuang Tzu (Penguin Classics). Trans. Martin Palmer. New York: Penguin Classics, 2007. Chap. 23, Page 205.

24

Chuang Tzu. The Book of Chuang Tzu (Penguin Classics). Trans. Martin Palmer. New York: Penguin Classics, 2007. Chap. 23, Page 203

25

Ames, Roger T. "Taoism and the Nature of Nature." Environmental Ethics 8 (1986): 321-28.

6 changes beings.26 The Té is both potency and a virtue in that it is internalized and possessed by all things, which means the Tao in turn possesses it. One who uses Té wields a moral charisma over people and allows the power to flow from them, without having to do anything. This is explained in the Tao Te Ching in passage 38: “The sage does not try to be powerful, thus he is truly powerful.”27 Thus we can see that this power, the Té, is a natural energy embedded in the Tao that is inherent in all things. The Té relates all things to each other both metaphysically and morally. I say it relates things because, since everything is endowed with Té and a part of the Tao, everything is inherently connected to all other things in the universe. I have previously explained that the Tao is impartial and makes no preference among things since it is itself inseparable from the natural world it gives birth to. This means that all things can be seen as being “ontologically equal.”28 Not only that, but all things are valued equally since they are related to everything else through the processes of transformation. Humanity is not given any special status as above, or even separate from nature, as it often is in Western and Confucian schools of thought.29 This resonates extremely well with many modern environmentalists, who have been looking for a way to relate humans to nature that does not see the natural world as being subject to humans or valued only for material gain.30 This holistic view of the natural world as one, and humans as simply another part of it, provides an excellent basis for an environmental ethic’s metaphysical philosophy.
26

Some scholars

Ip, Po-Keung. "Taoism and the Foundations of Environmental Ethics." Environmental Ethics 5 (1983): 335-43.

27

Lao Tzu. Tao Te Ching. Trans. Stephen Mitchell. New York: Frances Lincoln, 1999. Chap. 38

28

Ip, Po-Keung. "Taoism and the Foundations of Environmental Ethics." Environmental Ethics 5 (1983): 337-40.

29

Ames, Roger T. "Taoism and the Nature of Nature." Environmental Ethics 8 (1986): 321-31.

30

Cooper, David E. "Is Daoism Green?" Asian Philosophy 4 (1994): 121.

7 have noted that the concept of Té is often underplayed in terms of its significance to Taoist thought. As I have explained, the term is very flexible and can be taken to mean anything from “power” to moral principle and “virtue.”31 I have described the Té as a power or type of charisma so as not to confuse the Té with “virtue” or “principle” in a Confucian or any other sense that would be at odds with the Taoist critique of the cultural metastructure. The metastructure is all the man-made concepts that have become ingrained in one’s mind, such as social norms, gender roles, language, and other institutions.32 Instead, Taoism compels us to transcend these meaningless values in order to follow the pure and natural way.33 It is important to make this point in any construction of an environmental ethic because “virtue,” in the Taoist sense, seems to be tied more to the natural way than too any system produced by humans. Wing-tsit Chan describes the Té in yet another way, as the Tao “endowed in the individual things.”34 In this light, we see the Té as the essence of an individual thing. The Té is what binds everything to the Tao, the ultimate unnamable source. Chan’s model of the Té as an essence in all individual things helps to promote the equal value of all things and drawing out the interdependence of the universe.35 Interdependence is also something ecologists emphasize as the many life forms and non-living things that make up the environment are interdependent in such a way that the removal of one element affects all the others.36 This is another way in which the Té
31

Lai, Karyn L. "Conceptual Foundations for Environmental Ethics: A Daoist Perspective." Environmental Ethics 25 (2003): 248-53.

32

Trowbridge, John. "Skepticism as a Way of Living: Sextus Empiricus and Zhuangzi." Journal of Chinese Philosophy (2006): 254-61. Lee, Jung H. "Preserving One's Nature: Primitivist Daoism and Human Rights." Journal of Chinese Philosophy (2007): 597-609.

33

34

Chan, Wing-tsit. Way of Lao Tzu Tao-Te Ching. Upper Saddle River: Prentice Hall, 1963.

35

Lai, Karyn L. "Conceptual Foundations for Environmental Ethics: A Daoist Perspective." Environmental Ethics 25 (2003): 247-66.

