26 October 2007
One evening during my trip to Beijing, one of my Chinese friends told me she thought my country should pull out of Iraq, immediately. I replied that most Americans feel the same way. We hope to get out of Iraq as soon as possible. But, I added, it’s complicated because there is an emerging civil war there. I replied that if we pulled out immediately there would likely be a bloodbath among the opposing factions.
Her response was simply to look at me and say, "That is none of your concern."
I must confess, it has never occurred to me that I ought to have no concern about a bloodbath. The thought was rather shocking to me. So shocking, in fact, that it has taken me a few weeks, figuratively speaking, for me to pick myself up off the ground and collect myself enough to think in terms of any coherent response.
I’ve written before about the fact that I think one thing which makes my culture different from others is the inculcation of the Parable of the Good Samaritan into our value system. The Good Samaritan is a parable intended to answer the question, "Who is my neighbor?" The Good Samaritan plainly showed that he, not only a stranger but even someone with reason to shun the injured man, was in fact the true neighbor. I believe the Parable of the Good Samaritan has profoundly influenced my culture in its viewpoint in this respect. In my culture, what happens to another person IS my concern. My concern does extend to strangers.
Narrative ethicists, theologians, psychologists, and cultural anthropologist all speak in a babel tower of different languages to explain the moral compulsions we feel concerning those other than ourselves. One of the greatest challenges in moral epistemology, in the area of philosophical ethics aimed at discovering a universal foundation for truth, is to navigate the stormy and murky waters where there is a clash between cultural viewpoints where it comes to this very issue: what duty is owed to a stranger. In particular, philosophical ethics has yet to answer satisfactorily the argument that no one culture is superior to another. If one culture thinks it’s fine to use babies for bayonette practice during wartime, who am I to assert my own repugnance as being a morally superior view, or to impose my own very different viewpoint on that culture? For the bottom line when cultures clash is:, by what set of common rules shal we govern behavior? What rules can we agree on in spite of our cultural differences?
In respect to the basic rules and assumptions of engagement, my friend’s comment points to a profound ideological and cultural difference between my cultural viewpoint and hers: How far does and should compassion extend? And, to carry her argument just one step further, I ask: "If the cares of any stranger are truly none of my concern, then why would I ever render aid to anyone unless it were a matter of personal self interest?"
All my life, I have never questioned the fundamental view that bloodbaths are bad. The great moral epistemologists of the 20th Century devoted their best efforts to ensuring that there would never be a defensible philosophical basis for a repeat of the Holocaust. On the other hand, what if this concern for Other does, indeed, arise solely from a Judeo-Christian moral view? If that is so, is it not, actually, an insane imposition of my Christian viewpoint to impose my singular ethical viewpoint onto another religion that considers my religion and ethical standards to be infidel? Would it perhaps, therefore, be preferable to let those people wash it all out in a bloodbath based on their own ethical values, rather than imposing mine? If some other culture doesn’t value life so highly, perhaps I ought not be so concerned about their lives and, instead, devote my energies to focusing more on my own? Further, does my definition of "neighbor" include not only a friend or loved one, but someone who considers me to be an enemy and would kill me for no reason other than my nationality or religion, if they had the slightest opportunity?
I’d really like some comments on this one! Surely someone has some thoughts about it?
And as a follow up, I’ll repeat three short stories a friend sent me in an email. It doesn’t really matter if the stories are true, all that really matters is that a lot of Americans would see these vignettes as summing up a lot about how we feel about our history and values:
When in England at a fairly large conference, Colin Powell was asked by the Archbishop Of Canterbury if our plans for Iraq were just an example of "empire building" by George Bush.
He answered by saying, "Over the years, the United States has sent many of its fine young men and women into great peril to fight for freedom beyond our borders. The only amount of land we have ever asked for in return is enough to bury those that did not return."
It became very quiet in the room.
Then there was a conference in France where a number of international engineers were taking part, including French and American. During a break one of the French engineers came back into the room saying "Have you heard the latest dumb stunt Bush has done? He has sent an aircraft carrier to Indonesia to help the tsunami victims. What does he intend to do, bomb them?"
A Boeing engineer stood up and replied quietly: "Our carriers have three hospitals on board that can treat several hundred people; they are nuclear powered and can supply emergency electrical power to shore facilities; they have three cafeterias with the capacity to feed 3,000 people three meals a day, they can produce several thousand gallons of fresh water from sea water each day, and they carry half a dozen helicopters for use in transporting victims and injured to and from their flight deck.. We have eleven such ships; How many does France have?"
Once again, dead silence.
A U.S. Navy Admiral was attending a naval conference that included admirals from the U.S., English, Canadian, Australian and French navies. At a cocktail reception, he found himself standing with a large group of Officers that included personnel from most of those countries. Everyone was chatting away in English as they sipped their drinks, but a French Admiral suddenly complained that, ‘whereas Europeans learn many languages, Americans learn only English.’ He then asked, ‘Why is it that we always have to speak English in these conferences rather than speaking French?’
Without hesitating, the American Admiral replied ‘Maybe its because the Brits, Canadians, Aussies and Americans arranged it so you wouldn’t have to speak German.’
You could have heard a pin drop!