Sunday, August 1, 2010

Laozi on passiveness

I've come across the common opinion that Laozi promotes an indiscriminating cooperation - one that advocates "turning the other cheek" even when wronged. Although I think this is an easy conclusion to make, it is my assertion that this is not the view presented in the Dao De Jing. Therefore, I will be discussing my reasoning in this post.

The sages have no constant mind
They take the mind of the people as their mind
Those who are good, I am good to them
Those who are not good, I am also good to them

Tao De Ching, ch 49, translated by Derek Lin

The Tao is the wonder of all things
The treasure of the kind person
The protection of the unkind person

Admirable words can win the public's respect
Admirable actions can improve people
Those who are unkind
How can they be abandoned?

Tao Te Ching, ch 62, translated by Derek Lin

The Dao doesn't condemn, it is impartial to the myriad things. Accordingly, the sage keeps an empty and open mind and maintains impartialness. They recognize society's view of good and bad and even make their own judgements. Saying this, the sage's judgement is more of a dispassionate observation to be used pragmatically - it is not an opinion that morally disgusts. The sage realizes that "admirable action can improve people", so they do not deny anyone kindness for the simple reason that one is "bad". It is recognized that everyone has the ability to improve.

Here is where I think the misconception arises. It is commonly understood that being good to those who are not good equates to "turning the other cheek" when someone wrongs you. To me, this is an easy but dangerous misconception for those who wish to apply these teachings to real life.

A good commander achieves results, then stops
And does not dare to reach for domination
Achieves result but does not brag
Achieves result but does not flaunt
Achieves result but is not arrogant
Achieves result but only out of necessity
Achieves result but does not dominate

Tao Te Ching, ch 30, translated by Derek Lin

The military is a tool of misfortune
Not the tool of honorable gentlemen
When using it out of necessity
Calm detachment should be above all
Victorious but without glory
Those who glorify
Are delighting in the killing
Those who delight in killing
Cannot achieve their ambitions upon the world

Tao Te Ching, ch 31, translated by Derek Lin

The application of military force is not liked but is an option that must be considered. Laozi dictates that force should only be applied when necessary and to the degree and duration required to achieve victory. Because it is an inauspicious means, there should be no glory in this kind of victory. The necessity of military force can only be decided by one who is impartial and doesn't take joy in such means.

Impartialness starts with knowing and knowing starts with yourself. By bringing to conscious not just your strengths but your weakness and other undesirable aspects of yourself, you can begin to accept yourself in full. This must happen before you can know and accept the world in full.

There is nothing practical or moral about letting someone walk on you. Laozi highly promotes the teachings of actions. Letting someone exploit you only teaches a person that their actions are beneficial, thus encourages them to repeat this behaviour in the future towards you and possibly others. It also encourages other people to copy this behaviour who see it as successful. This is not in line with the teachings of the Dao De Jing as harmony is valued. The "Turn the other cheek" sentiment has value but as a fixed rule it quickly will be the breakdown of harmony. This is something I believe Laozi understood well because he addresses the use of authority and force.

Though the sage's foundation for leadership is non-interference, direct and indirect means have their advised application. As a leader, you should understand the specific skills and appropriate application of these means so you are able and prepared to use them when situations may require. With good leadership, indirect means that represents competition or military/physical force should become an uncommon necessity. The emerging of directness and returning to non-interference is usually enough to promote and maintain harmony within your reach. In this way physical opposition will usually only come from outside your influence where the party doesn't know you and doesn't view future interactions with you as any consequence to the present use of competitive measures such as physical force.

Friday, July 16, 2010

Art of War: Overview

This is my first post of many that I will be dedicating to the Art of War by Sunzi. My goal for this post is to provide an overview of this text for those who don’t know much about it.

The Art of War is one of the seven military classics of ancient China. It is primarily a manual concerning strategy but also provides tactical principles. Chapter one provides a good overview for the rest of the text already, so my overview will revolve around this chapter. Here is the first paragraph, which Sunzi uses to introduce his text:

Warfare is the greatest affair of state, the basis of life and death, the Way [Tao] to survival or extinction. It must be thoroughly pondered and analyzed.

