How would I come to lead a fully moral life? Is there even such a thing? In reflecting on both my twenty years and the ten stories we read during this course, I attest that leading a fully moral life is nearly impossible; every individual will at one point, make a mistake or an immoral decision, and thus, is not “fully” moral. However, even the umbrella of a “moral life” sparks contentious questions. Is there a universal moral code or is morality subjective and relative? Are there conditions for moral decisions? Can you act immorally and still be a moral person? Do intentions matter? How much should you inconvenience yourself to act morally? Both my own experiences and the gripping tales of these ten novellas demonstrate that there is no “absolute” when tackling the topic of morality; however, in order to lead a moral life, one has react thoughtfully to difficult choices and strive to be selfless and compassionate.
The first, and most obvious step to leading a moral life is to define for yourself
what constitutes right versus wrong and act accordingly. While I believe there are a few absolute principles of morality (try to help others, do not commit rape or incest), I believe in moral relativism. Thus, I am a product of America (freedom, hard work), Judaism (altruism, family values), San Francisco (liberalism) and the Tandler family. However, my moral code is no more “right” than another's because morality is subjective. I came to realize this position during my time volunteering in the recovery room at Planned Parenthood. Every Saturday morning, as I walked into the clinic, I was greeted with peaceful picketers begging me to “make the moral choice,” and that “God would make a place for me and my baby.” While I do not consider an abortion murder, and am adamantly pro choice, I can respect that others consider the act immoral. However, I cannot accept others who strive to implement their own values on all women through the law. While one person's moral code may not reflect another's, recognizing moral relativism and opposing viewpoints is part of leading a moral life.
Thus, to lead a moral life, one has to reflect on his or her values and ethics, and react to daily life choices accordingly. The characters in the novels we analyzed, however, are faced with more than daily decisions, but life altering moral decisions. Their stories address the issue of how to confront drastic situations and make moral choices that may seem immoral out of context. John Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men grapples with this very issue. While murder is most often associated with malice and unlawfulness, George's final decision to take his best friend's life is not immoral. Despite Lenny's benign intentions, he proves himself to be a danger to society by accidentally killing Curly's wife and frightening the young girl from the previous farm. After Curly promises to “kill the son-of-a-bitch myself” (Steinbeck, 94), George is faced with few options: let Curly kill his friend, imprison his friend at an early 20th century mental institute, try to run away (an unlikely option), or take Lenny's life himself. George's decision to shoot Lenny is inspired by love and is theoretically, in his friend's best interest. Hoping to protect his friend from a worse fate, George sacrifices a friendship dear to him. Because his intentions are pure and selfless, George's bold decision is moral.
In Bharati Mukherjee's novel, Jasmine's encounter with murder, however, is more ambiguous. Jasmine is brutally raped her first night in America. After her rapist falls asleep, Jasmine showers, dresses, slices her rapist's throat, puts a sheet over him, and “stabs him wildly through the cloth” until “the human form beneath it grew smaller and stiller” (Mukherjee, 119). Does this circumstance warrant a murder? Was Jasmine's decision immoral? To answer these questions, one must examine her intentions. Either Jasmine feared for her life, and thus killed “Half Face” because he promised that the “second time's the sweetest,” (Mukherjee 117) or she simply wanted revenge. Ultimately, the morality of Jasmine's choice is difficult to discern, thus demonstrating the non-absolutist nature of moral choices. Additionally, Jasmine's situation reveals the intricacies of analyzing complex conditions, and to attempt to understand an individual's reactive decision, one must look to intentions, not just actions.
In my own experience, I have unfortunately had to make a stark decision that would be deemed immoral out of context. I was raised in a household that values unconditional familial love and respect. However, I have made the conscious decision to reject a member of my family. About 10 years ago, my grandmother, received devastating news that after 50 years of marriage, her husband was unfaithful. After my mother refused to entirely reject and denounce my grandfather, my grandmother lashed out against my mother and father with a lawsuit asserting that she wanted to “put our family out on the streets.” However, during the process of disowning my mother, my grandmother reached out to me, insisting that she loved me and hoped to remain in my life. She attended my Bat Mitzvah despite my resistance, and sent me birthday gifts for years, each of which I returned unopened. Central to Judaism is honoring your family, as stated in the Ten Commandments. However, I have entirely rejected my grandmother for attempting to destroy our family, and partially rejected my grandfather for being the immoral catalyst. Ten years into a preposterous and spiteful lawsuit, I know I made the moral choice. My grandmother's actions are unquestionably wrong, and thus, spurning her reflects my moral code and condemnation for her actions. Additionally, having any relationship with her would devastate my mother, and so my moral choice reflects my own principles as well as consideration for my mother. While my own life choice is dissimilar to George and Jasmine's, all three decisions involve thinking deeply about the implications of your actions for yourself as well as others. Leading a moral life means being reflective and thoughtful in the face of difficult circumstances, and reacting in a manner that considers the parties involved and your overall intent and principles.
