Zhihang Du | August 16, 2017
I Know Nothing (About Your Ethics.)
After spending this past year deliberating, learning, and traveling with my colleagues in the U.S.- China Student Fellows Program at Georgetown, I have come to two conclusions. First, China and the United States need to form a system of mutual outcome-based ethics. Second, arrogance needs to get out of the way, so mutual understanding can actually be accomplished. Basically, all sides must enter the conversation with only one assumption to truly hear the other side: I know nothing.
In Washington D.C., passing right through Georgetown, is a beautifully kept running path. Hopping on the trail for a morning run provides sights of multiple major American landmarks: the Lincoln Memorial, Washington Monument, World War II Memorial, National Mall, Capitol Building, Supreme Court, and the list goes on. Here is America, with a history so short and global rise so fast, you can jog it all in an hour and a half. In Beijing there’s no such path. The center of the city hosts the Forbidden City, representative of multiple government transitions from the fifteenth century onward, showing China’s perpetual shattering and reunification with its multiple rises and falls. In addition to history, the political institutions, historical formation of the population, and underlying cultural traditions create a ravine of misunderstanding. Yet, global forces bind Beijing and D.C. together. I am hard-pressed to find two countries so different trying so hard to understand each other. It should start with ethics.
Professor John Kline of Georgetown defines ethics as a process of making value-based judgments. By this definition, everyone has ethics. Where disagreement lays is in value-based judgments. For China and the United States to understand each other, an effort must be made to understand each country’s values. Not simply outcomes and actions. As a student of American politics, one of my favorite courses examined how the United States, in an attempt to do good and carry out its values, made events worse. In these stories, there are no evil villains, only good intentions. The course is appropriately called Institutional Failure.
One of the fundamental causes of institutional failure is an underlying arrogance that results in a disastrous confidence among decision-makers to the point of ignoring inconvenient data. Yes, the goals set might have been well-intentioned. However, good intentions do not right the wrongs of history or justify one’s future actions. Understanding the underlying benevolent intentions (read: values) can help guide future decision-making processes (read: ethics) that will produce not just good intentions but good outcomes.
As I write, I’m falling behind on my Mandarin homework. An intensive summer course through the University of Washington, covering a year’s worth of content in two months. Before signing up, I discussed with many professors my interest in learning a foreign language. The response was unanimous: you speak English; you don’t need to learn a foreign language. Yet, here I sit, caffeine filled, trying to master my pronunciation of “ü” as my GPA slips before my eyes. And it dawns on me: It’s true I don’t have to be learning a foreign language, but anyone wishing to enter international politics or business must learn English. I’m reminded of the student fellows’ meeting in China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs headquarters, where the lead diplomat made a remark along the lines of, “[China is] your host, yet our meeting is in [America’s] language.” And Americans expect this, even depend on it. How is one to understand the values of a country without even an elementary understanding of the country’s vernacular? And shouldn’t I acknowledge the pain of all non-English speakers struggling to overcome the difficult barrier of learning English to participate in global affairs? Perhaps more concerning for U.S. national interests, millions of non-Americans are learning English, consequently understanding America’s values far better than most Americans understand theirs.
I genuinely believe, perhaps naively (I admit my inexperience here), that the United States and China both seek a better world. It has also become clear, through discussions with my colleagues at Georgetown, that the two countries have fundamentally conflicting views on what a “better world” looks like, developed through a process of ethics with differing underlying values. Freedom of speech, freedom of religion, majority tyranny, state sovereignty—are all tough topics that come to mind. I don’t expect either side to drop its perspective. I do argue each participant must understand the underlying values behind why different perspectives are held. In this fashion, perhaps alternative processes of ethics can be developed with mutually agreeable outcomes.
These two basic takeaways, the necessity of a mutual system of ethics and dropping my own perceived knowledge while listening to others, will be incredibly influential in my life’s endeavors, from surviving Mandarin to negotiating agreements between states. Moving forward, this means dropping my arrogance and admitting how little I know. I need to understand others, and vice versa. This will take patience, hard-work, and, yes, mastering that stinkin’ “ü”.
Caleb Huffman is pursuing an undergraduate double major in political science and communication at the University of Washington.
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