Sun Tzu, Art of War, ch 1, translated by Ralph D. Sawyer

The idea of warfare is very broad to Sunzi. The Art of War is very much concerned with grand strategy. Political, social, economic, logistic, and military considerations are all included in strategic development.

Right from the first line Sunzi brings to light the primacy of politics in the subject of warfare. To quote Michael Handel:

Sun Tzu clearly recognizes the supremacy of raison d’etat over all other considerations. War is a rational activity of the last resort (the ultima ratio) that correlates ends and means to enhance the vital interests of the state: it is a political activity as we understand it today. The decision to initiate war is therefore political and must be made by political – not military – leaders.

Michael I. Handel, Masters of War: Classical Strategic Thoughts, ch 6

Military arms are a necessary means to serve the ruler’s primary concern of national security. Saying this, the use of military force cost lives as much as it protects them. Therfore, warfare must be examined thoroughly and considered carefully.

It is due to Sunzi’s vast consideration of politics that makes this text stand out as a positive approach to conflict. Discussing war from this higher level allows him to address the hierarchy of tactics from non-violent means such as diplomacy down to the inferior means of military force. If his focus was down on the operational levels of the military, we would have a text that shows little consideration for diplomacy and primarily focused on military force.

Therefore, structure it according to [the following] five factors, evaluate it comparatively through estimations, and seek out its true nature. The first is termed the Tao, the second Heaven, the third Earth, the fourth generals, and the fifth the laws [for military organization and discipline].

Sun Tzu, Art of War, ch 1, translated by Ralph D. Sawyer

The Art of War is primarily a comprehensive system of strategic analysis. Sunzi’s analysis is of a top-down design, which is shown in the sequence of the five factors.

Many people view the Dao as a moral influence that the ruler possesses. It is implicit that it relates to an influence that unites the people to the ruler. Overall, it relates to the effectiveness of the government. I will be dedicating an in-depth discussing to this elusive concept in the near future.

Heaven refers to nature of cycles - the weather, time, and long term seasons. Earth refers to the advantages and disadvantages of terrain. General refers to the attributes that Sunzi believes a general requires to be successful in leading a military. Laws refer to the structure of the military organization, including regulations and ranks. It also concerns the subject of logistics.

After estimating the advantages in accord with what you have heard, put it into effect with strategic power [shih] supplemented by field tactics which respond to external factors. As for strategic power, [it is] controlling the tactical imbalance of power [ch’uan] in accord with the gains to be realized.

Sun Tzu, Art of War, ch 1, translated by Ralph D. Sawyer

Here Sunzi illuminates the purpose for his strategic analysis – to determine our compared advantages in relation to the enemy, which in turn helps us realize tangible goals. Once realized, plans translate compared advantages into shih(strategic power), which can be employed in the direction of specific goals.

Warfare is the Way [Tao] of deception.

Sun Tzu, Art of War, ch 1, translated by Ralph D. Sawyer

Warfare here is confined to the employment of the military. Deception is a means to present a false form and intentions to an enemy. This can compel them to concentrate their force in the wrong areas or spread themselves thin, which can open up strategic advantages. The concepts of formlessness and indirectness are related to deception, which I will discuss in the future.

Before the engagement, one who determines in the ancestral temple that he will be victorious has found that the majority of factors are in his favor. Before the engagement one who determines in the ancestral temple that he will not be victorious has found few factors are in his favor.

If one who finds that the majority of factors favor him will be victorious while one who has found few factors favor him will be defeated, what about someone who finds no factors in his favor?

If I observe it from this perspective, victory and defeat will be apparent.

Sun Tzu, Art of War, ch 1, translated by Ralph D. Sawyer

As seen here, Sunzi very much believes that victory can be decided rationally through compared estimations - there is very little consideration for uncertainty in the Art of War. To Sunzi, a military should never be employed until thorough estimations dictates that victory is tangible. Knowing when you shouldn't employ military force is just as important as knowing when you should employ it.

This has been a short overview, which hopefully gives you a basic understanding of the Art of War. There is a great amount of discussion that will be needed to develop a comprehensive understanding, which will allow you to apply it pragmatically. In the future I will be exploring the different chapters and specific key elements of the Art of War in greater detail. As well, I will eventually get to the discussion of how this text can be applied pragmatically to our everyday lives.

