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Friday, January 14, 2005

Girlfriend is Better

True human goodness, in all its purity and freedom, can come to the fore only when its recipient has no power. Mankind's true moral test, its fundamental test (which lies deeply buried from view), consists of its attitude towards those who are at its mercy: animals. And in this respect mankind has suffered a fundamental debacle, a debacle so fundamental that all others stem from it.

This is a brief passage from Milan Kundera's The Unbearable Lightness of Being. (It is, incidentally a passage that is characteristic of the sentiment of the book, but not of its story.) The story has little to do with the quote; the book tells the story of Tomas, a pleasure-seeking doctor who falls in love and marries a young woman named Tereza. Despite Tomas' intense love for Tereza, he continues to struggle with his desire to sleep with new and different women and staying faithful to his wife.

There are a few points that come to mind when considering this quote.

I considered the general idea of "true human goodness" being measured by the actions of people (not animals, which I believe aren't as important anyway) towards those who are at their mercy in the context of the tsunami victims, or prisoners, or hostages, or any other group of people in the charge of another. The Stanford Prison Experiment is a perfect example of this, as is the recent abuse of prisoners at Abu Ghraib.

To make it particularly relevant, the South-East Asian tsunamis* provide another opportunity to display with prominence the possibility of man's indifference to suffering. This from the The South-East Asia Earthquake and Tsunami Blog:

"In the first arrest in a nationwide crackdown on tsunami relief scams, the FBI took a Carrick man into custody yesterday morning on charges of flooding the Internet with spam solicitations for a bogus relief fund so he could pay to fix his car.

Matthew Z. Schmieder, 24, who lives in a rented brick duplex on Crailo Street, admitted to the FBI that he sent out 800,000 e-mails purporting to be from the Mercy Corps, an international group of humanitarian agencies, according to an affidavit."

Another point I found interesting was a quote I read in a New Zealand newspaper on the amount of aid NZ was offering, and why. The quote, coming from a member of parliament said that they were upping the amount of aid they offered because of the high number of "missing and confirmed dead Kiwi travelers in the area." It seemed strange that aid to countries where thousands were killed would have to be justified on the basis that a few Kiwi citizens were amongst them.

Taking in the consideration the basic truth of Kundera's statement, these examples paint a pretty grim picture of human nature. I'd love to think that people tend to be fair and just about things, but that only tends to be if they know someone is looking (hence the continuing aid to SE Asia from countries saying that they want to "match public donations"). (That idea in general should be reason enough to employ transparency in government, business, and personal morality--it keeps us honest.) What does it say about us if we can't help people simply because they need it? Conversely, what does it say about us when it hurts us to see that some people defraud others with the guise of assisting those in need? Why do we find it repugnant when our leaders have to defend us as "not stingy"? Mankind seems to be as full of confusion and indecision as Tomas.



*Incidentally, some very effective before-and-after photos of areas hit by the tsunami can be seen here.

2 Comments:

Blogger Ben said...

"Mankind's true moral test, its fundamental test (which lies deeply buried from view), consists of its attitude towards those who are at its mercy: animals."

Another famous saying is that you can judge a society on how it treats it's weakest members, i.e the mentally handicapped, the poor, the unborn, the elderly. And, yes, I think animals too. I often wish that a person himself would have to kill the animal that he would eat.. I think that would create a greater sense of humility in that person, a chance to reflect about life as he took another's to feed his own.. though, maybe not. People seem to pass up most chances for humility.


"The Stanford Prison Experiment is a perfect example of this, as is the recent abuse of prisoners at Abu Ghraib."

Or the entire abortion industry.

"Taking in the consideration the basic truth of Kundera's statement, these examples paint a pretty grim picture of human nature. "

Why is it grim to care a little more about your own than others?
It's a little unfair, sure, but grim would be if no one gave a shit at all, or if they only helped their own to the exclusion of others.
How is it grim that some asshole tries to take advantage of a situation where millions and millions of people are pitching in their money to people they've never met and would be hard pressed to locate on a map? Grim would be if there were NO such situation to begin with. As it is, it's just to be expected, cause some people's kids are assholes.

"What does it say about us if we can't help people simply because they need it?"

What are you talking about? We DO help people simply because they need it!!

"Why do we find it repugnant when our leaders have to defend us as "not stingy"?"

What I find repugnant is that those kind of accusations are being made in the first place given the generosity of the US people in their private donations. I guess only tax money counts?

Well I guess I can see why you were a headbanger! Try to look on the positive side of things, Slipknot.

11:18 PM  
Blogger Christopher Zane said...

"Why is it grim to care a little more about your own than others?
It's a little unfair, sure, but grim would be if no one gave a shit at all, or if they only helped their own to the exclusion of others.
How is it grim that some asshole tries to take advantage of a situation where millions and millions of people are pitching in their money to people they've never met and would be hard pressed to locate on a map? Grim would be if there were NO such situation to begin with. As it is, it's just to be expected, cause some people's kids are assholes."

I suppose it'd be more accurate to say "It paints a disappointing picture of what humans are capable of doing."

""What does it say about us if we can't help people simply because they need it?"

What are you talking about? We DO help people simply because they need it!!"

That was in reference to the example of the Prime Minister of New Zealand upping their contribution for what appears to me to be image/political reasons. There are definitely people who give for the sake of giving, but if you think that our representatives are willing to do it out of the goodness of their hearts I'd say that's naive.

Plus, from CBS News:

"Despite the outpouring, the amount still pales in comparison to the donations in the days following the Sept. 11 attacks. But much more is expected. Twenty-nine percent say they have given for tsunami aid; an additional 37 percent say they plan to."

""Why do we find it repugnant when our leaders have to defend us as "not stingy"?"

What I find repugnant is that those kind of accusations are being made in the first place given the generosity of the US people in their private donations. I guess only tax money counts?"

People who donate money privately should be recognized, for sure, but what else would someone from the UN go on when determining the generosity of a nation besides the money that the nation itself gives?

"Well I guess I can see why you were a headbanger!"

Kill that noise, dog.

6:26 PM  

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