A friend writes that values are relative. He claims that to make a distinction between "I ought" and "I want" is just bolstering up "I want" with a sense of moral self-righteousness. He cites the Lao Tzu.

I told him: "I think, with all respect (for we both love the Lao Tzu) that your thoughts (as expressed) are deeply confused about moral responsibility."

If I have a million pounds, and I spend it all on personal pleasure; and you have a million pounds, and spend it all on making a real difference to the lives of the poor, then, sure, if you like, you can say "We each did what we wanted to".

So what? All over the world, at all times, the majority of people will admire your "altruistic" action, and despise (but possibly envy) my "selfish" one.

A society like ours, in which people are not confident to make that judgement, is morally decadent.

He writes: "If morality isn't relative, how is one to account for the vast diversity in what people consider "good" and "bad" to be?"

What vast diversity?

I am as certain that nobody reading this admires betrayal, cruelty, and the neglect of children, as I am certain that I do not admire these actions.

I agree that there is diversity in detail. Some of the detail is important. But in the broad outlines, human beings everywhere have enough agreement to form a basis for constructive conversation.

So morality is far from relative, I feel. But the path of goodness is often hard to find.

Lao Tzu offers a subtle and precious critique of rule-governed morality, for which I am very grateful. In a society where moral law, conventional virtue and traditional piety were strangling in their effects, he points to their rigidity, and offers an ethic of tranquillity, detachment, discernment and sympathy.

My friend cites Lao Tzu: "The sage loves everyone, including herself."

Is he seriously going to assert that it's equally valid to say: "The sage fears and hates everybody, and looks out only for herself"?

As to wanting. It is often easier to want what is immediate, painless, and benefits myself, than to want what is distant, involves loss, and brings no sensual pleasure.

But Lao Tzu advises us to adopt this slogan: "Invest in loss!"

A living Taoist teacher says: "When you act naturally, you will get what you need. But to act naturally, first you must cultivate tranquillity."

Clearly the sage's natural action may be called "doing what she wants". But the what she wants will fall pretty much into line with those values which observation and introspection show to be universal.

18th February 2002

Top of this page
Poems and Essays index