On Balance

One of the most difficult things to do when determining the strengths and weaknesses of Western Civilization — which has come under fire of late by many who see it as the cause of nothing but years of persecution and misery for millions of human beings — is to balance the pros against the cons. We might begin with the cons, as they are most interesting. At the top of my list would be the Spanish Inquisition about which the always reliable Wikipedia has this to say:

The Tribunal of the Holy Office of the Inquisition (Spanish: Tribunal del Santo Oficio de la Inquisición), commonly known as the Spanish Inquisition (Inquisición española), was established in 1478 by Catholic Monarchs Ferdinand II of Aragon and Isabella I of Castile. It was intended to maintain Catholic orthodoxy in their kingdoms and to replace the Medieval Inquisition, which was under Papal control. It became the most substantive of the three different manifestations of the wider Catholic Inquisition along with the Roman Inquisition and Portuguese Inquisition. The “Spanish Inquisition” may be defined broadly, operating in Spain and in all Spanish colonies and territories, which included the Canary Islands, the Spanish Netherlands, the Kingdom of Naples, and all Spanish possessions in North, Central, and South America. According to modern estimates, around 150,000 were prosecuted for various offenses during the three centuries of duration of the Spanish Inquisition, out of which between 3,000 and 5,000 were executed.

Gruesome, to say the least — even if the numbers of those burned alive in public auto-da-fes in the name of Christ are exaggerated. But one might add to this list the Protestant persecutions and execution of witches and heretics as well as the many wars fought by various factions of a Church which was founded on love.

And while we must realize that the history of the Christian Church is not the whole of the history of Western Civilization which began with the pre-Socratics, we must wonder why such a civilization that could have produced such horrors — not ignoring the Holocaust that took the lives of millions of Jews, the murder of millions of Russians during the Second World War by the Nazis, and the dropping of bombs on civilians in Germany and Japan by the Allies — should be preserved and allowed to survive. And we mustn’t forget the slave trade and the genocide that accompanied the take-over of the North American continent.

Arnold Toynbee tells us that civilizations come and go; they have a lifetime and the expire just as do those who comprise the members of those civilizations. Ours is clearly enduring what Toynbee called a “time of troubles” and seems to be gasping for breath — especially as growing numbers of those historically devoted to preserving Western Civilization in the colleges and universities have turned against it. But why should we be concerned, given the many atrocities that have been committed in the name of civilization when we know that many people who we have always regarded as “uncivilized” seem now to be in many ways superior to those who regard themselves as “civilized” people?

Ignoring for the moment that fact that many of the images of the delights of “uncivilized” people are romantic nonsense with little or no basis in historical fact, there are a number of reasons to fight to save Western Civilization. If we simply regard the benefits that have come to humankind as a result of Western Civilization the list would be impressive indeed. It must start with Roman law, civil discourse, a growing awareness of universal human rights together with the extraordinary works of art, music, literature, sculpture, philosophy and science all of which owe their origins to the brilliant people who have lived during that period we associate with Western Civilization, many of the art works centering around the passion of Christ. Ingmar Bergman, the Swedish film-making genius put it well when he noted that:

“It is my opinion that art lost its creative urge the moment it separated from worship. It severed the umbilical cord and lives its own sterile life, generating and degenerating itself. The individual has become the highest form and the greatest bane of artistic creation. Creative unity and humble anonymity are forgotten and buried relics without significance or meaning. The smallest cuts and moral pains of the ego are examined under the microscope as if they were of eternal importance. Thus we finally gather in one large pen, where we stand and bleat about our own loneliness without listening to each other and without realizing that we are smothering each other to death.”

