28 October, 2020

Blog

Reading A Book On Private & Public Morals

By Charles Sarvan

Prof. Charles Sarvan

Prof. 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.

William Damon & Anne Colby’s                                                       ‘The Power of Ideals: The Real Story of Moral Choice’,                  Oxford 2015.

William Damon & Anne Colby’s ‘The Power of Ideals: The Real Story of Moral Choice’, Oxford 2015.

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.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Latest comments

  • 3
    4

    Morals and ethics are words came from christianity. Those words do not have any implication in buddhism.

    Most english speakers as well as writers dumb themselves using those words indiscriminately. “Seela” in buddhism has a very strong meaning for a buddhist or a person who understands buddhism. Seela are disciplines described by Buddha. Morals and Ethics and western philosophical that every one tries to explain but no one can explain and give a satisfactory answer.

    Tamils use Sinhala what Sinhala mobs did. they never talk how North Became Tamil or how So many sinhala people lived during the Portuguese times disappeared. Tamils talk about Sinhala violence to show that Tamils were very innocent people. That is not altruism. That is just dishonesty.

    This is simply a crappy book. but, used the word buddhism to start the book and bash sinhala people and buddhism half way. Instead of talking about the book you talk about every thing and reader loses interest, because it is very messy write up.

    • 6
      0

      Jim Shitty the racist is one to talk about honesty. A racist vile garbage vermin talks about morals, values, honesty. It is a hoot to read your vile crap.

      • 0
        0

        Tamil From the North.

        You look like another Dalit who destroyed Tamils and now is looking to promote your own culture.

    • 5
      0

      Jim, you say that “Morals and ethics are words came from christianity. Those words do not have any implication in buddhism”.

      But if you comprehend English properly you should understand that “morality and ethics” form a substantial part of the Buddha’s philosophy.

      The rest of your comment drifts into irrelevancy and your innate racist mindset.

    • 4
      0

      What is Buddha Dhamma, if not a collection of morals and ethics related thoughts? When the Buddha was pondering the cause of suffering, what was he thinking about? What is the essence of spirituality? What is Kamma or Karma, but an equation for actions and reactions? What does spiritual advancement to Buddhahood imply? Was Buddha influenced by the West and Christianity?

      Dr.RN

  • 0
    0

    Jim.

    You may have a point in what you say.But could you reformulate,in better English the point that you are trying to convey?

  • 0
    7

    Professor Stanley Milgram, needn’t have used Yale University students to inflict horrific, even life-threatening, pain on their subjects, to prove the nature or nurture of morality.

    True evidence is there from Lankan historical records : Sinhala-Buddhists were driven off their time-honored lands by colonists, and were thus forced by generational nurture, into beggary, thievery and violence.

    • 0
      5

      *I mean…..: Sinhala-Buddhists WHO were driven off their time-honored lands….

  • 6
    0

    Ramona please make sense. The article does not make any sense. Where do you get the ‘evidence’ for all your claims against Buddhist and Sinhalese. CT has a never ending parade of pseudo intellectuals berating Buddhism and Sinhala with much substance.

    • 3
      0

      Should read ‘CT has a never ending parade of pseudo intellectuals berating Buddhism and Sinhala without much substance.’

    • 3
      0

      Is Colombo telegraph going to correct my typo and read as ‘CT has a never ending parade of pseudo intellectuals berating Buddhism and Sinhala without much substances.’

    • 1
      4

      Oh No! I wasn’t berating Buddhists and Sinhalese. I was trying to say that if Sinhalese set on upon the Tamils as the article says, it is because of the sufferings they endured after what the colonists did to them.

      Come to think of it, I guess this is exactly what Prof. Charles Sarvan is trying to establish.

      The difference is that Prof. Charles Sarvan is trying to make it out that Sinhalese attacked Tamils for no reason other than immoral racism like that of the Nazis.

      The difference between Nazi’s and Sinhalese is evident:

      1) Germans had not suffered displacement from their traditional lands through colonialism, and the generational poverty that that came with it, like what the Sinhalese had undergone.

      2) Any poverty the Germans were undergoing was a sliver, compared to the horrors that had been inflicted upon the Sinhalese.

      3) For the Germans, it was purely a hatred for another race different from them, and their daring to be cleverer and happier than them. It was a scientific enquiry into superior and inferior races based on German standards, and for the heck of being superior.

      5) The problems between the Sinhalese and Tamils were out of grinding poverty and dire desperation that both endured.

      Excerpt from the UVA Rebellion says : “The British confiscated the properties of the people involved in the uprising, they killed all cattle and other animals, burnt homes, property and even the salt in their possession during the repression. Paddy fields in the area of Wellassa were all destroyed. The irrigation systems of the duchies of Uva and Wellassa, hitherto the rice-bowl of Sri Lanka were systematically destroyed.[8]…
      The British also massacred the male population of Uva above the age of 18 years.” (Wikipedia).

