Wednesday, July 25, 2012
Conceit, Charity and Common Sense
How much does a political view impinge on the ability of the individual or the group to exercise common sense? How important are ethics? A friend recently pointed out, based on my writings he believes that I possess a persecution complex but he added that this was not necessarily a bad thing. Does this affect my ability to exercise common sense or to judge current affairs? Of course it does. Is it justified?
Does it matter if the cup is half empty or half full? First, there are two questions we need to ask. What is the nature of the liquid in the cup? And is there any benefit in filling the cup? We may strive to fill the cup, unless of course it is filled with a toxic liquid, in which case our misguided enthusiasm may not be so eloquent an act of dedication to doing what is right as opposed to what is correct. The former is based on long term ethical considerations while the latter is based on fashionable moral, and therefore time specific practices.
A recent article in the American journal ‘Foreign Policy’ (“Please Don’t Send Food” page 26, July/August 2012) underlined this point when it questioned our blind enthusiasm for charity. A joint study from Harvard and Yale Universities suggests that food aid doesn’t work. In fact it can prolong violent conflict. By examining developing countries between 1972 and 2006 what the researchers revealed was that for every 10% increase in the amount of food aid delivered the likelihood of violent conflict increases by 1.4% - the pursuit of power over-rides any desire for good. Too often, charities and their do-gooders are as guilty of this arrogance as the gunmen that exploit them.
Maimonides (a Jewish philosopher of the 12th century whose adaptation of Aristotelian thought to Biblical faith had a significant influence both on Christianity and Judaism) categorised giving into 8 levels of benevolence – The eighth (least worthy) level was giving unwillingly while the first (final) level enabled the recipient to achieve independence from further assistance.
Of course it doesn’t mean that we can’t try to make the world a better place but in order to do that, we should first define what kind of a world we want and yes, that does mean defining the values we think are important. Letting a thousand ideas bloom is fine as long as they do not include ‘values’ such as child marriage, female circumcision, consuming albino livers, hanging homosexuals and stoning rape victims. Unless we know what is important to us we cannot complain that our rights have been usurped while we are too busy concerning ourselves with other activities.
During the rule of Marshall Tito (Dictator of Yugoslavia from 1945 to 1980) the ethnic rivalry and historical malevolence between the nations making up the federal republic was kept in check by strict suppression of any nationalist sentiment amongst the 8 federal units. Up to 750,000 Serbs along with Jews and Romany victims were murdered by Croatian nationalists during World War 2. They were occasionally assisted by Bosnian (Muslim) SS units. Given the history of the post-Tito democratic era, Marshal Tito’s dictatorship was not worse than the consequent history of the region. Unless we are willing to understand and internalise the fears of the protagonists (and we can only do this by learning of the history and the mythology of nations) only then will we learn from history and not repeat its mistakes.
Unless we willingly do this we have learnt nothing from human conflict and are doomed to repeat the past in an endless cycle of despair broken only by brief periods of triumph. Too often we dismiss history and willingly accept the teachings of a myopic education system which spoon feeds us the prejudice of cultural and moral relativism. In our post-Modern fear of conflict we refuse to take a stand based on principles that have shaped Western society. By bowing to the prejudices of others and by accepting their interpretation of our history we become no better than the rapists and murderers that we refuse to condemn. Politics too often binds us to simplistic solutions that do little to address the complicated issues they usually subvert.
It seems that ethics really do have very little if anything to do with politics of either Left or Right.
The Left, at least in theory, dismisses the individual for the good of the group; ignoring the fact that the group is built on the collective will of the individuals within the group. The Right pays lip service to family values and ignores the collective, while parroting the limited theory that it aims to raise the individual to achievements that further the group. In both cases the individual is rarely seen as a person but as a theoretical unit, a number governed by laws to which they have no input. In practice the Left cannot relate to the individual as having rights outside of the group while the Right has had to invent the idea of ethical conservatism to accommodate those people that actually care for anyone outside of their own circle.
Left and Right care only for what the powerful can extract from the weak; cynically, they see relevance only in the demographics of the increasingly alienated electorate.
The failure of capitalism based democracy and democratic socialism is that both are based on the economics of the amphitheatre. Just as ancient Rome kept its population in check with ever increasingly expensive spectacles of gladiatorial tournaments involving condemned prisoners, slaves and ever more exotic animals so today we keep the people entertained with cheap loans by which they can keep themselves entertained, an improvement of sorts on ancient Rome. But the result for the nation state is the same. We have bankrupted our future because the politics of power is about the present and not the future. Our collective failure to make painful decisions that share the load fairly across all of society is why we traditionally fall prey to demagogues and dictators. It is why War is the populist solution too often applied when governments fail to equitably rebalance society.
As a society we take pride in the advances we have made in science and technology but we remain discouraged from independent thought, our ability to analyse the multi-directional information inputs we receive are still restricted by most of the former prejudices and pressures our ancestors experienced.
So to answer the original questions I asked, common sense is not a natural state and Ethics generally falls prey to political expediency. The sycophancy of global cultural simplification guarantees that if we are all brothers and sisters then the embarrassing differences that define us must be tolerated even though they directly contradict our most cherished values.