The Tao Te Ching, Virtue Ethics, and the
Foundations of Moral Inquiry

                 I.             Introduction


How we interpret classical philosophical texts is an issue of importance to contemporary philosophical debate.  The assumptions that we make when applying a particular interpretive method to a classical text greatly influence our reading of the text.  Ultimately, the context of a text influences the issues that we raise about a text, the manner in which we view those issues, and from this, the conclusions that we ultimately draw.  For this reason, academic debate should recognize and address the problems of interpretation. 

                  To this end, Michael LaFargue’s work in Tao and Method and the Tao of the Tao Te Ching represents a significant achievement in giving Western philosopher access to ancient Chinese philosophy.  The Tao Te Ching, along with the Chuang Tzu, is one of the cornerstones of Taoist philosophy.  LaFargue presents a detailed analysis of the Tao Te Ching in terms of its origins in the Warring States period of Chinese history.  He ultimately grounds the book in the context of the shih, as a sourcebook of aphorisms designed to guide the moral development of young men aspiring to join a new class of administrators and counselors in the Chinese government.

                  In arguing that the text is more concerned with personal cultivation, LaFargue opens an interesting door of possibility for contemporary philosophers.  Recently, a number of philosophers have been analyzing the formal elements of virtue ethics, such as community, tradition, and embodiment of virtue.  LaFargue’s interpretation of the text appears to contain these elements, which prompts us to ask if it is possible to understand the Tao Te Ching in terms of virtue ethics.  Initially, the answer appears favorable.

                  There is one major problem with making such a comparison.  One of the major elements of any virtue ethic is the concept of telos, or the function of a human life.  Telos is important because it helps us determine what to value in our lives.  It also helps us organize competing goods and practices.  The problem with telos is that it appeals to our notions of human nature to determine how best to pursue virtue in our lives.  And if we are appealing to a concept of what it means to be human, then we are appealing to a metaphysical claim about the nature of the world.  One of the major views currently among virtue ethicists, therefore, is that a metaphysical notion of human nature is necessary in order to engage in moral inquiry. 

                  LaFargue, however, argues against the presence of metaphysical beliefs in the Tao Te Ching.  He does not believe that the Tao Te Ching makes foundational metaphysical claims about the nature of the world.  He argues that many passages are simply designed to celebrate the wonderful qualities of Tao.  Neither does he believe the text to be without purpose.  Instead, he argues that the issues in the Tao Te Ching are those that grew out practical moral dilemmas and not metaphysical questioning.

                  The issue then is whether or not it is possible to understand the Tao Te Ching as a virtue ethic while holding the position that the Tao Te Ching’s system of moral inquiry does not rely on metaphysical beliefs about human nature.  Fortunately, the debate of the proper relation of metaphysics to ethics already occurs in the contemporary scholarship on Aristotle’s works.  As such, it may be useful to turn to this already established debate to determine a more secure position from which we can draw conclusions about the Tao Te Ching.  This paper will concern itself with two major sides of the debate, alternately represented by Terrence Irwin and Timothy Roche.  On the one hand, Irwin argues that Aristotle’s method of dialectical argumentation cannot support itself, and must use a metaphysical account of human nature as a foundation for moral inquiry.  On the other, Roche argues that the reputable beliefs underlying the dialectical method are strong enough to support moral inquiry without appealing to separate metaphysical doctrine.

                  This paper will argue it is not necessary to have a metaphysical notion of human nature in order to provide the foundation for moral inquiry.  I will argue that we derive our beliefs about human nature from our tradition and our community.  These beliefs about human nature in turn provide us with our concept of telos, which establishes the basis of moral inquiry.  This means that we can also understand the Tao Te Ching as a virtue ethic, given that LaFargue’s interpretation brings to light a community and tradition sufficiently strong to create a notion of human nature.

                    II.            Background and Metaphysics

LaFargue’s interpretation of the Tao Te Ching presents a picture of the text that contains most of the major elements of a virtue ethic.  Edward Slingerland posits seven major characteristics of virtue ethics: shaping dispositions through practice; autonomy spontaneity, and virtue; community and role; the importance of tradition; internal versus external goods; the need for an overarching telos; and an appeal to universality.  Through LaFargue’s interpretation of the Tao Te Ching, we can draw parallels to all the elements of virtue ethics except the appeal to universality.  As part of his translation, he rejects reading the Tao Te Ching as a text concerned with making foundational metaphysic truth claims (LaFargue Method 175).  The world in which the Tao Te Ching originated was one that did not occupy itself with metaphysical debates.  Previous interpreters incorrectly projected metaphysical debates onto the text, sloppily ignoring the historic, cultural and linguist origins of the text (LaFargue Tao Te Ching 208).  LaFargue’s translation differs from previous ones because he analyzes the text in the context of its historic, social, and linguistic origins.

                  Historically, LaFargue places the Tao Te Ching in the context of China’s Warring States period, sometime between 350-250 B.C.  The material of the text originated in a group belonging to a particular subculture at that point in time, and the world-as-experienced by that group is the world that shapes the text (LaFargue Method 48).  This subculture was comprised of individuals known as shih, and their perspective revolved around two primary concerns: the cultivation of moral and spiritual excellence in their own persons, and reforming the practice of contemporary Chinese politics (LaFargue Method 48).

                  Socially, these shih were part of a new class that was forming due to the breakdown of order occurring during the Warring States period.  They were concerned with political reform, but sought to attain positions as moral advisors rather than rule directly.  In order to learn how to be good moral advisors, the shih congregated together in groups that eventually formed loose schools (LaFargue Method 49).  LaFargue’s argument is that the Tao Te Ching originated in such a group of shih, and directed the shih in their moral, spiritual, and political development.

                  Linguistically, the Tao Te Ching was used by these shih to help teach moral cultivation.  The sayings in the Tao Te Ching function as aphorisms that can be grouped loosely in two categories.  Those in the first group warn against certain attitudes in one’s character, relationships with others, and even modes of government.  Those in the second group celebrate the particular mindset valued by the Laoists shih, and describe its beneficial effects on the individual and society (LaFargue Tao Te Ching 201,205-209).  LaFargue argues that the shih used these claims to help cultivate virtue so that they might become the moral leaders of a crumbling Chinese society. 