  • 0
    0

    Should read ‘CT has a never ending parade of pseudo intellectuals berating Buddhism and Sinhala without much substances’ Typo I think!

  • 0
    0

    Are you going to address the typo- I said ‘CT has a never ending parade of pseudo intellectuals berating Buddhism and Sinhala without much substance.’

  • 0
    0

    Your typos to distort the message. I said ‘CT has a never ending parade of pseudo intellectuals berating Buddhism and Sinhala without much substance.’

  • 2
    1

    There are no two types morals or ethics called public and private. It is just Crap based on western philosophy built on christianity.

    It is the eastern philosophy and psychology which are very simple, grand, easy to understand covers the whole society and is applicable to both humans, animals irrespective of the time.

    Eastern philosophy says think about yourself and treat every one else the same way. According to Eastern philosophy one created many. Because, of that if you harm one you harm the many. Because of that don’t harm any. That includes you. Because, your body is not yours. You leave it when you die. So harming physically or mentally yourself is not proper.

    Christian morals and ethics are simply built on that almighty is there to exploit humans and humans are there to exploit weaker humans, animals, resources and everything. In other words, morals and ethics are just crap words.

    Anyway, you don’t talk about Tamil morals with respect to Tamilnadu christians discriminating poor Hindus, LTTE atrocities against other Tamils, muslims and sinhalas. Tamil Racism even now in Sri lankan North, how Pope became the instigator to numerous crusades and how Irish Catholic – puritanists and Protestant- christians killed each other and discriminated each other.

  • 2
    4

    Buddhism is also a religion, as it speaks of the after-life through rebirth. It is not a theistic religion, but it is of but has the mystery of the unseen universe that works beyond what we can see and prove empirically.

    The final conclusion that can come about though the experiment by the Yale professor is: When humans and animals are placed in unnatural and cruel positions, it is natural that all sensibility escapes them (although there are the exceptions).

    Buddhist morals came in through that Kandyan lady. Buddhist morals came in when in spite of the madness of the suffering mobs, Buddhist Seela kept a large percentage of Tamils living quite prosperously all throughout the South.

    • 0
      0

      * correction : It is not a theistic religion, but has the mystery of the unseen universe that works beyond what we can see and prove empirically

  • 4
    0

    Dear Prof. Sarvan,

    Once again a beautifully composed and thoughtful review explaining various concepts such as ethics,morality and culture, and the subtle differences in terminology that relate to these.

    The following words, ” 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”, are of much values at a time when many forces are at work to forestall a much needed solution to what is described as a national problem.

    There are many such stories that brings out the distinction between the small and violent Sinhala rabble and vast majority of the Sinhala people, the lady referred to, represents. I would be dishonest, if I fail to mention that in many such instances at the Polgagwela railway station, Tamil men ran away leaving their families exposed to the mob!

    However, I have to dispute your contentions about the IDP camps and rehabilitation centers set up towards the end of the last war and soon thereafter. I have visited the IDP reception camp in Vavuniya, the more organized IDP camps in Settikulam and LTTE child soldier rehabilitation camp in Ambepussa. My friends had also visited other rehabilitation camps elsewhere and described them to me. With the experience of having been housed in an unmanaged refugee camp after the 1977 riots-an overcrowded hell hole with one toilet for about 3000 people, I could say with confidence, they could not have been any better in the circumstances, although they were portrayed as hell holes by those with vested interests. These were heaven and havens in contrast to the hell that was the war zone they had come out of.

    Dr,Rajasingham Narendran

  • 0
    0

    “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? “

    These questions are grounded in the Western secularist philosophical model.

    No doubt a Christian or Buddhist will formulate different questions. For example, ‘atruism’ in the Christian view may be substituted by ‘Christ-like sacrifice’, so , “What produces Christ-like sacrifice?”. I think the Budhist term is ‘Ahmimsa’ – innocence? You see the questions themselves are different for each philosophical or religous view.

    • 0
      0

      These questions are grounded in the Western secularist philosophical model.

      New Vanguard:

      Which country you are talking about ?

      Which country is secularist ?

      Anglican Britain, Catholic Germany ?

      the only god we Stand United Behind ?

      Or what ?

  • 0
    0

    I think it would be more accurate to say it is the so-called acedemia that the secularized view is so prevalent, not among the common people of the country.

    Governments for the most part are now secularist, and want to stay that way. They were not so in the past, as we know from the Crusades. Now the they worship Demonocracy. But it is not true worship.

    They are all secularist and proud of it. The United States, Great Britain, France, Germany , they would like to increase the separation between church and state until the church disappears out of view completely.

    • 0
      0

      British politicians never talk against the anglican church.

      Church is highly influential even in the UNited States PResidenttial election.

      I think, Trump is anti-Catholic and evangelical.

Leave A Comment

Comments should not exceed 200 words. Embedding external links and writing in capital letters are discouraged. Commenting is automatically disabled after 7 days and approval may take up to 24 hours. Please read our Comments Policy for further details. Your email address will not be published.