Thus we do wander around bleating like sheep about nothing more important than ourselves. Our art shrinks to the level of the merely personal. We strive to eliminate all suffering because we fail to see that through suffering we might grow as human beings.  And this is a sure sign of the “time of troubles” that Toynbee notes is associated with the demise of civilizations. We live shallow lives, and in the process seem to have lost our creative abilities as we worry not about others and about the future but about ourselves now. This suggests that the present civilization may well be replaced by another that will almost certainly have as many atrocities — given the nature of human beings — and fewer of the great works noted above. The best we can hope for, I strongly suspect, is something very closely resembling Huxley’s Brave New World peopled by citizens who find their narrow pleasure-seeking lives worth the price of greatness that we must, like it or not, associate with Western Civilization at its height.


Imagine That!

Years ago I taught an ethics class in a Summer session at the University of Rhode Island. We sat in a circle and had an open discussion of the topics raised in the book we had been working through. As I recall we were discussing examples of unmitigated evil — of which history presents us with innumerable examples. Soon we were talking about the Holocaust and we were attempting to understand what it was about that horrible event that made it so horrible. At one point one of the more taciturn students spoke out and said he saw nothing wrong with what the Nazis did to the Jews. Several students, including one eloquent and outspoken Jewish woman, asked him to explain and he made a sorry attempt. After considerable discussion I asked him to imagine that he was one of the victims, hoping to open his mind to the possibility that we were indeed discussing unmitigated evil. But he was quick to respond.

I wouldn’t be one of the victims. I would be one of those turning on the gas.

What does one say to that? I was at a loss and the others were as well. I don’t recall what happened after that, except that the young man repeatedly refused to admit that he could ever be a victim of evil. He even denied that there is such a thing. Without knowing anything about Thracymachus in Plato’s Republic he was defending the notion that “might makes right.”

But while I recall that discussion long ago I turn to today’s events and think about the MAGA minions who follow their feckless leader blindly and I suspect that they feel they have been given the dirty end of the stick all their lives and it is now their turn to grab the clean end and start beating others with it. Surely this exhibits the same sort of crippled imagination. There’s an element of self-pity and self-righteousness in their blindness it seems to me. But, to be sure, in their minds might does make right and it is now their turn!

If this is possible, then what we are dealing with today is not the inability of many people to use their imagination — which was what I thought for many years about that student I mentioned above. It’s about their inability to use their imagination to see themselves as anything else but one having power over others. I am not a psychologist and I cannot begin to understand how this pathology develops, but it seems clear to me that the only way to remedy this situation, if it is at all possible, is for those who can only imagine themselves to be in a position of power to suffer dramatically, to become victims in actual fact. They think they have been handed the dirty end of the stick all their lives, but in our society today there are few who cannot clean off the stick and use it to their advantage. Few of the MAGA minions know what real suffering is all about, I dare say. And in the case of many of those who, because of their circumstances, really cannot clean the stick, I doubt that they have time to even think about politics and whether or not it makes sense to follow a vapid leader wherever he leads. They are too busy trying to find food to put on the table (if they have one).

Ethics requires the ability to imagine oneself to be the victim, in the full sense of that term — not just to feel sorry for oneself, but to imagine that one has been taken away in the dark of night and herded onto a cattle car and sent off to be gassed. Or had your child snatched away and know he will be shot. If one cannot imagine that, then there is little hope that he or she will ever want to do the right thing. Because the right thing is staring them in the face and they cannot, or will not, see it.

Death of Affect

The title of this post is words borrowed from J.G. Ballard and they put me in mind of the fact that one of the things that sets our era apart from preceding ones is the various movements that have resulted in the widespread death of millions of innocent people. We use words like “genocide” and “ethnic cleansing” to describe those movements, but those words hardly describe the systematic elimination of whole groups of people — such as an estimated 22 million souls under the various programs initiated by Joseph Stalin in the last century. And it behooves us to mention the current use of drones by this country to “take out” terrorists while killing thousands of innocent civilians. Indeed, the inclusion of ordinary citizens in the death count in recent wars is something relatively new in human history. In order to distinguish these events from the systematic “removal” of eight million Jews from Germany and Eastern Europe under the Nazis the term “Holocaust” was coined in the mid 1960s and it does a fairly good job of establishing the uniqueness of the events surrounding the “Final Solution” that was carried out by such people as Adolph Eichmann under Hitler in the 1930s and 1940s.