                  Looking at these historic, social and linguistic origins of the Tao Te Ching presents a double-edged sword: LaFargue’s translation appeals to many elements of virtue ethics, but the world in which he places the text ultimately rejects the metaphysical foundations that are allegedly necessary for establishing a virtue ethic.  In order to make this debate salient, we need some reason to think of the Tao Te Ching as a virtue ethic.  Comparing the Tao Te Ching to a system of virtue ethics will either support or detract from my larger argument, which is whether or not virtue ethics in general require a metaphysical and foundational account of human nature.   To draw this comparison, I will no appeal to the first six of the seven points outlined by Slingerland as necessary for maintaining a virtue ethic.

                       III.          The Tao Te Ching and Virtue Ethics

Here I will present the first six qualities of a virtue ethic as outlined by Edward Slingerland and informed by Alasdair MacIntyre.  I will then compare each of these six sections to selections from the Tao Te Ching and supplemental interpretive material provided by Michael LaFargue.  Following the comparison of these six points I will demonstrate how the seventh category, the appeal to universality, conflicts with LaFargue’s interpretation of the Tao Te Ching.

                                                                                               i.  Shaping Dispositions through Practice

MacIntyre defines a virtue as ‘an acquired human quality the possession and exercise of which tends to enable us to achieve those goods which are internal to practices and the lack of which effectively prevents us from achieving any such goods’ (qtd. in Slingerland 100).”  A virtue is more than just a conceptual understanding of situations and moral action, but necessarily includes the component of acting in that situation.  The purpose of developing virtues in an individual is to cultivate a degree of moral autonomy.  The individual does not become bound by strict rules describing a multitude of hypothetical situations, but instead develops the ability to determine what is essentially moral in a situation.  The individual develops moral autonomy by practicing virtue in concrete situations.  Repeated practice of virtue leads to an internalized embodiment of that virtue, which then allows the individual to transcend a deontological understanding of a situation.

                  In his interpretation of the Tao Te Ching, LaFargue argues that the Taoists emphasized self-cultivation in order to develop good moral character and the proper state of mind for a ruler (LaFargue Tao Te Ching 194).  At the center of self-cultivation is Te, which LaFargue loosely translates as “virtue,” and can be thought of as the qualities and personal charisma of an individual.  The Laoists argue that the best manner to cultivate harmony and increase one’s Te was through practice of emptiness.  As a virtue, emptiness is perhaps the most central to their system of thought.  Emptiness acts much like Aristotelian practical wisdom: both act as a central virtue that guides the individual’s development in all of his pursuits.  Emptiness helps the practitioner develop socially and psychologically substantial qualities.  Socially, the Laoists believed that an individual had to learn to see beyond social competition (LaFargue Tao Te Ching 17).  The Laoists warned against ostentation, frivolous lifestyles, and petty demonstrations of power and wealth.  Instead, they promoted qualities that would help an individual become a better administrator.  Chapter 7[8] promotes the cultivation of several specific qualities and warns against social competition.

                  The highest excellence is like water.

                  Water, Excellent at being of benefit

                                    to the thousands of things,

                  does not contend-

                  it settles in places everyone else avoids.

                  Yes, it is just about Tao.


                  Excellence in a house: the ground

                  “Excellence in a mind: depth

                  Excellence in companions: Goodness

                  Excellence in speaking: sincerity

                  Excellence in setting things right: good management

                  Excellence on the job: ability

                  Excellence in making a move: good timing.”


                  Simply do not contend

                  then there will be no fault.


                  Beyond the social level the Laoists valued emptiness as a state of mind.  They understood that ordinarily the mind gets caught up in seeking constant stimulation.  A mind that seeks for constant stimulation, however, loses its still center.  Learning to pursue a healthy state of mind means learning to calm one’s mental agitation.  Agitation places the mind in a state of contention where it cannot think clearly enough to make sound judgments regarding moral situations.  Essentially, the Laoists recognize that people are easily distracted by thinking in the moment.  They forget the presence of mind that allows them to think beyond immediate problems.  They do not advocate that an individual cut himself off from all pleasure, since this would be psychologically unrealistic.  Instead, they advocate learning to appreciate and pursue more subtle pleasures.  Cleaning the mind of distractions allows an individual to perceive situations more clearly and enable him to make better moral judgments.  Chapter 28[16] demonstrates the positive qualities of emptiness. 

                                    Push Emptiness to the limit,

                                    Watch over Stillness very firmly.


                                    The thousands of things all around are active-

                                    I give my attention to Turning Back.

                                    Things growing wild as weeds

                                    All turn back to the Root.


                                    To turn back to The Root is called Stillness.

                                    This is ‘reporting in’

                                    ‘reporting in’ is becoming Steady

                                    Experiencing Steadiness is clarity.


                                    Not to experience Steadiness

                                    Is to be heedless in one’s actions – bad luck.


                                    Experiencing Steadiness, then one is all-embracing

                                    All-embracing, then an impartial Prince

                                    Prince, then King

                                    King, then Heaven

                                    Heaven, then Tao

                                    Tao, then one lasts very long.


                                    As to destroying the self,

                                    There will be nothing to fear.


                  Apart from simply celebrating these virtues, the Taoists also recognized that virtue has to be practiced.  Acquiring Te is not simply a matter of making the proper conceptual moves.  Rather, the individual has to insert himself in those situations where his action will make a moral difference.  As Aristotle correctly points out, virtue is a propensity to act a certain way in a given situation.  Cultivation of Te occurs through meditation (to clear the mind) and living in a manner that fosters social harmony.  Chapter 26[59] presents the view that regular practice is necessary to cultivate virtue:

                                    “When it comes to governing the people and serving Heaven, there’s no

                                    one like a farmer.”


                                    Just being a farmer-

                                    this means getting dressed early.

                                    Getting dressed early means increasing one’s store of Te

                                    increasing one’s store of Te, then nothing is impossible

                                    nothing impossible, then no telling the limit

                                    no telling the limit, then one can possess the state.


                                    One who possess the Mother of the state

                                    can last a long time.


                                    This means having deep roots and strong foundations,

                                    the Way of ‘lasting life, good eyesight into old age.’


