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Monthly Archives: September 2005

We live in an essentially complicated and dynamic world. It provides us daily with complicated and varied challenges, and these fluctuate both in their intensity and their results. Things are easier today, hard yesterday. Things that worked today will not work tomorrow. Through all of this, in the essential search through the distortion that life placed on the clear eye of the mind, a search goes on for order, a search for understanding that might give some clarity to the blurred vision we experience. To make what seems so hard, a little easier.

I have been doing a fair bit of thinking about what are commonly called ethical dilemmas; those situations where we find ourselves hard pressed to know what to do, to resolve the situation between what are conflicting and seemingly equally valid solutions. The more thinking I do, the clearer it becomes to me that at the top level ethical and moral dilemmas are not that difficult to resolve. Its not resolving them that is the difficulty rather, but that in their execution, to do the right thing, having already ascertained what the right thing to do is, that is where the challenge lies.

In fact I think there is an almost binary distinction that can be drawn that between its two limbs can expose most such problems. There are two components, firstly identifying what the easy thing to do is, and secondly identifying what the right thing to do is. If you want a cookie cutter formula to generate ethical dilemmas, this is it.

The challenge finds form in what we can require of ourselves. Do we have the discipline and organisation, the control and the calm, needed to do the Right Thing, as far as we are able to determine it. Can we accept the price that we have to pay? Can we subordinate our sense of individuality, personal dislike or fear to the demands of duty? It is these that generate a sense of dilemma, a sensation unfounded in fact in the actual nature of the difficulty. It is not that we are morally deficient in our understanding, it is that we are morally weak in our action. We lack enough conviction in our own moral principles, we are too quick to highlight personal inconvenience and reject personal difficulty in the pursuit of the easier solution.

The real deception of the dilemma is the notion of resolved’. We believe that if we can make a decision and stick by it, whether on the easy way or the right way, or in a manner equitable to both, that we can relieve ourselves of the burden that the dilemma imposed on us, and that we are free to move on with the next challenge in life. No one ever passed the world this memo, and correspondingly the world behaves nothing like this. We are stuck with whatever consequences flow from our actions, and more often then not it is the perilous axiom known as the Law of Unintended Consequences that we have the most to be wary of. The notion that tomorrow you will have to live with your decisions, to bear your chosen burden, even or especially when you cannot know what the burden will demand of you is what horrifies us into inaction in the face of a dilemma. You may be required to do nothing, your course may be optimal and most uninfringing. You may take a bold and decisive action that you will regret for years and might cost you the best part of your life. Verily, then one can see what could bring about such paralysing inaction.

But what I would not have people do is to misrepresent their paralysis, to feign that it comes externally, that a great weighing and balancing exercise is underway, and that much sand must slide down the hourglass before a determination is reached that they can accept. The decision is made in the blink of an eye, the right delineated from the wrong. I don’t begrudge you the time to seek courage and solace, to find the strength to fight for what you must, nor do I begrudge you retreat from the field if you find the challenge insurmountable.

Just do not lie about why you did the wrong thing.

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Two days. On Tuesday I get the special dispensation to pack up, sort out all my things, and become once again an exile in Her Majesties United Kingdom. I am hardly delighted at the prospect. Two reasons suffice. Firstly, I don’t like the UK and secondly, Hong Kong is home. I’m only going to focus on the first one.

I never settled into the UK, I just got used to it. It feels odd, constantly reminding myself of how different that which is me and mine is to the perspective prevalent in this place. It possesses an ethereal feeling of unrealness, some sort of waking dream while I walk through this landscape that is this blighted land, just working day after day, some good some bad, but none right. None truly, or perhaps very few, that feel like normal days, days where I feel I’m in the right place, doing the right thing at the right time. The sky is grey, the people grim, their demeanor dour, shrouded in darkest black. The trees are always dirty brown, the grass always dying. In summer, the sky is too bright, the stars to high and the color unreal. A stark sense of not belonging amplified by a world not worth belonging to.

I have never made a commitment to the UK, I do not want to belong there, and the more time I spend there, or even just contemplating ‘There’, the less and less I feel it is something that I want tainting me. In the few lessons I’ve learned, what it has in essence taught is to be even more insular and self focused, traits I already have in abundance. I find myself whole heartedly rejecting their views; I don’t buy into their cultural values, their societies, their economics or their politics. I don’t think they’re in the right place as a people, and I don’t think they’re going the right way. How does one be involved with an enterprise that feels at such a level to be wrong to you?

