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.
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** For your second bit of homework, if you want to know more about Objectivist morality then you might want to act on that ...
- 'The Objectivist Ethics,' by Ayn Rand, in her book The Virtue of Selfishness: A New Concept of Egoism.
- Audiobook excerpt from the introduction to The Virtue of Selfishness.
- Religion and Morality - a free talk by Onkar Ghate at the Ayn Rand Institute web page.[Free registration is required. Once registered go to the Registered User Page and scroll down to 'Religion and Morality]
- Is-Ought? Not a Problem - Not PC
- Why Morality at All? - Not PC
- Does Evil Exist? - Not PC
- Cue Card Libertarianism: Morality - Not PC