The term “Holocaust” enjoys special status and has not (yet) been borrowed or stolen by historians or social scientists in their efforts to describe other such events — such as the more recent “ethnic cleansing” in Eastern Europe. But it matters not. What happens is that we hear the word, or the words, so often that we become inured to them. They cease to have any real meaning.  How can any of us imagine, for example, what the words “twenty million” even mean when applied to the death of civilians who have done nothing whatever to deserve those deaths, except that they were different? We cannot.

Eventually, the words cease to have any real meaning and, worse yet, the events that those words are supposed to describe cease to have any reality for us. Those are things that happened to other people somewhere else. We adopt what has been called a “survival strategy” that protects us from such harsh realities. We exhibit “selective apathy, emotional disengagement from others, renunciation of the past and the future, a determination to live one day at a time,” as Christopher Lasch said in describing the mindset of those in the death camps who had given up all hope. After all, if a nation decides to systematically “remove” its own citizens what recourse does anyone have? The only option is to focus exclusively on one’s own survival. Nothing else matters.

The point of all this is to draw attention to the distinct possibility that we may already be adopting the same strategy in the face of the facts and descriptions of the mass killings that fill our newspapers and television on a daily basis — not to mention the constant reminders about world-wide terrorism and the violence that has become the order of the day on television, video games and American movies. After a while, those words and those events take on an abstract, unreal existence. We turn into ourselves and focus attention elsewhere rather than confront the terrible fact that there are maniacs who, heavily armed as they all seem to be, can decide who will and who will not live. As happens with medical doctors and policemen, after a while these events become the norm and our feelings shut down.

It is quite possible — he said, risking the charge of conspiracy theorist — that the powers that be in this country (mainly such powers as the N.R.A.) — are quite content that we should become desensitized to the daily mass killings by maniacs with automatic weapons who kill indiscriminately. It’s hard to turn on the television, or turn to the computer, or read a newspaper, without being told about another killing of numerous people by another maniac. And the hope may well be (one I do not share) that eventually we will become so desensitized to this news that we will stop paying attention altogether and cease to be concerned. After all, what can we do in the face of such powerful entities as the N.R.A. that has the Congress in its pocket and tells it how to vote?

This, it seems to me, is one of the most serious problem we face: that we will become so desensitized to the fact of grim and violent death that we will no longer care. It will be something for someone else to worry about. Instead, we worry about more important things, such as how the local sports team is doing and whether it will make the playoffs this year.

Will To Power

It is possible to see Donald Trump’s craving for attention as simply one feature or aspect of what Nietzsche called the “Will to Power.” Nietzsche was convinced that life itself is nothing but a will to power, over oneself and over others as well. As he said toward the end of his troubled life:

“My idea is that every specific body strives to become master over all space and to extend its force (–its will to power:) and to thrust back all that resists its extension. But it continually encounters similar efforts on the part of other bodies and ends by coming to an arrangement (“union”) with those of them that are sufficiently related to it: thus they then conspire together for power. And the process goes on. . . “

Whether or not what Nietzsche said is true, it helps us make sense of the actions of certain people — for instance the very wealthy who never seem to have enough wealth, given that in our culture wealth is indeed power. There are, of course, other forms of power. For example, in ancient cultures the priests held the power by way of their superior control of language, They were the ones who could read and write while their minions were ignorant and held the priests to be gods. Their priestly power over language translated quickly into power over others.

As our country becomes increasingly run by the wealthy and powerful it seems prudent to attempt to understand the nature of power. Lord Acton told us that “power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” That seems right as we look at such people as Donald Trump who has made the move easily from a reality show where he fired people with a smirk to center stage in a political battle where he can dismiss all who disagree with him with a wave of his hand and another insult. This means that he is the one in control: he has the power, which is much like an intoxicant: it causes the possessed to become blinded by its presence and in search for more. There is never enough. And those around the powerful are easily taken in by the presumption that the powerful are somehow “in the know,” and will soon bring them into his inner circle.  The powerful seem sure of themselves and they hold sway over others by virtue of their power and their position — not unlike the priests in the ancient world.

