my system of ethics

Whichever the way the wind blows,
Whichever the way the world goes,
Is perfectly alright with me!

(Anonymous Taoist)


Moralist: I have just read your poem:

Whichever the way the wind blows,
Whichever the way the world goes,
Is good enough for me!

Taoist: You misquoted it. The last line is “Is perfectly all right with me.” But I like your version at least as well as mine – in a way, even better.

Moralist: At any rate, I regard the poem as childish, irresponsible, illogical and morally reprehensible.

Taoist: That’s perfectly all right with me!

Moralist: No, seriously, I cannot go along with the quietistic philosophy in your poem.

Taoist: I don’t think of it as quietistic.

Moralist: Of course it is! Superficially your poem bears a resemblance to the Zen poem:

Sitting quietly doing nothing,
Spring comes, and the grass grows by itself.

Taoist: I love that poem; I think it is my favorite.

Moralist: You would love it! Actually, I myself have nothing against that poem. There is nothing wrong with sitting quietly while the grass is growing because growing grass is something of value. But it is a very different thing to sit quietly while the world is going up in flames!

Taoist: I never advocated sitting quietly while the world goes up in flames. I never advocated sitting quietly at all. In fact, my poem does not advocate anything.

Moralist: You say the way things are going is good enough for you. Well, it may be good enough for you, but it sure is not good enough for me! With all the misery and injustice in the world, you might be content to sit quietly doing nothing, letting the wind blow where it listeth, but I intend to go out in the world and do something about it, whether you like it or not!

Taoist: Whether I like it or not! Whether I like it? I just told you:

Whichever the way the wind blows,
Whichever the way the world goes,
Is good enough for me!

So if you wish to go out and make changes in the world, your doing so is good enough for me.

Moralist: Sure it’s good enough for you if I go to the trouble of making changes in the world, but it evidently is not good enough for you if you have to go to the trouble of making the changes.

Taoist: Why not? If I go out in the world and make changes, that is also good enough for me.

Moralist: But if things are already good enough for you, why would you want to make any changes?

Taoist: Why not?

Moralist: Oh come now, don’t be silly! Either things are good enough for you or they are not. You can’t have it both ways. If things are good enough for you, then there is no need for you to make changes; if not, then there is. I judge whether things really are good enough for you on the basis of how you act.

Taoist: I don’t see it that way. I lead a very active life, as a matter of fact; I am always busy with some project or other. But I still say that whatever happens is good enough for me. Suppose some of my projects fail. Then I keep trying further until I succeed. Some of my projects I may not succeed in accomplishing in my lifetime. And this very fact is good enough for me.

Moralist: Suppose you were a doctor and were working hard to save a patient’s life. Would you honestly say to yourself, “I am trying my best to save the patient’s life, but if he dies, it is perfectly all right with me?

Taoist: Of course not! I would think it highly inappropriate to express this sentiment at such a time.

Moralist: Ah, I’ve caught you! You are being inconsistent! On the one hand you say that all the things which happen are good enough for you, and yet you admit of a particular happening that it is not good enough for you. So plainly you are inconsistent!

Taoist: Oh, for God’s sake, come off it! You the great logician have caught me in an inconsistency! I affirm a universal statement and yet I deny an instance! Tut, tut, isn’t that just terrible!

Moralist: Well, what do you have to say for yourself?

Taoist: What do I have to say for myself? Mainly that you are a first-class dope! That is the main thing I have to say.

Now look, will it make you any happier if I change the poem as follows? Suppose some very unpleasant event occurs – call it event E – then I can change the poem thus:

Whichever the way the wind blows,
Whichever the way the world goes,
Is perfectly all right with me
Except for event E.

Moralist: That is still no good. This means that you have to change the poem every time you come across a different unpleasant event.

Taoist: Not at all! I can simply use the symbol “E” once and for all as a variable ranging over all unpleasant events.

Moralist: I think you are being facetious!

Taoist: Of course I am! My facetiousness is obviously only an annoyance reaction to your pedantry.

Moralist: But honestly now, why should you regard it as pedantic that I object to a simple inconsistency? How can you seriously maintain that everything that happens is all right with you and yet admit that certain things which happen are not all right with you.

Taoist: I never maintained that everything that happens is all right with me. I never said that taking each thing that happens, that very thing is all right with me. I said “whichever the way the world goes” is all right with me. I was thinking of the direction of the world as a whole as one unit. The fact that I like the world as a whole does not mean that I like each part in isolation from the rest.

