On Moral Grounds

Posted By July 4, 2013 No Comments

Finding moral courage in hard times is a common problem and always has been. It is hard to have the courage to say ‘No, I will not do this’ in the face of authority or social convention. We face the test of this problem as children and many of us fail it. We imagine it is difficult to say ‘No’ in the face of tyranny (while fondly imaging that we could), but it is equally hard to say it in the face of conformity and custom.

Who does have the courage to say ‘No’ and where does the strength to do so come from?

A visit to Yad Vashem, the Israeli memorial complex to the victims of the Shoah in the Second World War, leaves few visitors unmoved. The site is meant to educate, document and commemorate the murders of millions of Europe’s Jews during the Second World War and this act of genocide was indeed a stunning and deeply disturbing crime. However, the honour extended to the Righteous Among the Nations – the non-Jews who risked everything to save Jews — is also a part of the memorial complex and is perhaps one of its most thought provoking aspects.

Some of the most brilliant acts of heroism in the Second World War – and there were so many displayed by men and women from all the combatants – came from the Righteous among the Nations. The tales associated with those who won high distinction such as the Victoria Cross, Medal of Honor or the Knight’s Cross, or who became Heroes of the Soviet Union, are indeed stirring but the heroism of the Righteous was not that of the instant. Their courage had to be kept kindled for months or years.

One could think of Stefania and Helena Podgórski who were sixteen and six (and orphans living in their parents’ old home) when they took in thirteen escapees from the destruction of the Przemyśl ghetto and successfully hid them over the next two years under the nose of the German police unit across the street. There is Sister Sára Salkaházi who hid hundreds of Jews in transit through Budapest in 1944, and who willingly returned to be shot by Arrow Cross Party members when she learned they had just found the current quartet in her safe house. Giovanni Palatucci went to his death in Dachau secure in the knowledge that in severely abusing his powers as a police official in Fiume, he successfully got over 5,000 Jews into hiding places in rural Italy before his arrest.

The challenge of people such as the ‘Righteous’ is that we inevitably feel compelled to ask if we would have the courage to do likewise in similar circumstances. Most of us like to imagine that we would have it, but if we had any self-honesty we would realize that we probably do not. This also prompts the question about who does have the integrity and courage to do the right thing. What is the ‘right stuff’ that lets some people do the right thing even when it could cost them dearly?

The recent book by Eyal Press entitled Beautiful Souls: Saying No, Breaking Ranks, and Heeding the Voice of Conscience in Dark Times (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, New York, 2012) is a badly needed exploration of the subject. Unfortunately it is a difficult subject to explore and the book isn’t nearly as extensive as the topic deserves.

Press picked four real examples of individuals who bucked the trend around them.

In August 1938, most Swiss police officers in border communities followed their new orders and turned back the majority of Jewish refugees scrambling into Switzerland. Paul Grüninger allowed hundreds to stay in Switzerland by stamping their arrival documents with dates that predated the order to turn them all back. As a result he was fired from his job and Swiss police officials took steps to see that he never found well-paid work inside the country again; he died in poverty in 1973.

To his peers and superiors, what was unforgiveable was that he had refused to hide behind a desk and regulations, and had let simple humanity rule his decisions. One might think there was also some pique because subsequent events had proved Grüninger to have been right to do what he did, and therefore he had a clean conscience when so many others did not. He also had a fundamental belief in the decency of Swiss Law and its asylum tradition, so when others turned their backs on traditional values he upheld them. It is human nature to hate somebody who has proved that they are more moral than oneself.

Here is the first hint of the way to lead a moral life: Resist bureaucratic conformity when it contradicts what you know to be right. It won’t be easy…

Eyal Press’ second example was a Serbian who saved Croats during the break-up of Yugoslavia, walking several of them out of a concentration camp where many inmates were tortured and murdered. Press expected to find some sort of Balkan Scarlet Pimpernel or high profile variation of a Soviet-era Refusnik when he tracked Aleksander Jevtic down for some interviews but it turned out Mr. Jevtic was something else again.

Jevtic’s parents had been in a Croatian concentration camp in the Second World War but had taught their son that their ordeal didn’t mean all Croats were evil beyond redemption. Jevtic and his Croatian girlfriend embraced this concept as the Yugoslav state disintegrated (the couple have since married and have a child). However, Jevtic in person was a misanthropic couch potato of a landlord who gave ample evidence he didn’t care what anybody thought of him. His community couldn’t tell him what to do then and isn’t much more successful now.