Saturday, July 10, 2010

Tao Te Ching, Chapter 17

The highest type of ruler is one of whose existence the people are barely aware.
Next comes one whom they love and praise.
Next comes one whom they fear.
Next comes one whom they despise and defy.

When you are lacking in faith,
Others will be unfaithful to you.

The Sage is self-effacing and scanty of words.
When his task is accomplished and things have been completed,
All the people say, "We ourselves have achieved it!"

Tao Teh Ching, ch 17, translated by John C. H. Wu

Like I've said before, I consider the Dao De Jing to be a guide for "leading one's life" - Laozi uses the sage and ruler as models for us. In this chapter, leadership types are ranks from highest to lowest - each type is distinguished by the people's response to them.

Through wu wei(uncontrived action), the highest type of ruler leads with non-interference. Non-interference means the ruler does very little imposing on their people. They are humble and cautious with their actions and words, realizing the non-linear dynamics of cause and effect. Wu wei is a method for achieving ziran(naturalness), which accords with the Dao. This produces de(virtue/inner power), which allows the ruler to have an influence over people without the use of authority. The highest ruler provides and guides the conditions for the positive development of people's autonomy - this allows people's successes to be their own.

When the ruler doesn't have "de", they have to govern with directness, which includes a balance between just rewards and punishment - the ruler is loved and praised for their righteousness when this is succesful in keeping order. The rulers who are feared, use harsh punishments. Last is the despised who the people defy - these rulers don't have "de" and do not know how to apply any type of authority.

Now, in lines 6 and 7, Laozi touches on the issue of faith. When someone lacks faith in another person, this effects their approach towards them and the person's receptiveness. For example, when a leader doesn't have faith in a person's abilities or integrity, they tend to micro-manage and enforce many restrictions. This creates division and inhibits positive growth. Due to the lack of power people feel, they blame their leaders for any failures. Another example of the faith issue is one of "projection" - when you don't trust a person, they tend to not trust you out of suspicion. Also, consider the following quotes:

use deception to fight a war

Tao Te Ching, ch 57, translated by Red Pine

Warfare is the Way [Tao] of deception.

Art of War, Sun Tzu, ch 1, translated by Ralph D. Sawyer

With the above in mind, consider what message you are sending to the person you don't trust. You are inadvertly saying they will deceive you - that they fall into a catagory of opposition. Food for thought.

So what we can learn from this chapter is that Leadership should be about empowering people - allowing others to shine. Non-interference should be the foundation for leadership - other methods emerge and return to this foundation with necessity. This returning to the foundation will help a leader maintain "de".

Sunday, July 4, 2010

Communication and Cooperation

TIT FOR TAT has been found to be highly robust because its simple clarity doesn't need to be communicated to be understood. The addition of generosity and contrition have been found to make this strategy more effective in complexity. Where noise makes intentions hard to discern, a lesser reciprocation through generosity will often prevent an escalation and bring about cooperation eventually - contrition will help one correct their own mistakes. In my previous post on this subject, I didn't mention that "generosity" not only promotes a lesser reciprocation but also allows for the option of turning the other cheek where there is too much "noise" to be sure. With regards to the problem of "noise", I believe that direct "communication" should be an addition to this strategy. I don't think this is an original idea outside of Axelrod's studies. Rather, I just wanted to place importance on communication because it is a means of clarification, which can combat assumptions derived from noise.

Use directness to govern a country

Tao Te Ching, Lao Tzu, ch 57, translated by Red Pine

Laozi's sage will often lead others without contrivance by their example through their influencing power of "de". In some situations though, Laozi recognizes that when you have to govern the actions of others, directness is best. Indirectness treats others as enemies - it should be reserved for its necessary application. Too often, people view others as opposition and through this perspective, create isolation over time between them and others. In many cases cooperation is a tangible choice. The subjective idea of an "enemy" will be part of my discussion of "envy" in a future post.

Myself, I have found that the first form of directness should always be communication. When you think someone might be exploiting you, communicate your issue and clearly establish your boundaries with them. This to me is a form of reciprocation as it is in response to a possible defection. It is often enough to prevent further defection as you have stood your ground and opened a channel that promotes directness and connectiveness.

