The myth of morality

Feb 062007
Authors: Michael Segal Harvard Crimson

(U-WIRE) CAMBRIDGE, Mass. – According to a recent BBC undercover investigation, Oct. 1 has many interesting meanings in the People’s Republic of China. It is, of course, the country’s National Day. It is also, the BBC reports, the peak of organ season in China’s rapidly growing organ transplant centers (frequented by many a rich Westerner in need of a liver or two). The reason for this October surge in organ supply is simple, the BBC reports: Prisoner executions in China always go up before the national holiday.

The BBC learned of this fall prisoner organ harvest through hidden camera footage taken by BBC correspondent Rupert Wingfield Hayes. In the video, Hayes strolls into one of the largest organ transplant centers in Northern China in order to procure a liver for his “ailing father.” Not particularly in the mood for subterfuge, Hayes asks the doctors if they received the organs from executed prisoners. The hospital officials cheerfully proclaim, “The prisoners on death row have done many bad things. Before they die they give their organs as a present to society.”

However, Hayes notes that the idea that Chinese prisoners are willfully donating their organs to “society” (i.e. to rich Westerners) is tenuous at best. In a country where convicts are often taken directly from the courtroom to the execution ground and due process is a figment of the imagination, ethical considerations about prisoners’ rights seem a bit out of place. Indeed, Hayes’ conversation with the father of an executed prisoner highlights this reality. When asked whether his son ever consulted with him about donating his organs after his execution, the father replies, “I didn’t even get to see my son after he was arrested…The day he was shot they called me and said I could come and pick up his ashes.”

This practice should be disturbing to Westerners for a few reasons. Most obviously, the Chinese government’s decision to profit off the remains of executed prisoners is one more nail in the coffin of civil liberties in the country. Even more importantly, unrestricted organ harvesting creates a juicy financial incentive to maximize the number of executions in China, which already happens to execute more people than the rest of the world combined. Yet perhaps the most frightening part about China’s crimes against its citizens is that, for the most part, we don’t care about them.

Specifically, the West seems to be suffering from a bad case of myopia. A 2005 Pew Research Center Global Attitudes Poll found that, in countries such as Britain, Germany, Spain, France, and Russia, China is viewed far more favorably than the United States. One can only conclude that a giant 4th of July organ harvest might do the trick in winning these nations’ approval.

Another revealing instance of Western apathy toward non-Western abuses is the ongoing U.S. military prison abuse scandal. If foreign prisoners are mistreated by Americans, activists immediately spark a worldwide, front-page furor — and rightfully so. But when it comes to the far more routine, and more sinister, abuse of prisoners’ rights in China, we are deaf and dumb. Since it is not the U.S. committing the acts, Americans feel no guilt, Europeans feel no vindictiveness, and therefore no one has any notable reason to object.

Nor is China the only country that stands to gain from this selective moral blindness. Africa is another success story, where for years massive human rights abuses went effectively unchallenged while the world arbitrarily decided to monitor other issues, such as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, with eagle eyes. A bit of data from the Center for Public Affairs in Jerusalem: Between the years 2000 to 2003, Amnesty International released 52 reports on Sudan, where, even before Darfur, a heavily civilian-targeting civil war was killing hundreds of thousands. In the same interval, 190 were released about Israel.

In any objective valuation, these numbers would make no sense. But who ever said objectivity mattered? Indeed, when the United States and Israel are viewed by many as the greatest human rights violators in the world, while a country like Sudan has as recently as 2005 served on the U.N. Commission for Human Rights, it quickly becomes clear that Lady Logic has run away from us. Similarly, while China conducts executions en masse and then makes a profit off the bodies of the deceased, and the world claps its hands in approval, we can rest assured that objectivity lies safely in its grave. Such selective morality, which lacks any and all perspective on who the true enemies of human rights in our world are, is a farce at best, and a crime against humanity at worst.

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