Sunday, June 10, 2007

No Ethics Please, It's Culture

The subtitle for this piece is this: 'Mrs Muliaga Didn't Have to Die.'

Culture can blind you, some people never figure that out. Culture can kill you. Folole Muliaga died because she and her family acted in accordance with their "culture," but ultimately unethically.

Does that sound extreme? Harsh? Strange?

If it sounds strange, it's because you're not accustomed to thinking about ethics that way.

I've said here before that you should think about morality that way, and I don't know that many of you understood. Let's see if the tragic case of Folole Muliaga makes it any clearer.

It's been argued that the Muliagas acted in a way that their culture demanded of them; that they didn't want to cause trouble; that they were ashamed to embarrass themselves in front of their neighbours by asking for help; that their diet obliged them to eat and eat and eat until Mrs Muliaga died of it...

This is just nuts.

None of us is obliged to do everything, or even anything, that our culture demands of us -- or seems to demand. We all have a choice. We all of us -- every one of us -- has the power of choice, the power to speak up, to act, to say "This isn't good enough," and to choose a better path. If our cultural norms demand -- or seem to demand -- that we act in a way that will lead to our own destruction, then so much the worse for those cultural norms; and so much the worse for us if we choose to close our eyes to reality and to follow those norms instead of what reality demands.

You see, everyone has a choice. The most basic choice is the choice to focus on reality, and to act upon our identification of what confronts us.

It takes just simple stupidity to make basic mistakes, but it really takes "culture" to kill. It takes just simple observation, for example,to notice that your mother is dying, and basic integrity and common sense to do something about that.

It takes "culture," or in this case what's been defended as the "Polynesian mentality," to really evade the obvious and do nothing but sing hymns while your mother dies. Two young adults of twenty-one and eighteen and two boys of fifteen and five watched their mother slip into a coma in front of them, and not one of them did anything at all about it.

That is the real tragedy. Such is the power of bad ideas, bad cultural norms, and bad philosophy.

Now, among those hymns was a real crowd favourite: "What a Friend We Have in Jesus." What a joke. What a sad and tragic irony. As Christopher Hitchens says in the subtitle of his latest book: "Religion Poisons Everything." The "friend" the Muliagas needed as they sat around clapping their hands as their mother's breathing became more difficult, as her speech became more incoherent, as her eyes closed and then her breathing stopped, the friend they needed was not an imaginary sky pilot or the outside chance of some luck to save them -- the "friend" they needed was themselves, and their rationality.

The point being that focussing on some other world or some form of salvation that exists only in the imagination -- heaven, Valhalla, Paradise, Jannah, Elysium -- the abode only of gods and angels and the souls of those who have already "gained salvation" -- necessarily sells life on this world pretty short, and pushes the locus of morality and the object of 'salvation' out into the realm of the imaginary.

What they needed to do was to act ethically, which is what I'm arguing here -- to think about what was happening right in front of them on this world and then to act. Ethics, otherwise known as morality, is the science that examines our choices and our actions, and determines good from bad. In cases such as this one, "the good" and "the bad" become much clearer.

You see, many of you argue that morality comes from religion, and that without religion there is no morality. Many of you argue that morality comes from culture, and that our culture sets our "norms" for us. Some of you have suggested that morality comes from within, from some "fellow feeling" that somehow inspires us to do "good" deeds -- which in this line of argument usually consists of sacrificing ourselves to others.

This is all just so much bunk. Morality comes from none of these, and it most certainly doesn't demand our sacrifice. Where objective morality comes from is reality, and what it demands at root is our survival, and in time our flourishing.

Let me explain.

As I've said here before, when it comes to morality, the basic choice that confronts every living being is the fundamental alternative of life or death: in stark terms, to live or die; either to identify and then take the actions necessary to living, and living well, or to evade the responsibility and to act instead for your own destruction -- or the destruction of your loved ones. All actions flowing from that first set of choices come under the heading of "the good." All those flowing from that second set of choices comes under the heading of "the bad."

