The Great Gatsby: The Human Being a Moral Agent
Ideas about what makes up a human being in terms of moral agency has existed for centuries and continues to exist today. Each school of thought, intellectual group, and individual has a different and unique thought on the matter. To some people, such as the philosopher Aristotle, human beings are creatures who are made up of virtues that lead them to be self-sufficient, fully functional, and geared toward achieving the most supreme good. To others, like Thomas Hobbes, human beings are people who only look out for themselves and therefore lead a “live and let live” sort of lifestyle.
After learning about all of the different ideas about human beings as moral agents, it has become clear that a combination of two philosophers’ notions paint a complex, yet truly realistic and full view of what a human is really like. Without a doubt, the ideas of Joseph Butler and Mary Midgley contribute to the complete view of human beings moral agents—people who are not only active in cool self-love and benevolence, but are active in making moral judgments as well.
We will explore the contributions that each thinker makes to this complete view and why these ideas work very well together. It also ties these ideas into F. Scott Fitzgerald’s famous novel The Great Gatsby; using three key characters in the novel, we’ll see show how these ideas of self-love, benevolence, and moral judgments are either present or not present within each character, as well as how the presence and/or absence of these ideas work for or against the characters in terms of being a complete human being as a moral agent.
Butler’s Contribution: Self Love & Benevolence
In his novel Five Sermons, Joseph Butler introduces two very important ideas that make up a good portion of what it means to be a human being as a moral agent, which are self-love and benevolence. Butler says that “self-love and interestedness [is] stated to consist in or be an affection to ourselves, a regard to our own private good; it is therefore distinct from benevolence, which is an affection to the good of our fellow creatures” (Butler 49). Although Butler is careful to distinguish the difference between these two ideas, he also makes sure to make it known that they also depend on one another, stating that
though benevolence and self-love are different, though the former tends most directly to public good, and the latter to private, yet they are so perfectly coincident that the greatest satisfactions to ourselves depend upon having benevolence in a due degree, and that self-love is one chief security of our right behavior toward society. It may be added that their mutual coinciding so that we can scarce promote one without the other, is equally a proof that we were made for both. (Butler 27).
It is vital to understand each idea and its importance; let’s take a deeper look at the two.
According to Butler, in order to “avoid misery and consult [one’s] own happiness”, one must possess cool self-love” (Butler 59). This idea of loving oneself “never seeks anything external for the sake of the thing, but only as a means of happiness or good” (Butler 47). Therefore, it is important to make sure that we are taking care of ourselves. Butler says that “both our nature and condition require that each particular man should make particular provision for himself” (Butler 61). However, we must not confuse self-love with self-obsession. It is true that it is vital to not neglect ourselves—for Butler specifically advises against “[neglecting] what [we] really owe to [ourselves]—but that does not mean that we must obsess over ourselves. If we are able to love ourselves in an appropriate and decent manner, paying attention to what we need to live a contented life, then we are actively participating in cool self-love. Once we are able to love ourselves, we are then able to become active participants of benevolence.
Early on, Butler says that “there is a natural principle of benevolence in man” (Butler 26). He says that “if there be in mankind any disposition to friendship; if there be any such thing as compassion, for compassion is momentary love; if there be any such thing as the paternal of filial affections; if there be any affection in human nature the object and end of which is the good of another—this is itself benevolence or the love of another” (Butler 27). In other words, Butler is saying that benevolence is doing ‘good’ by and for others, whether it’s through friendship or “filial affections”. Since Butler believes that “there is such a natural principle of attraction in man toward man”, then “real benevolence to our fellow creatures would give us the notion of a common interest in a stricter sense; for in the degree we love another, his interests, his joys and sorrows, are our own” (Butler 31, 59).
