“Repay to the living that it is they find themselves owing the dead”


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“Repay to the living that it is they find themselves owing the dead”

This phrase is part of an article “Coming to Terms with Vietnam” documented in Harpers by Peter Marin, Dec. 1980. "Coming to terms with Vietnam: Settling our moral debts" by Peter Marin (Harper's Magazine)

"All men, like all nations, are tested twice in the moral realm: first by what they do, then by what they make of what they do. The condition of guilt, a sense of one's own guilt, denotes a kind of second chance. Men are, as if by a kind of grace, given a chance to repay to the living that it is they find themselves owing the dead.""

This quotation rang my bell on the first time that I read it and has continued to resonate for me each time that it comes to mind.

Morality is, I am convinced, one of the most important concepts in human existence. It is vitally important and, I suspect, almost completely mystifying to the average Joe and Jane. It certainly is mystifying to me.

Understanding the meaning of this concept is vital for our welfare as a species and I am convinced that we must do a better job of comprehending its meaning.

I think it would be worth while to analyze the above quotation in an effort to develop a meaningful comprehension of aspects that make up morality. But there are many important moral aspects within this quotation and I think we must focus upon only one at a time. I would like to examine, in particular, the phrase “repay to the living that it is they find themselves owing the dead”

Cognitive science, often in the form of cognitive semantics, provides us with a means for comprehending the nature of morality.

Cognitive science has discovered that “the source domains of our [linguistic] metaphors for morality are typically based on what people over history and across cultures have seen as contributing to their well being”.

Morality is primarily seen as a concept that focuses upon enhancing the well-being of others. Cognitive analysis revels that we comprehend morality “based on this simple list of elementary aspects of human well-being—health, wealth, strength, balance, protection, nurturance, and so on”.

“Well-Being is Wealth is not our only metaphorical conception of well-being, but it is a component of one of the most important moral concepts we have. It is the basis for a massive metaphor system by which we understand our moral interactions, obligations, and responsibilities. That system, which we call the Moral Accounting metaphor, combines Well-Being is Wealth with other metaphors and with various accounting schemas.”

Our moral understanding is often manifested in commonly used metaphors. To do bad to someone is like taking something of value from that person. To do good to someone is like giving something of value to that person. “Increasing others’ well-being gives you a moral credit; doing them harm creates a moral debt to them; that is, you owe them an increase in their well-being-as-wealth.”

We are dealing with moral considerations much as we do with financial matters. We maintain a mental balance sheet upon which we record debits and credits of moral dimensions.

Morality is about many things and one thing morality is about is reciprocation, which means paying back to others what we owe to them because of something good they did for us. On the flip-side of that is something we call revenge. Revenge is about our feelings that if Mary Ann does something mean to me then I owe her something mean back.

Morality is partly about our moral accounting system. We seem to have a moral balance sheet in our head and we are often careful to pay back ‘good with good’ and ‘bad with bad’.

Ideas and quotes from “Philosophy in the Flesh”—Lakoff and Johnson

Do you think that it is possible to make a moral payback to John, who died in the war, by doing a moral good such as helping the nation to become a better democracy?



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No, I don't think it's possible.

A person dieing in a war dies for his country, not for his objective. It is superficial to think that a person 'would have wanted' something. He's dead and gone, and the only reasonable thing to do is look back at the mistakes made that cost him his life, whether they were made by him, his commander, right up the to the leader of the country who may have initiated this war.

War is hell and war has casualties, but I think to say that like it explains why someone died is a copout.


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I think its possible to repay and old debt to the dead if in the long run theyre death contributed to some kind of improvement in society at large--its hard to imagine how thats done when someone dies in an unjust war like Vietnam was except if thats what it took to end the draft in America for good then at least he died for something I guess


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I copied this from the Internet

12/1980. Dealing with guilt.
"Coming to Terms with Vietnam," by Peter Marin, Harpers, December 1980, 41-56. "The real issue, to put it bluntly, is guilt: how, as a nation and as individuals, we perceive our culpability and determine what it requires of us. We must concern ourselves with the discovery of fact, the location of responsibility, the discussion of causes, the acknowledgment of moral debt and how it might be repaid -- not in terms of who supposedly led us astray, but in terms of how each one of us may have contributed to the war or to its underlying causes. The 'horror' of war is really very easy to confront; it demands nothing of us save the capacity not to flinch. But guilt and responsibility, if one takes them seriously, are something else altogether. For they imply a debt, something to be done, changed lives -- and that is much harder on both individuals and a nation, for it implies a moral labor as strenuous and demanding as the war that preceded it." (Includes a survey of films and fiction) [SFX]