The horizon is not so far as we can see, but as far as we can imagine

What the Tao Teaches Us About the Good Society’s Devolution to the Bad

In the Tao Te Ching there is a famous passage, as follows:

When a truly kind man does something, he leaves nothing undone.
When a just man does something, he leaves a great deal to be done.
When a disciplinarian does something and no one responds,
He rolls up his sleeves in an attempt to enforce order

Therefore when Tao is lost, there is goodness.
When goodness is lost, there is kindness.
When kindness is lost, there is justice.
When justice is lost, there is ritual.
Now ritual is the husk of faith and loyalty, the beginning of confusion.

The idea that when one is in the Tao nothing is done causes a lot of confusion. This is a psychological / physical state, where there is no feeling of effort. One takes the actions appropriate to the circumstance without any sense of doing anything, even though things are still done. Because this is a very clear mental state, what is appropriate tends to be obvious.

The key word, for social ethics, however is “appropriate.” What is appropriate isn’t always what is good, but what is good makes up the vast majority of what is appropriate.

When one no longer knows what is appropriate, one devolves to the good and is still doing most of what should be done.

Kindness makes up most of what is good, so when one loses what is good, one devolves to kindness and retains most of what is good.

Losing kindness, one retreats to justice. The loss here is steep. Justice is maybe half of what is kind, because justice without kindness is about balance and tends to not restore people, but punish them: “an eye for an eye” and all that.

And then there is ritual, and ritual, in this context, is without any of the higher virtues, and thus leads to injustice, cruelty and evil, because it has lost almost all of appropriateness: it simply accepts that action A should lead to action B, and that will often be the wrong action, unguided by appropriateness, goodness, kindness or even justice.

I would add that when even ritual is lost; when people no longer obey the rules and are guided by no sense of ethics, that all chances of a good society and good results are lost.

Regular readers will know that I tend to emphasize kindness as a golden rule. I think it’s the highest guiding star the vast majority of people in our society can use: most people still know how to act kind, they just don’t do it and they have many justifications for not doing so. But they do know what it is, with exceptions like warped market disciples, libertarians, and so on, who are so identified with ritual ideologies (market outcomes are just) that they cannot see when they are not even that.

The reform of society comes through the proper use of ritual, ironically. You work your way back up. Ritual done right attaches appropriate emotions to appropriate circumstances to appropriate objects of attention, and once that is the case, one can climb back up the ladder. Indeed, done right, one can jump past justice back to kindness.

But only when done right. Ritual is an obsidian knife: It cuts everything and it’s dangerous, and it’s only a useful tool when both made and used just right. Only someone operating at a level higher than ritual can design rituals which will do more good than harm.

In the meantime, unless you’ve been deformed by the wrong ideology, you probably still understand kindness. I suggest living there. It’s also a rather nice place to live.

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  1. Willy

    I liked Kwai Chang’s style. Traveling about the wild old west spreading kindness, to occasionally pause and kick some evil ass, which I suppose, is also a form of kindness.

  2. Tom Robinson

    Thank you for this, Ian. Very clarifying.

  3. Tom W Harris

    A little music for this thread:

    We need more love music, sure can use it
    To turn the people on
    We need more love music, my heart approves it
    Before the beat is gone

  4. someofparts

    Kindness sounds like it’s next door to Mr. Roger’s neighborhood.

  5. reslez

    Lately I find myself returning to Ian’s post from last year:

    The Chinese practically had dealing with declining and corrupt imperial eras and warring states periods down to an art: When no good could be done in the world, one returned to one’s private life to write poetry, drink wine, and care for those close to one while refusing as much as possible to be complicit in the evil of the times.

    Others strove still to be of public service, to hold off the rush of night for a few more years, or even a generation, knowing that what came after would be worse.