Except that Trump, and those like him, are not priests even though they preach the doctrine of self-importance and are able to convince the ignorant they have the answers to all the complex problems that have troubled the world since history began. Power is not only intoxicating to those who wield it, but also to those who are around it and want to be near it. By identifying with those in power, those who lack it entirely can transcend their pathetic lives and become a part of another world, a world in which they, too, are powerful.

How else can we explain how an entire country became transfixed by the power that was wielded by Adolph Hitler, a  power that began, interestingly enough, with his consummate skill with words. Germany after all was a country that was the source of some of the most extraordinary philosophy, art, and literature that humankind has ever created? The Nazi movement was successful because it promised those who followed the powerful that they themselves would also become powerful. Their nation would not only regain what they had lost in the First World War, it would expand its territory and the citizens would regain their lost pride and their nation would once again be great.

Trump’s followers live shallow, vapid lives and they seek to become one with a man who seems to them to be both powerful and invincible. In fact, however, his soul is atrophied and his skin is as thin as an onion’s, but his minions fail to see this because they live in the hope that this powerful man will also empower them. They are deluded, but it is not by the man himself; rather, it is by what he represents: he represents the very power that they themselves both lack and crave, but which they cannot possibly attain alone. They lack power and he promises that if they follow him they will become powerful — just like him.

Nietzsche may not have been entirely right in what he said about the will to power. But he was not altogether wrong, either.

Our Violent Age

In a brilliant short story the great Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges attempts to get inside the head of a Nazi war criminal, Otto Dietrich zur Linde. The man awaits execution and is writing, not an apology, but an explanation of what led him to assist in the execution of Jews. He feels no contrition since he is convinced he is part of a historical movement that will bring the dawn of a new day — even after the defeat of Germany by the allies. He believes that he is dying for a great cause, much like the martyrs who died for Christianity. And that thought consoles him. “To die for a religion is simpler than living that religion fully. . .The battle and the glory are easy.” And Nazism was a religion, of sorts.

One of the Jews that zur Linde must “deal with” is a poet by the name of David Jerusalem who is brought before him, a man he greatly admires. Finding himself unable to condemn Jerusalem to the gas chambers, he gradually drives him mad until the man takes his own life. Still, zur Linde has no regrets. With Jerusalem, he tells us, whatever compassion he may have felt died.

The “new age” that zur Linde thinks is dawning and which makes these sacrifices worthwhile is an age of violence.

“Now an implacable age looms over the world. We forged that age and are now its victims. What does it matter that England is the hammer and we the anvil? What matters is that violence, not servile Christian acts of timidity, now rules.”

Now, aside from the fact that zur Linde is borrowing from Nietzsche, whose philosophy informed the thinking of many a Nazi and who condemned Christianity as the religion of the weak, we have here a profound and penetrating observation: we now live in an age of violence. All international disagreements are solved by killing. The Christian religion of love and forgiveness, if it ever truly blossomed, is no longer possible in this new age.

This is a bleak outlook, to say the least. And it would be easy to dismiss it as simply a novelist’s attempt to understand the tortured thinking of a condemned Nazi. It is all of that, and it is gruesome, to say the least. Evil is gruesome and most of us cannot stand to even think about it. Hanna Arendt, after studying the Nazi, Adolph Eichmann, concluded that evil is banal, more common than we can imagine. That, too, is a gruesome thought. But it is one we really ought to ponder, since it does appear that Christianity is no longer a force in our world — it does not course through the veins of the average Westerner as it did in the middle ages when, we are told, there were no atheists. Today we do not find a religion that demands sacrifices and appeals to the weak the least bit appealing, since we cannot imagine ourselves to be such a person. We are strong and life is not about sacrificing what we want. And we solve our problems with violence, not diplomacy and civil discourse.

