Learning Ethics from Les Miserables

Everydaythomist is going to take a small break from discussing scripture and metaphysics in today’s post. But don’t worry—we will come back to some of the same topics we have been discussing on Thomas Aquinas’ use of metaphysical speculation to understand God as revealed in scripture.

Today, however, we are going to look at a well-known story, popularized by the musical, of Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables. I watched and discussed the Dreamcast version of the musical last night with my church small group. We aren’t going to rehash the whole story here. If you don’t know it, go out and get the DVD immediately, and then be sure to read the book as soon as you can. In this post, we are going to look at the various ethical theories which different characters represent, and what the story overall can tell us about ethics.

One of the ethical theories the movie portrays is what is called a deontological, or rule-based theory, most clearly represented by the police inspector Javert. Deontological ethical theories say that the moral thing to do in any given situation is to follow the rules, to obey the law, to do your duty. Deontological theories tend to downplay the relevance of consequences. This means that if there is a rule not to lie, it is immoral to lie, even if lying will help a lot of people.

A famous hypothetical scenario to illustrate what deontological theories look like if taken to an extreme is the “Nazi at the door” scenario. It goes as follows: say you are hiding Jews in your basement to protect them from being sent to a concentration camp. A Nazi comes to the door and asks if you have any Jews in your house. You know that lying is wrong, but you also know that if you do you obey your duty to tell the truth, the Jews in your basement will probably die. A deontological theorist would say that even in this scenario, lying is immoral.

In contrast, a utilitarian approach to ethics looks at the consequences of actions to judge their morality. Utilitarianism is a form of consequentialism and tends to say that what is moral in any given situation is to maximize the good effects. So a utilitarian would say that more good can be done by lying to the Nazi officer and saving the Jews than can be done by telling the truth.

Javert is a deontological thinker par excellence. In his first stage encounter with Jean Valjean who is just getting released from prison, Javert tells Valjean that he is thief who has been justly punished for his offense. Valjean explains that he stole a loaf of bread to save his starving niece who was close to death. Valjean is using utilitarian reasoning here—he broke the law because doing so could potentially bring about more good (saving his niece) than obeying the law could. He appeals to Javert for compassion, “We were starving . . .” but Javert gives a deontological response:

You will starve again, unless you learn the meaning of the law!

Obeying the law comprises the totality of morality for Javert. His solo “Stars” illustrates how important the law is for him. The law maintains order. Without the law, there would be chaos, and so Javert insists that the law must be upheld regardless of the consequences, and if the law is broken, justice demands punishment. Even when he encounters Fantine who is clearly on the brink of death and requests only a little time to make sure her daughter is safe does not sway his commitment to the law:

I have heard such protestations
Every day for twenty years
Let’s have no more explanations
Save your breath and save your tears
Honest work, just reward,
That’s the way to please the Lord.

Javert is not just being high and mighty in his role as police commissioner. We learn that he also comes from a poor background to criminal parents, but chose to escape his background by strictly following the rules no matter what the consequences:

Dare you talk to me of crime
And the price you had to pay
Every man is born in sin
Every man must choose his way
You know nothing of Javert
I was born inside a jail
I was born with scum like you
I am from the gutter too!

While Valjean occasionally uses utilitarian reasoning in his approach to ethics, he is more representative of a third approach to ethics, a virtue-based approach. If a deontological approach to ethics first asks “what does the law say?” and a utilitarian approach first asks “how can I do the most good?” a virtue-based approach asks “what does this action say about the kind of person I am, and what are the implications of this action for becoming the person I want to become?”

Alasdair MacIntyre, a famous philosophical advocate of virtue ethics, says that virtue ethics can be summed up in three questions:

Who am I?
Who do I want to become?
How do I get there?

Virtue ethics is unique because it sees ethics as concerned not so much about discrete actions (should I do X or not), but how every action fits into a total life narrative. Virtue ethics acknowledges that people change over time—they become better or worse people depending on what they do.

We see Valjean struggling between a utilitarian approach to ethics and a virtue-based approach to ethics in his son “Who am I?” In this song, Valjean contemplates the utility of turning himself into Javert to save a man who has been mistaken for Valjean and arrested. But if Valjean chooses to turn himself in to save one man, hundreds of others will suffer since val Jean is the mayor of the town and the owner of the factory where most of the town works.

I am the master of hundreds of workers.
They all look to me.
How can I abandon them?
How would they live
If I am not free?
If I speak, I am condemned.
If I stay silent, I am damned!

Utilitarian reasoning falls apart for Valjean, and he has already recognized the limitations of Javert’s deontological approach. He understands that weighing the consequences will not tell him what is right in this complicated situation, nor will trying to follow the rules lead him to the right choice. Instead, he turns to his own character and asks “who am I” and “who do I want to become?”

Who am I?
Can I condemn this man to slavery
Pretend I do not feel his agony
This innocent who bears my face
Who goes to judgment in my place
Who am I?
Can I conceal myself for evermore?
Pretend I’m not the man I was before?
And must my name until I die
Be no more than an alibi?
Must I lie?
How can I ever face my fellow men?
How can I ever face myself again?
My soul belongs to God, I know
I made that bargain long ago
He gave me hope when hope was gone
He gave me strength to journey on
Who am I? Who am I?
I am Jean Valjean!

