June 2016 Meeting: Moral absolutes and Jane Austen

June 27, 2016


Prepared by member Jenny.

Does Jane Austen deal in moral absolutes? Philosopher Marcus Adamson (whom we heard at this year’s JAFA symposium) believes she does and that they would “help to heal the modern world.” He suggested that the moral truths and certainties she presents and which are known to us all are needed in modern life where everything is open to doubt.

Philosophy encourages us to question meaning. Morality often seems to depend on the context be it religious or secular. Absolutes are inflexible truths.

Jane Austen in her books certainly presented moral viewpoints but today’s group was doubtful as to whether her work, in fact, includes any moral absolutes per se – an ethical view that particular actions are intrinsically right or wrong.

Various philosophers and critics have studied Austen’s work through the prisms of their particular philosophic preferences. Her work appears to reflect Christian, Socratic and Aristotelian influences as well as modern bourgeois virtues.

Sarah Emsley in her book Jane Austen’s Philosophy of the Virtues discussed various approaches. Archbishop Richard Whately in 1821, regarded Austen as a Christian writer but felt she was very reticent about religion. He wrote that she had:

a merit which is much enhanced, both on the score of good taste, and of practical utility, by her religion not being at all obtrusive… In fact she is more sparing of it than would be thought desirable by some persons.

Canadian academic and critic, Bruce Stovel believed that the first prayer written by Austen helps to illuminate her novels. In 1994 he saw as central to the story of Elizabeth Bennett, Marianne Dashwood and Emma Woodhouse the process by which the heroine arrives at the:

knowledge (of) every fault of temper and every evil habit in which we have indulged to the discomfort of our fellow-creatures and the danger of our own souls. (MW 453)

Equally it can be argued that Austen shows us how to look at ourselves and analyse and identify our own moral characters, to meet the Socratic challenge to “know thyself.” Elizabeth Bennet after reading Darcy’s letter says,” Till this moment, I never knew myself.” (PP 208). She suddenly realises how her temper, habits and actions have been blind, wilful and prejudiced. Similarly Emma recognises the discomfort she has caused Miss Bates: “Never had she felt so agitated, mortified, grieved, at any circumstance in her life…she felt it at her heart. How could she have been so brutal, so cruel to Miss Bates.” (E376). Marianne confesses to Elinor: “My illness has made me think – It has given me leisure and calmness for serious recollection…I considered the past ; I saw it in my own behaviour…nothing but a series of imprudence towards myself, and want of kindness to others…(SS 194)

Alasdair MacIntyre asserts that: “It is her uniting of Christian and Aristotelian themes in a determinate social context that makes Jane Austen the last great effective imaginative voice of the tradition of thought about, and practice of, the virtues.”

Austen reflects the Aristotelian doctrine of the mean with Anne Elliot in Persuasion considering the idea of “proportions and limits.” Thinking about Wentworth:

Anne wondered whether it ever occurred to him now, to question the justness of his own previous opinion as to universal felicity and advantage of firmness of character, and whether it might strike him, that, like all other qualities of the mind, it should have its proportions and limits. She thought she could scarcely escape him to feel that a persuadable temper might sometimes be as much in favour of happiness as a very resolute character. (P 1178)

Thomas Rodham, a current virtue ethicist, perceives Austen’s books as “serious moralising plays underneath the veneer of romantic comedy – they are a moral education masquerading as entertainment,” he stated in The Philosopher’s Beard blog in 2012. According to him, virtue ethics understands the good life in terms of personal moral character, or becoming the kind of person who does the right thing for the right reasons. Rodham argues that Austen presents an ethical life in which success for her women depends on the development of moral character through a series of moral trials during which they learn how to apply the bourgeois virtues of prudence, amiability, propriety and dignity. Thus Austen demonstrates not what to do but how to do it. The distinction between the easy acceptance or rejection of authority and the complicated process of contemplation helps determine when authority is right and when individual judgement is right which is at the heart of Jane Austen’s philosophical approach. Elizabeth Bennet provides an example when she counters Lady Catherine de Bourgh’s demand that she promise never to marry Mr Darcy with the words:

I am only resolved to act in the manner, which will, in my own opinion, constitute my happiness, without reference to you, or any person so wholly unconnected to me. (PP 358)

One member of the group chose to look at the resolution of the novels to clarify Austen’s moral position. She felt that Anne Eliot’s final speech to Captain Wentworth concerning her original decision to break off their engagement demonstrated both self-analysis and a return to a moral position (P 231)

Austen, an omniscient author presents her moral vision as well as moral content. Her moral gaze sees right through people to their moral character and exposes their follies, flaws and self-deceptions. True morality requires a balance of many types of moral theory and no one view can cover them all whereas a moral absolute must have no circumstantial, cultural, societal or religious preferences.

Jane Austen herself seems to speak through Elizabeth Bennet when she reflects “But peope themselves alter so much, that there is something new to be observed in them forever” (PP 43) suggesting that behaviour is relative and thus there are no absolutes.

Another source (from JASNA) pointed out that similar faults given in different contexts result in different outcomes. Thus while flattery destroys Maria Bertram, Emma is not. In Austen absolutes were modified by independence of thought.

While Mary Bennet was seen as the only absolute character in the novels, Mr Knightley was the most moral. Sir Thomas Bertram also appears as an absolutist but he discovers that his approach fails to achieve the outcomes he desired, rather it succeeded in distancing members of his family without teaching wise morals.

It would appear that Jane Austen was far too well read and far too intelligent to be satisfied with such an extreme as moral absolution. Her view is complex and nuanced. She requires that her characters recognise the need for moral discrimination and contexts with “a good-humoured acceptance of human frailty” (Knox-Shaw in Jane Austen in context).

The meeting ended, appropriately, on a quiz about Austen’s bad, or, shall we say, less moral women!


Next meeting, July 16, we will be discussing brothers in Austen’s work.