In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

  • Is Zhuangzi a Patient Relativist?: A Response to Yong Huang
  • Jianping Hu (bio)


In his recent papers, Professor Yong Huang has been attempting to interpret the ethics of Zhuangzi from the perspective of patient moral relativism. Generally speaking, there are two sorts of moral relativism that are discussed in the contemporary philosophical literature: agent relativism and appraiser relativism. The former means that the moral judgments of rightness and wrongness of an action depend on the agent’s moral standards, while the latter considers the appraiser’s standards as the only criteria for assessing the moral appropriateness of a certain action. In contrast to agent relativism and appraiser relativism, “patient relativism” advocates that whether an action is moral or not should be evaluated in light of the standard of the patient or recipient of the very action.1 According to Huang, this new version of moral relativism, which can be found in the Zhuangzi, is able to avoid the problems faced by the other two different moral relativisms. However, what I want to show in the present article is that patient relativism is not only self-contradictory within the theory itself, but also cannot conform with the various passages in the Zhuangzi. Therefore, I believe that it is not appropriate to classify the Zhuangzi in the camp of patient relativism.

This article will proceed in five sections. In the first section, I will briefly introduce Huang’s theory of patient moral relativism. In the second section, I will raise what I call the “two-patient challenge,” which may undermine Huang’s argument. In most cases, there can be more than one patient or recipient of one certain action. What should we do when the patients have different or even conflicting interests, desires, and demands? This is, I believe, quite common in real life because we live in a world where individuals are always interdependent and affected by other people’s decisions and actions. In section three, I respond to my challenge in a way that Huang might possibly endorse. Furthermore, I will provide reasons why this response is still problematic. The main theme of section four will be that even if the challenge can be well resolved, there is still textual evidence (the stories of tiger trainer, Lady Li, and three types of pipings) in the Zhuangzi that illustrates the untenability of the theory that Zhuangzi is a patient [End Page 453] relativist. I will conclude by arguing that Huang’s theory needs to be developed further due to the problems it is faced with, although it has made great contributions not only to the interpretation of the philosophy in the Zhuangzi by drawing attention to a new possible approach to the text but also to the realm of moral relativism by underlining the role of the patient, which has been marginalized for a long time.

I. Yong Huang on Patient Relativism and the Zhuangzi

According to Huang, patient relativism is a kind of moral relativism that puts the patient in the center of our moral deliberations and actions.2 Namely, whether an action is morally right or wrong should be determined by the patient who receives the action.3 Huang believes that his theory of patient relativism possesses at least two theoretical advantages that agent relativism and appraiser relativism lack. First, it emphasizes the role of moral patients in moral philosophy that has been overlooked for a very long time and encourages us to pay attention to the different interests, demands, desires, and beliefs of the patients who are the recipients of our actions. What most ethicists mean by moral relativism is usually just agent relativism and appraiser relativism.4 For example, Gilbert Harman, one of the most representative defenders of moral relativism, does not consider the patient as one of the main elements in his argument about the “ought” statement, in which “an agent A, a type of act D, considerations C, and motivating attitudes M” are considered essential but “patient P” is nowhere to be seen.5

Second, in Huang’s view, agent relativism and appraiser relativism both have their own problems, respectively, whereas patient-centered relativism does not. For agent relativism, there would be no immoral...


Additional Information

Print ISSN
pp. 453-472
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
Back To Top

This website uses cookies to ensure you get the best experience on our website. Without cookies your experience may not be seamless.