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  • Patient Moral Relativism in the Zhuangzi Defended: A Reply to Jianping Hu
  • Yong Huang (bio)

I have been developing an ethics that I initially identified in the text of the Zhuangzi and which I have characterized in different ways under different names. First, in contrast to the moral Golden (and Silver) Rule, which asks us to do (or not do) unto others as we would (or would not) like to have done unto us, I call it the moral Copper Rule: do (or do not do) unto others as they would (or would not) like to have done unto them (see Huang 2005). Second, in contrast to the ethics of commonality, I call it ethics of difference. Ethics of Commonality is a general term I use to include the [End Page 472] moral Golden Rule, Kantian ethics (including Kantian revisions of the Golden Rule), and even Rorty’s anti-Kantian ethics, according to which an action that is right for one person in one situation must also be right for anyone else in the same situation and for the same person in any other situation. Unlike it, ethics of difference enjoins moral agents to pay attention to relevant differences both between themselves (as agents) and the recipients of their actions and among different recipients of their actions (see Huang 2010a). Third, in contrast to agent moral relativism, according to which the rightness or wrongness of an action is determined according to the standard of the agent (or agent’s group), and appraiser relativism, according to which the rightness or wrongness of an action is determined by the standard of the appraiser (or appraiser’s group), I call it patient relativism, according to which the rightness or wrongness of an action is determined by the standard of the patient (not that of the patient’s group) who receives the action (see Huang 2014, 2018).

I have argued that Zhuangzian ethics, which under these different names essentially means the same thing, is superior to its alternatives, mentioned above. So it is interesting to read the comment by Jianping Hu, who disagrees with me on both the merits of such an ethics and its claimed source in the Zhuangzi. I am happy to make brief responses on both accounts, and since she uses the term I have used in my most recent papers on the topic, “patient relativism,” from this point on I shall use this term to describe this type of Zhuangzian ethics (though the other two terms essentially mean the same thing). Before I proceed to respond to Hu, however, I would like to start by making two initial points, one related to the Zhuangzi and the other related to patient relativism, both of which are relevant to Hu’s criticism and my responses to them.

The first point is related to the Zhuangzi. The Zhuangzi is full of stories involving different species of animals, mainly from which, indeed, I have detected the Zhuangzian patient relativism. There are scholars who argue that Zhuangzi was perhaps one of the earliest philosophers to advocate animal rights, with which I disagree. In my view, by showing how we humans should treat or interact with other species of animals, the Zhuangzi is primarily trying to tell us how we human beings should treat each other and not how we human beings should treat other animals. In a famous passage in the second chapter, “On the Equality of Things,” Zhuangzi first shows that what counts as the best place to live, the best food to eat, and the best beauty to appreciate is different for different species of animals, and then immediately concludes that “from my point of view, the principles of benevolence and rightness and the paths of right and wrong are so confused and mixed up that there is no way to tell!” (Zhuangzi 2:93). Clearly this is a reference to Confucianism and Mohism, both of which advocate universal principles for dealing with human relationships. In chapter 8, “Webbed Toes,” there is a passage that first states that what is long should not be [End Page 473] considered superfluous and what is short should not be considered insufficient. Thus, although a duck’s...


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