Walid's Wanderings

Reflections on life, good-and-evil, family, humanity, and anything else that occurs to me, usually when I travel. Right now I am on a 6-year trip through Lebanon, the homeland I had never really lived in before.

Sunday, June 08, 2003

Essay from 8 May 2003

The Golden Rule: “Do unto others as you would have done to you. ”Isn’t this the basis of all morality? The Rule, or something that sounds like it, is resonates in the sayings of Jesus Christ, Rabbi Hillel, and Plato, and this is just from freshman year readings. Hamurabi tried to legislate it, Phil Collins set it to music. Surely no one alive today can be unfamiliar with it. So why is this morality business so complicated? Let me simplistically try to boil down the all the squabbling to a matter of definition. Who exactly are those “others”? And what do we really mean by “as”? (And don’t worry – I’m not trying to pull a Clinton here. )


Is an apple or an almond one of those “others”? If so, a person who wants to lead a moral life would starve or feel guilty. Come to think of it, the script-writer who put the “Fruitarian” meme in “Notting Hill” probably does go about his or her life feeling vaguely guilty. That’s what makes
a humorist funny, right? But, humor aside, what is a moral person to think? Are you so exceedingly secure that you cannot possibly imagine one of the following scenarios?

  1. You are an apple dreaming that you are human.

  2. Some Gargantuan out there will regard you as you regard an apple.

  3. The Cosmos contains a finite risk that you will be reincarnated as an apple.

  4. The God you believe in can choose to recycle your soul into the equivalent of a
    couple thousand apples.

If you possess absolute certainty that you never were and never could be an apple, then I do not begrudge you that certainty. In fact, I’d probably sleep better if I too
had your faith. You probably trust your God to reveal to you who the worthy “others” are, what the “as” implies, and I’m sure you have better things to do than finish this article. For the rest of you, hang on.

For an individual conscience with no outside reference,
there really is no way to keep out all guilt associated with combining the Golden Rule with a survival instinct. “To
be” necessarily implies someone else not being. It’s just a question of how much guilt you choose to tolerate. Sticking with the matter of food choices, I personally would eat a cow but not a chimpanzee. My wife would eat a chicken but not a cow. I’ve never tried starvation, or dog meat, but let us put aside the “Fressen” part of this discussion of morals[1], and move on.

The individual conscience is not, after all, the most
frequently consulted arbiter of morality. This is a good thing: who has the time to come to ten impossible
conclusions before breakfast each dayhref="#_ftn2" name="_ftnref2" title="">[2]? More moral decisions are made by Hamurabi’s heirs than Plato’s. Slipping back into the real world without necessarily resolving the issue of it’s existence, we all agree that the
powerful decide what is right, and the rest of us argue about whether we agree with the powerful or not. We have no first-hand knowledge of the historical “Powerful” but second-hand evidence shows a strong historical need for a universalistic god to justify, this state of affairs. “If God made gave us dominion, then we must be superior. ”It
can be arguedtitle="">[3] only monotheists can make that case. The polytheists would counter-argue “Your god beat ours today, but this is no guarantee of tomorrow”. All the same, to cut short a fascinating historical review of power and religion, neither view is terribly relevant to most
powerful. In 2003, the viewpoint, insofar as one exists, of the most powerful United States of America, is that our power derives from our freedom, our justice, and our courage.

In simpler terms, we are powerful because we choose to follow and enforce the Golden Rule, and we choose to define “other” as inclusive of all human beings willing to live by the Rule. It takes some studying to realize just how
radical this view is. We beat the British in 1776 when we abolished the distinction between the homeland and the
colony. We beat the Germans in 1944 in part because the Einsteins and Oppenheimers of Europe felt assured, on coming here, of being done unto as the Mayflower
descendants would have had done to them (phew). We included the blacks, and that gave us even more power. We have a system with enough flexibility that any sub-group can become equal if it displays enough eloquence (e. g. a group which can give rise to a Martin Luther King Jr. ) to convince us that they are our equals. Brain drain is our secret weapon, and our back-up is the creation and export of universal human desirables: dance videos form the Italian Madonna, song lyrics from the black Michael Jackson, ludicrously symmetrical oversized photographs of the German-invented Big Mac, and so
forth. Those were the weapons that defeated Communism, that other universalist non-theistic morality, differing only on the “as” dimension described below. And those weapons will remain honed forever if we never lose track of our fundamental definition: “other” is anyone who can argue a case for being our equal. When a
chimpanzee writes “A Tree of One’s Own” or a dolphin writes “My Escape from Sea
World”, our system can and will bring them in.
Our system will remain powerful and our power will define morality for
the weak. But will they wee things “as”
we see them? This is our next major


As I almost mentioned before, I prefer beef to chicken, and
my wife prefers chicken to beef. Suppose
I belong to a society where women are part of the “other” unto whom to do
[…]. Would my socially imposed morals
dictate that I swap her chicken fajitas for carne asada
for her own good? After all, this is
what I would have done to me!style='mso-spacerun:yes'> But wait.
It is what I would have done to me, true, but it is not AS I would have
done to me. To my wife, chicken-for-beef
is AS beef-for-chicken is to me. This is
why it is important to have “others” who can communicate their preferences. style='mso-spacerun:yes'> It is not only more moral to give each person
their preferred basket of goods and not yours, but it is also the basis of
wealth creation on the capitalist system we (the powerful) hold dear.

