The Japanese Diplomat Who Saved Thousands of Jews

Chiune “Sempo” Sugihara was a Japanese government official who, as vice consul of Japan in Lithuania, helped over 6,000 Jews flee certain death during WWII, risking his career and his life. Hundreds of Jewish refugees arrived in Sugihara’s consulate, trying to get a visa to travel to Japan. Unsurprisingly, the Japanese Empire had very strict immigration procedures, requiring applicants to pay large fees and to have a third destination lined up to exit Japan. The dutiful Sugihara contacted the Foreign Ministry three times for instructions, being told each time that he could not issue the visas.

533101_10151430822115472_1457010455_nAware of the mounting danger Jews faced, Sugihara ignored his superiors and issued ten-day visas to Jews. This level of disobedience was highly unusual – and risky – within the stringent culture of the militaristic Japanese government. With the Soviet Union occupying Lithuania – though not yet at war with Japan – he persuaded Soviet officials to allow Jews to travel through the country via the Trans-Siberian Railway, which would take them to the Pacific near Japan. He reportedly spent 18-20 hours a day handwriting visas, producing a typical month’s worth of transit documents daily. These were to heads of households, which allowed entire families to leave via a single visa. The exceedingly polite diplomat had the refugees call him “Sempo”, a variation of his name that was easier for them to pronounce. Continue reading

Hypocritical About Hypocrisy

As many of my long-term friends and followers know, I am fascinated by the subject of hypocrisy — as I discussed at length in a previous blog post — especially how widespread and intractable it is. Everyone behaves contrary to the way they think they do, and we all fault one another for the same sorts of transgressions we’re all guilty of. No matter how much we’re called out on it (hypocritically of course), or how much we reflect upon it with remorse, nothing changes in the long-term — everyone, at some point, slips up and violates their principles while judging others more harshly for it. We can’t help but gossip and backbite, even towards the ones we love (if not especially so).

Anyway, I don’t want to get too into this subject again, but I was reminded of it after reading this great New York Times article by Tim Kreider titled I Know What You Think of Me. It’s a great read overall, but I especially enjoyed the following excerpt, which more or less reflected my thoughts and observations on the subject.

Needless to say, [being gossiped about makes] us embarrassed and angry and damn our betrayers as vicious two-faced hypocrites. Which, in fact, we all are. We all make fun of one another behind one another’s backs, even the people we love. Of course we do — they’re ridiculous. Anyone worth knowing is inevitably also going to be exasperating: making the same obvious mistakes over and over, dating imbeciles, endlessly relapsing into their dumb addictions and self-defeating habits, blind to their own hilarious flaws and blatant contradictions and fiercely devoted to whatever keeps them miserable. (And those few people about whom there is nothing ridiculous are by far the most preposterous of all.)

Just as teasing someone to his face is a way of letting him know that you know him better than he thinks, making fun of him behind his back is a way of bonding with your mutual friends, reassuring one another that you both know and love and are driven crazy by this same person.

Although sometimes, let’s just admit, we’re simply being mean…We don’t give other people credit for the same interior complexity we take for granted in ourselves, the same capacity for holding contradictory feelings in balance, for complexly alloyed affections, for bottomless generosity of heart and petty, capricious malice. We can’t believe that anyone could be unkind to us and still be genuinely fond of us, although we do it all the time.

So in a weird way, all this hypocrisy is a source of solidarity. So long as we recognize these behaviors for what they are, and try our sincere best to minimize them, we’ll pretty much reach equilibrium. After all, humans have been getting by despite such behaviors since the beginning of our species…more or less at least.

No matter how much such incidents will upset me — and I find myself increasingly less shocked and bothered by them — I can’t say this aspect of our nature makes me as cynical as one would think. On the contrary, it’s just a reminder that we’re all in this flawed, messed up world together and mustn’t judge each other too harshly for these petty grievances.

Of course, like most things, that’s easier said than done.

Very interesting study and blog post. The way I see it, there’s never been much in the way of empirical evidence suggesting that a belief in free will leads to better behavior. Many societies have had such beliefs for centuries, and that hardly did much to minimize the immorality that ran rampant. People will always find some way to rationalize their immoral acts, with or without some greater concept of free will.

