[Letter to the editor]Noblesse oblige beyond rhetoric
The term noblesse oblige means that a person in a noble profession is willing to undergo difficulty, even though he or she is not duty-bound to do it. You may think that it is just a fine phrase, but it’s not simply a rhetorical device. It means one performs essential work closely related to one’s occupation. For example, lawyers have to devote themselves to defense of people who are falsely accused. Similarly, doctors have to value above all the patient’s life, regardless of his capacity to pay medical fees. In other words, the term noblesse oblige might suggest that only those people who have this selfless attitude could qualify to be part of such respected professions.
But in Korea, this term might well be changed to “noblesse noblige.” It is rare that people from the noble profession work for the sake of helping the common people. For example, a major law firm in Korea is disgracefully linked to the legal case against Lone Star Funds. And legal disputes between major hospitals and patients occur incessantly. So we are very accustomed to seeing people from the noble classes unwilling to take serious social responsibilities. In this situation, it is worthwhile to analyze why these abnormal circumstances have taken root in Korea.
What I want to suggest is that moral problems are more frequently rooted in the social system than personal corruption. An unjust social system could lead people to accept unreasonable ideas as proper. This is because people have a tendency to subconsciously adapt their views to social customs and rationalize their behavior on these grounds. Does this apply to Korean society? My answer is yes. We can find examples from the military service system. In Korea, people coming from the noble professions have been able to enjoy privileges while serving their military obligation. In other words, there are enormous differences in the military positions occupied by those who have certain qualifications, such as lawyers, accountants or doctors, in contrast to those who do not have such qualifications. The former are appointed as officers and have the opportunity to make friends with other high-ranking officers. Also, their experience in the military is counted as part of their career in their fields. So it is clear that they are privileged because of their noble occupations. It is impossible to find barbers or cooks who are officers in the military. They serve only in the lower ranks and must do hard labor. They have no opportunity to count their experience in the military as a career period in their fields.
In this circumstance, people who are engaged in noble jobs naturally subconsciously feel that they are privileged over others. They probably think it is natural that they are reluctant to do “inefficient work,” such as tasks with heavy responsibility, but do them no good when they return to society. This is because they were systematically protected from tough obligations during military service. In this environment that does not impose equal obligations, could noblesse oblige be realized in Korea? It seems impossible.
But how about other countries? I’ve heard that Harvard law school students often volunteer in the army to practice the spirit of noblesse oblige. They experience the same duties as common soldiers. They have no privileges when they are in the army and truly feel what it is like to serve as others do. Starting from common obligation, they will cultivate a more sincere sense of responsibility in their noble jobs.
Noblesse oblige is not just rhetoric. It suggests that a person who wants to be in the leader’s class or the upper class in society has to cultivate a spirit of dedication in his occupation. To be able to do this, it is fundamental that people serve an equal level of civil obligation. It is difficult to expect a person who did not shoulder an equal share to sincerely dedicate himself or herself to others. It is time to reconsider unequal parts in the social system.
Jerry Choi, an economics student at Seoul National University