Dao and Second-Order Consequentialism

After king You of Zhou fell in love with Bao Si he exiled his wife, Queen Shen. The disgraced Shen family retaliated in 771 BCE by attacking and killing king You.1 The Zhou dynasty never recovered – although nominally it remained in power for another five centuries, this period was characterized by failing authority and nearly continuous war. Perhaps not coincidentally, this was also the most fruitful period in the intellectual history of China and is commonly recognized as the Golden Age of Chinese philosophy. Confucius, Mencius, Mozi, Laozi, Zhuangzi, Xunzi, and many other of China’s most famous philosophers lived in this period.2 The “Hundred Schools of Thought” that they belonged to or founded fought over ideas as fiercely as others fought over influence and territory.

The main point of contention in the intellectual battle was the dao. The Chinese term dao 道 is interpreted differently in different schools of thought, and especially in the later development of Daoism (on the basis of the ideas of Laozi, Zhuangzi, and others) new layers of meaning were piled up on the concept. Nevertheless, there is a small number of closely related core meanings with deep historical roots. The concept’s oldest (known) etymological root is following a path or road, and the plainest meaning of dao (and its derivatives in other East-Asian languages) as a noun is path, way, or road. However, the concept also has ancient normative connotations, and consequently, its etymological root is not just following some path, but following the right path.3

Dao as that what was fought over in the aforementioned intellectual battles is closely related to this last notion. In that context – and thus in the context of most of classical Chinese philosophy – dao has the primary meaning of the (set or system of) social conventions that provide(s) the necessary guidance for people to lead virtuous lives. Or, shorter: the morally right social conventions. Or, as suggested by Chad Hansen, dao is a/the “public, guiding discourse”.4 In addition to this primary meaning, there is a secondary meaning (in the same context) of dao as the theory of some particular philosopher or school of what that public, guiding discourse ought to be.

From ordinary to esoteric concerns

The central concern of China’s Golden Age philosophers, then, was to elaborate and defend theories of moral and social philosophy. This does not imply a lack of interest in questions that are (nowadays) typically classified as belonging to other branches of philosophy, however. Much effort was spent on the problems of linguistic meaning and of the justification of beliefs (which are nowadays considered to be defining topics in the philosophy of language and epistemology respectively), for example. Nevertheless, such philosophical explorations into meaning, justification, and other topics outside the scope of moral and social philosophy (in a strict sense) were almost always motivated by ethical (and/or social/political) concerns. And often these apparently much more esoteric topics were only a few small steps away from the more practical or ordinary questions that incited them.

For the ancient Chinese, understanding a term meant having the ability to classify something as belonging (or not) to the kind of things picked out by that term. Thus, understanding ma 馬 and wang 王 is being able to classify things as (non-) horses and (non-) kings, respectively. However, while deciding whether something is a horse or not is a fairly innocent act (although wrong classification may reveal ignorance, of course), in case of terms with inherent moral or social content such as “king” and other terms denoting social roles (parent, child, ruler, subject, friend, and so forth) classifying is also making a moral judgment. Calling someone a “friend” or a “king” while that person is not behaving in accordance with that term – that is, is not doing what is and should be expected of a friend or king – is misapplying the term. According to Confucius this sets a bad example and thereby erodes the moral and social content of that term, thus eroding the dao in turn.5 By implication, the use and abuse of language (can) play a key role in regulating social behavior, and consequently, from questions about the dao (that is, moral questions) to questions about meaning and related technicalities of language was a small step indeed.

The ancient Greeks followed a different path from moral questions to other kinds of philosophical questions, but it wasn’t much longer than the Chinese path. Near the end of the prologue of Plato’s Republic, Socrates says to his opponent Thrasymachus that what they are discussing is “no ordinary/insignificant matter, but how we ought to live”.6 The real Socrates was Plato’s teacher, but in many of Plato’s writings he plays the role of Plato’s mouthpiece, and indeed, “how we ought to live” was no insignificant matter for Plato, but the core concern of his philosophical investigations. Plato’s (and Socrates’s) attempts to answer the question how we ought to live started with inquiries into the nature of justice, goodness, and related notions, which often focused on questions about the meaning of “justice”, “good”, and so forth. And those questions lead to more fundamental questions about the nature of meaning in turn, but also to questions about the distinction of knowledge from mere opinion, about the nature of reality, and so forth.

