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I recently read a portion from Edward Slingerland’s essay “Toward an Empirically Responsible Ethics: Cognitive Science, Virtue Ethics, and Effortless Attention in Early Chinese Thought” in Effortless Attention: A New Perspective in the Cognitive Science of Attention and Action, ed. Brian Bruya, 247-286. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press (2010). He writes:

“That the inner state of the actor be harmonized with outer behavior, to the point that it becomes effortless and unselfconscious, is crucial for Confucius. This is a clear point of departure from most classic formulations of deontology. In a famous passage from the Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals (Kant, 1785/1964, 65–66), for instance, Kant argues that a shopkeeper who refrains from cheating his customers simply because he is honest — that is, he is unselfconsciously honest “out of inclination” (aus Neigung) — cannot be considered genuinely moral. True morality requires consciously acting “out of duty” (aus Pflicht), not merely “in conformity with duty” (Pflichtmäßig): consciously rehearsing the moral law, and then deliberately putting that law into practice through an act of cognitive control. In the Analects, there is not only no place for duty-bound action in the Kantian sense, but such behavior would be looked down upon as forced and inauthentic. The praise for the sage-king Shun by Mencius — that “his actions flowed from benevolence and rightness, he did not merely put them into practice” (4:B:19) — is in this sense quite anti-Kantian: Shun is considered virtuous precisely because he acted aus Neigung rather than aus Pflicht. As the famous Song commentator Zhu Xi explains in his commentary on Mencius 4:B:19, “Benevolence and rightness were already rooted in Shun’s heart, and all of his actions sprang from there; it is not the case that he merely valued benevolence and rightness and therefore forced himself to put them into practice.” Conscious deliberation and cognitive control, though necessary in the early stages of self-cultivation, are thus hallmarks of inauthenticity and ethical clumsiness.” (p. 274-5)

Ironically, it would seem that Kant and the Laozi share this view about what behaviour has moral worth. However, this is precisely why the Laoists reject morality. Chapter 38 of the Laozi says,

People with Superior De
Do not acknowledge their De.
For this reason, they have De.
People with Inferior De
Never lose sight of their De
For this reason, they lack De.
People with Superior De do not act/interfere
Yet do not do so purposefully.
People with Inferior De act/interfere
And do so purposefully.

The authors of the Zhuangzi agreed. Moral concepts are best forgotten (Wang 忘), for, in the “Age of perfect De,” people were decent to one another but knew nothing of “benevolence” and “duty.” This is much like the Dao itself, which is supremely efficacious, generating and nurturing all things, yet is unaware of such things and does not consider itself benevolent. It can accomplish great things precisely because it does not consider itself great.

Moralists have argued that we need virtue concepts and morality to guide us because the moral sentiments – the emotions – are unreliable. Richard Garner, the author of a great book called Beyond Morality, answers this:

Morality only beats compassion and kindness if it does its job better than compassion and kindness do its job; and it can be argued that morality is not as reliable as those feelings when it comes to influencing behavior and moderating the force of selfishness. Compassion, after all, is a direct motivator, and it doesn’t have to be justified. It is a way of looking, and a disposition to help. If you care about somebody, if you want them to be happy, there is nothing to prove and no problem about motivation. If you merely think it is your duty to help them, then it will always be possible to dig up some excuse for not doing anything.

Frans de Waal also looks down on Kant and his duty ethics. In his newest book The Age of Empathy (and mentioned in other books of his), he points out that most of our moral decisions are made from an emotional base, “after which our reasoning power tries to catch up as spin doctor, concocting plausible justifications. With this dent in the primacy of human logic, pre-Kantian approaches to morality are making a comeback. They anchor morality in the so-called sentiments, a view that fits well with evolutionary theory, modern neuroscience, and the behavior of our primate relatives.”

I think for the early Daoists, De 德, when used in moral contexts, refers to the pre-moral sentiments, something that is within us from the start and is sufficient to handle interactions between people. No concepts of benevolence and duty are necessary, nor are formalized rituals or etiquette. These are merely ornamentation (Shì 飾).