Thursday, May 17, 2012

Ethical Reasoning and Mother’s Day

This past Saturday, the day before Mother’s Day, a coworker had one of her best plants stolen from in front of her house. Her reasoning is that perhaps some child (or adult?) stole it to give to his/her mother for Mother’s Day.

Amazingly, I had exactly the same thing happen 2 or 3 years ago, also a day or two before Mother’s Day!  Someone heisted my best potted plant (only recently purchased because anything I take care of for any amount of time quickly degenerates into something no one would want to steal). So why all the plant theft prior to Mother’s Day?

In chapter 7 of Richard W. Hartzell’s Harmony in Conflict: Active Adaptation to Life in Present-Day Chinese Society, we read about Comparative Ideals of Obedience: Ethical Reasoning. Hartzell writes: “as a social doctrine which came to prominence in a society of subsistence agriculture, where Social Security, Medicare, retirement pensions, or other types of retirement benefits were unknown, Filial Piety has a basic level of coherent rationale in dictating that the children must provide for the economic support of elderly and/or medically infirm parents, and that consideration of the parents should come first.

He then gives an example: One young boy was visiting a friend, and was treated to eat oranges. As he was leaving, two oranges which he had stolen from the platter rolled out of his sleeve. He told his host “My mother loves oranges very much, and I wanted them for her.”

Pick one alternative:

The host 1) scolded the boy for his stealing and excuse-making, 2) commended the boy for his care and concern for his mother, 3) praised the boy for his devotion to his mother, but criticized the dishonest way in which he went about getting oranges for her.

According to Hartzell, the Chinese answer is #2. In addition, the host gave the boy a large bag of oranges. That’s because when the values “Rule of Law” and “Filial Piety” clash, the latter wins out (this can sometimes have scary implications).

So what’s the lesson of the story? Next year before Mother’s Day, bring your best plants into the house! Or buy a lot of extra plants and leave them intentionally out on your porch.