A Moral Dilemma

19 Jan 2008

I recently read a very interesting article called Do the Right Thing which discusses moral standards in different cultures. From the article:

> Consider the following dilemma: Mike is supposed to be the best man at a friend’s wedding in Maine this afternoon. He is carrying the wedding rings with him in New Hampshire, where he has been staying on business. One bus a day goes directly to the coast. Mike is on his way to the bus station with 15 minutes to spare when he realizes that his wallet has been stolen, and with it his bus tickets, his credit cards, and all his forms of ID.

> At the bus station Mike tries to persuade the officials, and then a couple of fellow travelers, to lend him the money to buy a new ticket, but no one will do it. He’s a stranger, and it’s a significant sum. With five minutes to go before the bus’s departure, he is sitting on a bench trying desperately to think of a plan. Just then, a well-dressed man gets up for a walk, leaving his jacket, with a bus ticket to Maine in the pocket, lying unattended on the bench. In a flash, Mike realizes that the only way he will make it to the wedding on time is if he takes that ticket. The man is clearly well off and could easily buy himself another one.

> Should Mike take the ticket?

The article stated that Americans are likely to say that no, Mike should not take the ticket, but that in many cultures Mike’s social obligation outweighs the prohibition against stealing.

Since Chinese culture attaches great importance to relationships, I would expect Chinese people to agree that Mike should take the ticket and get to the wedding. But will they really?

I’m leaving the conclusion up to you, my readers. Pose the story above to a Chinese person or two, ask them the question, and then in the comment of this posts, report back on what they say. I’ll add the results to the end of this post.

Get asking!

UPDATE: The responses seem quite divided. I gather that most of the commenters have a multi-cultural viewpoint (for example, Chinese abroad, or Westerners in Shanghai), so it’s hard to say what the “typical” answer would be. Conclusion: blog posts may not be the best medium for anthropological research into cross-cultural moral codes. Shocking!

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John Pasden

John is a Shanghai-based linguist and entrepreneur, founder of AllSet Learning.

Comments

  1. interesting. i’ll pose this to my friends. by the way, what’d your wife say? 😉

  2. just asked the chinese girlfriend. she said she’d take the ticket, pretty much for exactly the reason you stated about social obligation outweighing prohibitions against stealing.

    she was also pretty confident that her friends would do the same, information she volunteered without me asking, so it’s probably accurate.

    it will be interesting to see what others say.

  3. Speaking as a Chinese person, I would take the ticket.

    As a Chinese person who often watch American television, I’m often surprised at how judgmental (from my cultural standards) some television shows are.

    For instance, in crime dramas, policemen and detectives often pressure family members of the perpetrator to leak information, or even to testify against him. Often, they invoke abstract ideals such as truth and justice.

    From my perspective, family loyalty should always come first, whether you like the person or not. And even if you disapprove of the crime, seeing as the crime is already done, and nothing can reverse it.

    But I buy into traditional values far more than most modern Chinese people. So my views could be biased.

    In Classical China, there are laws which forbid family members to testify against each other. A family member which testifies against his family is sometimes punished for unfiliality.

    There is also a famous court case where a son avenged his father. Many Confucian scholars debated whether his deed was righteous. One clever scholar said that while the son was righteous, he should be punished anyway, because if he were not punished, then he would be robbed of his righteousness. I can’t remember how the case turned out in the end.

  4. Hmm frankly I’m quite surprised by the responses so far. I’m Chinese too and my answer would be not to take the ticket. I guess people just have different moral boundaries, but to me, a crime is a crime. No social obligations or familial ties should trump that.
    And Abstract, that story about the son and father is, uh, interesting. I kinda recall stories like that. But should I mention that we don’t live in a Confucian society anymore? Or a society where sons must obey their fathers and women must obey their husbands no matter what? I don’t know if I’m not traditional enough or what. But I never really liked Confucius much anyway.

  5. dezza,

    My wife said she wouldn’t take it, citing the following Chinese moral principle:

    不以善小而不为,不以恶小而为之。

    A rough overly-passive translation is: Do not let any good go undone because it is small; do not let any evil be done, small though it may be.

  6. Is the question mostly concerning the legality of the situation, and whethter an individual would break the law if the circumstances made it seem necessary?

    No one seems to be thinking about this seemingly well off stranger who might have an important obligation in Maine, as well. He could be attending the same wedding, or receiving an organ transplant. And the theft of this ticket could spurn that man to commit a crime, too. He could, deciding he really needs to make it to Maine, steal a car, and being legally blind cause a fiery accident with a school bus.

    Not to mention that just appearing wealthy isn’t the same as seeing someone’s bank statement. He’s still riding the bus.

  7. I would take the ticket but leave a note behind advising the man why I had to take it and provide my contact information (name, address and telephone #) in order to get him a re-imbursement for the “ticket loan” later. This way, all debts are eventually re-paid and the moral equation is balanced.

