Saturday, August 23, 2014


We’re born in such a world, where beasts like us
must kill to live.  For even fruits, though meant
for eating, still have life until they rot –
and then they teem with myriad other forms.

We take of life to live.  If this is sin,
then all of us are sinners from our birth.
But there are those among us, who have slain
their fellow humans, singly or en masse.

And does it matter, when we give it thought,
whether we have killed a bleating lamb
or slain a human child, that likewise cries –
or trusts us as we coldly end its life?

And some would shout out, “Yes!” and others, “No!”.
But let’s press further. Ending sentient life
within the womb, and ending it outside –
are these not equal?  Hear the angry cries…

And further yet. To take your children’s lives –
is that a greater crime than slaughtering
another’s children?  Who can loudly say
that one is worse – and justify that stand?

At end, it isn’t reason that decides
what’s moral or immoral, right or wrong –
but instincts, of which conscience is but one –
too often silenced by the clamor ‘round.

And instincts have evolved through eons – conscience too.
So every instinct has a purpose, that
has helped us to survive, both singly and
together – as a species and as more.

But instincts operate within a sphere –
for only saints, perhaps, can view what’s far
with equal weight to near, or feel as much
of pain and love for “others” as for “own”.

And so we’re locals, through our genes and more.
And furthermore, the circle that we draw
around ourselves may widen or contract, but there
are always those who fall within, without.

To those within, morality applies –
but not to those without, or so it seems…
For men may slaughter others in the morn
and gently play with toddlers in the eve.

Religion, laws may serve to widen or
contract the region that is covered by
our instincts (of which conscience should be prime),
whose fields are mainly local in their scope.

And so it is, the soldier is condemned,
who bayonets a child, in midst of war,
but he is blameless, who has set aflame
a village or a city from afar.

2014 August 23rd, Sat.
Brooklyn, New York


Anonymous said...

I think there is only one RIGHT and One wrong. But, "heaven" help human beings "find it" and live it.
Human beings are not Saints and
life is so imperfect. Some of the horrors we encounter are unfathomable by sensitive thinking well meaning people.
But , as my friend Gerry told me after a lot of suffering before dying "That's the way it is!"
Also, "Jim , you are looking for answers, and there are not answers".
You make some excellent observations but a practical man would say: "That's the way it is!"
Yet, I also think always about these things , Sometimes , I feel that "my head is in the clouds".

Yet, very poignant discussion of many human ideas of 'morality". Good poetry about a difficult subject.

All the best to you and Weisin and your families. Stay well!
Your friend,

Arjun Janah said...

Thank you, Jim, for your comment, and for bringing our dear late friend Gerry back to mind once again. He was, when all is told, not only a remarkable man, but also a mensch. I think of him often.

The poem in the link below was written, as you know, right after his funeral.

Gerald Goldstein -- in Memoriam

Thanks again and my best regards to Dina, Helene, Ken and others. I had hoped to meet you again before the summer ended, but it may not be...

Arjun Janah said...

I think that all of us have a moral instinct, and a capacity for morality, just as we have an instinct and a capacity for language.

But the actual ethical code that we follow may differ from one culture to the next, much as language does.

So what may be quite acceptable in one culture -- say, eating cows or pigs or dogs, or even the eating of animals itself, may be reprehensible in another. The same applies to marital arrangements, with having several husbands or wives being normal for some cultures and frowned upon in others. One could go on.

That said, there are some things that appear to be universal in all cultures as regards ethics, just as there are some features universal to all human languages, however different they may appear in other regards.

These commonalities include the Golden Rule (Do unto others as you would that they do unto you.) in its various forms, and an understanding of the concept of fairness -- realized as equity or justice.

The sentiment of empathy is at the heart of human morality. This is an emotion that comes to most of us naturally as we grow from self-centered infancy. But its development seems to vary within individuals. And empathy tends to be overridden by the dehumanization processes of human conflicts, especially violent ones.

Moreover, as I brought up in the "poem", we seem to have a circle or sphere within which we are bounded by our morality or ethics.

That sphere might be as narrow as the individual self or it may be wider. Most of us would include at least close family and friends within it.

Clearly, most of us do not extend it to include the animals or plants we eat, not only as regards their slaughter, but the also as regards the conditions under which they live and how they are slaughtered.