36

Ip, Po-Keung. "Taoism and the Foundations of Environmental Ethics." Environmental Ethics 5 (1983):

8 helps promote the value of all things in an environmental context. Understanding the metaphysical nature of the Tao, we can now fully discuss the wu wei principle as a guide for the way humans should act in accordance with nature. “Tao invariably takes no action, and yet there is nothing left undone.”37 This quote tells us that the Tao is able to accomplish all things through nonaction, or wu wei. Since the Tao “sustains and governs” all action, it can be said to be action-in-itself.38 Therefore, when it is said that the Tao does not perform action, it is similar to saying the Tao does not act outside of itself, or that it acts in accordance with its own nature. The Tao that would have to take extra action outside of its nature would not be the true Tao. In explaining the nature of the sage, Lao Tzu models the way the humans should act off the way the Tao acts. He says “The sage does nothing and yet leaves nothing undone,” the sage also “deals with things before they arise” and “puts things in order before disorder arises.”39 Through these passages we can see that the sage acts as the Tao does, in accordance with his own nature, following the principle of wu wei. In this light we can see how those who attempt to take action outside of the laws of nature (in other words, action not in accordance with the Tao) will fail because they go against the way.40 When someone acts according to wu wei they can accomplish anything without trying. They are free of the rules and distinctions and independent of anything but their own nature. Thus, instead of trying to use the natural world as a means to an end, the sage works with nature and all is easily accomplished. Many ecologists believe wu wei allows man to value the non-human world more for what it is and to exploit it less, creating

335-43.
37 38 39
40

Lao Tzu. Tao Te Ching. Trans. Stephen Mitchell. New York: Frances Lincoln, 1999. Chap. 37 Ip, Po-Keung. "Taoism and the Foundations of Environmental Ethics." Environmental Ethics 5 (1983): 341. Lao Tzu. Tao Te Ching. Trans. Stephen Mitchell. New York: Frances Lincoln, 1999. Chap 55-65

Ip, Po-Keung. Ibid.

9 harmony in the man-to-nature relationship.41 Using this understanding of the nature of Taoism, its view of the human-nature relationship, and its insights on how to act in harmony with nature, as a foundation from which to build an environmental ethic, we can begin to explore other themes where Taoist thought can bolster modern environmentalism. One such theme is that of primitivism. Primitivism is the notion that humans should live in a more primitive society, less reliant on technology and more connected with nature.42 Naturally, there are many environmentalists who would advocate some form of a primitivist way of life, which would limit human society’s harmful affects on nature. Many of these environmentalists see Taoist philosophy as having set a precedent for this idea.43 Taoism makes some explicit suggestions for governing a country that support a return to a more primitive way of life. For example, Lao Tzu tells us that the government of the sage “empties the peoples minds” and “weakens their ambition,” suggesting that a country should break down the metastructure society has been living in, in order to return people to their free and natural state.44 The Tao Te Ching also states that people should “let go of the law, let go of economics, let go of religion” and they will become “honest, prosperous, and serene.”45 This also follows the theme of letting go of rigid concepts in order to live in a more simplistic and harmonious society. If your society is simple and harmonious with nature then there is no need for ritual, as the imposition of the leader’s will in that way would just ignore the Tao causing desire and disorder.46 Lao Tzu advocates a simple agrarian society that will avoid over-

41

Lai, Karyn L. "Conceptual Foundations for Environmental Ethics: A Daoist Perspective." Environmental Ethics 25 (2003): 247-66. Cooper, David E. "Is Daoism Green?" Asian Philosophy 4 (1994): 121.

42
43

Ibid. Lee, Jung H. "Preserving One's Nature: Primitivist Daoism and Human Rights." Journal of Chinese Philosophy (2007): 597-609. Lao Tzu. Tao Te Ching. Trans. Stephen Mitchell. New York: Frances Lincoln, 1999. Chap. 57

44

45
46

Lee, Jung H. Ibid.

10 complexion.47 The Taoist advice for governing a nation is in fact very much like its advice for acting according to the principle of wu wei, but on a larger scale. Lao Tzu says, “governing a large country is like frying a small fish. You spoil it with too much poking.”48 This “poking” represent the rituals and laws of the Confucians, in that it involves too much human intervention and does not allow people to act according to nature. Instead, Lao Tzu tells leaders to “learn to follow the Tao and stop trying to control,” which again implies wu wei, nonaction or action in accordance with nature.49 Essentially the sage is able to employ wuwei in his governance, attaining a natural state of oneness in his country, and making it “ordered and secure.”50 Wu wei is meant to hinder the promotion of the desires of the people so as to avoid competition for happiness and security.51 Chuang Tzu also voices criticism against striving for happiness as opposed to “just being” happy as you are, saying, “happiness is the absence of the striving for happiness.”52 Instead, people naturally attain these things through the Tao. With people living this way, everyone would be content and there would be little interference with the natural world, something most ecologists would find attractive. Another theme in which Taoism and

ecology intersect is that of femininity. The value of femininity in Taoism is of special interest to a branch of ecology that has grown over the past few decades known as ecofeminism, with many leaders developing concepts similar to Taoism.53 Ecofeminist thought criticizes the dualistic

