Daoism and bioethics: Daode jin’s doctrine of naturalness and the principle of non-action

Jonathan K L CHAN*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Chapter in book/report/conference proceedingChapterpeer-review

1 Citation (Scopus)


This paper aims to reconstruct a Daoist theory of bioethics with reference to Daode jin (Lao-tzu). Before proceeding, we nevertheless need to address to the question of whether Lao-tzu Daoism has an ethics or not. Since Lao-tzu Daoism has often been construed as a philosophical movement that criticized the conventionalism of Confucian morality, one might doubt whether there is such a thing as Lao-tzu Daoist ethics at all, not to mention a Daoist bioethics. The answer to this question depends on how we understand the notion of ethics or morality. Daoism does not have an ethics in the Kantian or Confucian sense, which understands ethical action in terms of moral duty or obligation. Confucianism, for instance, holds that there are obligations that each of us should perform on the basis of the five social relationships: ruler-minister, father-son, husband-wife, elder-younger brother, friend-friend. Consider one’s moral obligations in the father-son relationship. According to Confucianism, the father always should treat his son with care and concern while the son owes his father obedience and respect. As to the ruler-minister relationship, the minister should have loyalty toward the ruler while the ruler should treat the minister in accordance with the proper etiquette. For Confucianism, the aforementioned role-based moral obligations find their expression in a set of rules of li or ritual which, in turn, is an outward expression of an inner moral quality, ren or humaneness. It is only by following the rules of li that one could achieve humaneness. Using these cardinal Confucian moral precepts, li and ren, Confucianism distinguishes between two different categories of people – the “gentleman” and the “small man”. The gentleman is the one who live by superior moral standards, i.e., by the rules of li, with a view to achieving his humaneness. The small man is deemed as morally inferior since he does not concern himself about his humaneness and has no intention to live by the rules of li.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationReligious Perspectives in Bioethics
PublisherTaylor and Francis
Number of pages12
ISBN (Print)9781315800394
Publication statusPublished - 2004

Publication series

NameThe Annals of Bioethics

Scopus Subject Areas

  • Arts and Humanities(all)


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