True Grit

I recently came across the following striking passage in William Hope Hodgson’s 1912* story “The Thing Invisible”:

I was fighting with all my strength to get back my courage. I could not take my arms down from over my face, but I knew that I was getting hold of the gritty part of me again. And suddenly I made a mighty effort and lowered my arms. I held my face up in the darkness. And, I tell you, I respect myself for the act, because I thought truly at that moment that I was going to die. But I think, just then, by the slow revulsion of feeling which had assisted my effort, I was less sick, in that instant, at the thought of having to die, than at the knowledge of the utter weak cowardice that had so unexpectedly shaken me all to bits, for a time. …

Do I make myself clear? You understand, I feel sure, that the sense of respect, which I spoke of, is not really unhealthy egotism; because, you see, I am not blind to the state of mind which helped me. I mean that if I had uncovered my face by a sheer effort of will, unhelped by any revulsion of feeling, I should have done a thing much more worthy of mention. But, even as it was, there were elements in the act, worthy of respect.

What’s noteworthy about this passage is how closely it follows (whether intentionally or by coincidence, I can’t say) the ethical doctrine of Immanuel Kant. On Kant’s view, a moral action is worthy of respect only if it is motivated by a good will – a respect for the moral law for the moral law’s own sake. If it is motivated instead by some sort of inclination or sentiment (such as charitable acts being motivated by feelings of sympathy), the action is no longer worthy of respect, because if one’s actions depend on favourable sentiments – sentiments whose presence or absence is not under the control of the agent’s will – then that implies that if those favourable sentiments had happened to be absent, the agent would not have performed the action, and so the agent’s having done the right thing is fortuitous and not the expression of a reliable commitment to duty.

Hodgson’s narrator is making a similar point here, holding that since his act of courage was largely motivated by a feeling of revulsion at his own cowardice, it is less worthy of respect than it would have been if motivated by “a sheer effort of will.”

The narrator does not follow Kant entirely, however, since he suggests that his action is still worthy of some respect. For Kant (as I understand him), if an action is motivated partly by duty and partly by inclination, the crucial question is whether the dutiful part of the motivation would still have been sufficient to produce the action, had the inclination been absent. If the answer is yes, then the action is wholly worthy; if no, then the action is wholly unworthy. There is no room in Kant’s account for Hodgson’s notion that an action of mixed motivation might have an intermediate degree of worthiness.

This possibility of intermediate worthiness aligns Hodgson’s conception more closely to Aristotle’s view than to Kant’s, though the alignment is not perfect. For Aristotle, a continent person is one who has to overcome strong temptations in order to do the right thing, whereas a temperate person is able to do the right thing with little or no contrary temptation – though (and this aspect of Aristotle’s theory is often missed) the temperate person is such that he would still do the right thing if strong temptations were present (so the objection that temperate people don’t really deserve credit because right actions are too easy for them doesn’t apply). In Kantian terms, then, both the temperate and the continent person act from duty and not merely inclination, though in one case the inclinations favour the action and in the other case they oppose it.

Kant would regard the temperate and continent persons (and actions) as having equal merit; but Aristotle regards the temperate person (and action) as superior to its continent counterpart, since for Aristotle a virtuous action is supposed to express a healthy and harmonious character, not one (ordinarily) riven by conflict. However, the continent person and action do have some merit. So Aristotle, unlike Kant, allows for intermediate merit here.

But this doesn’t quite apply to Hodgson’s example. In Hodgson’s case it’s not that will is sufficient though inclination is lacking; it’s that inclination is sufficient though will might not have been. Since Aristotle in effect treats will-plus-inclination (temperance) as having more value than will alone (continence), that might mean that he grants some positive moral value to inclination alone (which is more or less what he calls “natural virtue”). But I can’t recall his saying so explicitly.

* Strictly speaking, although the story was first published in 1912, the quoted passage occurs in this form only in the revised 1948 version, the corresponding passage in the 1912 version being much less interesting. But since Hodgson died in the First World War, the revision was presumably made closer to 1912 than to 1948.

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4 Responses to True Grit

  1. Clyde Adams III February 15, 2018 at 2:15 pm #

    The mismatched parentheses are a bit distracting.
    There is an opening parenthesis here “(so the objection”
    The next closing parenthesis is in the next paragraph: “continent persons and actions)”

  2. Tedd McHenry February 24, 2018 at 10:24 am #

    I have two related thoughts on this, one of which I suppose identifies me as more Aristotelian than Kantian, and the other of which is, I hope, an original idea about Kant.

    It seems to me that a relevant issue here is that the revulsion the protagonist feels is toward himself, as opposed to a feeling about another person. It can be seen as, in part, a revulsion at his failure to make the duty-based choice, and so in a sense is perhaps part of the mechanism that leads to a duty-based choice.

    This raises the second point, which is that it may be important to see individual moral acts within the context of a person’s changing moral character. I may make a choice out of empathy, but if that empathy was the result of a deliberate choice to cultivate empathy in myself so that I can more easily make the choices duty would require then perhaps it is actually, at least in part, a duty-based choice. This is analogous to how a golfer concentrates on the follow through when swinging at the ball. Logic and physics tell us that the follow through can be of no consequence; the ball is already in flight. But the golfer knows that focusing on the follow through will cause his swing to be better when approaching the ball. This is not a failure of technique, it is good technique.

  3. MBH February 24, 2018 at 8:52 pm #

    So damn good.

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