By Charles Sarvan –
Since it’s said that Buddhism is not a religion but a philosophy and, even more, a structure of moral advice and injunction, the book’s [The Power of Ideals: The Real Story of Moral Choice] subject will be of interest to readers. The “book is about moral commitment”, with morality defined as “the realm of social actions, intentions, emotions, and judgements aimed at providing benefits (and preventing damage) to people, society, and the world beyond the self”. “Commitment” is clarified as sustained dedication, rather than single and isolated acts. However, the authors don’t examine “ideals”. Violent and hate-ridden fanatics also have ideals though, as I have written elsewhere, their ‘dreams’ may visit ‘nightmare’ and sorrow on others. Terribly impure means may be used to achieve the ideal end of a pure religious and / or ethnic state.
Morals’ and ‘ethics’, though often used interchangeably, should be distinguished from each other (even as we separate ‘amoral’ from ‘immoral’). If an official, be it politics, finance, sport or some other sphere, has an affair with a subordinate, that’s a matter of morals (or the lack of them), but if he accepts a bribe, it would be a violation of professional ethics. Private morals may make a man abhor violence but as a lawyer, legal-ethics demand that he defends a man accused of violence as best he can. It could be argued that morals exist within a social system termed ethics. A code of ethics can be conformed to, deviated from or outright violated. In Brecht’s play, ‘Life of Galileo’, it’s urged that science should work only for the betterment of humanity. Instead, research is done to devise ways of killing greater numbers; of doing more damage. Michael Matthews in ‘Head Strong: How Psychology is Revolutionizing War’ (Oxford, 2014) notes that war stimulates science; and science ‘enhances’ war. Doctors and nurses have denied medical attention to the Other; devised ways of intensifying and prolonging pain. Psychologists have helped interrogators to be more ‘effective’ in breaking down prisoners.
Moral discussion, the authors comment, is often but theorising in a vacuum: If a runaway carriage is bearing down on four people and I can, by pulling a lever, divert it to another track where it would kill only one person, should I do it? Taken further, should I push the fat man off the bridge and onto the tracks to save those four? The authors associate attributes such as fairness, compassion and integrity with positive morality; cruelty, injustice and corruption with negative morality. A distinction is made between sympathy and empathy, “the sharing of another’s emotional state” (p. 72). “Empathy in its most rudimentary form is present at birth”. Though we tend to empathise with those individuals and groups we identify with, the camera and television make present folk who are physically far away. Sympathy is a more cognitive capacity: while a gambler celebrates his win, we sympathise because he’s an addict (pp. 72-3). Cognitive judgements also play a key role in determining whom one will sympathise with. For example, those we think are responsible for their misfortune receive less sympathy (though Liebetraut Sarvan commented: “That something is our own fault only makes it worse”!)
The word ‘altruism’ comes from the Latin ‘alter’, the other. (Both ‘Self’ and ‘the Other’, can be singular or plural.) Good citizenship means also “a concern for those who don’t share ethnicity, social class, family and community ties, or religious and ideological beliefs”: Niebuhr expressed it as “self- transcendence”. How broad or narrow are the boundaries of our compassion? During the five years within which the Nazis killed six million Jews, about 50,000 non-Jews risked their lives, and frequently those of their families, to help Jews survive: see, Samuel and Pearl Oliner, The Altruistic Personality. For an act to be altruistic, the Oliners suggest it must be the (a) voluntary (b) helping of another, (c) carried out at risk to oneself and (d) without any “external” reward. Several years ago, I was told the following incident. During one of the anti-Tamil riots, an Upcountry train was stopped, and the mob went systematically from compartment to compartment hunting for Tamils. One section had only two passengers, a man and a woman, sitting separately. The helpless terror on the man’s face showed he was Tamil; the woman was dressed in a style which clearly indicated she was Kandyan Sinhalese. As the mob approached, the woman got up, calmly walked across, and silently sat next to the man. The raging mob took in the scene, drew the wrong conclusion and stormed onwards, lusting for prey. The train was allowed to move on; the woman resumed her place and, at the next station, left. Had the frenzied mob challenged and learnt the man’s ethnic identity, the woman would have been made to pay a severe price. I imagine her reaching home, telling no one but quietly getting on with her work and life. The man who, shaken to the core, had remained speechless, related the story as thanks and tribute to an unknown but humane and heroic stranger. There are many similar stories from different places and times. However, the number of such individuals is minute: the vast majority are indifferent or acquiescent, when not actively encouraging and participating in violence. Confronting remarkable goodness may be more challenging than trying to understand hatred and evil, for the question prompts itself: Why am I not like that? It is easier to dismiss altruistic and decent individuals as foolish, misguided or worse, as traitors to the group or cause.
