Good and bad are inseparable, right and wrong are indistinguishable. We may never know what is truly good and what is truly bad.
Society and convention place value on typically the more or the better, e.g. more wealth, better grades, or better jobs. But we can’t be sure whether more is good. Working for a FAANG company may seem better (from societal convention), but is it really so?
Philosophies and philosophers that teach what is right and wrong are too sure of themselves.
Good and bad, right and wrong are relative to perspective. What is good for me may be bad for you. What is a lot of money for me, may just be a little for you.
One man’s meat is another man’s poison.
Reconciling skepticism and relativism? - No need to reconcile: Zhuangzi as therapy
If I can’t tell what is right and what is wrong, how can I tell if relativism is right?
If right and wrong are relative to my perspective, then should I be skeptical about my evaluations of rightness and wrongness from my perspective?
All that said, we should not shrink away from making evaluations and decisions. We use our evaluations to help us understand how others evaluate good and bad —
The monkey trainer:
“When the monkey trainer was passing out nuts he said, “You get three in the morning and four at night.” The monkeys were all angry. “All right,” he said, “you get four in the morning and three at night.” The monkeys were all pleased. With no loss in name or substance, he made use of their joy and anger because he went along with them. So the sage harmonizes people with right and wrong and rests them on Heaven’s wheel. This is called walking two roads.” (Zhuangzi 2 - 齐物论)
I.e. go along with ordinary distinctions, societal conventions to make people happy - and reduce hassle for yourself.
Detachment in society, but not from society
We continue to play our role in society, this role that we happened to occupy. We do so by being detached in society, but not from society, i.e. do what you are supposed to do, but with personal detachment.
Because both i) trying hard to run away from your role, or ii) trying hard to do a perfect job according to convention, would be to judge one side for right and one side for wrong. But we don’t know which side is truly right or wrong.
So we go with the flow, with detachment, to reduce hassle for ourselves.
Accept the role that you happen to occupy.
“Out in the world, follow its rules.” (Zhuangzi 20 - 山木)
“You hide your boat in a gully or your net in a swamp and call them secure. But in the middle of the night a strong man could still take them on his back and leave, and you would be asleep and not know. Hiding the small in the large seems fitting, but still you lose. But if you hid the world in the world, you would have nothing to lose… So the sage wanders in what exists everywhere and can’t be lost. He likes growing old and he likes dying young. He likes the beginning and he likes the end.” (Zhuangzi 6 - 大宗师)
The usefulness of uselessness
But, don’t seek fame or prominence. Realize the usefulness of uselessness —
The useless tree:
Carpenter Shi went to Qi and, when he got to Crooked Shaft, he saw a serrate oak standing by the village shrine. It was broad enough to shelter several thousand oxen and measured a hundred spans around, towering above the hills. The lowest branches were eighty feet from the ground, and a dozen or so of them could have been made into boats. There were so many sightseers that the place looked like a fair, but the carpenter didn’t even glance around and went on his way without stopping. His apprentice stood staring for a long time and then ran after Carpenter Shi and said, “Since I first took up my ax and followed you, Master, I have never seen timber as beautiful as this. But you don’t even bother to look, and go right on without stopping. Why is that?”
“Forget it—say no more!” said the carpenter. “It’s a worthless tree! Make boats out of it and they’d sink; make coffins and they’d rot in no time; make vessels and they’d break at once. Use it for doors and it would sweat sap like pine; use it for posts and the worms would eat them up. It’s not a timber tree—there’s nothing it can be used for. That’s how it got to be that old!” (Zhuangzi 4 - 人间世)
Save yourself the hassle.
Drag your tail in the mud:
“Once, when Zhuangzi was fishing in the Pu River, the king of Chu sent two officials to go and announce to him: “I would like to trouble you with the administration of my realm.”
Zhuangzi held on to the fishing pole and, without turning his head, said, “I have heard that there is a sacred tortoise in Chu that has been dead for three thousand years. The king keeps it wrapped in cloth and boxed, and stores it in the ancestral temple. Now would this tortoise rather be dead and have its bones left behind and honored? Or would it rather be alive and dragging its tail in the mud?” “It would rather be alive and dragging its tail in the mud,” said the two officials.
Zhuangzi said, “Go away! I’ll drag my tail in the mud!”” (Zhuangzi 17 - 秋水)
Nonaction, Wuwei, 无为
Focus on know-how (skills, technique, intuition) rather than know-what (knowledge, right and wrong, true or false). Go with the flow, don’t over-rationalize.
Don’t strive. Van Norden’s example: if you found my wallet, return it not because i) you desire a reward with returning it, or ii) it’s the right (ethical) thing to do, or iii) it’s the lawful thing to do. Return it because you simply never thought of keeping it.
Zhuangzi as a therapy
Zhuangzi teaches no doctrine, only to give an intuition to its readers on a “good way” to relate to the world, so that our time in this world will be enjoyable. We will be insulated from loss, and be a flâneur, or observer, of life.
This “good way” can’t be fully named or articulated, but can only be nicknamed or stylized as the Way or Dao or 道.
Lose your tendency to automatically evaluate whether something is good or bad, right or wrong.
Go with the flow, don’t over-rationalize. A physicist may calculate how much torque is needed for you to turn your bicycle around a corner, but knowing this exact amount of torque needed can’t help you in turning it - only your skills and feel of the bicycle can.
Play your role in society - be detached in society, but not from it.
Avoid attracting hassle to yourself.
We may be a “wistful Daoist” - Van Norden’s example:
“A contemporary wistful Daoist might want to do a top law school. If she does not get in, she will be disappointed but she will not be distraught: she does not take society’s and her own evaluations seriously enough for that. When she goes to a less prestigious law school instead, she will submerge herself in her work, and she will be better at it than many of her peers because of her level of commitment but also because she is less fearful of failure. Her approach will be the same when she becomes an attorney; however, she will avoid high-profile cases that might get her face on television. Part of her wants to be famous, but she knows that overall the costs of celebrity are not worth it.“”
Zhuangzi and the butterfly, the butterfly and Zhuangzi; three nuts in the morning, or four nuts in the morning - they are all the same, all are equalized.