Daoism and Cct

Religious Beliefs

Is there a distinctively Daoist ethic?

Daoism’s version of the Golden Rule is this: If a person treats me well, I do so in return. If that person treats me unjustly, I nevertheless respond with goodness, like the ever-constant Dao. The central ethical principle is the enigmatic concept of wu wei. The term translates literally as “non-action” or “non-effort,” but it means something like “acting naturally or “creative inactivity.” Wu wei is the ultimate in “natural law.” All things behave according to their inherent makeup. Human beings alone have a tendency to get it wrong by trying to take control where we have no business doing so—and where there is ultimately no good reason for doing so. Only by observing the Way of nature can people hope to grasp this elusive principle of uncontrived accomplishment.

Wu wei is not to be confused with laziness or indifference. Observe how nature brings about whatever is needed without stratagem or artifice. Nature does act, of course, and there is no lack of struggle in its doings, but it always returns to equilibrium. The key, then, is to act spontaneously, but that is not a recommendation to act impulsively. Behind the Daoist principle is the conviction that human beings will act for the greater good so long as they are not merely reacting to unreasonable social or governmental restraints. Genuine moral leadership requires authentic altruism, the desire to lead by serving—the diametric opposite of demagoguery. Concern for effective government in a time of social and institutional disintegration seems to have given rise to the notion of wu wei. But Daoism’s sages embodied the principle in a way that recommended it as a fundamental religious and philosophical value.


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