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Aaron Ridley TRAGEDY AND THE TENDER-HEARTED The moral dilemma is a staple ingredient of tragic drama and a frequent precipitator oftragedy. Someone finds himselfin a moral dilemma when he is forced to choose between two courses of action, each of which involves a moral violation. The dilemma is acute if the putative violations are comparable, and it is serious if the violations are grave. In tragic drama we frequently meet characters whose dilemmas are serious (even if they are not always acute), and whose destinies are determined by the morally unacceptable course of action which they choose (from the range of unacceptable alternatives open to them). When dilemma is the central subject, this choosing—and its consequences —will very often drive a drama to its tragic denouement. Moral dilemma has received a fair amount of discussion, both in moral philosophy and in literarycriticism. Much ofit—in recent moral philosophy, at any rate—has been devoted to questions about responsibility and guilt.1 What blame attaches to a person, whose dilemma is serious, for the moral violation which he cannot help but commit? Martha Nussbaum , whose book The Fragility ofGoodness2 combines moral philosophy with literary criticism, finds the beginnings ofan answer to this question implicit in two of Aeschylus' tragedies. In the first section of this article I will outline the answer which Nussbaum discovers in those plays; next I will try to show why that answer is inadequate. In particular, I will try to show why Nussbaum's conception of moral dilemma cannot capture what is so disturbing about the decisions which a person in a dilemma may be forced to make, and hence what is so disturbing about some tragedies. Philosophy and Literature, © 1993, 17: 234-245 Aaron Ridley235 Nussbaum takes issue with a tendency (which she documents) to regard Aeschylus' treatment of moral dilemma as illogical. The charge arises, she says, because the playwright has his chorus both approve and condemn a character's resolution of a dilemma—i.e., the chorus approve the character's choice of the lesser evil, but insist on blaming him for what he then goes on to do. The charge of illogicality springs, she thinks, from Socratic rationalism, according to which "in every case there is at most a single correct answer, and the competing candidate makes no further claim once the choice is made." If it does, then "the agent must at least regard it as thoroughly irrational" (pp. 30—31). According to this tradition (which Nussbaum shows to include figures as diverse as Kant, Sartre, and Hare), moral dilemmas must be apparent only; they must, when once resolved or seen through, be resolvable without remainder. Thus to approve a person's resolution ofa dilemma, and to blame him at the same time for what he does, is irrational or illogical. The value of Aeschylus, says Nussbaum, is that he shows us how such cases are "connected with other valuable elements of human ethical life—that we would risk giving up something of real importance if we adjusted our intuitions in accordance with . . . these philosophical solutions" (p. 32). Nussbaum believes that dilemmas are brute, hard facts in our ethical lives, which cannot be resolved without remainder (i.e., that they are not merely illusions or mistakes); and so that the rejected horn of the dilemma legitimately can, without want oflogic, exert a continuing claim upon an agent even once it has been rejected. Whether this legitimate claim is recognized by an agent, she says, is signaled by the attitude with which he goes on to perform the action which he has identified as the lesser evil. This attitude is something for which the agent is directly responsible, and it is something which can be assessed in moral terms. She finds all of this dramatized in Aeschylus. The Aeschylian chorus can answer the question "Has the agent chosen rightly?" (which is the only question recognized by Socratic rationalism) in the affirmative, and still go on to question whether the agent's passions, attitudes, and desires signal a (morally) acceptable acknowledgment of the irreconcilable demands placed upon him. They can ask: is there an "unnatural cooperation of internal with external forces," such...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1086-329X
Print ISSN
0190-0013
Pages
pp. 234-245
Launched on MUSE
2011-10-05
Open Access
No
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