Tag: morality


28

Aug 2017

How Heartless Are You in Chinese?

Psychologists at the University of Chicago made some intriguing findings relating to how language learners make ethical decisions. The researchers posed a classic ethics dilemma to the non-native speakers: would you push a person to his death to save 5 others from dying?

[Locomotive 1151, Texas & Pacific Railway Company]

Studies from around the world suggest that using a foreign language makes people more utilitarian. Speaking a foreign language slows you down and requires that you concentrate to understand. Scientists have hypothesized that the result is a more deliberative frame of mind that makes the utilitarian benefit of saving five lives outweigh the aversion to pushing a man to his death.

Super interesting! (And fortunately most of us are not learning foreign languages to be placed in roles where we preside over innocent citizens’ lives.)

This immediately made me think of the classroom language teacher who might frequently do foreign language discussions on ethical issues. One could do this for years, thinking all of your students were heartless bastards and the world is doomed, without even realizing this effect was at play. Theoretically.

Anyway, check out the full article on the study.


19

Jan 2008

A Moral Dilemma

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!


08

Sep 2007

Cross-cultural Honesty Catalysis

I recently read an interesting and provocative article about a movement called radical honesty. The founder posits that everyone would be better off–that we’d be taking the steps to true communication–if we would all just say exactly what is on our minds. It’s not meant to be hurtful; you don’t insult people and walk away. After you speak your mind you stick around for the fallout, because radical honesty tends to beget radical honesty, and once you strip away the white lies and false smiles, revealing true emotions, you have a basis for a genuine human connection.

I’m not saying I’m a convert, but the ideas are worth thinking about. And it makes for a very entertaining article.

It also got me thinking about whether this could ever conceivably be tried in China, and about some people in my life who might be considered unknowing practitioners. It seems to me that the ones who come closest are certain English-speaking Chinese women, in their dealings with foreigners.

The standard explanation is that due to cultural differences, even if you speak another culture’s language, you can come across as very forward or overly blunt in the context of another culture. This could happen to a Chinese person trying to emulate the brashness of characters she sees in Hollywood movies. But then, maybe she’s trying to carve out a piece of radical honesty in her own life, and the microcosm of foreign culture seems the best place to do it. Maybe she wants to be blunt and direct, because ordinarily she never can be.

It makes me think back to my early days in Japan and China, struggling to make conversation. I could be remarkably direct back then, because I didn’t know how to say a lot, or I simply couldn’t think of much to say and I wanted to keep the conversation started. And it’s true… radical honesty begets radical honesty. Interesting things are said. I think that’s one reason some people like talking to foreigners that don’t speak the local language well… they’re refreshingly blunt in their views.

I am even reminded of a friend who was told by a taxi driver that he was going to commit suicide. Why would he tell a foreigner?

Society will never have that degree of honesty, but I do believe people are looking for it outside their own cultures.


OK, this post is a little over the top… but I think that’s exactly what you should expect of something inspired by radical honesty.

Related Link: Radical Honest homepage


01

Apr 2007

Ethics and Instruments: a Photograph

DSC00226

This is a blind musician playing outside of Nanjing Road West (南京西路) Station in Shanghai. Two questions:

1. Is it OK to photograph a blind person without their knowing it? (I photographed this guy without asking, and then gave him 5 RMB.) The ethics of photography has always been an interesting subject to me, and it’s one I’ve actually really quite struggled with over the years, especially in the northern mountains of Thailand and in China’s Yunnan.

2. What is that funky instrument?? It’s really quite cool… way better than the boring old erhu. I do believe it was… polyphonic.


02

Mar 2007

China and Eugenics

China finally came up on my one of my favorite blogs, Sentient Developments:

> When stripped of all its historical and social baggage, however, ‘eugenics‘ can be used to describe two general philosophical tendencies: 1) the notion that human hereditary stock can and should be improved, and 2) that such changes should be enforced by the state (or other influential social groups such as cults or religions).

