The short question is: if we stick to The Way in Tao Te Ching, won't that be sinful?

That's because, The Way seems to be the "most natural way". For example, if we know the manager likes flattering, we flatter her and then once we know she is friend with us, we backstab our coworkers in front of her. If a man is with a woman and she is totally drunk, the natural way could be "to make a million babies with her" (as in the movie American Beauty).

Details: even the verse 38 of Tao Te Ching, states that "Top virtue is not (appearing to be a) virtue... if we lose The Way, then we go by Virtue, and if we lose Virtue, we go by Human Compassion (仁) or Humanity, if we lose Human Compassion, then we go by What Is Right and Responsibility, ... so The Way is the highest.

However, The Way or The Most Natural Way can be very cruel. It can be the most selfish, without conscience, almost like a sociopath or psychopath. Do it the most natural way, it can be seen as deserving to go to hell in Buddhism, Muslim, Christianity, Catholic, and many religions. For example, if a person can earn $100 million but he has the ability to take $99 million and leave scrap to people who work just as hard as him, he would take $99 million, because it is "the most natural way".

Here, I will put down Thomas Cleary's translation and the original text of verse 38:

38. Higher Virtue Is Not Ingratiating

Higher virtue is not ingratiating; that is why it has virtue. Lower virtue does not forget about reward; that is why it is virtueless. Higher virtue is uncontrived, and there is no way to contrive it. Lower virtue is created, and there is a way to do it. Higher humanity is created, but there is no way to contrive it. Higher duty is done, and there is a way to do it. Higher courtesy is done, but no one responds to it; so there is forceful repetition. Therefore virtue comes after loss of the Way; humanity comes after loss of virtue, duty comes after loss of humanity, courtesy comes after loss of duty. Manners mean loyalty and trust are thin, and disarray's beginning. Foresight is a flower of the Way, and the beginning of ignorance too. Therefore great people dwell in the thick, not the thin. They abide in the substance, not the flower. So they leave the latter and take the former.

第三十八章 上德不德


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    In The Way, there is nothing to stick to. There are no choices or decisions, no valuation, no better or worse. It is simply impossible to understand. If it doesn't sweep you along like a flash flood, you will die of thirst trying to find it. Stop looking :-)
    – Scott Rowe
    Commented Jan 29, 2023 at 12:31
  • The natural way isn't just passions, tooth and claw, see cooperative evolution: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mutual_Aid:_A_Factor_of_Evolution Commented Jan 30, 2023 at 20:31

5 Answers 5


For a Taoist, this is not a problem, because, so far as I know, it does not have a concept of sin. As your quotation says "..virtue comes after loss of the Way". Since vice is the opposite of virtue, presumably vice also comes after loss of the Way, though the quotation is not specific about that. Sin, of course, is a concept embedded in theology and I'm not sure what meaning it has outside that context.

All translation is difficult. Translation of the Dao De Jing is very, very difficult. It would be as well not to assume that the word translated "natural" means exactly, or even approximately, what it means in English. For example, in English, what is natural is sometimes regarded as good and sometimes as bad. I'm not at all sure that corresponds to the Taoist attitude.

Working out what Taoism might mean in a different culture with different basic ideas is very difficult and it is important not to assume the concepts in English and the language and culture of the Dao De Jing are more than very roughly equivalent.

  • verse 25 says "Among domains are four greats, of which kingship is one. Humanity emulates earth, earth emulates heaven, heaven emulates the Way, the Way emulates Nature." and the original text also says Nature, meaning "As it is", "the way it is", or "the way it naturally is"... but I also later saw this: ctext.org/wiki.pl?if=gb&chapter=654179 and the second part, which is an interpretation of Tao Te Ching, says in the old old times, people naturally care about each other. People don't steal, people are not excessively greedy like today... so that's why it is "The Way" Commented Jan 29, 2023 at 13:12
  • I dare to collect some other theories I gathered, some from a novelist, who said he didn't think of it, but that the info was like downloaded to him: when the universe formed, the energies, and the high beings are not selfish or sinful like how we are today. They just let it be. And then later on, there are different beings who'd care for themselves, rob, steal, and do things to hurt other beings, and they were sent to Earth as a prison. So you can say The Way is naturally good in that original state. What is on Earth, is different. Commented Jan 29, 2023 at 13:20
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    @StefanieGauss It sounds like one of your issues is that you're attempting to put Taoism into some external syncretic framework, rather than think about how the Tao is interpreted by people who practice Taoism. I think some of the conceptual problems you are having arise not from issues with Taoism itself, but rather they're issues with the external syncretic framework, and how its philosophical underpinnings conflict with the philosophical underpinnings of Taoism.
    – R.M.
    Commented Jan 29, 2023 at 15:42
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    The whole point of taoism is to learn to see beyond dualism...
    – Pablo H
    Commented Jan 30, 2023 at 14:59
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    BTW, for perspective, re the second paragraph: it is not merely that translation of the Dao De Jing from Chinese to English is difficult, but even its interpretation in Chinese, to native Chinese speakers, is tough as well!
    – YiFan
    Commented Dec 10, 2023 at 15:46

Taoism is not concerned with good and evil. It sounds that your thinking is deeply founded in the Western and Christian worldview. To elaborate on your first example: I would claim that it is not natural to care about flattering, to backstab our coworkers nor to overly care about the boss's opinion.

