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Case Study On Ethics And Morality Of Taoism

Taoist ethics - theory and practice


Taoist ethics are concerned less with doing good acts than becoming a good person who lives in harmony with all things and people.

Taoist ethics are inseparable from Taoist spirituality - both contain the same ideas.

If a Taoist wants to live well they should take all their decisions in the context of the Tao, trying to see what will fit best with the natural order of things.

Taoists thus always do what is required by events and their context, but they only do what is required, no more.

But what is required may be a lot less than modern Westerners think:

So, in theory at least, Taoists tend not to initiate action - but wait for events to make action necessary - and avoid letting their own desires and compulsions push them into doing things.


In practice Taoism recommends the same sorts of moral behaviour to its followers as other religions.

It disapproves of killing, stealing, lying and promiscuity, and promotes altruistic, helpful and kindly behaviour.

Taoists believe such good behaviour is an essential part not only of self-improvement but of improving the world as a whole.


Personal and community ethics

Personal and community ethics

The Taoist ideal is for a person to take action by changing themselves, and thus becoming an example of the good life to others.

They should develop themselves so that they live their life in complete harmony with the universe. So the philosophy is not do good things; but become a good person.

Changing oneself in that way will make the world a better place, because as a person behaves well towards other people and the world, the community will respond by becoming better itself.


Taoism is a gender-neutral religion. This is implied by the concept of Yin Yang which teaches that masculine and feminine are complementary, inseparable and equal.

The Tao Te Ching uses female images such as the mother of the universe and the mother of all things when describing the Tao.

Taoism has always accepted that women have an equal part to play in spiritual life. Women took priestly roles from the earliest days of organised Taoist religion and Taoist legend has many tales of female deities.

Taoism emphasises characteristics that are usually thought of as feminine such as softness and yielding, modesty and non-aggression. It teaches that the weak will overcome the strong.


Taoist texts suggest that the ideal way for a leader to run their country is by example and with minimal intervention:

So a good leader is one that the people respect and whose instructions are willingly followed. The good leader achieves this by living virtuously in private, and living publicly so as to influence his people for the good.

Human nature

Taoism requires human beings to be humble and recognise that not only are they not obliged to make the world a better place, they are actually so ignorant of what is really happening that they are likely to make things worse if they do take action.

A fuller treatment of Taoist ethics can be found in Responsible non-action in a natural world, by Russell Kirkland.


Taoism was adopted by the Hippy movement of the 1960s as teaching an alternative way of life that promoted the freedom and autonomy of the individual over the constraints of society and government.

Taoism does not teach this.


The Taode jing and Zhuangzi were not interested in promoting specific moral virtues, and were critical of the idea of regulating society with standards of behavior.  According to these texts, to emulate nature and "do without doing" (wei wu-wei), and to harmonize oneself with Tao, will lead naturally to behavior that is genuinely virtuous.  "Drop humanity, abandon justice/ And the people will return to their natural affections" (Ch. 19).

Early Way of the Celestial Masters texts did not follow the Taode jing in rejecting Confucian virtues, but they did argue that an emphasis on the outward signs of moral behavior was incorrect.  Instead they advocated "secret virtue," good works done secretly and known only to the gods.  Nonetheless, the Celestial Masters movement in practice regulated morality in a variety of ways, including requiring followers to confess their wrong-doing and petition the heavenly authorities for forgiveness.

Early Celestial Masters priests recited the Taode jing regularly.  A set of moral precepts was soon developed based on this text; these precepts also emphasized austerity and self-discipline.  In the 4th century, a text appeared that designated 180 moral precepts, attributed to the deified Laozi.  This was clearly inspired by the rules of the Buddhist community, which by then had established a significant presence in China.  These 180 precepts included prohibitions against theft, adultery, killing, abortion, intoxication, and waste.  They encouraged polite and mature behavior toward others, and also provided specific regulations regarding appropriate behavior within and outside of the community. 

When the Lingbao scriptures appeared in the late 4th and early 5th centuries, they included a more developed moral component than was present in the Way of the Celestial Masters texts.  Lingbao absorbed many elements of Buddhism, and the Lingbao sect adopted ten precepts, just as the Buddhists had ten precepts.  Later the Celestial Masters movement also employed these precepts.

As in the case of Buddhism, when one was ordained, one vowed to follow these precepts, which included prohibitions against killing, stealing, lying, and intoxication.  Notably, the precept against sexual misconduct in the five basic precepts of Buddhism was absent, replaced by a prohibition against immoral deeds and thoughts.  Others among the ten were specifically Taoist in nature: to maintain harmony with one's family members, living and dead; to support acts of good toward others; to help the unfortunate; and to avoid thoughts of revenge.  The tenth precept is an obvious borrowing from Mahayana Buddhism: not to expect to attain the Tao until all beings have done so.

During the Qing dynasty (1644-1911), neo-Confucian ethics were being promoted by the state.  Morality books, which had existed for centuries, became quite popular during this time.  In these books, Confucian ethics were combined with Taoist concepts of longevity and a divine bureaucracy, or with Buddhist notions of karma.  Following this trend, Wang Kunyang (1622-1680), who was the abbot of the Quanzhen White Cloud Temple in Beijing, reorganized the Quanzhen precepts and ordination system to reflect the neo-Confucian ethical system. 

Members of the lay population often did not identify with Confucianism, Taoism, or Buddhism to the exclusion of the others.  While there were no radical differences in terms of moral expectations, there were structural differences between the three traditions.  Confucianism focused on daily life, on home and family and work; Buddhism and Taoism had different pantheons of divine beings, different sacred texts, different rituals, and different concepts of the afterlife.  The morality books provided ways of synthesizing the three traditions into an ethical system by which one might govern one's life.

Study Questions:
1.     How did piety evolve within Taoism?
2.     Compare and contrast the Lingbao sect's ten precepts with those of the Buddhists.
3.     Why could the Morality Books be considered a helpful starting point for interreligious dialogue?

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