Friday, March 28, 2008

When morality hurts

Moral value systems of any universal significance - for the less cynical among us, anyway - seem to go against the grain of our survival instinct. 'Survival for the fittest' is the rule as we all have heard. Yet our moral code tells us that we may be strong, but we should not dominate. We may be powerful, but we should not oppress. And even though we may in the majority, we should not strip the minority of its rights. And even when it was no us that took away, stole or abused the weak and the less fortunate, our moral code still makes us feel so responsible that if an illegitimate endeavor bring us benefit, we feel obliges not to enjoy it, and morally compelled to reject illegitimately obtained benefits.
Moral individuals in pre-civil rights America and apartheid South Africa fought the same system that entitled them to great privileges. Nothing is more beautiful than a human being fighting for someone else's right, fully aware that their own success in their fight will only make them and their children less powerful, less rich or less privileged.
These thoughts came to my mind as I was reading an article on YNet (the online version of the Israeli newspaper, Yediot Ahronot). In summary,

..... A good, ethical Israeli Jew, does not even buy produce or eggs originating from a West Bank settlement. He has no problems dealing with Arabs, and interacts with them equitably, humanely and with no sense of supremacy.
Then he discovers the truth: his own home is built on land owned by Palestinians who ran away fearing for their lives in 1948. He is told this painful truth by one of those Palestinians, sitting in front of him in his house.
The Israeli Jew was not even born then. He did not know that bit of truth, and the Arab is resigned to what destiny dictated on him. Yet, the living pain he sees in the soul of one of the dispossessed people shakes his moral core, and will haunt him for the rest of is life. What should he do?

If we can put aside for a while all the intense feelings almost all of us have about the Israeli Palestinian conflict, it is possible to see how the creation of a state from scratch in the span of less than a century is an amazing sociological experiment. Not even considering the economic, military, political, linguistic and other problems of such an adventure, the ethical and moralistic aspects of such a creation are astounding. Nearly all nations were established on the losses of pre-existing nations. But, none have done so over a short period of time that a fully established country is contemporary to the first generation of those who were dispossessed by its creation.
This posting is not meant to bash Israel, but to reflect on the moral dilemma facing some Israelis who come to the realization that their parents and grandparents, while having worked hard and sacrificed to give them the country they have great privilege living in, they have done so at the expense of individuals that are still alive- Palestinians that are still haunted by the memories of their losses. This is very different from being an American that feels for the injustices done to native Americans or African slaves centuries ago. In Israel, if you feel the pain of those dispossessed by your parents, you also know that the pain is not in the past, is not history, it is an every day reality for some of those people.
To be honest, I do not know how I would feel if I were in their situation. And if I felt bad, what would I do? Or even, what could I do? When correcting a wrong - that we did not even participate in - means we would lose everything, how many of us, Muslims, Jews, Christians, Buddhist, etc, would have the courage to give up what our lives and existence is made of just to make things right?
To you, my few readers, let me pause this question: you are the lucky grandchild of a wealthy man. You get married, and rich grandpa gives you the house of your dreams. You live a wonderful family life, get blessed with 2 lovely children, help your neighbors, worship God faithfully in you own way, and feel good about all fellow humans. Then lighting strikes.
You discover that your loving grandpa, now in heaven, have earned his living by dealing in drugs. The particular piece of land your home sweet home was built on was extorted from the widow of one of your grandpa's over-dose victims; who happened to owe him a lot of money. In such an extreme form, this situations sounds like a cheap B- movie (or a sleazy daytime soap opera if you like). But if you think of a less extreme, and less dramatic, situation, the dilemma could still exists.
Grandpa (or grandma) could be an abusive exploitive employer, a doctor that takes advantage of his patients health issues, an insurance sales person that over-prices and over-hypes the insurance policies he sells, or even an eloquent car sales person that earns a good living passing 'lemons' for used cars to unsuspecting buyers. The dilemma is still the same for you - and you are still on the privileged side, courtesy of the family-loving, yet not ethical grandpa.
What would you do - really? No posturing or 'grand standing' type answers please.
Now, imagine you are on the other side of the fence - the dispossessed side. Does your answer change?
Be honest to yourself above all. Only this kind of introspect and honesty can lead us to some understanding of a reasonable compromise that may last long enough for the ink of its draft to dry.To read the thought provoking article click the link below.
Unclaimed property? by Yehuda Litani - on

1 comment:

  1. This is a complicated question for Americans.

    My great-grandmother was born on a farm in Indian Territory; while my family does not still own that farm there are other families who do still live on land that their great-grandparents took from Native Americans, or from Mexicans, or built on the backs of slaves.

    It wasn't necessarily centuries ago, either. Mexico and America were still fighting over occupied Mexican territory only 80 years ago when Pancho Villa raided Texas. In fact, it wasn't until 1970 that America returned the 413 acre Horcon Tract, including the town of Rio Rico, to Mexico.

    What is certain is that the land I own today was once stolen from someone else.

    But even if I were to return my current house to the Indians, to which tribe should I return it? To the Osage, who were in the St. Louis area when the first Europeans arrived? Or to the Illini tribes that the Osage conquered in the 16th century, or to the Cahokian tribes that the Illini conquered in the 14th century, or to the descendants of the Woodland people who were here before the Cahokians?

    I am fairly certain that my grandfather was ethical. But if I discovered he was not, would I really try to return his money, since that would mean that my grandmother would have to leave her comfortable private nursing home? I don't think I would do that to my grandmother. But I would want to try to make amends in some other way, especially if I benefited from any remaining estate after my grandmother passed on.