> These two concepts are not married to one another. Transhumanists tend to subscribe to the first point but not the second, leading to the charge that they are liberal eugenicists. China, on the other hand, engages in a form of eugenics that draws from both agendas; the state is actively involved in the ongoing biological re-engineering of its citizens for ideological ends.

As usual, the article was a good read. In case you’re unclear of what the author meant by China’s engagement in eugenics, here’s a summary:

> [In 1995], China adopted a new law on maternal and infant health care. The law mandates that all persons have a premarital medical examination to detect serious genetic diseases, some infectious diseases, and “relevant” mental disorders. If a detected disorder is deemed serious, the couple is not permitted to marry without committing to contraception or tubal ligation. Prenatal testing is enforced, and pregnancy is terminated if the fetus has a serious genetic or somatic abnormality. [China’s Eugenics Law on Maternal and Infant Health Care]

The thing is, since 2003 the Chinese government no longer requires premarital medical exams. That leads to this kind of situation:

> The abolition of the national system of compulsory premarital medical checkups one year ago has led to a rapid increase in the rate of birth defects in China, and if the government fails to take measures, it could lead to a still more serious pubic health problem within three to five years, medical experts warned. [ChinaDaily]

So where does the Chinese government now stand with regards to eugenics?

Also interesting are some Chinese geneticists’ views on the issues related to eugenics:

> Most believed that partners should know each other’s genetic status before marriage (92%), that carriers of the same defective gene should not mate with each other (91%), and that women should have a prenatal diagnosis if medically indicated (91%). The majority said that in China decisions about family planning were shared by the couple (82%).

You might be surprised that I’m writing about such a “political” topic. Actually, I’m not. I’m writing about a question of ethics, which is also related to a lot of the futurism discussions I’ve been reading a lot about lately.

Also, according to the prominent Chinese view, it would appear that if my Chinese wife and I have children, we’ll be engaging in a form of “personal eugenics,” since around here everyone knows that 混血儿 (“mixed blood children”) are “better looking” and “smarter” than most people. Hmmm.


01

May 2006

History as the Final Judge

This is part three of my professor’s lecture on speech acts. This part is even more of a digression than the thoughts on race and “the weak,” but it’s related to the Confucian quote, and, more specifically, ideas about history.

My professor was saying that he thought that social order required there to be a “final judge” (最后审判者). For the West, that “final judge” has been the Judeo-Christian God and the accompanying system of morality. However, China’s “final judge,” my professor argued, was certainly not religious in nature. So what was it?

According to him, through the ages the Chinese have feared not the judgment of some god or moral system, but rather history. He felt that for China, history is the final judge.

What did China’s emperors have to fear? Certainly not the wrath of anything divine. The only thing they feared was how historians recorded them.

Similarly, parents toil their entire lifetimes because their vision is firmly locked on the future. Their children will have better lives, and they are willing to accept a role in the history of that better future.

I’m not going to write too much about this… This is the kind of thing that doesn’t get written down in my notebook (since it’s almost completely irrelevant to speech acts), but it certainly captures my attention and imagination a bit more.


09

Feb 2006

Inherent human worth

I am a grad student, and I’ve been doing part-time English tutoring and translation work to pay the bills. As a tutor, I sometimes have English sentences to correct. I recently got this sentence (more or less):

> It’s common for people to envy the people who are better than them.

During the lesson, I told my student that the sentence was grammatically correct and the vocab word “envy” was used correctly, but I couldn’t help but find it funny. It reminded me of the play insults my little sister and I used to sling at each other in high school, or that spunky hillbilly in the movie, picking a fight with the snooty aristocrat using the line, “you think yer better’n me??

I explained to my student that blatant statements of one human’s inherent superiority over another are either ridiculously elitist or racist in nature, and frowned upon (officially) by the West, where we (in name, at least) adhere to the concept that “all men are created equal.” My student didn’t really understand what I was getting at, so I explained it this way:

> Let me compare myself with Bill Gates. You may say he’s richer than me. Well, yes, he certainly is. You may say he’s more powerful, more successful, and harder-working than me. I can accept all that. But if you say Bill Gates is better than me, I have to disagree. As humans, we are equal.

