How sure are you of right and wrong?

Thirty years after the war was over, a young father and history buff bought the shell of a house in the hills near a hotly contested border. He was a poor factory worker, but it cost only the equivalent of a month's salary because the old stone and timber dwelling was in desolate disrepair and the local fire department had been planning to destroy it in a practice drill. 

The new owner started to rebuild the house bit by bit. He wanted his children to grow up in the beautiful natural surroundings and he loved to learn about the tragic history of the land. He saved to buy new tools and materials and slowly over many years he rebuilt the old house to look like the pre-war photographs in the village archives. 

Creative Commons image by Heather Katsoulis

Creative Commons image by Heather Katsoulis

Then one day after the border was reopened, a middle-aged woman approached the house. She said she had lived there as a child, that the house belonged to her parents. Forty five years earlier when she was a child, militia men had come with guns and forced her family to flee. The armed men had stolen the family's bicycle, their only means of transportation, and forced them to walk over the mountains into the neighboring country with only those few things they could take with fifteen minutes warning. 

This is a real story. I knew both the man and the woman. They are real people. It's the kind of story that happens on contested borders. 

Ordinary people looking for a place of home and safety buy or stake a claim to land and homes. Other ordinary people are caught on the wrong side of a political, national, linguistic, racial, religious or economic divide are killed or forced to leave their homes. And so it goes.

And now tell me this. Who should own that house?

Should the man own it? He bought it with his hard earned wages, worked on it with his own hands and saved it from destruction. 

Should the woman own it? She was an innocent child forced to flee her home and she still has the birth certificates, deeds and other documents to prove that she should have inherited it. 

Your answer will probably depend on which border, which side of that border and which war you think I'm talking about. This isn't ancient history but a relatively modern and well-documented situation in which most of the questions can be answered. 

Take note of your instinctive answer and then consider whether the following facts change it.

The woman was part of a German-speaking minority and the house stands in the border region of the Czech Republic, then Czechoslovakia. The war was World War Two. Hitler annexed this border region of Czechoslovakia at the beginning of the war and the German-speaking minority was noted for significantly supporting the Nazis. 

That was the reason for their mass expulsion. Many, probably most, of the woman's group supported and cheered on the Nazis. And so--brutal and indiscriminate as it may have been--some people justify the forced expulsion of German-speaking people from Czechoslovakia.

But this woman was a child at the time, living in a remote rural cabin, no more to blame than any other child and less powerful than some.

I tell this story not to win sympathy for the Sudetten Germans. But rather to promote the practice of skeptical, mindful ethics.

If you were sure in the beginning of the story that the new owner should be compensated but the house should be returned to the old owner and then you changed your mind based on the added facts, you must admit that moral certainty is hard to come by. 

We want children of about ten years old to "know right from wrong." And yet educated and caring adults often find it difficult to say exactly what is right or wrong in a complex situation and which way the scales turn can depend on details that require an understanding of social, political, economic and historical forces. 

I don't personally have a definite answer for which is right or wrong in this real-life story that I stumbled upon as a teenager new to Czechoslovakia twenty-five years ago. The law here has retained the rights of new owners in that case. The man's claim is upheld by the law. But if the house had been confiscated by the Communist authorities and the family expelled after the Soviet invasion in 1968, the law would favored the old owners.

The law is not ethics. It's just the law. And one would be naive to believe that laws are consistent. 

Image by Arie Farnam

Image by Arie Farnam

I am happy to say that this woman did not demand her house returned or even seem bitter about the law. Instead she was thankful that the house had been preserved and reconstructed, so that it looked much like her beloved childhood home. The man invited her to come and stay and lovingly helped her to reclaim her memories and a family treasure buried on the property. Theirs was a story with a happy ending.

But so many similar stories are not. 

The past few weeks have had me thinking a lot about ethical dilemmas. The news has hit on story after story in which passions run high and there is more than one side with a claim. 

It isn't that I don't have strong opinions. I can clearly say that the killing of unarmed Palestinian protesters by Israeli soldiers is wrong, even a crime against humanity. But what exactly should be done to solve the situation? Whose homes should be sacrificed in a small country with limited land and water? 

That isn't so simple. One way or another in our crowded world, there are people in need without homes, often with a valid right to the land or homes where others, including those innocent and unaware of any injustice, are now living.