    Our society is wholeheartedly corrupt. Doing anything in politics requires raising thousands to billions of dollars to purchase propaganda from media conglomerates. Most of the meat on the average Western plate is the result of factory farming where animals are kept in conditions little different from torture. The cacao in your average chocolate bar was probably harvested by child slaves. Driving to work means burning petrol collected from a Middle Eastern tyranny supported by the war machine and environmental devastation. And when you get to work, if you have a good job, there’s a very good chance it involves crushing the souls of your fellow citizens. As Clive observes over on NC: “Increasingly, if you want to get and hang on to a middle class job, that job will involve dishonesty or exploitation of others in some way.”

    Yet somehow I can’t quite decide if we’re at the “retreat to one’s estate and write poetry” stage. Most human societies, even the so-called good ones, were built on cruelty, violence, chattel slavery, and so on. Is ours so different? Our society doesn’t have much justice unless you are rich, and the rituals are being intentionally slanted the same direction. But I doubt a woman, for example, would see any justice at all in almost any historical society one can name. So how far gone are we? Are we at the point where it’s appropriate for a good person to avoid public life?

  6. Oaktown Girl

    This sums up so much:

    most people still know what is kind, they just don’t do it and have many justifications for not doing so.

  7. ChuckO

    In her song, “O Superman”, Laurie Anderson summarized the same sentiment.

    “When love is gone, there’s always justice.
    When justice is gone, there’s always force.
    When force is gone, there’s always Mom.
    Hi, Mom.”

  8. Ramona

    I’ve missed your earlier postings about the Tao. Thanks to reslez, there is a link.

    The option to “retreat to one’s estate and write poetry” stage is a function of age. When one is exhausted by the chaos of the times, by the evaporation of goodness and kindness, one must ask ‘what time is left to me?’

    The young, be they survivors of Stoneman Douglass or a similar horror or even under threat of the horror, must act.

    Retreating is for those who contribute by creating a bubble inside which to spread goodness and kindness in an oasis. Few of us have that luxury until we are literally “retired.”

    I admit to being called in both directions despite my age and health. Maybe it is time to retreat and create signposts for the decades to come.

  9. realitychecker

    May I respectfully submit that reciprocity would seems to work at least as well as kindness, plus it has the advantage of not requiring altruism from everybody?

  10. Ian Welsh

    Reciprocity does not work as well kindness. It is the low form of justice and nothing more. Fixing people and the world often requires giving them things they do not deserve.

    The simplest example of this is Norway’s recidivism rate is half that of America’s because they treat prisoners well in prison. Those prisoners do not deserve it, it is not reciprocal to what they did, but it makes them and the world a better place to treat them that way.

    Reciprocity is the lowest level of morality and ethics. It is still ethics, mind you, it’s not immoral or unethical.

    That said, as a friend once said “don’t feed snakes”. But wise kindness doesn’t (it changes them. where dumb kindness empowers them), and stupid reciprocity does.

  11. Mel

    “Reciprocity [ … ] the low form of justice”

    True. Mechanical reciprocity will just be mechanical. But as I alluded in that Allie McBeale thing back then, being open to the Other could be very helpful. Is that what Martin Buber’s _I and Thou_ is about? I got distracted and never finished it. Should I?

  12. Dan Lynch

    Ian is right, however this comment on Ian’s article by Yves at Naked Capitalism suggests that some readers don’t fully understand what he means by kindness:
    [i]”I understand his point about kindness intellectually, but I am actually deeply suspicious of gestures like that and tend to brush them off. So I am not only guilty of not engaging in that sort of behavior (save giving $ to the homeless pretty regularly, but that is so inadequate relative to the scale of the problem), I discourage it. I suppose I am more of a Stoic: if people did their duty, things would work better plus we’d have way less interpersonal friction. Behavior might not rise to the level of kindness, but it would be easier for most people to be civil, even pleasant.”[/i]
    So maybe it would be helpful to write an essay expanding on what is meant by kindness?
    To me, kindness means “be a helper, not a hurter.” At a personal level, that applies to my everyday interactions, with customers, with co-workers, with family, with people I bump into in the parking lot, not just with homeless people. I can’t solve all the problems in the world, but I can help a little bit here and there, and avoid doing harm.
    At a political level, kindness applies to the way our legal system treats people who have violated some norm, compared to say the way Norway’s legal system treats those people. Norway treats them with dignity and tries to help them turn their life around, while America demeans them and dishes out Old Testament punishment. Norway’s method doesn’t always work, but it seems to be at least as effective as the American system.
    Kindness and empathy also mean trying to understand the root causes of social problems, and trying to address those root causes, rather than merely punishing the symptoms. So yes, empathy rather than mere sympathy is required. You have to be able to put yourself in the other person’s shoes and try to understand how he got in his situation.
    We’ve all experienced the opposite of kindness — at some point in our life when we were struggling, sometimes due to our own screw ups, other times due to bad luck, and we received blaming and shaming instead of empathy and a helping hand.
    Kindness tends to beget more kindness, and meanness tends to beget more meanness. Perhaps we can’t change the world, but we can change society because we’re part of society.

