Volume 25, Issue 3, Fall 2003
Conceptual Foundations for Environmental Ethics
A Daoist Perspective
The concepts dao and de in the Daodejing may be evoked to support a distinctive and plausible account of environmental holism. Dao refers to the totality of particulars, including the relations that hold between them, and the respective roles and functions of each within the whole. De refers to the distinctiveness of each particular, realized meaningfully only within the context of its interdependence with others, and its situatedness within the whole. Together, dao and de provide support for an ethical holism that avoids sacrificing individuals for the sake of the whole. The integrity and stability of the whole are important not because the whole is an end-in-itself but because those conditions assist in preserving the well-being of the constituent parts. In other words, the ethical holism supported in the Daodejing does not present individuals and wholes in mutually exclusive terms, but sees them in symbiotic relation, allowing for events to be mutually beneficial, or mutually obstructive, to both. In addition, two other Daoist concepts, wuwei (non-action) and ziran (spontaneity), provide further support for this construction of holism. If the distinctiveness of particular individuals is valued, then unilateral or reductive norms which obliterate such individuality are inappropriate. In this regard, the methodology of wuwei allows for the idea of individuals developing spontaneously in relation to others. According to this view of holism,
individuals manifest and realize their integrity in relation to others in the environmental context, achieving an outcome that is maximally co-possible within those limits, rather than one that is maximally beneficial only for particular individuals.