When I think about what I’d like to teach my children about this existence I often return to the thought, “What do I believe, and which of my beliefs is most important?” I haven’t come up with a solid answer to the second question because as with many things the relative importance of beliefs are a matter of perspective and context. Perhaps I should state that as my first belief.
The Importance of Perspective and Context
I believe that one of the most vital things to understand is the importance of perspective and context when studying any issue. It’s like the old saying, “There are two kinds of people in this world…” How you finish this statement reveals your primary perspective on the world. A dentist might say, “…people who brush their teeth and those who don’t.” I often approach issues with the perspective illustrated by finishing it thus, “…people who demand evidence and value reason, and those who believe any damn thing they want to.”
In order to be intellectually honest though one must recognize that one’s perspective on an issue may not be the only valid one. Explore other people’s perspective and see what makes them tick. Now this doesn’t necessarily mean that you must always be open to adopting other perspectives as you own, just that I guarantee that you will learn fascinating things from asking people about their perspectives.
It’s also extremely important to take into account the context in which statements or decisions are made. It is impossible to compare other people’s actions to any moral standards without understanding the context of those actions. The example I always think of is President Truman’s decision to obliterate Nagasaki and Hiroshima. He often comes in for criticizim for this decision and clearly deciding to kill that many defensless people is on the surface a violation of any ethical standard you can name.But is the criticism deserved?
However, I believe the context of that decision dramatically changes how it should be judged by history. As the Allied forces approached the Japanese home islands the resistance grew fiercer and fiercer. In order to take Iwo Jima the Marines had to basically kill the entire Japanese force, almost to a man. Never ones to surrender the Japanese became even more fanatical in their resistance. This caused U.S. military leadership to fear the number of casualties that would occur on both sides if the U.S. attempted a conventional invasion. If the Japanese resisted the invasion of the home islands as fiercely as they did Iwo Jima, and there was every reason to believe they would. A conventional invasion of Japan would have resulted in the deaths of practically every able-bodied Japanese man. Women as well had been organized and mobilized for the defense. The costs in human lives would have been astronomical on both sides. By all estimates the number of lives lost from the atomic bombs was far less and left the country in a much better position to rebuild after the end of the war.
Given that context who could fault President Truman’s decision to attempt a rapid conclusion of the war? This example is obviously extreme but I think it effectively points out the importance of exploring and understanding the context of historical actions and decisions.