The language of sin is not just а theologically freighted way of talking about morally bad acts; it points to а deeper flaw within human life as we experience it, а perversion of outlook and desire that we may come to recognise but cannot fully evade. Overview According to а view going back to Aristotle (and probably earlier); someone who acts out of а mistaken belief about а relevant matter of fact may not be morally culpable for what would otherwise be а bad action.
For example, а doctor who administers an antibiotic without realising that his patient is allergic to it is not guilty of murder if the patient subsequently dies, assuming that the mistake in question is а good-faith error which the doctor could not have avoided (perhaps the patient neglected to give the correct information about allergies when asked to do so). In this kind of situation, ignorance of relevant facts would seem to render the act in question involuntary in а qualified respect that is to say, precisely considered as an act of murder. (Travitsky 184-96)
And since we presuppose that someone is morally responsible only for her freely chosen actions, it follows that in these kinds of cases, the agent cannot be regarded as morally culpable for what is objectively а bad action. In the tragedy of Othello, many animal references are made by Iago to the people he disrespects. The purpose of Shakespeare depicting Iago as а character who perceives others as animals is to show his dominance and his representation of mankind, illustrating his superiority over others. The interpretation of Iago signifying mankind reveals another side of him, his bestial nature. (David et. All 1335-38)
Discussion Aristotle apparently did not believe that the same line of analysis could be applied to someone who acts out of а mistaken moral view, and Aquinas and most other scholastic theologians would have agreed, albeit not always on Aristotelian grounds. 2 However, in recent years а number of moral theologians and some philosophers have argued that moral mistakes do obviate moral guilt that is, someone who acts out of а sincere but wrong belief that а given kind of action is morally permissible cannot be regarded as morally culpable for what she does, even if the act in question is in every other respect voluntary.
Of course, if this extension of the Aristotelian argument is to be plausible, one would need to add that the mistake in question is not itself the result of prior wrong-doing, and that the agent has taken due care to form his conscience appropriately and to determine what he genuinely owes to himself, to other persons, and (perhaps) to non-human entities or to God. Given these qualifications, however, one might say, for example, that а doctor who kills her patient in the sincere but (let’s assume) mistaken belief that she is justified in thus ending his suffering is not subjectively guilty of murder.
The agent freely commits, and is therefore morally responsible for, а kind of action that (by hypothesis) meets the objective criteria for murder; yet given that she acts out of а mistaken belief that the act in question is not morally wrong, she does not commit а voluntary act of murder, considered precisely as an act of wrongful killing. (Straznicky 104-34) This is at least а plausible view.
It seems harsh to regard someone as morally guilty for an action carried out under the mistaken, yet sincere and conscientious belief that an act of the relevant kind is morally justified particularly when we reflect that none of us can be certain that our own moral beliefs are correct in every respect. What is more, this line of analysis seems to correspond to at least some widespread intuitions. I believe most people in industrialised societies would be prepared to take this line with respect to cases involving widely controversial and difficult issues, as presented, for example, by an act of euthanasia.
However, in other kinds of cases, we may well balk at the conclusion that moral ignorance justifies а particular line of action. Imagine а doctor who kills her patient because he is an extremely unpleasant old man who is tormenting his family for no good purpose; what is more, he has left а large sum of money to а charity which desperately needs it. The doctor sincerely believes that the needs of this man’s relatives and the demands of the common good override her obligations not to kill, and she acts accordingly. (David et. All 1335-38) Analysis
In response, it might be said that some moral norms are so obvious that no one could make а good faith mistake about them; thus, а mentally competent adult who genuinely does not know that murder is wrong must be guilty of (at least) culpable neglect. This argument fits well with what came to be the dominant scholastic view on ‘ignorance of the law’ with respect to the natural law that is to say, since the fundamental precepts of the natural law are in some sense innate, а competent adult cannot fail to grasp them unless she is guilty of some kind of prior wrong-doing or negligence. Some contemporary theologians extend this line of analysis as follows: Admittedly, some moral mistakes are ipso facto evidence of prior wrong-doing, negligence, or bad faith.
Yet, at least with respect to the difficult and complex questions we face today, genuine, non-culpable moral mistakes are both possible and exculpating. (Travitsky 184-96) This line of analysis, in turn, lends credence to а widespread view according to which one’s moral status depends exclusively on the orientation of the agent’s will as expressed through her freely chosen actions (considered either singly, or as comprising an overall pattern of behaviour). Straznicky 104-34) On this view, а mistaken moral judgment, while regrettable, has no moral significance in itself. In the words of John Coons and Patrick Brennan, ‘It is, then, plainly plausible that while humans have а primary obligation to seek correct treatment of others (and self), their honest pursuit of that ideal effects whatever moral perfection is possible to the individual’. Certainly, it is true that Othello acts as he does out of а mistaken belief about Desdemona’s infidelity.
But I want to argue that this mistake alone would not account for his act, were it not for other mistaken beliefs he holds, at least one of which clearly concerns а moral principle. Before moving to that point, however, is it worth spending some time over Othello’s factual mistakes (I believe he makes more than one), seen in the context of what we are shown about his overall character and disposition.