                                                                                                        ii.  Autonomy, Spontaneity and Virtue

Practicing and embodying virtues gives the practitioner a larger degree of freedom and autonomy in moral situations.  Autonomy here should be understood as freedom from relying on deontological frameworks. Developing autonomy from the rules is important because it allows the individual to act in a natural, spontaneous manner to the moral dilemma with which he is faced.  Slingerland accurately points out that this does not mean that all rules are abandoned.  There are set rules established on how to practice and develop virtue, but there are not strict rules on how to apply that virtue to a situation.  There are rules to practicing virtue just like there are rules to practicing and developing any complex skill, such as playing a musical instrument.  Slingerland describes the nature of autonomy in a virtue ethics:

Although the training through which virtues are acquired proceeds according to a general set of rules or principles, the actual decisions made by a person with fully virtuous dispositions are both more flexible and more authoritative than the rules themselves” (102-103)

Slingerland continues,

Thus, once a practice has been mastered, in the sense that the requisite virtues have been fully developed, this mastery brings with it a certain independence from the rules that constitute the practice: the master is able to reflect upon the rules and may even choose to transgress or revise them if, in her best judgment, this is what is required to realize the good or goods specific to that practice.  Practice mastery thus brings with it a type of transcendence: the freedom to evaluate, criticize, and seek to reform the practice tradition itself (102-3).

By internalizing the rules and conventions that define a practice, the individual is able to achieve a certain degree of autonomy in applying them.  He is not bound by the letter of the law, but rather by a sense of what is required to realize the goods or specific goods to a practice.

                  Achieving autonomy in one’s moral actions also allows one to react spontaneously to a moral dilemma.  Spontaneously does not mean giving sway to whatever whim or fancy strikes the mind, but rather relying on the individuals cultivated and internalized sense of what is right.  Instead of having to determine all the different potential actions one could make in a given situation, reference those actions to a set of rules, and then force one’s self to act according, the practitioner of virtue ethics is able to respond quickly and intuitively to the moral situation.  Emphasizing the necessity of spontaneity reflects a more realistic conception of the world as a place in motion, where we don’t always have the luxury of engaging in analysis of a situation before acting. 

                  LaFargue argues that personal character formation is the source of the Shih’s autonomy, his right to “follow norms derived from within himself rather than be bound by norms given externally” (LaFargue Tao Te Ching 174).  By within himself, this means from the Laoists’ ability to perceive what is essentially virtuous within the context of a situation.  The Laoists opposed the Confucian reliance on rules and ritual for determining moral action.  The Laoists argued that once one projects rules over a situation, one misinterprets the situation.  This misinterpretation of the situation occurs because the individual is tying to make the situation conform to his understanding of the rules.  Chapter 43[1] warns against the danger of adhering to an essentially deontological determination of morality:

                                    The Tao that can be told is not the invariant Tao

                                    The names that can be named are not the invariant Names


                                    Nameless, it is the source of the thousands of things

                                    (named, it is ‘Mother’ of the thousands of things).



                                    Always: being desireless,

                                                      One sees the hidden essentials.

                                    Always: having desires,

                                                      One sees only what is sought.


                                    These two lines are about The Merging-

                                    It is when things develop and emerge from this

                                    That the different names appear.


                                    The Merging is something mysterious-

                                    Mysterious, and more mysterious,

                                    The abode of all the hidden essences.


The Laoists are attacking the Confucian tradition of rectifying names.  Any Tao or Way that can be spelled out in concepts is not the true Laoist Tao (LaFargue Tao Te Ching 95).  Critiquing the use of names should not be understood as saying that we cannot or should not form concepts about the world, but that we must recognize that the world has a large experiential component.  Our concepts of the world mean nothing if we do not pay attention to our experiences of the world.  We need to approach situations in the world with an open mind and try to avoid making premature judgments.  Too often, we interpret things based only the way we think the world ought to be, and do not pay attention to the actual situation (LaFargue Tao Te Ching 95).

                                                                                                                                       iii.  Community and Role

Despite the fact that the individual embodies virtue within himself, virtue ethics recognize the fact that an individual practices virtue only within the context of his community.  We approach moral dilemmas as the bearers of a particular social identity (MacIntyre qtd. in Slingerland 105).  In terms of a virtue ethics, community defines many of our roles, which in turn prescribe our behavior in many moral situations.  Ultimately, our identity develops out of a series of dependencies and interdependencies and responses to them (Baier qtd in Slingerland 105).  Thus, against the universal (and therefore characterless) duties and rights championed by deontology, virtue ethics emphasizes that excellence is always role-specific (MacIntyre qtd. in Slingerland 105).  The formation of an individual’s character, rooted in family and social duties, is then supplemented by the presence of an interactive community of fellow practitioners (Slingerland 105).  The virtues that we cultivate in a tradition of virtue ethics are the virtues that are valued by our community.  The community finds the practice of these virtues valuable, and builds social roles around the successful practice of these virtues.

                  A virtue ethic also recognizes the importance of friends and teachers.  Teachers are there to provide the moral instruction necessary for cultivation.  Practicing virtue is not simply a matter of understanding the correct virtues to practice.  It requires knowing how to cultivate virtue in a particular manner.  Like any complex craft, learning this skill is much easier when teachers provide the necessary guidance.  Friends are useful because they are individuals engaged in the same level of practice.  They allow us to reflect on our own qualities, debate and discuss our achievements.  In general, friends act as a mirror that both reflects our own qualities and by doing so helps in our own self-cultivation.

                  The Laoists had several different levels of community.  At one basic level they had the schools of Laoist shih that were organized together for the sake of learning virtue in terms of Tao.  This community encouraged moral inquiry and prompted the generation of the oral history that became the Tao Te Ching.  The Laoists also existed in the community of shih in general, who were concerned with the moral well-being of the Chinese kingdoms.  Additionally, they were part of Chinese culture and history itself, which provided them with their most important role, that of moral advisor.  Chapter 61[54] demonstrates how the Laoist though of himself as part of several different levels of society:

                                    Excellently founded: it will not be uprooted

                                    Excellently embraced and cared for: it will not slip away

                                    So sons and grandsons will never cease to offer the sacrifices.