I don’t know how much of Borges’ tale I buy into. But I find it worth pondering, since we do seem bent on shooting first and asking questions afterwards. “Make my day!” To be sure, men have been prone to violence throughout the ages. But while we regard the “Great War” as the war to end all wars, it “only” cost an estimated 20 million deaths, as contrasted with the Second World War which cost an estimated 60 to 85 million deaths. Joseph Stalin alone was supposed to have been responsible for 20 million deaths, in addition to the millions the Nazis killed. At the end of World War II England ordered the bombing of Dresden, which had no military objective whatever. And even ignoring the atom bomb, which may or may not have been justified by war standards, America, which is supposed to command the moral high ground, has recently condoned torture and sent drones into the far East to kill supposed terrorists, while also taking thousands of civilian deaths in what is callously referred to as “collateral damage.” Moreover, nine countries count 15,000 nuclear weapons in their arsenals, any one of which would drarf the atomic bombs used in the Second World War.

We tend to think of strangers, such as the Syrian refugees, as a threat rather than as folks to be welcomed into our hearts and homes. We find it difficult to “live religion fully.” Instead, we pay lip service to religion and bend it to our preferred way of looking at the world. True religion makes demands on us and we are not comfortable with a doctrine that requires that we do our duty and love our neighbor. Perhaps we do live in a new age, one that rejects love and finds it much easier to hate.

The Cat In The Room

In a comment on a previous post I was trying to make myself understood by my good friend Dana about the various colors in ethics — black, white, and gray. In doing so I came to realize that I could be clearer about where I stand on the issue. And where I stand is not where many others stand, so it behooves me to make my position clear in case it might be close to the truth, as I like to think it is. The issue surrounds the question of whether there is a right and wrong in ethics.

The prevailing opinion as late as the medieval period was that there is a clear difference between the two, an absolute right and an absolute wrong. The Church, of course, knew the difference and if men and women were in a moral quandary they would simply ask the priest. And if he didn’t know he would refer to Church dogma. I think there are echoes of that conviction among church-goers today who still ask their parish priest or parson for advice when facing a moral dilemma. Many, however, came to regard this black/white position in ethics as leading straight to intolerance and a host of atrocities all in the name of ethical certainty. And it did. So for the most part the view of absolute right and absolute wrong has been tossed aside along with the Ptolemaic hypothesis about the neat arrangement of our finite universe. We are now living in a relativistic age and we tend to think that when it comes to ethics, at the very least, it is all a matter of opinion.

What I have tried to do is to carve out a middle ground between the two views, to insist that there is an absolute right and an absolute wrong — but we don’t know it absolutely. It is this last proviso that keeps us from the intolerance and even arrogance that often came with the supposed certainty that one was right about which side God was on in a war, for example, or whether heretics should be burned alive in an auto-da-fé. We pride ourselves on being more tolerant and, in the name of tolerance, ask the question “who’s to say?” when it comes to ethics. We then end up with a mishmash of conflicting opinions that cannot possibly all be correct. But I am convinced that this view leads us away from dialogue and the search for answers when it comes to ethical issues — especially since so many people are convinced there is no answer. Let me propose an analogy — which will appeal to Dana. He’s a poet.

The search for the right answer in ethics is like searching for a black cat in a dark room with a blindfold on. I insist that there is a cat in the room — somewhere — whereas the prevailing view is that since no one seems to know where the cat is he isn’t there at all. It’s just your opinion and mine: there’s really no cat. My conviction that there is a cat in the room rests on the fact that, in ethics, we have discovered a number of clear truths that are universally agreed upon, even though it has taken a struggle over many years (and even wars) to reach agreement. I speak about the evils of slavery and human sacrifice, for example, and the conviction that all persons have rights that ought to be respected, regardless of the circumstances. We know now that we were wrong for lo those many centuries to deny women the rights that men took for granted. We also know that in a democracy the vote should be allowed to all who are of age and must not be restricted to men with property. In fact, one could even argue that over the years there has been something akin to moral progress — for all our stupidity and determination to reduce ethics to a wrestling match. It appears that when men and women put their heads together and think things through they sometimes (rarely?) find the black cat in the dark room — despite the fact that their blindfold frustrates them and makes things extremely difficult and even painful at times.

