Ken writes: I had a really interesting random train of thought while washing the dishes this evening; something blog-worthy, so I thought I’d post it up.
It started with a few thoughts on the pacifist ethic of Daoism. We have a copy of Ursula LeGuin’s rendering of the Tao Te Ching, which I recently had another look at. As a prescription for a contented and virtuous life, it seems to me that the magic formula according to daoism is a very simple unambitious and inactive one. Want very little and do very little and be content with what you have, and you will lead a virtuous life. An unkind person would say it’s a religion for losers. I wonder if that’s one of the reasons I’m having another look at it these days… Anyway, there are surely resonances with the Christian idea that the meek will inherit the earth there too (not that I really understand Christianity (or Daoism for that matter)).
A feature of both ethics that has stuck in my craw in the past has been the lack of due weight such pacifism accords to the ideal of fairness and reciprocity. If a wrong is done, my sense of justice has always demanded that something be done about it, not just that the other cheek be shown. If one suffers under a dictator, for example, the right thing to do is to overthrow the dictator, not simply make do. Now I think the Daoist line would be that one government is pretty much as bad as another and one should simply mind one’s own business (or flee, if the dictator is really intolerable). I could totally be wrong about Daoism here, but the Christian saying that comes to mind is ‘give to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s’ (or words to that effect), which I understand to counsel an attitude of acceptance to the material power relationships in society.
Well, as a young man I was not having any of it. I was a rager.
While doing the dishes I realised I could see this submissiveness in a completely different way. It could be seen as applying to life in general the economic idea that sunk costs are sunk. Economists will tell you to that it’s rational to take account of potential future costs when you’re planning what to do in the future, weighing these up against expected gains and so on, but it’s supposedly not rational to plan future action to try to make up or make good past costs. One should “cut one’s loses” and “not send good money after bad”.
Applied to the ethical case, the idea would be that if someone has done a wrong to you, which is over and done with, that’s a cost that you have already borne, and it’s not rational to seek to make that cost up by enforcing retribution or recompense. (If the wrong is still ongoing, then it is a present and future cost to you so you can rationally take it into consideration).
Now I haven’t really thought any of this through. It was simply a diverting thought while I was washing up, but perhaps others will also find the comparison suggestive. For me, it feels like I’m stumbling my way toward understanding something.