25 February 2011

Moral Circles

Ethical systems differ in a variety of ways, perhaps most fundamentally in the scope extent of the moral circle--the group of people (or animals) that we owe moral duties to. Perhaps the three most important contributors to our understanding of the moral circle are Confucius, Jesus and Buddha.

Let's look at Confucius first. He's clearly the most conservative of the three, emphasizing duty to authority and respect for tradition over empathy. I think Confucius's moral circle is considerably smaller, and also more complex than either Jesus's or Buddha's. The story, from the Analects, that has always disturbed my Western mind the most goes like this:

The Duke of She informed Confucius, saying, “Among us here there are those who may be styled upright in their conduct. If their father have stolen a sheep, they will bear witness to the fact.” Confucius said, “Among us, in our part of the country, those who are upright are different from this. The father conceals the misconduct of the son, and the son conceals the misconduct of the father. Uprightness is to be found in this.

Maybe my interpretation is wrong here, but Confucius seems to be saying that a son’s duty to his father trumps his duty to society. So Confucius’s moral circle seems to be small, and layered. In the first ring is family, who we must be loyal to even if it means harming everyone else in the society (letting theft go unpunished is almost surely harmful to society), the second ring is our duty to the ruler (and so far as I can tell, it is our common duty to the same ruler that constitutes the primary moral tie between unrelated individuals within a community) and in the last ring is our duty to our friends. There is an outer ring as well, where we have a duty (of sorts) to all of humanity. This is expressed in Confucius’s version of what Westerner’s call the Golden Rule: “do not do unto others what you would not have them do unto you.” Some have argued that this is logically equivalent to the Golden Rule espoused by Jesus (“do unto others as you would have them do unto you”), but I don’t think they are equivalent at all. If we follow Jesus’s teaching, we are duty-bound to help someone in need, while if we follow Confucius’s teaching, we are only duty-bound to avoid causing direct harm to others, and would seem to have no obligation to do anything for anyone we don’t have a relationship with. If we find that our obligations to our family conflict with the greater good, Confucius tells us to serve our family first. This shrinks the moral circle to the smallest size possible (since if we shrink it one level more, to the individual, it can hardly be called a moral system at all—then it’s just called capitalism!)

Jesus, on the other hand, greatly expanded the moral circle. Before Jesus, ethics in the Middle East were fairly ethno-centric. This can be seen in the story of David and Goliath (where David, the in-group Hebrew is virtuous and human, but Goliath, the out-group Philistine, is portrayed as an inhuman monster). Dehumanizing other ethnic groups is, unfortunately, fairly natural to our species. Indeed, Jane Goodall observed chimpanzees who "dechimpized" chimps from other tribal groups during inter-group warfare, treating them not as fellow chimps but as prey animals. This is why Jesus's teaching, which expanded the moral circle to all of humanity was so revolutionary (the expansion of the moral circle can be seen in Jesus's story of The Good Samaritan, where a hated ethnic groups is shown to be good, moral, and deserving of inclusion in the moral circle).

Buddha's moral circle was considerably wider than Jesus's, including not just all humans, but all sentient beings. (The moral circle of Hindu India at the time already included all sentient beings, but Buddha gets credit for transforming this moral teaching into a religion that was more exportable to other regions.) This to me is the most ethically defensible moral circle: if an animal is capable of feeling pain, we should try not to hurt it. Though natural selection has imbued me with feelings that cause me to favor my family members over non-family members, and even my nationality over others, for the most part I can resist these impulses because my rational mind tells me they are just instincts, and instincts can often cause immoral behavior (like my instinct to sleep with lots of women, even when I'm in a relationship).

The smallest moral circle, as I alluded to above, is that of capitalism. At first, capitalism doesn't seem to qualify as a moral system at all, in part because the moral circle is restricted to the individual himself. But libertarian thinkers like Milton Friedman and Friedrich Hayek argue that if everyone pursues their own selfish interest, this leads to the greatest possible benefit to society. Their theory is based on a lot of false assumptions about human nature which I don't have time to get into now, and is backed up with essentially no empirical evidence (if someone can provide some, I'd love to take a look at it). But because rich powerful people love the idea that screwing over poor people is not only not morally wrong but morally right, the theory has been promoted by governments and other powerful institutions. I believe this to be the predominant moral philosophy of Hong Kong and the United States. Luckily, humans aren't as selfish as free-market fundamentalists assume, and so even when a society is designed to maximize selfishness and greed, kindness and generosity still exist.

15 February 2011

Yet another gov't propaganda FAIL!

Since the Libertines Pub officially endorsed Stag's Head closed down with zero notice last December, dozens of lonely souls wandered off the Hart Avenue like a mini zombie outbreak, including yours truly. As much as we'd like to believe that the Stag's closed down because we had stopped offering free beers to our readers, our research unveiled that it had actually been the 60% increase in rent that dealt the death blow. As of today, the site is still not rented or sold out, so if you're feeling a bit rich any day and would like to fund the idiots here to run a Libertines Pub in real, write us.

Just another example of how our Village is full of business opportunities and how cheap it is to start up businesses.

The very night when I found out the Stag's Head had been closed, I didn't have the energy or patience to wander very far. So I rushed into this little bar just opposite to the old Stag's and became a regular since then.