  13. realitychecker

    @ Ian

    Well, you’ve got me so deletion-conscious now, I started to add onto my comment (and then ‘chickened-out” lol) that the concept at issue seems to be whether we can actually change reality to create an ideal, AS WE ALL WOULD WISH TO, vs. whether there are less-than-ideal-but-presently-achievable solutions that yield very respectable results in the here-and-now.

    Reciprocity works best when individuals act it out, not institutions, not as clumsy public policy. I say that when you factor in the resentment that demands for altruism always bring, and also the relative satisfaction we would all feel if we could just feel that our transactions were FAIR, and the overall result of that careful accounting would be a strong preference for reciprocity.


    As to the Norway example, I really think there are many societal factors at play there (like a less hopeless overall outside environment?) besides gentle prison conditions.

  14. I wrote of this in the earliest days under my own roof, On Retaliation:

    Please allow me to restate the question: do you think it is appropriate to use the legal system as an instrument of revenge for injury real or perceived? I’m no judge, nor lawyer, merely an observer of human nature and philosopher thereupon. Let’s see what Webster has to say:

    Revenge, ri-venj’, v.t. – revenged, revenging, [O.Fr. revenger, revengier (Fr. Revancher) – re-, in return, and vengier, venger, to avenge, < L. vindicare, to vindicate,] To take vengeance for; to avenge; to inflict injury for or on account of, in a spiteful or malignant spirit; the executing of vengeance; retaliation; the deliberate infliction of pain or injury in return for an injury received; the desire to inflict pain on one who has done an injury. [The Lexicon Webster, 1971, 81, Volume 2, p821]

    Retaliate, ri-tal’e-at’, v.t. – retaliated, retaliating. [L. retalio, retaliatum, to retaliate.] To repay, as a wrong or injury, with the like, — v.i. To return the like for like, esp. to do evil in return for evil. [The Lexicon Webster, 1971, 81, Volume 2, p819]


    Retribution, re’tri-bu’shan, n. The act of requiting; a reward, recompense, or requital, esp. a requital or punishment for wrong or evil done; the dispensing of rewards and punishments in a future life. [The Lexicon Webster, 1971, 81, Volume 2, p820]

    Requite, ri-kwit’, v.t. – requited, requiting. [< re-, back, and quit.] To repay; to recompense or reward; to retaliate for or on; to do or give in return. [The Lexicon Webster, 1971, 81, Volume 2, p815]

    Restitution, res’ti-to’shan, res’ti-tu’shan, n. [L. restitution(n).] Restoration to the former or original state or position; the restoration of property or rights previously taken away; reparation made by giving an equivalent or compensation for loss, damage, or injury caused; indemnification; phys. The return of an elastic body to its original form or position when released from strain. [The Lexicon Webster, 1971, 81, Volume 2, p818]

    Reparation, rep’a-ra-shan, n. The act of repairing; repair; what is done to repair a wrong; pl. indemnification for loss or damage; as demanded of a country defeated I war. [The Lexicon Webster, 1971, 81, Volume 2, p814]

    Subtle yet distinct differences. Revenge and retaliation are purely emotional, irrational reactions. Note: “in a spiteful or malignant spirit.” Get even. NOW! Retribution, restitution and reparation, on the other hand, are “getting even” along clearly defined, rational guidelines. What is the evil? What must be done to overcome the evil, to restore the balance, bring things back into harmony? This is why we have a legal system, a system of jurisprudence that dates back to 1215ce. To define the evil and to establish the guidelines for the punishment thereof, repair the harm, restore the balance.

