“That is none of your concern”

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!



1 Comment

Filed under Ethics

One response to ““That is none of your concern”

  1. Nicholas

    I doubt any of the stories are actually true, they sound rather apocryphal… but I can empathise with the sentiments expressed within them.  It\’s true many people in Europe have forgotten the debt of blood they owe America for stepping in (albeit belatedly!) and ensuring the defeat of Germany in WW2.  Tens of thousands of American soldiers died fighting against a foe that was not really a direct threat to their country.  Then, after the war, the Marshall Plan, bailing out the economies of Western Europe.  America was responsible for reconstructing Japan too.  Unfortunately during the Cold War their high standards slipped a fair bit, but America\’s maintaining of its armed forces within Europe allowed many European countries to underspend on defence – saving their citizens money in the process.  Without America (and Britain), there would have been no intervention in Kosovo and Serbia either.I think America gets an unfair press.  Sure, George Bush and his intransigence over climate change, and the fact he sounds like an uneducated cowboy to the sophisticates of Europe, haven\’t helped.  But then he wasn\’t responsible for the rise of militant Islam.  In European circles, indeed, in the world, it has become fashionable for the problems of the planet to be heaped on America\’s doors.  America is a large country, and it is responsible for a lot of negative things, but this fact has only masked the incompetence and unwillingness to address problems of other developed nations.  On the other hand, I think it is fair to say that global awareness lags behind in the States compared to, say, Europe, and their overly lavish lifestyles which place a far greater burden on the planet\’s resources than any other nation on earth, per capita.  To a European, the stereotypical American is fat, lacks a passport, ridiculously nationalistic, drives an incredibly wasteful large car (or two), and knows (and cares) very little about what happens outside of his continent.The maddening thing about it all is that America, among all countries of the world, has the potential to be a great, noble, and influential example on world civilisation.  Its cosmopolitan mix and federal structure offer a model for the future for all other peoples; as do its freedoms and economic entrepreneurial spirit.  Perhaps what we find frustrating is how much America is wasting this potential.  It could be so great, and yet it is failing to set a good example in so many ways.Back in 2003, I was very much against the invasion of Iraq, just like most of my fellow Brits.  \’It\’s all about the oil, silly!\’ everyone was saying.  But I changed my mind.  My personal ethos is that illegitimate regimes should not be allowed to terrorise their populations, and the whole world should arise to bring down such governments.  Iraq was a good (or bad?) example of this.  A dictator ruling with absolute impunity, violence, and slaughtering any who opposed him.  To that list you could add North Korea, Zimbabwe, many African countries, as well as Iran, Syria, Cuba and so on.  These countries have leaders who were never chosen by their people, and who are set upon enslaving them and driving them to ruin, rather than national prosperity.  As human beings we owe each other our duty to help – why should I turn away when Afghan refugees cry for help?(By the way, the response in China is typical – because their government believes in human rights violations, it stands to reason they also advocate non-interference in other nations\’ internal affairs.  They absolutely hold to the outdated principle of unfettered national sovereignty.  And naturally, because plurality of ideas in China is suppressed, their citizens will all share their government\’s views).I also supported the intervention by NATO in Kosovo, and in Afghanistan as well.  The problem comes because the international community lacks the willpower to take concerted action.  Just as it is with climate change, everyone drags their feet, waits for someone else to make a move, is reluctant to commit to anything that will cost them a competitive advantage against their neighbours etc etc.  So with Darfur, the international community is focussed on trying to solve the problem through diplomacy, all the while hundreds of thousands of people are dying.  Several years have elapsed.  The authorities in Sudan are just spinning it out for as long as they can, till either the world loses interest, or they\’ve finished killing everyone they want to.  National sovereignty is just a cloak for protecting human rights violations.Iraq makes me crazy, because there was such a good opportunity to establish the doctrine of regime change.  After the first Gulf War, the people in Iraq rose up against Saddam, encouraged by the USA, who said they would support them.  For various reasons, that support was not forthcoming, and hundreds of thousands were massacred by Saddam in revenge.  Saddam remained in power, and the seeds for further conflict were sown.  This could all have been avoided if the international community had agreed to replace Saddam\’s government at that time.  But no one is ever willing to take responsibility.  European countries, Britain apart, have been disgraceful in their refusal to get involved and make proper commitments.  Other countries which have armies could also contribute.  Why does the burden always have to fall entirely on the shoulders of the US?  They\’re damned when they do, and damned when they don\’t.The success of the current troop surge in Iraq illustrates this perfectly.  Perhaps much of the sectarian bloodshed could have been avoided if America had deployed sufficient troops to start with.  Yes, people can argue that this was America\’s responsibility, since she took the decision to invade Iraq.  But it begs the question of how far the rest of the world is willing to tag along, like a parasite, riding on the backs of America\’s and its few friends\’ efforts.  Nations are always willing to waste plenty of money on new planes and ships and guns, but when a chance to use them for good appears, they are strangely reluctant.  An international force in Iraq from the very beginning would have dispelled the notion that it was a western crusade against Islam, and Iraq could have been flourishing by now.  We all saw the footage of how the Iraqis threw flowers at the "invading" troops and vented their hatred of Saddam.  What a wasted opportunity, and now this will affect future opportunities, as America will be a) less willing to commit and b) less able.So the killing goes on in Darfur, the gulags in North Korea, and the spiral into chaos in Zimbabwe.  No one has the moral courage to do anything about it other than talk – I guess those places lack strategic importance.Hmm.  My rant is coming to an end.  Still, I\’ll always be one of those Brits who wants their country to stand side by side with America, and actually do something to defend the rights of other peoples that our own take so pathetically for granted.

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