My entire native country is based on stolen land. And yes, we can say that those who have been wronged should be compensated, but by whom? Some of the descendants of those who stole from or enslaved others are wealthy from the profits of exploitation. Others are barely scraping by. And yet if there is a debt to pay, shouldn't everyone be required to pay all the same?

Even the question of the infamous Chinese prom dress leaves me befuddled. A white girl decided to go to the prom in a traditional Chinese dress, which she wore in inappropriate ways and seemed to mock in one photo. Many people are furious over this. It's called cultural appropriation, taking something from another culture, particularly one that has been exploited by your own in the past or present, and either claiming it as your own or using it inappropriately or mockingly.

Don't get me wrong, I can't abide people who set up shop as a "Shaman" or pen books on Native American spirituality who have no legitimate connection to either Siberian or Native American culture. Making a profit off of a stereotyped fakery poached from the struggling remnants of cultures nearly destroyed by exploitation is clearly wrong. 

But as I put Vietnamese spring rolls made with my own fresh garden greens down on the table for my children, while wearing a shirt with Guatamalan patterns, I am not so sure where the line is. I know where these things come from. I love them and treat them with respect. I want those cultures which have been endangered to be represented and kept alive. And I simply prefer the cuisine and color coordination of some cultures over others. But I can't say in every instance what is right and what is wrong.

If the girl with the Chinese prom dress had not publicly shared a mocking photograph of her dress, would it still have been wrong? Western prom dresses are, in my not-so-humble opinion, a fashion travesty of modern times. Please any culture that is willing to save us from them, please  step forward! Despite the problems, I still say the Chinese dress was the--hands down--prettiest in those photos.

Looking at all these less-than-clear-cut situations and modern problems, one is tempted to say that it all depends. Certainly, we should be critical thinkers and respect the opinions of others. It is tempting to say that there is no absolute right or wrong. Even when we teach children right from wrong when they are ten years old, we end up pointing out that a child in a storybook who steals food to survive is not really so bad. 

But these are terrible times to abandon ethics and claim moral relativism. Are the opinions of Neonazis equal to all other political opinions in political discourse? And if not theirs, then where is the line? 

We live in a time when political leaders preach an extreme religious doctrine and claim to be for high morals, while dallying with pornography, blatantly lying, taking and giving out huge bribes, poisoning their rivals, fixing elections and claiming it's legal, and abusing anyone vulnerable they can touch--without the scandals even making a large ripple. Gods help us, if we don't even know what is right and wrong anymore ourselves. 

Many intellectuals I have discussed this with say that an opinion is valid in so far as it is not against someone else or does not harm someone else. That seems like a good rule, but it is easier to to say than to apply.

Among the most vicious arguments I have seen in the past few days have been over the silent and non-violent actions of people protesting what they saw as deeply wrong. A week ago, dozens of graduates and their family members silently stood up and walked out of their own graduation ceremony at Notre Dame in protest as Mike Pence gave a graduation address.

When questioned, the protesters specifically mentioned Pence's support for extreme racist organizations and for Donald Trump's rabidly anti-Muslim policies. Pence is also noted for pushing extreme religious agendas and promoting the interests of large corporations, specifically the Koch brothers, in public policy. But regardless of whether one agrees with the reasons the protesting students walked out, the vicious verbal attacks and threats against them imply a certainty of the wrongness of protest. 

Pence himself called the banning of athletes who kneel to mourn the killing of unarmed African Americans during the National Anthem "winning." There is no question of right or wrong in that statement. It implies a game with winners and losers 

The actions taken to penalize the protesting and mourning athletes and their teams and the words often deployed against them are extreme, while their actions are mild, respectful and silent. 

I can understand a parent being upset if their child walked out of graduation to protest something the parent didn't understand or feel is important. I can even understand people brought up to believe that the National Anthem is sacred disagreeing with someone kneeling during it. But none of these are violent acts that harm another, and yet violence is threatened against those who take quiet actions in defense of their ethics. 

There are plenty of situations where I cannot say with certainty that I am right and another is wrong. Ddetails and historical context do matter. But I hope we will not lose the most basic concepts of right and wrong through this. If a person quietly stands, sits, walks or kneels to protest violence and hatred, they should have that right. I may not always agree with their side of the story, but I can always respect a quiet statement of ethical concern.

