“The universal value of a moral life is often rooted in religious belief, traditional culture, or a personal moral outlook. Universal moral values are not merely the source of happiness, but also provide an avenue for the attainment of happiness. All that a good public life needs to have are the basic values: freedom, equality, respect, truth, and trust. These values come from society and don’t depend on the authority of the state to be preserved and reprocessed.”
Shanghai police have uncovered a large case of underage girls acting as “liaisons” for prostitution and even participating in prostitution. Because there are so many girls involved, the majority of which being middle school students with two girls not even fourteen years old, the case has drawn a lot of attention throughout society. The girls involved aren’t inherent criminals, but we can’t simply label their behavior as “shameless.” They are using their own specific methods to pursue what in their minds is “happiness.” Perhaps the value of whatever it is they are striving for is greater than the price that they pay.
What are the girls striving for?
A crisis has emerged in the youth’s concept of happiness. The object of their struggle is distorted, and it isn’t only happening with these girls who have today been discovered to be acting as escorts for prostitution. Two years ago an online survey posted by the China Youth Daily’s Society Survey Center entitled “Why Are You Struggling?” revealed that 84% of the 9,844 participants considered themselves to be “currently struggling.” The list of the things they are pursuing is prioritized in the following order: house and car (53%), a more ideal life (44%), getting rich (43.7%, and getting a good job (23.9%). These very reasonable goals reveal that in today’s society, money and material wealth constitute the most important indicators of success. Only if one has money can these goals be attained. Any possible means, including acting as a liaison for prostitution, as long as the money can be made quickly, are proper paths to fortune. All are legitimate methods for the pursuit of a person’s own idea of “happiness” and “a good life.”
In moral philosophy, the “good” of a good life is usually explained with the use of a concept of happiness. In the first book of Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, “happiness” is put forward as the central problem of ethics, and in the second and third books it’s put forward as the problem central to “morality and conduct” (“charity”) and “behavior” respectively. According to Aristotle, “happiness” and “a good life” aren’t static conditions, but are ways of life that are in progress. They are kinds of behavior that set morality as a goal: “Happiness is a kind of real activity that is in complete accordance with moral conduct.” He says, “many people treat the enjoyment of life as contentment,” but a larger number of people live “an obviously servile life, but nevertheless one seemingly filled with reason.” He thinks a life of pleasure is the lowest level of happiness with the next highest levels of happiness being a “political life” and a “life of quietly contemplating different modes of thought.”
As for the majority of today’s happiness-seeking Chinese youth, those two higher levels that Aristotle talks about have probably never crossed their minds. However, this really shouldn’t keep us from thinking deeply about this “life of pleasure is the lowest level of happiness” business, because these girls acting as escorts and liaisons for prostitution allow us to see to what extent the lowest level can actually go. At this extremely low level, “happiness” is entirely subject to natural human desires and is completely unrestrained by shame or any other moral principle.
“Happiness” Distorted by the World
A world completely dominated by money and natural desires is just like a world dominated by power politics. People often can’t form a proper concept of happiness. This isn’t to say that they don’t feel a certain kind of happiness, but the feeling can be extremely distorted. Solzhenitsen’s novel “One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich” tells a story about a feeling of happiness. Prisoner in a Stalin-era gulag, Ivan Denisovich Shukov starts feeling sick one night. He wakes up dizzy with a bit of a fever early in the morning. He’s completely drained and has no idea how he’s going to make it through the day. Unexpectedly, the day goes by without any problems: he doesn’t get put in solitary confinement; his group isn’t made to do the most difficult labor assignments; for lunch he gets a bowl of porridge; he happily lays bricks to build a wall; during his body search, the saw blade he had been carrying wasn’t found; and at night he gets some tobacco from another inmate. He isn’t sick, the day just goes by without anything bad happening, “It can simply be said that today is happiness.” This story is about a personal feeling of “happiness”. (It also brings to mind the story, “贫嘴张大民的幸福生活” which is about the degree of satisfaction in the attainment of personal “needs”. Contentment is “happiness”, otherwise, it’s “suffering”.
However, the “happiness”of social values and ethics is not a kind of feeling, but a kind of meaning. There is a difference between “happiness” and what people commonly refer to as “joy”. In summarizing human life, the famous Jewish psychologist Victor Frankl says the most important thing isn’t “tending towards joy while avoiding pain, but finding a sense of value in either joy or pain.” “Shame” is universally considered to be an important concept of value and meaning. For a person living in a world that has restraints, everything is permitted. Taboos are imposed from the outside, but are secretly accepted on the inside. Some taboos are frightening to people (like blaspheming a god or offending a tyrant and some taboos cause a person “shame”. Sex is the kind of taboo that can bring a person shame, but “shame” and “guilt” aren’t the same thing. “Guilt” is related to the inside (*1), but shame, on the other hand is related to vision (it can be seen). Shame is the fear that others will see what they shouldn’t.
