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.

Originally posted 2017-08-20 12:30:04.

28 thoughts on “Being Moral

  1. Amy

    There is so much in here that it may take me several separate comments to respond. One thing that strikes me is the question of how “normal” (a term we’ve discussed a lot) interplays with moral. In this post you mention that “normal deviates from average” in the direction of what is moral and that there is a normal yearning to be good, a normal human instinct for kindness.” That seems to conflate normal and moral in some ways, and I wonder if that is true. I like to think that human beings are inherently good and that it takes circumstances (abuse, poverty, mental illness, suffering, parental teaching, teasing, bullying, societal constructs like racism) to turn an inherently good baby into an evil human being. So I do look at white supremacists, Nazis, racists, sexual abusers, and murderers as both evil and abnormal. So normal does seem to mean moral as well.

    But then we also say that many people who deviate from normal are not immoral—in DM alone we have people like Stewart, Penhale, Mrs T, lots of the patients, and even Martin himself who are not “normal” but also are not immoral. So I don’t think we should collapse normal and moral into the same concept.

    I want to think about more of the questions you have raised. And I want to think about what “moral” means to me. I agree with your description of what Louisa meant when she said Martin was moral, even though she would agree that some of his behavior isn’t very nice. Is rudeness immoral? Is failing to disclose the truth always immoral (the pregnancy, for example)? I don’t think so. Rudeness is not nice, but I don’t think it’s immoral. Lying or failing to disclose can sometimes be the moral thing to do—to avoid hurting someone or to avoid revealing someone else’s secret. I think moral is a narrower concept than not nice and a broader concept than truthfulness. But what does define it?

    Religious traditions try to define and impose a view of morality. But even within those traditions, there are variations and contradictions. It is certainly immoral to kill someone (in almost all circumstances) or to commit adultery (in almost all circumstances). But is it immoral to eat pork if you’re Jewish or Muslim? Is it immoral to work on Sunday if your Christian?

    More once I’ve chewed on this all a bit more.

  2. Kathy

    At the risk of sounding simplistic, using Louisa’s S2,E8 words, Martin is straightforward, ie. he is “gruff, monosyllabic and rude”. He says what he thinks and doesn’t try to dissemble or varnish the truth. With respect to being moral, he is “well-meaning”, and “Doc Martin through and through”. He has no guile, no pretensions and he tries to do what he sees as the “right thing”, especially with respect to his medical calling. He follows his own moral code, even when it means dispensing breath mints as figure enhancing tablets.
    I hadn’t really thought directly about Martin’s personal moral code and how it resembles, or doesn’t that of society in general, but I have been drafting an new piece of fan fiction in which, among other ideas, I have been exploring Margaret Ellingham’s personal moral code, if she could be said to have one, and how it deviates from the “norm”. There’s that normal word again.
    This posting, as with all your postings, give us much food for thought. Thanks

  3. Post author

    I am anxious to read any other thoughts you have. I don’t necessarily think being rude is always immoral; I do wonder if as a doctor you have a moral responsibility to treat patients with respect, however.

  4. Post author

    Thanks so much for writing and for your kind words, Kathy. How coincidental that you are looking at Margaret’s morality. She really doesn’t have much evidence of any sense of morality to me. There are many characters in the show who exhibit moral ambiguity, but she’s almost entirely bereft of morals.

  5. Amy

    Your response triggered another reaction I had to your post—what is the difference between being ethical and being moral? Are rules of ethics based on morality? Or is there a difference between the two? Professionals have codes of ethics, and I suppose moral principles lie beneath much of those codes. But aren’t they also codes of professionalism that may have nothing to do with morality? As a lawyer I am supposed to avoid conflicts of interest when representing a client, but I’ve always thought of that as a way of preventing inadequate representation and appearing impartial, not necessarily as a question of morality. If a doctor is supposed to treat patients with respect, is that part of their professional ethics? And if so, is that the same thing as saying that being disrespectful is immoral?

    There are lots of things that lawyers do that are part of their professional code that might not even seem moral in another context—like representing a client whose views you find abhorrent or arguing on procedural grounds that someone should not be convicted when you know on substantive grounds that they should be. Does that make the lawyer immoral but yet ethical?

    So as with normal and moral, I see a difference between ethical and moral at least in the professional context.

  6. Amy

    Margaret is certainly cruel in her treatment of Martin. And she was a shoplifter as a teen so even then she had some questionable morals. Would we feel differently about her if we knew she was a victim of abuse herself, an unwanted and unloved child who married a man who was a womanizer and never loved her? Was she abusive to Martin as a child because it was the only parenting she ever knew? And does any of that mean that her treatment of him is not immoral? Does it excuse it in any way?

