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The color of morality isn't Red

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Guy_Burgess_1956_at_Black_Sea.jpgReading Geoffrey Wheatcroft's review of Chapman Pincher's book, Treachery: Betrayal, Blunders, and Cover-ups: Six Decades of Espionage Against America and Great Britain (in The New York Review of Books), I experienced one of those synergies that make me look up from my reading and exclaim, "That's exactly right!"  The passage that provoked my experience quoted Isaiah Berlin, speaking of Guy Burgess, one of the "Cambridge Five," who spied on England for the USSR:  "Guy . . . [was] someone with no moral center to his life."
 
Knowing little-to-nothing about Guy Burgess (except for the fact that he's not Anthony Burgess, a point I had to reiterate several times in conversation recently), I was excited, not by the personal specifics, but by the general import of Berlin's remark.  Having lived in China for four and a half years, I've had plenty of opportunity to observe the way Communism erodes the moral fabric of a society and the moral integrity of its adherents.

In reflecting on this side-effect of Communism, I've concluded that its mechanism relates to the connection between morality and compassion, and to the further connection between compassion and individuals. 

Morality, in essence, is the intellectual expression of visceral compassion.  When we empathize with another person's pain, we condemn the cause of that hurt in moral terms: e.g., because we feel bad for fatherless children, we define as immoral the behavior of deadbeat dads who shirk their parental duties to their children.

The human capacity for compassion, however, is limited.  Whether by hard-wiring or otherwise, we relate best to other individuals.  Our empathy doesn't spring into its fullest expression until we can lavish it on another individual.  Our moral outrage at deadbeat dads is never stronger than when the neglected children are known and beloved by us.

The fundamental flaw of Communism is its insistence on cultivating compassion for the group, in preference to the individual.  Human beings do this poorly at best.  (The group with which most of us identify most strongly is our family, and even that instance of empathizing with a group tends to pale beside our sympathy for individuals within the family.)  Throw in the typical Communist government modus operandi of instigating betrayal of one's nearest and dearest - children informing on parents, siblings turned against one another, etc. - and Communism produces an individual whose compassionate capacities are well and truly broken.

And without a visceral compassion response in working order, moral reasoning cannot operate properly.

Milan Kundera has repeatedly documented this breakdown as it occurred in (then) Czechoslovakia (viz. The Book of Laughter and Forgetting and The Unbearable Lightness of Being).  Kundera's example is significant because it suggests that the problem is with Communism, and not China's flavor of Communism.  Isaiah Berlin's observation about Guy Burgess resonated with me because it provides additional support: a man with no moral center would, of course, match with a system that eviscerates the moral backbone of society and person.

I did not match with such a system.  To illustrate just how profoundly I was at odds with Chinese Communism, I'll admit that, upon learning that Guy Burgess defected to the USSR in 1951 and died there, I felt - traitor that he was - pity.

(Image of Guy Burgess sunbathing at the Black Sea in 1956 from Times Online

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