Category Archives: Ethics
25 years ago on June 4th a massacre took place in Tiananmen Square.
The event can be difficult to understand without a background in the history of communist China. This can be a difficult subject for a westerner to tackle: the people and places are far away and unfamiliar, and the culture difference can make certain events and movements inexplicable. For anyone who is interested in learning a bit about the massive changes that China has undergone in the last hundred years, but who are either unwilling or unable to spend time doing heavy research on the subject, I would recommend visiting your local library and seeing if they have a copy of A Chinese Life, a graphic novel written and illustrated by a man who has spent his entire life in China and who was born not long after the communists rose to power.
The short and very roughly summarized background is that after Mao Zedong died China began to rapidly change. Mao’s Cultural Revolution had left the country mired in poverty and famine. Under the new chairman, Deng Xiaoping, the country moved from a strictly state owned economy to a hybrid state/free market. This has ultimately resulted in much of China’s rise as the economic power we know it to be today. However those economic changes also resulted in widespread corruption. High ranking members of the Communist Party often used their connections to profit from changing economic landscape, and bribery and nepotism became the new normal for doing business in much of China. At the same time many Chinese university graduates were having trouble starting their careers; people were often hired not because of their skill or education but because of their family connections. This, among other things, led to student protests in the late 1980s. These protests spread to the populace as a whole. Millions of Chinese began protesting and demonstrating for political reform and an end to corruption. A large group gathered in Tiananmen Square, a public area in the capital city of Beijing.
Many Chinese were hopeful that these protests would lead to reforms. In many ways the protests were similar to the kind we’ve seen in Egypt, Syria, Iran, and Ukraine in recent years. The only difference was the result. When Chinese officials were unable to disperse the crowds and end the demonstrations Deng declared martial law in Beijing. He moved over 250,000 soldiers to the capital. These soldiers were armed with battlefield equipment, including armor piercing bullets, tracer rounds, and tanks. On June 3rd and 4th, 1989, the soldiers advanced into the city. In the past when soldiers had entered the city they would be stopped by crowds of civilians who would flood the streets. On June 4th when citizens of Beijing came out to stop the soldiers they were met with live fire. Soldiers used machine guns and rifles on crowds of unarmed civilians. Thousands of citizens were killed before the soldiers finally made it to Tiananmen Square and the demonstrators surrendered. Chinese men and women of all ages were shot, beaten, or crushed under tank treads. In the days to follow the killings continued until all trace of protest had been eliminated.
As a result of this crackdown the blossoming political reform movement was crushed. What is perhaps worse is that the Chinese government has spent the last 25 years attempting to wipe all memory of the massacre from history. Today most young Chinese do not know what occurred on that day: if they know about it at all they have been taught that it was a simple protest that was broken up and resulted in a few injuries. The government of China continues to deny that any civilians were killed on that day.
Because of this it is up to the rest of the world to remember. Someday, perhaps, China will be free and the massacre of June 4th will be remembered as it should. Until that day comes it is the duty of all free people to remember this atrocity.
Please take some time to read this article, where Chinese journalist Jan Wong is interviewed about her experience as a witness of the massacre. Her words are much stronger than mine, and I highly suggest you read through that interview. If you want to learn more, see if you can find a copy of her book, The People’s Republic of Amnesia: Tiananmen Revisited .
I can’t remember a time when I wasn’t aware of Star Trek. My father is a bit of a fan and we had some of the old movies lying around as I grew up (not to mention regularly watching Voyager and Deep Space Nine on TV). Because of this I don’t know the first time I watched Wrath of Khan. However I can remember the first time I heard Spock say that famous line:
“The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few. “
In many respects this is an extremely noble and admirable creed. It is noble when it reminds us that our own comforts must sometimes be sacrificed for others. It is noble when it drives a man to give to the poor, help his fellow neighbor, and build up his community. It is perhaps best of all when it inspires someone to risk their very life in order to rescue others: when it sends soldiers running back into the firefight to carry back the wounded, inspires doctors to travel to outbreaks of deadly and contagious diseases in order to help the sick, or even that iconic moment of heroism where Spock sacrifices his life in the warp core in order to save the lives of everyone aboard the Enterprise.