47

Cooper, David E. Ibid. Lao Tzu. Tao Te Ching. Trans. Stephen Mitchell. New York: Frances Lincoln, 1999. Chap. 60 Lao Tzu. Tao Te Ching. Trans. Stephen Mitchell. New York: Frances Lincoln, 1999. Chap. 57 Lee, Jung H. "Preserving One's Nature: Primitivist Daoism and Human Rights." Journal of Chinese Philosophy (2007): 597-609. Cheng, Chung-Ying. "Dimensions of the Dao and Onto-Ethics in Light of the Daodejing." Journal of Chinese Philosophy 32 (2005): 162. Chuang Tzu. The Book of Chuang Tzu (Penguin Classics). Trans. Martin Palmer. New York: Penguin Classics, 2007. Chap. 18, Page 150 Cooper, David E. "Is Daoism Green?" Asian Philosophy 4 (1994): 122.

48 49 50

51

52

53

11 metaphysics so common in modern thought in much the same way Taoism did in ancient China.54 Many of the ecofeminists say that dualism supports the distinction and division of things into completely separate entities, and also promotes inequality in the value we assign to each thing.55 For example, there is distinction between human society and nature through which humans view nature as subordinate in value and subject to exploitation. This argument resonates with virtually the same Taoist argument against dualism elaborated on earlier. The Taoist view of an interconnected whole, which makes no distinctions, assigns equal value to all things. This allows for human harmonization with nature, as well as equality between male and female, which are both goals of ecofeminist philosophy.56 The Taoist concept of yin and yang is one of

the most important examined by ecofeminists. The yin/yang is used to represent binary traits as coming from the same source and working together in a dynamic relationship. The relationship is irreducible and illustrates interdependence, encouraging non-dual thought.57 Instead of seeing two forces as separate, the yin and yang allow us to see them as one. The yin is often used to represent feminine traits while the yang represents masculine traits. However, through this metaphor, one is able to view masculine and feminine elements as equal in value, interrelated, and ultimately irreducible.58 Yin and yang illustrate this type of relationship between other forces such as light and dark or positive and negative. This helps to provide a different way of viewing the world important to any environmentalists who advocate looking at the world in terms of interrelationship rather than differentiation. The Taoist concept on which most ecofeminists
54

Rowe, Sharon, and James D. Sellmann. "An Uncommon Alliance: Ecofeminism and Classical Daoist Philosophy." Environmental Ethics 25 (2003): 129.

55

Ibid. 131 Rowe, Sharon, and James D. Sellmann. "An Uncommon Alliance: Ecofeminism and Classical Daoist Philosophy." Environmental Ethics 25 (2003): 133. Lai, Karen. "The Daodejing: Resources for Contemporary Feminist Thinking." Journal of Chinese Philosophy 27 (2000): 131-53. Rowe, Sharon, and James D. Sellmann. Ibid.

56

57

58

12 focus their attention, however, is that of femininity itself. In Taoism, femininity is praised for being “like water.”59 Water is the “supreme good” because it “nourishes all things without trying to.”60 In this way it is yielding and passive, like the female, which is why Lao Tzu praises femininity. Like the Tao, being passive leads to making no distinctions and giving to all without discrimination. Thus water is willing to constantly transform and acts as the source for life, much like the Tao.61 Lao Tzu also uses metaphors like the “valley” and the “great mother” to symbolize the fertility of the Tao and to celebrate in the feminine nature of it.62 The way Taoism gives value to nature as fertile and feminine has great appeal for most ecofeminists and also helps to solidify the way humans should be treating all things as equal instead of subordinate. Through the exploration of the various concepts from which Taoism forms its view of nature and the human-to-nature relationship one notices the reoccurrence of certain fundamental themes in the type of Taoist thought that will help to support a modern environmental ethic. Some of these themes are non-dualism, naturalism, primitivism, and femininity. All of these themes have drawn criticism from skeptics of Taoism’s ability to provide a basis for environmental ethics. Some critics have asserted that many or all of these themes are actually not present in Taoism, or do not actually help to promote environmentalism. I will aim to reveal how faith in these criticisms is misplaced and that most stem from either misinterpretation and limited knowledge of Taoism, or in a failure to recognize the value of these themes in constructing an environmental ethic. The most common criticism of interpretations of Taoism is the notion that it is somehow not naturalist or holistic. R. P. Peerenboom writes a criticism of naturalism that divides into two interpretations of the Tao: one which views humans
59
60