Both Steinbeck's, Mukherjee's, and my own personal story are tales of reactive moral decisions. George reacted to the context of Lenny killing Curly's wife, Jasmine reacted to being raped, and I reacted to the perfidy of my maternal grandparents. While morality is most commonly discussed in the face of grave choices, what about daily activity? When not faced with the extreme, how do you lead a moral life? Through the story of a life mislead, Leo Tolstoy's The Death of Ivan Ilyich answers this question.
Ivan Ilyich's greatest flaw is his selfishness. He lives his life only for his career and his outward appearance, not caring for his wife or daughter. Ivan Ilyich's conceit is apparent in all aspects of his life, as “the pleasures Ivan Ilyich derived from his work were those of pride; the pleasures he derived from society those of vanity” (Tolstoy, 61). Concerned with only his own wellbeing, Ivan Ilyich pursues a life with little morality. However, upon his deathbed, Ivan Ilyich recognizes that “he had not lived the kind of life he should have,” as his life events amounted to “insubstantiality” (Tolstoy, 108). To demonstrate what Ivan Ilyich lacked, Tolstoy contrasts the main character with the humble and altruistic peasant boy, Gerasim, who tells Ivan Ilyich, “We all have to die someday, so why shouldn't I help you?” (Tolstoy 87). Gerasim possesses the compassion and empathy missing in Ivan Ilyich's meaningless life. His character explicitly exemplifies the road to a moral life - having kindness towards others.
Tolstoy's moral tale reflects how inactivity, despite making “right choices,” can prevent you from leading a moral life. As a Jew, I learned at a young age about the importance of helping others, having to complete 13 good deeds (mitzvahs) in order to become a Bat Mitzvah. A moral life cannot just consist of reacting to tough situations, but actively helping improve the world, the Jewish concept of tikkun olam. However, how much can we and should we give back? Nadine Gordimer's novel illustrates the difficulties of altruism, asking the question: how much should we self sacrifice to help others? Can there be a sort of “moral pyramid” to prioritize moral decisions?
Gordimer's novel, The Late Bourgeois World, tells the story of a privileged white woman living in South Africa during a time of repression and injustice, the apartheid. Despite her comfortable life, Liz cannot help but think about the deeply rooted discrimination of the South African way of life. However, to lead a “moral life” and fight the inequities surrounding her with political activism, would put her own life and her 11-year-old son's, at risk. When asked by Luke Kokase, a black activist, to use her bank account for overseas money, Liz initially responds, “You're not thinking of me!” (Gordimer, 86). Liz is concerned that her act of altruism will have negative consequences on her life, but she ultimately decides to lend her grandmother's account to the cause, thinking, “why on earth should I do such a thing? It seems to me that the answer is simply the bank account” (Gordimer, 94). Liz puts herself at a slight risk because “there is a bank account” (Gordimer, 94), and lending it to the cause is the right choice. However, if her grandmother did not conveniently have a bank account, would she have taken political action? If she had refused to help Luke out of fear for her own life and concern for her son, would she be considered immoral? Gordimer's novel demonstrates the challenges in actively pursing a moral life. Liz cares for the cause, but understands the sacrifices she would have to make to fight for it. When is selfishness warranted?
Liz's story resonates all too closely with my own conscience. Growing up in an upper-middle class, San Francisco, white family, I have had only privilege. But I am still all too aware of the injustices in our world, and do not know how to allocate my time between helping myself and helping others. From an economic perspective, every life choice involves a trade-off: if I buy only sweatshop free clothing, I have to spend more money; if I devote all my time to stopping genocide, I will not get a complete college education; if I move to Israel to fight in the IDF, I am risking my life; if I do not give back, I feel tremendous guilt. I want to lead a moral life by working for a cause I believe in, but I also desire to enter the working world and make a successful career for myself. How much should we tend to our own lives, without becoming Ivan Ilyich?
Leading a moral life does not require complete selflessness and a perfect decision record. Individuals can make mistakes and still be deemed “moral,” as long as they understand the fault in their choice and learn from it. Siddhartha spent years gambling, drinking and only enjoying the physical pleasures of the material world, but because he later renounced this path, he remains moral. Humans cannot only give back, and cannot always make the right choice. But to be moral, we should strive for tikkun olam and learn from mistakes so as not to repeat them.
The question of a moral life will never denote one answer. Some insist that a belief in God is necessary to realize a universal moral law, while others insist morals are entirely subjective. Leading a moral life means realizing your own principles and simply responding to life choices in the manner you see “right.” However, situations where the “right moral choice” is unclear require thoughtful analysis and honorable intentions. Morality is relative and subjective, not a pure absolute standard. In addition to responding to pivotal choices, a moral existence requires selfless activity and altruism. Ultimately, a moral life means finding a balance between helping yourselves and others, and devoting part of your time to improving the world. To be moral, one has to react with thoughtfulness and pure intentions and act with compassion.