World Ethics: Comparison of Philosophies

Published 19 Aug 2017

It is interesting to consider the ways in which a variety of ethical interpretations and ideologies have manifested throughout the world. These philosophies are often the backbones of the wide range of diverse cultures found across the globe. In studying about the ethical similarities and differences between cultures, it is important to study the major philosophers and their contributions to the ways in which people think. People are always looking for ethical guidance in shaping their conceptual frameworks about the world in which they live, and they turn to experts, many times leaders of religious and philosophical movements, to provide insight and verification about the supposed truths of the world. By comparing philosophers, such as Saint Thomas Aquinas and Lao Tzu, one is able to note the similarities and differences between cultures and their ethical development and make personal decisions about the validity of the philosophical perceptions. Saint Thomas Aquinas and Lao Tzu were contributors to the theological foundation of Catholicism and Taoism respectively. In studying the ethical declarations of Saint Thomas Aquinas and Lao Tzu, one is able to gain insight about the diversity of world ethics and its relationship to various cultures across the world.

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Saint Thomas Aquinas

Saint Thomas Aquinas is one of the greatest Catholic theologians of all time, deepening the Christian understanding of God and integrating philosophical concepts under the umbrella on the one divine and Trinitarian God. It is interesting to note that Saint Thomas Aquinas believed in making a certain distinction between theology and philosophy, in that theology addressed the analysis of the world with respect to a divine, holy, and sacred God, while philosophy merely addressed a simplistic analysis of the world (Giancola, D. & Gregory, 2002). One of his main theological arguments was upholding the idea of a Trinitarian God, three persons in one divine nature (McInerney, 2009). This portrait of God the Father, Jesus the Son, and the bonding Holy Spirit is the backbone of the Catholic faith and the assertions of Saint Thomas Aquinas. Here, one is able to conceptualize the holy and all encompassing Father, the begotten Son of Man, and the divine relationship in the Spirit. The idea of being a strict theologian and a staunch defender of the one true and Trinitarian God are essential elements of beginning to understand the ethical declarations made by Saint Thomas Aquinas. The idea of goodness and what is good to do springs from the divine being, the eternal natural order, the sublime vision of God.

Lao Tzu

Lao Tzu is one of the greatest Taoist philosophers of all time, and he is noted as being the personification of the Tao, the Tao being the one divine reality. The writings of Lao Tzu have been described as metaphysical in nature, analyzing the world and its sacred dynamics (Giancola & Gregory, 2002). It has also been categorized as a means of self and social cultivation and deep mystical insights into the natural world in relation to man. The text jumps around to a variety of expositions regarding the way in which the world operates and best routes for people within their contextual environment and situation (Chan, 2007). While the philosophy speaks of the soul and the oneness of the universe, there is also mention of the coexistence of being and nonbeing. Taoism is also concerned with the interplay between yin and yang, yin being passive, receptive, and feminine and yang being active, aggressive, and masculine. The work of Lao Tzu is best described as a naturalistic philosophy, a study of nature and its relationship to and interplay between people and society. The Taoist philosophy is declared as being open to diverse interpretations, yet is affirmed as the “way”, a combination of virtue, naturalness, and decision making, becoming meditative enough to feel the spiritual vibrations of the surrounding world in order to guide people on their paths. There are no hard and fast parameters for theological direction, rather one takes note of the natural metaphors and the encouragement to feel the mode and swing of nature in order to help oneself arrive at ethical conclusions.

Theology versus Philosophy

A striking difference between the philosophies of Saint Thomas Aquinas and Lao Tzu are that Saint Thomas Aquinas abides by a strict theology and perception of the Trinitarian God while Lao Tzu is more focused on the philosophy of the natural energies of the world in addressing philosophical considerations. Where Saint Thomas Aquinas is focused on humanity as divine beings participating in God’s natural and divine plan, Lao Tzu does not classify humanity as being divine, rather simply moved and guided by the natural forces of the universe. Saint Thomas Aquinas focuses on the ability of God to prescribe natural law to his creation, in that all elements of the divine universe can be studied and understood according to God’s natural and divine law. Although Lao Tzu does not specifically name an all encompassing and directive God, he calls attention to the various attributes of the universe in how they are dynamic and responsive to one another. Where Saint Thomas Aquinas can be soon as more of an absolutist, Lao Tzu can be viewed as more of a relativist. The center of attention of the work of Saint Thomas Aquinas is solely vested in the ability to know the will and desires of God, which are present in the heart of man. Lao Tzu takes a more relaxed approach in describing the natural ways, the behaviors of personal and environmental situations, and trying to make sense of the world without the idea of an omnipresent, all-knowing, and judging lawmaker.

