Morality and Perspective

This may sound like an esoteric subject but bear with me. I would like to start with a question. Is it morally OK to deceive people for your own advantage? Your initial response is probably to say “No”. To deceive someone for your own advantage is not morally justifiable. Keep that thought in mind.

I watched a television series recently called “The Spy”. It was based on the life of Eli Cohen. The plot concerns an Israeli who integrates himself with the leaders of Syria in the 1960’s and works his way up to a government post. All the time he is professing support for Syria but is actually a spy for Israel. He is eventually caught and hung. In the background are his wife and children living in Israel and only seeing him once every year or two.

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The real Eli Cohen

The series is staged from the Israeli perspective. Eli is a hero who sacrifices all for his country. When he is eventually executed, the focus is on the poor wife and orphan children.

Does my first point now seem relevant? Eli deceived others for his own benefit. Even if we stretch it to the benefit of Israel, it is still deceit and we have agreed it is morally wrong.

Imagine the series was shot from the Syrian perspective. Here was a spy who infiltrated Syrian government ranks and deceived those who thought him a friend. There would be little sympathy when he was eventually caught and hung. The whole TV series could have been presented in a totally different way. There would be no sympathy for Eli or his family.

Moving on, in Australia, we have a similar situation with Huang Xiagmo. Huang is a Chinese billionaire who resided in Australia for some years. During that time he donated heavily to both major parties in return for influencing opinion and decisions on China. We have lost a Senator over the connection and investigations are underway about other incidents.

The most visible was when he turned up at Labor party headquarters with an Aldi shopping bag containing $100,000. I believe you can pick up the contents in aisle 3 between soft drinks and fruit juices.

The press in Australia is scathing. He will not return to Australia to be questioned (understandably) and his $8m house has been confiscated.

Imagine if the story was told from the other perspective. Poor brave Huang. Sacrifice his career to come to Australia to promote China and help political parties fund their agendas. Now he is under investigation and lost his house and businesses. This view is similar to the Israeli view of Eli Cohen. It is all about perspective.

All this leads to the question of can spying ever be moral? We can expand the question to include any person who actively tries to influence a country’s agenda within another country. It could be pushing China’s agenda in Australia, or Australia’s agenda in China.

For the morality question to kick in, it should be restricted to deceit in order to bring benefit. An Australian ambassador in China is not working undercover. His or her role is clearly known to all.

As we open the door on this question, it begs another. Is the concept of nationalism moral? If I am part of a nation that has particular laws and rules, culture and customs, borders and boundaries, is that a morally right thing to do? I could challenge the concept of nationhood by saying if we agree all men and women are created equal, how can I justify including people in my nation and excluding people outside that nation? If a person in China is of equal worth to a member of my family, why should that person in China not be allowed into this country?

One of the fundamental pillars of society is the concept of land ownership. Nearly all civilisations accept the concept that a person is able to own land. It might be an apartment or it may be thousands of hectares of a farm. Some societies have survived in a nomadic environment, but the vast majority want a place to call home. Morally it makes sense to provide personal ownership of land. It does, however, raise issues with indigenous land rights but that is an argument for another day.

Is it moral to roll up a whole lot of land ownership and call it a country? That is a more tricky question. Why not roll all ownership up into one nation called Earth? What gets in the way is history. People who carved out a block of land and called it a country. Now it is so entrenched that it would take centuries to break it down. The EU is an attempt to rise above individual countries but even that has fractures.

To take another perspective, if no countries existed, would you want to create individual countries today? The last major attempt was after WW1 when the allies divided up the Middle East. That went well. Then there was Yugoslavia combining Croatia, Serbia, Bosnia, Macedonia, Montenegro and Slovenia. Another outstanding success ….. for a few years.

So the concept of nations is morally dubious, deception through spying is morally challenging but we justify it in some cases because of our point of perception. If I am Australian it is morally acceptable to spy on China. If I am Chinese, it is morally acceptable to spy on Australia. Each country will criticise the other for doing the exact same thing. Even when we rationalise it we still criticise the other for their perception.

This leads us to the conclusion that morality is judged not on what is actually moral. It is judged on our perception. I have focused on spying because that is what started me thinking. A program so one-sided that we were led to believe the spy was a saint. Shown from the Syrian side, he would have been a devil.

When you strip away perspective, you can make a moral judgement. The problem is we all view things through a lens that clouds our judgement about morality. Next time you call something immoral, think about the lens you are looking through.

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