The Daoist Nazi Problem

The following is a guest post I originally made on the Warp Weft and Way group blog. Unfortunately the full text and discussion no longer seems to be available there; below is the post as it originally appeared.

The Daoist Nazi Problem

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 Zhuangist if 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.

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