Some Thoughts About Morality

Trip Start Feb 25, 2010
Trip End Feb 01, 2011

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Flag of China  , Tianjin Shi,
Sunday, November 6, 2011

Before I begin I'd just like to draw your attention back to the word "thoughts" in the title. Notice it doesn't say "judgements", "conclusions", "facts", or any other emphatically final-sounding word. When attempting to tackle a topic as vast as morality it's crucial to maintain a humble awareness of our inability to grasp it fully, and not to make sweeping statements based on very limited evidence. Anyone who's been paying attention to previous entries may be thinking that that's precisely what I've been doing these past 18 months, and to those people I say "Shut your hole, no one likes a smart arse".

What's been bugging me is the incongruity between theory and reality with regard to Chinese principles and moral standards. The theory as I understand it is that Chinese society is geared towards meeting the needs of the group rather than satisfying the aspirations of the individual. Your identity is derived mainly from that of your "unit"; be it a work unit, residential unit, family unit, and so on; and any attempt to stand out from your unit's collective identity is seen as foolish or even dangerous. There are two popluar sayings in China that illsutrate this point: "The nail that stands up gets hammered back down" and "The bird that flies first gets shot down". All of this seems to lead logically to the conclusion that Chinese society is characterised by conformity and stability. This could be a bit of a leap, but I would further suggest that it implies a morality that encourages the abandonment of egocentrism in favour of preserving the general welfare of others around you.

So that's the theory, now for the facts. During my 18 months in China I have seen very little evidence of people sacrificing their needs for the good of others. In fact, much of what I have seen has metaphorically shat in the face of such a concept. It could be people shoving each other to be the first one on a train or bus, people cutting in line in almost any situation, people endangering the lives of others by driving on the wrong side of the road or making any number of criminally reckless manouvres, people pushing their way into a lift before you've had chance to get out, or any other similarly "egocentric" actions that prevent the existence of a stable and harmonious society, and thereby blatantly undermine the basis of socialist morality.

This apparent disregard for other people can sometimes take a very dark form. About a month ago, in a city in southern China, a two-year old girl wandered into the middle of the road, where she was run over by a van. The driver didn't stop, and soon afterwards the girl was run over for a second time by another vehicle. In the few minutes that followed, 18 people walked past the scene, and not a single person did anything to help. Eventually she was taken to the side of the road, where her mother found her moments later. They were taken to the intensive care unit of a nearby hospital, where she died a week later. A newspaper has since conducted a survey asking people for their views on the incident, and when asked why they thought 18 people walked by without stopping to help, more than 50% said that the people were probably afraid to assume any responsibility in the matter, and only 1.63% said they thought that the 18 people didn't realise what had happened.

It would be easy to start making allegations of moral bankruptcy in China, but that would be oversimplifying the situation. It should be noted that in 2006 a man brought an old woman to the hospital after she fell down, only to be accused by the woman herself of pushing her. The judge ruled in favour of the old woman, stating it was common sense that only a guilty person would help the victim. This case has often been cited as a major reason for people's unwillingness to get involved, and I can certainly see how such a cynical legal stance would alter people's behaviour in certain situations. But can this really be used to justify leaving an innocent child to die in the street?

I said at the beginning of this entry that I didn't want to make any big statements about an issue I couldn't ever hope to understand. I lied.

When considering the question of why China, a country that favours the group over the individual, would have such widespread egocentrism while England, a country that encourages the individual to set him or herself ahead of the crowd, would have (admittedly from my biased perspective) such deep-rooted respect and consideration for others, my initial thoughts turn to education.While it may not be perfect, the English education system succeeds in encouraging not only thinking, but good behaviour as well. In discussion-based classrooms, the student must respect others, listening to their ideas and responding in ways which demonstrate acceptance of them as individuals, even while critiquing their ideas. Discussion groups are ethical in nature, since the students participating in them practice recognising and respecting the feelings of others. This method of education is almost completely lacking in China. Most students don't get any practice of listening and responding to the views of their peers, but instead learn that they should do what they're told, keep their heads down, and stay out of trouble. It's possible that this system has stunted the ability of many people to figure out for themselves what choices to make in difficult situations, especially ones that involve reconciling the tension between their own interests and the interests of others.

In the interest of fairness, I have to make it clear that these observations about Chinese morality do not apply to everyone. In fact, most of the people I've got to know personally have been extremely generous and kind-hearted. It also needs to be said that England too has its fair share of egocentric shit heads who put themselves before everyone else, and these two facts lead me to wonder to what extent our morality is determined by our environment, and what other factors might be at work.
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larlar1286 on

Hey Matt,

I missed this entry when you first posted it. I saw your "Halloween" entry right after the holiday, but I only just saw this one.

First of all, I felt a surge of amazement and pride when I read the two Chinese idioms because they show that you have much more than a day-to-day understanding of the language. So cool.

Secondly, it never occurred to me that if Chinese students were to have a proper debate in class, they may have trouble respecting each other's opinions because they haven't learned how to do so in a classroom setting.

I too was horrified by the story and video of the little girl who was run over. While reading the story, I assumed the little girl was in the middle of a large street and that people were passing on the sidewalk. But while watching the video, I realized that the street was narrow and the people who were walking by came within inches of her. It was horrible. I hope China makes changes soon.

Thanks for writing,

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