(For your first bit of homework, I'll let you decide for yourself under which label the lifestyle and diet of Mrs Muliaga comes, and under which label the actions of her teenage family would fall. Answers on a postcard, please.)

I've said before that life is the standard for morality, the standard by which all actions should be judged (including the act of judging our actions). Let me say it again: the standard for morality -- the rational standard -- is not obedience to what your God or Moses says, or what your priest or pastor or Imam says, or what your neighbours say, or what your own "inner voice" seems to say, or even what you mother says if it defies reason. The Standard is Life, our life, and the lives of those we love. The immediate beneficiary of our actions is not others; it's ourself, and the purpose of such a standard is not to suffer and die, but instead to enjoy ourselves and live.

To turn Descartes on his head (which is no less than the silly French philosopher deserves), the basic ethical principle is this: "I am, therefore I'll think." Because if we don't think, there'll soon be no "I" around to think about.

I hope you think about that.
* * * * *

** For your second bit of homework, if you want to know more about Objectivist morality then you might want to act on that ...

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20 Comments:

Blogger Zippy Gonzales said...

Let's put your subjective objective in perspective. There is no objective morality, let alone reality. Reality and morality lie in the eye of the beholder.

Ethics is not a science, otherwise you'd find the Philosophy Wardrobe in the Science Block and not in the Arts Ivory Tower. You cannot stick ethics in a test tube to distill goodness from it.

{quote}To turn Descartes on his head (which is no less than the silly French philosopher deserves), the basic ethical principle is this: "I am, therefore I'll think." Because if we don't think, there'll soon be no "I" around to think about.
{/quote}

The sun is, therefore it thinks? Bah! The ethical way to sit Descartes on his head is 'I doubt therefore I think.' At least, that's my objective opinion.

6/10/2007 01:07:00 pm  
Blogger James said...

"Let's put your subjective objective in perspective. There is no objective morality, let alone reality. Reality and morality lie in the eye of the beholder." -- zippy gonzales.

Inspector Darwin looks at the two arguers, both apparently unwilling to give up their positions. "Listen," Darwin says, more kindly now, "I have a simple notion for resolving your dispute. You say," says Darwin, pointing to Mark, "that people's beliefs alter their personal realities. And you fervently believe," his finger swivels to point at Autrey, "that Mark's beliefs can't alter reality. So let Mark believe really hard that he can fly, and then step off a cliff. Mark shall see himself fly away like a bird, and Autrey shall see him plummet down and go splat, and you shall both be happy."

We all pause, considering this.

"It sounds reasonable..." Mark says finally.

6/10/2007 01:39:00 pm  
Anonymous Hamish said...

Culture is a reason, that's not to say it's reasonable.

I think, PC, that when people say that she acted like she did for culture, that the too are acknowledging that the culture isn't a good thing.

6/10/2007 03:09:00 pm  
Anonymous Falafulu Fisi said...

PC said...
that their diet obliged them to eat and eat and eat until Mrs Muliaga died of it...

Food is good, just a little balance by exercising and this applies to all race.

It takes "culture," or in this case what's been defended as the "Polynesian mentality," to really evade the obvious and do nothing but sing hymns while your mother dies.

It is not a clear cut as that PC. Some do adapt and use reason (including myself), and still the vast majority of Pacific Islanders (PI) don't and still cling to cultures because that is their only identity. The vast majority of PIs who can't adapt or learn in a new environment (NZ), these will always lag behind the rest who are ready to adapt (myself & others as an example).

It took me a while to adapt to my new environment in this country. I was paranoia at some stage in the past, that all the whites are racist against the color of my skin. Once I started making friends with white people, I realized that my fear of racism was all in my mind , that is , it was internal and not external. Thus breaking out of my own circle (friendships within my own ethnic group), I started to see things differently from the other side. This means that I start to see reasons, which is something I would have never ever understood, if I didn't break out of my cultural bindings. So, I don't blame the Muliaga's for failing to understand all those points you have made in this post, because, that is all they know. Perhaps if the Muliaga's (& the majority of PIs) will break out of the circle and explore the other side as I have, then I think that they deserve to be criticized as you do in your article here, since you can expect that they pretty much know how to add : 2 + 1 = 3, and there is no excuse. In the meantime, they still have some vague idea that : 2 + 1 = 3.