Not giving a flying ‘fig’ about the opinions of your community especially when ‘everybody’ is condoning bad behaviour doesn’t seem like one of the best foundations for moral behaviour… but it can be. Many more conventional military heroes are stubborn and not a few of them are contrarian in spirit.

The Israeli Army has high standards of moral behaviour and expects its soldiers to refuse to obey immoral orders. Tempting the IDF to depart from that standard is part of the constant terrorism directed against Israel and many insurgents have sought to morally compromise the institutions of states before now. Avner Wishnitzer, who embraced those standards and earned his way into one of Israel’s most elite military units, then applied them to his own duties when it came to dealing in matters where West-Bank settlers were clashing with Palestinians. He publically denounced the behavior of the settlers and the Army’s complicity in violating their own rules.

Wishnitzer’s whistle blowing engendered a national debate about when one should disobey orders. In his defence, he wanted to respect the egalitarian principles that Israel was based on and to uphold the best traditions of Jewish morality.

However, one does get the idea that Press picked his case as a ‘politically correct’ example (the book does come out of a left-of centre perspective), but then… moral behaviour should leave all of us uncomfortable and ready to question our usual assumptions. Just don’t expect anyone to thank the whistle-blower for his or her actions.

Wishnitzer is not unusual; other people have thought they were upholding the best traditions of something they strongly believed in when they attempted to call attention to wrong-doing. One could be reminded that the 23 magnificent Americans and Europeans who remained in Nanking when the Japanese captured the city in December, 1937, and selected German Nazi party member John Rabe as their leader. The group may have saved 250,000 Chinese from the worst deprivations of the Japanese Army, but Rabe’s latter attempts to inform Hitler about the crime got him in hot water back in the Reich. He died impoverished in 1950. Another of the 23, the American missionary Minnie Vautrin, kept thousands of Chinese women safe from brutal gang rapes but was haunted by the women she couldn’t save and committed suicide in 1941. Domine, dona eis requiem.

A decision similar to Wishnitzer’s is outlined by Press in his examination of the case of Leyla Wydler. who worked hard to qualify for her brokerage license in Texas and then went to work for the Stanford Group Company. Alas, she was among the first to notice that the company was engaged in a giant Ponzi-scheme and was defrauding its investors (including those she attracted as customers). She blew the whistle on the company to market regulators. She earnestly believed what she was taught about ethical standards and what the law and her professional code required her to do and the company dragged her through the mire before the authorities caught up with it in 2009. Her co-workers refused to back her play and left her to take the consequences alone, preferring to believe in the illusion that all was well.

The exploration in Beautiful Souls leaves us no closer to finding out why some people will do the right thing when others will not. We do not know where the seat of courage and moral strength lies.

It is a basic function of human behaviour to avoid standing out, to avoid being different. For a start, with hundreds of millions of years of evolution behind us, it must be remembered that being too obvious was always a good way to attract the attention of predators. On the other hand, being a little obvious was a good way to attract the attention of potential mates as noted by Freudian psychology. None of the names cited above (perhaps with the minor exception of Aleksander Jevtic) seemed to have been motivated by mating opportunities and none seem to have sought fame, wealth, or advantage either. If anything, their behaviour was against their own best interests… so what did motivate them?

There might be something incidental to the thesis of another recent book – Jonathan Haidt’s The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion (Pantheon Books, New York, 2012).

Haidt initially attracts because of his observation that most political/moral thought is subconscious or unconscious (an opinion this writer has held for a long time). Most people react almost instinctively to a new proposition and then their forebrains start inventing rationales to justify their automatic position. Like Post, Haidt comes out of the liberal end of the progressive–liberal-conservative-reactionary spectrum, but his book has come out of nowhere like a weasel in a hen-house and the feathers are starting to fly.

The main, and most contentious, idea in The Righteous Mind that has emerged so far concerns the contrasts in the priorities and decision making that Haidt identifies between the liberal (or the left-wing progressive), the libertarian, and the social conservative. Morality, he argues, is not so much rational, learned or inculcated, as it is rooted in emotion and it develops as the child grows. An appetite for religion and loyalty to the group, as well as other traits of emotional behaviour, are a result of evolutionary processes, not reason, but are none the less real and cannot be ignored.