  8. I’m from Canada and I think I would wait until the man comes back and then ask him if I could take his ticket. I could arrange to pay him back at a later date. I don’t know, this is a tough situation.

  9. Ha ha, some cute answers here. Guys, you can’t come up with the perfect answer. The whole point is that it’s a moral dilemma: neither answer is right, but you have to choose one. So you either steal, or you let down your friends big time. You can’t leave notes, can’t talk to the rich man, etc. That’s the point.

  10. I’m Chinese. I definitely won’t take it. A crime is a crime, no matter what excuse you have.

  11. Actually, I think this has less to do with whether you’re Chinese or not, than just who you are.

    I imagine most of my Western friends would take the ticket. Those that are smart enough to do so anyway.

  12. A crime is a crime, no matter what excuse you have.

    This is the type of thinking which I just don’t understand. What are laws except words written by those in power?

    Conversely, social obligations are natural. As Simonides says, “Justice is giving each man his due.”

    In the Classics, the sages referred to laws as instruments. Therefore, laws should be created, interpreted, and abolished according to needs. But social obligations are sanctioned by Heaven.

    We should further note that people had far greater freedom in former times. In modern times, the state continuously expands laws and regulations in order to increase power. Because state authority competes against the authority of traditions and social obligations, the state creates the modern mentality, which recognises individuals but not communities. Mencius says that those who wish to increase government above that of Yao and Shun are like the Tyrant Jie.

    When someone uses laws to break down family obligations, he has become an enemy of the people. Mencius testifies thus when he approves of assassination against oppressors. Therefore, we understand written law as having validity only by convention. True law is the unspoken law of Heaven.

  13. why did he have the ring?

  14. and why don’t you try posting on your Chinese blog?( although I admit that there will always be idiots on the internet)

  15. Having skimmed the article “Do the Right Thing,” I can provide more direct illustrations.

    Most people who comment here are presumably middle-class to upper-class. When you are comfortably middle-class, you don’t always observe how laws create injustices. Therefore, the tendency is to assume that laws are in general benevolent, and that even bad laws can be patiently tolerated.

    I too am middle-class, but I’ve had many opportunities in my life to observe injustices. For instance, up until recently, Traditional Chinese Medicine was illegal in British Columbia. Therefore, TCM healers worked underground. If you were caught, you could be given severe prison terms.

    In the past, TCM did not provide lucrative incomes. So why did people risk such severe legal repercussions? They did so because they had integrity. They knew that they served the public. They healed many people, both Chinese and non-Chinese, for little to nothing. They healed many people who ran out of options in modern medicine.

    It was their integrity which compelled these people to break the law. Integrity (or in Confucian parlance, righteousness) often stands in opposition to the law. Therefore, the view that we should always obey the law leads to unrighteousness.

    In the article, the researchers analysed the relationship between conventions and natural morality. What is natural morality apart from this basic integrity? Conversely, law is most clearly a minor specimen of conventions. Law is moreover an instrument of the state, which should correspondingly be viewed with suspicion.

    In the dilemma as given, we know without a doubt that the man with the ticket can buy a new ticket. Therefore, he has no real loss. Conversely, if we do not steal the ticket on account of law, we act selfishly. We act selfishly because we cling to our relation to law, without consideration for our friend’s due.

    In real life, a case could be built that this man may appear rich, but is actually poor. Or perhaps for unpredictable reasons, this man cannot buy a new ticket. In that case, a true moral dilemma results.

    But the dilemma as given is no real dilemma, because no loss accrues to the rich man if we steal the ticket.

  16. I put this question to my g/f, & she said she’d probably take the ticket. At the same time, she compared the above situation with the below (heavily paraphrased)…
    “A cop stops a car in the street, and takes it, so he can pursue and catch a criminal. The cop takes the car in order to perform a good deed, no? So how’s that different from someone taking the ticket, in order to perform a good deed?”.

  17. he got himself into this mess.
    he should get himself out of it.
    dude, get a free phone call somehow.
    a friend or family will sort you out.

    see, relationships are important.

    don’t go stealing, tho.
    that’s bad news. karma, yanno.

  18. Abstract, I entirely disagree. Laws against stealing are not a method of government control imposed on the poor, you’re bringing up some kind of middle-class liberal guilt which doesn’t really fit. Laws against stealing are a basic tenet of living in a society and even the mystical Chinese emperors (as well as the most anti-law dynasties) had laws against stealing, for those who actually care about the supposed laws of mythical Chinese leaders, which is very few people inside China and even fewer outside.

    And mentioning “the ways of heaven” is just an appeal to the (generally Western) understand that once something is said to emanate from religion, you can’t argue about it or even discuss it, it’s nonsense. Especially when “way of heaven” is so arbitrary – who gets to choose the way of Heaven? According to the Judaism-derived religions, “Thou shall not steal” is something that comes directly from God. It’s also the number 2 precept given by Buddha (after a ban on killing). Confucius had a lot to say against stealing as well.