Despite the obvious difference between these two philosophical traditions (the Greek and the Chinese) there is a remarkable similarity in their origins: in both traditions it was critical reflection on relatively ordinary concerns related to how one should live one’s life that gave rise to the kind of investigations that we now tend to call “philosophy”. And it wasn’t much different for the third of the three “Great” philosophical traditions, that of India, although the common concern at the foundation of Indian philosophy – how to achieve liberation (mokṣa) from the cycle of death and rebirth (saṃsāra) and related suffering – may seem much more exotic from a Western point of view. Nevertheless, although all three philosophical traditions arose from critical reflection, they differed in the assumptions and key concerns at their base and the myths in their historical background, and these differences led to different trajectories. But even that difference should not be exaggerated – many similar solutions for similar problems were found in the three traditions, even if they were phrased in very different terms – and the three paths crossed each other several times in the past two-and-a-half millennium.

Western and Chinese approaches to ethics

Even though both Greek (and therefore, Western) and classical Chinese philosophy originate in relatively practical moral questions, there is a fundamental and important difference between the guiding questions of these two traditions. Plato’s question “How we ought to live” and the body of moral thought that developed to answer this question is inherently individualistic: it is about how I should live my life, and/or what kind of person I should try to become. It is fully answered by a specification of the principles that determine the rightness of an individual’s life, and by implication that is all many (but not all!) theories of Western moral philosophy aim for.

The Chinese question, “What is the right dao” (i.e. the set or system of social conventions that provide(s) the necessary guidance for people to lead virtuous lives), on the other hand is inherently social: it is about the right social conventions and how to establish them. But there is a second fundamental difference: from the dao perspective, the Western approach is incomplete because it implicitly assumes that the principles that determine the rightness of a life are motivating reasons, or in other words, that knowing how one ought to live will lead one to live in accordance with that knowledge. This assumption was made explicit by Immanuel Kant in the 18th century, but it has been a guiding idea in Western moral thought since its inception.7 The dao approach makes no similar assumption (even if it makes other assumptions that are equally debatable): the search is for guiding principles that actually lead people to live virtues lives. It could turn out that Kantian ethics is the dao that guides people toward virtue and society to harmonious order, but this is an open question. Finding the right principles is insufficient, and thus an approach that ends there incomplete – the aim is to find something that actually delivers the good(s).

Decades of research in social and moral psychology has made it sufficiently clear that the Kantian assumption is an illusion: knowing the right thing doesn’t automatically (by itself) lead to doing the right thing.8 According to Daniel Batson, the motivating force of moral principles is extremely weak – we are “moral hypocrites”, merely aiming to be seen as following moral principles by the people around us.9 By implication, the individualistic, Western approach to ethics is fundamentally flawed. For that reason, it may be worthwhile to have a closer look at the classical Chinese approach (or approaches) to ethics and social philosophy.10, 11

Arguing for the dao

Classical Chinese philosophy starts with Confucius or Kongzi 孔子. (Alfred North Whitehead once remarked that Western philosophy “consists of a series of footnotes to Plato”.12 Similarly, much of Chinese philosophy could be considered a series of footnotes to Confucius.) Perhaps, the clearest expression of Confucius’ approach to moral philosophy can be found in the following quote:

If social/moral conventions (dao) are established by means of governance (i.e. laws and regulations), and punishment is used to maintain order, then people will [merely] avoid punishment and have no sense of shame. But if virtue is used to guide social and moral conventions, and ritual and tradition to maintain order, then there will be a [guiding] sense of shame as well as a standard.13

What matters here is not the empirical claim that virtue and ritual/tradition will lead to the desired results, but the kind of argument employed to argue for a particular moral theory (dao).14 Throughout classical Chinese philosophy, two kinds of arguments why a certain moral theory is the one and only right theory are particularly common. One is an appeal to “heaven” tian 天, but this is not really the notion of “heaven” familiar from Western thought – that is, it is (usually) not a supernatural, godly, or personalized kind of heaven, and in many cases “nature” is a beater translation of tian. Hence, this kind of argument is often best understood as an appeal to “natural” (=heavenly) preference. Confucius’ argument in this quote exemplifies the second – and much more interesting – kind of argument, however. He argues that his ritual-and-virtue-based moral theory should be accepted because it will lead to the desired results. Or in other words, the expected consequences of adopting his dao are the desired consequences.