Moralist: It has suddenly occurred to me that maybe I have misjudged you.

Perhaps all you are trying to say is that you accept the will of God. Maybe you are trying to say, “Let thy will, not mine, be done.

Taoist: If it makes you happy to think of it in these theological terms, by all means do so. I would not put it in those words, but perhaps they are not too far from what I have in mind. Your first suggestion, that I accept the will of God, comes closer than “Let thy will, not mine, be done.

Moralist: What is the difference between the two?

Taoist: To me they are, at least psychologically, very different. I recall in my bachelor days I spent one summer in Chicago in which I resided in a theological seminary. I had many conversations with the resident minister. One day he asked me whether I would not attend the evening services for the house. Although I did not feel quite right about it, I accepted as a matter of courtesy. And so I went, and at one point we were to fold our hands and pray to God, “Let thy will, not mine, be done.

I vividly recall at this point that I felt hypocritical – indeed as if I actually were lying. Could I in all sincerity really wish that God would do his will rather than mine?

Suppose, for example, that Christianity were true, and that God would will that I be damned and suffer eternal punishment. Could I really sanction God doing this to me? Or to anyone else, for that matter? Even Satan himself? Besides, if the Christian God really exists, it would seem rather ludicrous for a weak defenseless creature like myself to have to give his approval of God carrying out his own will. Obviously God will do what he wills, whether I like it or not.

I’m sure this sentiment has often been expressed before, but I cannot help expressing it again. Anyhow, for these reasons, the phrase “Let thy will, not mine, be done” has never sounded right in my ears. 

Your first idea of “accepting the will of God” is different. Accepting something is not the same as desiring it. And that is why I say that your first suggestion comes closer to my meaning than your second, although it still is not quite what I mean.

Moralist: Well, if this is not what your poem means, then I am still puzzled as to what it really means.

Taoist: Why do you work so hard trying to find its meaning? Can’t you just accept it for what it is, and simply say “It’s a good poem” or “It’s a rotten poem”?

Moralist: No, no, there must be a meaning in it. You say you are not advocating quietism, surely you are not advocating activism. I guess you are just advocating accepting the world as it is.

Taoist: No, I am not advocating anything.

Moralist: Surely your idea must somehow affect your attitude towards the world, and have some effect on your behavior.

Taoist: Attitude, yes; behavior, no.

Moralist: Have you always had this attitude?

Taoist: Definitely not.

Moralist: Well, since you had it, would you say that you have become more or less active than formerly?

Taoist: Neither. My external actions have undergone no appreciable change.

Moralist: But you must have some ethical message in your poem. Why did you choose such a pompous title as “My System of Ethics”? According to the last few things you have said, you seem to have no system at all.

Taoist (laughing): I deliberately chose such a pompous title as a jest at moralists, who tend to take themselves so seriously! I was delighted at the very pomposity of the title “My System of Ethics” leading the reader to expect that I was going to come out with some ponderous analysis of what is the ultimate nature of the “Good”, and how people should conduct their lives. And then all that comes out is this silly little poem. And yet, in a way, I honestly believe that this poem does contain – mainly, perhaps, on an unconscious level – a very serious message.

Moralist: But you cannot tell me what the message is?

Taoist: I have the same difficulty I would have in trying to explain why a joke is funny.

Moralist: Well, now, you say that the message does not so much concern people’s actions.

Taoist: That’s right.

Moralist: It just concerns change in attitudes.

Taoist: Right.

Moralist: Can you give me any inkling as to what attitude you have in mind? Do you have any idea of what attitudes you hope your message might engender?

Taoist: I think so. I think it would tend to make one’s actions no less directed or efficient than before – indeed, hopefully even more so – but it would tend to make the actions performed with less fear and anxiety.

Moralist: Oh, then you do have a significant message. In which case I think you owe it to yourself and others to express it more precisely and clearly.

Taoist: The clearest way I can express it is by saying

Whichever the way the wind blows,
Whichever the way the world goes,
It’s all the same to me!


Several days after I completed this chapter, there was a storm during the night and the wind blew out many of the screens from the porch. 

Next morning I was standing there looking at the desolation, and my wife came down and said:

Well Raymond, are you still satisfied with whichever the way the wind blows?