Why Evolution Is True

In his essay written for receiving the Erasmus Prize, “Erasmus: Sometimes a Spin Doctor is Right“, Dan Dennett argues that the idea that free will is merely an illusion—an idea promulgated by bad people like Sam Harris and me—is deleterious to society:

There is—and has always been—an arms race between persuaders and their targets or intended victims, and folklore is full of tales of innocents being taken in by the blandishments of sharp talkers. This folklore is part of the defense we pass on to our children, so that they will become adept at guarding against it. We don’t want our children to become puppets!  If neuroscientists are saying that it is no use—we are all already puppets, controlled by the environment, they are making a big, and potentially harmful, mistake.

. . . the deep conviction Erasmus and I share: we both believe that the doctrine that…

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A Short Overview of Kantian/Deontological Ethical Theory

Kantian ethical theory is one of several moral/ethical theories that provide the following: 1) a method for deriving moral rules and guidelines and 2) a justification and criteria for evaluating the moral value of particular human actions.

So like cultural relativism, which was discussed beforehand, the Kantian theory of ethics seeks to establish an organized approach to how morality is formed and how various actions can be judged and analyzed in terms of their moral legitimacy. As we will see, however, there are vast differences between the two methodologies.

Kantian ethical theory is named after its founder, Immanuel Kant, an 18th century German thinker of the Enlightenment Age. It is important to keep in mind the context in which Kant formulated his ethical theory. During this optimistic time period, there emerged a strong belief in the ability of human reason to help understand the world and solve its various problems – including ethical ones.

Thus, Kant sought to establish an approach to morality that would be reason-based. Indeed, Kant believed that to be ethical is to be perfectly rational, and that the most rational behavior is naturally the most ethical one. He also believed that behaving morally was a matter of obligation for which there could be no exception or loophole – hence the emphasis on rules rather than on consequences.

For this reason, the Kantian approach to morality is classified as a type of Deontological ethical theory. Derived from the word deon, which is Greek for duty, this ethical theory holds that there is an innate aspect to a given moral rule that makes it either good or bad. Put another way, it judges the morality of an action not on, say, its consequences or utility, but on said action’s adhere to a rule or set of rules.

Thus, Kantian/Deontological ethical theory is based around established rules and guidelines, and as such, considers morals to be unconditional, obligatory, and universal. So it is best defined as a rules-based or duty-based system of ethics. For a Kantian ethicist, the ends of an action never justify the means; rather, it is the action itself that is intrinsically good or bad. We can’t control consequences anyway, since there is no telling whether a particular action will lead to the intended results.

Categorical and Hypothetical Imperatives
But what does it mean to have a moral system that is obligatory and rules-based? Keep in mind that Kant is not trying to create any moral rules himself. He’s not directly telling us what is good or bad. Rather, he wants to establish a universal method for determining what is moral. Basically, he’s giving a way to test the legitimacy of other moral rules and actions.

The core of this approach is something known as the categorical imperative. This is a command or recommendation of action that is completely absolute. For example, “you should never lie” or “you should always keep your promises.” Kant contrasts this with the hypothetical imperative, which is a dictate that is based around certain conditions or desires. An example of this would be, “you ought to tell the truth if you want people to trust you, or if you want to be a good person.” A hypothetical imperative usually contains keywords such as “ought,” “should,” or “if” in order to connect the command to a particular condition or motive; categorical imperatives have no such considerations: basically, it’s “you ought to do something, period.”

Intuitively, there doesn’t seem to be anything wrong with believing that you should tell the truth for the sake of winning people’s trust. After all, this appears to be a perfectly rational expectation and motivation, and Kant was all about basing morals on reason. So why does Kantian ethical theory hold that rules must be unconditional in order to be legitimate and rational? What’s so irrational about conditional morals?

The problem is that having one’s actions contingent upon particular conditions builds into them a loophole: if you don’t care about the conditions, you have no reason to follow through with the moral action. If I don’t care whether or not people will trust me or see me as a good person, I have no reason to tell the truth. I’ll only be moral insofar as doing so meets certain relevant desires, circumstances, or environments.

Thus, the categorical imperative obliges us to behave a certain way out of duty, with no other external or ulterior factors in mind. This makes for a more reliable moral system, since it ensures that we do indeed always tell the truth or behave justly no matter what. But what compels us to follow these categorical imperatives? Why should we be good for the sheer sake of it? And how do we determine what should be a categorical imperative?