Confucius’ main opponent in the early period was Mozi 墨子, who lived almost a century later. Consequences played a central role in Mozi’s dao. He wrote, for example, that:

A wise man’s business must be to plan [in accordance with] what leads to peace and order among the state’s people (or for the state and people) and to avoid that what brings disorder.15

Or in other words, a wise man lets his actions and the way he governs (if he governs) be guided by the (expected) consequences of his actions (dealings, governings, rulings, and so forth). Mozi is usually classified as a consequentialist, while Confucius is not. The reason for this difference is that consequences play very different roles in their philosophies. (And a much more obvious role in Mozi’s.)


Consequentialism is an approach to moral philosophy according to which the consequences of some act or rule (etc.) make that act or rule (etc.) right or wrong. The most famous kind of consequentialism is the classical utilitarianism defended in the 19th century by Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill. This theory is often summarized as holding that the right act is the act that leads to the greatest happiness for the greatest number of people. Variants of consequentialism differ in the kind of consequences that matter (such as happiness or pleasure in classical utilitarianism and suffering in negative utilitarianism), but also in a number of other ways. For example, act-consequentialism is about the rightness of acts, while rule-consequentialism is about the rightness of rules.16 (Thus, a rule-utilitarian holds that the right rule is the rule that leads to the greatest happiness for the greatest number of people.) And objective consequentialism holds that only actual (realized) consequences matter and thus that rightness can only be determined afterwards, while subjective or prospective consequentialists argue that some kind of expected or foreseen or foreseeable consequences determine the rightness of some act or rule (etc.).

In addition to these distinctions, a further distinction can be made between first- and second-order consequentialism. Potentially confusingly, second-order consequentialism is not consequentialism, however, because it is not a moral theory. Any consequentialist moral theory is a variety of first-order consequentialism. Contrary to consequentialist moral theories that judge (individual) acts or rules or virtues (and so forth) on their rightness on the basis of their consequences, second-order consequentialism judges whole moral theories or whole approaches to morality on their consequences.17 For clarification, let me illustrate this with an example.

Ethical egoism is the moral theory that holds that the right thing to do is always whatever is in one’s objective, long-term self-interest (or something very similar). The most common argument for ethical egoism is that the common good is best served if everyone is selfish in this sense. Or in other words, if everyone always serves their own self-interest, they indirectly serve the interest of all. The idea is nonsensical – self-interest does not promote the common good – but that does not matter here.18 What matters is that the moral theory of ethical egoism is defended by means of an appeal to the supposed/expected consequences of widespread adoption of that theory. That is second-order consequentialism: an argument for the adoption of a moral theory or approach to morality on the basis of the expected consequences of that adoption.19

Dao and second-order consequentialism

As in the case of ethical egoists, second-order consequentialists don’t have to be (first-order) consequentialists. The other way around, (first-order) consequentialists don’t have to be second-order consequentialists, but they often are. John Stuart Mill, for example, realized that in practice it is impossible to determine the consequences of everything one does before one decides to do (or not do) it. Most of the time we should, therefore, rely on guidelines or rules of thumb based on observed regularities. The (mostly implicit) argument for this approach is second-order consequentialist: its adoption is expected to lead to the best results.

Likewise, Mozi’s philosophy is also both first- and second-order consequentialist. Although he also appeals to heavenly/natural preferences, his most important and strongest arguments for his (first-order) consequentialist moral theory is that adopting it will lead to harmonious order.20 Confucius, on the other hand, was not a (first-order) consequentialist, but his argument quoted above is an example of second-order consequentialism: his dao (moral theory or approach to morality) should be accepted because it produces the desired results (i.e. has the right consequences).