Oh sure, it is easy to say that I am taking this on the wrong scale, that it is about individual people, making individual people, and that outreach to individuals or even just seeing and dealing with the basic good that is in all people, will stave of this reaction. That I will find the normality in this web in time, and that I will understand its logic if I were to engage with it. Or rather, if I were willing to be seduced by it. But these individuals operate within a confined framework, they are constrained by a very specific world view.

I find this a country of martyrs, everyone drowning under a sea of problems, but none willing to take up the boats oars, expecting that someone else should be made to pay for an engine. This is a society which somehow defies the notions of an educated, responsible people that are the core of my world view. A people rich and complacent, wrapped up in their own small shell, requiring great tragedy or great effort to be roused. It is a reality that is so delusional, that I wish no truck or discourse with it. I have to be here to get an education, and that is exactly what I will do. But I am going to ensure that my learning is done somewhere else.

I will not sacrifice anything of myself to fit into a place in which I feel such sacrifice would be principle lost for convenience gained. Here in a society that seems to be governed by such sacrifice, I am especially unwilling.I do not want this societies cultural values, or its morality to ever come into contact with my own, and that requires my own eternal vigilance.

There are days when my structured moral code and my absolutist perspective on the world gives way to what can mildly be termed an extreme laissez faire attitude. It seems to be the most common course that people want to do, and are going to do what they want to do anyway. They’re not going to rationale analysis interfere, nor are they going to consider the long term consequences. But that’s what respecting peoples choice is about. It is about just letting them get on with it without all this unnecessary interference by over-moralized tub thumpers who just want others to think their own way. To compel others to make their choices.

Two examples of this are in my current attitude to prostitution and drugs. Let us start with them in the order that they’re listed. I cannot help but think that it is the world’s oldest profession for a reason. People have been doing it since time immemorial, and if history is to serve as a guide, they’re going to be doing it for long after you and me are gone. So why not stop making it illegal, and bring it above ground. The people who are headed that way will find a way to end up in that position, whether intentionally or unintentionally, and adding societies moral stigma to that calculus really doesn’t make a difference. All it does is make it harder to reach out and help these people.

The same line of reasoning applies to drugs. People have been altering their mental state for thousands of years, and more often then not intentionally. People go out of their way, and they procure these goods and they enjoy their effects. If that’s what they want to do, then why should anyone be getting in their way

There are a variety of compelling arguments for this. I think they can be summarized pretty effectively as this.

1. Government regulation can exercise a protective and supervisory role over these activities if they are legal. We can check whether the street walker has had a health checkup, and officially get her one if she hasn’t. We can limit or remove the psychological risks by getting access to proper counseling and care services when we need them. We can ensure that the scum who go around beating them up can be dealt with by the police, and that the innocent party is not afraid of the police or other arms of the state.

2. The freedom of contract argument. You are the captain of your soul. You get to do what you want, with the understanding that you bare all the consequences of your actions. To fulfill the states part of that obligation fully, it first has to let you do what you want in so far as it causes no involuntary harm to another person. That means that the drug addict should be free to do what he wants, and the sex worker should be free to sell their body. To do so otherwise derogates from the prime principle that people are free to make their own choices, without any parental or intervening body deciding what they want them to do. Even the religious zealot has to fold to this argument, the same God has given them freedom to chose their religion, and this election depends critically on free choice. One cannot selectively apply a principle that only benefits themselves. Free choice is as valid an argument for the prostitute as it is for the drug user.

3. It extracts them from their seedy nature. These are areas of the black economy traditionally run by organized crime, and let them turn a large and easy profit that finances the large part of their less profitable ventures. This would let us undermine and destroy what is widely agreed to be the most insidious menace in most cities, and to lower the risk of mob rivalries and the other miscellany of dangerous things that they are associated with. It means less crime happens overall, and that the strong organized effective crime that can subvert the whole institution of law and order in a country cannot grow fully established.

4. This is a more marginal argument, but legalized professions contribute revenue to the people, these can pay for all the costs of regulating the profession, and the extra can be plowed back into creating a better society as a whole.

What do you think?