Yet the same idea can also be deadlier than any radiation that Spock received. It can reduce moral obligation to a calculus of needs, and with that calculus those in power can excuse a mountain of evil. The Romans may or may not have enjoyed the sack of Jerusalem in 70 AD, where legionaries put every man woman and child they could catch to the sword; but in their minds the Jews were rebels and troublemakers, and the needs of the many (the Roman Empire) outweighed the need of the few (Jerusalem). The hangman at Salem may or may not have enjoyed killing the 20 who were executed for witchcraft; but he and all the judges and magistrates involved knew that the needs of the many in Salem outweighed the needs of a few old men and women. The slave owners of the American South may or may not have enjoyed beating their slaves and denying them education, opportunity, and basic human rights; but the South ran on King Cotton and without the slaves their economy would collapse. The needs of the 10 million free Southerners outweighed the needs of the 4 million slaves. In all of these cases the oppressive, cruel, and destructive actions of those in power are justified by Spock’s creed.
So how can we rescue what is good in Spock’s creed without also accepting its capacity to rationalize great evil? Notice what sets apart the good from the bad in the examples above: when we use Spock’s creed for good we consider ourselves as part of the few, while those who use it to justify evil consider themselves as part of the many. We can see this distinction clearly with another example: let’s say that four men are trapped in a cave in, and they have deduced that there is only enough oxygen for three men to survive until the rescuers can save them. If one of the men chose to kill himself so that the others would live then he would be a hero: but if no man were so willing and three of them ganged up on another and killed him then they would be committing an act of evil. Spock’s creed justifies both scenarios, but one is an act of heroism and the other an act of murder.
So perhaps the creed should be modified to say that the needs of the many outweigh my own needs. But this is also lacking. This is the kind of philosophy that totalitarian states try to indoctrinate their citizens in. I am nothing; the State (or the organization, or the empire, or the family, or any other form of “the many”) is everything. Our modified creed could still be used to justify atrocities on a mass scale. Most of the Nazis directly involved in the holocaust did not enjoy exterminating fellow humans, but they were willing to put any personal objections aside: the needs of the many outweighed their own needs, and they were told that the many would be better off if the Jews did not exist.
The problem appears to be in the phrase “the many.” Let’s make the creed more specific then: the needs of other humans outweigh my own needs. This is better, but still isn’t quite right. Such a creed would have me be a complete slave to the needs of others. It puts a heavy burden of obligation on a man. Everywhere there are people with needs, and it would be impossible to ever fulfill them all. Worse it diminishes the person who follows it. Can it really be true that my own needs are less important than the needs of any other human being?
So let’s modify it again: the needs of others should be treated the same as my own needs.
With this I find something surprising: I started with Spock, but I have ended with Jesus. For he said it better and more concisely: “Love your neighbor as yourself.”
Is morality a matter of taste, or a matter of objective right and wrong?
My answer to that question is “yes.”
To explain, let’s look at two hypothetical college students who are working in a computer lab. Their instructor is taking them through a rather complicated piece of software. Mike notices that Jerry, who is sitting next to him, has made a mistake. Mike believes that we should always help people when we can, so he points out the mistake and offers to help Jerry. However Jerry believes that he’s using the program correctly, and even if he wasn’t he’s the kind of person who would rather figure it out himself. He politely turns down Mike’s offer of help. In this situation neither Mike nor Jerry is wrong. Mike is just trying to be helpful, and Jerry would rather try to figure it out himself. Here the “right thing to do” is a matter of personal taste. It’s analogous to Mike offering Jerry some pistachio ice cream; if Jerry doesn’t like pistachio that’s no big deal.
Life is full of these kinds of situation. The right thing to do in one situation may not be the right thing to do in others. Different people have different needs and different ideas on what the best thing to do is. Because of this it can be very difficult to say who is “right” in certain kinds of situations, and we can have long discussions going over the merits of different moral approaches, just as we could discuss the merits of different flavors of ice cream.
Because of this it’s understandable why people would be drawn to the idea of moral relativism: the idea that morality is a matter of personal perspective, and that there is no objective “right or wrong.” From a relativist point of view those who believe in objective morality are as silly as someone saying that vanilla ice cream is the best flavor and the only one we should eat. How absurd! You can’t have “wrong” tastes after all.
The trouble is that we can have wrong tastes. If someone had a taste for sewage we would recognize that something is wrong with their taste buds, and that this is an unhealthy substance to eat. If someone had a taste for arsenic we would understand that their tastes are out of alignment. Similarly if someone has a “taste” for murdering children then we should recognize that they are still wrong to do so. If a man starts eating dirt and lead paint we know that something is very wrong with their sense of taste; similarly if someone goes on a killing spree we know that something is very wrong with their moral sense: their conscience, you might say.