    Most times it works, sometimes it doesn’t. Much of the public’s perception of its failures is rooted in it having been applied frivolously, twisted to suit a private agenda, or having been turned into an instrument of revenge. Spilled coffee in your crotch (not necessarily you, gamer), sue McDonalds. Got enough money to hire big-gun lawyers, knock off your spouse. Unwilling to go to that extreme, don’t have enough cash for a big-gun lawyer? Go to the cops, or a “social worker,” with some injury, real or perceived. Happens all the time and people get away with it.

    Judge not, lest ye yourselves be judge.

  15. Dan

    Excellent in every way. The moral-cultural descent into increasing disorder and toxicity is very apt, especially with regard to the trajectory of popular Christianity in North America. Libertarianism has always been a ritual ideology linked to the religious right — very well put to describe it this way.

  16. Tom

    This is your article theme in action”

    Thanks to Obama deciding to go from justice to ritual, Russia now has all the justification it needs to kill its enemies on British Streets.

    By going with ritual, Britain is now leveling entire blocks to kill a single sniper.

    The US isn’t even pretending to ritual, it is off the deep end and in terminal collapse with no one knowing who is really in charge at the White House.

  17. Dan

    On the other hand, it is incorrect to reduce the Tao to an affective or cognitive state “where there is no feeling of effort” but one is still doing something. No — it means literally to be unmoving, doing nothing, the still point at the center of the wheel. Several Buddhist parables illustrate this in a social context as the ignoring of “problems.” A “problem” emerges in the community. People react and want reaction from others; they intensify conflict and crisis in their quest for resolution, justice, order. Yet the sage does nothing. In reacting to the sage’s unreactive, doing-nothing state eventually all is resolved, and we are to realize there never was anything to be done, except to do nothing.

  18. Ian Welsh

    There is a fair bit of dispute over how little the sage does, really. Many examples of rather busy sages. A sage reacts to the world as is appropriate.

  19. Willy

    The kindness principle begins to stall out the closer one gets to things like competition, corruption or psychopathy. Kindness in those situations tends to be seen as weakness.

  20. BlizzardOfOzzz

    When goodness is lost, there is kindness.

    Implications of this? Kindness is only a part of goodness (so then, what are the other parts that make up goodness?) Or, is kindness not a part of goodness at all, but a lower kind of thing: a pale imitation, a fruitless effort to restore what is lost and no longer understood.

  21. Ian Welsh

    Yes, kindness doesn’t work in all situations Willy.

    BoO — that’s a rather large essay. Perhaps in the future.

  22. Gaianne

    Ian–Thank you for a very nice essay!

    Chucko-O–Thanks for the Laurie Anderson. Funny!

    Ramona–In times of decline the sage withdraws from public life knowing that public action has become ineffective. The sage concentrates on things which are effective–necessarily more immediate things. An analogy from the game of go applies: Don’t throw stones into a dead group–that is, don’t put your efforts into actions that are pre-doomed to fail. This advice is not primarily for the old.

    Where does your food come from? Where does your drinking water come from? If you are dependent on global corporations for either of these you are as helpless as any oldster! Really, you have work to–starting with your own life!

    If your heart is set on political action, ignore political theater and focus on strategy. Many useful things might yet get accomplished at the local level.

    Tending your own garden is not just a metaphor.


  23. bruce wilder

    I found Yves’ comment at NC intriguing as well.

    On the one hand, it seems almost to miss the point of Ian’s post; on the other, it made me wonder whether there was not something missing from Ian’s approach.

    Duty stands apart from reciprocity, negates its conditional fragility in fact, and kindness and concern for consequences is what redeems duty from descent into ritual cruelty and hopefully elevates primitive reciprocity from simple fairness toward justice.

