I read a very interesting book recently that has almost nothing to do with the topic I really want to discuss, but sometimes that’s the wonderful thing about reading; expose yourself to enough ideas and you’ll find that your stimulated brain draws connections between two seemingly unrelated realms. Now, I will say that the book was about the moral life of babies, and what presses most heavily on my mind these days is war. Bear with me.
The book, Just Babies: The Origins of Good and Evil, explores a topic that is the subject of frequent debate between me and my recently-married, deciding-how-to-go-about-child-making-decisions friends. The questions tackled are: how do we as human beings know what is right and wrong? Were we born that way, or does society enforce a moral code? All murderers were babies at some point; was it nature or nurture’s fault they deviated? If you’re interested in exploring the answers to these questions, then I recommend the book. The author, Paul Bloom, is a psychologist and a lot of the book is devoted to social experiments, many of which are enlightening and thought-provoking.
Perhaps you may not be surprised to learn that is is incredibly difficult to perform experiments on babies. They are, by definition, not fully developed as human beings and therefore cannot talk to report their feelings. One thing that babies do when pressed to make a decision between two puppets (one who is “good” and one who is “bad”) is stare at the situation that confuses them. That’s how psychologists can determine the application of judgment. As it turns out, babies stare longer at puppet scenarios in which a puppet steals a ball from another puppet than when a puppet helps another puppet carry a ball up a difficult hill. It seems that a majority of babies, when faced with something wrong, at first just cannot comprehend.
Now, at the risk of comparing myself to a three-month-old, I’ve been doing a lot of staring lately. I should mention also that I consider myself well-traveled, well-read, and opinionated, generally, on global current events. I consider myself fair-minded in judgments, always bearing in mind that many of my decisions and opinions are a direct result of my identifiers: American, late-20s, woman, publisher (which roughly translates to: aware of my freedoms and privilege, relatively young, feminist, anti-Amazon). Here’s the thing. I am also a traveler. And if there’s one truth I’ve learned through my numerous border crossings it is this: for all the differences in culture and customs, in clothing and language and religion and politics, we are all basically want the same things: to pursue our happiness and to feed our children.
What have I been staring at, with the apt confusion of a baby watching an klepto-puppet? War. Check my browsing history: it seems I cannot stop reading about it. Ask my friends: it seems I cannot stop questioning it. Ask my Israeli roommate: Am I needlessly tearing our relationship apart with the word “but?” Yes, the tunnels need to be destroyed, but! Yes, it sucks that your flight out of Tel Aviv was cancelled but!
So, I’ve been reflecting on my experiences and asking myself what do I know? As a traveler, I’ve been to HIroshima, Japan. I toured and seen firsthand a city that whose civilian population and livelihood was decimated by war. I’ve been to the museum there, and I’ve encountered the melted glass, the deformed children’s bicycle, the shards of clothing.
One psychological experiment that Bloom mentions is the train-switch scenario. It asks people that if there is a track on which five tethered people are tied, and a a barreling, runaway train headed right to them, would you flip the switch that alters the train’s direction to another track where only one person lies tethered? The overwhelming result to this dilemma was “yes, flip the switch.” Subjects of this experiment nearly universally would sacrifice one for the ensured safety of a greater number. But then when you think of that experiment under the veil of war, it becomes a lot less clear. Wasn’t Hiroshima the track with one-person tethered to it?
It then becomes absolutely wrenching to read about fatality comparisons, as if the death of one person in any conflict isn’t in itself a tragedy. How absurd, to read comments that mention that a compelling reason for ceasefire is this many dead versus that many dead. Numbers instead of people. Passengers on a commercial airliner, not military transport. Villagers, not soldiers. Because it is what we do, we align ourselves on sides. Pro-this, anti-that. As if it were that easy. As if everything could be boiled down to a simple matter of right, or more right. It’s all too much. And so I stare.
Because it is wrong.