That first- and second-order consequentialism don’t need to come together is also evident in the work of Mencius or Mengzi 孟子 who argued against Mozi’s (first-order) consequentialism on second-order consequentialist grounds. According to Mencius, talk of utility/profit (li 利), Mozi’s term for desirable consequences, would only undermine order and harmony, and therefore, adoption of (something like) Mozi’s consequentialism will do nothing but “endanger the kingdom”.21 In other words, what makes (first-order) consequentialism a bad moral theory (according to Mencius) is that its adoption would have bad consequences. That is second-order consequentialism.

Above I claimed that the quote by Confucius’ exemplified one of the two most common strategies in arguing for a dao (moral theory). That strategy – arguing that a moral theory should be adopted because its adoption will have the desired consequences – is second-order consequentialism. (The other was the appeal to heavenly/natural preferences.) More specifically, it is second-order prospective consequentialism (hereafter abbreviated as SOPC), as it is argued that adoption of some dao will – i.e. is expected to – lead to the desired consequences. The strength of a SOPC argument depends, therefore, primarily on the plausibility of the expectations, or in other words, on the evidence (and/or arguments) for the claim that adoption will indeed lead to the desired consequences.

SOPC-style arguments are common in classical Chinese philosophy. In addition to the philosophers mentioned, they can also be found in Xunzi and Hanfeizi, for example.22 Of course, the ancient Chinese did not have a monopoly on this type of argument. As mentioned above, John Stuart Mill depended on something very much like SOPC to defend parts of his version of utilitarianism, for example, and John Rawls’s influential theory of justice is based on an argument that could be interpreted in SOPC terms as well. In case of classical Chinese philosophy, the SOPC approach is invited by the notion of dao itself, however. Recall that dao is (among others) the (set or system of) social conventions that provide(s) the necessary guidance for people to lead virtuous lives. Finding the right dao – that is, finding the right conventions – is finding an approach to morality that actually guides people. And as guiding people (to virtue) is the ultimate aim of classical Chinese ethics and social philosophy – and thus the desired consequence – the right dao is the dao that follows from SOPC.

Dao, SOPC, and pragmatism

Second-order prospective consequentialism (SOPC) is not a theory but a type of argument for a theory. Hence, SOPC is a way (dao?) of doing moral philosophy; it is a method.

John Searle once said that “as soon as we can revise and formulate a philosophical question to the point that we can find a systematic way to answer it, it ceases to be philosophical and becomes scientific”.23 The main advantage of SOPC as a method is that it does exactly that to much of moral philosophy (and that is an advantage because I consider it the very aim of philosophy to abolish itself in exactly this way) – that is, it changes (part of) ethics into an empirical science, the science of figuring out what moral theory or theories to adopt and how to use them to promote the good. It doesn’t completely lift ethics out of philosophy, however, as it leaves one question for which there is no “systematic way to answer it” (yet): What is the good?24 Moreover, SOPC changes (much of) ethics into an empirical science by changing the question.

Traditionally, Western ethics (and Western philosophy in general) is concerned with truth – the aim always has been to find the one and only true theory of the good. SOPC, however, isn’t concerned with truth, but with what works – it is a pragmatic or pragmatist approach to ethics.25 (Even the classical Chinese aim to find the “unchanging” (chang 常) dao should not be understood as aiming for the one and only true dao, but rather as a search for an approach to morality that works universally.26) A more traditional Western philosopher will probably resist this change of the question, however, and any attempt to argue for or against it will quickly run in a circle. The chief argument for the pragmatist SOPC or dao approach is that is more likely to produce (relatively uncontroversial) results (because it changes much of ethics into an empirical science and thus depends on public, empirical evidence, rather than on thought experiments, intuitions, and conceptual analyses), but that is really saying that one should opt for the pragmatist approach because it works (or that one should opt for SOPC by raising consequentialism one more level – i.e. the best method is the method that can be reasonably expected to have the best consequences). Or in other words, one must already accept (something like) pragmatism to accept such an argument for (something like) pragmatism. And here, it seems, we have arrived at a dead end.27