One can rationalize behaviour so as to maintain a moral self-image while acting in contradiction with moral precepts (p. 84). Rationalization includes (a) ‘euphemistic labelling’. Detention camps, rife and rotten with humiliation, torture and rape are labelled ‘Welfare villages’ or Rehabilitation centres. In this context, the word ‘detention’ is but a euphemism for ‘imprisonment’; sometimes, a prelude to “being disappeared”. (b) Comparing oneself and the conduct of one’s group with that of others who are worse. (c) Resorting to ‘diffusion of responsibility’ by claiming that others also do it or (d) by dehumanizing the Other, that is, denying them full and equal humanity. For example, the assurance given by Buddhist monks to grieving King Dutugemunu in The Mahavamsa (end of Chapter XXV) that he had killed but one and a half men – the one was a Buddhist and the other on the path to becoming a Buddhist. The others were but animals; their maltreatment and death didn’t matter – though the Buddha preached compassion to all living creatures, animals included.
Some of the questions this book addresses are: What produces self-endangering altruism? Are we at root good or selfish? Is the determining factor our in-born nature or is it nurture? To what extent do we reach conclusions and then search for reasons to justify our opinion or conduct? If morality is grounded in our human biology, then what of variations in moral practice and beliefs across cultures? The other influential elements identified by the authors are cultural and situational. Readers may recall the novel Lord of the Flies (1954) where a group of public-school British boys stranded on an island quickly descend into atavistic savagery. Sometimes (in the authors’ words), people “succumb to dishonourable situational pressures, obey the dictates of brutal authorities all in order to protect themselves or advance their own interests” (pp. 26-7). Obedience to authority and a belief that we are acting in a worthy cause can make us cruel. In a well-known experiment (1961), Professor Stanley Milgram persuaded Yale University students to inflict horrific, even life-threatening, pain on their subjects. (The deception was carried out with the help of actors and sound-recordings: no one was hurt.) In 1971, Professor Philip Zimbardo assigned college students to be guards over other students in a mock prison. After six days of what had been planned as a two-week study, the student guards’ behaviour became so cruel that Zimbardo stopped the experiment. (Only one student, Christina Maslach, objected on moral and humane grounds. She is now a Professor of Social Psychology and married to Zimbardo.)
Culturally shaped behaviour tends to become ingrained and to operate habitually. Culture, reinforced by stories which are handed down, make certain attitudes, values and conduct seem morally right. In a recent correspondence, I reminded Mahesan Selvaratnam, retired Deputy Inspector General of Police (fellow-pupil at Gurutalawa so long ago it seems a previous birth) of the saying that when a fish goes bad, the rot starts at the head and then spreads throughout the body. In other words, the political and social leadership carry a grave responsibility of example. (King Christian X of Denmark, worried that the Nazis would demand Danish Jews also wear the Star of David, wrote in his diary:“If such a demand is made, we would best meet it by all wearing” it.) In his reply, Selva broadened responsibility, reminding me of a line from Khalil Gibran’s The Prophet:“And as a single leaf turns not yellow but with the silent knowledge of the whole tree, / So the wrong-doer cannot do wrong without the hidden will of you all.” Individuals, the authors assert, are not trapped and helpless but are capable of redirecting or overriding their base emotional inclinations. The question is: Do they wish to? Mandela helped to change ethnic attitudes, and set South Africa on a different course. But the Mandelas of this world are very rare and, what’s more, their work can be undone easily: destruction is far easier than beneficial construction. ‘The Power of Ideals’ is a sanguine work, to be read and reflected upon.