To my surprise, she still took issue with my point. She was nice enough not to say I’m worthless compared to Bill Gates, but she still held that some people are just better than others. Eventually I understood what I think her point was, and that was something to the effect of value to society. I’m not sure if I was able to explain the difference between “value to society” and “inherent human worth.”

In the end, we adjusted her sentence thusly:

> It’s common for people to envy the people who are better off than them.

Sometimes you really can’t guess what will be difficult to explain.


31

Dec 2005

Farewell to Ayi

Shortly after I moved to Shanghai in early 2004 I decided to hire an ayi (housekeeper/maid) to do some cooking and cleaning. (Her last name was Zhou, so I’ll call her “Zhou Ayi.”) I really enjoyed having a cook, and I wasn’t shy about expressing my great satisfaction with Zhou Ayi. Things were great for a while.

Over time, our relationship worsened. I find it difficult to explain exactly how or why, but I’ll try.

(more…)


30

Oct 2005

Snobbery, Guilt, and Good Will

I admitted to Micah the other day that he was a part of the inspiration for the 老百姓 snob I wrote about recently. I didn’t mean it as an insult or anything… it was just an observation of his lifestyle in Shanghai.

Micah recently responded:

> But let me say a few words in defense of the 老百姓 snob. I think the reason I put forward the effort to be this kind of snob is because I reject the status boost I might get from the stereotypes that Chinese hold about Western folk: they’re educated, creative, high-flying, party hard, and come to take charge. Consequently, I have to actively try to frame myself back into the same “social status” that I would have had back at home: just your average college graduate working his way into the middle class, feeling out of place in places like Rodeo Drive in Hollywood, considering his pocketbook when he dines out, and still having a warm spot in his heart for the street food and home-cooking of his youth. It’s not that the 老百姓 snob is absurd, it’s that he’s more sensitive to taking advantage of people thinking he’s something he’s not.

> Not that I don’t realize I’m different; I will take advantage of being a foreigner abroad by taking English-teaching or translating jobs, but taking a higher salary just because I have a white face is something that weighs on my conscience. Maybe a useful metric to live by would be, if I was an immigrant from Nigeria would I have this option (of taking this higher salary, being invited to this party, being asked to take part in the filming of this commercial)?

(more…)


25

Jun 2005

Out with the Old

Last December when I first moved into my current apartment near Zhongshan Park, I take one look out the 20th floor window at the old buildings across the river and thought, “those won’t last long.” It wasn’t just that they were old; they were clearly of low quality as well. What’s more, on every side were highrise apartment complexes. I felt pretty sure those structures were doomed.

Here is the only picture I have of that whole area. (Unfortunately it’s a bad picture of Chinese New Year fireworks, so you can’t see the buildings very clearly.)

DSCN0698

Here is another picture of the same area, taken last month. The demolition began in early May, I believe.

DSCF0002

If you look carefully you can see which buildings were taken out. The residential area at the left is still intact, but I’m certain it’s only a matter of time.

It seems to be popular among some expat circles to mourn the loss of these “traditional” dwellings. Personally, I think that’s ridiculous. I’ve seen the buildings on the left close up, and they are constructed extremely shoddily. You hear about third world living conditions in Shanghai — well, this is one of those places. Those buildings–like most buildings in Shanghai–are not even very old. They were just built with inferior materials, so they seem like they have real history. If Shanghai wants to modernize, it really needs to tear down as many of this kind of building as possible and start building quality structures in their places.

I’m not completely heartless, though. There’s a tragedy here, and it’s about the people. (Isn’t it always, in China?) The people that live in that area live in those wretched conditions because they’re poor. Knocking down their homes doesn’t help them at all; it just means they’ll be forced to relocate, while rich people move into the new highrise that’s built on the ruins of their old homes.

