It’s No Good

Zhuang zi is my favorite moral anti-realist. A millennium or so later, and nobody has been able to say it better.

The invention of weights and measures makes robbery easier. Signing contracts, setting seals, makes robbery more sure. Teaching love and duty provides a fitting language with which to prove that robbery is really for the general good. A poor man must swing for a belt buckle, but if a rich man steals a whole state he is acclaimed as statesman of the year.

Hence if you want to hear the very best speeches on love, duty, justice, etc., listen to statesmen. But when the creek dries up, nothing grows in the valley. When the mound is leveled, the hollow next to it is filled. And when the statesmen and lawyers and preachers of duty disappear, there are no more robberies either and the world is at peace.

Moral: the more you pile up ethical principles and duties and obligations to bring everyone in line, the more you gather loot for a thief…By ethical argument and moral principle the greatest crimes are eventually shown to have been necessary and, in fact, a signal benefit to mankind.”

The translator, Father Merton, does not exaggerate the sarcasm in his interpretation. The use of the word ‘crimes’ , for example, is intentional, not a slip into moral terminology – moral realism leads to the definition of an act as a crime, as it leads to the facile redefinition of the same act as good when situations change.

Good isn’t an intention. It isn’t about any specific thing, at least independent of circumstance or for very long. Good isn’t a quality. To speak of it, we need to make it dependent on a subject. If we reverse that arrangement, we end up with Kantian contradictions – we must tell the axe-murderer where his quarry is hiding because telling the truth is objectively good.

Good is, as any moral notation, a place-holding modifier. These words allow us to avoid the confusion of re-explaining to ourselves what we’re about before we do anything. They are very useful, so we shouldn’t get rid of them, but we must not make the error of treating them as real things. Otherwise, the crimes pile upon crimes, until we smother.

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3 thoughts on “It’s No Good

  1. Borut Kantuser says:

    The Zhuang is also my favorite.
    I recently read the ‘Propos intempestifs sur le Tqhoang-tseu’ by Jean Levi. It’s a discussion about both the ‘Murdering of Chaos’ story and the ‘Three in the morning…’ (the monkeys) story.
    Great stuff!

  2. keithnoback says:

    I’ll have to try to find that in English translation, something tells me my one year of college French won’t suffice. “Three in the Morning” is one of my favorites – especially relevant to parenting.

  3. Borut Kantušer says:

    Reblogged this on ascents.

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