A major concept that stems from benevolence is having love for one’s neighbor, and Butler discusses this in detail in Five Sermons. He says that “we bear the same kind of affection to our neighbor as we do to ourselves; or … [in] some proportion or other to self-love” (Butler 58). Through our ability to empathize with our neighbors, as well as being able to channel some of our own self-love, this idea of benevolence becomes “an advocate within our own breasts…to take care of the interests of our fellow creatures” (Butler 59). Essentially, since we know what we need as people, we are able to know what others need and enable ourselves to help others. We owe it to our neighbors to “promote [their] happiness, according to our abilities”, which means that it is our job to “do good to all with whom we have to do” (Butler 65).
Midgley’s Contribution: Moral Judgments
Along with Joseph Butler, Mary Midgley provides what is left of what it means to be a human being as a moral agent, which is the idea of moral judgments. In her novel Can’t We Make Moral Judgments?, Midgley addresses a common paradox, in which people declare that they do not want to make moral judgments, or hold the idea that it is wrong to make moral judgments. While many people feel this way, Midgley does not; conversely, she feels that as human beings, not only can and should we make moral judgments, but that we are in no way absolutely free of moral judgments, even if we go out of our to avoid them. This belief that Midgley introduces is proof that in order to fulfill the role of human being as a moral agent, one must actively partake in making moral judgments.
Moral judgments are not nearly as straightforward and self-explanatory as self-love and benevolence. In fact, people tend to knock down making moral judgments and fail to see they are a part of who we are as human, moral agents. One reason that people tend to knock down moral judgments is because they feel that there are “no actions bad in themselves and no citizens good in themselves” (Midgley 5). People also hold the idea that “it is not possible to sneer at other people’s standards without committing [oneself] to rival standards of [their] own” (Midgley 8). As humans we tend to air on the side of the unknown; however, as Midgley points out, this skeptical humbug is unnecessary. We should not get hung up on the fact that we don’t know some things for sure because, in reality, there is “no given system of facts which will map our route for us” (Midgley 25).
Knowledge does not have to be as precise as we think it does, for there is “no single, infallible form of knowledge”, but rather “there are many different way of knowing, each with their own standards and their own suitable kinds of evidence” (Midgley 22). If we don’t know or understand something, it doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t still partake in making moral judgments. It is important to realize that when we make moral judgments, we are “committing ourselves to a decision which issues from and expresses our wider attitudes…which has to be more or less consistent with the rest of our lives” (Midgley 25). While knowledge certainly can benefit and promote making moral decisions, science and experience also play a role, too.
Midgley points out that there are “a number of quite well organized ways of thinking which are not science, but are equally not just mindless feelings or habits or urges or reflexes or automatic reactions”; therefore, making moral judgments falls between scientific exactness and reflex decisions (Midgley 24). Once we experience making moral judgments, they become second nature to us. Just as we don’t think about breathing before we do it, we shouldn’t have to think about making moral judgments, because they have become one of our basic human functions.
Although Butler’s ideas and Midgley’s ideas appear to be rather different, they actually work quite well together. Moral judgments are present in every facet of our lives, and self-love and benevolence are no exception. Butler himself says that “it is scarce possible to avoid judging”, and the idea of making moral judgments applies to both of his ideas that were introduced earlier. (Butler 11).
When we choose to love ourselves or to love our neighbors, we are making a moral judgment, whether we know it or not. Just as moral judgments can be seen within self-love and benevolence, both self-love and benevolence can also be seen in making moral judgments. An example of this would be judging someone based off of their bad decisions and choosing not to put yourself in their presence. In doing so, you are doing what you feel that you need to do to secure your happiness and health, and therefore are actively participating in self-love. Ultimately, there are a good amount of moral judgments that are fueled by these ideas of self-love and benevolence. All of these ideas feed off of each other, which is why it is necessary to possess each of them in order to be a fully functional human being as a moral agent.
