the importance of moral worlds

moral worlds matter. not simply because they teach us how to be human, but also (and precisely) because they set the terms by which we treat other humans. thus, not unsuprisingly, we use our moral worlds to identify other humans and thereby place them in relationship to ourselves.

like all western bloggers about experiences of and thoughts on living with / among / against chinese people, i care about chinese moral worlds because those terms are the point of departure for our interactions. call it homecourt advantage. for example, a few days ago, one of my neighbors approached me to ask if i would teach her daughter english. i replied that i didn’t teach outside of a school. she concluded, “well then, maybe you can be friends.”  with your 13 year old daughter? hmmm.

i mentioned this conversation to one of my actual students, a lovely and quite brilliant young women who is currently attending an american university. she commented that she could understand the mother’s comment because i was a foreigner. i asked if she expected 45 year old chinese women to befriend random 13 year old girls. she said no, but then pointed out that when she was in elementary school that her mother used to encourage her to approach random foreigners to practice english. yes, she said, it was mortifying. but.

that but. fascinating. that hesitation opens a space for us to imagine that english lessons are one way of bridging our moral worlds. what kinds of relationship between foreigners and chinese can be imagined within shenzhen moral worlds? this question is important because as a sojourner in shenzhen, i do not so much live in a city, as i do within the relationships that the city enables. and yes, one possible and well used relationship to connect a chinese person with a foreigner is english teacher. that it is difficult to imagine other kinds of relationship, speaks both to the distance between our moral worlds and ignorance about foreigners. (just what did the mother think my “friendship” with her daughter would consist of, anyway?)

at treyopia v3.0, trey menafee defines the confucian blindspot as:

Confucianism is fatally flawed by a gigantic blind-side that has forever plagued the Middle Kingdom. Confucianism preaches responsibility to another, but not the Other. The Greater Good, for Confucius, was byproduct of everyone was doing what they were supposed to do. When kings acted like proper kings and sons acted like proper sons everything would flow along harmoniously. Bear in mind that Confucianism isn’t just some patriarchal moral philosophy it’s sometimes made out to be. Husbands and kings had a great deal of responsibility to the people under them. These were not the Lord-Serf relationships of Europe. So with the king/father paying tribute to his people/wife and the people/wife paying tribute to him what could go wrong?

The Blind Side. Outside of those relationships there are no other responsibilities to other people. How are other kings supposed to act towards other kings? Other fathers to other men?

in other words, as a foreigner i fall outside traditional chinese moral worlds and thus, there is no place for me in the natural order of chinese things. consequently, when a chinese person attempts to place me within their moral world, they must deploy a familar connection [teacher-student] in a novel way. by extension, if i enter into that relationship, chinese people can reasonably expect me to behave as a proper teacher. that i often don’t and won’t follow chinese moral codes is both a result of ignorance and disagreement with the definitions in play.

here’s my first point: even though it is possible to negotiate the terms of these relationships one-on-one, every relationship i have with chinese friends grows out of and through these ongoing negotiations. sometimes i learn the rule i’ve been breaking and agree, yes, i should be acting differently. other times, i learn the rule and think, nope  not gonna stop doing what i’m doing.

here’s the more important point: we do this all the time, even with people who presumably share our moral worlds. formally, u.s. right-to-life debates are the same as sino-american disagreements about cheating because both are debates about what it means to be human, and hence attempts to map and build roads between different moral worlds. in both debates, what’s at stake is finding common ground.

because all of us really are human. even when our moral worlds prevent us from seeing the truth.

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