The implication is that the great social experiment we have inflicted on our children over the last forty years might be arguably stunting their moral and psychological growth. (Dear reader, you were warned; this is a book that is going to provoke a lot of argument…)

By mapping moral decision-making in a large number of people, Haidt came to realize that there are six major ‘taste buds’ or clusters of moral issues/decision making criteria. These are

  1. Care – compassion for the weak and disadvantaged/a desire to protect them;
  2. Fairness –a rejection of cheating and abuse/equality of opportunity
  3. Liberty – letting people and you make their own choices/freedom from constraint.
  4. Loyalty—to family, group, community, country, institutions, etc.
  5. Authority—recognizing and preserving the interests of leaders for the advantage of society.
  6. Sanctity – the province of religion and belief.

The most astounding and unexpected finding Haidt made was that the contemporary liberal (e.g. the progressive ‘left-winger’ etc.) focuses mostly on issues of care and less so on issues of fairness and liberty, and is more or less incapable of even recognizing loyalty, authority and sanctity. By contrast, the social conservative (long considered by liberals to not care) considers all six ‘taste-buds’ more or less equal. The liberal does not understand the conservative and dismisses his concerns, where the conservative understands the liberal only too well and may share the same values, but balances them against concerns that the liberal thinks unimportant.

Although his book does not directly concern the subject, Haidt’s bundle of moral taste-buds’ offers a larger set of criteria by which to consider who is likely to say ‘no’. Who—and why – one person is more likely to hide the persecuted, refuse to kill or murder, or to stand up to aggression than the next.

Again, the largest sample of people to work with arises out of the Righteous Among the Nations – the people who hid Europe’s Jews from the Nazis, but there are other examples here and there.

A Belgian social worker, Yvonne Nevejean hid about 4,000 Jewish children from the Nazis, quietly raising money from Belgian philanthropists and using the Catholic Church to keep the children fed and safe until Belgium was liberated. It was clear she was already a compassionate individual focused on care for the disadvantaged, but when the Second World War came she escalated her activities and shifted the emphasis of her organization and skills.

The Japanese general Iwane Matsui (who was executed for war-crimes – perhaps undeservedly in 1948) had been in command of the Japanese army that captured Nanking in December 1937 and murdered over 200,000 Chinese. Matsui had been on sick-leave when the city was captured, but previously had ordered his troops to be respectful towards Chinese civilians on several occasions. Upset at the news out of China, he engaged in highly unusual behaviours for a Japanese general of the 1930s – he expressed remorse to the Japanese press and complained to the emperor about what happened. This got him relieved of his command. In retirement in wartime Japan, he still managed to build a large statue to Kannon, the goddess of mercy, facing Nanking. Seemingly, his main motivation was loyalty to Japan’s army and the emperor and he broke ranks in an attempt to protect the integrity and authority of both institutions.

The Catholic and the Orthodox Churches each recognize a martyr to the faith who arose out of Auschwitz. Father Maximillian Kolbe and Father Grigol Peradze both substituted themselves for prisoners condemned to be executed in the camp and both died with exemplary courage. This is why they are now referred to as Saint Maximillian Kolbe in the Catholic Church and Holy Saint Father Grigol Peradze, Martyr and Scholar in the Orthodox calendar.

The contrarianism displayed by Aleksander Jevtic could be considered in light of Haidt’s constructs on the morality of liberty. Jevtic wouldn’t be told what to do and couldn’t be expected to tell others what to do. One suspects the same contrarian element was at play with some of the Polish Righteous Among the Nations (there are few people more gloriously stubborn than the Poles but then their survival has often depended on it). Irene Sendler was arrested for helping 2,500 Jewish children out of the Warsaw Ghetto. When her friends bribed her off death row in the notorious Pawiak prison, her gaolers broke all four limbs and pitched her naked broken body into the snow. As soon as she was mobile again she went right back to work.

Press and Haidt lead us no closer to understanding why some people do what they do, but their explorations are fascinating and – Haidt in particular – promise to spark considerable debate on a variety of issues. Reading Beautiful Souls is highly recommended; reading The Righteous Mind is very strongly recommended and for a number of good reasons should make an excellent gift to others.

In the meantime, cultivate your contrariness and your stubbornness and know yourself. Do not be stampeded by the values of the moment and ‘what everybody knows’ unless you know it for yourself. Know what you will not tolerate in yourself and what you will not tolerate in others. Cultivate what is best when and where you can. Recognize that others with whom you disagree (especially across the Left-Right gap) may be moral too and reach across to cooperate with them when you can.