Monthly Archives: August 2017

Being Moral

This blog has basically been languishing for a couple of months because there has been very little to write about while filming for S8 was underway. During the previous two year lull between series we managed to find some intriguing topics to write about that were, even if tangentially, related to the show. We covered many of the psychological and the narrative elements brought up by the characters and situations depicted.

My most recent posts have been about laughter and civility and then about why this show should be categorized as a comedy. My argument providing evidence that it’s a comedy contributes to this post. I am very troubled by many things going on in our country and the world these days, and I thought I could express my concerns about another major area that is of great consequence to me — morality.

Students of Shakespeare often come across studies of his comedies by Northrup Frye. Northrop Frye was a Canadian literary critic and theorist whose work is so well known in literary circles, that I can’t believe I haven’t mentioned him before. His lasting reputation rests principally on the theory of literary criticism that he developed in Anatomy of Criticism (1957), one of the most important works of literary theory published in the twentieth century. One of the areas that Frye addresses in his work is how comedy treats morality, and I want to mention a bit of his critical analysis here. Among some of his remarks we can find his view that a Shakespearean comedy tends to end with either a marriage or a festival that brings about a “social integration [that] may be called, first, a kind of moral norm and, second, the pattern of a free society. We can see this more clearly if we look at the sort of characters who impede the progress of the comedy toward the hero’s victory. These are always people who are in some kind of mental bondage, who are helplessly driven by ruling passions, neurotic compulsions, social rituals, and selfishness. The miser, the hypochondriac, the hypocrite, the pedant, the snob: these are humors, people who do not fully know what they are doing, who are slaves to a predictable self-imposed pattern of behavior. What we call the moral norm is, then, not morality but deliverance from moral bondage. Comedy is designed not to condemn evil, but to ridicule a lack of self-knowledge.”

As a comedy, Doc Martin fits rather nicely into Frye’s description. We have the variety of characters who are there to frustrate the reconciliation between Martin and Louisa and who follow a stereotypical behavior pattern. They are included, I would argue, as examples of people who lack self-knowledge. To a great extent I would include both Martin and Louisa in this category. We consider these characters comical because of their lack of self-knowledge, not because their behavior has moral lapses.

The subject of morality comes up directly in the show in the last episode of S3 when Isobel asks Louisa what her fiancé is like and Louisa replies “He’s straightforward, he’s moral, he’s…Martin.” What does Louisa mean when she says he’s moral (based on what we know from the show)? Here are some of my thoughts: Louisa believes she can trust him (and Martin asks her to trust him throughout this episode); he’s someone who wouldn’t cheat on her, which she would find important because she needs that sense of security and loyalty; she would probably be looking for a man who she thinks will never break the law (like her father has); she would want someone who is reliable, a man of his word (as opposed to her mother); and a man who is thoughtful and treats people without prejudice (I surmise this based on her own sensitivities toward others). Being straightforward could refer to his tendency to speak his mind without softening the message. Even when Martin asks Louisa to marry him, he states his feelings openly and unguardedly. And yet we know that often his unfiltered comments have shocked Louisa, and even hurt her feelings.

Morality refers to norms about right and wrong human conduct that are so widely shared that they form a stable (although usually incomplete) social consensus. Since Martin Ellingham is a doctor, I thought it appropriate to include the manner in which medical matters interact with morality and ethics. Larry Churchill, Stahlman Professor of Medical Ethics, Vanderbilt University who specializes in medical ethics and bioethics, has written about moral quandaries as they relate specifically to medical circumstances. Churchill reminds readers that “we are the species who says ‘ought’.” “Ethical problem-solving usually involves critical, applied analysis of…rules and principles, as well as reflective thinking, remembering and imagining.” There is a certain amount of difficulty in arriving at a single all-encompassing concept of ethical theories, according to Churchill. Each theory has “a useful, but limited, range of application.” Nevertheless, Suffering and empathy are central to the moral life of medicine.

A recent article in the journal “Cognition” also argues that people’s conception of the normal deviates from the average in the direction of what they think ought to be so. When thought about with this in mind we can identify some moral quandaries in DM: Ought Louisa have changed her mind and decided so late not to marry Martin? Ought she have told Martin about the baby? Ought Martin have told Louisa about leaving for London? Ought Louisa have mentioned how her father left Portwenn in disgrace? When it comes to the doctor-patient relationship, Martin likes to assert the confidentiality of the patient; however, there are times when keeping that position introduces a moral quandary. Ought Martin have told Aunt Joan about John Slater’s medical condition? Ought Martin have allowed Louisa to be seen by his old flame Edith? Ought he have suggested that he could take care of Louisa during her pregnancy? Ought he have called his patients by so many derogatory names in public?

An example of a norm would be restraining oneself from making any personal comments out loud. Conventional etiquette instructs that “if you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all.” For me this means that there is no profit in public derogatory comments about someone’s appearance, intelligence, or habits. If we want to be critical of something (or someone), comment on its (or his/her) importance and essential assets and deficits in a nonspecific manner.