Lao Tzu. Tao Te Ching. Trans. Stephen Mitchell. New York: Frances Lincoln, 1999. Chap. 6

Ibid. Cap. 8 Rowe, Sharon, and James D. Sellmann. "An Uncommon Alliance: Ecofeminism and Classical Daoist Philosophy." Environmental Ethics 25 (2003): 143. Lao Tzu. Tao Te Ching. Trans. Stephen Mitchell. New York: Frances Lincoln, 1999. Chap. 6

61

62

13 as a part of nature and one that views humans as separate from nature.63 The view that holds humans as separate from the Tao portrays the Tao as the “law of nature” which governs only the non-human realm of the universe and with which humans must conform in order to follow the way correctly.64 This mode of thought is flawed in that it separates humans from the Tao, which I have already explained Lao-Tzu has described as “infinite” because it is “present for all beings,” and as not “taking sides” or making any distinctions.65 Chuang Tzu also agrees “the Tao is in all things.”66 It seems baseless to suggest, then, that somehow the Tao is the way, but not the way of the human.67 This in fact creates a dualism where there is a difference between nature and human, which would be hypocritical to the clearly non-dualist philosophy of Taoism. Peerenboom rightly points out the flaws in this argument. However, Peerenboom then moves on to criticize the view that humans are a part of nature. Here, he asserts that the wu wei principle is essentially useless because if humans are a part of nature they can do nothing else but act naturally.68 This view misinterprets both the Tao and wu wei. First of all, Taoist texts clearly state the Tao as being the source and inherent nature, without discrimination, of all things, as outlined above and throughout this paper. Being one with the Tao assures that all humans can act naturally (in accordance with it) through wu wei, or without extraneous action. However, though they are a part of nature, Lao Tzu clearly explains that it is possible, and even common, for humans to act in violation of their own nature, by making distinctions between things and trying to “force

63

Peerenboom, Randall P. "Beyond Naturalism: A Reconstruction of Daoist Environmental Ethics." Environmental Ethics 13 (1991): 4-5. Peerenboom, Randall P. "Beyond Naturalism: A Reconstruction of Daoist Environmental Ethics." Environmental Ethics 13 (1991): 5. Lao Tzu. Tao Te Ching. Trans. Stephen Mitchell. New York: Frances Lincoln, 1999. Chap. 5-7 Chuang Tzu. The Book of Chuang Tzu (Penguin Classics). Trans. Martin Palmer. New York: Penguin Classics, 2007. Chap. 23, Page 205 Peerenboom, Randall P. Ibid. 6. Ibid.

64

65 66

67

68

14 issues.” This is the concept of yu wei, acting “against the current of the Tao,” and occurs whenever Lao Tzu says someone is “trying to be virtuous” or “reaches for virtue but never has enough.”69 Chapter 9 of the Tao Te Ching, which states that “chasing” after such things as wealth and approval is against the Tao, also supports this. If one recalls Chuang Tzu’s saying, “happiness is the absence of the striving for happiness,” one can understand how it is possible to act unnaturally (striving against the Tao for what the Tao already provides) despite being a part of nature. In short, the Tao provides a person with a natural essence, but it is up to the person to utilize this through wu wei. This is why critics such as Peerenboom miss the point when they say that wu wei is “redundant.”70 Though Peerenboom’s argument against naturalism may be understandable, it does not hold with closer examination of the Taoist texts. Therefore naturalism and wu wei as the principle for human’s relationship with the natural world remain valuable contributors to an environmentalist ethic. There are also critics of Taoism’s support for

primitivist and feminine ideals. Arguments against primitivism cite only Taoist reverence for “wild men” as any call to a simpler life and reject any of Lao Tzu’s work as calling for anything other than “vacating language.”71 This is a major mistake and overlooks a wealth of material in Taoism calling for a simpler society that pursues nothing but follows the Tao. One example clearly displaying the primitivist traits of closeness to nature and simplicity is in chapter 8 of the Tao Te Ching, which says, “In dwelling, live close to nature. In thinking, keep to the simple. In governing, don’t try to control.” Critics also question whether primitivism helps the environmentalist cause. Most ecologists would point out that living with less reliance on technology and acting according to ones nature, as a primitivist lifestyle would demand, is
69 70

Lao Tzu. Tao Te Ching. Trans. Stephen Mitchell. New York: Frances Lincoln, 1999. Chap 38 Peerenboom, Randall P. "Beyond Naturalism: A Reconstruction of Daoist Environmental Ethics." Environmental Ethics 13 (1991): 6.

