I facilitated a professional ethics seminar a while ago for a scholarly institution, (The locale, names and client have been changed to protect the guilty.) The discussion came around to rationalizations and my favorite on the list, #22:
If “Everybody does it” is the Golden Rationalization, this is the bottom of the barrel. Yet amazingly, this excuse is popular in high places: witness the “Abu Ghraib was bad, but our soldiers would never cut off Nick Berg’s head” argument that was common during the height of the Iraq prisoner abuse scandal. It is true that for most ethical misconduct, there are indeed “worse things.” Lying to your boss in order to goof off at the golf course isn’t as bad as stealing a ham, and stealing a ham is nothing compared selling military secrets to North Korea. So what? We judge human conduct against ideals of good behavior that we aspire to, not by the bad behavior of others. One’s objective is to be the best human being that we can be, not to just avoid being the worst rotter anyone has ever met.
Behavior has to be assessed on its own terms, not according to some imaginary comparative scale. The fact that someone’s act is more or less ethical than yours has no effect on the ethical nature of your conduct. “There are worse things” is not an argument; it’s the desperate cry of someone who has run out of rationalizations.
In this case I did a sarcastic riff that is usually well received, about the common example of #22, “It’s not like he killed somebody”:
“Well, you can’t argue with that logic, can you? And if he did kill somebody, it’s not like he killed two people. And even then, that’s not as bad as being, say, a serial killer, like Son of Sam, who, when you think about it, isn’t nearly as bad as a mass murderer like Osama bin Laden. But he’s not as bad as Hitler, and even Adolf isn’t as bad as Mao, who killed about ten times more people than Hitler did. And Mao’s no so bad when you compare him to Darth Vader, who blew up Princess Leia’s whole planet…”
It made the point, and the audience laughed. Then, quite a bit later, I received an e-mail from a participant, complaing about this section. Can you guess what the complaint was?
Think about it a bit…
Do you have an answer?
Here, in part, is what the letter said…
As a Chinese scientist, I felt deeply insulted by what you said yesterday afternoon comparing Hitler and Mao. The comparison was unreasonable. I understand that you may have your own political opinions, but some Chinese people, including myself, will consider this offensive. I also think it was inappropriate to talk about politics…I hope you will consider this viewpoint before you prepare your next presentation.
My answer was this…
I am always grateful for input, but your complaint makes no sense. Facts aren’t political. Mao Zedong killed an estimated 65 million Chinese, making him the greatest mass murderer in world history. Fact. From that you cannot possibly glean my personal political views. (Killing that many people is unethical, however, in my assessment.)
I do not agree stating that fact can be reasonably regarded as offensive. I have learned that literally anything I say may be found offensive by someone. This makes frank and productive communication and frankness difficult….too difficult, really. My field of expertise, other than law and ethics, is political science, and I did not utter a word about politics in the session. Using political figures and history as examples of conduct is not “politics.” I did not bring politics into the session. Perhaps you noticed that the very first question in your session was, “How can you train on ethics when Donald Trump is President?” In a previous seminar, I never mentioned the President by name, and was criticized in an e-mail like yours for THAT.
I’m sorry, but I can’t teach that way, being damned if I do and damned if I don’t, and worrying about every word and reference. I use the best examples there are, as I see them, based on over 30 years of training and public speaking, to illustrate ethics principles in a professional setting. I also don’t use a script, so my comments are often spontaneous. (The one relating to Mao was, as it happens.) If someone is offended, it is just one of the occupational hazards of my job/.
Your complaint, and the inevitable others that I encounter exemplifies the tyranny of the perpetually offended and the power-play this involves. Such hypersensitivity and the gotcha! mentality it creates makes communication cautious, passionless and ineffective. I’m sure your comment was well-intentioned, but the problem really is yours.
Thanks for writing however. This is an issue that annoys me, and I’m always grateful for another case study.
A few day later, I got another complaint, from the same class, from another Chinese scholar:
I felt offended by your comparison of Mao to Hitler. This comparison shows your ignorance in Chinese history and it’s really inappropriate. I’ve listed my points below.