People Can’t Live Like Anything Goes
In a society that has lost all restraints on the profane, personal shame loses its foundation in conventional morality. The reason conventional morality has prestige is because most adults abide by it, and this is purposive in setting an example for young people. However, when the actions of many adults (especially those seen by society as “successful”… government officials, entrepreneurs, technical experts, scholars, and celebrities) seriously violate the guidelines of conventional morality, the degeneration of young people is unavoidable. Anthropologist Margaret Mead’s “Culture and Commitment” points out: “the modern world is changing. In this world, adults can’t play the role of teacher for young people anymore,” and so it has led to a crisis which she calls “a crisis of belief.” She writes, “I believe this crisis of belief can be attributed to how young people experience the current older generations. There isn’t anything that young people understand more.”
Too many adults are steeped in materialism and debauched joy, but the media often reports on the phenomena as huge successes for the programs of Reform and Opening as well as improvements to the Chinese people’s “Happiness Index.” The long-term directives and revolutionary moral teaching of senior officials has rendered the current generation of adults completely incapable of making value judgements. Now, faced with young girls acting as escorts and liaisons for prostitution, adults can assume one of two attitudes: 1) condemn them, 2) regard them as another country or place might as a “phenomenon of the modern youth generation.” Neither of these two attitudes are desirable. Different cultures have different taboos. What is considered disgraceful in one culture might not be in another, but we have reason to believe beyond a doubt that young girls involved in prostitution as exposed by the media constitutes a “societal problem” for China, and isn’t merely a “youth trend.”
“Happiness” is a form of meaning
Survival and avoiding death, and seeking joy while avoiding pain are predispositions that humans as well as all animals share, but only people can find a meaning of “good” or “happiness” beyond “life” and “enjoyment”. Aristotle said, “the commonest person equates happiness with joy, thus they treat the enjoyment of life as contentment.” This kind of enjoyment surpasses the needs of the body, but still is only joy, not happiness. For example, a person can spend 4 million on a Tibetan Mastiff, use thirty Mercedes Benzes to go and pick it up, and he enjoys the joy of “face”, but how many people can agree that this is happiness? At the same time, with those young girls involved in prostitution, and those “second sets of tits”(*2), or any other form of selling one’s body a woman takes to satisfy her needs for joy, where is the happiness?
People can realize the happiness of life when they pursue value and meaning. If there isn’t any value, then there is no “happiness” or “good” to speak of. Because there’s value, people can find meaning not only in joy, but also in suffering. This is the essential difference between people and animals.
Ethicist Robert Van Dyk says, “A good life needs to include at least two components: happiness, and not being misled while searching for happiness.” The easier it is to be misled, the harder it is to find a genuinely good life. Young people are susceptible to being misled, especially when the adults around them are misleading them.
Perhaps what these escort service girls need are legal punishments and education about value systems. This kind of education shouldn’t merely be implemented for individuals, but should also be part of the larger social discourse. An individual’s idea of a good life does not equal the idea of a good life that is commonly approved of by society. When discussing the good life, a difference needs to be made between what an individual deems to be “a good life” and what the group considers to be “a good public life.” The former is decided to a great extent by the individual, but the latter must be firmly established and preserved by the people. Thus “the good life” needs to be made a topic of public discourse.
The value and the meaning of a good public life come from two qualitatively different sources: politics is one source and universal morality is the other. The value of a happy life that is of a political nature often places the state, ethnic group, or revolutionary cause at the center while sacrificing and neglecting the individual. Happiness that is grounded in political beliefs is often unstable, and as time goes on, the circumstances change until later it is even considered absurd.
The universal value of a moral life is often rooted in religious belief, traditional culture, or a personal moral outlook. Universal moral values are not merely the source of happiness, but also provide an avenue for the attainment of happiness. All that good public life needs to have are the basic values: freedom, equality, respect, truth, and trust. These values come from society and don’t depend on the authority of the state to be preserved and reprocessed. Throughout history, many of the manic political pursuits of happiness have always been under the authority of the state, and the results were disastrous. Now new concepts of happiness and a good life need to be formed that are sufficiently lasting and effective. Perhaps they must start with the cultivation of society and the establishment of a value system for the good life.
By 徐贲 Xu Ben
Translated by Kelly Kniha.
*1: The author uses 内疚, or compunction as a synonym for guilt. The first character 内 meaning “inside” illustrates the author’s point that guilt is in the heart, in contrast to shame which comes from the outside.
*2: “Second set of tits” comes from 二奶 which literally means “two/second breast”. The term refers to a man’s mistress (not elective surgery) and objectifies women by reducing them to body parts, so I thought “second set of tits” was an apt translation. The author brings up the practice of lovers supporting their mistresses financially as a form of prostitution, which it is.
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Source : Co-China, 12 October 2010