I have a suggestion: How about you invite the Muliaga's to attend those Libertarianz monthly drink, so that you can give them some lectures on the subject of Objectivism and Kantian Philosphy.

I am sure that the Muliaga's will be a convert, since they now opened their eyes and see reasons.

6/10/2007 03:15:00 pm  
Anonymous Falafulu Fisi said...

Zippy Gonzales , off-topic question, but I can see that the icon you are using is the well-known Feynman diagram from the theory of Quantum Electro-Dynamics (QED) , which was developed by Nobel Laureate Physicist Richard Feynman.

Are you a Physicist? Just curious.

6/10/2007 03:25:00 pm  
Blogger Ruth said...

I agree with the lead post - just as an aside I would like to say that this has been a good example of appalling corporate risk management. Mercury have bought themselves millions of dollars of bad publicity for the sake of $160 odd - which is unforgivable and heads should roll.

It is also worth noting that those calling for corporate manslaughter laws are part of the problem - not the solution. Corporate manslaughter abrogates personal responsibility even further - you can't put a company in jail.

You open the door for "It's the COMPANY'S fault - not MINE". Collective guilt simply does not exist.

6/10/2007 04:12:00 pm  
Anonymous James said...

The sun is, therefore it thinks? Bah! The ethical way to sit Descartes on his head is 'I doubt therefore I think.' At least, that's my objective opinion."

I think someone said something about having an opinion...but that's only my opinion.

PS....Zippy....I'll be round later to rob your house and violate your nearest and dearest....you of course won't object will you? After all morality is subjective so there no right or wrong to worry about...

6/10/2007 04:32:00 pm  
Blogger Zippy Gonzales said...

james said, "Mark shall see himself fly away like a bird, and Autrey shall see him plummet down and go splat, and you shall both be happy."

So, you haven't seen Terry Gilliam's Brazil yet?

Falafulu Fisi said: "Are you a Physicist? Just curious."

No, I could never adapt to the calculus required to understand it. I maintain an interest in physics all the same, especially chaos theory and quantum mechanics. Both act as a bulwark in political science (which is, like ethics, an art not a science) against Newtownian determinism of the mechanistic model.

Richard Feynman was an also an interesting human, physicist and bongo player.

James said "I'll be round later to rob your house and violate your nearest and dearest....you of course won't object will you? After all morality is subjective so there no right or wrong to worry about..."

Depends what your reasons are, but they'd better be bloody good reasons to pillage and rape me and mine. The Final Solution was entirely logical and they have the receipts to prove it.

If your reasons don't pass muster however, I'll probably sic my cat on you.

6/10/2007 05:41:00 pm  
Blogger PC said...

"There is no objective morality, let alone reality."

If you'd like to boast you have no grasp of reality, then that rather rules you out of intelligent discussion with those of us who do, wouldn't you say?

6/10/2007 05:56:00 pm  
Blogger ZenTiger said...

Do we know for sure that the family did recognise their mother was dying, and that it was culture that killed her, or was that the media's interpretation?

How did she get herself to hospital in the first instance?

6/10/2007 06:31:00 pm  
Blogger Ruth said...

I think the problem is our avoidance of awareness - when we avoid awareness in contexts when it is needed.

We do not see the connection between our avoidance of awareness and the emptiness of our marriage, the disappointments of our career, our boredom and fatigue, the unhappiness of our children etc.

To live consciously is not always easy, and I don't think this family were grounded in reality.

6/10/2007 06:55:00 pm  
Anonymous James said...

"Depends what your reasons are, but they'd better be bloody good reasons to pillage and rape me and mine."