    Basically, the question comes down to “is it OK to steal from a wealthy stranger in order to help out a friend.” Maybe “steal from a stranger to pay for your mother’s surgery” would be a better fit to your arguments.

  19. Whatever, that’s STEAL if he just takes the ticket!
    If this happens to me, I think I’ll leave paper/card in the guy’s pocket with my phone number or something can identify myself.
    It’s not the only way at least you have to steal his ticket though, you can’t foresee what tragedy would befall to that guy after you take away HIS ticket.
    “The man is clearly well off and could easily buy himself another one.” Sorry, rejected. 10 mins ago, you definitely have no problem to buy yourself another ticket either, and besides, how you could know/prove that you are in a more critical time than he is?!

  20. Ok, can’t leave notes, sorry. I’ll choose to disappoint my best friend then. My basic moral fibre is: You can’t extricate yourself by afflicting someone else instead. That’s the point.
    Maybe one can find big 1000 pretexts to absolve himself/herself, but remember, that makes no difference to crimes.

  21. You can mark me down for “Don’t steal the ticket”

  22. Dear Jeffrey D.:

    Concerning Heaven, it is said, “Tian bu bian, dao yi bu bian.” Interpreted in English, “Heaven does not change, neither does the way.”

    Specifically concerning stealing, we would have to argue from the basis of the Classics. The Classics, being subtle and full of nuances, can produce diverse interpretations. But we should note that the opposition of righteousness and law is well-established.

    (For reference, I accept New Text Learning, the apocrypha and prophecies, as well as Han cosmological sciences. I admit – my interpretations are not entirely conventional (how can it be, in this day and age, when there are so many diverse traditions from which to learn?) But my contention that Heaven sanctions social obligations, that laws are mere instruments of governance, and that righteousness precedes laws – these are orthodox interpretations in all Confucian traditions.)

    In the article, an elder from the Maisin village analysed the dilemma in terms of collective responsibility. In many traditional societies, rich people had a duty to finance communal events, in exchange for fame and honour. If someone was wealthy, but refused to share his resources, then everyone would despise him. Sometimes, the community would banish this person so to redistribute his wealth.

    So if the wealthy person refused point-blank to give up his ticket, without providing a reasonable explanation, I would have no problem taking the ticket by force (if I had the power).

    To tell the truth, much of what I wrote above is just for argument’s sake. In a real situation, I might not bother to steal the ticket. But I find it interesting that some people imagine that laws are absolutes. When in reality, laws are subject to conventions. By contrast, these people reject social obligations, which are natural.

    Finally, I think it’s perfectly legitimate to steal from a wealthy stranger to benefit a friend, as when Xenophon plundered Asidates to pay his army.

  23. We should also note that failure to appear at a wedding can be disastrous. For one thing, we disappoint our best friend. But we also shame him in front of his bride, his in-laws, and his guests. The bride could refuse to proceed until the ring appears, in which case many guests would be inconvenienced. Lastly, the in-laws could hold the best friend as insincere, in which case they could spend many years destroying the marriage.

    This of course plays into the rituals, which is the pillar of Confucianism. Social obligations are not fulfilled in absence of proper rituals. Furthermore, if you accept Han cosmological sciences like me, then you would ascribe the impending failure of the marriage to improper observance of rituals.

  24. And of course, I realise that Confucianism is irrelevant in much of contemporary China. But maybe it’s time to change that. Or at least struggle bravely for a lost cause.

    Note that Mao preferred Legalism to Confucianism. I have nothing against Mao. I guess legalists were just statists born two thousand years too early.

  25. No way. There is no justification to take the ticket. Chinese culture is not an excuse. Nowhere in thousands of years’ teaching has Chinese allowed the excuse to steal.

    The person will later apologize to the friend for missing the wedding because he lost the wallet and accept whatever blames to come.

  26. I can’t agree that there is no right answer. Different people may disagree on which is right, and it may be that the consequences of taking or not taking the act will be of nearly equal utilitarian value. None of us have all the tools to truly evaluate this scenario, but that doesn’t preclude the possibility of some objective truth.

  27. Why do we need to refer to nonsense like the classics to answer this question? Who cares what a bunch of old fools plagues with ridiculous ideas on how the world works – or ought to work – that have been politicized by those in power then and now; mistranslated over the years; and, worse, poisoned by intellectually dishonest anthropologists.

    Stop asking the dead for wisdom.

    IMO moral codes – at least those that have stood the test of time transmitted from generation to generation whether through GENES or MEMES – serve as a set of rules for social interaction. WHAT IS IMPORTANT is WHY some moral codes survive?

    Obviously, the only rational explanation is that they improve the host’s survivability and ability to transmit the moral code to the next generation.

