Re: RARA-AVIS: Marlowe's morality

Date: 02 Sep 2003

I'm really flabbergasted that a character who clearly tries as hard to be moral and ethical as Marlowe does is being described as "amoral or immoral" because he has to make hard choices.

In the first place, even if he makes bad or evil choices, it does NOT mean that he is, perforce, an inherently immoral person.

In the entire history of humanity, there have only been two persons who have gotten through life without committing a single sin. Jesus (who had the advantage of being the human incarnation of God) and his mother
(who had the advantage of having been immaculately conceived). Everyone else, EVERYONE else, from Albert Schweitzer to Mother Theresa, from the Dalai Lama to Francis of Assisi, committed a few sins on their life's journey. And if you don't happen to share my religious beliefs and convictions, even Jesus and Mary don't make the cut.

Does it follow that everyone who has ever lived was either immoral or amoral? Surely not. It just means that everyone, even those trying their best to live a good and moral life, are imperfect. The Bible says
(and I'm quoting from memory here), "Even the just man falls seven times a day."

But in the case of Marlowe making a hard choice in THE BIG SLEEP, I don't see that he's doing anything immoral. He's looking at the choices he's faced with, and trying to make the best, most moral choice available to him, given his situation and obligations.
 Although he doesn't put it this way, he's applying a fairly well-known moral principle called the "two-fold effect." In other words, he's trying to achieve a good end, by performing an action that will also bring about an evil, or undesirable end. The two fold-effect asks four questions:

1) Is the good effect or the bad effect desired? In this case, Marlowe's motive is clearly the protection of his (comparatively) innocent clients.

2) Is the action itself intrinsically evil, or is it an intrinsically moral, or at least neutral, action? In this case, negotiating with an adversary is not, in itself, immoral.

3) Is the good effect directly produced by the evil effect? In this case the evil effect, Mars's continuing in business, is not the direct cause of the good effect. In fact, Mars would probably continue in business whether or not Marlowe was able to negotiate an agreement with Mars.

4) Does the good effect outweigh the evil effect? Is there proportionality? In this case, the good effect, saving his clients, outweighs the possible inconvenience that Marlowe might be able to cause Mars.

I would add two more questions, the first general, the second specific.

First, is there any other realistic way that the good objective can be attained? In this situation, Marlowe, a singleton PI in operating a shoestring business, is using the leverage he's managed to obtain against Mars in the only manner than affords him a realistic chance for success. In other words, while the ends, in and of themselves, might not justify the means, the ends PLUS the lack of availabilty of any other means, do.

Finally, does the actor have any specific obligation that he is morally and ethically bound to abide by. As a private detective, hired for a specific, not intrinsically immoral, purpose, Marlowe has an obligation to his clients.

As Brian pointed out, much more succinctly and perhaps much more eloquently, moral choices don't exist in a vacuum. A truly moral person, faced with a difficult dilemma, weighs his options and his duties, and tries to act in the way that will do the most good and the least harm.

That's clearly what Marlowe does. And it's SO clearly what Marlowe does that I'm frankly thunderstruck that it's become a bone of contention.

Snide but good-natured cracks about my Jesuit education may now begin.


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