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Straight forward ethics

May 31, 2015

Three and a half years ago I quoted Alan Jacobs responding to a common criticism of the works of J.R.R. Tolkien. His comments still seem to me quite intelligent:

It has just become the tale that middle-to-highbrow critics tell — ever since Edmund Wilson was saying his own manifestly untrue things about Tolkien in the New Yorker fifty years ago — that Tolkien’s fictional world is morally simplistic and rigidly Manichaean. It may be true that the story of the Ring is less morally ambiguous than the average realistic novel, but that’s primarily because Tolkien wasn’t especially interested in the problem of knowing right from wrong. His concern was to explore the psychology of the moment when you know right from wrong but aren’t sure whether you have the courage and fortitude to do the right thing.

It struck me recently that, strange as it sounds to lump Tolkien and Immanuel Kant together, the same criticism can be made (and my students often say it) about Kant’s Groundwork for the Metaphysics of Morals. He has much to say about the importance of doing one’s duty, and about what one’s duties are; he has almost nothing to say about what to do when duties conflict with one another, as my students are convinced they often do. One’s evaluation of Kant, as of Tolkien, will usually vary in accordance with how much importance one attaches to this omission. Is ethics fundamentally straight-forward, its difficulty consisting not in confusion but temptation, such that, while sometimes in real life one doesn’t know how to proceed, it still makes sense to imagine ethics in terms of a quest? Or is it fundamentally ambiguous, the way forward always unclear, such that seeing ethics as following the straight and narrow will lead only to a lack of sensitivity to ethical complexity? If the former, Kant and Tolkien are stripping ethics down to its essentials; if the latter, they are leaving ethics behind entirely.

It’s too easy to say, as Matthew Arnold does in “Hebraism and Hellenism” (chapter 4 of Culture and Anarchy), that these two tendencies, wanting to do rightly and wanting to know rightly, are both good as far as they go, but must be “balanced.” “Balance” is the language of someone who knows two apparently contradictory things are both necessary, but does not know how they ought to fit together; what we need is not balance, but connection.

Auden attempts something along these lines in his review of The Return of the King, which I discuss here. For Auden, it comes down to the subjective versus the objective: subjectively, we experience life as a quest; objectively, we see the actions of others as having at best a muddled relation to ethical behavior. This isn’t much of an improvement, since Auden never addresses the obvious implication of the objective for the subjective, namely, that we might understand our own quest wrongly. But it does indicate a potential train of thought that would recognize an insufficiency in Kant and Tolkien’s approach without embracing a view of ethics as fundamentally ambiguous: one that focused on the implications of our capacity to make mistakes.

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