You know this kind of thing goes on every day in Shanghai, but it feels strange, watching it happen bit by bit from my very own home…


16

Oct 2002

Tutor Update / River Story / Mr. Manners

A while back I listed a bunch of requirements for the tutor I was looking for. Well, with the help of someone in the Foreign Language Department, I have found him. He’s an awesome tutor. He’s critical. He tells me when my pronunciation is a little off, he tells me how it’s off, and he tells me how, phonologically, to correct it. He speaks to me all in Chinese. He speaks fast, and with good vocab. He’s well-read, and knows Chinese history well. He speaks standard Mandarin. He brings his own materials and demands that I learn this or that. It’s great to have a tutor with definite ideas of what I should be learning. He brings me 12 new chengyu (Chinese idioms) to study every class. He requires me to read from a standard Mandarin pronunciation class textbook, and criticizes my pronunciation, and then makes me read again, and again, and again… He also records his own readings onto my computer so that I can practice on my own for the next class.

After each two-hour session, I am exhausted. He’s a good teacher. I can feel the now unfamiliar soreness of progress once again.

Last Thursday I had my advanced English discussion class at the English Department. Those students are just great. Their English is so good, and the people just have such personality. I thought college students were great for those reasons, but these adult students take it to a whole new level.

Last week we did the “River Romance Story” (for lack of a better name), which I’ve already made famous at this school. It’s pretty famous already anyway, so I’m kind of afraid to use it, always expecting my students to be familiar with it already. But last Thursday none of my students were. Good.

Before I give an account of the discussion, I should tell the story. Here goes.

Long, long ago, in the time of kings and queens, there lived a Man and a Lady, deeply in love. It was true love. The Man was a high-ranking servant of the king, often sent off to new posts to solve problems. Where the Man went to work, the Lady followed. Then the Man was assigned to a faroff village that was only reachable by way of a treacherous river. On the river, a storm suddenly sprang up. The boat was run into rocks, and everyone thrown overboard. The Man was the only passenger that could swim, and he managed to save himself, all the while looking fervently for the Lady. He couldn’t find her. Not a single body turned up; all were lost in the swift current. After searching for days, grief-stricken, the Man was forced to accept the unimagniable. The Lady was gone. With heavy heart, he headed off to the village to fulfill his post.

As fate would have it, however, the Lady didn’t die. She was rescued by an inhabitant on the other side of the river and nursed back to health over a series of weeks from the brink of death. As soon as she could walk, she set about trying to get back to the Man. However, the river was uncrossable. There was no bridge. There was only one way of crossing: by way of the Boatman. He was the only one with enough skill to ferry people from one side to the other. He charged 10 gold pieces each way for his service.

By the time the Lady reached the Boatman, he had long since heard of her. When she asked his price, he told her 100 gold pieces. She had only 10. No matter how she begged and pleaded, he would not bring the price down or even let her pay after crossing and finding the Man. It was 100 or nothing.

The Lady soon met another man, however, named Sam. Sam was a landowner with a good deal off money, but he was a bit of a womanizer. The Lady was beautiful, and he took to her immediately. She made it clear that she wished only to return to her Man, though. Magnanimous man that he was, Sam said he could help her — on one condition. The Lady must sleep with Sam for a night.

The Lady was outraged at this request, and stormed off. She soon sank into despair, however, and quickly came to the conclusion that her life there, on the wrong side of the river was meaningless, and there was only one way out. She would sleep with Sam.

So the Lady slept with Sam. She received 100 gold pieces. She paid the Boatman and crossed the river. She made her way into the village and found the Man. They were reunited at last, and their joy was boundless. Yet, at the back of the woman’s heart gnawed the question: should I tell him? She decided to leave it be for the time being.