Goodness versus Balance

It is interesting to note the ways in which Saint Thomas Aquinas conceptualizes the idea of goodness in relation to the ways in which Lao Tzu conceptualizes the idea of balance. To Saint Thomas Aquinas, the highest achievement of a person is to be good, to follow the desires and the natural law of God, in order to attain happiness and ethical correctness. From the perspective of Lao Tzu, he sees the world as a fluid interchange of forces, where nothing is absolutely good or absolutely bad, merely in flux. Here, the person is best guided by making decisions based on the needs and the situation of the moment. The path that a person must follow is subject to the balance of energies in the universe the need for more or less force, more or less action. Saint Thomas Aquinas is a person who believes in the matter of virtuous excellence as being an aspect of character, in that a person is tune with the divine will of God and able to act in the ways which produce the best effects, the desired good. Here, the personality is shaped by one’s desire to do the will of God, to act in good ways which produce supreme ethical outcomes, or rather to stay aligned with the good will of God at all times. Lao Tzu is less concerned with absolutely good thought and action and more concerned with relatively correct thought and action. There is more room for interpretation from the ethical perspective of Lao Tzu, in that every situation is different and requiring of a different feeling, way, or source of power for what is right. Although these ideologies are not mutually exclusive in the desire to attain goodness versus balance, it is important to note the emphasis of Saint Thomas Aquinas in regard to the emphasis of Lao Tzu.

Male versus Female

In studying the ethical ideas of Saint Thomas Aquinas and Lao Tzu in regard to gender, one notes that the Catholic philosophy of Saint Thomas Aquinas is more patriarchal and hierarchal, while the Taoist philosophy of Lao Tzu is more balanced and equalized between the genders. From the perspective of Saint Thomas Aquinas, there is a loving flow of energy from God to man, in which grace allows for man to know the goodwill of God. From the perspective of Lao Tzu, there is interplay between the masculine and female energies, in that one may need to draw from these eternal spiritual powers in various situations and for various reasons. Where Saint Thomas Aquinas abides by a patriarchal and Christian belief system, where man is seen as the holy creation and image of God with Jesus Christ as the sole link to understanding the divine plan, Lao leaves the door open to a variety of interpretations about the natural world and the best ethical directions for man. It is noted that Saint Thomas Aquinas focuses on the dominance of the Father over the Son, yet also of the interaction between the Father and the Son and their mutual divine relationship, a description of how the divine theology entered into the being of man. On the other hand, Lao Tzu places his focus on the natural world and the interaction between the masculine and feminine principles of nature and humanity. Where Saint Thomas draws his ethical determinations from the authority of God the Father being transmitted downward to Jesus Christ, man, and then women and children, a universal yet hierarchal model, Lao Tzu draws his ethical determinations from the expression of the natural world itself, the universal considerations which are in constant flux and speak to the male and female energies of the world, highlighting the properties of yin and yang as being parts of finding the way of enlightenment.


It is important to understand the variety of interpretations of existence, the meaning of life, and the ethical purpose of man, so that one is able to make conclusions about what makes the most sense in one’s own personal quest for truth and purpose. Saint Thomas Aquinas offers a classic Catholic theology in regard to the alignment of man under the watchful eye of God, and the mutual loving intention and relationship which springs from this bond and best known through the life of Jesus Christ. This perspective places utmost value on the ability of the individual to align himself under and with the goodwill of God. Lao Tzu offers a classic Asian philosophy in regard to the ability of one to know oneself and the spiritual universe through the dynamic energy and forces experienced. This perspective places utmost value on the ability of the individual to be able to feel out the correct way, the best course of action, or inaction, in a variety of situations. Both perspectives deal with topics relating to the spirituality of the eternal universe, yet the conceptual frameworks of these two ideologies is different. Saint Thomas Aquinas can be said to be more unifying, absolute, and dominating in his ethical prescriptions. Lao Tzu can be said to be more open, relative, and dichotomous in his ethical prescriptions. However, both men are aligned with the idea of needing to find ethical answers in the surrounding universe and are determinedly concerned with figuring out the best ethical support for humankind. It is interesting to note the ways in which societies and cultures have been shaped through these ethical considerations, and to remain open to idea that both perspectives have much to contribute a deeper and more comprehensive understanding of the idea of ethical righteousness.

Works Cited

  • Giancola, D. & Gregory, W. World Ethics. Wadsworth/Thomson Learning, 2002.
  • Chan, A. Laozi. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, 2007.
  • McInerny, R. Saint Thomas Aquinas. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, 2009.
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