71

Cooper, David E. "Is Daoism Green?" Asian Philosophy 4 (1994): 119-25.

15 certainly more environmentally friendly than constantly seeking to exploit nature to “progress” society.72 Criticisms of the way ecofeminism has

largely interpreted the feminine nature of the Tao acknowledge the feminine qualities, but take issue with their application to environmental ethic. They wonder how much masculine values should be devalued as “disruptive to nature” and “penetrating.”73 This is a legitimate question and resonates with the yin/yang concept, explained earlier, which holds that masculine and feminine values are equally important and valuable, and that one (in this case the feminine values) should not be held as superior to the other. One criticism follows by suggesting that the feminine nature of the Tao encourages us to act in a “seductive” manner to overcome nature and cites Lao Tzu’s praise for water’s ability to “dissolve what is hard and strong” as evidence.74 This evidence is not so compelling as the metaphor suggests yielding action, more in tune with nature and opposes it to the yu wei of “that which is hard and strong.”75 This actually disproves the argument more than it supports it. Criticism also questions if a passive nature is suitable to modern environmentalism, which requires active political challenge to the status quo.76 The argument is made in the wrong context, given that the passive attitude is intended for our dealings with nature and our way of life, not for the method of political change used by the environmentalists. The feminine nature is more the type of ethic that environmentalists should be arguing for, and less the method they should use to argue. For the most part, Taoist ideas as a base for environmental ethics actually stand up to criticism extremely well in nearly all cases. Taking into account the Taoist conception of
72

Ip, Po-Keung. "Taoism and the Foundations of Environmental Ethics." Environmental Ethics 5 (1983): 341-343. Cooper, David E. "Is Daoism Green?" Asian Philosophy 4 (1994): 119-25.

73
74

Ibid. Lao Tzu. Tao Te Ching. Trans. Stephen Mitchell. New York: Frances Lincoln, 1999. Chap 78 Cooper, David E. Ibid.

75

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16 nature as outlined in this paper, along with the human-to-nature relationship and all of the points on which many ecologists and environmentalists have looked to Taoism to provide an environmental ethical system, it is possible to construct a proposal for a coherent environmental ethic based on Taoist thought. This ethic will rest firmly on the foundation of Taoist principles. It will be able to shape the way modern people think of the universe, in a way more conducive to sustaining and harmonizing with the natural environment. The Taoist ethical proposal rests on the idea of the Tao as universal, eternal, all encompassing, and infinite source that is in all things, and governs the universe. With the notion of the Tao in place, humans are incorporated within it and within nature. Humans are recognized as a part of nature and the Tao, thus they are put on an equal level with all things. This allows harmony with nature to arise as the most important value, rather than giving the priority to human needs that allows for exploitation of the environment. The Taoist ethical model will also hold that we avoid viewing the world in terms of dualism. Dualism divides things into particulars and blinds us to the dynamic relationships and interdependence between everything. Recognizing the Tao as everywhere and seeing all things as connected builds the notion of a supreme ecological principle in which all things are an important part of nature and therefore hold intrinsic value. The Tao itself becomes in a way the supreme ecology of the universe. The principle of wu wei becomes the basis for how humans should act in accordance with their nature and, in turn, the environment. Instead of continually trying to push things and exploit the resources of the environment, humans should adopt the “feminine” stance of water by following the Tao, nourishing and yielding all things, and achieving harmony through a more passive and simple life. This philosophy focuses on the ethics of treating all things as valuable in more than just a material sense, but in the sense of their Té, or their virtue. From there we move to viewing the world as one whole. We live spontaneously and harmoniously within our nature and the environment.

17 This is the Taoist foundation for a modern system of environmental ethics that needs to reshape thought about the environment in order to change how humans act towards it. Many environmentalists and ecologists can use this Taoist ethic as a cornerstone for advocating ecological views in modern society. If Taoism can change the way people think about the nature of the universe, it can change the way they act towards the nonhuman world, creating a more harmonious and environmentally healthy society. As Lao Tzu says, “If virtuous men and women could enter themselves in the Tao, the whole world would be transformed by itself, in its natural rhythms. People would be content with their simple, everyday lives, in harmony, and free of desire. When there is no desire, all things are at peace.”77

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Lao Tzu. Tao Te Ching. Trans. Stephen Mitchell. New York: Frances Lincoln, 1999. Chap. 37

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