Now, if things have been made clear and someone defects, then turning the other cheek is never the better solution for you, the defector, or the system. This is for two reasons that quickly come to mind - you're placing the burden on others to teach the exploiter - if others see defection as a good option that goes unchecked then defection can become more prominent.

The problem still arises that your communication may not be fully understood by another. A defection may still need to be treated with consideration of noise. When unsure, further communicate your grievance with more intensity and be prepared to reciprocate if it is not met with current agreeance or future cooperation.

To conclude this round, it must be clear to even an egoist that cooperation is their best option. Communication is a good way to cope with noise and promote cooperation through clarity. When necessary, reciprocation should be used in a way that esblishes to a defector that you will not be exploited but you are willing to cooperate with them. Always be cautious not to turn this strategy into a revenge senario.

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Tao Te Ching, Chapter 38

Higher Virtue isn't virtuous
thus it possesses virtue

Lower Virtue isn't without virtue
thus it possesses no virtue
Higher Virtue involves no effort
or the thought of effort
Higher Kindness involves effort
but not the thought of effort
Higher Justice involves effort
and the thought of effort
Higher Ritual involves effort
and should it meet with no response
then it threatens and compels
virtue appears when the Way is lost
kindness appears when virtue is lost
justice appears when kindness is lost
ritual marks the waning of belief
and the onset of confusion
augury is the flower of the Way
and the beginning of delusion
thus the great choose the thick over the thin
the fruit over the flower
thus they pick this over that

Tao Te Ching, ch 38, translated by Red Pine

Virtue here is translated from the Chinese word "de", which also means "inner power" or "character". In the bulk of this chapter Laozi discusses de and the degression that indicates when we've strayed from the Dao.

High de(virtue) is not tied to a fixed moral framework - it is not displayed as virtuous. The sage aquires de by according with the Dao(Way). This is achieved by means of wu wei(uncontrived action), which is why high de is without selfish motive or action.

When the Dao is lost, virtue appears as an ideal to strive for, which is in line with Confucius thought. Once virtue becomes a fixed ideal, moral judgements of right and wrong, good and evil, arise. Moral judgement becomes the stepping stone for a moral framework, which eventual leads to rituals. Rituals impose on people's actions and ability to be natural. Ironically, this contrivance, which is designed to lead one down a virtuous path, ends up leading them further from true virtue.

Now, let's examine the last five lines of this chapter. Here Laozi is warning us not to get caught in the delusion of prediction. We CAN NOT predict the future - only guess. If our guess is right, it doesn't mean we predicted anything. It's important to be prepared for the future and have direction, but our actions should be according to what is - not what might be. This could also be seen as reminder to keep our actions selfless rather than being motivated by future gain.

Tuesday, June 29, 2010


Cooperation can be simply defined as interactions between people that produce mutual benefit or meet a common purpose. If we are going to discuss cooperation and the best ways to promote it, an excellent place to look is at Robert Axelrod's studies.

In "The Evolution of Cooperation", Axelrod explores the robustness of a simple strategy called TIT FOR TAT. As the name implies, the strategy is based on reciprocity. This is considered a "nice strategy" because it will never be the first to defect - defect meaning to break cooperation. Though, once another party defects against one using TIT FOR TAT, they will reciprocate the defection.

The problem with this view is that turning the other cheek provides an incentive for the other player to exploit you. Unconditional cooperation can not only hurt you, but it can hurt other innocent bystanders with whom the successful exploiters will interact later.

The Evolution of Cooperation, Robert Axelrod

The view Axelrod is pertaining to in the first sentence above is the Golden Rule - "do unto others as you would have them do unto you". Though, I think the sentiment of this rule is positive, as it promotes consideration, the "turn the other cheek" approach that comes with this rule unfortunately has been proven in Axelrod's studies to not only be impractical but not even morally sound. By letting someone break cooperation with you without consequences, you not only invite/encourage further defections in the future but place burden on others to deal with this exploiter who has gone unchecked. So, reciprocity may seem contrary to your current moral code, but in reality this approach poses to have a more beneficial impact holistically.

