Saturday, September 17, 2022

On not Grasping for the Good

 I'm taking a university course on Asian Wisdom, which I'm really enjoying.

My prof told a story about Buddha that concludes that we should only tell others of a better way to live if we're asked for advice; otherwise, we should never impose our morals on others because our moral purpose is personal. Whoops!! Lao Tzu's story is similar: he wrote the Tao Te Ching only after people asked for him how to live our best lives. Otherwise, he would have just gone on doing his thing and being a good role model, but never suggesting anyone should follow him. Kind of like Jesus and maybe even Socrates.

But does that stand even for the most basic moral tenets, like do no harm? Doesn't that go without saying?

And isn't the rule a bit of a paradox as it's telling us that we shouldn't tell people how to live?? But maybe I asked when I picked up the book and signed up for the course. Maybe there's a get-around if we leave advice strewn about, but don't present it to anyone specifically. It's just there for the taking, like this blog.

But what if we see harm about to happen? I can get with the idea of just living rightly and hoping others follow our model, but aren't we complicit if we see preventable harm and don't act? And what about the role of parents and teachers and legislators to tell us which values to follow or precisely the right thing to do? Or do more laws just make more criminals?

From my own upbringing, I was taught that we have an obligation to others, and that includes stepping in front of harm to others. If someone inebriated is about to drive away, we have a duty to prevent them, even if we end up reviled for our efforts. But from the teachings in this class, would that be infringing on the values of another person?? 

Despite the mask mandates at the school, only a few in my class wore a mask on the first day. I spent hours, literally, crafting a brief, polite email to my prof asking him to please remind people of the new rule. He did, calling it a "leftover precaution," and then said he'd mask only if he needed to get close to any of us. So he talks for three hours without a mask on, which is curiously within the rules of the schools mandates (we don't have to mask to present or teach).  This makes two things clear: Thinking it's a leftover precaution means that my prof is missing some important information: that the virus is worse than it was, that many people are still dying right now (85 this week), and hospitals are overflowing to the point that 80 emergency departments were forced to close this summer. AND neither he nor the school appear to understand how an airborne virus spreads in a room. Being within six feet matters more if the virus is spread through droplets. Airborne, it can travel across a room in minutes, especially if the carrier is talking. 

But, under this eastern perspective, is it immoral to tell anyone this if they haven't asked??

Don't teach; just embody the principles you've learned. 

It makes me think of Tolstoy's "The Godson." The titular character tries to make things better for others, often in an carceral way, and it just makes their lives worse. We can only help the world by keeping love in our hearts and spread it without judgement. 

But people are dying. There's big news out of B.C.: their PHO (Provincial Health Officer), Dr. Bonnie Henry, helped write a study that found up to 80% of children had caught Covid, while she continued to insist that schools were safe from the virus. People are fuming!

"If 80% of them have had COVID-19, and 8% of them came down with long COVID? That's 36,000 children. . . . There's little public understanding of the long-term health risks that come along with COVID in young people. . . . We classify those individuals as 'recovered' as opposed to chronically disabled. Our public health measures should include how many people are disabled or affected by long COVID, and our mitigation measures should include limiting potentially chronic disability. . . . Children who were good students or high-performing athletes now have difficulty keeping up with assignments or are too tired to even attend school. . . . There was a threefold increase in hospitalizations among children between January and August of this year. . . . If it was something else sending 600 kids to the hospital in eight months, wouldn't we be worried?" 

Maybe the problem is that I'm grasping too much, and I'm not seeing the world as part of me, but separate from me. I really enjoy learning these perspectives and the challenge they bring to my controlling nature, but when push comes to shove, in the real world, how about we keep our masks on to protect one another! If people can't come to their own conclusion about doing that in order to reduce harm to others, then maybe we need someone else to tell us, and then we'll do all that other stuff. 

On the other hand, maybe I'll change my tune by the end of the course and make peace with the number of children harmed by a lack of safety precautions to protect them.


lungta said...

The Dalai Lama in a discussion of non violence once replied to the question "What if you were attacked alone in a dark alley? with" "Why would i have any desire to go into a dark alley alone?"
Most of it is about personal responsibility and allowing others to be personally responsible.

Covid for me is about rolling the dice the least possible times.
I'm pretty sure my study of Asian wisdom would include this gem from Japan
Attending university classes on a whim is pretty much like jumping into a covid generator.
A mid-eastern gem is
"Be in this world but not of it."
I got several more hours of chat
but no more typing.

Marie Snyder said...

Thanks, Lungta! That's a good analogy, except I almost dropped the course when mandates were dropped, but then this is one of few universities that brought them back, so I stayed in. I had the impression that I wasn't walking into a dark alley. Now that I'm here, I'm trying to turn on the lights!

Ben said...

Of course I'm not in the course so this isn't a particularly well-informed opinion, but I wonder if the suggestion not to enforce your morality on others only applies on an individual level.

For example, I'm sure that acting in defense of another wouldn't be considered immoral. That probably includes telling others to do no harm, since the least interventionist action that is still morally consistent with someone who values the well-being of others would be telling an aggressor that it's bad to hurt people.

And I wonder if mask mandates can be seen the same way. There's a group of people who, if we assume they're acting in good faith, are missing some information about the world, so surely telling them this information (and similarly, petitioning the government about mask mandates/covid precautions in general) can be considered "acting in defense of another"?

It seems to me that a moral stance of "don't teach, just embody" can't the the whole of a moral philosophy, as some moral frameworks (many western religions, for example) include recruitment as a moral imperative. Also something like "protect those who you can protect" is a moral principle that requires some sort of action, whether that be political or physical, and that principle seems like something that should always be morally permissible to hold.

Again, I haven't taken the course, so y'know, grain of salt and all that, but that's just what this post made me wonder.

Marie Snyder said...

Hey Ben, you could be right! They're specifically opposed to recruitment and missionaries, but Gandhi followed this path and saw nothing wrong with openly opposing the British colonists.