Are plants sentient? I do not know. But I know that they are still very much alive in my refrigerator or kitchen shelf before they are cooked and eaten.

With non-human animals, there should be no need to ask the question. We all should know the answer.

Arjun Janah said...

One should distinguish between laws and ethics. What may be legal in a country may not be ethical to you and me, and vice versa.

To harbor a Jew (or Communist, Socialist or other "undesirable") in one's house in German-occupied parts of Europe in the 1930's and 40's would have been a criminal act. Capital punishment is on the books in many U.S. states, but it seems immoral to me.

The same may be said, to a degree, about religion and morality. Human morality evolved during the eons during which we lived in small groups as hunter-gatherers. So it predates the mass religions, which arose later, serving, as did laws, to meld together these groups as they settled densely on the ground, in close proximity to one another.

One should add that the mass religions also, as with laws, were made or bent to serve the interests of the "rulers" that came to be as agriculture and herding gave rise to the feeding chains and hierarchies that we still are under.

To this day, the King or Queen of England appoints the Archbishop of Canterbury, following Henry's precedent -- and the Archbishop, in turn, sets the crown on the head of the royal successor.

However, some of the mass religions have been around awhile, and so they have taken possession of human morality. One should be aware that this is so. To move away from a religious doctrine does not mean that we shed morality -- although this has been a common misunderstanding.

Unlike laws passed by legislatures or decreed by kings or presidents, religious codes can be more deeply internalized, and so may become part of the moral software that we operate with.

Arjun Janah said...

With regard to religion, one should also note that there are religions with very strong moral codes that are not theistic. Buddhism and Jainism come to mind.

There are also formal ethical frameworks, again designed for the masses and to suit the needs of the social structure, including preserving the integrity of the family while also serving the needs of the rulers. The one that is widely known is Confucianism. This is clearly not religious in structure, but yet is internalized as a sort of social ethics or morality.

In the case of Confucianism, certain principles or attitudes are stressed and internalized.

Religions need not be mutually exclusive -- although the Abrahamic, monotheistic faiths tend to be so, even towards their closest kindred faiths.

Religiously derived and socially derived ethical codes often overlap and coexist within an individual. This should be clear from observing our fellow citizens in New York City, with the mores of the popular cultures here overlaid on those of their traditional backgrounds. The conflict between these is most evident in immigrant children.

Elsewhere in the world, this takes place as a matter of course, relatively harmoniously. It is not uncommon for a Chinese villager to be simultaneously Taoist, Buddhist and Confucian in his beliefs and actions, with his actions being further constrained by the prevailing laws.

With regards to Gerry's comment, I must say that I am not in agreement, which may explain much of the problems I have encountered in my life.

If one were to go back to Nazi-occupied Europe, I don't think that revealing where Jews or others are hiding to the Gestapo or others could be justified, ethically, on the grounds that "That's the way it is!"

Indeed, this phrase is used by many in this city, including in the school system, to justify or remain oblivious to situations which appear to me unjust and leading towards great practical calamities.

In the subcontinent, there was, in my time,among villagers and even townsfolk, an acceptance of suffering and inequity as being part of one's destiny. This acceptance allows them to survive psychologically, rather than be crushed with the weight of what they have to endure.

But I never expected to encounter this counterpart to the fatalism of the subcontinent here in the U.S.A., in the heart of New York City. Perhaps it has been carried over from the Old World, where it served the same purpose that I outlined earlier. It can, however, also be an excuse for apathy and inaction.

There is individual survival and there is collective survival. The two are interlinked. Human ethics evolved from this realization, which should be an instinctive one, but can also be arrived at by observation and reasoning, extending these beyond what is needed in the short-term and for oneself.

While most of us tend to behave fairly ethically in our individual interactions with one another -- with, of course, many exceptions that rankle -- we tend to lose this when we become part of an organization, be it a school, office, factory or army.

This may be because we do not wish to lose our livelihood. But that is, I believe, not a wise way, collectively.

But it may ease one's individual tribulations, which I understand, even though I may not always agree.

I should apologize for the length and perhaps the lecturing tone of the long discourse your comments sparked.

Stay well, Jim!