                                    Cultivate It in your person, its Te will be pure

                                    Cultivate It in the clan, its Te will be abundant

                                    Cultivate It in the village, its Te will be lasting

                                    Cultivate It in the state, its Te will be all-embracing.



                                    Judge a person taking that person as the measure

                                    Judge a clan taking that clan as the measure

                                    Judge a village taking that village as the measure

                                    Judge a state taking that state as the measure

                                    Judge the world taking the world as the measure.


                                    How do I know the nature of the world?

                                    By this.


                  This chapter is based on the premise that groups and societies have a spirit that needs cultivating, just like an individual.  The way to do this is to pay attention to the manner in which the group works.  Cultivating the proper spirit in a group can only be done by paying attention to that group.  The only way to pay attention to a group properly is to cultivate the proper state of mind in one’s self first (LaFargue Tao Te Ching 133).

                  Beyond simply paying attention to different levels of community, however, the Laoists saw Tao as an integral part of community.  They believed that cultivating virtue was the key to creating a harmonious and integrated social order.  Evidence of this mentality can be seen in chapter 81[37], which says,

                                    Tao invariably Does Nothing, and nothing remains not done.


                                    If the princes and kings can watch over it

                                    The thousands of things will change by themselves.

                                    If they change, and become desirous and active,

                                    I will restrain them with the Nameless One’s Simplicity.

                                    Restraining them with the Nameless One’s Simplicity

                                                      Will cause them no disgrace.

                                    Not being disgraced, they will be Still.


                                    The world will order itself.


LaFargue interprets this chapter as a warning against self-assertion and its ability to disrupt social contentment.  The Laoists do not see reactionary measures, such as heavy law-enforcement or repression, as the correct answer.  The ideal ruler cultivates his own virtue, which allows him to restrain disruption gently without making anyone feel humiliated.  He thus brings about an atmosphere of Stillness, which allows the world to put itself into order (LaFargue Tao Te Ching 177).

                                                                                                                       iv.  The Importance of Tradition

Tradition is important because it helps form our social roles and duties within a community.  As Slingerland points out, virtue ethics stands opposite the Enlightenment in is valuation of tradition.  “In contrast to the Enlightenment suspicion of tradition, virtue ethicists perceive tradition as playing an essential and positive role in constituting individual identities” (Slingerland 106).  Being initiated into a social practice requires accepting the authority of the teacher, as well as the standards of excellence handed down by the practice tradition (Slingerland 106).

                  Similarly, our understanding of who we are and what we are to strive for is largely given to us through tradition; there is no way to possess the virtues ”except as part of a tradition in which we inherit them and our understanding of them from a series of predecessors” (MacIntyre qtd. in Slingerland 107).  Excellence in a practice is not achieved through an individual act of will or burst of primal creativity; it is gradually developed in the context of a judgment community of fellow practitioners.

                  Traditions give us a structure from which to learn how to act in particular situations (a schemata).  Learning from this structure does not limit us to only acting by rigid rules, because the purpose of learning a virtue is to teach us how to identify what makes something virtuous in a particular situation.  The tradition gives us a narrative from which to put different problems in the proper context. 

                  Compare this emphasis on tradition with the historical roles of advisors in Chinese society.  LaFargue provides this material from his work in both the Tao of Method and the Tao of the Tao Te Ching.  The Laoist tradition sprang from the Chou dynasty, which made political advisors valued and respected members of the government.  It was their place to advise the executive branch of the government, the emperor, on the correct moral norms that he should be cultivating.  Until the time of the Warring States period, however, most of these advisory positions were occupied by the noble families close to the emperor.  With the breakdown of the social order in the Warring States period, the position of moral advisor became more accessible to larger portions of Chinese society.  Out of the disorder of the Warring States period rose a new class, the shih.  These people had previously held minor roles as soldiers, scribes, bookkeepers, minor administrators, and foremen for state governments and feudal manors.  With the disorder provided by the Warring States period, more rulers turned towards the shih due to their specialized talents.  The shih in turn became a necessary base for maintaining the socioeconomic base of each ruler’s power (LaFargue Tao Te Ching 191).

                  Within this group of administrators formed smaller groups of idealists, who grouped together to form schools of thought.  The idealists believed that the burden of the moral-well being of the Chinese states rested on their own shoulders.   They believed it was their responsibility to respond to the social and economic disorder of the Warring States period (LaFargue Tao Te Ching 192).

                  As reformers, the shih both accepted the traditional structure of the government, but rebelled against the norms and values that were present in that structure.  Thus, they were different from later European political theorists who sought to deconstruct society and rebuild it according to new principles of human nature.  The shih accepted the traditional Chinese views of human nature and government.  In particular, they believed that good social organization depended on the ruler gaining the voluntary respect and coordination of people.  He did this by cultivating certain qualities within himself and thereby setting the moral tone for society.  This tone was more important than laws because people have a tendency to rebel against enforced regulations.  The shih believed it was their role, part of their tradition, to become the moral tone setters for society.  But they did not want power themselves.  Instead, they wanted to remain in advisory positions, recognizing that as the assistants they would wield more influence over society in general (LaFargue Tao Te Ching 192-194)

                                                                                                               v.  Internal Versus External Goods

Communities and traditions work together to provide different roles to an individual.  In determining those roles, communities and traditions also help create different systems of goods.  Goods are those qualities that different practices teach us are desirable and good to pursue.  Not all goods are equal, however.  Some goods are simply given to us by our society while others are internal to various practices.  Internal goods can be realized only the exercise of a practice itself and can be identified and judged only by someone well versed in that practice.  Furthermore, as we come to recognize and understand the goods internal to a given practice, we gradually come to take pleasure in that practice (Slingerland 108).

                  However, the existence of these internal goods also limits the creativity that can be exercised by the practitioner.  In pursuing the good internal to the practice, she is to adhere to a traditional body of rules and standards, an any innovations in the practice or criticism of these rules and standards can only take place within a framework of intelligibility defined by the tradition (Slingerland 109).  Practices allow for, but resist and limit, change (Slingerland 108).

                  The “creative” practitioner does not draw upon her idiosyncratic genius in order to call forth something unique and unprecedented; rather, she perceives novel possibilities in the practices into which she has been trained, thereby pushing the practice in a new direction (Slingerland 108-9).  The creativity of the virtue ethicist is learning how to apply the internal goods gained from one particular kind of practice to another kind of practice. 

