“The Tao is good but not moral” is the name of a chapter in The Tao is Silent by Raymond Smullyan. (He’s an interesting guy—a mathematical logician, philosopher, and professional magician, but that’s beside the point.)
Moral is often used as a synonym for ethical. That’s not the sense in which it is used here, in “The Tao is good but not moral.” Here, moral means rule-based.
Thus morality will refer to any codified description of good behavior through laws or ideology, religious or secular. I’ll leave “good behavior” undefined, but I will say that (1) being good necessarily entails being compassionate, and (2) you know damn well what it means to be good.
But if we already know what it means to be good, then what is the point of trying to codify it? Ah, that was what the Taoists thought. In ancient Chinese history, Confucianism tried to systematize every possible aspect of good behavior, while Taoism wanted to throw that all away.
Here is what Smullyan said,
The Taoists, on the other hand, appeared to feel that morality itself—“principles of morality”, that is—was a major cause of suffering, since it only weakened that natural goodness in us which would spontaneously manifest itself if not interfered with or commanded by moral principles or moral law.
From the Tao Te Ching (translated by Ron Hogan),
Get rid of morality.
People will respect each other
and do what’s right.
This kind of shocking contrast with traditional Western views is why I find Eastern philosophy so refreshing. Get rid of morality?
But we already know that any set of moral laws, however carefully constructed, will inevitably become a sock puppet of someone who reads them. Well perhaps not any set of laws—there must be sufficient ambiguity, as is the case for all the major Western religions. And even if we were to accept that a divine being wrote them for us, that does not change the situation one bit. Once they are written down, they can be puppeted—that is, employed for the ends of the puppeteer.
Thus a big problem arises when a society holds up a particular morality as the definition of goodness. For those aiming to do good, it is needless. For those aiming to do harm, it can be employed to do harm under the guise of doing good. And people are easily fooled by it.
In Letter to a Christian Nation Sam Harris writes (noting below that “moral intuitions” means our own sense of goodness, with moral meaning ethical as distinguished above),
We decide what is good in the Good Book. We read the Golden Rule and judge it to be a brilliant distillation of many of our ethical impulses. And then we come across another of God’s teachings on morality: if a man discovers on his wedding night that his bride is not a virgin, he must stone her to death on her father’s doorstep (Deuteronomy 22:13-21). If we are civilized, we will reject this as the vilest lunacy imaginable. Doing so requires that we exercise our own moral intuitions. The belief that the Bible is the word of God is of no help to us whatsoever.
My reaction is: Well duh, the Taoists figured that out well over 2000 years ago. But I’m glad to see it finally catching on in other forms.
(Lately Sam Harris has been talking about morality. I’ll withhold opinion on that until I read his book, due in October.)