My father passed away peacefully last night in Shanghai. He was well-respected and deeply loved by people around him. Primarily a scientist, he was also a renaissance man who was a fine painter, a Chinese calligrapher, a beautiful singer, and a fantastic ball-room dancer. A survivor of the pre-communist civil war, the Sino-Japanese war, the “Cultural Revolution” and the more recent economic reforms that have taken place in the P.R.C, despite all he had gone through he remained a man with a great sense of humour and integrity. On a cold and dark night more than 35 years ago, he rescued and brought home a badly cracked viola from a colleague. I became a violinist from then on.
My father opened me to the world of excellence and refinement. He believed in my ability to accomplish anything I set my mind to, cultivated in me a strong sense of honesty and moral taste, and most of all, he selflessly encouraged me to pursue my future while he knew full well that I would be millions miles away when he became old and frail. I love him so much. May he rest in peace.
Buri’s recent blog attracted 73 very interesting responses, but I still feel it unsatisfying without a bit further discussion. One particular interesting issue raised during the discussion is about doing less harm. That is, a nagging uneasy feeling occurs when we enjoy our luxuries while knowing the money could have been given to someone else for greater goods, such as save a life or school a child. Being violinists, we naturally feel lucky or privileged in many ways and we also tend to be the kind of sensitive and caring sort, it is a particular tough issue to face. However, some of the counter-examples against the principle of do no/less harm, such as preferential treatment of our loved ones or immediate family, the impact of our choice/action/inaction, etc, are particularly interesting.
For instance, whether to give money to the homeless is not a hard one for me. If you know that the chances are someone will use the money to harm himself, you have obligation not to do anything that will facilitate such harmful action. We’ve got tons of homeless people right outside of our office building, inside of which we have experts dedicated to problems of mental health and addictions. Most homeless people I know here have serious addiction problems, and as any sober users would tell you, giving them money is the last thing you should be doing if you really want to help. What you could do is give them food and some care kit, to donate to or volunteer at organizations that provide services to help these people. Or you can lobby the government to change the law and policy to deal with the root of these social problems.
I would also argue that love and treat one’s family preferentially is far from being selfish, but it is something we are morally obligated to do. There is a promise and trust among our loved ones and is explicitly or implicitly in most cultures that you will always put the interests of your spouse and children above and beyond others, especially when there is a competition for resources. To do otherwise is a breach of trust and might even be selfish. An example came in mind is giving money away to make oneself feel or look generous while one’s children are starving.
As to what is not happening as a result of one’s action or inaction. It is a legitimate concern that everything we choose is associated with a potential opportunity loss – something else we could have chosen and might even be better to have chosen that instead of this one. Since we can’t choose them all at the same time because they are mutually exclusive, we choose what we feel comfortable or care the most or what we believe to be the most appropriate. But what we could have chosen didn’t happen -- these are counter-factual events take place in our head. One problem with dwelling too much on this type of thinking is that it’ll get you nowhere. The possibilities are infinite yet nothing can be concrete enough to negate the choice you’ve made if it is a rational one to start with.
In the end, it is a matter of balance we all have to deal with, and that is not an easy one to find a satisfying general answer for. Maybe general answers are there, such as do no/less harm, be kind to your neighbour, or the Golden Rule. But should these principles be treated literally, analytically, or holistically? Should they be seen as our personal mandatory rules or discretionary guidence? Should we let the principle guide uncritically and guilt-free if we can’t be consistent? That is worth exploring.
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