My wife and I have been watching the excellent BBC series “Grantchester” which just completed its latest season with the usual cliff-hanger. The series is extremely well done and focuses on a young Anglican vicar in Cambridgeshire back in the late 1950s who befriends a policeman and helps him solve crimes. Old hat, perhaps, but the intricate personal stories of the two men are what hold the series together.

It turns out that the Vicar, Sidney, is in love with Amanda, a woman he has known most of his life and whom he would have married except for his strained financial situation and the fact that the woman’s father would have none of it. He forces her to marry a wealthy man whom she doesn’t love and together they have a child. But she is also in love with Sidney and as the series progresses it is clear that the two of them will be drawn closer and closer together.

Throughout the series, focusing on the relationship between these two people, the struggle is the ancient one between “want and will.” Sidney is a man of the cloth and in the 50s when these events are supposed to have taken place he cannot marry a divorced woman. Thus, even if  Amanda leaves her husband who is cold and remote Sidney would have to leave the Church in order to marry her. And what is he to do? He is well-loved and much relied upon by those in the Church, including his housekeeper and the young Curate (who happens to be gay, another taboo of the times and a fascinating story in its own right).

Sidney begins to lose his faith in the Church and to have serious doubts about his abilities to carry out his duties as head of the small Church. He finally decides to resign and move to London with Amanda and her daughter. The move is planned and he has written his letter of resignation when he begins to realize that his duty is to those people who depend so much upon him in the small village and especially within the Church itself. He chooses duty over love, though it hurts him to the core.

On the face of it, this is pure melodrama, and the crimes that Sidney helps his detective friend, Geordie, solve seem almost incidental. But it is so well done, and we become so involved in Sidney’s life and in the lives of those around him, that we are drawn in as if it were quicksand. And in the end, it forces us to an awareness of how different was the age in which these events took place — just over a half-century past. There were social and churchly taboos that have been largely removed in the interim. But also missing is the sense that each of us, especially the spiritual leaders among us, have duties that take precedence over the desires of the heart. Ours is an age in which what we call “honesty” demands that we not only know what we want, but we pursue it with all the vigor at our command. Duty has become a notion that grows fainter with each passing day. It will soon become a word very few will be able to understand — a word in a foreign language.

The series was fascinating to me especially because of the very battle I recount here, the battle between what Sidney wants so dearly and what he knows to be his duty. It is a battle that is the core of Immanuel Kant’s ethical system which has played so important a part in my philosophical development — and a struggle I have written about in previous blog posts. Kant thought the very center of all ethical decision-making was this very struggle between what we want and what we ought to do. Ethics is about trying to be clear about what it is we should do and then somehow finding the courage to do the right thing.  But, as I say, this struggle is now only the topic for a television series about an age gone by and about the struggles of a man who must seem a total stranger to so many in the audience, so many who have no idea what it means to struggle to do the right thing because they are busy doing “their own thing.”

Eliot’s Lessons In Morality

In her first major novel, The Mill on the Floss, George Eliot created a situation between Maggie Tulliver and Stephen Guest that brings to the fore the conflict between love and duty — a strangely Victorian struggle that might be alien to most of us in the twenty-first century. For Eliot, it is the struggle within the heart of a young woman between her love of a man (Stephen Guest), including the financial security marriage to Stephen would bring, and her duty to those who love her and whom she loves in return – her cousin Lucy Deane (who is engaged to Stephen) and Philip Makem, who would like to be Maggie’s lover. After arranging to take Maggie on a boat ride down the Floss, Stephen allows the boat to drift past their destination and eventually draws Maggie’s attention to the fact that they are destined, in his view, to be together. Though the event seems to have been accidental, it is, of course, what he wants and has perhaps even allowed; it is what Maggie wants but fears. Stephen puts his case forcefully:

 “See, Maggie, how everything has come without our seeking – in spite of all our efforts. We never thought of being alone together again: it has all been done by others.  . . . . It is the only right thing, dearest: it is the only way of escaping from the wretched entanglement. Everything has concurred to point it out to us. We have contrived nothing, we have thought of nothing ourselves.”

