Friday, February 13, 2004

Gilbert & Sullivan & Normative Ethics

There should be more people writing about ethics and the Savoy Operas. This post is adapted from a post I made today to Savoynet. I've been thinking about Patience from Patience and Frederic from The Pirates of Penzance. Each is clearly motivated by a desire to be virtuous. Each is concerned with doing the right thing, but has some trouble identifying the moral action. Frederic is motivated by his perceived duty -- which he believes requires him to honor contractual technicality agreement to be a pirate. Patience is motivated by the perceived virtue of selflessness, which she believes requires her to love a man she hates. One of the fundamental disagreements in normative ethics is whether consequentialism -- the idea that we should always try to choose actions that will have the best consequences -- is true. Anti-consequentialists reject this claim to allow for agent-centered considerations. To take an extreme example, Kant famously thought that it was morally wrong to tell a lie, even if lying is the only way you can prevent your kids from being murdered (or, for that matter, to prevent your kids from telling lies). A consequentialist, of course, would weigh the negative effect of a lie against the negative effect of murder (or several lies), and conclude that in such a case we morally ought to lie. It's quite literally a case of "the lesser of two evils." Both Frederic and Patience endorse agent-centered considerations. Frederic believes (1) that he is morally required to always fulfill HIS duty ("at any price...", including the horrible deeds which Pirates perform), and (2) that his duty is determined entirely by his technical contractual requirements. The second belief is the problematic one. Frederic's mistake isn't his belief that duty is important -- he was merely incorrect about what his moral duties really were. Patience's mistake, I think, is the greater error. Frederic's anti-consequentialism is based on a mistaken belief about what constitutes duty. Patience fixates on a somewhat reasonable criterion of virtue -- selflessness -- and then grossly misapplies it:
It follows, then, a maiden who Devotes herself to loving you Is prompted by no selfish view.
This, of course, is simply false. Just because loving Bunthorne wouldn't be pleasant for Patience, it doesn't follow that to do so would be *selfless*. (Even if I *hate* torturing people, it wouldn't be selfless of me to torture you!) In point of fact, Patience is fully aware that every maiden in the village is in love with Bunthorne, and that by marrying him, she'd be disappointing everyone else. In that sense, it is the most selfish action she could possibly have chosen. She is placing her own (perceived) virtue above the consideration of those around her. Ironically, her perceived virtue is identified as selflessness. (It is as if she said, "I will be selfless, even though that will make everyone around me miserable.") There are two ways that we can interpret this. One is as a mere conceptual confusion. This is entirely valid and reasonable -- As a rule, Gilbert & Sullivan sopranos are rarely confused of being particularly intelligent. But I think there are textual clues that cast Patience is a morally worse light. Consider the line in which she determines that love is a duty:
It's perfectly dreadful to think of the appalling state I must be in! I had no idea that love was a duty. No wonder they all look so unhappy! Upon my word, I hardly like to associate with myself.
The emphasis is on her new negative feelings about herself. This suggests to me that her new-found "virtue" is a kind of perverted self-punishment, designed merely to ease her conscience. Under this interpretation, Patience isn't *trying* to be selfless at all -- she's trying to martyr herself in order to make herself feel better. (Under her view, self-punishment, mislabeled as "selflessness", is only a means to this end.) This bears on another controversial point in Kantian ethics -- the idea that good will is the only relevant consideration in the evaluation of moral action. This does seem to generate counterintuitive consequences in cases like Patience's, in which she is in one sense acting out of duty, but in another, out of selfish motivation. I think this is related to Savannah's point about the relevance of the sources of our moral beliefs.

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