Manifesto of a plastic bag washer

There are things that come naturally to me: turning off the water while I soap up my hands; saving a leftover potato to make dough, hording empty pickle jars, separating recycling from compost; making old clothes into washrags or drying ziplock bags. These seem to have always been habit.

I didn't grow up during the Depression, as some of my friends like to joke. I did grow up poor, but it was an odd kind of poverty. Some call it "voluntary poverty."

Technically, my parents could have pursued more prestigious careers earlier. We had a few good toys--legos and sleds--and the great wealth of a natural playground just beyond the door of our scrap-wood shack in Northeastern Oregon. But we also had old, faded clothes, socks that always fell down into the toes of our boots, nothing that matched, healthy homemade lunches or free school lunches and a TV twenty years out of date (when we had one at all). 

Image by Arie Farnam

Image by Arie Farnam

Living that way voluntarily is something quickly ridiculed today. I've heard it on-line, read it in popular new books, seen it in movies and recently gotten it from two fairly close friends. Voluntarily living modestly is considered naive, hypocritical and just plain stupid. 

The pressure is on in our society to get the most high-paying job possible, to pursue a major career and to use material bounty to keep you sane in the rat race.

I can hear the "buts" already and there is some literary and social lip service paid to frugality and "the simple things in life." However, those things fly out the window when it comes to a discussion of saving for your health care or your children's educations in the United Sates. If you don't have a near or above average income, that level of saving isn't realistic. And the excuse that you didn't save hundreds of thousands of dollars because you were living modestly and working at consuming less--which precludes high-powered careers with expensive clothing, classy social obligations and extensive travel and commutes--will get you exactly nowhere. 

I have the utmost respect for people who have worked their way out of poverty and don't want to ever go back. Immigrants, refugees and other disadvantaged people often work hard and focus on a career at the expense of everything else in order to gain a secure material life. To many people who came from poverty, the idea that those with the education and privilege to live a middle-class or wealthy lifestyle today might elect to live with less must appear ludicrous and, yes, hypocritical. 

And yet we know that it is not reasonable or sustainable for most of us (let alone all of us) to live the high-consumption lifestyle of today's western wealthy and middle classes. Environmental crises grow year upon year, setting new standards for a dismal new normal like clockwork.

The polar bears were threatened. Now they are simply dying. In a few short years, they will be gone. Hurricanes, droughts, desertification and wildfires set new records each year and claim more lives and more livelihoods. On the one hand, we know it cannot work for all of us to consume at the levels some of us have become accustomed to.

But acquaintances recently ribbed me for washing and reusing ziplock bags. Some because glass jars are a better way to keep food in recycled containers, others because they think one should just buy new bags. Both groups are wealthier than me, have greater storage space and don't store many leftovers in the first place. They can chuckle all they want. 

A friend of mine described how his partner insists on throwing out pasta that spilled onto the counter, not because it is dirty or contaminated but because it is a "poverty mindset" to spend time carefully picking something like pasta up. And I'm not even getting into all the people who refuse to eat leftovers or habitually buy new clothes simply because they have worn an outfit the requisite three times. 

Often the reason given is not even a desire for comfort, but an insistence that living lavishly is a matter of self respect, proof that one is not living in poverty. 

I have not appreciably drug myself out of poverty. I grew up in a family with very little monetary income. I pursued the work I loved and made ends meet but little more. Today my family lives modestly and does it well. We wear second-hand clothes more often than not. My children get new clothes when the old ones get too small. I get new clothes when the professional clothes get downgraded to gardening clothes and the gardening clothes fall apart.

And I still wash plastic bags, just like my mother did. I have no intention of stopping so long as plastic bags continue to invade my kitchen. I'd love to have shelves full of healthy and expensive glass storage containers and I agree that plastic bags are a modern evil, even when reused, but living well with less entails compromises.

I think there is special jargon for this in ecological circles and I do care about the environment, other living beings and the earth a great deal. But I am not doing these things to make a statement, to prove a point or even to make my own little impact on the environment better.

I do these things because not to do them feels wrong. To waste resources feels unwise and unethical. For a few years, when I lived in an Eastern European city without recycling or any place to put compost, I was forced not to separate garbage and it made me feel unwashed. 

Even if it doesn't matter whether we let the faucet run here and now because the local community has plenty of clean water, I can't abide it. The habit is wrong. The modeling for children is wrong. There is always reason to conserve, to reduce consumption and to live well with less. 