    There are plenty of good reasons why you shouldn’t steal: the victim may notice, pull out a knife and kill you; society may learn of your misdeeds and shun you; another person may notice and blackmail you.

    AND there are plenty of good reasons why you should steal: the net benefit outweighs the risk; the consequence of not stealing is dying of hunger; the consequence of not stealing is being shunned by your social group.

    BACK to the ticket, personally I would NOT steal because my mother and father taught me NEVER to steal. I realize that people have other morals which are equally valid (since there is no way to objectively validify or invalidify morals). However, since such polar-opposite morals are incompatible with mine (because objectively the two cannot co-exist), I would lean against ejecting such people from my society or culture.

  28. Lots of people here who would NEVER steal.

    I’m not asking anyone in person; but are all the music and movie files on your harddrive legally owned by yourself?

  29. John, damn you for asking this question after I’m already done with university classes. Think of the two-hundred-odd data points I could’ve collected!

    As is, I did something similar with a very famous ethical dilemma, Heinz’s Dilemma, by Dr. Lawrence Kohlberg. In that dilemma, the wife of a man named Heinz is dying from cancer, and Heinz tries to buy a rare cancer-fighting drug from a local druggist, but the druggist marks up the price because, in his view, it is his right. In the end, Heinz steals the drug to save his wife. I asked roughly five hundred students (over 1.5 years) if what Heinz did was right, and about half said yes and half said no.

    The yes-respondents said either one’s obligation to family comes before the obligation to follow the law or that Heinz ought to help those he loves. (Similar answers, but the former is more philosophical.) The no-respondents said that we cannot break laws whenever we feel like it or else it will lead to social chaos or took the less complex position that breaking laws and/or stealing is always wrong, just because.

    I would guess that we’d also see a similar split on your question as well, though perhaps a slightly larger percentage of people would agree with taking the tickets because there’s no identifiable owner being wronged in the story. On the other hand, I’d say that in the Chinese cultural milieu, committing a crime to help one’s friends out (your example) is less acceptable than committing a crime to help one’s family (the Heinz dilemma).

  30. Hahaha, BEn, that’s a good one.

    I doubt any poster here has never stolen. And I doubt their parents have never stolen. It’s easy to say, I won’t steal. But when you need something, you just take it. That’s a fact of life.

    Lorean, as I’ve mentioned, most of what I wrote was for the sake of argument. My views led to my position on the Classics, not vice versa. But don’t you think the world would be a better place if everyone had faith in the Classics?

    Prior to the 1960s, intellectuals imagined falsely that religions naturally disappeared with the onset of industrialisation. But now we know that industrialisation and globalisation often encourage religions, and that religions are a perennial force in human lives. Shouldn’t we learn to live with religion instead of clinging to an unrealistic remnant of Enlightenment rationalism?

    In Three Kingdoms and Water Margin, people stole all the time. Actually, they killed all the time too. The moral of the stories is that loyalty trumps everything.

    I don’t know how many people here are young men, and how many are women. Being a young man myself, I prefer to listen to the calls for brotherhood, for comradery, and for vainglorious bravado.

    Anyway, I’m just surprised how judgmental people are. No sympathy for the outlaw? Not at all?

  31. IMO, Abstract’s position is mistaken: not stealing is also a social obligation, not simply a legalistic requirement for rulers to more effectively manage a state. I expect Confucius would probably ask which of the two actions (stealing the ticket, vs not turning up to the wedding) would do the greater damage to the social relationships between the people concerned. Perhaps in Confucius’s time, not turning up to the wedding would have been the greater evil. I don’t believe it would be today- with modern communications, the rest of the wedding party will find out soon enough that the best man not turning up was due to bad luck, not a snub or sign that the groom’s family don’t respect the bride’s, etc.

  32. Furthermore, “never commit a crime”…

    According to a recent census, over 90% Canadians have smoked weed at some point in their life. (Here in British Columbia, weed is the only thing keeping our economy alive, lol.) And I bet everyone here has drunken underage.

    (I guess the weed part doesn’t apply to China, but drinking does.)

    And then there is the ubiquitous poker game. And if you’re the adventurous type, you can attend all sorts of underground fights and underground parties. You can explore closed industrial sites. Or you can sleep on the beaches to watch the stars (sometimes against regulations).

    Ever taken your girlfriend to an abandoned building to make out (oops, trespassing)?

    I mean, come on…

    “Never commit a crime,” isn’t that just a byword for lame?

  33. Ji Feng Jing Cao Says: January 21, 2008 at 5:17 am

    Abstract,

    Please do excuse my rashness but I somehow fail to comprehend your post. How is it judgemental for the police to pressure people into testifying against their family members, from ANY cultural standard?!

    And there WERE laws prohibiting people from giving evidence in a case where their families are involved, but that’s to prevent them from giving false evidence to protect their loved ones, surely?!