Some might quibble that there is nothing objectively wrong with enjoying untreated sewage. Perhaps, but it is objectively a bad taste to have if your aim is to preserve the health of your body. Eating things that are toxic will damage your health and well-being. Similarly, certain moral actions will damage the character of the person performing them. This is a belief that has been held by adherents of objective morality for thousands of years. A “sin” is not only morally wrong but is also self-destructive. We cannot hurt others without also hurting ourselves. Socrates understood this: he encouraged us to seek the virtuous life over everything else, not out of duty but out of a kind of self-preservation.
Some moral actions, such as rape or murder, are obviously wrong, just as some tastes, such as sewage and cyanide, are also obviously out of whack. Other actions, and tastes, are less black and white, but still dangerous. If you just love trans-fat laden french fries, deep fried chicken skins, and buckets of cookie dough, your doctor may rightfully advise you to change your eating habits. Is it so strange then that moral authorities advise people to change their moral habits? Some people will lie, cheat, and steal in order to preserve or enhance their own happiness, just as some people will devour copious amounts of unhealthy food for the same reasons. These things may bring temporary happiness but are ultimately self-destructive. In this way the field of ethics is analogous to nutrition. A nutritionist may give strict orders to their patients: no more saturated fats, reduce your sodium intake, eat more fruits and vegetables. An ethicist does the same: don’t lie, don’t steal, practice empathy, be sincere. Just as good nutrition keeps the body in good shape good ethics keeps your character in good shape. With this in mind, objective morality makes more sense. Can you imagine a relativistic nutrition, where every patient chose whatever foods felt right to them? Naturally you have the right to eat what you like; but it’s pure folly to think that the person who chooses to eat nothing but cookie dough and pork rinds will be just as well off as the person who eats a balanced diet.
Some may be quick to point out that we can observe and measure the body and its health, but we can’t do the same for a person’s character. It’s true that nutrition can be empirical, while ethics is non-empirical. However not all truth is empirical in nature. The body can be directly observed, but a person’s character, their mind and soul, is currently (and may always be) unempirical in that it can’t be directly measured and recorded. Still, a person’s character can be observed by those around them on a non-empirical basis. We have no scale that can measure good character, but we can observe that Mother Theresa had a better character than Saddam Hussein, or that the kind woman down the street who always makes time for those in need has a better character than the drug dealer who has participated in several drive by shootings. Thusly, the measure of a good ethical system can be found in observing those who practice it. Are they better people? Has their character grown healthier? This knowledge is relational rather than empirical in nature, but that doesn’t make it less valid.
All this, in a nutshell, is to help explain what is meant by “objective morality”. It is the idea that just as some things are objectively harmful to consume, some actions are objectively harmful to commit, to both ourselves and others. There is more to it than that, of course. Choosing to eat sewage is one thing; choosing to rape and murder someone is obviously something very different. However these examples do share some essential points: both are self-destructive acts, and both are obviously wrong to those whose senses are working properly.
Last week (on November 22) marked the 50th anniversary of the death of C.S. Lewis. Lewis is perhaps best known for his “Narnia” books, and after that as a writer of apologetics. As I remember his life I recognize that the subject of death was one that Lewis was intimately familiar with. His mother died of cancer when he was only a child. As a young man he fought in the trenches of World War I where grisly and sudden death was a daily reality. When he returned from the war he found himself in an almost empty university, a cold reminder of how an entire generation was nearly annihilated in that great conflict. He lived to see his father die, also of cancer, as well as the beginning and end of World War II where bombings and rocket attacks meant that your own death, or the death of a neighbor, was always close at hand. His marriage late in life was cut tragically short when his wife Joy died slowly of cancer, just as his father and mother had. His book “A Grief Observed” shows us that he understood well the pain and suffering of losing a loved one. If anyone can claim to know about death then Lewis certainly can.
Knowing this makes Lewis’s beliefs about death all the more striking. I have been born and raised in a culture where death is the greatest evil possible. Our goal is to extend the human life as far as possible. Billions of dollars are spent on medical research, and hundreds of billions more on medical expenses. Wealthy individuals such as Google’s Larry Page are founding organizations whose sole purpose is to cure death itself. Futurists speak of a time when we will be able to download our brains into robots in order to achieve cybernetic immortality. Space enthusiasts dream of the day when the human race will spread to other planets in order to preserve the human race from disaster. Everywhere there is fear that humanity will destroy itself finally and completely, whether through nuclear war, pollution, or some kind of human concocted super plague. From an early age we are taught the life is a struggle for existence, and we grew up watching movie villains justify their actions as “survival of the fittest.” Certain activists warn of the perils of overpopulation and propose strict reproductive controls. Everywhere you look people are warning that, if we don’t act now, the human race will be destroyed.