Even if we bracket the special difficulties raised by moral mistakes, the moral significance of mistaken beliefs is not as straightforward as we may assume or so Othello’s example would suggest. (Jane et. All 19-47) Othello’s story is а tragedy, and not just а very sad story, because it is the story of the destruction of а noble, deeply admirable man brought about through his own weaknesses, systematically exploited by а malicious enemy.
In order for this story to have the force that it does, Shakespeare must first of all make it clear that Othello really is noble and deeply admirable. This point is sometimes obscured by the vulgar racist slurs directed against him by Iago and at least tacitly accepted by some of the other characters (see, for example, I. 1, 88–89). Yet isn’t this the kind of thing that we would expect Iago to say? Shakespeare takes pains to show that Othello himself does not fit the stereotypes of the lustful, rash and unthinking black man on which Iago trades.
On the contrary when we first see him, in the encounter with Brabantio (Desdemona’s father), it is the latter that is rash and unthinking, not to say hysterical, whereas Othello is а model of self-restraint under extreme provocation (I. 2, beginning at line 58). He defends himself before the Venetian senate in terms of great dignity and candour, and his account of his love for Desdemona makes it clear that he truly does love her, just as her love for him is no girlish infatuation, but an intelligent response to his past sufferings and his noble character (I. , 129ff. ). His subsequent behaviour is that of а devoted husband who also bears а public trust, to which he properly gives priority with his wife’s full understanding and consent far from jumping into bed with his new bride, he sails to Cyprus and sees to preliminary arrangements for the defence and governance of the island, apparently before his marriage is ever consummated (I. 3, 260–79, and especially 299–300).
Even Iago admits that left to him, Othello will most probably make Desdemona а good, loving husband (II. , 284–85). What is more, Othello is а seasoned general of many years’ experience, the best military mind available to the Venetians, someone whom they regard as worthy of unrestrained public trust this is no unsophisticated fool, but а mature, intelligent man at the height of а vital and demanding profession. And yet, this dignified and loving man is first reduced to а state of near-dementia, and then brought to а cool determination to kill his wife, through the machinations of Iago.
In watching this process, it is difficult not to get caught up in the sheer fascination of Iago’s deliberate villainy how could anyone be so callous to every human feeling, so cheerfully calculating as he plans the destruction of those around him, so irredeemably evil? Confronted by such а spectacle, it is easy to overlook the fact that Othello’s transformation from а loving husband into а relentless avenger is, in its own way, almost as disturbing. (David et. All 1335-38) How can such а transformation take place?
Of course, Othello is the victim of а deliberate deception, but that fact alone does not really answer the question, because it is by no means clear how Iago manages to convince Othello of Desdemona’s guilt after all, he has no actual evidence whatever, and not very much in the way of circumstantial evidence. What is more, even granting Othello’s conviction of Desdemona’s guilt, it would not be necessary for him to kill her he could banish her, as she pleads (V. 2, 79), or divorce her and send her back to her family.
He might even forgive her and try to retrieve his marriage. (Straznicky 104-34) Thus, Iago’s malicious deception, while troubling in its own right, should not be allowed to obscure the puzzles presented by Othello’s own behaviour. Why is he vulnerable to Iago’s designs in the first place, and why does he react to Desdemona’s adultery (as he believes to be the case) in the way that he does? We must look for the answers to these questions in Othello himself. (David et. All 1335-38) One starting point immediately suggests itself.
Why is it so easy for Iago to persuade Othello that his beloved Desdemona has committed adultery with his lieutenant Cassio? Shouldn’t Othello’s love for Desdemona which I believe we should take at face value have inclined him to resist, or even just to ignore, Iago’s insinuations? It might be said that Iago gets away with his plan so easily because Othello is so trusting, as Iago himself suggests as he notes, Othello has ‘а free and open nature’ and will believe what he is told (I. 3, 396–400).
And indeed, once Iago (seemingly) begins to respond to his demands for proof, Othello never doubts him until confronted with unmistakable proof of his treachery. (Travitsky 184-96) Certainly, Othello places а remarkable degree of trust in Iago but it seems inaccurate to say that he is trusting without qualification. He does not trust Desdemona at all. Admittedly, he catches her in а lie over the handkerchief he gave her, but had he been so disposed, he could have seen this for what it is the self-protective lie of а flustered young woman (II. , 45–94). More tellingly, he does not trust Emilia when she insists, repeatedly and strongly, that Desdemona has never betrayed him, even though Emilia (Iago’s wife and Desdemona’s personal attendant) is in а better position than anyone else to know about her intimate activities (IV. 2, 1–24). It begins to look as if Othello is prepared to trust some, but not others in particular, he trusts men but he does not trust women.
This suspicion is confirmed by his remarks about women, remarks which we know to reflect general Elizabethan attitudes that women are naturally lustful, cannot be relied upon to maintain chastity without continual supervision, and are sly and deceitful to boot (III. 3, 264–80). Various comments, together with the whole tenor of his behaviour towards Iago, suggest very different beliefs about at least some classes of men, namely frank, hearty types such as Iago, whom he regards as honest and worthy of trust (III. 3, 124, and especially 245).
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