Those who belittle this may not understand. But it is my self respect that matters to me.

Adopting a sighted guide on the train... or the ethics of helping strangers avoid corporate traps

What you pay for today is often a service rather than an item. But we are not always informed about what exactly the service we are purchasing is. Often as not, that lack of information is intentional.

As a small example, in the Czech Republic an new rail system was recently implemented that allows private companies to run trains on the Czech railways. These trains usually run at the most lucrative times of day and on the most frequented routes, leaving the less profitable village routes to the national rail company and causing some bitterness. 

Creative Commons image by Toshiyuki IMAI of Flickr.com 

Creative Commons image by Toshiyuki IMAI of Flickr.com 

For passengers, the problem is that for most of our lives we have been buying tickets at the ticket office and using them for any and all trains on the purchased route.

The only possible exception used to be express trains requiring an upgrade payment, but even those trains still utilized the base ticket you bought. It wasn't worthless. You just had to pay for an upgrade if you wanted to use the express train.

But now these private trains pull in to the same stations and travel the same routes and once you get on board you are told that your ticket isn't valid and you are required to buy another one from another company.

I have more or less mastered this system after a couple of confusing encounters. But many people, especially those who only travel at special times of the year, such as the recent holidays, are not yet aware. Recently I met an elderly woman on a train platform with frosty mist rising all around us. I wouldn't have noticed her at all, except that she helped me read a sign that was a bit too far for my shortsighted eyes.

It was a brief, polite encounter and would have ended there, except that later I noticed her colorful hat in front of me boarding one of the private trains. She sat down in the set of seats I wanted to sit in, so we sat together. I also noticed her pull out a Czech National Railways ticket. I was half expecting it and even with my eyesight the blue logo was clear when she laid it on the tiny fold-out table right between us.

"Excuse me," I said, my words rushed with urgency. "That ticket won't work on this train. Another train will be here in just five minutes. You've got to--" 

But the train jolted into motion before I could even finish my sentence.

The older woman started to rise from her place, her eyes going wide with anxiety. "How was I supposed to know?" her voice teetered on the edge of panic. "And what do I do now?"

I'd seen it plenty of times. She would be humiliated. The conductor would come and scold her for boarding the train with the wrong ticket. Then he would attempt to get her to buy a new ticket for the same price she had already paid. And if she couldn't or had the gumption to simply refuse, she would be put off the train at the next station.

That was the most reasonable response. I happened to know that another train where her ticket would be good was following just behind us.

But being legally blind, I am well accustomed to missing inconspicuous notice boards and being publicly shamed for it. It might not bother a lot of people. My husband sneers over such things and calls me "thin-skinned." But I just do not like being scolded. It's very unpleasant and I could tell that the older woman across from me felt the same way.

I heard the snap of the conductor's stamp on tickets just a few rows behind me and there was no time to explain.

"Sit down," I hissed at the older woman. "You helped me on the platform, remember? I'm legally blind and my pass says a guide can travel with me for free. You're my guide."

It's the law here. Even private companies have to honor it. I don't generally need a guide to get around, even though I only see about ten percent of "normal." But that primarily comes from a lifetime of adaptation and a lot of good mobility instructors. I know people with similar eye conditions who are very disoriented and do often need a guide. So the doctors and bureaucrats who certify such passes have little choice but to assign them based on technical measurements rather than subjective abilities.

I couldn't explain any of this though, not with the conductor suddenly right behind me. The older woman sat back down, her eyes wide and her jaw trembling just a bit. At the last minute I nudged her incorrect ticket under the map on the table.

The conductor turned toward us and I produced my disability card and paid for the private train ticket, giving a nod toward the woman to indicate that she was included. She never had to say a word. And the conductor moved off. 

I explained it all afterwards and sure enough, she was one of those people who rarely rides the train. She had been doing some rare holiday visiting and was confused by the dizzying new variety in trains. She didn't appear to have the energy for one of those spontaneous autobiographies that strangers exchange on trains or airplanes, so we sat mostly in silence for an hour and a half, until she got off at the stop just before mine. 

I had to wonder whether my action was ethically correct by current standards. She did help me but only in a very minor way. But to me the greater issue was that she had paid for a ticket and the companies should be responsible for providing adequate information for passengers. More than my right to adopt her as a guide, I felt she had a right to a transparent and fair system of payment that would not result in either extra charges or humiliation for understandable mistakes.