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M. C. Henberg GEORGE ELIOT'S MORAL REALISM No moment in the history of ethics could be more propitious than the present for a comprehensive restudy of George Eliot's moral realism. Analysis of the "logic" of moral language has proved barren, prescriptivism is in full flight, and schematic divisions of moral theories into descriptive versus normative, deontological versus teleological, or substantive versus meta-ethical have promised much but delivered little. Such distinctions dominate maps to the modern moral terrain, but awanderer in the land ofchoice itselfstill finds himselfwithout signposts. A particularly unhealthy bias in contemporary ethics has been the belief that moral principles ought to withstand all counterexamples, however plausible or implausible, whether concocted from a sense of men's actual capacities or from a fondness for outrageous possibilities, many of them lifted from the pages of science fiction. If moral rules do not govern in hard cases, it is thought, they do not govern at all. Few philosophers have bothered to distinguish between the hard cases common to men's actual choices and the hard cases confronted by one man in a million or by the imagined inhabitants of some future world. (Witness, for example, the present preoccupation with "lifeboat ethics" and ask yourself how many actual moral choices are so starkly dramatic.) Any logically possible circumstance is too often assumed to qualify as a fruitful area for moral investigation; and any conceivable counterexample, achieved by whatever stretch of the imagination, is assumed to be fair ammunition in the debate over principles. Closely related to this first bad tendency in modern philosophical ethics is another, equally bad. Too often the examples used are of little moral significance, obviously conceived to make a point rather than to direct attention to commonplace but nonetheless important circumstances where informed choice is essential. Philosophy journals have treated us to discussions about whether failing to wear tennis whites is or is not "rude" and about whether a first sinner's crossing of a patch of lawn does or does not have a "threshold-related effect" 20 M. C. Henberg21 which must be considered in assessing later consequences (a bare path ultimately worn in the grass). Such examples rightly earn a contemptuous snort from anyone who expects philosophy to increase our understanding in matters of serious consequence. Whatever her other accomplishments as a moralist and philosophical thinker, George Eliot never commits either of the preceding crimes. Her moral realism constitutes first and foremost an ethics aimed at the bulk of her fellow men. She yields to the theoretic impulse solely in criticizing other theories. When it comes to providing answers, she depicts fictional characters whose struggles, failings, and passions are ultimately akin to what we ourselves are likely to experience. Her ethical precepts are not aimed at proving themselves in every conceivable situation. They are instead precepts which are sometimes susceptible to ruin, just as are the changeable creatures who profess them. To know the natural boundaries of a moral rule, Eliot tells us, is as difficult and important as knowing the rule itself. Moral realism requires a combination of clear-eyed perception and imaginative sympathy—faculties ill-served by lectures on abstract principles. Eliot reminds us that our best moral judgments must be "checked and enlightened by a perpetual reference to the special circumstances that mark the individual lot" (The Mill on the Floss, Book VII, chap. 3). This emphasis in particular—found both in her early essays and early fiction—makes Eliot's moral realism a welcome anodyne to the worst tendencies of modern ethics. The discussion which follows will be confined to early works, including Scenes of Clerical Life, Adam Bede, and The Mill on the Floss. The ruminations of her authorial voice in these novels may conveniently be juxtaposed with her essays, for the works are near to one another both temporally and thematically. Later novels such as Middlemarch and Daniel Deronda—however interesting from an ethical perspective— do not lend themselves to this mode of analysis. To what extent Eliot's views are modified in these later novels constitutes a separate topic whose omission here does not reflect upon its intrinsic interest or importance. Since George Eliot offers no...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1086-329X
Print ISSN
0190-0013
Pages
pp. 20-38
Launched on MUSE
2011-10-05
Open Access
No
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