Why do I need to funish you with reasons...? Its all subjective so anything goes for any reson at all...

"The Final Solution was entirely logical and they have the receipts to prove it."

Please explain how it was logical to carry out the final solution with all the drama,cost,time,and consequences involved.

6/10/2007 07:32:00 pm  
Blogger Greg Bourke said...

None dare say that this blog theme over the last two weeks lacks compassion and is veering into stereotyping! It's been dissapointing.

When some old white codger dies of a gastric bleed becasue he's too proud to phone the ambulance at 3am what 'culture' is that?? Is that the "ANZAC mentality"?
-------------

6/10/2007 10:13:00 pm  
Anonymous Craig D said...

No, it's a prevelant culture of the elderly.

It's why poor old dears who have had asthma for three days but "didn't want to bother you" only call an Ambulance as a last resort while others pack their bags before they call for a big white taxi to hospital.

I've noticed older people have a much stronger desire for self-reliance. It is a fantastic quality, that unfortunately couples with a lack of medical knowledge, with tragic results.

But self relince is being bred out of us by increasing government "support." Can't wait to see what the Kiwisaver generation will be like when they're old...

And a culture of self reliance is different to a culture ashamed to show weakness. A bit of education lets a self reliant person know when they're beat, but education can't change a culture which is ashamed to ask for help, which uses prayer as a solution to a problem.

6/11/2007 12:42:00 am  
Anonymous JC said...

I'm of two minds. On one hand culture may well have killed her, but she and her family were not unintelligent, and she may well have decided that enough was enough. She couldn't work, she was terminal, the bills weren't getting paid and she may well have decided to just let go without fuss, in her own bed and with her kids at hand.

JC

6/11/2007 10:55:00 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

It's no good indicting religion in general for what happened. That's simply too broad. I doubt even the Muliagas' church (located in the odder reaches of Christianity) would have told them to sit around having a singalongaJeeezus instead of calling an ambulance.

I know people in my native Britain would wait for NHS treatment until it killed them, such is their faith in state provision. Are we to say that we should never ever rely on state provision?

6/11/2007 03:06:00 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

There is no objective morality...
Wouldn't a concept like morality only apply to humans as they are the only animal capable of conceptulising. I think morality is connected to the fact we are human.
Reality and morality lie in the eye of the beholder...
yeah right!

6/11/2007 03:58:00 pm  
Blogger Craig Ranapia said...

When some old white codger dies of a gastric bleed becasue he's too proud to phone the ambulance at 3am what 'culture' is that?? Is that the "ANZAC mentality"?

That's a culture of fucking stupidity too. As I said on another thread, my very palagi grandmother fiercely defended her privacy and independence. Very much of the old 'good fences make good neighbours' school, where you minded your own business, lived within your means and paid your bills on time, kept a happy medium in all things, and didn't wash your dirty linen (or anyone else's) in the middle of street.

That became rather hard when she became a widow, living alone in her 90's - to put it mildly. Towards the end, she couldn't provide for herself the kind of round the clock assistance and medical attention she required, and much as it stung her pride she moved into residential care. Pride is all very nice, but not when it kills you.

6/11/2007 04:01:00 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

That wasn't freudian was it Ruth?

6/11/2007 05:28:00 pm  
Anonymous Benn said...

As a young child I was told that the size of my belly was directly related to how much I'd "invested" in it. If I wanted a big fat belly I'd need to invest consistently and for a sustained period in order to achieve the result I desired. On the other hand should I want a big fat bank account then I'd need to direct my resources toward achieving that instead. I'd need to invest consistently and for a sustained period in order to achieve the result I desired.

So what have we here then? What choice was made? Fatness to the point of termination with unpaid bills mounting up....hmm...

If one wants to live, this would indeed be an unethical direction to take- an unethical goal to pursue. Years and years of unethical behaviour and it's not as if the results of all this eating is an unknown surprise. Oh well, the results must have been worth the effort.

"Invest in your future."

Benn

6/12/2007 06:33:00 am  

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