There’s a passage in the book of Tao that reads:

“Failing Tao, man resorts to virtue
Failing Virtue, man resorts to humanity
Failing humanity, man resorts to morality
Failing morality, man resorts to ceremony.”

In my mind, this passage is related to moral particularism. Well, let’s be clear the passage is related to what I have extrapolated from the view that there are no moral principles or that right action is not generated strictly by adopting rule-based procedures.

What I like about particularism is that is it consistent with the view that morality, or our system of ethical behaviour is just a blueprint for generating a good life or a life rich with right action. In line with Aristotle, I also see this sort of behaviour as the product of a skill, a skill that in turn is the result of practise. With a blueprint for a house, how the plan is implemented is dependent on a multitude of variables. For example, the end product will depend on the material available, the location and situation of the house, the skill of the builder and other environmental conditions. Right action is similar, I would argue, in that it depends on a host of contextual variable, and as Aristotle might argue (think doctrine of the mean and Milo the wrestler), these are both in the agent and the environment.

On Aristotle’s view, moreover, the truly virtuous man does not really think about his actions anymore. Perhaps in the same way we do not think about most of the things we do when we drive a car, because our actions have merely become a habit. This, observation, moreover, corresponds to the four general stages of learning. First is unconscious incompetence (not knowing that one does not know how to drive a car). Second is conscious incompetence (realising oh, this is a skill I lack). Third is conscious incompetence (fumbling around with the stick shift nervously and slamming on the brakes regularly). Finally, unconscious competence (driving while talking, reflecting or whatever, and not really being aware of what you are doing).

It is only when one has reached this last level of competence then, that there is room to really experiment. Once something has been mastered, an agent has more room to be sensitive to the moment, to play/experiment with her responses and find a new, more creative way of being in the world than what is merely required by conventional rules/wisdom. For instance, once someone has mastered an instrument they are more able to participate in an experimental jazz jam. Writers, moreover, who are very familiar with the conventions of grammar and “good” writing, buck these conventions to occasion interesting effects. Similarly in acting in the world, we can sometimes see what is required by a situation in order to be judged virtuous by others, yet realise that another action is better suited to bring about effects that are more advantageous for some reason. As with those old Zen masters who were so seemingly terrible to their students on occasion, sometimes a situation will present an opportunity to produce greater learning and deeper richer insights in virtue of bucking convention or behaving in an unexpected way. If a few feelings are hurt along the way, well, evidently it was worth it.

I am starting to think that this more creative state is related to Tao, or that state of being where one is completely in the moment and in harmony with whatever events are taking place around them. When we are not achieving this state, as the quotation suggests, we resort to virtue, which perhaps can be cashed out as conscious reflection on what we have been taught and what follows from this in terms of right action. That is, we think to ourselves, ‘ok, what would a virtuous person do in this situation? What would Jesus or Kant do? (I really do want to make a tee shirt with “WWKD?” on it) Then we act accordingly. This, however, requires that we step back from the situation, remove ourselves from the “flow” as it were, which in turn takes one out of the moment. It’s interesting that when we fall from being on top of our game or lose our stride while doing something typically very familiar to us, often the response is to behave in a rule-guided way for a spell before we just let ourselves go again. This has happened to me frequently when play my drum and jam with other musicians. Sometimes I’ll screw up and lose the rhythm, which makes me go back to some more simple beat that I count out in my head while playing. I return to that stage of conscious competence.

If striving for virtue fails us, we may aim to act in a way that respects another person’s humanity, or act out of empathy perhaps. Finally, if we have no real empathy or cannot act from our hearts, then we must rely on moral procedures or rules of etiquette or ceremony to dictate our course of action.

I’m almost finished there, but this entry brought to mind the following story as stolen from another blog:

A centipede walks with a hundred legs. A frog, who was a philosopher, saw the centipede; he looked at and watched him and became very troubled. It is so difficult to walk even with four legs, but this centipede was walking with one hundred legs – this is a miracle! How did the centipede decide which leg to move first, and then which one next and then which one after that? And one hundred legs! So the frog stopped the centipede and asked him a question: ” I’m a philosopher am I am puzzled by you. A problem has arisen which I cannot solve. How do you walk? How do you manage it all? It seems impossible.”

The centipede said: ”I have been walking all my life, but I have not thought about it. Now that you ask, I will think about it and then I will tell you.”

For the first time thought entered the centipede’s consciousness. Really, the frog was right – which leg should be moved first? The centipede stood there for a few minutes, couldn’t move wobbled, and fell down. And he said to the frog: “Please don’t ask another centipede this question I have been walking my whole life and it was never a problem, and now you have killed me completely! I cannot move. A hundred legs to move! How can I manage?”