March 2, 2012

SELFDOM AND SERFDOM:

Reading Jane Austen as a moral philosopher (Philosopher's Beard, 2/21/12)

Austen celebrates and promotes a solidly middle-class propriety, and this together with her use of narrative (and being a woman?), may explain Austen's neglect by academic moral philosophers. Success for Austen's women depends on developing a moral character whose central virtues are bourgeois: prudence (planning one's actions with respect to protecting and furthering one's interests), amiability (civility to family, friends, and strangers, according to their due), propriety (understanding and acting on a sense of what virtue requires), and dignity (considering oneself as an independent autonomous person deserving of respect). Austen is particularly unusual (feminist?) among virtue ethicists past and present in according amiability so much importance, even though it is so obviously central to most people's lives working, if not living, in close confinement with others with whom one must and should get along. Austen presents these virtues as not merely a necessary accommodation to difficult circumstances, but as superior to the invidious vanity and pride of the rich and titled, which she often mocks. So Elizabeth Bennet rejects Darcy's haughty condescension out of hand; the happy ending must wait until Darcy comes to see beyond her lowly connections and unaristocratic manners and fully recognise her true (bourgeois) virtue (PP). That is a moral happy ending even more than it is a romantic one.

Like any good virtue ethicist, Austen proceeds by giving illustrative examples. This is why her characters are moral rather than psychological constructs. Austen's purpose is not to explore their inner lives, but to expose particular moral pathologies to the attention of the reader. Don't act like this: Don't cut off your relatives without a penny after promising your father you would look after them and justify it with self-serving casuistic rationalisations (John Dashwood in SS). Don't be like this: Morally incontinent like Mrs Bennet; or struck through with a single huge flaw like Mr Bennet's selfish wish to live a private life while being the head of a family (PP). Excesses of virtue can be as pathological as vices - as in Fanny Price, the heroine of Mansfield Park, whose excessive amiability almost prevents her true love from even noticing her (until events intervene).

Then there are the illustrations of what virtuous conduct looks like. Here one sees why the plot is so firmly in the author's hands,  not the characters'. Austen is primarily concerned with setting up particular scenes - moral trials - in which we can see how virtuous characters behave in testing circumstances. These moral lessons to the reader are the parts she gave the most exacting attention to; where her words are perfectly chosen and sparkling with intelligence and deep moral insight. These are the parts that she actually cared about; the rest - the rituals of the romantic comedy genre and 'social realism' - is just background. 

We see Austen's characters navigating the unpleasant attentions and comments of boors, fools, and cads with decorum and dignity: "Indeed, brother, your anxiety for our welfare and prosperity carries you too far", Elinor chastises John Dashwood, ever so politely (SS). In every novel we see Austen's central characters working through moral problems of all kinds, weighing up and considering what propriety requires by talking it through to themselves or trusted friends. We see them learning from their mistakes, as Elizabeth and Darcy both learn from their early mistakes about his character (PP). We even see them engaging in explicit, almost technical, moral philosophy analysis, such as debating to what extent Frank Churchill should be considered morally responsible for his failure to visit Highbury (Emma), to the evident boredom of the less morally developed characters stuck in the same room as them.

Austen carries out her mission of moral education with flair and brilliance, while charitably respecting the interests and capacities of her readers (which is why she is so much more readable than most moral theorists who, like Kant, seem often to write as if understanding is the reader's problem). Yet there is one further striking feature that sets Austen's novels apart: her moral gaze. The omniscient author of her books sees right through people to their moral character and exposes and dissects their follies, flaws, and self-deceptions. I cannot read one of her novels without thinking - with a shiver - about what that penetrating moral gaze would reveal if directed at myself. 

This is virtue ethics at a different level - about moral vision, not just moral content. Austen shows us how to look at ourselves and analyse and identify our own moral character, to meet Socrates' challenge to "Know thyself".

Emma is one of the great political novels.
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Posted by at March 2, 2012 6:25 AM
  

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