Maggie is torn and engages in a dialogue with Stephen that progresses for several hours and many pages,. Stephen equates “the only right thing” with what he and Maggie most dearly want. Maggie, on the other hand sees things differently: “I will not begin any future, even with you. . . with a deliberate consent to what ought not to have been. What I told you [previously] I feel now: I would rather have died than fall into this temptation. It would have been better if we had parted for ever then. But we must part now.”
Note that even at this point, because of the time spent alone with this engaged man, Maggie’s reputation in those Victorian days, will have been ruined – as was Mary Ann Evan’s reputation when she ran off with the married George Lewes. That is of no concern to Maggie – though as things play out, it becomes a burden with tragic consequences. Instead, she experiences the pangs of an active conscience:

 “I am quite sure that [this] is wrong. I have tried to think of it again and again; but I see, if we judged in [your] way that it would be a warrant for all treachery and cruelty – we should justify breaking the most sacred ties that can ever be framed on earth. If the past does not bind us, where can duty lie? We should have no law but the inclination of the moment. . .  Faithfulness and constancy mean something else besides doing what is easiest and pleasantest to ourselves. They mean renouncing whatever is opposed to the reliance others have in us – whatever would cause misery to those whom the course of our lives has made dependent on us.”

We are told these days that guilt is a terrible thing, a burden we ought never be forced to bear and Maggie’s speech may seem like the most blatant romantic nonsense to the modern ear that knows without doubt that “love conquers all.” Yet, in Eliot’s mind the guilty conscience is what leads people like Maggie toward the right course of action, her duty to others to whom she is bound by ties of friendship and love —  despite the fact that it is directly opposed to what she so dearly wants.  Indeed, throughout her writings, Eliot is consistent in attacking those who, like so many of us today, regard “what is easiest and pleasantest to ourselves” as the highest good. In Eliot’s world doing the right thing is sometimes terribly difficult and frequently directly opposite to what “is easiest and pleasantest to ourselves.” But always giving in to what we want to do is often a sign of weak character and lack of moral fiber, ignoring “whatever would cause misery to those whom the course of our lives has made dependent on us.” One abandons principles and duty others at great risk. Strange lessons from bygone days.

Making Distinctions

One of the ways philosophers attempt to clarify issues and get a handle on how to work their way out of confusion is to make key distinctions. For example, I have made a number of them in recent blogs and they do help to clarify the problem at issue. In this day when we tend to gloss over distinctions and use words carelessly it makes sense to pause and try to “show the fly the way out of the milk bottle'” as Wittgenstein said some years back.

For example, we need to distinguish between what a person would do in a moral crisis and what he or she should do. Kant focused exclusively on the latter problem and has been often criticized for being too “formalistic.” But we need to be clear in a particular case what is the moral principle involved and often when we focus on that issue alone, it is fairly easy to see what should be done. Kant thought we should focus on the motive behind our actions, and act in accordance with duty. Others have argued that we should focus attention on the consequences of our actions. Whichever it is, we need to attend to the question of what ought to be done . Once that has been determined, then we need to ask the entirely different question: now, what would I do in  this situation?  I stressed this distinction recently in a blog examining Israel’s decision not to induct Khaled Abdul Wahab into the Yad Vashem commemorating the “righteous” who saved Jews during the Hitler regime. I wondered then whether I would do what Wahad did, knowing that what he did was the right thing. He did what he should do, based on clear ethical principles, but I wonder whether I would do what I should in the circumstances, whether I would have the courage to do the right thing. The questions must be kept separate, though even philosophers often seem to confound them.

Another distinction is that between “explanation,” “justification,” and “rationalization.” These are often confounded, as when we ask how to “rationalize” a moral decision. The process of rationalization is simply giving reasons, usually for a conclusion we have already reached. Period. Justification, which is often confused with rationalization, means the giving of sound moral principles and pertinent facts to support moral conclusions. Explanation, finally, means the giving of reasons  that help us to understand what happened — whether or not we can justify it morally. We might be able to explain why so many people capitulated to the Nazi regime, but we cannot justify it.

A third distinction that needs to be made is that between “need” and “want.” We often run these terms together as we claim we need to maintain our current standard of living, for example, when we really mean we simply want to maintain it. College faculty make this mistake often as they consistently refuse to admit that students don’t know what they need to study in order to become well educated persons, they simply know what they want. The faculty are in a much better position to know what the students need, though they are reluctant to take that responsibility.

Along those lines, we should distinguish carefully between education and information. We often hear it said that Jones should be “educated” about how to use tools. We need to educate Jones about sex or brushing his teeth. We mean Jones should be informed.  An educated person is well informed, but the reverse is not the case. Education means knowing what to do with information, being able to assimilate and bring it to bear on problems that require solutions. That is, it means thinking, not just knowing. As Robert Hutchins said some time ago, education is what is left after we have forgotten everything we learned in school.

In the end, making distinctions helps us to achieve conceptual clarity and work our way out of moral and intellectual confusion — often, but not always. But it is a good place to start, as Socrates knew so well. Critics will say it is getting “picky” over words, but the words we use are central in expressing our thoughts. And the more fragile our grasp is on the words we use, the more likely we are to run aground.