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Would You Stop the Murder of a Child?
"If it comes to it, and the baby is going to be killed, what are we gonna do?"
Mark and Olly on the Travel Channel are living with another tribe, more secluded than the last, on the other side of the world in Peru. The Machigenga (also "Machiguenga") of Koran Korata are known for their hatred for outsiders, but they have allowed Mark Anstice and Oliver Steeds to live amongst them almost as equals.
Mark and Olly seek only to learn from the societies they temporarily join; they do not want to impose their outsider ways on anyone.
So they faced
a painful moral dilemma when a new child was born in Koran Korata and
might have been disabled. In the Machigenga culture, a mother must kill
a newborn if there is anything wrong with its head, ears, hands, or
bellybutton because, "It's the kindest thing for the child."
Said the chief, "We don't like to talk about these ugly things."
Obviously Mark and Olly, born and raised Westerners, faced a serious inner struggle because of this situation. Their human rights sensibilities were going into overdrive.
Mark noted that he had been to
societies around the world that are more secluded than this, but they
had disabled children. Whether or not they can get the care they need
is a separate issue, but they would never dream of intentionally
killing it. But, he said, "I can't stand in judgment of them because
I'm not from here."
This is the point made by many people who study other cultures. We cannot use our own moral sensibilities to judge rituals or ethics of other cultures; it would be like measuring electricity with a ruler.
Still, though, if they don't step in, Olly points out that they would be "complicit in that murder."
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for everyone, the baby pulled through whatever ailment he had and
turned out to be the newest healthy member of the tribe. Even so, Olly
and Mark were clearly shaken from the experience, as they had never
come to a conclusion on what they should actually do if they got word
that the woman was going to have to kill her child.
Of course, any issue where a parent may kill his own child rings echoes of the story where God asks Abraham to kill Isaac, his only son. As Kierkegaard points out, a parent/child relationship is different from all others because a parent has an ultimate duty to preserve the life of his child. But the Machigenga feel that taking the life of a disabled child when it is young will prevent it from experiencing all of the pain of the rest of its life.
Is this reason enough to kill it? Could Mark and Olly (or anyone) possibly step out of their own shoes enough to make an impartial judgment of this? And if it had come down to it, would all of this intellectualizing even have mattered? Or would they have lost control of their actions and saved the child, against the will of its mother?
As with most moral examination, questions bring more questions and few answers.