But since this is a show that infringes on norms, we also see a mishmash of behavior that muddles morality and norms. Is he moral at times and immoral at other times? Can a doctor be considered moral even when he doesn’t follow norms of behavior? Much has been written about the ethics of power between doctors and patients. To a great extent, this show takes it for granted that because it’s meant to be funny, Martin’s abrupt and rude behavior towards his patients should not involve whether his imposing posture, tone of voice, and superior education makes his approach immoral (or amoral). Nevertheless, there are times when he crosses that boundary. Luckily, there are also times when he softens his tone and we see enough of his compassion to consider him morally upstanding. It seems likely they realized that despite the fun it was to have him bark at patients and call them idiots, if they included too much of that, they would cross that line and those scenes would no longer be funny.

The same authors of the above article also assert: “You are certainly capable of distinguishing carefully between what is typical and what is good. You are able to understand that something occurs frequently without also thinking that it is morally acceptable, or that something occurs infrequently without thinking that it is weird or deviant.” So we might arrive at the conclusion that we have some compunctions about Martin’s treatment of his patients without allowing those reservations to reach the level of serious impropriety for a doctor. (I must say that more and more I am struggling with whether I can laugh at this part of his persona. It’s all meant as innocent mockery, but lately such banter by people in power has taken on a malevolent tone that makes me recoil. I know the show is distinct from reality; nevertheless, too much of shows like that and, it seems to me, repugnant personal behavior becomes normalized.)

To many morality means what is proper behavior as opposed to what is improper conduct. Even that sort of designation has its problems. The terms morals and principles may seem distinct from each other to some and quite interchangeable to others. Some use these words together, as in moral principles. What seems most important is that we agree that there are guidelines for behavior that have developed over time and that we all acknowledge as morally acceptable and of high principle.

You may find this hard to believe, but the initial instigation for this post was the Grenfell Tower fire in London on June 14th. Here was a case of the owners of the building making what I would consider an immoral decision to clad the exterior in less expensive but attractive flammable material. They may have believed that a fire was highly unlikely and that it was important to improve the appearance of the building. Nevertheless, like so many other businesses lately (e.g. Volkswagen, Takata, BP, and others), they chose to save money over lives. (We shouldn’t be smug about this sort of thing because we have some of the same immoral behavior in the US. Just recently there was a fire in a building in Honolulu that had no sprinkler system. That prompted a call for mandates for all high rises to have sprinkler systems. Apparently many cities across this country do not require them.)

Then I started thinking about other things going on in this country and became aware that there are many people writing about the question of moral behavior these days. If morality is important to us, then why are we currently struggling so much to find our moral compass?

Ethics, too, are dependent on codes of conduct specific to a certain place. Are we now experiencing, as David Brooks has argued, a lot of dying old orders — demographic, political, even moral? Brooks continues: “As Joseph Bottum wrote in ‘An Anxious Age,’ mainline Protestants created a kind of unifying culture that bound people of different political views. You could be Catholic, Jewish, Muslim or atheist, but still you were influenced by certain mainline ideas — the Protestant work ethic, the WASP definition of a gentleman…Over the last several decades mainline Protestantism has withered. The country became more diverse. The WASPs lost their perch atop society. The mainline denominations lost their vitality…the country divided into at least three blocks: white evangelical Protestantism that at least in its public face seems to care more about eros than caritas; secular progressivism that is spiritually formed by feminism, environmentalism and the quest for individual rights; and realist nationalism that gets its manners from reality TV and its spiritual succor from in-group/out-group solidarity…But where are people going to go for a new standard of decency? They’re not going to go back to the old WASP ideal. That’s dead…but who is going to fill it and with what?”

Bioethicist Larry Churchill has written: “Ethics, understood as the capacity to think critically about moral values and direct our actions in terms of such values, is a generic human capacity.” I hope so.

An article in the NYT on 7/9/2017 referred to “why certain morally charged content goes ‘viral.’ The main reason to mention this article is that they note that “a moral emotion is something like hate or hope — an emotion that features normative judgment and affective mood. In contrast, a non-moral emotion is something like fear or love, and a non-emotional moral concept is something like ‘injustice’ or ‘fairness.'” I interpret this to mean that they surmise that moral concepts can be either emotional or non-emotional, ergo they are either based on how they affect someone subjectively or on how they are a disinterested summation based on accepted norms. Another op/ed article, this time from 7/14, explains: “I don’t think moral obliviousness is built in a day. It takes generations to hammer ethical considerations out of a person’s mind and to replace them entirely with the ruthless logic of winning and losing; to take the normal human yearning to be good and replace it with a single-minded desire for material conquest; to take the normal human instinct for kindness and replace it with a law-of-the-jungle mentality.”

When it comes to Grenfell, an article in the NYT written by Henry Wismayer wonders if “it remains too early to say whether this ambient regret will translate into a greater popular will to forestall the city’s course. But if there was ever an indelible image to wake a city from its coma, it’s there staring down at you when you get off the Tube at Latimer Road station — the tower of the unwanted, London’s shame.” Not every moral dilemma has as evident and abhorrent a reminder as Grenfell tower.