The fact is that it is very difficult indeed to continue to search for that elusive cat. And this is why so many people simply give up and insist that it’s all a matter of opinion. We have become intellectually lazy. We prefer to save ourselves a passel of work and the difficult thinking we have decided is just not worth the effort. So many of us throw up our arms and ask “who’s to say?” It saves us the trouble of opening our minds and sifting through whatever evidence there is, scrutinizing arguments, and trying to reach even tentative conclusions. We prefer to think there is no cat. But I am convinced there is. We have held it from time to time and that assures me that we might get ahold of the cat every now and again, even briefly. There are answers to ethical dilemmas. We just have to work hard to find them and most often, because we are human, we must be content with reasonable suppositions and tentative conclusions though, at times, certain ethical truths are clear as crystal: what the Nazis did to the Jews was wrong by any standards one chooses to evoke. Now there’s a black cat if there ever was one!

Lacking In Sympathy

In her novel Daniel Deronda, George Eliot provides us with a portrait of a thoroughly despicable man (dare I say a thoroughly evil man?) in the person of Henleigh Grandcourt. He has managed to persuade the very young and beautiful Gwendolen Harleth to marry him, despite the fact that he had previously fathered four children by another woman whom he then refused to marry. The single characteristic that stands out about the man is his complete lack of sympathy toward his fellow humans. He is all cold intellect, of a calculating sort, and treats his young wife as an appendage whom he parades before others in order to make them think more highly of him. He simply figured “that she was his to do as he liked with and to make her feel it also.” He is an emotional bully. Toward her he shows only disdain and even contempt as he relentlessly pressures her into bending to his will. He is incapable of love because he is incapable of thinking of anyone but himself.

In one of those stunning observations that this author makes seemingly without effort, she suggests that such a lack of sympathy is often allied to stupidity, as evidenced by Grandcourt’s subsequent behavior toward his wife. As Eliot notes in passing, “There is no escaping the fact that want of sympathy condemns us to a corresponding stupidity. Mephistopheles thrown upon real life and obliged to manage his own plots, would inevitably make blunders.” The reference to Mephistopheles is not accidental, of course, since one of Eliot’s favorite characters in Goethe’s Faust is such a personage — a creature totally lacking in sympathy. It is what defines him as the incarnation of evil. He leads Faust through a series of adventures in the first part of Goethe’s tragedy that culminate in the deaths of a young woman Faust has seduced along with her infant whom Faust had fathered. Mephistopheles is not only unsympathetic, he is stupid: he fails to understand what sort of man Faust happens to be and fails totally to envision consequences. The relationship among the three concepts — stupidity, a lack of sympathy, and evil — are strongly suggested both in Goethe’s poem and in Eliot’s novel.

It is interesting in this regard to consider Hannah Arendt’s study of Adolph Eichmann whose trial in Israel she attended and reported on later in her examination of Eichmann — a study in “the banality of evil.” That man, too, was a bit stupid and lacking in sympathy, a total bureaucrat treating his victims as so many cubic yards of cargo. He worried only that the trains might be delayed and the schedule for the executions be interrupted. He never once thought of the people he was sending to the gas chambers as human beings. Reports from the camps later on suggest that this was not at all uncommon among those who guarded and actually turned the gas on the prisoners. Of course, for many years the Germans had prepared themselves for the blatant racism that accompanied Nazism by deep-seated prejudices against the Jews that they shared with most of the rest of the world. And, as the most astute propagandists have come to realize, the best way to work on those deep feelings and convince people to kill someone is to reduce them to non-human status. Goebbels, the ace Nazi propagandist, was an expert at this sort of thing. In writing his propaganda and stirring hatred among his countrymen, he was deaf to that most eloquent plea for sympathy written by Shakespeare three centuries before. It is, of course, in the words of the Jew, Shylock in The Merchant of Venice:

