Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Vanity and Morality, Part One

It is easy, in the comfort of our own living rooms, to imagine ourselves to be of incorruptible integrity. We would never take a bribe to allow something illegal or evil to occur. We would never stab a friend in the back for our own gain. We would never lie or cheat or steal, maim or kill. We would never take money to injure someone, or work as prostitutes, or allow someone "to treat us that way".

The truth is that we are very fortunate to be able to indulge in such flattering delusions. Most of us live in rich, stable democracies, where we take the rule of law for granted. For us, "hunger" is when we decide to go on our trendy "cleansing fast" for a day, which we then proudly tell everyone about, rather than the involuntary, prolonged, health-destroying agony that it is for millions of others. Many of us are treated pretty fairly at work, and receive fair compensation for our labour. The desperate situations that so many of our fellow human beings have existed in are almost unimaginable to us.

Put us in those dire, desperate circumstances...massively circumscribe our choices... inflict pain on us, or on those we love...and what would we do? Use your imagination, and you will find that there are actually very few "bad things" that you would not do, given certain variables. In fact, you will even find that in extreme situations, many of those bad things begin to appear very much like good things.

Say your child is kidnapped. You live in an area of the world where the police are corrupt and will not help you. You and your friends then are able to capture the kidnapper, who will not tell you where he is keeping your child. Each hour he does not tell, is another hour in which your child may suffer or perish - from hunger, from an assault by others, etc. What do you?

You - to use the technically precise term - torture. You tie him up, beat him, put a Bic lighter to his arm, break his kneecaps, waterboard him. Whatever. You do what it takes to save your child.

In that situation, your choices were radically circumscribed. The kidnapper would not reveal the whereabouts of your child without being tortured. So, the result of refusing to torture the kidnapper would be that you allow your child to be tortured and probably murdered. The result of torturing the kidnapper is that you protect your child from torture and probable murder. Either way, you are at least facilitating torture. So your choice boils down to, which one of these two people gets tortured?

It is remarkable that there are people out there so detached from reality, that they would listen to this little hypothetical and say something like: "The ends don't justify the means" (which certainly in this case qualifies as a thought-terminating cliche); or "There would have to be a better way than torture...".

No, in fact, sometimes, there are no better ways. That's the point. You live in Vermont or Queensland, not in a village in Africa where your child actually was kidnapped by some warlord's henchman. What if you did?

Once we get going, it becomes easy to imagine situations in which we would steal food, push people off bridges, lie, bribe, take bribes, prostitute ourselves, all sorts of rotten things.

Here's another example. You're a cop in the Mexican state of Chihuahua. Your annual salary is $1500 (that is actually the average annual wage for a Mexican policeman). One day, a representative from a notorious drug gang contacts you. He tells you that he will pay you $10,000 a year if you simply turn a blind eye to what happens at a certain cantina. If you refuse to cooperate, you will be murdered. You have a wife and kids at home. You want to live. You're also getting a pittance, risking your life trying to enforce the law, when you know that the same drug lords have high-ranking politicians all through the government, and other cops, on their payroll, too. In short, there is nothing, on your own, that you can do to stop the drug gang. You don't know if your own police chief is also on the take; if you report this to him, who knows if he won't tell the gangmembers, and they'll kill you?

In this case, which is the real-life choice faced by quite a number of Mexican cops right now, what choice do you have? And what do you say if your contact one day says to you, "I need you to take this bag to la farmacia and give it to 'Roberto'"? Do you say no?

Say no, and you die, only to be replaced by someone who will say yes anyway.

Say yes, and you survive, and are able to buy your wife pretty things, and give your children more opportunities. Say yes, and you can at least try to compensate for your own corruption by doing good in other ways. Say yes, and rise through the ranks...maybe one day you'll have the power to stop the very sort of corruption which you've been involved in. Say yes, and maybe you can save up and move to America, where such corruption is rarer. But if you say yes, you're a bribe-taker, a drug runner, and you are now protecting an organization which tortures and murders people.

Your conscience says, "If all of us stood up and said 'no' to these thugs, we could defeat them". The problem is that you live in a real world, and that will not happen. There's no way to make it happen. It is just not going to happen. In this real-life situation, the cost of idealism is death.

What do you do?


Anonymous said...

Well said Tal. I have always refused to learn how to fire a gun (although I support the right to own them) because I do not believe I could be capable of firing it at another human being. And what are the chances I would ever need to? Touch/hurt/threaten/kidnap my babies however, and I will kill you with my bare hands and not feel remorse. It's a scary world...I probably should get my concealed permit....

Anonymous said...

I think you have barely scratched the surface. We always look down our nose at things, we truely don't understand. We really dont comprehend the true evils and choices of this world, we freak out if our $9 coffee gets messed up. That's how messed up and sheltered/protected we are. Our society puts dogs above children. We have put the enviroment above families and individuals. We have lost our way.

Tal said...

I hear you, Anonymous. It is easy to imagine that we would never take life. That is only because a situation in which taking another's life is the least bad (i.e., best) option is very foreign to us.

If you're interested in exploring acquiring a firearm, I suggest having an experienced friend take you to a firing range and walk you through everything slowly. It will be scary at first, but after awhile, you'll feel comfortable. Remember - everytime you go out and order a steak, you're holding in your hand a lethal weapon. Yet you never think twice about it. You're just used to it, that's all.

For a carry pistol (I presume you're a woman), I recommend either the little 9mm Kahr, or what is perhaps even better, the Ruger LCP. They're very small, and they both get excellent reviews.

ginamarie said...

