Wednesday, May 23, 2007

"The Ethics of Perception"

I was surprised this morning to discover that the phrase "ethics of perception" yielded only 7 hits in the JSTOR academic search engine, and none of those articles seemed directly relevant. An example:
Two weeks ago, I was pulling into the liquor store to buy a bottle of wine with my fiancee. I had to hit the brakes pretty hard as I began making the turn, because a tiny duckling was waddling at the edge of the parking lot. As I drove around the fuzzy little yellow thing and found a parking spot, I noticed the mother with her five or six ducklings trailing behind up on the grass, perhaps 20 feet from the stray that seemed unable to climb the curb, unable to keep up. My future wife, noble being that she is, decided to go help the little runt by tossing him up in the grass -- "Go catch your siblings," she mumbled, as she placed him on the grass.

The baby bird immediately turned around and tumbled down the curb, then seemed to try to climb up Gretchen's ankle. This time, she picked the duckling up and ran him over by his duck-family and then sprinted away, into the liquor store. I sat in the car and watched. A moment passed before I saw the little yellow feathers; inexplicably, this maniac duckling was headed back for the road where cars were passing every few seconds.

I watched. And as Gretchen got back in the car, the duckling entered the road. "It's only a matter of seconds now," I thought, and maybe said. Gretchen looked away, and then it happened.

Now my question. What happened?
A. The saddest thing ever.
B. Nature ran its course.
C. Natural selection at its finest.
D. An allegory for my own fragile exitence and impending doom.
E. Nothing significant.
F. All of the above.
G. A divine admonition against drinking wine.
H. Suicide isn't just for humans.
I. Rebel duck demands freedom! -- dies trying to make it back to the pond, away from the roads.
J. Other.

Take your pick, or invent a new interpretation of the event. In any case, understand that whatever you decide, if you leave your remarks in the "comments" section under this post, your perception & interpretation may take on ethical proportions.

When someone who is 95-years old dies, we interpret the event: "She was called home to G-d." When someone who is 5 months old dies, we do our best to interpret the event: "He was too perfect for this sphere." When a 16-year old gets drunk at his cabin up North on the 3rd of July and dies diving off the dock head first, we usually try not to interpret. Why is this? Do we understand intuitively that the way we see, and the way we say that we see, is a matter for ethical consideration? Would it be unethical to say, "Well, served him right -- that's a lesson in youthful arrogance if there ever was one!"

But enough about death. When a 20-year old college sophomore finds out she is pregnant, is her reaction subject to questions of ethics? How does she perceive the conception? A curse, or a blessing? Could we argue that to perceive the conception as a curse is unethical? Emerson said,
Thoughtless people… do not distinguish between perception and notion. They fancy that I choose to see this or that thing. But perception is not whimsical, but fatal. If I see a trait, my children will see it after me, and in course of time all mankind—although it may chance that no one has seen it before me. For my perception of it is as much a fact as the sun.


Wishydig said...

I caught a brief snippet of an Angelina Jolie interview this morning. She was talking about her recent/current film project in which she plays Mariane Pearl wife of Daniel Pearl a journalist who was kidnapped and killed in Pakistan.

Jolie also talked a little bit about losing her mother. She contrasts her experience with Pearl's, saying that her mother's death was natural but Daniel Pearl's death was unfair and unnatural. I'm not sure how that argument works once you get beyond the emotional. Who are we to claim that a death that is unexpected is less fair than one that is expected? Why do we so easily transfer the intentions of a villain to the "naturalness" of an event?

Am I way off base?

Casey said...

This is one of my favorite things to think about... it has something to do with the general feeling that political/worldly rebellion is somehow acceptable, but "metaphysical rebellion" is really dangerous territory.

But even Jesus ultimately "went there": Father, why have you forsaken me?

Let's Do It Up Right! said...

J. Other. You murderer.

Casey said...