    Several comments have referred to the corruption of contemporary society and political economy. We live in complex hierarchically organized systems where institutional design mandates roles and duties.

  24. M Carson

    I’m being tedious. HS grad, so this is new & hard. I’m working on understanding good vs. kind. How is good inappropriate?
    It seems like good is more active in engaging w/society & kindness is more reactive to what it experiences, it doesn’t try to change everything.
    There are variations, but for shorthand is that right?

  25. Ian Welsh

    Duty is really really problematic. Were American soldiers who obeyed their orders and invaded Iraq (doing their duty), doing the right thing?

    Or, if you need one more distant, German soldiers in WWII. Japanese soldiers in the Rape of Nanking. The people who bombed Dresden. Etc…

    Duty is ritual with emotions attached and/or sanctions. Overlap between duty and good is generally very weak, and the two are often in opposition.

    Reciprocity and duty are not the same thing at all, though duty can be set up to be reciprocal. Reciprocity is closer to justice than duty is, because at least it is even. You take an eye for an eye, or return a loaf for a loaf; you don’t take two eyes for one; or charge interest (or interest beyond inflation.)

  26. Ian Welsh

    Kindness can be quite active and attempt to change things. Kindness that leaves nothing undone for homeless people would get them securely housed, for example. It might also try to change the system so that there are no systemic reasons for homelessness (the US had 5X more empty homes than homeless a few years back, I’m sure it still has more empty than homeless. The US throws out half its food, yet people go hungry, etc…)

    The good includes more than the kind. Sometimes violence is required, it is not kind, but it can be good (this is very difficult to do in practice.) You may need to defend someone. Someone may be hoarding food in a famine (dead common) and you may use violence to take it from them, etc…

    You have done good by taking food from a hoarder in a famine and distributing it, and it has a component of kindness, but it’s not kind to everyone.

    It can be good to lock up people who have proved they are an active danger to others but even if you do it in the kindest way possible (and you should), it still involves some serious not-kindness: loss of freedom is not kind.

    And so on.

  27. realitychecker

    I see I am misunderstood in my usage of the term “reciprocity,” so let me clarify what I hoped would have been assumed.

    I use reciprocity as a minimal behavioral standard, not a maximal one. Personally, I can and do still practice kindness any chance I get, for all the good reasons noted already, unless I have good reason to withhold putting out that kindness energy. But even if I have such good reason, I am not permitted to descend to a lower standard of behavior than reciprocity.

    I think that takes my actual POV into a better place than anyone here has grokked onto. And I think it makes it clear that a careful accounting of costs and benefits really narrows the debate between reciprocity and kindness.

  28. Go w/ the flow. Mind the gap.

  29. realitychecker

    If I could make a more general point, it seems to me that, on issue after issue, I find the ‘left’ arguing for a position based on an idealistic concept (in the good sense) of how they would like the world to be, i.e. the perfect world they would reasonably want their children to grow up in. (Full disclosure: I say this as somebody who used to be called a “purity pony” by the likes of TBogg after Obama’s election and continuation of many very odious practices of the Bushies.)

    But if that view cannot be effectuated in light of the present realities, how can it be realistic to make policy based on only those future hopes?

    If you can’t actually get the ideal done, then isn’t it more rational to limit your list of options to those that are actually on the menu? I think it is.

    You wouldn’t order Lamb Amirstan at a McDonald’s, would you? 🙂

  30. nihil obstet

    I think there are power issues. Obama and Congress were very kind to the financial institution CEOs and managers whose actions caused suffering in 2008, 2009. It does not seem to have produced any good results in terms of redeeming the managers. I’m not a believer in mass incarceration, but I do believe there should have been mass confiscation of their wealth. As Frederick Douglas famously said, “Find out just what any people will quietly submit to and you have the exact measure of the injustice and wrong which will be imposed on them.”

    While you can’t beat people into goodness, you do have to restrain their ability to do evil while your kindness works on them.

  31. Willy

    I agree with rc. I’ve been called “bro” and “buddy” by those who’s loyalty I have not yet earned, and who eventually want to take advantage of my kind nature at my expense.

