Thursday, April 11, 2013

"He started it!"

“He started it!”
“It’s not fair!”
“It’s not my fault!”

I’m sure we all remember using phrases like these in the schoolyard, or among our siblings – or having them used against us! They signal a growing awareness of moral issues in the young mind, although at this stage, that young mind is very self-centred. Fair is what the world and other people should be towards me, not what I should be towards the world and other people. Sharing is what other people should do with their goodies, not what I should do with mine. We have some rudimentary sense of justice – he started it, so he deserves this back. We also have some rudimentary sense of responsibility – although it is always someone else’s fault, not ours.

These statements represent beginnings in the growth towards moral maturity, at war with our innate selfishness. But they are only beginnings. Later in life we learn that “who started it?” is an almost impossible question to answer. The chain of cause and effect goes back a long way. No one – and everyone – started it. As we grow, we learn that even fairness does not always seem fair. Is “affirmative action” fair? Probably not, when viewed by the schoolboy in the schoolyard; but perhaps from a broader temporal and cultural perspective it will be seen to be fair. Fairness, after all, is not simply about the equality of numbers. The concept of fault becomes very messy when we start looking at mitigating circumstances, at the effects of a person’s history, or the influence of society, on an individual’s actions. It is even messier when we consider the actions of collective entities such as nations.

Suddenly, when we mature, ethics and morality become so much more complicated. Perhaps we also succeed in disentangling them from the innate self-centredness of the child. It becomes possible to conceive of such things as “self-sacrifice”, “the greater good”, “reciprocal altruism” and even “delayed gratification”.

On the other hand, perhaps it is easier to remain stuck in the schoolyard.

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