The dictionary definitions ‘character’ as a “complex of mental and ethical traits” and that those traits, or qualities, are “built into an individual’s life.” It is those character qualities, those character traits, which determine a person’s response in any given situation.
Character, for me, is how you act and behave without other people there, social conventions and social constructions.
“Reputation is the shadow. Character is the tree.”
“Character is who you are when no one’s looking”
“Character is who you are in the dark”
What would you do if you had the ability to become invisible? I think this is a fascinating question – one which is examined by various writers and philosophers. It reveals a vast amount about you, and your character, as it shows how you would act if given a cloak to hide from moral judgement. Plato’s Ring of Gyges, Tolkien’s One Ring and Well’s Invisible Man all examine the ideas and implications of what the ability to be invisible holds.
Think for a second what you would do.
Many would turn to crime, pranks, revenge, gluttonous (materialistic) or lustful acts. Is this right? Are people only moral because of the fear of moral condemnation and repercussion for action? Are people actually immoral at heart? Given protection from moral judgment and repercussion would people not continue to good? Is a social construction of judgment and punishment required for people to be moral? Or, as I desperately hope to believe, do people underestimate the reality of these thought experiments and questions? – I hope what many say they would do hypothetically is not what they would actually do. It is, after all, easier to talk the talk than to walk the walk. Not everyone is so rigid to ensure what they say is what they most probably would do.
Speaking predominantly on the assumption that people in my social circle constitutes, or reflects, the views and positions of broader society, and mean what they say when answering hypothetical questions, I would assert that people seem to only be moral when the societal construction exists to judge them. In the hypothetical scenario of the choice to murder someone for £1,000,000,000 some said yes, some said no. With the additional clause to remove any moral or legal consequence of the murder (no one would, or will ever, find out) many seem to change their mind (from no to yes) or at least waver and take deeper consideration into the scenario.
Now this truly concerns me. I would not kill my greatest enemy (not that I have one (at least as far as I am aware)), for any sum, even with immunity from the law and moral judgement. If you are moral or good because you fear the consequence than, for me (not being a consequentialist), being a deontologist, you are not necessarily moral. The intention and the action carry the moral credibility and if your only intention in action is to not break the law when going about your life then something is wrong. In my ideal society, there is no need for laws. People know what is right and wrong and do not need the potential punishment for moral irresponsibility to keep them in check. People would be guided by reason and rational courses of action. Now of course it would be wrong to assert that we can be perfect; laws do need to exist in order to punish those who step over the lines – and this could be absolutely anyone.
If I was given this ability I would probably use it for some selfish ends, I must admit, but absolutely no harm (physical or mental) or negative repercussion would be brought upon anyone else. I would set out to be a superhero, or to do some good with my ‘gift’ – gathering intelligence, protecting people, spying or scouting, etc. But I may be being naive or idealistic.
To turn to various writings, invisibility seems to always be a power that carries with it distrust, suspicion, malevolence, selfishness, mischievousness and rarely seems to be portrayed well. In Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings the ring is the weapon and creation of the Dark Lord Sauron. When in the hands of those who wish to use it for good, it corrupts them, speaks to them and changes them. Invisibility seems to be an inherently ‘bad’ power, it is corrupting. Even Gandalf, a good wizard and one of the Istari rejected the Ring when offered it saying: “DON’T tempt me, Frodo! I dare not take it, not even to keep it safe. Understand, Frodo, I would use this ring from a desire to do good. But through me, it would wield a power too great and terrible to imagine”.
In the Invisible Man the experimentation was used, so far as I understand it, with good intention. He was using it to benefit the medical world and to help people, but instead caused irreversible invisibility that, eventually, corrupted him. People were distrusting of the character, suspicious and even those he trusted betrayed him turning him to start a ‘Reign of Terror’. Can there really not be a good being who wields invisibility?
Plato, perhaps the originator of this discussion wrote in Republic questioning whether an intelligent moral being would remain moral if granted the ability to be immune from being caught, judged and punished. I found this quite effective summary:
‘In Republic, the tale of the ring of Gyges is described by the character of Glaucon who is the brother of Plato. Glaucon asks whether any man can be so virtuous that he could resist the temptation of being able to perform any act without being known or discovered. Glaucon suggests that morality is only a social construction, the source of which is the desire to maintain one’s reputation for virtue and justice. Hence, if that sanction were removed, one’s moral character would evaporate.
“Suppose now that there were two such magic rings, and the just put on one of them and the unjust the other; no man can be imagined to be of such an iron nature that he would stand fast in justice. No man would keep his hands off what was not his own when he could safely take what he liked out of the market, or go into houses and lie with any one at his pleasure, or kill or release from prison whom he would, and in all respects be like a god among men.
Then the actions of the just would be as the actions of the unjust; they would both come at last to the same point. And this we may truly affirm to be a great proof that a man is just, not willingly or because he thinks that justice is any good to him individually, but of necessity, for wherever anyone thinks that he can safely be unjust, there he is unjust.
For all men believe in their hearts that injustice is far more profitable to the individual than justice, and he who argues as I have been supposing, will say that they are right. If you could imagine any one obtaining this power of becoming invisible, and never doing any wrong or touching what was another’s, he would be thought by the lookers-on to be a most wretched idiot, although they would praise him to one another’s faces, and keep up appearances with one another from a fear that they too might suffer injustice.”
— Plato’s Republic, 360b-d (Jowett trans.)
Though his answer to Glaucon’s challenge is delayed, Socrates ultimately argues that justice does not derive from this social construct: the man who abused the power of the Ring of Gyges has in fact enslaved himself to his appetites, while the man who chose not to use it remains rationally in control of himself and is therefore happy. (Republic 10:612b)’
Now, I’m not sure I like Plato’s or Socrates’ account. Can one not wield such a power and remain moral? Must one resist the temptation to use/gain the power in order to stay morally credible? Would we, ultimately, be corrupted to do unjust things is the social construction of judgement and punishment didn’t exist? I simply refuse to believe this.
But I’m sure many of you are thinking I’ve missed another example. What of Harry Potter? (and the youngest of the three brothers from The Beedle and the Bard for that matter). He was moral, used the invisibility for good and managed to resist the temptation. When the third brother (from the tale) asked for the cloak of invisibility he did not request it for malevolent purposes but rather to use it to avoid death and to live a happy, safe and contented life. The power definitely can be used to do good
Why are you moral? Why do you do good deeds? Do you fear punishment or repercussion of your actions? Do you take the legal institution into consideration when requiring guidance on action? I think these are big questions, ones that hold more depth than surface. I know many may argue ‘what does it matter?’ so what if people are only moral because of the consideration of legal repercussion if they act unjustly? So long as they are moral and good then that’s all that matters. No. I do not stand with the consequentialists. I wouldn’t go so extreme and say that doing ‘good’ because of fear of punishment and doing ‘bad’ are equally condemnable but they are both far from ideal. I’m not the perfect moral agent, I must concede but I believe in the goodness that comes from reasoning. People should be guided by reason and empathy, not fear, to be ‘good’. As always, I feel empathy and reason to be the most valuable things a being can possess.
Perhaps I’m being naive and idealistic, we are only human after all. I just hope people can be moral without the fear of judgement from a supernatural being or from legal and social constructs, is that too much to ask?