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  1. For a very brief account of the rather interesting details of the story, see, for example, the Wikipedia page on king You.
  2. Whether and when Laozi lived is actually a rather controversial issue. The name Laozi 老子 literally means “old master”, and Bryan van Norden suggested that that is what it means exactly – that is, that it isn’t a name, but a reference to one or probably more old masters and their sayings. See: Bryan van Norden (2011), Introduction to Classical Chinese Philosophy (Indianapolis: Hacket).
  3. Peter Boodberg (1957). “Philological Notes on Chapter One of The Lao Tzu”, Harvard Journal of Asiatic Studies 20.3/4: 598-618.
  4. Chad Hansen (1993). “Classical Chinese ethics”, in: P. Singer (Ed.), A companion to ethics (Oxford: Blackwell): pp. 69-81.
  5. But for Confucius and his followers that didn’t mean that a bad father should be called otherwise. Rather, it meant that that bad father should start behaving like a real father – that is, like someone who would be properly called a “father”.
  6. Plato. Republic, 1.352d.
  7. Without that assumption the Western tendency to stop after determining moral principles just doesn’t make sense. Moral principles are useful only if one assumes that moral principles will lead to moral lives, and that is exactly the assumption discussed here.
  8. Psychopaths are the most obvious counterexample.
  9. C. Daniel Batson (2016). What’s Wrong with Morality? A Social-Psychological Perspective (Oxford: Oxford University Press).
  10. Social philosophy is more or less the social equivalent of ethics – it is about the good of society rather than about the good individual. In case of classical Chinese ethics, these two are inseparable because the dao question is inherently about both.
  11. The contrast between classical Chinese and Western approaches suggested here should not be essentialized. There are exceptions in both traditions, and Chinese philosophy later developed into new directions (mostly in response to Buddhism). The neo-Confucian philosopher Wang Yangming, for example, argued that really knowing what is right will lead one to do what is right. This idea reminds of what I called the “Kantian assumption” above, but his argument for this claim is different from Kant’s.
  12. Alfred North Whitehead (1929). Process and Reality, Corrected Edition (New York: the Free Press, 1978), p. 39.
  13. The Analects 論語, Wei Zheng 為政, §3. My translation.
  14. Notice the distinction between dao as moral theory and dao as social/moral conventions. The quote by Confucius use the word dao in the latter sense, but argues for a (i.e. his) dao in the former sense.
  15. Mozi 墨子, Shang Tong III 尚同下, §1. My translation.
  16. Act-consequentialism is also called direct consequentialism, while rule-consequentialism is a variety of indirect consequentialism. Another kind of indirect consequentialism is virtue-consequentialism, which judges/defines virtues on the basis of their (expected) consequences.
  17. By implication of the foregoing, the first-order/second-order distinction is not the same as the distinction between direct and indirect consequentialism (such as the aforementioned rule-consequentialism). Rather, both direct and indirect consequentialism are varieties of first-order consequentialism. Contrary to those, second-order consequentialism is not a moral theory, but a metaphilosophical or methodological theory (or approach).
  18. The general idea that egoism serves the public good is most influentially further developed in neoclassical economics, but in that development contradictions and fallacies are piled on top of absurd assumptions. For a more detailed critique, see Economics as Malignant Make Believe.
  19. This example also illustrates the difference between second-order consequentialism and rule-consequentialism. Rule-consequentialism does not use consequentialist reasoning to argue for the adoption of wholesale moral frameworks (such as ethical egoism), but judges individual rules on their (expected) consequences. Second-order consequentialism, on the other hand, judges (the adoption of) a moral theory (and/or approach to morality) as a whole. (See also two notes before this one.)
  20. For Mozi, who lived in a time of near constant war and disaster, harmonious order was the primary good (and the same was true for Confucius, for example). Had Bentham and Mill lived in similar circumstances, they might also have preferred order to their primary good, happiness or pleasure.
  21. Mengzi 孟子, Liang Hui Wang I 梁惠王上, §1.
  22. But not in either Laozi or Zhuangzi, I think, or at least not as clearly.
  23. John Searle (1999). “The Future of Philosophy”, Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London B 354: 2069–80, p. 2069.
  24. And it may very well be the case that that question never leaves the domain of philosophy.
  25. On pragmatism, see also Skepticism, Pragmatism, and Zebras.
  26. Whether there can be such an “unchanging” dao was itself a point of contention in classical Chinese philosophy.
  27. Well, actually, I don’t think it’s a dead end, or at least not for pragmatism (because I believe that there is a rather problematic assumption in the traditional approach), but that’s a topic for another day.

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