    I’d be ashamed to be “a Chinese person” if I didn’t know the idiom 大义灭亲。 Here’s a reminder if you somehow just happened to have forgotten the most relevant reference on this topic. Not how in the end it says “石碏的这种做法得到后人的赞许,后来人们称这种行为是 “ 大义灭亲 ” 。” If Shi La heard what you’ve been babbling here, he’d be turning in his grave!

  34. I have a friend who studied philosophy and used to mark undergrad papers on ethics. It was pretty funny how uncomfortable people are choosing between two tricky alternatives in these hypothetical dilemmas – levers and trains, spacesuits and oxygen, organ transplants. The students would receive full marks merely for picking an answer and giving some small reasoning, but most of them wouldn’t do that. They’d put some extra material on the train tracks, cram two people into one spacesuit, call a neighbouring hospital. It was quite funny and you seem to have the same problem here.

  35. Me (westerner) and gf (Chinese): We both don’t steal.

    It’s a good problem. I think many people who say they wouldn’t steal, somewhere in the backs of their minds are thinking they’ll find another way to get to the wedding. 🙂

  36. @BEn, Abstract,
    No one here denies he/she did or is doing nothing wrong. Basically, human beings do have crime impulse and that’s why we need laws and morality.
    You can’t rely on such excuse to make someone exonerated from doing terrible.
    We need bottom line, otherwise everyone can merely tell the judge “You have no qualification to adjudge me guilty simply because every man did/does illegally things.” ???
    Additionally, do you agree to abolish any law thus make hypocritical people more honest?

  37. Ji Feng Jing Cao:

    Concerning laws – they were made to prevent unfilial behaviour. You see, in Classical China, the basic relationship is not between the individual and the state. Instead, it was a chain of command proceeding from the family upward to the Emperor. The Emperor was envisioned as the father of the nation.

    If I find the exact reference for it, I’ll post it.

    Concerning Shique – this is fundamentally different, because it involved regicide. Regicide is a specimen of unfiliality.

    In ancient China, filiality was the fundamental political principle. Xiaojing (The Book of Filiality) expands filiality far beyond the parent-child relationship into every aspect of society.

    Again, as I said, my classical references are for argument’s sake. The Classics cannot produce a simple, unassailable answer. There are many case studies which support my views too.

    Kastner:

    But there are other ways to govern society apart from laws. These ways are rituals and social obligations.

    In fact, Confucianism is a force which limits tyranny. It limits tyranny because it places the Classics above the state. The Classics in turn place Heaven-sanctioned social obligations above the ruler. Therefore, the ruler may implement laws to maintain rituals, but he may not exceed the limits of rituals.

    The same goes for the Qur’an and the Bible. The Qur’an and the Bible have historically limited tyranny by appeals to divine commands. This is why the most radical Christian fundamentalists are all libertarians. (Libertarians prefer non-coercive authorities, such as traditions and social obligations, over coercive authorities, such as government and laws. Some libertarians accept private properties. Others don’t.)

    It is well-established (but not well-known) that Pre-Republican China was far freer than Republican China and contemporary China. Very few laws reached into the villages. Those which did were rarely enforced. Moreover, magistrates could often choose not to enforce laws which offended renqing (human conditions).

    I quote Sun Yat-Sen (Sun Zhongshan):

    ‘That foreigners should not be familiar with Chinese history and should not know that since ancient times Chinese have enjoyed a large measure of liberty, is not strange. But that our own students should have forgotten the Liberty Song of the ancient Chinese–

    “When the sun rises…What has the Emperor’s power to do with me?”

    We can see from this Liberty Song that China, while she has not had liberty in name, has had liberty in fact from days of old, and so much of it that she need not seek for more.’

  38. Ji Feng Jing Cao:

    In my first reply, I did not understand your question entirely. This is a bit off-topic, but I’ll clarify what I meant by common crime dramas being judgmental.

    When I said that the shows were judgmental, I meant that they expected family members to testify against each other, on the basis of supposed “guilt.”

    From my perspective, this “guilt” is very annoying. It is very annoying because it is very egotistic.

    I mean, your family member committed a crime. So what? Everyone was getting along fine, until this policeman shows up and tells you to feel guilty. And then this guilt, which is really a device to draw attention to yourself, compels you mess up everyone else’s life.

    Imagine you and a few friends decided to smoke in the school washroom. And then one of your friends felt “guilty” about it and ratted everyone out. Wouldn’t you feel annoyed at him?

    If he wants to do himself in, then fine. But why drag everyone down with him? This is clearly exaggerated self-importance. Yet shows like Law and Order and CSI (especially CSI Miami) view this “guilt” as normal, or even extoll it.

    Frankly, even if I were the perpetrator, I would not feel guilty. Because once a crime is committed, you can’t reverse it. All you can do is try to remedy the situation. What does sitting in a jail-cell do for anyone? It only alleviates your “guilt.” Which is basically a plot device to enlarge ego’s drama.