Speaking of capitalism, what was it about Communism that led
to its demise? Easy. style='mso-spacerun:yes'> For communism, equality was a universal
quality and freedom was a relative one.
In other words, freedom for me is not necessarily “as” freedom for you,
but equality for me is by definition “as” equality is for you. style='mso-spacerun:yes'> It’s a point of view, so hear it out. style='mso-spacerun:yes'> If this point of view were valid for human
beings, then we might have had, as many in the 70s imagined we would, a
perpetual division between people like Orson Scott Card and Ayn
Rand on one side of the ocean, and people like Ted Kaczinski
andJohn Lennon
on the other. Neither would have been
ipso facto more powerful that the other.
The status quo would have lasted forever given either genetic
heritability of the preference trait ,or free
migration of adults between the two nations.

Well, as it turns out, it was pretty early on that one side
had to limit immigration and the other had to limit emigration. style='mso-spacerun:yes'> This should have been a tip-off, but somehow
to many it was not. And in the end, it
was only “Force and Lies”name="_ftnref4" title="">[4]
that held people in the social system that codified the communist definition of
“as”. We’ll never know (class=SpellE>Pixar and Dreamworks films class=SpellE>nonwithstanding) whether the tenets of communism might have
worked for ants, but they certainly were not for humans.

Is this the end of the “as” question? style='mso-spacerun:yes'> Not by a long shot. style='mso-spacerun:yes'> There are other differences about the “as”
which remain unresolved. Is admitting a
black person to Michigan State
with an SAT score of 1400 “as” admitting a white person with an SAT score of
1450? Is living in Amman
“as” living in Haifa for a
non-Jewish Haifan, whereas living in Warsaw
is not “as” living in Kiryat Shmona
for a Khazar Jew?
Is wearing a headscarf to a Sorbonne classroom to a muslim
woman “as” wearing a bra for a non-feminist atheist in the same classroom? Or is it “as” wearing a swastika armband to an exchange student from Waco,Texas? The list goes on, as do the arguments.

The truth is, we really do not have a foolproof way to deal with questions like these. We can count ourselves fortunate to live in a world where the most powerful society allows itself to be convinced by a sound argument that appeals to a majority of its very diverse voters. An idea can tip the balance, because any good idea will have its time come much sooner in such a society. And we can also derive some solace from knowing that today’s technology of power depends on a diverse population convinced of the morality of its government: scientists who will not hide their output and soldiers who will not hide their uniforms in battle and factory workers who need not hide a pregnancy to stay employed. But we have no way to unequivocally decide many questions, beyond the arena of pubic opinion and the arena of, well, the Arena.

But there are two questions on which I do want to throw an argument into the first arena.

I hear otherwise sane people argue that the citizens of a terror-abetting dictatorship are morally not entitled to the same rights as the citizens of a democracy. Does having an abusive parent give the school bully a right to take your lunch money? Only if the school teachers allow it. Either because they believe that since right makes might, then automatically might makes right. Or because the abuse resulted in a speech impediment and the teacher was too lazy to listen carefully enough to the victim. I wish the citizens of globo-schoolmarm America would listen harder to the abused child with a speech impediment rather than to the eloquent son of a Harvard lawyer. I personally am very glad that George W. Bush’s “roadmap” for Middle Eastern peace treats both sides as equally “other” both in rights and obligations. But I worry about his chances of holding his ground when people who normally would vote for him fail to see the fallacy at the root of their disagreement.

The other question is much simpler. I have read an argument that peace is “as” submission to someone who thinks in the Arabic language. I could recommend a course in Arabic morphology, but a simple analogy would make my point almost as well. Don’t “capitalism” and “capitulation” also come from the same root?

[1] Reference to Bertolt Brech’s “Erst kommt das Fressen dann Kommt die Moral” in “Three Penny Opera”

[2] Reference to Douglas Adams “Restaurant at the End of the Universe”

[3] See, for example, Karen Armstrong’s “Holy Wars”

[4] Partial title of book by Vaclav Havel


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