                  The goods internal to the Laoist tradition include certain states of mind and certain social modes of interaction.  Emptiness, clarity, steadiness and wholeness are valued as being positive states of mind that enable the practitioner to determine virtuous behavior.  A successful Laoist keeps his mind open and engenders social harmony in his surroundings.  As stated above, they are not acquired spontaneously, but rather are cultivated over a period of time through daily practice.  One of the “rules” for developing virtue in the Laoist system is the practice of meditation, which helps the practitioner achieve emptiness in his thoughts (LaFargue Tao Te Ching 234).  Despite the appearance sometimes, the Tao Te Ching provides a framework of rules that help cultivate virtue.  Other rules include not showing off, which helps cultivate the virtue of emptiness.  Another rule is to be receptive to ideas and situations rather than prematurely categorizing them, which helps cultivate the virtue of Femininity..

                                                                                                         vi.  The Need for an Overarching Telos

Human beings engage in a variety of social practices, and the claims of different practices and the unique goods that they provide often conflict.  Practices must therefore be ranked in terms of some overall telos – the good of a whole human life (MacIntyre qtd. in Slingerland 111).  The true nature of human actions is distorted when they are analyzed in terms of atomistic “base actions” or in behaviorist terms that ignore intentions, beliefs, and narrative context, for human actions have a historical character – that is, they are fully intelligible only when considered in terms of the larger narrative context or life story of which they are a part (Slingerland 111-112).  Telos provides a kind of organizing principle around which the pursuit of the virtues is organized. 

                  The telos of the Laoists system is to follow the Way and become an embodiment of Tao.  The Laoist telos of emptiness is analogous the Aristotelian telos of achieving the good, also known as human flourishing or eudaimonia.  In Aristotle’s ethics, eudaimonia is attained by using the rational capacities of the intellect to determine the proper development of virtue and character in an individual.  In this manner, the individual will make positive and fulfilling decisions regarding his life, and thus attain human flourishing.  In the Laoists system, following the Tao is achieved by attaining emptiness one’s mind, which allows one to perceive situations and experiences in a light uncluttered by preconceptions, rules, and desires.  Achieving Emptiness in one’s mind allows one to develop stillness of one’s thoughts.  Achieving Stillness in one’s thoughts allows the practitioner to achieve Stillness in relationships with other people.  This Stillness spreads through his relationships and becomes a positive force for achieve an integrated and harmonious society.

                                                                                                                              vii.  The Claim to Universality

In attempting to compare the Tao Te Ching to a system of virtue ethics, it is precisely on this note that we encounter a major difficulty.  On the one hand, it appears that we must appeal to metaphysics to intentionally ground our ethical theories.  We order virtues by appealing to telos, and we determine our telos by appealing to human nature.  If human nature is something that is universal, then we must be making a metaphysical claim about human nature.  Based on a metaphysical notion of human nature, we pursue certain virtues and practices because it is in our nature as human beings to BE a certain way.

                  On the other hand, LaFargue clearly and repeatedly states that the Tao Te Ching is neither based on doctrinal metaphysical claims nor does it address doctrinal metaphysical claims.  His strongest claim against metaphysics is the argument that the world in which the text originated did not concern itself with metaphysical debate (LaFargue Method 175).  Both the subject matter of the text and the manner in which the text was written support his argument that the text does not rely on a metaphysical understanding of human nature.  The subject matter of the text concerns the moral development of young men striving for political office.  The authors use aphorisms to put forward their views instead of appeals to universal doctrine about human nature.

                  However, if we still want to understand the Tao Te Ching as a virtue ethic, we cannot dismiss the claim to universality.  We have already appealed to the Laoist Tao as a telos, which means that we must invoke some claim to human nature to ground our telos.  As it stands, we must either relinquish our claim that the Tao Te Ching contains an appeal to telos – and thereby lose its coherence as a virtue ethic – or find some way to ground our telos in an account of human nature that does not make universal metaphysical claims.   

                        IV.          Irwin versus Roche on the Dialectical Argument

Is it possible to understand the Tao Te Ching as a virtue ethic without appealing to a metaphysically foundational account of human nature?  Answering this question requires us to determine if virtue ethics in general require a metaphysically foundational account of human nature as the basis of moral inquiry.  Instead of trying to resolve our dilemma in terms of the Tao Te Ching, we may be able to find an answer by looking at Aristotle’s ethics, metaphysics, and the relation between the two.  As it stands, there is already a well-established debate between Terrence Irwin and Timothy Roche concerning the relationship of Aristotle’s ethics to his metaphysics.  On the one side, Irwin argues that Aristotle’s ethics require a metaphysical foundation because the dialectic method is not strong enough to support itself as a system of moral inquiry.  On the other hand, Roche argues that the dialectic method is strong enough to support itself.  Roche argues that this foundation comes from certain reputable beliefs.  These beliefs are necessary and may not be refuted if the individual desires to remain a valid participant in the dialogue.

                                                                                                                              i.  The Dialectical Method

Irwin wants to raise questions about moral epistemology.  Irwin’s argues Aristotle’s method for engaging in ethical debate should produce the kinds of answers that are (1) appropriate answers to ethical questions and (2) produce the knowledge or warranted belief to be expected in ethics (Irwin Aristotle’s Method 193).  He regards moral inquiry in terms of the moral agent and the moral theorist.  In his article, Aristotle’s Method of Ethics, Irwin addresses the primary concern of the moral theorist, who wants to know “what sort of theory is the right one and how we should construct it” (Irwin Aristotle’s Method 194).  Irwin’s concern in addressing the moral theorist seems to be this: although we may know that our method of moral inquiry is sufficient for making moral decisions that can be justified in terms of the way we act, is this enough?  Irwin believes that we ought to be using a method of moral inquiry that can provide us with answers that are epistemologically justified as well as practically applicable.

                  Aristotle uses the dialectical method as his chosen method of moral inquiry.  The dialectical method is a system that allows us to identify moral norms and refine our concepts of proper moral action.  Irwin seeks to determine if the dialectical method is capable of giving answers that are epistemologically justified as well as practically applicable.