“I am a Jew. Hath not a Jew eyes? hath not a Jew hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions? fed with the same food, hurt with the same weapons, subject to the same diseases, healed by the same means, warmed and cooled by the same winter and summer as a Christian is? If you prick us, do we not bleed? If you tickle us, do we not laugh? If you poison us, do we not die? and if you wrong us do we not revenge? If we are like you in the rest, we will resemble you in that.”

Given the fact that Eliot’s immensely attractive hero discovers toward the end that he is a Jew and is then able to declare his love for the remarkable Jewess he rescued and has come to treasure, one might argue that her novel expands on Shylock’s speech above. In any event, we all have our prejudices and tend to reduce our enemies to ciphers; not just the Nazis. During the Second World War Americans referred to the Japanese as “Japs,” and the Germans were called “Krauts.” By calling them names, they became less than human and their deaths seemed necessary and even a good thing. We now call our enemies “terrorists” and lump together human beings of varying nationalities and beliefs in one cluster so we can rationalize their deaths — even the “collateral damage” that our drones cause in the Middle East. After all, if they are not human beings we feel no sympathy for them and it is easier to dismiss their suffering and death, to stupidly take steps that lead invariably to evil.

It’s All Relative! Really?

A recent story in HuffPost begins as follows:

A gay Somali teen was allegedly stoned to death on March 15, according to an advocacy group that posted about the incident online.

A Facebook group calling itself Somali Queer Community posted information and photos of the alleged stoning on its social media page Saturday. The post states that Mohamed Ali Baashi, 18, was tried and convicted of sodomy by a rebel judge from the Islamic extremist group Al-Shabab in the Barawa area of southern Somalia. In front of a crowd of villagers, Baashi was reportedly pelted with rocks until he was dead, the group’s post goes on to claim.

During the many years while I was teaching ethics the prevailing prejudice I continued to run into is that all values are relative. I call it a prejudice because it was seldom a conclusion reached after serious thought. The claim was that in ethics if those values are not relative to the individual, they are at least relative to cultures. We have been told that values are “enculturated” in us and we simply adopt the values of those around us as we grow up. If someone in another culture does something we regard as wrong who are we to say it is wrong? It’s just what they do. We hear the bromide “don’t judge another person unless you have walked a mile in his shoes.” In fact, we are constantly admonished not to be “judgmental.” But let’s take the story above as a case in point. It raises serious doubts about the viability of the whole relativism thesis: failure to judge might even be regarded as the height of irresponsibility.  I have never thought that people take relativism seriously, though, they just lean on it because it is easier than thinking.

In my classes I would ask the students if they thought that the Nazis were right to “relocate” the Jews and send millions to their death. Most students would stick by their guns and say, “of course, who’s to say?” Then I would ask them if they would still believe this if they were a Jew living in Germany in the mid-thirties of the last century when the purge began. That would usually give the students pause, though I don’t know if it ever changed a single mind. But the idea was to get them thinking about a complex situation they probably never thought about before. It helps us to see evil more clearly if we imagine ourselves to be the victim.

But the story above tells us about a judicial process in Somalia in which a young gay man is found guilty of sodomy and is summarily stoned to death. The cultural relativist would say, “that’s the way they do things there. Who are we to say it’s wrong?” My response is: anyone with half a brain knows it’s wrong regardless of where or when it happened. The value of human life and the respect all human life is owed transcend cultures and makes it wrong to inflict harm on others; we have duties as moral agents to alleviate human suffering whenever possible. Now, whether or not our culture teaches us this any longer, it is the heart and soul of any viable ethical or religious system known to developed minds. The obvious conclusion in this case is that the process that found the young man guilty was flawed and the “rebel judge” handing down the judgment was blinded by prejudice. We know this happens: we see it happening on a daily basis all around us. In this regard, the Somalis are just like us and they should know better. Certain values transcend cultures.