    The other thing I find judgmental about these shows is that they present a set of “good guys” against a set of “bad guys.” These “good guys” are lawyers and policemen, who are high on self-righteousness. I mean, sure, you have to do your job. I’m fine with that. But what gives you the right to judge someone else when you’ve never been in his shoes?

    It’s like that song by Everlast, “What it’s like”:

    “God forbid you ever had to walk a mile in his shoes/
    ‘Cause then you really might know what it’s like to sing the blues/
    Then you really might know what it’s like”

    Especially when the “bad guys” are everyday average folks like you and me.

    May your passions burn so strong as to melt steel. But don’t get on some non-existent high horse.

    I don’t know…some of these shows are fun, but they are a turn-off when they get judgmental. This is why I prefer to watch Cold Case, which usually treats the perpetrator and the victim with equal sympathy.

    Maybe other people feel differently.

    Or maybe I just subscribe to the romantic outlaw tradition more than most people. I remember once upon a time when every schoolboy recited verses from the Iliad and the Odyssey. It was a time when a manly bravado was encouraged, when courts pardoned young men with “boys will be boys.”

    Of course, if you belonged to the lower classes, you faced draconian laws, when you could be hung for stealing a chicken or a pig. Once again, the same laws have entirely different implications depending on your social class.

  39. @Abstract,
    No, I reckon we are not talking Confucianism, though John might has referred to it.

    What’s wrong with that? Not every Chinese is under the influence of Confucianism I must point that, actually I’m more Daoism, but that won’t alter one’s basic morality, neither Confucianism will.
    Oh, at first place Confucianism is ruling by man, when it has the force to limit tyranny, it has also the force to repress all opposition, which can be brutal beyond our imagination, sorry. And if we’d look back to the history, the most liberal time in China was whenever Confucianism declines.
    Besides, I don’t think morality = religion. 😛

  40. Kastner:

    Confucianism rarely repressed opposition by force. It mostly ignored the opposition. Conversely, Daoism has. All four Exterminations of Buddhism took place under Daoist emperors.

    Even Korea, where Neo-Confucianism eventually wiped out Buddhism, used laws rather than violence. Buddhism was wiped out because Confucians forbid Buddhist monks from entering cities.

    Daoism, by the way, is very close to Confucianism. In fact, Daoism is the natural development of Han Confucianism. This is why you find Han apocrypha and prophecies in the Daoist canon.

    I was actually responding to your statement, “Basically, human beings do have crime impulse and that’s why we need laws and morality.”

    I illustrated the advantages of non-coercive authorities, such as traditions and social obligations, above coercive authorities, such as laws and governments.

    You said that “And if we’d look back to the history, the most liberal time in China was whenever Confucianism declines.”

    This is debatable. The Daoist Tang dynasty was certainly more liberal than later Confucian dynasties. I admit that.

    But the dichotomy between Daoism and Confucianism is very much a modern construction. Prior to the Neo-Confucians, most Daoists were thoroughly familiar with the Classics. Most Confucians also knew Daoism. (For instance, Sushi, the Song poet, grew up in a Daoist monastery.)

    I think the farther back you go in Chinese history, the freer people were. There was a raw, natural, magical energy. This is true probably for all nations.

    This energy gradually disappeared from the upper-class, because they succumbed to the temptation of easy success. But as soon as you escape the narrow comfort-zone strip of the Chinese literati, into areas like Traditional Chinese Religion, Chinese shamanism, or even Chinese theatre, you encounter very life-affirming, very liberating aspects of Chinese culture.

    I think this is what my people need. I mean, in this day and age where most teenagers (and college kids) are glued to Warcraft, and all anyone cares about is an easy business position – we need to recapture the vibrant, somewhat dangerous heritage of our ancestors. And this is my work in brief. This is what I write about in my books.

    A bit off topic. But I hope you see where I am coming from.

  41. yeah, off topic. Thanks Abstract, I’ll read and think of it.
    I’m waiting for John to add the results though.

  42. As a Chinese-American, I would not steal. But I don’t think any of my family members (raised in China) would steal the ticket either.

  43. Why “tweet”?

  44. There is only one right answer. You don’t steal. Period. Trying to mix in “culture” as a way of justifying it is pretty immature. Just because there are two answers doesn’t mean there isn’t a right way.

    Confucious was a sexist tool.

  45. I could be wrong, but at least half the people I’ve met in China would probably steal the ticket. It’s not just that the social obligation outweighs any supposed risk or stigma of stealing. There’s more.

    Cheating, lying (even to a person’s face) and stealing are not really seen as evils in contemporary society in the face of ‘getting (your family) ahead’. I was caught stealing and lying as a kid. Kids will do things without thinking as much of the consequences, or of how society reflects upon it. My mother and father would come down really hard and make me feel so small and so guilty… I still remember it now so that every time I do a bad deed [still happens :-), but thankfully less and less] I have a strong sense of guilt. Chinese parents seem to instill every possible instinct into their kids to succeed, to past tests and to earn money for the family. They teach them ‘keqi’ towards family members and friends, but complete obliviousness towards strangers.

