Cutting corners undermines social morals

Updated: 2011-10-20 08:06

By Zhu Yuan (China Daily)

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Cutting corners undermines social morals

Responsibility and Judgment is a collection of Hannah Arendt's unpublished papers, most of which are concerned with moral philosophy. Talking about moral issues would appear to be out of fashion when many Chinese seem to place personal interest before anything else. But I think that it is precisely because money-worship appears to be the be-all and end-all for so many that discussing moral issues has never been so urgent.

Anyone can claim that he or she is not guilty of the crimes perpetrated by a regime, policy or the society to which he or she tacitly belongs. That means that only those in political power are held responsible for the actions and history of a nation.

And while many love to take credit for the glory of a nation they are quick to disassociate themselves from any negative aspects. But without a sense of personal social responsibility it is very hard for society to develop in a sensible way.

China's "cultural revolution" (1966-1976) is a good example. Millions of people took part in this political movement and many poured dirty words and even physical abuse on "bad elements", who were denounced because they did not fit the ideology of the times. But there have been very few published confessions or expressions of remorse over the evil things people did during that period. Instead, there was a genre labeled "literature of trauma" immediately after that political upheaval, revealing the extent to which some people suffered.

One exception to this is the well-known novelist Ba Jin (1904-2005), who in his last few years wrote quite a lot about the things he had done during the "cultural revolution". By doing this and calling on the nation to build a museum dedicated to the "cultural revolution", he tried to remind his fellow citizens of the necessity of asking themselves if they had a guilty conscience because of their actions in the past couple of decades.

It is more than three decades since the end of that terrible part of history. Very few young people know anything about it. Their lack of concern for politics is understandable, as they have to face the harsh reality of landing and keeping a job, soaring property prices and the ever-rising cost of living.

They have little inclination to think of moral issues when they have to bribe a school headmaster so their children can attend a good school or have to buy a new car to keep up with the Joneses. It is taken for granted that money is all that they need to make their dreams come true. They seem willing to try to get what they want by exploiting any means available.

I do not necessarily agree with the concept of the banality of evil that Hannah Arendt first proposed in the 1960s and later repudiated. And neither do I want to denounce individuals who use connections to get what they desire.

What I want to suggest is the loss of a sense of personal morality and people's unawareness of the loss. There is a connection between the attitude toward the "cultural revolution" and the ignoring of immorality when exploiting any means available for personal ends. With both, people believe that they are doing what most people do. If what they are doing is wrong, then it is society that has forced them to do it and therefore it is society that is to blame.

The most recent example is the mother who paid thugs to beat a student and look on as they cut off the student's arms and legs simply because the student had a physical clash with her son during a basketball game. What this mother said is truly horrendous: "I have money, I can pay for the medical expenses as long as you don't beat him to death."

Without a basic sense of what is right and wrong, this mother has done something that has ruined not just the life of that youth and his family but also her own family.

This is an extreme case. But when everyone wants to cut corners, the morals of an entire society are undermined. One of the things my father said to me is: Don't commit a sin simply because it is a minor one. Don't disdain to do good just because it is negligible.

The author is a senior writer with China Daily.

(China Daily 10/20/2011 page8)