I don't think I have any such delusions. For me to claim 'integrity' - that I always behave in accordance with 'ideals' (whatever that means) would be dishonest. Our nature is so undefined for me. Anyone who has witness their own nasty streak, as opposed to your caring loving self will know what I mean. People lie, manipulate every day...sometimes It's as if that makes the world go round more than love and goodwill. I don't know...I know I FEEL like I want to heal and not hurt, but I most defineatly have hurt people because of this thorn-in-my-side (metaphor) Now, would I intentionally hurt someone? Yes, I believe so, esp. in self defense, I would knife an intruder in a heartbeat. But back to the topic...for me integrity can only mean being realistically honest and say "NOT SURE" under circumstances what I'd do.

So much for all my philosophy and psychology study... ;)

Anonymous said...

Good info, thanks! On here I'm Anonymous, but just so you know, on FB I'm that crazy, lunatic, assasin disguised as a mom of 4 who friends you, unfriends you, friends you back,lol. I have thought about self-defense for awhile now. I guess it scares me. But I almost feel a responsibility because as I was born in a country where I automatically have rights and freedoms, there are millions of women around the world (Darfur, Afghanistan, ect)who have no police protection, no way to defend themselves, no one who really cares. I feel selfish not protecting myself, when others cannot and live in hopelessness. One reason I am happy almost all the time is because all I have to do is think about what these other women are going through around the world- my life is so amazing in comparison. Why are there so many depressed women in America??? Realize how blessed you are....

rachael chatoor said...

Great post, from my experience this is right on, it's all relative to what we know (and where we live).

About a decade ago I lived in Lagos Nigeria for a year. At the time, the city had around 52 million people in it. That is a staggering number.

It is a crumbling overburdended society where the corrupt Govt takes all but a tiny fraction of the money and lines their own pockets.

The people are desperate, their most basic needs are not even being met, the few services that are provided, rarely work.

There is filth absolutely everywhere, children play next to open sewers and they bathe in toxic rivers, no one cleans anything up. Once I saw a dead body laying on the side of the road for more than a week.

It nearly made me cry to drive through town and see little children as young as 5 or 6 standing on a concrete island in the middle of a busy intersection with an infant sibling in one arm and the other hand held out for charitable donations from passing cars.

Not just once, but hundreds of times I witnessed this, it was a daily occurrence, a way of life.

Here our children are carefully protected from even the sleepiest of side streets, there, they send their babies out to work and beg in rush hour traffic.

Tell the story here in North America and it is so easy to scorn the Mother who does that to their children, but go there to see it first hand, live with it daily, and you learn to be more sympathetic, understanding and tolerant of their human experience.

Cheating, lying, and scamming is a WAY OF LIFE for most of those people, they do it just to eat, and I am pretty sure they wouldn't know 'fair' if it came right up to them did a polka dance in their face and then turned them around and bit them in the ass.

In this instance it is not pain or torture that motivates the people to do things that we in the west would judge, it is necessity, and they know no other way to survive.

That is barely scratching the surface of what it is like for people there. I met a lot of them, made friends, and they are good people like you and me but I dont know if I would have ever truly understood how hard it is to survive out there, without actually going there and experiencing it for myself.

So, sadly I suppose you are quite right, it seems very clear that it will never happen.
So long as people don't get the chance to truly see how things are, they will continue to judge others by their own standards, they will stay right where they are, never taking a stand.

Ideals are a great compass to carry around, but sometimes you just have to put it down and follow the lay of the land. For me, having seen that side of humanity, it makes it easier to put things into perspective when I am faced with a difficult personal choice. What would I do? I won't know till I get there, but I do know that sometimes you just gotta do whatever it takes to simply survive.

June said...

I enjoy handgun marksmanship and I saw how quickly my thinking went from "I would never shoot another human being" to "If I had to to defend myself or family,I sure would".Once you learn to use a handgun the responsibility to control your temper or impulsiveness is the hardest thing to master.I'm glad I have the option to use a gun responsibily but see how easily it can become the easy answer to small upsets, as in when gang members think nothing of killing another person over a perceived look of disrespect or a $5 debt.

Alexander said...

Your supposition here is that you've caught the right guy. My opposition to torture is that, if you happen to catch the wrong guy ... torturing him to tell you where your family is won't produce results. Eventually, he'll just tell what you wanted to hear to stop the torturing. So, the moral dilemma is, what happens when you've tortured the wrong guy?

Darren said...

You said it perfect T. Nothing to add here.

smile said...

Um....in those circumstances, I guess I'm dead. Bummer.
(Glad I live in Kansas :)

Anonymous said...

Didn't Milgram address this very issue? (Ok, I rhetorically asked a question that I knew the answer to..I confess.) It's true, "morality" is context specific. Personally I think a lot of it has to do with the overall denial/arrogance of the human animal that continually tries to convince itself that it's far nobler than any other beast. Of course, it's not true. Perhaps it's simply a nasty by-product of our enormous frontal cortices.

Anonymous said...

To be honest, I don't think that it's necessary to go to such extremes to point out the problems with ethics/morality. I know many people that consider themselves 'good people' who in fact stab their friends in the back, cheat on their taxes, run red lights, lie to cover their own asses, etc. I personally know three people who consider themselves 'good christians' as they go to church on Sunday and have been 'saved' but are actively cheating on their spouses. These same people question *my* integrity because I don't believe in a God.

Yes, in extreme circumstances, I think we all can recognize the flexibility of morality. Yet you really don't need to look far for people who 'have it all', are not faced with extremes, yet still choose to act without integrity.