    The hard part is having the wisdom to use reciprocity, without having to go to the school of hard knocks first.

    I may be overly cynical, but I assume that most people are greedy, corrupt and stupid. When they turn out differently, it’s like opening up a hoped-for Christmas gift. Then I want to be extra kind to those people.

  32. bruce wilder

    Ian’s thumbnail critique is premised on equating duty to obedience to authority and the danger is complicity with the corruption of power. Great power is greatly dangerous — that is certainly true.

    Duty is the moral commitment we individually recognize or make to institutions of social cooperation. Recognizing a duty is to commit one’s self to some performance on behalf of community, regardless of self-interest.

    The contrast with ethical reciprocity is instructive. Reciprocity is conscious of self-interest and uses self-interest as a standard of reference. “Treat others as you would like to be treated” is measuring the good by personal criteria and “tit for tat” is a basic, foundational social strategy of offering to cooperate; “tit for tat” presumes social cooperation is emergent and arises from personal interaction.

    Duty arises in a context of already structured, already complex social cooperation, in which roles and their functions are defined and elaborate, not just culturally complex but technically so. A parent accepts a duty to children within a family; the parent is not offering reciprocal favors with a child who needs to be fed or tutored or cared for. A citizen in a democratic polity has a duty to vote and serve in other ways in the governing of the community, including an obligation to obey the law and respect the legitimate authority of political institutions. A professional has a duty to act on behalf of her client and in accordance with standards of practice.

    The American invasion of Iraq — entailing war crimes, including the initiation of aggressive war and a policy of torture — was given as an example of the danger of duty. There were many failures of duty involved in instigating that war as well as in the detailed conduct the occupation. That many failed in their duties is not to my mind a reason to discard the concept.

    It seems to me that American society is devolving precisely because so many have lost a sense of how duty should dominate the performance of roles and office. We are in the grip of an ideology that says businessmen have a “duty” to act selfishly and from personal greed in maximizing profit from the operation of business. And, an allied doctrine (public choice economics) argues that government will be operated in much the same manner, to serve the self-interest of the bureaucrats. This ideology of “markets” is a Big Lie, its concept of duty a perverse construction of what an ethical duty ought to be.

    I fear I digress into familiar territory, but I will forego that particular rant.

    Duty, as an ethical concept, reminds us that we act in settings both complex and hierarchical. We are often acting in settings in which we are not responding to actual and specific humans with whom we must interact and whom we know, where notions of kindness and reciprocity can have interpersonal expression. We act in the abstract, in accord with technical calculations that are not personal, but the result of social collaborations.

    As patriotism, religion and nationalism have declined along with social affiliation generally, we are losing the foundations for a sense of duty. People do not commit themselves to a lifetime career with an institution such as a business corporation or even a profession, with the notion that the institution and its integrity must be honored and protected. (I can feel another irrelevant rant coming on, so I will just close, hoping I have sketched my point well enough that it might be recognized.)

  33. realitychecker

    @ bruce wilder

    I appreciate and generally agree with your general observations, and note the difficulty of fully and accurately expressing complex thoughts in this venue, so I won’t make an exposition, but I will just clarify further that I don’t recommend reciprocity as an equivalent of the Golden Rule, but rather as an operational rule for maintaining a certain minimum standard of behavior, while allowing a full range of all other natural human behaviors, kindness and spontaneous altruism hopefully among them.

    The Golden Rule, as the rule of ‘kindness always,’ as the rule of altruism, as from each according to their ability, they all require or imply an obligation of each actor to give out more than they are guaranteed to get back, a permanent fixed energy drain, sustainable only by an insupportable but unshakeable faith in the future payback. That’s a lot to ask of the human animal generally, and most will fail to manage it on any large scale, and/or will resent that they are being judged by a high standard imposed by others.

    Do the transactional math from that starting point, and you might find the overall accounting to look pretty favorable. I feel pretty secure in feeling that reciprocity would come out looking pretty respectable, even if not “perfect.” But very respectable, a big improvement over the present, and realistically achievable.

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