    Consideration for others’ (people outside the circle’s) needs is irrelevant to the vast majority here. They would rather not think about what their actions do to other people because either:

    (1) they KNOW that their actions (i.e. stealing, taking bribes, leaning on a handrail when others need to hold it, stopping at the top or bottom of escalators, riding bicycles or motorcycles on sidewalks, clipping their nails on the bus, etc.) annoy, bother, inconvenience everyone else, or;

    (2) they HAVE NEVER CONSIDERED that their actions affect others because they’re so self-involved in their Confucian (read: narrow) world. You can easily find examples of this if you confront the anti-social behavior – (i.e., cutting in line. If you tell someone to please line up they either laugh in that embarrassed way like they hadn’t realized there was a line, or they make up an excuse as to why they shouldn’t have to line up, or that there is no line.

    So stealing, particularly from a rich guy? Forget about it.

    As to Abstract’s very interesting comments about the law and my native Canada, I’d like to add a couple points. People break some laws in Canada. That happens everywhere. But the laws most often broken are the laws that we feel don’t have a social purpose. Laws are made by representatives of the people FOR the people, to protect us. People are normally rational actors and will decide for themselves that laws, even where they limit freedom (your freedom to shoot people, for example), benefit them in the long run. Laws are followed because without it, society breaks down. For example, you drive through a green light without much anxiety because you know the drivers perpendicular to you will not run the red light. NOT SO IN CHINA. Drivers frequently have to slow down at green lights because they are not sure others will follow the law (particularly the bikes and scooters). There is a difference between a law protecting others versus laws that unreasonably interfere with your personal liberties (i.e. smoking pot, only harmful to the self – versus smoking pot and then driving, which endangers others. Abstract seems to mean that smoking pot is illegal, but smoking it has never been illegal in Canada, or most other countries, only possession and trafficking. And no, BC’s economy does not depend on pot, though its cool demeanor does. His other examples are also cases of individuals seeing no harm done to others in the laws that they break.

    In China, the laws are viewed as suspect. As already mentioned, they were used as tools of the State to coerce people. But in addition, in very recent Chinese history, the laws were turned upside down and the dictates of a very few took precedent over law. People were starving and afraid, so they went back to the only things they could: protection of the self and the family, first and foremost. They dispensed with the laws and social rules that were designed to promote peaceful and orderly society. Besides, one couldn’t be seen to be bourgeois anyway. So, these days we get all these attempt by the government to have people follow the law, not spit, and live harmoniously together. A little late.

    These days younger middle class kids in China seem to have much better manners and are much more pleasant to be around (as a stranger) than the middle-aged or elderly. They do so probably half on moral grounds and half because they see status arising out of their behavior. But they have very few qualms about cheating in order to pass an exam, or get into the best university, or get promoted. Doing business in China entails lots of gift-giving (read: bribes), kick-backs, and embezzlement. I suppose there is no guilt for hurting others (willful blindness there), and a low level of fear of being caught (ineptness of the authorities and their own corruptibility).

    (By the way, Abstract, don’t get me wrong, I agree with a lot of the things you’ve said – too much to get into all of it.)

    One last thing, as to Chinese people having more freedom during the Imperial times than in Republican China or today, I’d have to say I half agree. Freedom from the authorities, yes. These days the Central government in particular has a much greater ability to extend into the lives of the people even in the villages, where before that was hardly so. (Though even today, collecting taxes, one of the hardest but most basic operations of the State is still almost impossibly in some provinces.) However, Chinese people have never been free from something I call the tyranny of the mob. (Note to self, choose a better name). Social pressures are immense in China. Most people I meet in their 20s have had few opportunities to ever lead the life they want to and make their own choices. They follow their parents’ wishes. They conform to the expectations of society. They don’t make waves.

    Is that freedom? The constraints put on young people about school, jobs, marriage, babies, etc. are much more intrusive than that of the government. I constantly talk with my wife (Shanghainese) about this, and cannot get over how few opportunities there are for young people to actually make their own choices, make decisions (and in consequence, grow up).

    Americans have this kind of tyranny also. If you express an opinion and others don’t like it, they might organize themselves and boycott your company. Ask the Pixie Chicks. Free speech is impeded by other actors in society, not so much by the government. China is different because the fabric of the family is so tight here, so the effect is multiplied.

    Ok, John must be getting sick of this comment by now. I’ll sign off by saying that this is all just a rambling of observations and opinions. I do believe many, but not all people in China would steal the ticket. The social obligation is there, but I think it goes much deeper into psychology and social behavior. I think the wedding just tops it off. What I would like to see is the breakdown of male/female, young/middle-aged/old, high-income/low-income, etc. Who takes the ticket?