                  As part of his assessment of the dialectical method, Irwin provides a sketch of how Aristotle's method functions as an element of philosophical discourse (Irwin Aristotle’s Method 198).  The process begins with a puzzle (aporia), or questioning of moral norms, that occurs when there are two arguments that seem equally cogent but produce incompatible conclusions.  At the core of the puzzle are the set of common beliefs that inform the moral norms under question.  Each side makes an argument that is based in the common beliefs of the situation.  The sides then resolve the inconsistencies by removing as few of the common beliefs as necessary while still adequately answering the problem.  Reaching the resolution does require that at least some part of the common belief be abandoned, but a successful solution to the puzzle will abandon common beliefs as little as possible.  As Irwin points out, this does not mean that we simply argue against assumptions that raise puzzles.  The point of the argument is to reach a clarification on the way to cultivate excellence.  The solution, therefore, should be one that leaves the two sides with a more concrete and lucid understanding of how to pursue moral action.

                                                                                                    ii.  Irwin’s Criticism of Common Beliefs

Irwin's main criticism of the dialectical method focuses on the nature of the "common beliefs" or "endoxa."  Irwin does not believe that the common beliefs provide epistemological justification to the process of moral inquiry.  Irwin asks, "If the theoretical principles are really meant to vindicate common beliefs and show that they are true, how are the principles to be defended?"  On the one hand, Aristotle expects the dialectical method to show that some common beliefs are true (Irwin Aristotle’s Method 200).  On the other hand, the dialectic cannot provide the epistemological justification for determining a true common belief, because the dialectical argument itself is initiated by a conflict in the common beliefs.  Relying on common beliefs to provide support for the truth of the common beliefs results in circular argumentation.  Providing epistemological justification therefore requires independent support.

                                                                                               iii.  Irwin’s Metaphysical Foundation Theory

He argues that Aristotle's ethics are supported by his conception of the human mind and soul, which in turn rests on his general metaphysical account of form, essence, substance and matter (Irwin Aristotle’s Method 208).  Irwin’s argument goes like this: in the Metaphysics, Aristotle argues that form is substance, while in the De Anima he argues further that soul is form and therefore substance (Irwin Aristotle’s Method 208).  Therefore, the essence of a human being is her soul and form, because a human being is essentially a goal-directed organism.  This means that ethics apply to the good of the human soul, and soul is understood as a metaphysical distinction.

                  In order to convince us that ethics apply to the human soul, Irwin argues that there are dialectical arguments that warrant belief in the truth of their conclusions (Irwin Aristotle’s Method 209).  Irwin cites the Principle of Non-Contradiction as one such dialectical argument.  Rejecting the principle of non-contradiction means that the interlocutor rejects more than a common belief about argumentation; he also rejects a metaphysical position that must be maintained if he is going to be recognized as a valid and coherent participant in the process of moral inquiry (Irwin Aristotle’s Method 209).  From the principle of non-contradiction we see that we must recognize substances in order to remain a coherent participant in moral debate.

                  In recognizing what a substance is, we turn to Aristotle’s beliefs about human essence and form.  According to Aristotle, substance is only one part of an organism’s form.  The other parts are the matter, the function, and the telos.  These four parts are united with each other and have to be understood in relation to each other.  This means that if we have to recognize something as a substance, we have to recognize it as a goal directed system.  This is important for the field of ethics, because looking at other organisms as goal-directed systems allows us to understand the behavior of that organism.

                  According to Aristotle, the essence of man differs from that of an animal because he possesses a rational soul.  Irwin claims that it is this rational agency that determines our behavior in general.  Defining a human being as a broad rational creature is the key claim that Irwin thinks demonstrates ethics require a metaphysical foundation.  The view that man is a broad rational creature is a view that can be argued from common beliefs, but its justification comes from an account of things as they really are (Irwin Aristotle’s Method 211).  Ultimately, Irwin’s position is that giving a metaphysical account of man as a broad rational animal is what gives the dialectical method the justification that it needs to make statements that go beyond practical applicability to truth.

                  Here we need to note that Aristotle’s concept of telos is a metaphysical concept.  As a metaphysical concept, Aristotle is making an important claim about the nature of man.  But this also raises an important question: must the concept of telos be something that is essentially metaphysical in nature?  Could our concept of telos be organized in some fashion other than as a universal account of human nature?  Irwin seems committed to saying no, at least if he wants to restrict himself to maintaining a broad coherence within the Aristotelian cannon.

                                                                                                                        iv.  Criticism of Irwin by Roche

Timothy Roche opposes Irwin’s argument that there must necessarily be some kind of metaphysical foundation to the Aristotelian system of moral inquiry.  Roche attacks Irwin’s claim on two accounts.  First, he argues that Irwin’s interpretation does not cohere with other textual evidence.  Irwin claims that Aristotle allows for a broad coherence between his disciplines, but Roche denies this.  Roche cites several passages from Aristotle indicating that he specifically wanted to avoid the kind of broad coherence that Irwin supports.  Second, and most importantly, Roche does not think it is necessary to justify the ethics by appealing to a source of justification outside the ethics.  Roche claims “Aristotle’s method in ethics is neither conspicuously indefensible nor dependent upon his own metaphysical doctrines” (Roche 50).  If there is no textual support for appealing to the metaphysics and if it is not necessary to appeal to an outside source to justify the dialectical method, then, as Roche states, “there is a false dilemma at the core of Irwin’s argument for the metaphysical foundation hypothesis” (50).

                  Irwin’s criticism of the dialectical argument was that common beliefs could not be sufficient for providing epistemological justification to the dialectical method of moral inquiry.  The dialectical method is supposed to be able to make truth claims that support the common beliefs, but cannot do so if the argument is based on those common beliefs.  Such argumentation would be circular.

                  Roche critiques the view that common beliefs are not strong enough to provide epistemological justification for moral inquiry.  Roche claims that Irwin’s translation of “common beliefs” from the Greek word endoxa is inadequate.  He cites instead a more common translation of the word, “reputable things.”  Under this translation, he argues, we have the ability to perceive a more complex but subtle operation of the dialectical method.  By translating endoxa as “common beliefs,” Irwin suggests that cultural and social norms form the basis of moral inquiry.  While it may be true that cultural and social norms form a large part of moral inquiry, translating endoxa as “reputable things” gives the dialectical method the capacity to address subjects of greater depth. 