1. Hitler is a warmonger who brought the whole world into disaster. By contrast, Mao is a great man who largely found the modern China and brought hundred of millions of people from poverty and disaster to industrialization and dignity. Expected lifespan, which is one of the most important indicator of human development, extended from 44 in 1950-55 to 66 in 1975-80 (UN statisstics), which shows that average people in China had lived much better life. The Chinese population increased from 440 million to 940 million, not because people gave birth to more children than before, but because the greatly decreased infant mortality rate and introduction of basic medicare into the rural area. Moreover, these development are largely achieved under the trade embargo led by the US.
2. It is no doubt that Mao had made some policy mistakes which caused abnormal deaths during the 1957-1976 period. However, there is no evidence that he intentionally killed Chinese people, which makes his case completely different from Hitler. The abnormal deaths during that period had complicated reasons which could not be completely contributed to his faults. For example, the starvation during 1960-62 was first because of the natural disasters （mainly drought), and Chinese government didn’t have enough food to feed people. Mao’s fault was that the Great Leap Forward in 1958-59 had disrupted food production in the rural area and made the Chinese economy more vulnerable. However, the fact that china wasn’t able to get enough food from the world market was also largely due to the trade embargo led by the US at hat time, which prohibited food exportation to China. Any evaluation of Mao must take into consideration of the special historical and economic condition of China.
3. For the number of people who died abnormally in China under Mao’s rule, it’s still controversial. The estimations ranged from several million to hundred million by different historians. Many of the large number estimations are based on unrealistic hypotheses like constantly expected population growth, which made them invalid. Also remember that China is a country with a large population and even now around 10 million people die each year, and several million of them are of abnormal reasons. This number is only much bigger before Mao, so it’s also unfair to attribute all abnormal deaths during his rule to Mao himself.
Based on all the above, it’s obvious that your depiction of Mao as a mass murderer similar to Hitler is just your personal political view, I believe it’s very inappropriate to bring these personal political view to an ethics course. It’s also an offense to Chinese people in the room since Mao is largely a symbol of modern China. I would ask you to apology for what you have said and stop making these kind of comments in your future ethic courses.
Here is my response to that complaint…
Thanks for specifying WHAT it was that you found offensive. That is helpful.
Since I never aim to upset anyone in the seminars, it will be easy enough for me to avoid mentioning Mao’s mass murdering in the future. Having spent time in Russia, it appears that citizens there are no under similar delusions regarding Stalin’s murders, which dwarf Hitler’s, and are in turn dwarfed by Mao. So he is a safer substitute, and I can make the same point.
I’m not going to apologize, however, as my statement was and is factual. Your suggestion that mass murder in pursuit of social change is any more acceptable than mass murder in warmongering (actually, Hitler’s intended extinction of the Jews impeded his war efforts, and was also a form of social engineering) is profoundly unethical. It does exemplify the ethics of totalitarians, though.
Your description of Mao’s brutal and inhuman policies as a “mistake” is a popular rationalization, although not often used to excuse mass murder, fortunately. That I find offensive. It is profoundly unethical.
I am sincerely sorry to learn that you have suffered from this kind of government airbrushing of history. I knew that this occurred in your country, of course, but I have never been this close to it or communicated with an intelligent citizen who has been so victimized. You have my sympathies. I mean that. There is nothing you could do to avoid being so indoctrinated.
My main experience with the Mao exterminations was during my ethics work in Mongolia. The people there don’t seem to think that the murders of their Buddhist priests (among others) was a myth, for example. However, I am aware that if I had grown to adulthood in a culture that banged a false history into my head, the truth would be offensive to me as well.
I know Google is censored in your native country, so here are some accounts that are at odds with what you have been taught:
I could find no credible source that supports your account, accept as official government cant. No historians support it. You have been taught to believe a lie.
I am sorry that my comment upset you, and also sorry that I made the comment with anyone in the room who would be troubled by established historical fact. Had I known that, I would have moved to #2 on the mass murder list, Stalin.
But I am never sorry to speak the truth, and no, facts are not political, at least in the USA, and especially not to ethicists.