Integrating an Example: The Great Gatsby
Just because self-love, benevolence, and moral judgment making work together to form a complete view of the human being as a moral agent, that doesn’t mean that every person in the whole world possesses each of these philosophies; the absence of any of these ideas just means that one has not achieved the completeness of being a human, moral agent. As an example of this, we will take a look at F. Scott Fitzgerald’s famous novel The Great Gatsby. Written in 1925, the novel chronicles Nick Carraway’s quick relationship with his fabulously wealthy neighbor, Jay Gatsby. Within the novel, there are a few main characters that possess (or, conversely, do not possess) these ideas of self-love, benevolence, and moral judgments. The next few sections will focus on a specific character, discussing the presence or absence of these ideas, and how the presence and/or absence of these ideas work for or against each character.
The first character to examine is Nick Carraway, the narrator of Fitzgerald’s novel. Of all of the characters in this novel, Nick is perhaps provides the most complete view of the human being as a moral agent.
Carraway possesses cool self-love. Although he comes from “well-to-do people”, he goes into the bonds business and moves east so that he could try and support himself (Fitzgerald 3). His self-love is probably seen the most through the fact that he tries to make decisions that will benefit his happiness and tries to avoid things that might make him unhappy, such as the ridiculous and over-extravagant lifestyle of those that surround him; in other words, he tries to make sure that he does not neglect what he owes to himself.
Nick also is an active participant in benevolence, as well. When it comes to Nick interacting with others, he is extremely easy-going and open-minded. He sits back and listens to what is being said, which in turn causes others to feel like they can open up to him. Without a doubt, Nick certainly loves his neighbor, Jay Gatsby. As they become closer and closer, Nick starts to love Gatsby as he would love himself. He helps him out when Gatsby gets himself into trouble, and even when it appears as though everybody is against Gatsby, Nick is there to make him feel better by saying that everyone else is “a rotten crowd” and that Gatsby is “worth the whole damn bunch put together” (Fitzgerald 154). He always shows genuine concern for Gatsby, even until his neighbor’s untimely death.
In the beginning of the novel, Nick shares that he is “inclined to reserve all judgments” (Fitzgerald 1). Although he is essentially saying that he feels that he should steer clear of making judgments, he actually does not end up doing so in the novel. In fact, he does quite the opposite. Throughout the novel, Nick is frequently making moral judgments, whether they have to do with the way that others are living their lives or whether or not he should extend to help to Gatsby.
Nick’s possession of self-love, benevolence, and the making of moral judgments works in his favor in the end. He is able to realize—especially through his use of moral judgments—that the fast-paced lifestyle not only damaging, but that it also was not for him. Nick’s character not only serves as proof that it is possible for a complete human being as a moral agent to exist, but it also shows the presence and co-existence of self-love, benevolence, and moral judgments is necessary.
Jay Gatsby is a very wealthy man who throws extravagant parties and owns a lot of material objects. Gatsby is an interesting character to examine in terms of the ideas that have been discussed in this paper. While he certainly does not possess self-love, benevolence, and the capability of making moral judgments quite as wholly as Nick Carraway does, Gatsby does possess certain elements that make up each idea.
Self-love is one idea that Gatsby does not possess; most of the time Gatsby is actually neglecting what he truly owes to himself. Gatsby forces himself into success delving into criminal acts. His main reason for doing so is to become famous and win over his long-time love, Daisy Buchanan. In his push for fame, Gatsby is neglecting himself: he allows himself to get into trouble with the wrong kind of people, which can ultimately ruin his life at any moment; he also is constantly worrying about what people think about him and he does anything to be what people (especially Daisy) want him to be. At a young age, Gatsby began to change everything about himself, “[inventing] just the sort of [man] that [a] boy would like to invent” (Fitzgerald 98); this obsession with being a “likable” person by society’s standards inevitability changed his life forever.
Although Gatsby does not actively participate in cool self-love, he does participate in benevolence. He puts on these weekly parties for people to go and have a good time. He is particularly benevolent towards Nick and Daisy. He genuinely loves both of them and does a lot for each of them. Gatsby is constantly taking Nick places, whether it’s a long country drive or a lavish party, and he always makes sure that Nick is enjoying himself. The same goes for Daisy; Gatsby’s whole life has revolved around her and winning her affections. He propels himself into a life of luxury to make Daisy happy and is even willing to cover for her after she commits a hit-and-run.