This is the culture I live in and was raised in. It came as a shock then when I came across an essay of Lewis’s titled “Is Progress Possible?” Lewis begins by recalling another essay recently published where it was speculated that someday mankind may be forced to travel to another planet to survive. “In ‘Possible Worlds’ Professor Haldane pictured a future in which Man, foreseeing that Earth would soon be uninhabitable, adapted himself for migration to Venus by drastically modifying his physiology and abandoning justice, pity and happiness. The desire here is for mere survival. Now I care far more how humanity lives than how long. Progress, for me, means increasing goodness and happiness of individual lives. For the species, as for each man, mere longevity seems to me a contemptible ideal.”
This statement floored me. I had been working until that point under the cultural assumption that the survival of the species was an unchallengable good. Yet here Lewis says, in no uncertain terms, that mere survival is “a contemptible ideal.” After the initial shock passed I realized that I agreed with him. Lewis was, essentially, saying that it would be better for the human race to die as men then to live as monsters. He was sticking a sword in that utilitarian ideal that the good of the many outweighs the needs of the few. It is better instead for the many to suffer and retain their goodness, their morality, their humanity, then to sacrifice those things in exchange for survival. As an ethic it doesn’t exactly align with the times. But I have since adopted it as my own.
Another aspect of Lewis’s philosophy of death is simply recognizing the fact that death is inevitable. In his essay “On Living in an Atomic Age,” which was written not long after the first atomic bombs were used in combat, Lewis writes “do not let us begin by exaggerating the novelty of our situation. Believe me, dear sir or madam, you and all whom you love were already sentenced to death before the atomic bomb was invented: and quite a high percentage of us were going to die in unpleasant ways.” The point is clear. No matter what we do we will die in the end: therefore how we live our life matters far more than how long we can stretch it out. What’s more is that the human race is similarly destined to come to an end someday, regardless of your religious beliefs. The Christian believes that this universe will come to an end when Jesus returns and the final trump is sounded; but even the most stringent atheist scientist can tell you that life in the universe is doomed either way, as Lewis is quick to point out. “The astronomers hold out no hope that this planet is going to be permanently inhabitable. The physicists hold out no hope that organic life is going to be a permanent possibility in any part of the material universe. Not only this earth, but the whole show, all the suns of space, are to run down…If nature is all that exists–In other words, if there is no God and no life of some quite different sort somewhere outside Nature–then all stories will end in the same way: in a universe from which all life is banished without possibility of return.”
Lewis believed, as I do, that there is something outside Nature: that there is a God, and that after death we will live on with him, and that a new creation will come after the final judgement. Whether we are right on that or not makes no difference to the fact that we all die, and that someday civilization will come to an end. The person who sacrifices a million men so that humanity may survive a little longer is as foolish and despicable as a person who sacrifices a thousand men so that he may survive another month.
Better instead to seek goodness, wisdom, and morality instead of longevity. In any case the man who sacrifices any of those three in exchange for life is a fool, for in the end life is a gift that he cannot keep. This seems like a morbid philosophy but on the whole I’ve found it incredibly freeing. It is an inspiring philosophy, one that reminds us what is really important, and really lasting. If one must choose between sacrificing his life or sacrificing his soul then he must pick his soul. His life will be taken from him either way.
We can find this philosophy expressed in Lewis’s essay “First and Second Things.” In it Lewis talks about how Nazi Germany fundamentally misunderstood Nordic mythology. He writes that “The whole point about Odin was that he had the right but not the might. The point about Norse religion was that it alone of all mythologies told men to serve gods who were admittedly fighting with their backs to the wall and would certainly be defeated in the end. ‘I am off to die with Odin’ said the rover in Stevenson’s fable, thus proving that Stevenson understood something about the Nordic spirit which (Nazi) Germany has never been able to understand at all. The gods will fall. The wisdom of Odin, the humourous courage of Thor (Thor was something of a Yorkshireman) and the beauty of Balder, will all be smashed eventually by the realpolitik of the stupid giants and misshapen trolls. But that does not in the least alter the allegiance of any free man. Hence, as we should expect, real Germanic poetry is all about heroic stands, and fighting against hopeless odds.”
The man who holds to the right and dies fighting is to be envied. He has given up his human life, which is inevitably taken from us all, to preserve his humanity. I hope to live my life in the same way.