Academic journal article The Review of Metaphysics

From Metaphysics to Ethics: East and West

Academic journal article The Review of Metaphysics

From Metaphysics to Ethics: East and West

Article excerpt

AT FIRST BLUSH, it does not look as if metaphysics and ethics are related in either the Eastern or the Western philosophical traditions. Consider the Way (Dao) of the Daoist, Laozi, in his Daodejing, or the mean/equilibrium (zhong) of the Confucian text, the Zhongyong, as the source or cause of everything in pre-Qin Chinese philosophy. In itself, neither of the first principles in these rival Chinese philosophies seems to be determinate or distinct, and hence knowable, let alone offers norms for ethics. For Laozi, there is talk or existence of virtue only when the Way is lost. (1) In the Zhongyong, the mean/equilibrium exists prior to any pleasures or emotions, that is, prior to any human activities, (2) and moreover, is said to be unattainable. (3) Similarly, consider the form of the good for Plato as the first principle of truth and its rival, the primary substance or ousia for Aristotle, in ancient Greek philosophy. Both Plato's and Aristotle's first principles are unlike the sources in Daoism and early Confucianism in being distinct and knowable. But Plato's and Aristotle's first principles, like those of the Chinese, do not seem to be related to their ethics either. For Plato, the form of the good causes truth, reality, and knowledge. However, these belong to the eternal, intelligible realm of theory that is not only removed from the changeable, visible realm of ethics, but is also unreachable by actions. Similarly, Aristotle's primary substance (ousia) is the invariable object of the theoretical scientific (epistemonikon) part of the soul, rather than the variable object of the practical deliberative (logistikon) part. While the theoretical part grasps eternal truths or falsehoods, the practical part deliberates about changeable actions, which are good or bad. In short, theory and practice seem clearly separate for Plato and Aristotle. So rival representatives of both Chinese and Greek traditions seem to agree that the first principle or source is separate from, and unreachable by, human action.

Apparent affinities in these disparate rival traditions regarding the lack of relation between their metaphysics and ethics notwithstanding, I'll show that what these traditions share is the view that there is an intimate relation between metaphysics and ethics. If each of these rival representatives of ancient Chinese and Greek traditions agrees that metaphysics is bound up with ethics, such that reality determines what is ethical, examining their respective accounts of metaphysics and ethics can illuminate their strengths and weaknesses. Such a comparison can reveal how the practical can be a standard by which we assess the strength of one's metaphysics.

Let me make a fresh start by examining more carefully the metaphysics and ethics of each of the representatives of the rival traditions for the Chinese and the Greeks.

For Laozi, a representative of Daoism, the Way (Dao) is the source of all things. He says, "The Dao gives birth [sheng] to the one, the one gives birth to the two, the two gives birth to the three and the three gives birth to the ten thousand things [wanwu]." (4) Again, Laozi says that the Dao is "all pervasive. It can be on the left and the right. It gives birth to the ten thousand things and turns none away. When its work is complete, it does not claim acknowledgement. It clothes and raises them without lording over them, and it is always without desire." (5) Since the Dao exists prior to heaven and earth, Laozi also says that it can be regarded as the mother of heaven and earth. (6) It not only produces all things, but also sustains and nourishes them.

Contrary to the apparent lack of relation between Laozi's metaphysics and ethics, an important hint of their intimate connection lies in the title of Laozi's text, the Daodejing, literally the classic text (jing) of the Dao (Way) and the De (Virtue). Laozi's Dao is not only the source of all things in the cosmos but also the model of goodness for it is said to be "always on the side of the good person. …

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