October 28, 2012

An Alternative Zhuangist Rejection of Evil Daos

Donald Sturgeon, another Chinese philosopher and a cool dude who developed an online "e-text system" for easy research of Chinese classics, recently discussed how, in light of Zhuangzi's rather extreme epistemological and metaethical relativism, Zhuangist adherents can adequately criticize other schemes/commitments by which people evaluate, and then perform their actions (Daos [], for Sturgeon and many other philosophers).

[Autobiographical aside:]
It was my consideration of these exact types of problems that made me move away from working in Chinese philosophy exclusively (as I started reading this stuff at thirteen, and made such criticisms about five years into my reflection on it) and helped me embrace Yangism without concern for Daoist disapproval.

Sturgeon's proposed Zhuangist criticism says: "The Zhuangist criticism of the [evildoer] is not so much that he is wrong, but that he is stupid" when the evildoer adopts a Dao to which the evildoer would reply inconsistently from his present stance if his Dao were the common practice in a life which differs from his own.

I offer my criticism of Sturgeon's perspectival account in the comments section.  The most relevant portion of that criticism is here:
“Commitments which do not hold true in the Daos of maximally many people are intellectually misguided.”. Call that P. The Nazi baby-killer can then respond, “P does not hold true in the Daos of maximally many people.” It would follow that P is intellectually misguided.

I think this shows that Sturgeon's version of an adequate Zhuangist criticism against evildoers' Daos is Zhuangist-refuting.

I add here that Sturgeon's version is infinitely regressive, and so knowing whether a commitment holds for maximally many perspectives is problematic.  It doesn't seem clear that we should consider counterfactual perspectives (B) and compare them from our current perspectives (A), but that we should not consider more deeply counterfactual perspectives (C) and compare them against every counterfactual perspective to that perspective (B), and so on, thus creating uncountably infinitely many perspectives from which to evaluate any Dao.

I think that the assumption which contributes to these problems is the idea that somehow the philosophy of the Zhuangzi has to avoid committed and unchanging stances from which to claim that a Zhuangist is right and that his opponents are wrong.  In fact, Zhuangists take plenty of time to tell people exactly why they're wrong.  Nevertheless, I think that Sturgeon is half-right.  Zhuangists criticize that we should consider alternative perspectives when we adopt the commitments which make our Daos.  However, the Zhuangzi is always showing that some alternative perspectives actually reveal hidden losses, and that we should commit ourselves to a Dao that has the greatest payoff in practice.

Zhuangzi's criticism can be comparative, and it doesn't have to refute itself, saying instead, "If, in a situation S, someone has two commitments X' and X'', and if commitment X' brings a lower loss in S than X'' has in S, and assuming equal payoffs for X' and X'', X' dominates X'', and we should commit to X' in S."

While I would love to cite every passage of the Zhuangzi to make this case, I think the clearest example of this line of reasoning comes in the story of Cook Ding.  The Zhuangzi states through Wen Hui that Cook Ding's method is the wiser of other butchers', and if we consider the situation from dominant strategies, it's easy to understand the reasoning for Wen Hui's applauding Cook Ding's perspective.
  • Cook Ding's situation S is butchering an ox.
  • Assume X' to be for Cook Ding to perceive the ox as a spatially proximal combination of spatially separate parts.
  • Assume X'' to be for Cook Ding to perceive the ox as a fully connected whole.
  • The loss from of X'' is the price of one cleaver every month or every year, plus extra maintenance costs.
  • The loss from X' is the price of one cleaver for at least nineteen years, without any extra maintenance costs.
  • We can assume that the payoffs for X' and X'' are equal (the same amount of butchered ox meat).
From this, it follows that X' dominates X'' in S, so we should commit to X' in S.

Some may notice that I've drifted in my usage of commitment as I've made this economic analogy.  It appears that strategies of game theory more adequately describe the "commitments to Daos" that Sturgeon, others, and I had been discussing.  If we approximate Zhuangzi's basis for criticism or adulation to the ways which the dismal science uses, we allow for plenty of situational contexts from which we can consider all of the varying strategies which we might employ and incorporate into our Daos.  Zhuangzi's work could comment that we often employ strategies, but don't weigh them intelligently against other strategies, and sometimes don't even have a clear notion of a game from which to compare strategies, because we haven't indicated any losses or payoffs.

Zhuangists can offer direct, game-theoretic criticisms against evildoers' strategies toward certain payoffs (or adopting a commitment to a Dao which affords a certain lifestyle), and they can do so constructively, by comparing the evil strategies to better strategies, whether we're making use of warped trees and hollow gourds, training horses for dressage, or butchering oxen.  The Dao of Infanticidal Thrill-Killing or some other widely detested way of life needn't be wrong because it violates some stuffy orthodoxies.  Zhuangists (and Yangists, too) can intellectually criticize that it's far from an optimal strategy if, for instance, the baby-killer considers that his living longer is a sort of payoff.  Some evildoers will not consider the costs of their acts, but Zhuangists need not reason them out of their Daos any more than we need to reason dogs out of busy traffic; Zhuangists can find another use for them, since Zhuangists can apply counterfactual perspectival breadth to forge a Dao which approaches equilibrium.