Last Saturday, when I was drinking a chilled pint of Tetley's with Icarus in that little bar, the enchanting owner of the spot, Ms K, approached me and said, "Henry, I want you to take home this gift." And she shoved towards me this pile of things:

The "gift" from the rather attractive Ms K turned out to be this pile of Road Safety Council made beer/drink mats left by the coppers the other night. Let's not comment on the graphic design of the mat, as we all know it too well already that anything made by the Village's government is bound to be the ugliest possible. But what's with these plastic bags wrapping every single mat individually? What are they thinking seriously? Did they expect that the bars will actually use these mats? If they did, did they then expect these busy people working in the bars would have the time to open all these bags up and take the fucking ugly mats out for use? Or they might dream that the patrons would take these ugly mats home. Still, why all these plastic bags? Yes, maybe when it's down to emergency, the patrons could take the ugly mat out and throw it away, wrap the plastic bag on their things for action, only if the size would fit.

I took another sip of Tetley's while looking at this pile of shits and I had to ask myself again, "Why all these plastic bags?"

On Sunday, when I read the blog of our Financial Secretary John Tsang, I suddenly had a clue. Yes, the government has to be vigilant with its money. That's why they need to wrap every single piece of those crappy beer mats with plastic bags to make sure that they will be in good condition.

That night I didn't take one single piece of those craps home. I asked Ms K to wrap all of them up with another plastic bag and send them to the Environment Bureau for Edward Yau's attention.

10 February 2011

Pub Talk: What's up with these crazy bright lights?

Wes: So I've been wondering, maybe you can shed some light on this for me, why are Chinese restaurants so bright? What's with the giant, fluorescent lights everywhere? Do Chinese people not care about being comfortable, do they have a different standard of comfort than Westerners, or what?

Henry: Well that's a good question, I dunno why either.

Wes: I've heard that the bright lights in restaurants are there to show how clean it is, like they've got nothing to hide. Sorta like white sheets and towels in hotels. And that makes some sense to me, even though I'd rather not have my retinas burned when I eat dim sum, but then I was shocked to learn recently that many Villagers have these awful lights in their houses...by choice. It must be like living in a chemistry lab.

Henry: I know what you mean now.

Wes: Is it possible that this is some cultural bias I have, like is it only Westerners who find these lights unpleasant after a while. It doesn't feel like a cultural thing. These lights are physically stressful to me, and I don't think I've ever met a gweilo who doesn't find them at least slightly unpleasant if he thinks about it.

Henry: I just came up with a theory. It might have something to do with the favorite entertainment of the locals: TV.

Wes: I'm confused. Isn't it easier to watch TV with low light in the room?

Henry: When you're watching TV for most of the hours in the evening, you don't care about lighting.

Wes: Ok, but Americans watch a shitload of TV, and we would never think of putting these lights in our houses.

Henry: Ok, or is it that the locals prefer to have one light to light up the whole room, while others use different lamps throughout the room, so they have a relatively weaker source for each?

Wes: Yes, they do seem to prefer that. I guess it is easier to just use one overhead light, but I think they would feel much better if they chose lighting that was actually comfortable. Just a question of priorities?

Henry: They think using different light sources will increase the bill.

Wes: I'm not sure they're right about that, seems like those fluorescent lights use a lot of power. But ok, it's about saving money vs. being comfortable. And since the purpose of life is to acquire as much money as possible, and not to have pleasure, they choose saving money, and don't give comfort a second thought!

Henry: Bingo, Wes! Hahaha.

09 February 2011

Don't judge a man by his crystal-jeweled shoes

Recently, I went on an organized tour to Taipei with my grandma, along with about 30 other Hong Kong people. In Canada, we'd all have become friends (or at least engaged in some kind of conversation with each other) by the first day or two, but this is Hong Kong and most people try to avoid talking to strangers as much as possible.

As I was there to accompany my grandma, I too acted local and had no intention of meeting or getting to know any of the other tourmates, let alone the tour guides. Call me antisocial, but I just didn't see any point, especially when many of them looked like misfits from wherever they came from...

There was the large Aussie-passport holding family with 3-4 burly ABC (Aussie Born Chinese) guys in a uniform of sweatpants and sneakers, who could be spotted from a mile away carrying their mascot: a giant yellow and pink plush seahorse from Ocean Park.

There was the pair of short and stubby Mainland-looking sisters/cousins/friends(?) with tomato haircuts and butchy features who seemed to come straight out of the village, as their footwear choice of socks with slip-on plastic sandals seemed to say.

And then there was this pot-bellied local Hong Kong man in his 40s with a short, stiff (and therefore perverted) mustache wearing these:

I have to say that when I saw them, I immediately thought, "Aren't those for chicks?" and I couldn't help but get a super tacky impression of him, especially with his smug looks and flygirl wife - a woman in her 40s who dressed like a Mongkok teen.

But on the last day of the tour, this 'tacky' man suddenly struck up a conversation with my grandma that completely changed my mind about him. Not only was he friendly, talkative and kind, he was also a really good listener who got my usually quiet grandma to open up. After that convo, I noticed that he also approached other tourmates to start random conversations, creating a nice bond between us all, and he continued to watch out for my grandma like telling her to watch her step or to button up her jacket, etc.

For some reason, I never expected this from a guy who wore crystal-jeweled shoes…could this mean that tackily dressed people are actually normal and *gasp* nice? :-O

Read all the fun stuff at Miss Fong in Hong Kong.

07 February 2011

Lots of Abortions and a 3.63M tall man

On the first working day after our long Chinese New Year break, everybody gets a bit rusty, including our news media.

TaKungPao told us there're lots of abortions happening around Che Kung Temple last Saturday,

While RTHK said the coppers were looking for a missing person of 3.63 meters in height.

A pretty good start for the Year of the Rabbit, Villagers!