By Angela Zhao
Title: Facing your moral imperfections. Welcome to adulthood.
There was a lecture today that attempted to demonstrate the Socratic Method. The professor asked this question: If you could alleviate or eliminate suffering at a relatively low cost to yourself, should you?
The overwhelming answer from the audience was yes. As a society, we generally perceive suffering and pain to be bad things, and it would be morally corrupt to, in good conscience, allow such things to continue. Besides, it’s not that great of a burden to donate a couple of dollars here or a few hours of time there. Aren’t all human lives equally valuable and precious?
I’d like to say yes. I want to say yes. But do I actually believe that? I’m not sure.
You see, there are plenty of organizations that help — and by help, I mean aid organizations that benefit the lives of the people (not just perpetuate an insidious aid cycle that undermines local economies and governments). The Against Malaria Foundation is one such organization — they donate insecticide-treated insect nets to prevent the spread of and death by malaria. The only purpose this foundation has is to improve people’s lives.
It would be morally good to donate. Knowing that I helped alleviate malaria — malaria! — and helped people live better lives free from those insects in their sleep — well, that’s a wonderful idea. But do I donate money? No, no I don’t. Even when I have learned of the benefits these people receive, there is still resistance to do so.
I do volunteer at organizations near where I live. I spent time at the local senior home. I started my own non-profit that promotes civic duty, and I helped the children in my neighborhood become more civic-minded. We’ve donated canned food, sorted food at the county food bank and volunteered for multiple shifts at Sunday Friends, an organization that strives to help families break out of poverty.
I believe that doing is more important than giving. That is, I believe that putting in the time and effort at the organization is more valuable than the money one can simply donate. But can’t donating money be just as, if not even more, effective than time? Clearly, I must value community service and civic duty, so what stops me from sending 10 bucks to the Against Malaria Foundation?
From a different angle, because I help those around me and not those away from me, does that mean that I value people differently? That I believe, deep down, that the lives of the people near me are more important than the lives of the people living far from me? I know that I value the lives of my family more than the lives of unknown strangers, that if I had to choose between my sister and a stranger to save, I’d save my sister. Everyone’s lives are inherently of equal value, but to me, because I care for the people I know more, their lives have added value.
Yet I don’t donate to the organizations around me, either. I do service work. And perhaps that is where my values lie — in hands-on service. I must make peace with that — or change it.
Being morally imperfect isn’t a revelation. I knew that I was already an imperfect human being — I would venture to say that we all are imperfect by virtue of being human. But the Socratic Method forces me to confront my own beliefs from a startling stark perspective, shocking me into seeing my own ideas in a clearer light. Perhaps I will have the moral courage to change myself. Or to justify myself.
It is very easy to be a sheep, to keep my head down low and follow what I think is right, when in reality there are many inconsistencies in my actions that pop up all over the place.
I am not a proponent of moral relativism. I believe that there is a universal set of values that define good and bad. But do I buy into that because it was taught to me or because I truly believe that morals exist in this universe?
Moral relativism is certainly a position that feels like a guarantee of the moral high ground, precisely because one can’t judge another person’s morals since universally held values of good and bad don’t exist.
But I want to hammer out my own morals. I want to know why I think the way I do and how I can come to terms with or change myself for the better.
Ladies and gentlemen, here is my midlife crisis, 20 years before it was scheduled to happen. I suppose I shall perish at the ripe old age of 36. Or, as the professor succinctly said at the end, welcome to adulthood.
I hope you have a wonderful day.
Contact Angela Zhao at angezhao ‘at’ stanford.edu.