This leads to a principle which is simple but central: Help someone if your time and effort is worth more to them than it is to you. This principle, let’s call it ‘the Help Principle’, is at the core of ethics – in Britain as well as in the jungle, and indeed wherever there are humans to be helped – which is just about everywhere...
...I leave the jungles of South Sudan happy, keen to apply the Help Principle elsewhere, and content that a problem has been solved. And the sweet flavour of mangoes has displaced the salty taste of dried ants from my mouth forever.
© Iain King 2014
Living alone with her mother – her father died some years ago – left W vulnerable too. Her liaison with the mason was soon common knowledge, and far from popular. Any relationship with another community is forbidden, local officials said, and involvement with a Muslim, as in this case, particularly shocking.
"We found them together. The women took her and the men took the boy and we tied them to a tree while the village council took their decision," said Manika Tudu, the neighbour.
The people of Subalpur are from India's tribal communities, sometimes called Adivasi and among the most marginalised and exploited people in the country. Around 8% of the total population, their communities are run by unelected councils, which settle disputes. Similar institutions dispense rough justice across much of India's countryside, where people shun a police force and judiciary seen as corrupt, slow and distant.
"This is our way. We don't go to the police. If there is a problem, we settle it among ourselves," said Fulmoni Tudu, 40, whose husband is among the 13 men currently detained for the alleged gang-rape. Even W's brother backed the system, though he said a "beating" would have been a fair punishment.
All witnesses agree that the council, led by the headman, decided to impose a fine of 27,000 rupees (£280) on W and her alleged lover. The man's relatives sold their jewellery and paid. But the enormous sum was well beyond the means of W's family.
There are different versions of what happened next. In the detailed account given to the police by W and her mother, recounted to the Guardian, the woman describes how the headman told the men that, as she could not pay the fine, they were free to "enjoy her". She was then led to a rough bamboo and palm leaf hut only yards from the headman's house and repeatedly raped
Empathy is one-to-one, since we only imagine ourselves in the mind of one other person at a time. Even when I empathise with ‘the people’ here – for example when I hear about the difficulties all the women face finding clean water – I am really imagining what it is like to be just one woman. I cannot imagine myself to be more than one person at a time, and neither can you.
So if I’m part of a group of four trying to decide what is right, I need to empathise with each of the other three in turn. For each, I and they will come to an agreement – and therefore define a norm of what is right – by balancing our interests: if my time and effort is worth more to one of them than it is to me, then I will help them, and vice versa. But empathising one-to-one also sets boundaries: it prevents me from becoming a slave, since the impact of this on my interests will exceed any benefit it could bring any single one of them, even if the total benefit to several of them would be larger.
Furthermore, empathising with people in the past as well as the future means justice isn’t just about either deterrents or blindly applying a code. It means punishments are issued which fit both the crime and the criminal. That chimes well with my instincts, and hopefully with yours, too
You see, in the jungle, the way I reconcile my interests with those of other people is not for all of us to pour everything we care about into a pot then see which of the combination of satisfied wants would generate the most happiness (benefit). If we did that, I could be completely outnumbered. If people here supported slavery for example (I didn’t ask them), then the total happiness might be maximised if I were made a slave. Not good.
No, the way we reconcile interests is through empathy. We imagine ourselves in the position of other people
Philosopher, adventurer, international conflict expert... Iain King CBE has written some fascinating books.
'How to Make Good Decisions and Be Right All the Time' is both an easy-to-understand introduction to moral philosophy and a radical new theory on ethics. Used in philosophy courses, it avoids jargon and explains complicated ideas in simple language. His theory has been widely acclaimed, and his book dubbed "destined to become a classic".
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