In terms of making moral judgments, Gatsby is an active participant. He judges the life of poverty and anything that isn’t extravagant. He purposely chooses to surround himself with certain kinds of people, and even when he is making the decision to stay away from those “beneath” him, he is making a moral judgment. Whether he is aware of it or not, Gatsby is always making moral judgments, even up until his death.
The imbalance of these three ideas ends up working against Gatsby. He winds up neglecting himself and his safety to the point that he gets murdered. He focuses too much on other people instead of taking proper care of himself, which is clearly not a way to live. While Gatsby is always making moral judgments, it is obvious that some of the judgments that he makes do not benefit himself.
Daisy Buchanan is the extensively wealthy cousin of Nick Carraway and the object of Jay Gatsby’s love. Daisy, too, is rather interesting to observe; like Gatsby, Daisy does not completely possess self-love, benevolence, and the capability of making moral judgments.
When it comes to self-love, Daisy possesses a little too much. She is one of the most self-absorbed characters in the whole entire novel. Daisy is obsessed with the life of luxury, and therefore she is constantly spending copious amounts of money on herself to attain this life. In the beginning of the novel, she points out that “[she’s] been everywhere and seen everything and done everything” (Fitzgerald 17). She cares about herself, her money, and her own emotions more than she cares about others, even her own child, whom she doesn’t even take care of herself. Her self-absorption leads her to neglect those who should be at the forefront of her priorities.
Since Daisy is so self-obsessed, she clearly is not very benevolent. She does not treat others the way that she would want to be treated, and oftentimes she takes what others do for her for granted. She cheats on her husband, Tom, with Gatsby, leading Gatsby to believe that he has finally won her over. She even lets Gatsby take the fall for her crimes rather than doing what is best for everyone and coming clean. Instead of doing good for and by others, she consistently mistreats them and only worries about herself.
Like both Nick and Gatsby, Daisy is always making moral judgments. Similar to Gatsby, she judges those who are not on the same level of extravagance as her. She also makes moral judgments when it comes to not doing things for others; whenever she decides to not reciprocate a favor paid in her direction, she is making a moral judgment. Even when she decides how her daughter should be raised, she is participating making a moral judgment.
All of these things do not necessarily benefit Daisy in the end. Although she does not wind up dead like Gatsby, she also does not end up truly happy. Because she is so self-involved and neglectful to those around her, she not only hurts herself, but she also hurts people who care about her. The moral judgments that she makes do not put her in the best situations, and in the end, she winds up staying in an unhappy marriage, surrounded by the wealth that caused her to not only become self-absorbed, but that ultimately wound up controlling her.
Wrapping It All Up
It is clear that the ideas of Joseph Butler and Mary Midgley contribute to the complete view of human beings moral agents: people who are coolly self-loving, benevolent, and active in making moral judgments. This paper touched upon each thinker’s the contributions to this complete view, and it briefly explained why these ideas work well together. This paper also applied these ideas into F. Scott Fitzgerald’s popular novel The Great Gatsby through the examination of three key characters and the presence and/or absence of self-love, benevolence, and moral judgments.
It has become obvious whether or not presence and/or absence of these ideas worked in their favor or against them, and some major conclusions can be made. The fact that every one of the characters actively participates in making moral judgments not only proves that moral judgments are inescapable and ultimately a part of who we are as people, but it also proves their necessity.
It is also worth mentioning that the most complete humans ended up the happiest (i.e. Nick Carraway). Those who were missing or had an excess amount of one idea ended up not being as happy as they could have been. This suggests that the happiest human beings are the ones who actively participate in cool self-love, benevolence, and making moral judgments, although every case is different.
This topic is important to explore because there are an infinite number of ideas surrounding what the complete view of a human being as a moral agent looks like. Researching this topic provides people with options to consider and look into, and they are also highly relatable to every person. Next time that someone is asked to consider what a complete human being looks like, hopefully they will think back to the ideas of both Butler and Midgley.
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