                  The key to self-sufficiency in the dialectical method rests in making a distinction between two types of endoxa: surface endoxa and deep endoxa.  Surface endoxa can be done away in order to resolve the aporia, but deep endoxa cannot.  They form the foundations of the moral inquiry.  If the radical skeptic calls the deep endoxa into question, he is no longer capable of being included in dialectical debate, and therefore has taken himself out of the game.  Endoxa can include claims or assumptions that go beyond temporary cultural and social values.  Our belief in the validity of logical argumentation is one such belief, which certainly did not originate in our contemporary post-modern consumerist culture.  Rather, it is an assumption that has been part of the tradition of moral inquiry since Socrates.  Ultimately, the nature of endoxa is that they may include assumptions about the nature of debate without having to appeal to a separate theory of metaphysics.

                  What about the metaphysical assumptions that do occur in the deep endoxa?  Roche admits that deep endoxa may include some metaphysical claims, but he argues that those claims are there only because they are necessary for the purposes of inquiry, and not because they exist as a separate truth to which the ethical theory has to correspond.  The deep endoxa may include metaphysical arguments like the principle of non-contradiction, but only because the deep endoxa require the metaphysical belief to facilitate moral inquiry.  Furthermore, deep endoxa may be composed of metaphysical beliefs without those beliefs being part of a separate theoretical framework.

                  If the deep endoxa provide the basis for referring to a subject as an intelligible whole, then there is no need to appeal to a metaphysical source outside the ethics.  Thus, while Aristotle’s metaphysical doctrines concerning form, essence and human telos may be coherent with his method in ethics, there is no need to appeal to them for outside support.

                  Roche supplies an example.  Irwin contends that Aristotle uses the concept of a broad rational agent in his moral inquiry in order to ground his ethics on his firmly established metaphysical principles.  Roche denies that Aristotle uses metaphysical essence of a human being to ground the moral inquiry, but not because Aristotle fails to assume that the interlocutor is a broad rational agent.  Rather, Roche deny that Aristotle appeals to metaphysical doctrine because Aristotle assumes his interlocutor is such an agent for the simple reason that people generally think of themselves in this way (Roche 61):

Aristotle’s goal in the Ethics is to persuade his audience to accept his moral principles.  Since it is implausible to think his audience does not already believe that people are broad rational agents, it is clear that Aristotle does not need to appeal to his own metaphysical doctrines to persuade his audience.

As Roche states, it is difficult to see how Irwin would reply to this argument, for he readily admits that the concept of a broad rational agent “rests on fairly firm and undisputed” received opinions (Irwin qtd. in Roche 61).

                     V.           The Relationship of Ethics to Metaphysics

Does Roche adequately show Irwin’s argument to be unnecessary?  Roche argues that the deep endoxa provide the necessary foundations for moral inquiry, and that appealing to a metaphysical belief about human nature is unnecessary.  So in order for Roche to claim that deep endoxa provide the foundation for the dialectical method, they have to be capable of providing beliefs about human nature.  Can the deep endoxa appeal to a notion of human nature that is not metaphysical?  The answer is yes.  We gain our deep endoxa from our community and traditions.  If our community and tradition can provide us with a concept of human nature, then deep endoxa have successfully appealed to a notion of human nature that is not metaphysical in nature.  So the key question that remains is whether or not our community and traditions can provide us with a concept of human nature.

                  Again, the answer here appears to be yes.  We can make assumptions about human nature based on our life experiences, all of which are filtered through our community and traditions.  We can look at the way people behave to each other, how they interact with each other, and how our community believes they should act.  We gain a very complex idea of human nature from looking at the roles people play in their community and our community’s attitude towards those roles.

                  It follows that if the life experiences we have within our communities and traditions provide us with a concept of human nature, then these experiences also serve as our foundation for a telos.  We find our idea of telos by determining what we think is good for a human life.  Being able to determine what is good for human life requires having a notion of what comprises a human life.  This notion of what comprises a human life forms our concepts of human nature.

                  We determine what is good for a human life by looking at how well particular actions help fulfill and enrich our lives.  Looking at how well various actions fulfill our expectations of what is good for human life is the basis of ethical decision-making.  Thus, we can conclude that a metaphysical concept of human nature is not necessary to provide a concept of telos.  Deep endoxa are capable of providing a foundation for the dialectical method because they appeal to beliefs about human nature that are formed through our community and traditions.

                  Claiming that our community and traditions provide a concept of human nature does not preclude the possibility that metaphysical beliefs can become integrated into the deep endoxa.  Metaphysical beliefs may be present in the deep endoxa without being foundational, which is to say they do not contribute to our concept of human nature.  Our current community of thought accepts many metaphysical beliefs, because metaphysical debate has become a part of our community of philosophical thought.  As a part of our philosophical community of thought, it makes sense for us to consider the metaphysical aspects of moral inquiry.  Metaphysical beliefs may be present in our deep endoxa, but they are going to concern the nature of moral inquiry.  They illuminate and accommodate moral inquiry, but holding these beliefs are not necessary for moral inquiry. 

                  One such accommodating claim like this would be MacIntyre’s argument concerning the metaphysical nature of philosophical debate itself; that engaging in rational debate of a philosophical nature presupposes (1) that you are a coherent, single being (2) and two, that you are communicating directly to your opponent.  We do not appeal to his theory of debate because we need a foundation from which our argument flows.  We appeal to his theory because we seek to find an understanding of how arguments occur between parties already involved in moral inquiry.

                  What may be ultimately called for is a broadening of our concept of tradition.  MacIntyre seems to require that systems of moral inquiry be thought of as traditions in the strong sense.  He considers the Aristotelian dialectic, Thomism, and Nietzschean perspectivism as three perspectives.  However, these traditions all operate in a world full of competing and evolving ideologies.  Marxism, Hegelianism, post-modernism, the enlightenment, skepticism and others are all belief systems that are present in the world of the contemporary interlocutor.  Even if he does not accept all the principles of other competing traditions, these are different traditions, and they do affect our accepted primary tradition.  One particular tradition is often informed by a number of others that are communicating within a community of moral inquiry.  The tradition of moral inquiry that we are working with today is incredibly rich and complex and includes endoxa (both surface and deep) from a wide range of sources.  Included with the beliefs that we gain from our own traditions are the beliefs that we gain from other traditions that we find compatible with our own.

