Monday, October 12, 2009


I've been thinking about ethics a lot lately.

My own personal sense of right and wrong constantly seems to be under attack, in small and unexpected ways. I feel like I'm always being forced to make small ethical decisions that I would never have to make in the US. As an example, simply buying food poses an ethical dilemma; namely, how to respond to the fact that I'm inevitably charged more than I should be. Paying higher prices because I'm a white American goes against my idea of fair play, but at the same time, I can indeed afford to pay more than most Liberians. So how hard do I try to bargain before I cross the line from defending my own right to pay equal amounts to taking advantage of someone who is struggling just to get by?

But beyond my own personal experiences, I've been thinking more about where ethics come from and how values learned at an individual level can affect the society as a whole.

Let's take the example of lying. I'm increasingly aware that truthfulness is a luxury that most Liberians cannot afford. Kids and adults alike lie freely and skilfully to get what they want. It's unfortunately all too understandable why this occurs, however. The educational and other societal systems are so broken-down that lying and cheating are generally easily undertaken and highly beneficial activities. As an example: I just learned today that the exams at my school are all written out by hand on the board. This occurs in classrooms so crowded that sometimes I can hardly write for fear of elbowing a student in the face. I have no doubt that these exams will amount to nothing less than an orgy of copying. But what can be done? With too many students, too little money to print exams, and too few teachers to effectively monitor them, I can't see any effective way to stop it.

I can't help but wonder if this failure to ingrain certain values at the individual level plays a major role in the corruption that pervades throughout the society. If that is the case, it's hard to see a way out of the situation. Morals and values cannot be effectively ingrained in a society where people are using all of their time and energy simply trying to eke out a living. If the system is not fixed, then money and resources will continue to be diverted away from true development work and into the pockets of individuals. Without these resources, children will continue to grow up in an environment in which ethics are not well-developed. These people will then feed into the government and begin an entirely new cycle of self-promoting activities that detract from the country's development as a whole. So how can it be stopped?

Having said that, I know that this is an overly simplistic way to look at things. I am aware that my thoughts on the matter assume that my own ingrained values are correct and should be applied universally, which is not necessarily the case. Beyond that, I do not mean to imply that people here are, by American standards, morally retarded. That is not true at all. For one thing, there is, of course, a great deal of individual variation; many of my students are honest and hardworking. Furthermore, as a whole, there are certain values that are highly developed here. For example, there is a much stronger pressure for people to look out for their family members and neighbors than there is in the US. When the kids are sharing something amongst themselves, and they have an extra few peanuts or piece of banana or what have you, they will invariably give the extra to the littlest one.

I feel like there is quite a bit more I could say on the (admittedly very broad) subject of ethics. But this entry, like most of my entries, is already much too long, and writing about morality is tiring. So I'll leave things there for now.

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