Humanity

In english class the other day, most of the class seemed outraged when someone said that the junior school was getting ipads for their classrooms for the little kids to learn to read better. I guess most people didn't think the benefits outweighed the costs and thought that the school was wasting money on things they didn't need. But in a way, isn't that pretty much what happens all the time in our consumerist lives? I was thinking, if we were the ones who were getting ipads, I doubt as many people would be complaining. Such is the model of human hypocrisy and the foundation of capitalism and poverty.


'Right,' said Roger, the self-appointed captain of the lifeboat.

'There are twelve of us on this vessel, which is great, because it can hold up to twenty. And we have plenty of rations to last until someone comes to get us, which won't be longer than 24 hours. So, I think that means we can safely allow ourselves an extra chocolate biscuit and a shot of rum each. Any objections?'

'Much as I'd doubtless enjoy the extra biscuit,' said Mr Mates,'shouldn't our main priority right now be to get the boat over there and pick up the poor drowning woman who has been shouting at us for the last half hour?' A few people looked down into the hull of the boat, embarrassed, while the others shook their heads in disbelief.

'I thought we had agreed,' said Roger. 'It's not our fault she's drowning, and if we pick her up, we won't be able to enjoy our extra rations. Why should we disrupt our cosy set-up here?' There were grunts of agreement.

'Because we could save her, and if we don't she'll die. Isn't that reason enough?'

'Life's a bitch,' replied Roger. 'If she dies, it's not because we killed her. Anyone for a digestive?'

(Source: 'Lifeboat Earth' by Onora O'Neill, republished in World Hunger and Moral Obligation, edited by W.Aiken and H. La Follette (Prentice-Hall, 1977))


The lifeboat metaphor is pretty easy to translate. The boat is the affluent West and the drowning woman those dying of malnutrition and preventable disease in the developing world. And the attitude of the developed world is, on this view, as callous as Roger's. We have enough food and medicine for everyone, but we would rather enjoy luxuries and let others die than forfeit our 'extra biscuit' to save them. If the people on the lifeboat are grossly immoral, then so are we.

In the real world, however, food and other goods are not just sitting there waiting to be distributed. Wealth is created and earned. So if I refused to give some of my surplus to someone else, I am not unfairly appropriating what is due to him, I am simply keeping what is rightfully mine.

However, even if the analogy is altered to reflect this fact, the apparent immorality does not disappear. Let us imagine that all the food and supplies on the boat belong to the individuals in it. Nevertheless, once in the boat, and once the need of the drowning woman is recognised, wouldn't it still be wrong to say, 'Let her die. These biscuits are mine!'? As long as there is enough surplus to provide for her too, the fact that is dying should make us give up some of our privately owned provisions for her.

The UN has set a target for developed countries to give 0.7% of their GDP (gross domestic product) to overseas aid. Few have met it. For the vast majority of people, to give even 1 per cent of their income to help the impoverished would have a negligible effect on their quality of life. The lifeboat analogy suggests that it is not so much that we would be good people if we did so, but that we are terribly wrong not to.

Taken from 'The Pig That Wants to Be Eaten (And ninety-nine other thought experiments)' by Julian Baggini (2005))


People's morals seem to deviate a lot though. That's why in the field of politics there is constant debate between right and left wing and, at their extremes, capitalism vs communism. In my opinion though, extremes of anything can't be good. Obviously capitalism poses moral dilemmas such as the one above, where no matter what not helping those less fortunate is immoral -- we can't just be selfish and serve ourselves. We are not all born equal, but shouldn't we try as much as we can to make the gaps smaller, not divide ourselves further apart? We are all of one species after all. The problem with communism is then, conversely, that there is not enough diversity. We ARE all born different, we have different aspirations and likes, dislikes that we should be able to aspire to. Dystopian fiction such as George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four, Huxley's Brave New World, Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451 (I could list more, there are so many) demonstrate that being all the same and working towards the advance of humanity as a whole in the most efficient way possible is also something that we have emotional response to -- something that we cannot, for some reason or another, agree with. So what's the conclusion? We can't have either? We have to have a perfect balance between equality and diversity?

Honestly, I don't know what I think personally at all. I just know that extremes are never good.

