I was a idiot when I was twelve. Our English teacher had given us a new assignment to write an I-Search which is a research paper that’s a bit less formal than usual. The reason why I was an idiot then was because like expected all my friends chose the usual simple topics like video games, sleep, or stress but then I had to go pick this huge topic for my tiny little brain to wrap its head around by the deadline which was soon. I was scolded by my sister for choosing such a complicated topic but now when I look back to that assignment I don’t regret a second of all the hours of hair pulling, awake at night researching, or crying hysterically over my idiocy because it was completely worth it. I feel accomplished that the little twelve year old me successfully finished that paper by the deadline and actually got something out of it because I was interested in what I was writing about. It was one of those times where I took a spontaneous jump in writing something I was actually curious about rather than writing a well thought out paper about a common topic written by thousands of people for a high grade. I decided to post it here and I admit the writing isn’t that good but bear with me because I bet you’ll get something out of it strangely like I had.
Humanity’s Ups and Downs
A little boy of 8 years old waited with his mother and sister at the finishing line. He looked up in excitement, bouncing on his heels as hundreds of people cheered and waited for the runners. He knew his papa would win and when he would pass the finishing line, his papa would come to him and lift him up high while the whole world would watch. His smiled widened at the thought. The world would watch. They would watch everything burst into ashes.
The words blazingly filled the screen, saying “Boston Marathon Explosion!” The news reporter went on to say the blast during the Boston Marathon injured over a 100 people and killed three people, including a small boy of 8 years old named Martin Richards. I didn’t expect any of this, as the rest of America hadn’t, when I sat down to watch a few minutes of the news before I ran to school to begin my boring but normal life. At that moment though everything was out of proportion, and didn’t fit the formula for the daily average American life. There was shock and feelings of remorse but most of all, anger because like me, many didn’t understand why this did happen.
Forget about why, who could even do such a thing?! How could someone do such a thing? The confusion and shock filled me as the anger faded. Even my heart clenched with fear knowing the danger hadn’t pass, but I was still in my own bubble thinking this couldn’t have happened. No one could have hurt a little child. The mere possibility sounded wrong, it even felt wrong. Everyone can see the clear difference between right and wrong. Could they see? Was there a difference to begin with?
At one point you must have wondered about one of these questions as you’ve seen people murder, loot, and rape another human being. You must have felt the frustration. We’re all human beings but throughout my life certain actions have surprised me, the violence as well as the kindness of others. All these questions add up to the curiosity behind this one: What ethical values define being human and do we live up to it? So I began my search.
I first needed to get a better understanding of what ethical values were in the first place, when referring to all of humanity. So I rubbed my hands together in determination as I sat down in front of my computer and typed “define ethical values.” These plain simple words came up with only 2,078 results on Proquest. Let’s just say it made me depressed because I was used to the million results on Google that took your worries away, because you wouldn’t run out of things to say. However, one article contained more than enough information to get me started. This article was written by Dilawar Sherzai, writer of the Daily outlook of Afghanistan, who described ethics in extremely simple terms. In my own words this is what I got out of it. As I originally thought, ethics is based on right and wrong. These rights and wrongs are based on what we as a society think is acceptable, such as norms and traditions we established. However, Dilawar continues on saying, “Most people confuse ethics with behaving in accordance with social conventions, religious beliefs, and the law and don’t treat ethics as a stand-alone concept.” It was as if he was scolding me through his paper because I was part of ‘most people.’ I thought ethics equaled religion, which was why I thought everyone’s ethics clashed. However, in reality, religion was just a source and influence of ethical values people have. The possibility of common ethical values defining all of humanity seemed more possible now, because there must be some similarities among us with religion out of the equation. After all, we set up our lives around the same social norms but traditions, maybe not so much.
Now that I have defined ethics, it’s time to say some ethical values humans have or in other words, define us. Dilawar brings to light that because we are talking about all of humanity, generally we will use mostly universal ethics. Universal ethics roots from the fact that “actions that harm other human beings as wrong and the ones that benefit others as right.” This helps narrow down all the possibilities of ethical values based on what is ‘right or wrong’ only. However, there are still a lot of ethical values, as if picking right out of a hat. For example, peace is a worldwide ethical value, encouraging nonviolence. Also, human rights are an ethical value because they “benefit others.” However, is there a difference between which ethical values are more important? For example, does peace and not polluting really hold the same weight? Before I even ask that, can I really say that both of these are even ethical values that define all of humanity? Well, yes I can, because both are universal ideas. When saying ‘universal’ I mean that these ethical values are held morally right globally. The question of importance seems to be more about what everyone thinks individually.
However we forgot one crucial point. When referring to ethical values of all of humanity, we can’t base it off of religion, law, culture, and etc. because they vary too much and there isn’t a great consensus over it. This brings in the difference between personal beliefs and the beliefs of everyone. “In contrast to consensus ethical values — such basics as trustworthiness, respect, responsibility, fairness, caring and citizenship — personal and professional beliefs vary over time, among cultures and among members of the same society” (Josephson Institute of Ethics). With these basics established and several universal ethical values I mentioned brings us to the next point of my I- Search, do we live up to them?