The Formulations of the Categorical Imperative
Kant’s answer to these questions is based on an appeal to reason: just as hypothetical imperatives ought to be done for certain desires, categorical imperatives ought to be driven by rational considerations. The first formulation, or principle, for determining whether an act is morally permissible is as follows:

Act only according to that maxim by which you can, at the same time, will that it should become a universal law

In other words, when you’re considering doing something, ask yourself the following:

1)      What rule would you be following were you to go through with the act? This would be the “maxim” or guideline for said action.

2)      Would you be willing to have this rule become universal law, to be practiced by everyone else around you at all times?

If the action you’re considering meets these requirements, then you’ve devised a categorical imperative – a sound moral rule for which you must oblige yourself to follow absolutely. If not, however, then this action is not moral and therefore not permissible. So if I’m thinking about making a categorical imperative that states “you ought to lie,” I must measure it against the first formulation: would this be a maxim that I’d want to become universal? Would I want to live in a world were everyone has a duty to be dishonest in every circumstance? If I’m a reasonable person, I would most certainly be opposed to this.

The second formulation of the categorical imperative states the following:

Act so that you treat humanity, whether in your own person or in that of another, always as an end and never as a means only.

What this basically means is that we should treat people as intrinsically valuable. Indeed, Kant held that human beings are valuable “above all price,” because unlike objects, a person is irreplaceable. Furthermore, objects can only serves as a means: a car is only valuable insofar as it serves its purpose as a form of transportation. People, however, have an inherent value to them that is beyond serving anyone else’s means. Humans have dignity.

But more importantly, they’re autonomous moral agents: they have free will and the ability to guide their actions. Because we humans are rational agents capable of making our decisions and setting our own goals, we are innately valuable. After all, without humans, there would be no conception of either morality or reason.

It is because of this that we should never be used as mere instruments for another’s ends. People must be respected as the rational, independent actors that they are, and must not be reduced to the roles of objects. Thus, a proper moral action must preclude manipulating someone for the sake of self-interest, or forcing them to commit actions against their will. Hiring someone to fix a problem wouldn’t be a problem given that they’re doing so knowingly and willingly; using a slave to do the task, however, would no doubt violate this formulation and make for an unacceptable moral maxim.

It is interesting to see how Kantian ethical theory would apply to the justice system. Kant would be opposed punishing someone to deter criminal behavior because he doesn’t deal in consequences and hypothetical scenarios. Recall that for the Kantian, morality is based solely upon the intent of a particular action and whether it comports with a rule – thus, consequences or other considerations don’t matter.

Instead, Kant would approve of punishment for the sake of retribution; rather then correct a criminal’s behavior, this sort of punishment simply addresses a wrong that has already been committed (albeit proportional to the crime, as Kant was keen to clarify). Furthermore, punishing a criminal treats them as an autonomous moral agent – i.e. ends themselves – and to not punish them would treat them as objects that have no self-guiding morals. In a sense, retributive justice acknowledges the criminal’s human dignity.

Pros and Cons of Kantian Ethical Theory
Kant put a lot of thought into his ethical theory, and he established a rather sophisticated universal methodology for determining proper morality. Even so, like any ethical theory, it has its strengths and weaknesses.

Among the greatest attribute of Kantian ethical theory is its consistency: because this theory is rules-based and absolute, it requires us to be consistent in our morality. Recall that the first formulation of the categorical imperative obliges us to follow rules only if we’d want everyone else to do so too. Similarly, if one accepts considerations as reasons to do (or not do) something in one case, then you must accept those reasons in others. To quote James Rachels, “moral reasons, if they are valid at all, are binding on all people at all times.” All this makes for a moral system that is as stable as it is rational.

On the other hand, this same absolutism is a major weakness as well, for it leads to a possible conflict of rules. What happens when we face a scenario that forces us to choose between two or more obligatory moral rules? Consider the two imperatives “never tell a lie” and “never allow innocents to die if you can help it.” Within the Kantian framework, both these moral rules would be unconditional.

But what happens if, during Nazi-era Germany, you’re secreting harboring Jews and the Gestapo come knocking on your door? In this instance, you’d be forced to choose between lying or letting innocent people die, thereby violating one rule by virtue of choosing another. Absolutism in such circumstances can be very troubling and arguably irrational: shouldn’t a rule be broken if following it would lead to harmful consequences?

Furthermore, Kant underestimates the importance of taking consequences into account when considering an action. He believed that we could never be certain of the results of our actions, whether they’re well-intended or not. But is this realistically applicable to all scenarios? Aren’t there certain cases where we could be pretty sure of the consequences? Moreover, Kant suggests that regardless of the consequences of our actions, what matters is our intention and adherence to an unconditional rule. But could we really be blameless if we commit an act that we’re reasonably sure would lead to more harm than good, even if we were being consistent in our morality?