Now, one problem with the original TIT FOR TAT strategy that Axelrod addresses is the possibility of an endless reciprocation of defects, where cooperation doesn't retore. To deal with this issue Axelrod proposes two solutions. First solution is reciprocating only nine-tenths of the other player's defection. In Axelrod's words:

This would help dampen the echoing of conflict and still provide an incentive to the other player not to try any gratuitous defections.

The Evolution of Cooperation, Robert Axelrod

Second solution is to realize that if we defect by accident, we don't have to reprocate again. Axelrod calls these two solutions generosity and contrition in his book, "The Complexity of Cooperation". In this sequel to his book, "The Evolution of Cooperation", he brings the element of "noise" into his studies.

You see, one reality of our complex world, which we are all subjected to, is "noise". Noise can lead to possible misinterpretations of other people's actions. Let's face it, some people make innocent mistakes, which we may take as deliberate. Through his studies he discovers that TIT FOR TAT still remains robust in a complex adaptive system as long as the addition of generosity and contrition are available to cope with inherent noise.

So to quickly summarize what I've discussed so far, Axelrod offers some fundamental principles towards establishing cooperation:

  • Never be the first to defect
  • Reciprocate cooperation and defection
  • Apply generosity to reciprocated defects
  • Apply contrition to correct your own mistakes

In future posts, I will be discussing the topics of envy and what Axelrod calls, "enlarging the shadow of the future", with regards to promoting cooperation.


  • "The Evolution of Cooperation", Revised edition, Robert Axelrod
  • "The Complexity of Cooperation: Agent-Based Models of Competition and Collaboration", Robert Axelrod

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Tao Te Ching, Chapter 5

Heaven and Earth are impartial
They regard myriad things as straw dogs
The sages are impartial
They regard people as straw dogs

The space between Heaven and Earth
Is it not like a bellows?
Empty, and yet never exhausted
It moves, and produces more

Too many words hasten failure
Cannot compare to keeping quiet

Tao Te Ching, ch 5, translated by Derek Lin

The sage in the Dao De Jing represents an individual who has obtained ziran. If we look at the first paragraph of the above chapter, we see how the sage uses nature as a model. Heaven and Earth are not motivated by moral judgement - they are, in the words of Fredrich Nietzsche, "beyond good and evil". Thus the sage keeps themselves free from the influence of moral judgement.

Many people would view this kind of individual as detached, cold, or uncaring. This is a huge misconception. Due to their impartial treatment of people, they don't limit their care to the ones who fall under the "good" category - rather they have created a world that they can completely love.

Now let's focus on the rest of this chapter.

Empty, and yet never exhausted
It moves, and produces more

An empty mind is an open one - it can never be exhausted as long as you remain impartial to what you know through cognition. Life emerges not from thought but from actions. The more one leads their life, the more that is produced.

Now, I don't believe a complete impartial view can ever be fully applied. Our decisions naturally start with emotion and end with emotion. Let me quickly explain. In any situation our limbic system responds before our neocortex. The limbic system is responsible for producing an emotional response. Through cognition(function found in the neocortex) we can use logic to override our emotions, allowing us to choose our conscious actions. Even if we override our initial feelings, we still apply the emotion of "good" to our decided action in the end.

Saying all this, I don't think the goal is to be void of emotion. I believe the practical approach here is to moderate emotion. Afterall, feeling the full range of emotions, whether positive or negative, is natural. It is when we become fixated in a feeling state we close our mind - our views can become partial. When we act fully on emotion without any consideration we become careless.

Too many words hasten failure
Cannot compare to keeping quiet

Book and verbal learning obtains the most elementary form of knowledge in my opinion - the highest form being derived from experience. Too much attachment to knowledge and thoughts impedes your ability to be effective and efficient in your actions. I'm not saying that one should disregard book and verbal learning, nor do I think the Dao De Jing promotes such a thing. Rather, I think one should be cautious not let the pursuit for learning to get in the way of living. Too much talking is never as good as walking, metaphorically speaking. We should take Zhuangzi's words into consideration:

Your life has a limit but knowledge has none. If you use what is limited to pursue what has no limit, you will be in danger.

Zhuangzi, Section 3, translated by Burton Watson

I'll stop here for now.