                                                                                                           i.  Possible Criticism and Response

One possible criticism of this model can be leveled against the relationship between human nature and community.  If we claim that we gain our concepts of human nature from our community, then we are in effect saying that human beings are social beings.  Making the claim that human beings are social animals in your community means that you are defining a concept of human nature, which is something that requires a metaphysical foundation.

                  The trick here is that the critic assumes that our concepts of human nature must necessarily come from some metaphysical theory.  In actuality, our ideas about human nature come from our own life experiences, mitigated and informed by the traditions and communities of which we are a part.  The community provides us with the context we need to determine what is valuable in terms of practices.  People have experiences, they share them with each other, and they interpret these experiences in the context of what is going on around them.

                  In the end, our notion of human nature comes from a complex interaction of individuals with the communities and traditions to which we belong.  The community and environment places the demands on the people, and they develop a tradition in order to meet those demands.  This interaction between the community and the people produces a view of human nature that becomes the cornerstone of the society and the goods valued by that society.

                  What this points at is the notion that we cannot separate our ideas of human nature from our experiences, which occur in the context of a community and tradition.  If we cannot separate our ideas of human nature from our life experiences, then neither can we fully separate our idea of telos from our life experiences.  So our telos is defined for us by the way that our communities and traditions interact with a large collection of life experiences.  This all supports our conclusion that Irwin cannot insist that metaphysics provide an intentional foundation to moral inquiry. 

                        VI.          Ramifications for the Tao Te Ching

Does the doctrine of deep endoxa contradict LaFargue’s interpretation that the Tao Te Ching originated in a culture and a social group that was not concerned with metaphysical debate, and that did not contain metaphysical debate as part of its worldview?  The answer is no, because deep endoxa are simply those beliefs that provide the foundation for moral inquiry.  They do not have to be metaphysical beliefs, but may include metaphysical beliefs.  If you live in a community and a tradition that does not engage in metaphysical debate, then the foundations that you look for will not be metaphysical in nature. 

                  Having a belief about human nature is the necessary foundational belief in the deep endoxa.  So the Tao Te Ching can be understood as a virtue ethic as long as Laoist community can provide a concept of human nature.  The Laoist community does produce a view of human nature from its own tradition and from the larger community of Chinese thought in general: human beings are composed of many different psychological and social parts that all tend towards organic harmony (LaFargue Method 164).  They believe that human beings flourish best when all their parts are integrated together, and warn against those things that disrupt psychological and social harmony.

                                                                                                           i.  Possible Criticism and Response

One point that a critic might call into question is the nature of debate in the Laoist system of moral inquiry.  It seems that the Laoists do not actually engage in moral debate; the Tao Te Ching is a collection of aphorisms, and as such, it seems ill-equipped to determine proper moral action in a moral crisis.  Determining moral action requires that the interlocutors be able to identify and articulate correct moral action for a given moral dilemma.  As a collection of aphorisms, does the Tao Te Ching provide the interlocutor with the necessary tools for determining correct moral action in a given situation?

                  The answer is yes, the Tao Te Ching does provide the necessary tools for determining moral action in a given situation, but it does not engage in debate in the same manner that we think about in the Western tradition.  There is a subtle but distinct difference in the manner in which Aristotle and the Tao Te Ching determine moral behavior.  The fundamental assumptions of the dialectical method (which would be part of the deep endoxa) give us a system where logical argumentation is the appropriate manner for determining virtuous behavior.  Each side puts forward arguments designed to disprove the validity of the opposing side.  Conclusions are reached by the elimination of premises.  The process itself is predicated on the assumption that we can extract the essence of what is moral to a given situation and define moral behavior in sufficient terms.

                  We have very strong tendency to universalize in the western tradition.  We habitually talk about what “is” or “is not” virtuous action.  We assume that there is some essence of moral action to a given situation, and that using logical argumentation, we can extract and refine a definition of virtuous behavior appropriate for the situation.  Even the idea of defining virtuous behavior appeals to some kind of universality.

                  Contrary to dialectical method of debate, there is a different set of assumptions underlying the Laoist method of determining moral behavior.  The chapters of the Tao Te Ching are not specific arguments, but rather are aphorisms designed to evoke a certain image that applies to the moral dilemma.  Moral behavior is not determined by the truth of the statement, but rather by how well the image provided fits the circumstances.  Instead of a dialectical debate, the Laoists engage in a kind of posturing.  They offer different perspectives, and attempt to find the perspective that is the most insightful and encompassing.  A lesser perspective is not necessary disproved, but often becomes subsumed into a better way of doing things. 

                  This critique points out something of vital importance to virtue ethics: that there are different methods for determining correct moral action in a given situation.  These methods are formed and framed by the traditions and communities in which they take place.  One particular method of moral determination may not be comparable to another, or it may be based on different assumptions.  What this means for virtue ethics in general is we need to be aware of the assumptions underlying our method of moral determination, how our method is going to shape our results.  Like translating a classical text, the method that we chose to frame and interpret our problems is going to affect the answers that we receive.



Baier, Anette (1994).  Moral Prejudices: Essays on Ethics.  Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard

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Irwin, Terrence H (1981).  “Aristotle’s Methods of Ethics,” in D.J. O’Meara ed. Studies

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Irwin, Terrence H (1980). “The Metaphysical and Psychological Basis of Aristotle’s

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LaFargue, Michael (1994).  Tao and Method: A Reasoned Approach to the Tao Te Ching.

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LaFargue, Michael (1992).  The Tao of the Tao Te Ching.  State University of New York

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MacIntyre, Alasdair (1981).  After Virtue.  Notre Dame, Ind.:University of Notre Dame



Roche, Timothy D.  (1998) “On the Alleged Metaphysical Foundation of Aristotle’s

         Ethics,” Ancient Philosophy. 1998; 8:49-62


Slingerland, Edward (2001).  “Virtue Ethics, the Analects, and the Problem of

         Commensurability,” Journal of Religious Ethics. 2001; 29.1:97-125


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