Lao Tzu said that "A good person is the bad person’s teacher. A bad person is the good person’s task.". Source

I don't understand anything!

Can you explain it in plain English?

4 Answers 4


It looks like this is from Daodeijing chapter 27. Given that, I want to preface my answer by saying that I do not know of anyone who works in Chinese philosophy that believes in the historicity of Laozi (Lao Tzu). Instead, we believe this document to be a multiply re-organized text that includes many Taoist notions. (See for instance Franklin Perkins, Heaven and Earth are not Humane, 82).

Given that, the literal text is on ctext.org but it won't let me quote it here. A key point in Taoist texts is that we should not identify shàn with goodness in the common sense. That might be more plausible for the Confucian texts, but for Taoists it's not clear that they think standard morality has anything to teach us.

The portion we want comes after the 故 (therefore), but it's also useful to look at the part before that. In this context, the ctext translation which renders it as "skilful" is probably better. This ties in the with Zhuangzi's notion of skilfullness which may or may not mean "good" in the moral sense.

Instead, it means the one who has wu-wei connection with the Tao.

Thus, a better translation is

The skilful one is the unskilful one's teacher; the unskilful one is the skilful one's resource.

Again, tying this to the Zhuangzi with ideas like Cook Ding, the notion is that the one who is in touch with the Tao should lead, and being in touch with the Tao gives thoughtless skill or spontaneity to one's abilities (ziran).

  • Thank you for the word "in touch". This means that the Dao is an external entity from you, that if you can be in touch with it it can do things for you.
    – Ooker
    Commented Mar 2, 2019 at 16:36
  • That's not the meaning of "in touch" I'm using here. "In touch" can also be used as "in touch with your feelings". It means an awareness of the Dao. I don't think it's necessary to take a position as to whether Dao is pervasively in all things or external to subjects to answer the question asked here.
    – virmaior
    Commented Mar 2, 2019 at 23:47
  • If you are aware of something, does it mean it is distinct from you, or at least your consciousness, so that you can direct the attention to it?
    – Ooker
    Commented Mar 3, 2019 at 3:08
  • That's a great question for phenomenology, but can you direct your attention to your attending or is there always a gap? If not, then sure I'll grant you that your attending to something is a mental mode at least distinct from the attended qua object, but that solves nothing as the question of whether those are different (rather than distinct) things.
    – virmaior
    Commented Mar 3, 2019 at 3:12
  • 1
    Again my entire point is that I don't want to (in this answer or comments on it) take a position on the question you're asking. I think we'd have to look elsewhere than this passage to see whether Daoists see the Dao as pervasive or not. So that's really a different question.
    – virmaior
    Commented Mar 3, 2019 at 3:13

The good person teaches the bad person to make them better. The task of the good person is to help the bad person.


I'm a lover of taoism. It guides my life... Sometimes life leads me to places where I feel animosity or worse towards people who treat me abusingly. My peace of mind disappears and i become my worst enemy. I often bring this phrase to my consciousness to tell myself that i mustn't retaliate but be the better person. The anger dissolves and i then realise that the real abuse is to let them make me be bad also. It's the most useful phrase in the Tao. When inspired the Tao is wonderful but in angry moments it flies out of the window and the only thing that brings it back is this phrase: a good man is a bad man's teacher! Also only bad men misbehaviour is the only time we have a chance to practice being really good... I have to confess that when the anger is too great i have to concede that the bad person has got to me, but at the same time i refrain from retaliating, thinking that virtue is non action if it is done out anger


One reasonable answer is that "good" should be used in a certain way:

1) A good person is a person that is not only good in intentions and values, but also develops powerful ("good") instruments to make the good happen, because she thinks about ways to do so all the time.

2) A bad person cannot create these instruments by herself, because all that counts for her are the bad ends, limiting her mind. Therefore, the good person is a teacher, providing powerful instruments to realize the ends. Second point may be that bad persons do not like to share their knowledge.

3) Therefore providing bad people from learning the instruments and keeping them secret and/or learning knowledge of human nature to recognize the bad in people is a task for good persons.

So "good" does not rest on the means, but on the ends. It is formulated in philosophy by Kant in the Groundworks for Metaphysics of Morals, first Part, for example. It fits to common narratives provided by chinese motion pictures (that rest on chinese legends). Recent examples of it are the Harry Potter and Star Wars storylines.

But I like the more simple (and at least equally reasonable) answer of @JohnAm, too

  • It's funny to have a downvote after 5 seconds. One could have read the answer as a whole and try to understand it first.
    – Philip Klöcking
    Commented Oct 25, 2015 at 16:45

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