Last month, I had a chance to see L.Gen. Roméo Dallaire speak at a fundraiser for his foundation. They screened the film, Shake Hands with the Devil, a documentary (not to be confused with the 2007 drama) about his visit to Rwanda a decade after the genocide. I highly recommend watching this film as L.Gen. Dallaire shares his insights and observations as well as his process in coming to terms with the genocide. (The film also briefly features James Orbinski, whose documentary, Triage, also follows a different man’s path to rebuilding meaning after bearing witness to one of the greatest human atrocities in modern history.)

I have long struggled with the question of why, in extreme situations, some people retain their humanity and make ethical decisions at great personal cost, while the majority do not. I have worried this issue over and over in my mind over the years, turning it over, seeking greater understanding. I was never satisfied with the pat answer “because it was the right thing to do.” Clearly, in situations that are so unambiguous, when human lives are at stake, there is a right thing to do, but that “rightness” is not nearly enough to motivate the majority of people to make the right choices which is why our world looks exactly the way it does today. I asked L.Gen. Dallaire about this during the Q&A. I asked him if he had observed any patterns or factors he’s observed in people who do make the ethical choices.

I was impressed with his answer – thoughtful, articulate, clear. He shared a story with the audience that I wish to share with my readers. A team of soldiers en route to fulfil a mission come across a “weapon of mass destruction” – a rape site. A place where women have been systematically raped with the intent to devastate a community. As they investigate, they discover women who are still alive, but barely. The victims have been so physically brutalized that there is no hope of survival. At this point, the commander of the group has a decision to make. Does he order the men to stay, divert themselves from their mission and put themselves at a very real risk of contracting HIV by going to the women to comfort them in their last hours/minutes? Or does he order the men to leave to continue with the team’s current mission?

This was a real situation, but it was presented to a number of leaders of different international teams working the same area. I can’t remember the exact number – I believe only three out of 20 commanders said they would order their teams to stay. In actuality, it was a Canadian team that was responding to the mission and even before the commander could give an order, the men had already gone to the dying women.

L.Gen. Dallaire used this story to illustrate two things. Firstly, that ethical decisions at this level are instinctive. One does not debate over which decision is more efficient. Secondly, that although this ethical comportment is instinctive, it also must be trained. He cited cultural values, the education system, and other environmental factors as important to consider.

It has slowly become clear and obvious to me that this ability to make ethical decisions is a skill that requires discipline and guidance to develop, much like how one develops physical fitness through earnest, disciplined effort and at least at first, under the guidance of a trainer or expert to avoid injury or lack of efficiency.

The other important piece is recognizing that the ultimate goal is not to behave ethically, but to be ethical. True ethics have nothing to do with a set of principles or ideals or even, decisions. True ethics are ontological. If one expects to be able to make the “right” decision, ethics must be inseparable from one’s very being. The ethical act in this sense is not really a choice. It is an extension of being that transcends ego.

I am still a long way off from there. A long, long way; I often fall short. I do believe that some are born with natural advantages to become ethical, much in the way that some are born more athletic than others. I believe that I was not born with any strengths, but rather, signficant weaknesses. But because I have never automatically considered myself a decent person in the way the majority of people seem to regard themselves, because I am always questioning myself, my weaknesses give me motivation to work harder to be more ethical. I try not judge myself when I fail, nor praise myself when I surprize myself when I act ethically in a spontaneous way. Rather, I carefully document my actions, I analyze, and I question. Much like the way a body builder might keep track of his or her reps and refine a fitness program accordingly. Progress has been for the most part, incremental, non-teleological and almost inperceptable. But you look back over the years and realize how far you have come…

bernardo homolka
When I was a child, Paul Bernardo and Karla Homolka, Canada’s most notorious serial killers, were placed on trial. While everyone around me expressed the desire that they be sentenced to capital punishment (and worse), I found that I could not identify what precisely made me different from those two. If I had been born with the same genes to the same parents and raised in the same way, would I have raped or killed those innocent girls too? My conclusion was that I could not say with any certainty that I would act differently and because of this, I could not in good conscience, condemn Bernardo and Homolka in the same way that everyone else around me was condemning them. That would be hypocritical. Now I look back upon my youthful questioning and realize I was being extreme. But it was important for me to understand that the human heart is capable of great darkness and that my heart was no different. My heart is still just as dark as any other human being’s. But today, I can say with a certainty that after years of working on myself, I have a different relationship to that darkness, because I have fought and struggled and sacrificed to be the way that I am. I do not behave decently because of circumstance; I have chosen to be different.