But just because Valjean does not base his decisions primarily on either following the rules or maximizing the good consequences, there are guiding principles that he brings to his deliberation. But they are not rule-based principles like Javert (e.g. don’t steal); rather, Valjean’s guiding principles are the virtues, which are vaguer but which allow Valjean to account for the complexity of each moral dilemma.

Virtues are certain aspects of a person’s character that lead them to do good things. A person develops virtues through actions. One develops justice, for example, by trying to be just and giving to others and oneself what they deserve. One develops courage by facing fear, and by not avoiding good actions even when they are difficult or frightening.

There are lots of different virtues that people develop like temperance (moderation), prudence (right judgment about things to be done), generosity, etc. The dominant virtue for Valjean is love. In each ethical dilemma he faces, Valjean asks “what is the loving thing to do?” Javert asks “what is the right or the legal thing to do?” and as a result, ethical dilemmas are much simpler for him. But for Valjean, things are more complicated. It is not always easy to be loving, and he sometimes has to break the rules to do so, which is how he ended up in prison and an enemy of Javert in the first place.

And this brings us to what I see is the entire point of the story. Ethics is messy. Ethics is complicated. There are so many particular dimensions of each ethical dilemma that we face that we cannot possibly account for them all. And so if we look at ethics as primarily concerned about discrete actions, about what is the right or wrong thing to do in any given situation, we miss the point. Ethics is about becoming a good person. Ethics is primarily about the story of one’s life with all the successes and mistakes taken as a whole. It is about being able to die and say “I lived the best I could, and I am proud of the person that I am.” Rules are important, as is attention to consequences, but both rules and consequence are meant to facilitate the ultimate goal which is living well.

Acknowledging the complicated nature of ethics gives a person compassion for others in their own path to a good life. We see this too with Valjean. He can sympathize with Fantine who has sold herself into prostitution to get enough money for her daughter. He can sympathize with the prisoner who was caught stealing and mistaken for him. He can sympathize with the student organizers and with Cosette and with Marius in his love for his daughter. Because his approach to ethics gives val Jean sympathy, he has relationships that Javert, in all of his uprightness and stalwartness, does not. Because it is so clear to Javert what the right thing to do is, he cannot understand when people do not do it. So virtue ethics provides an approach to ethics that keeps us from judging too quickly.

On a final note, I would say that it is very difficult in any given situation to do the right thing. Even the most virtuous and heroic characters fail in their attempt to do what is best. We see this with Valjean who allows the foreman to fire Fantine because he needs to keep order in his shop. Valjean was not being malicious there—he simply could not account for all the relevant particular factors in the situation. A rallying motto of the virtue ethicist, however, is this: “It takes more than one sparrow to make a spring.” This means that we are not defined as a person by any one particular action. Who we are as people depends on an entire lifetime of actions. So Valjean is not a thief simply because he stole. Nor is he the hardened 24601 that he was in his time in prison. He is simply Jean Valjean, an identity which the audience of the musical does not see in its fullness until Valjean’s death.


4 comments so far

  1. danielimburgia on

    Thanks so much for these great posts, and i look fwd to the next ones, blessings, Daniel

    • everydaythomist on

      Thanks for reading and commenting. I’ll do my best to keep more coming. I assume you have seen Les Mis? It’s a great way to teach basic ethics, since its such a well-known plot with such beautiful music.

  2. JSD on

    Thanks for the excellent article; it’s very helpful. Question: how do the Ten Commandments fit in to your analysis of Ethics? Aren’t they deontological absolutes, which don’t require any calculation of consequences, as does utilitarianism. And can’t they be obeyed by anyone, not just by virtuous people. (I.e., unlike in virtue ethics, which teaches that only virtuous people have the ability to do right, cannot anyone, even a person with little virtue, still obey the Ten Commandments?)

    Not to be contentitious; I really am wondering about this.

    • everydaythomist on

      It is a frequent misconception that rules are either not included in an ethics of virtue, or that rules are diametrically opposed to an ethics of virtue. This is not the case. Since I talked about Alasdair MacIntyre in my post, I will use him again to answer your question about how rules fit into an ethics of virtue.

      MacIntyre says that virtue is a lot like learning to play chess or any other game. Imagine a mentor trying to teach a student how to play chess. The spend the first couple of lessons rigorously learning the rules of the game, which are first very difficult for the pupil. To facilitate the learning progress, the teacher rewards the student for playing successfully (obeying the rules) with a piece of candy. At first, the student only endures the difficulty of the rules for the piece of candy, but eventually, the student develops a love of the game, a game which only has integrity if the rules are followed. The pupil begins to obey the rules as second nature, not for the sake of the rules themselves, but for the sake of the game.

      Virtue ethics is a lot like this. The rules like the Ten Commandments are important, because they teach us how to live well. It may be difficult to follow them at first, but the rules keep us in our beginning stages of development from doing something not conducive to living a good life. But as we become more virtuous, as our character is strengthened by habitually choosing good actions, the rules become less important. A virtuous person doesn’t avoid adultery because there is a rule against it, but because that person recognizes that adultery is not a good.

      So yes, rules are important and need to be obeyed, but the difference between virtue ethics and deontological ethics is that deontological ethics tend to view rules as an end in themselves, or as goods in themselves, whereas virtue ethics tends to see rules as a means to another higher end, namely a good life. As such, a virtuous person would be equipped to know when rules should be broken, like Valjean.

      I hope this helps. Thanks for reading.

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