When I looked at this part of my question, a brilliant idea entered my head. Who could be a better person to ask than a history teacher? They’ve studied humanity at its peak and lowest moments. So I went to Mr. Waxman because not only was he a history teacher, but he taught ‘global history,’ so he was familiar with all the different cultures and traditions throughout the world. One would expect an interview to happen in a formal place: maybe an office, the interviewee’s work place, or an empty classroom. Instead we both ended up in a quiet hallway sitting on the ground. As I tried to get comfortable on the cold, stone floor, I asked him if I could record the interview. He hesitated but agreed. So I began to ask my first few questions to warm him up to my topic such as what ethical values defined him and so on till I reached the question where my new search began.
Before I went to this interview, I discovered the book Humanity: A Moral History of the Twentieth Century that described what would be considered the most brutal time period in history: the holocaust, Hiroshima, First World War and more. The author himself describes it by saying, “But ‘humanity’ is also being used in a different sense, in which it is contrasted with inhumanity” (Glover 2). The number of deaths during the 20th century was so great; the total number couldn’t be counted. However, during the two world wars, about 58 million people were killed. With the wars in the Middle East we know a little about millions of people dying during service, however the details get more gruesome. If we were to spread out the number of people that died evenly throughout the period of those two world wars, 2, 500 people passed away daily and a 100 people by the hour for ninety years (Glover 47).
So when I asked Mr. Waxman, “Does humanity live up to these ethical values we established?” I already knew the answer. Obviously not and he confirmed it.
“Well, no. Throughout history we have seen corruption, wars, and greed. For example, repeatedly throughout history the Catholic Church appears where they established what would be theoretically good values, but the priests themselves didn’t follow them.” As I heard this I looked at my next question and I didn’t feel like I was ready for it. This whole time I took war and corruption for granted, so instead I asked him, “Why do you think people do it anyway? We all know these basic ethical values, but we still choose to go to war, choose to make these decisions.” I saw his face turn thoughtful.
“I think all humans are aware of good and bad but because of human nature we have inherited human weaknesses and that we fail, in rare exceptions, to live up to these ideal values.”
“For all of our differences, do you think ethical values should define all of humanity or should it be by each individual or should we not set these ideal values in the first place?” When he started to answer, I realized I slipped again by saying ‘for all our differences.’ In a way I should be thankful because if I hadn’t, I wouldn’t have gotten such an answer.
“I think we’re all more similar then different. I think the religion we’re born into, biological, ethnicity, race, or where we were born or grew up is very superficial because inheritably we all have the same basic needs, desires, and human failings regardless of where we are from, male or female, old or young. On a human being level I think we are all the same. However, some are just better on a daily basis by being more honest, nicer, and morally ethical. I think we start as an individual and try to change our behavior, or maybe your family’s, but we are as a whole are changing the world. In my culture, there’s a saying, ‘Rescue one life, you save the entire world.’” At first, I had not realized the importance of what he said but when I pondered over it after listening to the recording, the significance of it hit me. This whole time I kept saying how we were different, but we were more similar than different.
I went to Mr. Waxman thinking with his interview, I would end my search. However, I found myself sitting right back in front of the computer as I had started. This time I found that the Hebrew Bible, Ten Commandments, is similar to the New Testament, Koran, commandments in India, and Chinese Traditions as well. Hans Kung, in a seminar in Santa Clara University, stated that this lead to the fact that “We have only to see that all these great sources of humanity, the religious of humanity, have the same ethical standards.” There is however no agreement over topics as homosexuality, abortion, and more even among people of the same religion. Hans Kung goes on to say that we have to work to reach an agreement but in four matters there can be no arguments: the principle of humanity –“that every human should be treated in a humane way,” and to not do something to another person if you would not want them to do it to you, the third is to “act and speak truthfully,” and lastly is to “respect and have love for one another.”
I began this I-search with a prepared ending. That we shouldn’t have any ethical values, but just leave biological means to define us. Hans Kung disagrees, saying that without global ethics we would not be able to survive because the seven social sins that Mahatma Gandhi had established can’t be overcome without them: “politics without principles; wealth without work; enjoyment without conscience; knowledge without character; business without morality; science without humanity; and religion without sacrifice.” I happen to agree with him. This is because, I have finally realized the impracticality of these values actually is what defines us. These global ethics show that we’re creatures that strive for better so we can only try to be better people. Sadly, with this realization my old draft for the ending found its way to the garbage.
These values show that we have all the same intentions, also. I am a Muslim girl and my mother taught me not to lie as my Jewish or Christian friends mothers taught them. This paper helped me put aside these differences and labels we give ourselves, religion or background, and see what we have in common instead. Some people do very horrible things, but we have to remember that these are ‘unrealistic’ values. What matters to me most is that when I look into the mirror there is potential for good to rival the bad. Especially now we are aware of what is ‘right,’ we have the opportunity to act upon them. You and I can only hope the good wins out.