Taoism uses the mythical neolithic era with people as simple villagers as its ideal state of society and people. At other times it gives an example of a small child. All of the negative decisions you mention would happen due to the corruption of the society and straying from the right Way.

At other place, chapter 67 promotes the virtues of compassion, modesty and humility. So it doesn't embrace the greedy selfishness you propose. Also compare with the character of Yang Zhu, the famous taoist-egoist. Even his idea of egoism is far from this.

Finally, Taoism often challenges Confucianism. You can see this in the chapter 38. Confucianism gives precendence to our outer relationships, our proper behavior towards others and teaches that this gives us the right Way. Taoism goes the other way, starting inside and saying that following the ever fleeting Way, we would naturally live full, satisfied lives and create a harmonious society.


One, if not the most important, aspect of human nature is to resist/deny/reject (human) nature. So the natural thing to do might be to seize an opportunity, but not to is also as natural. This instantiates, as you already know, a recurring motif in Taoism - up is down! Like Hilbert's Hotel, there's always room.

  • so The Way is to defy The Way? Commented Jan 29, 2023 at 8:57
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    Something like that @StefanieGauss, something like that, but I feel you're missing the point.
    – Hudjefa
    Commented Jan 29, 2023 at 9:03
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    it is just as vague as it can be, and then "you are missing the point"... I don't think you understand it so well either. But if you throw in "to understand it is not to understand it", then your logic is perfect Commented Jan 29, 2023 at 9:26
  • You're not defying is what I meant to say.
    – Hudjefa
    Commented Jan 29, 2023 at 10:34
  • so then, The Way is to resist The Way? Commented Jan 29, 2023 at 10:35

It seems you have two questions here, (1) one pertaining normative ethics and (2) another pertaining what decides one's course of action.

(1) Taoism is more a school of thought, than a religion. Nonetheless, most all religion attempts to identify and spread a universal normative ethics. However, since action and thought is enslaved to environmental perception, you can't form a universal normative ethics; experience is relative, (experience forming one's conception of virtuosity, compassion, etc). So yes, in its very essence any particular normative ethics would violate in some manner another one. This concept doesn't mean one ought not form a personal ethics, just realize one's ethics are relative. Consequently avoiding any group that attempts to render one ubiquitous.

(2) One would think what one decides is based on the personal ethics one holds, but what one decides is ultimately based on how much free-energy an action reduces. Thought experiment: I present you with a red button, and if you press it, you will receive $99 million however someone you don't know will immediately die. Are you pressing the button? Imagine practically just how many things you wouldn't have to consciously process in order for them to be completed if you did. The money would allow you to pay someone to drive you places, buy your groceries, deliver your groceries, and even cook your food for you, etc. etc. etc perhaps for the rest of your life. Given all action is in service of minimizing prediction error (i.e. taking action to minimize the amount of things you consciously process), then you have an adequate formulation of human behavior. You either press the button, because you realize how much long-term error is minimized via the implications of more money. Or you don't press because your brain's current reinforced modality for what's "right" and "wrong" doesn't allow you to act in ways that violate it (i.e. pressing would cause more error than not, i.e. pressing is an action that produces error, i.e. error you consciously process). When you say "natural way", under computational neuroscience, I assume you are referencing across a population what action is mostly considered universally optimal to reduce error. Most wouldn't take a bullet for someone else, however there exists scenarios where more error reduced by killing yourself than being ok with someone else dying.

I think it's interesting Americans eat cow a few times a day, whereas Indians never do. Just as I think it's interesting certain religions within the U.S. prioritize not eating meat, whereas others don't at all. Our brains are constructed via environmental experience; our actions are constructed via our brain's intrinsic drive to reduce error, i.e. for our beliefs to match our environments and our environments to match our beliefs.

  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat.
    – Geoffrey Thomas
    Commented Jan 30, 2023 at 9:14
  • @GeoffreyThomas how does one do that? given I've accumulated sufficient rep. Commented Jan 30, 2023 at 13:44

Let me give a perspective that has not been provided so far. Based on my understanding, in Chinese culture, it is generally considered that human nature is innately good and that all evil or sinful aspects are unnatural modifications; this is in some sense opposite to the Christian idea of original sin. Perhaps this difference in perspective leads to a beneficial understanding of what is meant by the Way.

To give an example, in ancient China a famous classical text that is taught to all children (in fact I think this is usually considered the first, foundational, most important text to begin one's education with) is called the 三字经 (literally three-words scripture), which begins with the following line:


The literal translation:

The origin (read: original nature) of each human is innately good; though all humans have similar nature, the way people act (read: due to learned behaviour) can be very different.

There is a similar idea in Buddhism, another one of the major religious ideologies in China (which also influenced Taoism greatly), about the innate goodness, loving-kindness, or "Buddha-nature" of each person. In both of these philosophies, evil or sinful acts are viewed as somehow obscurations of the true innate "good" nature of humanity (or "the Way"). There does not seem to me to be any problems or contradictions; perhaps the trouble is an implicit attempt to view this (implicitly) through the lens of Christian-influenced Western culture, where some confusion can arise.

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