  46. Song Wukong Says: January 22, 2008 at 6:21 pm

    According to a recent census, over 90% Canadians have smoked weed at some point in their life. (Here in British Columbia, weed is the only thing keeping our economy alive, lol.) And I bet everyone here has drunken underage.

    Look like it is also quiet common in BC to smoke blunt made of weed and Analects pages …

  47. OK. I’ll change my answer. As a westerner, I would steal the ticket. But I don’t subscribe to the ” a crime is still a crime no matter how you justify it” theory.

    I can justify my actions based on religious authority from God. For example, in the course of all this chaos, I ask for God’s help. And then I suddenly see the ticket in the jacket. So, this is not a moral issue at all. It was simply God’s way of helping me resolve the “moral dilemna” by providing the ticket to me and educating me that a greater good resulted from my actions, enough to outweigh the act of stealing from the man.

    All my Chinese friends responded in exactly the same way. (Albeit they evoked moral authority from their Baifo…Bhudda).

  48. This is a trick question… people in Maine are super cool laid back. They won’t care if Mike is late. They’ll either just make temporary rings from twist ties and get on with it or flip the reception with the wedding and all get drunk waiting for Mike. They might even just take the wedding to the bus station in New Hampshire so he doesn’t miss it.

    I ask everyone that would freak out at this dude for being late and make a big fuss, why put ceremony and pomp over relationships and morals? Unless he was some jerk who was always late, I’d assume it was unavoidable and laugh it off, of course if I entrusted my wedding rings to some jerk I thought might be late, it’d be my fault anyway.

    Taking that ticket would be wrong, period. Flexible ethics are fine, but blindly putting some familial obligation over everything else is ridiculous.

  49. Dear Feds:

    I have more to say about your post, but since I’m vacationing in Hong Kong, I’ll only deal with one point right now.

    Concerning law-breaking in Canada – a concrete example is the skytrain system of Vancouver. In former day, no one checked for tickets. And you didn’t have to display a ticket to enter. Therefore, you could always enter for free. And you were never caught.

    Therefore, you could either ride for free (which was stealing), or you could pay 2.25 Cdn.

    This situation is basically the same as the dilemma, where the skytrain company is the wealthy stranger. Except in this case, you don’t have the pressing family obligation.

    In my experience, no one buys tickets when they don’t have to. Even if they have the money. This is why recently, they’ve added ticket-checking entry points.

    Actually, in this case, my sympathies are with the skytrain company, because they’ve done terrific job at providing greener transportations. I would go so far as to support higher taxation to expand the skytrain system. Here, I merely provide an illustration of human nature.

  50. Joining late…

    Actually I am usually open for cultural pecularities. But this small “dilemma” has serious consequences and is therefore not some neutral east-west difference.

    Unfortunately this cultural “feature” is incompatible with any form of advanced and stable juridical, economical, or political system. Only with rules which are invariant with respect to a personal context you get a stable and therefore predictable environment which is the topsoil for longterm investments. With family and friends ranking highest, you are on a downward slope to a tribal society.

    In my opinion this very “cultural pecularity” is a major roadblok on China’s way of catching up with the west. Right now it is covered by the warm layer of the economic boom, but wait until this melts away with world recession…

  51. English Teacher in China Says: January 28, 2008 at 1:10 am

    Would agree with the Chinese on this one, even from a western moralistic stand point. However, what if that person is on his way to meet somone who is in his/her last moments of life and is about to die? That would be pretty messed up if you took that moment away from another person. Ultimately, how could you know?

    I am sure your friends would understand your terrible circumstance if you could not show up.

  52. I just realised there is a much more intense dilemma:

    Let’s say you and your sister lived in Cambodia right before the Khmer Rouge took over. You have a passport which can get you out, but your sister doesn’t. One day, you came across total stranger who had a passport. The stranger looked very similar to your sister.

    If you steal the passport, then your sister can get out and survive, but the stranger dies. If you don’t steal the passport, then your sister dies, but the stranger survives.

    What do you do?

  53. Here’s one for you…

    Am a White Canadian with roots in Canada going back many generations. When I was a child I asked my father if there was a fire and he only had time to pull out only me, my brother or my mother, who would it be. He wouldn’t answer but I nagged him until he did. Finally he said he wouldn’t pull out anyone because it would just be too difficult ( gee, thanks dad! ).

    So when I arrived to work for a Chinese company in China a few yrs back, I asked my Chinese colleague/friend to chose between his mother or father under the same circumstances. His answer… He said without hesitation it would be 100% his father. I know for a fact he’s much closer to his mother, so I asked why his father. He answered because that’s just the right thing to do. I asked what that mean, and he said he wouldn’t be a good son if he didn’t respect the rules of filial piety, thinking back, I now wonder if that meant “in the eyes of others”, “in his own eyes”, or “in the eyes of the person he pulled out”.

    Fascinating stuff indeed!

    Brad – Qingdao

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