Ultimately, while Kantian ethical theory provides some crucial moral insights, it also seems ill-suited to deal with the complex reality of many ethical problems.


A Short Overview of Cultural Relativism

Cultural Relativism is one of several moral/ethical theories, which are defined as systems of thought that 1) provide a method for deriving moral rules and guidelines and 2) provides a justification and criteria for evaluating the moral value of particular human actions.

Thus, like any ethical theory, cultural relativism seeks to establish an organized approach to how morality is formed and how various actions can be judged and analyzed in terms of their moral legitimacy. Specifically, a cultural relativist holds that there can be no objective, universal, and independent standard for judging morality because different cultures adhere to different moral codes.

Before proceeding further, two things should be noted: first, there is an important distinction between cultural relativism as an ethical theory and cultural relativism as a methodology (although the two are interrelated). The latter, known as Methodological Cultural Relativism, is an approach within the social sciences – namely anthropology – that treats all cultural views as equally valuable for the sake of understanding them better. In applying this method, an academic can study a variety of cultures and belief systems without necessarily deriving an overall ethical theory from their approach.

Second, cultural relativism applies to societies not individuals. Obviously, every individual in any given society has their own nuanced opinions and moral guidelines, which may run contrary to what is the general standard in their society. But the point is that the culture in which any given person lives in has established moral norms that they are raised and pressured to adhere to. Therefore, cultural relativism is focused on those society-wide moral customs and traditions.

Cultural relativism as an ethical theory emerged mostly from the academic field of anthropology (the study of human cultures), which was established primarily in the Western world around the later half of the 19th century. Once scholars and researchers began to study other cultures in an ostensibly objective manner, it wasn’t long before the methodology gave way to insights and conclusions about the nature of human morality.

It was observed (then, as now) that there was no such thing as a universal truth in ethics, only various cultural codes and traditions from which distinct moral “truths” – that applied only to those societies – emerged. In light of this, cultural relativists developed (and continue to espouse) the following argument:

  • P1: Different cultures disagree on moral rules
  • P2: Morality is subjective, so there cannot be universal rules
  • C: There are no objective moral rules

Put another way, this ethical theory denies the existence of any moral truth – of the ability to judge an action as “right” or “wrong” – because morality appears to be subjective (as determined by the vast differences that exist among human societies all over the world). No culture has the moral high ground from which it can judge another; each individual is indoctrinated in just one of many moral systems, so none of us has the authority to denounce or approach of certain moral actions over others. After all, we’re all biased in this regard.

The Advantages of a Culturally Relativistic Outlook
As we’ll soon learn, cultural relativism has many unsettling ethical implications. But there are some valuable lessons and insights that can be derived from it as well. For all its flaws, cultural relativism offers the following:

1. Tolerance and Open-Mindedness
Cultural relativism teaches us to view other cultures with a nuanced outlook, and to not immediately assume (as many people do) that our own preferences are the absolute best ones. Many (though not all) practices, customs, and beliefs may seem odd or even repulsive, but they’re generally harmless as far as their ethical consequences.

Examples would generally include funeral practices, wedding rituals, cuisines, and attitudes towards romantic relationships. As upsetting or odd as certain cultural approaches to these things may be, at worst, they are peculiarities that fit the specific needs and traditions of a certain society. They are not detrimental to their practitioners or us, so their unusualness shouldn’t merit bigotry or anger.

In a similar way, we should view our own culture within that paradigm; cultural relativism reminds us that our own standard of what is “normal” and “rational” could otherwise be seen as strange or unacceptable to others. In that sense, such an outlook can build bridges and make us more empathetic.

2. Learning Opportunities
From the tolerance and open-mindedness offered by cultural relativism is a chance to learn about other cultures and ways of doing things. Even if cultural relativism is wrong in claiming that there is no absolute moral truth (more on that later), we can still find ourselves learning from or even adapting certain moral concepts that we would have never otherwise known about.

For example, the values of Buddhism, such as self-control and moderation, can certainly offer useful insights and benefits to non-Buddhist societies, while the concept of civil liberties, which derived largely from Western thought, has much currency in non-Western societies. With the intensifying diffusion of various cultures and ethical guidelines across the world, cultural relativism can provide us with a proper attitude with which to respond to our increasingly globalized world.