As a final though, what do you think makes us human?

Does being human justify our hypocrisy, our greed, our selfishness? We often analyse literary characters who are imperfect because they are more 'human' - 3 dimensional, imperfect. Take tragic heroes such as King Lear, Macbeth. Even good characters who slip up once -- we forgive them because they made a 'human error'. It's true, we all make mistakes. But does this mean that we can justify any wrongs we commit with the line "we're all just human"? Isn't that a bit bleak and pathetic? As if our humanity is the CAUSE for all our immorality, even though at the same time it is also the reason for morality itself?

Are morals ideas that have always existed in us, that are congruous and inseparable from our code of humanity? Or are they planted by society, imposed by our environment? Is that why there are so many conflicting opinions in the world that seem to be the cause of both such beauty and chaos?

Perhaps the way to explain this is that it is in our ID to be self-preserving, to put ourselves before others. In that case, the morality system we have in place must be society-imposed. However, this in turn creates many more problems -- when and why did society create these 'morals'? What about preservation of the species as a whole (Charles Darwin)? Does this mean that the ten commandments were definitely invented? The implications are enormous.

The more I think about it, the more the story of the tree of knowledge giving birth to sin seems to be plausible. This way, there is reason for the conflict within each of us when we are in these types of situations (all the time). Philosophically, it is convenient to blame everything on a God and a Devil, it seems to be able to explain why we have so many seemingly unsolvable problems in our world -- good was never meant to be mixed with evil, and our earth seems to have become the retarded illegitimate child, with no idea what to do with the two sides imposed on it. That being said, widely accepted scientific theory has already overturned much of the teachings of the Bible and Church...

So where does this leave ethics?

I don't know. I don't even know if it matters. But sometimes I end up thinking about things like these. I can only pose questions, hoping to inspire the same thoughts in others.

2 comments:

Anonymous said...

Interesting thoughts - Sometimes I think that human beings create the concept of morality/good and evil for the purpose of defining our own existence. I'm not sure if i'm interpreting what you're writing correctly, but the way I see it, only 'humans' (as far as I know) ponder over the concept of good and evil. As people, every action we perform is eventually analysed by ourselves and others.

Do we wonder at what we do and think merely because we have the ability to reflect on past actions? Is it because when we look at things in retrospect that we consider the concepts of humanity and morality?

This may sound skewed and perhaps nonsensical, but I feel that we often have these thoughts because we're trying to define our own existence and 'purpose' for being. If we acted cruelly/'inhumanely' than would what it means to 'Be human' somehow become deviod of meaning?

Jessy said...

Commenting on something this old kind of suggests that I just read through your entire blog up to here. No shame.

Just a few things I wanted to say:

Regarding morals and from where they arise: I've been reading about Immanuel Kant who is a really influential political philosopher, and he believes that the moral code (of which there is only one) arises from rationality. He believes that to be free, truly free, we have to act autonomously, as opposed to heteronomously. This means doing actions because they are morally right, as opposed to because we are driven by an inclination. For example, if I do something because of a desire for pleasure, to protect myself from a negative consequence, or to satisfy somebody else: I am not acting autonomously because I am following an inclination which is separate from my rationality. I am only free when I follow the moral code because of a sense of duty. And he thinks that the contents of this moral code is arrived at through putting actions to a 'test', and there are two ways to test actions. The first test is that you consider 'can this action be universalized', meaning 'if everyone did this action, would the world collapse into social ruin?'. And it's important to note that the reason for not doing an action if it does not pass this test is not to prevent social ruin, but instead because if actions do not pass the test, it is indication that you would be fancying your needs as more important that the needs of everyone else, if you were to do that action. And there is a second test is summarised thus: 'Act in such a way that you treat humanity, whether in your own person or in the person of any other, never merely as a means to an end, but always at the same time as an end.'

I apologise for forcing Kant's theory of morality upon your blog when you didn't ask for it :P But what do you think?

Oh also, I think most theories indicate that evolution is never for the good of the species, only for the good of the gene. However a gene which codes for a behavior that is to the detriment of the species is not sustainable if everyone in the species had that gene, so they become isolated in communities which quickly die out.