After arriving, the Lady met the Man’s new Friend, who also worked in the village. This Friend left the next day for the other side of the river to do business. His business was with Sam, and Sam liked to talk. He had a tendency to brag about his womanizing exploits, but he was known to always tell the truth. Sam told the Friend about his night with the Lady.

The Friend was now in a hard position. Should he tell the Man? He didn’t know all the circumstances of the incident in question, but he could be sure what Sam said was the truth. Finally, he decided that the Man should know the truth, and told him.

The Man was angered by this information, calling the Friend a liar. Still, doubt overtook him, and he brought the “outrageous rumor” up to the Lady. She immediately burst into tears, admitting it was the truth.

The Man was in total shock. Never had he felt so betrayed. He had vowed never to love again when he lost the Lady, but how could he forgive this? In the end, he couldn’t. He parted ways with the Lady.

They never saw each other again.

So that’s the story. The task is then to rank the people, 1-5, from “best” to “worst.” Then discuss. This always yields great discussion. I love it.

After discussing that, you can reveal what each person is supposed to symbolize: Lady – Love, Boatman – Business, Friend – Friendship, Sam – Sex, Man – Morality. Then we discuss whether the activity actually reveals our priorities in life.

Anyway, last Thursday my class got so into this discussion. It was incredible. They were funny, too — when I mentioned in the beginning how in love the Man and Lady were, one of my students said, “what’s the use?” Later, when they were guessing what each character symbolizes, this same girl said the Lady represents weakness! Funny stuff.

Anyway, we had a long discussion on morality. This example really brings out the differences and similarities between Western and Eastern morality. Eastern is much more relativistic. I taught them phrases from Western thought like, “the truth will set you free,” “the ends doesn’t justify the means,” and “ignorance is bliss.”

Chinese girls seem to love to say the Lady is the best (and even that she did nothing wrong), and the Man is the worst for not forgiving the Lady. Some of them also say the Boatman is worse than Sam, because the whole mess was started by him, even if he was ignorant of the drama he set in motion.

So I thought of all kinds of hypothetical situations to test their stances. Unsurprisingly, the girls became quite similar to the Man when I posed the situation of their husband sleeping with his female boss to get a promotion and provide better for his family (which was struggling to make ends meet and had no hope of properly educating the child).

What blew my mind, though, was two girls’ answer to this question: “Would you rather have a husband who was completely faithful to you and made you happy, or a husband who was not faithful, but you didn’t know about it, and so were still happy?” The answer? “Either one is fine, as long as I never find out he’s cheating.” Either one is fine! Incredible.

That class was a blast. I learned so much. It’s classes like that that remind me how much I’m still learning here, and how my life is totally on track.

This past week I also started a third teaching job. It’s for a large department store, only teaching three times, for two hours each time. It pays very well. My job is to provide training for some of the department store employees so that they can do a little job-related communication with foreigners when necessary. I was also asked to give a short lecture, in Chinese, on “how not to offend foreigners.” My first lecture in Chinese. Awesome. I was excited.

The lecture went pretty well. I held their interest with humor well, and they learned a lot. Here’s what they learned:

1. Foreigners value hygiene highly. Do not cough, yawn, or sneeze without covering appropriate orifices. Don’t spit. Don’t pick your nose or ear in public. Don’t scratch. Don’t fart. Don’t have a runny nose (or at least don’t blow a snot rocket!).

2. Be careful with questions. Don’t ask age or salary. Don’t assume people are American or any nationality.

3. Be careful in your actions. Don’t fidget. Don’t yell for any reason. Be patient. Smile. Never litter, anywhere.

4. When eating… Eat slowly, with small bites. There should be no noises coming from your mouth. Sit up straight, never hunch. Put one hand on your lap, with your napkin. Don’t spit out anything if it can be avoided.

5. When communicating… Maintain eye contact, but don’t stare. Don’t be too self-deprecatory. Don’t comment on physical appearance.

Some of these may seem unnecessary, but I personally made this list, and my reason for adding each item comes from my own real-life experiences with people in Chinese society….