The Problems With Cultural Relativism
Unfortunately, despite some merits, a cultural relativism theory has some serious problems. Applying such an outlook to its fullest extent can lead to some troubling moral positions. Furthermore, there are certain flaws with the premises underpinning the theory’s conclusions.

Perhaps the biggest problem comes with the central point of cultural relativism: that no culture’s traditions or customs can be criticized, let alone challenged. This seems to work fine, if not ideally, when directed towards practices that are harmless (as discussed in the advantages of cultural relativism).

However, what about less innocuous norms? Certain societies restrict freedom of speech or deprive minorities of equal treatment, for example. But as cultural relativists, not only would we have to preclude any criticism of such practices, but we’d have to admit that are own society – which grants such freedoms – is no better. Every culture’s moral code would, in essence, have to be accepted as equal. Yet it seems patently obvious that a society that deprives people of their dignity or reduces their well-being is worthy of opprobrium, while it would be irrational to claim that giving people freedoms is no better than not doing so.

A similar problem arises with respect to judging the prevailing morals of our own culture. Cultural relativism determines the moral legitimacy of an action based on whether it comports with the overall standard of the society in which it occurs. For example, someone in Afghanistan may question the ethics of barring women from education. If approaching the matter as a cultural relativist, she would have to conclude that there is nothing wrong with this practice, given that it’s part of her society’s cultural norm.

The flaw in this approach is that every society has widespread and established customs that merit challenges and criticisms. There’s not a society on Earth in which popular norms can’t be improved in some way; yet cultural relativism makes it so that we cannot question, much less seek to improve, the status quo, nor can we look to other cultures to provide us with better alternatives (since all moral systems are, in effect, equal).

This in turn leads to a third disadvantage of this ethical theory: there can’t be any notion of moral progress. Cultural relativism precludes any transcultural judgment, including across time. So under a culturally relativistic framework, even the past cultural norms of a present-day society are above criticism. Thus, we cannot view our current society’s prohibition against slavery as morally progressive,because that would suggest that the once-widespread acceptance of slavery was bad – a sentiment that cultural relativism disproves of.

Aside from all these disquieting ethical implications, cultural relativism is undermined by scientific and empirical evidence. For starters, cultural relativists may exaggerate the extent to which societies differ. As it turns out, many cultural and social norms are ultimately derived from practical needs. For example, a society that traditionally cremates its dead may have developed the practice because of lack of space for burial; even if the custom is couched in religious or traditional motivations, it’s far less alien or reprehensible when one considers the pragmatism that originally guided it. Obviously, not every cultural practice can be explained away like this, but the point is not to take the moral differences between cultures as being so absolute and foreign. Societies that differ could still nonetheless understand the trans-cultural reasoning that motivates some of their distinct customs.

Furthermore, cultural relativism’s central assertion – that universal morals do not exist – is in fact untrue. There are several practices that can be found across history and in every human society. Examples include prohibitions against murder, the valuing of truth-telling, and the raising of children until they’re self-sufficient. Granted, each culture may have slight variations to these – such as what age a child is considered an adult – but the same overall ideas underpin each custom. Therefore, cultural relativists must concede to their being some sort of objective and independent standard after all.

In short, cultural relativism has many weaknesses and doesn’t seem to offer a complete or satisfying ethical approach by which to guide our lives (or our society). But at the same time, its flaws – as well as some admitted strengths – do inform our understanding of the nature of morality and its intersection with sociocultural factors. In that sense, cultural relativism is worth studying.

Norman Borlaug

Few people have ever head of Norman Borlaug, from the tiny town of Cresco, Iowa. This is despite the fact that he is one of only 5 people to have ever won a Nobel Peace Prize, Presidential Medal of Freedom, and Congressional Gold Medal, in addition to the National Medal of Science, the highest scientific achievement award in America. Mr. Borlaug is quite possibly one of the greatest humanitarians in human history – and the most unknown, his death in 2009 attracting little attention despite his monumental contributions.

An agronomist with a PhD in plant pathology and genetics, he is considered the father of the Green Revolution, a pivotal development in agriculture that increased food production to astounding levels and reversed decades of starvation in the developing world. It all began with his research in Mexico during the 1940s, in which he was seeking to develop a strain of wheat that was more resilient and provided higher crop yields. Growing up in a farming community of Norwegian immigrants in Iowa, he often noted with curiosity as to how some crops grew different in certain areas. This observation of plant variance, along with his innate sense of inquisitiveness and compassion, put him on the humbly heroic path to saving millions.