Many think that this position smacks of “absolutism,” the claim that values are absolute and a few people know them while others do not — those few wearing clerical collars or holding degrees in philosophy no doubt. We are uncomfortable with this view and regard it as the height of intolerance, though we don’t distinguish carefully between tolerance and indifference. But while I make no claim to absolute knowledge about values, since all human knowledge is partial, there are things that are inherently wrong and simply should not be tolerated. Does this mean we should send in drones and invade Somalia with our armed forces to bring the Somali people to their knees and make them accept our way of life? Of course not. What it means is that we should all condemn the action and our hearts should go out to the young man who was stoned to death as the natural expression of sympathy for another human who was wronged apparently by what appear to be extremists — and we should hope that by making the action known through the social media the world community would condemn the action so that this sort of thing does not happen again.

Rejecting the Righteous

It was recently reported that Yad Vashem, Israel’s official Holocaust museum, will not recognize the heroism of a man who risked his life saving more than two dozen Jews by hiding them out on his farm during the Hitler regime. This is most unusual because 23,000 men and women who risked their lives are memorialized and there is no question that this man did indeed risk his life to save others. In fact there are numerous testimonies to his heroism, but twice he has been turned down. He is not regarded by those who elect as one of the “righteous.”

The story was recently reported in the New York Times and the writer hints that the decision was based on prejudice: the man, Khaled Abdul Wahab, was an Arab Muslim. He is now deceased. His bravery took place on the eastern shores of occupied Tunesia during the 1940s, but it will go unrecognized for reasons that seem suspect — he didn’t “risk his life” by suffering actual physical harm — though among those recognized in the museum, there are numerous people who saved Jews without suffering any physical harm themselves. Wahab most certainly did risk his life, however, as did anyone in those days who attempted to save Jews from the Nazis.

The conclusion does seem unavoidable: the “Commission for the Designation of the Righteous” can’t see beyond their own prejudice, despite the fact that the Jews have themselves been persecuted for centuries by bigots. How ironic, and how sad.

While morally indefensible, the prejudice is understandable, since the Jews live among the Arabs and there is deep-seated hatred between the Muslims and the Jews. One can understand the bigotry on the part of the Commission, but one cannot condone it. It is simply wrong. There is a fundamental difference between explaining someone’s behavior and justifying it. In this case, we might be able to explain why this decision was made — twice — but we cannot say it is justifiable. Explanation involves the cultural and psychological reasons why people do the things they do. Justification requires the giving of moral reasons to support a moral claim. There can be no moral support in this case. The man should be recognized for his courage in saving lives at the risk of his own. It’s fairly straightforward.

One does wonder, however, how one would behave if he were in Wahab’s shoes: would he or she do the right thing, or take the easy road? This suggests another key difference: what one would do and what one should do. Clearly, one ought to try to alleviate suffering and act as Wahab did. But in the circumstances, with the enemy at your very doorstep, would you be able to do the right thing?

Hannah Arendt, who spent a great deal of time pondering these limiting situations, thinks it is a question of whether or not we can face ourselves in the mirror. It is not a matter of conscience, strictly, nor is it a calculation of pros and cons. “There comes a point where all objective standards — truth, rewards, and punishments in a hereafter, etc. — yield precedence to the ‘subjective’ criterion of the kind of person I wish to be and to live with.” Resistance was not a matter of intelligence: Bonhoeffer resisted, while Heidegger capitulated. It was unpredictable. At some point some folks simply said “no.” Could I live with myself knowing I sacrificed the lives of other innocent people to save my own? Could I say,”No”? That, according to Arendt, is the central question. I’m not sure how I would answer it in the circumstances. But I am confident in saying that Wahab’s heroism should not go unrecognized and unrewarded.