During the years of backbreaking work in Mexico, where he worked with locales and lived in austerity, he cross-bred and experimented with varieties of wheat before creating several strains that were resistant, faster growing, and yielded more grains. He had a promising career waiting for him in the DuPont corporation, but he declined the offer in order to go to Mexico and work on the field to help poor farmers feed themselves and make a profit as well. Within two decades after his work, Mexico reported their wheat yields as being reached 6-times higher than the year that Borlaug arrived. Now only was Mexico free of having to import food, but it’s farmers were able to feed themselves and have enough left over to sell in the market, enriching themselves and the entire country. made developing countries surplus producers of food.

Soon, Borlaug’s wheat strains – in addition to his methods and ideas, which were applied to rice as well – spread to other countries, namely India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh, which also had to rely on imports and deal with horrific famines. Long predicted by scientists at the time to be approaching a Malthusian catastrophe, India soon recorded some of the largest crop yields in it’s history, after having invited Borlaug to conduct research with their own scientists. Neighboring Pakistan eventually got access to his wheat varieties as well, reporting similarly historic gains. Soon, scientists in China and the Philippines, with the help of philanthropists organizations, began following those remarkable examples and soon too brought bountiful harvests to their nation. Borlaug and his colleagues eventually distributed strains to numerous other nations in Latin America, the Middle-East, and Africa.

Norman Borlaug is believed to have saved anywhere from 245 million to even 1 billion lives, not including the millions more that might never had been born from the surplus his research contributed to. One estimate claims that half the world’s population is fed from one of the high-yield crops he and his fellows helped create. Granted, he didn’t do all this single-handedly: he had the financial support of numerous host governments, in addition to universities and charitable foundations.He worked with hundreds of researchers the world over. But that doesn’t dilute the fact that this simple, humble man, who refused to believe he even won the Nobel Prize when told so in 1970, did all this out of simple will and compassion. Even into his 80s and 90s he continued to work, notably helping to bring higher yields to dirt-poor and famine prone Ethiopia.

The Green Revolution he helped create wasn’t perfect, and it brought problems of it’s own, though it was hardly his fault. All he wanted was something simple but wholesome: to help the world. As he himself said, only a few years ago, “You can’t build a peaceful world on empty stomachs and human misery.” I dearly hope I can come within a fraction of such compassion and humanity.

Soldier’s Sacrifice and Reflections

Every so often, one comes across a photo that requires no caption or explanation – it speaks volumes in and of itself. Below is, for me, just such an image. The impact was immediate.

I don’t know who this young man is, or whether he survived his wounds. I’m not even sure which war this is. I know nothing of this photo or the deeper story behind it, besides the obvious one being told: a soldier who presumably fights for others, and is willing to die if need be in the process. There’s no telling the sincerity of this statement, since anyone can tattoo anything without much cause for truth. I’d rather not speculate about such things anyway.

Instead, I must reflect and ask myself: am I willing to sacrifice myself for those I love, be it family, friends, or country? Anyone and everyone would likely say “of course,” and I’d be no exception. But if the moment were to come (hopefully not), what would I do? We can all talk the talk, but walking the walk when the circumstances force it upon us is a different story. We’re very different people, and our true inhibitions and feelings become much more clear. Would I have the courage? Would I not freeze in place with fear or confusion? If I was called to do something for the sake others, would I answer it without trepidation – would I answer it at all even?

On a more tangential note, are all these men and women really fighting for the ones they love when we send them off to foreign lands, fighting conflicts far and away from everyone they know? They may certainly think they are, and may certainly intend to. But in practice, many of them are fighting on behalf of the interests of others, or the whim of capricious politicians and business elites. Many of them may be fighting for a cause that doesn’t concern them, or that they don’t really understand. Certainly, they’re often taking on bad people that mean to harm us and others. But how common is this? How deserved is the loss of life for such a cause? Is the sacrifice necessary or worth the fight?

I could have known this person – as a friend of mine remarked, he could have been a drinking buddy. Average people thrust into very un-average situations most of us don’t even remotely know (much less a relatively sheltered suburban bookworm like me). The disparity of human experiences is amazing. Some people go about their whole lives without ever having to make such a stark decision (assuming they even have a choice in the matter – sometimes, it randomly befalls us). Others take up roles or causes that barely allow them much time to live in the first place. And the former may never even notice it.