    I detest Margaret because I love Martin and hate seeing him hurt. But we’ve only seen one side of her story. And we will probably never see the other side. But as with our first impressions of some of the characters in DM and on other shows, sometimes we start out finding a character unlikeable, even evil, and then learn there’s more to the story and actually feel empathy for that character—-like Mr. Moisey who lived next to Ruth or Mrs. Winton and her son who kidnapped Martin or the crotchety man in the caravan who almost shot Martin during their “honeymoon.” Or the son who was stealing Joan’s hubcaps. I think DM does a good job of showing that human beings are complex; we all have the capacity for good and unfortunately for bad.

    I guess I just keep returning to the question of who and what determines if certain behavior is moral. Maybe it’s like Justice Stewart said about obscenity—we know it when we see it.

  7. Amy

    One more comment, and then I will shut up! Lest you think otherwise, I do not think most things are morally ambiguous. Without getting into politics too much, though your post invites it, I find it immoral to fail to condemn those who promote racist and anti-Semitic messages and violence. I find it immoral for a corporate board or office to place profits over human health and safety. I find it immoral for a leader elected to represent the country to place personal gain and power over the needs of those he was elected to lead.

    But moving away from those extremes to questions of rudeness or truthfulness, I think much depends on the circumstances. I don’t like Martin’s rudeness—it makes me uncomfortable (and I almost never laugh at it either), but I don’t find it immoral. I find it rude. I suppose that if I thought anyone’s feelings were really hurt by his behavior, I might feel differently. But it’s a tv show, the targets of his rudeness just think he’s rude, and no one really gets hurt. In real life—I would probably find someone who intentionally insults people to hurt their feelings if not immoral or evil certainly intolerable and their behavior inexcusable.

  8. Post author

    You bring up some important questions and such questions about morality have been the study of many philosophers. I don’t know if I have the answers; I can only agree that these are questions that need to be asked. I have the sense that doctors are advised about proper interactions with patients and ethical conduct. Of course, that doesn’t mean they all follow it! Where we stand on how to handle patient care is very much what Larry Churchill and others are concerned about, especially when it comes to end-of-life circumstances. His position is that doctors have a moral duty to talk to patients and their families with a particular emphasis on empathy and the suffering of the patient. There is a moral component to how professionals deal with their jobs, I think.

    Moral norms and other forms of “normal” behavior is also a subject of much deep thought. My post was an attempt at throwing these ideas out there and suggesting that they should be included in our discussions.

  9. Amy

    There is definitely a moral component to being a professional—whether one is a lawyer or doctor or an accountant or engineer or architect. People are relying on your supposed expertise to give a standard of care expected of someone with that training, and if you fail to do that intentionally, if you do something to endanger people or harm them intentionally, then I think that’s immoral. But I am not sure that being polite or even respectful of your clients is required in order to be “moral.” So if Martin purposely did something to harm a patient within the scope of his medical responsibilities, I think that would be immoral. But calling them idiots? That just seems rude and unprofessional, but perhaps not even unethical, and certainly not immoral (especially if he’s telling the truth!).

    I think the harder question is raised by the episode when he gives the teenage girl a placebo so that she thinks she will develop breasts or when he gives Stewart a placebo for his Anthony issues. Is that ethical for a doctor to do? It would seem moral in some ways—he is helping them both feel better, he only means to do good, but he is lying to them. It’s almost shocking that Martin does this both times, and I believe the writers want us to see his behavior as humane—as good and moral—not as unethical or immoral. Yet it is dishonest. So there’s an ironic twist there: lying in this circumstance may be unprofessional, maybe even unethical, but we are supposed to see it as revealing Martin’s compassionate and good instincts.

    I can’t answer the underlying questions and will leave that to the philosophers, but as someone who strives to live a moral life, I do find the question of what is moral a troubling and difficult one.

  10. Post author

    Amy, I just don’t see how any background information about Margaret could change the fact that she acts immorally at several points. As compared to the characters you mention, Margaret has no redeeming qualities. As you say, she shoplifted as a younger person and she apparently never regretted that. Furthermore, she steals from Martin as she’s leaving. And that’s among other things like telling him she never wanted him, not telling him about his father’s death, lying to him about his father saying he always loved him, etc., etc. They give us nothing to convince us that she might have any compassion or empathy in her.

    If we psychoanalyze every criminal and every abusive person, there is a possibility that we could find something that led to that behavior, but then we get into rationalizing every act. I’m not prepared to give an abuser a pass simply because we can unearth some source for his/her behavior. We can do our best to understand and treat that abuser, but they are still acting unethically and should be held to account for that.

    This whole subject of how we can determine what is moral and what is not has theories galore. Some say we are born with a concept of morality and others say it needs to be learned. I guess we do know it when we see it if we have some sort of sensitivity towards others.

  11. Amy

    One of my dearest friends spent most of her career as a prosecutor, trying cases against rapists, murderers, drug dealers and gang bangers. Whenever I would say about someone who committed a horrible crime that they must be “sick,” she would scold me, saying that we shouldn’t make excuses for those who do evil things. And I agree—people must take responsibility for the actions and pay some price for the harms they inflict.

    And yet we have an insanity defense, and we make allowances for people who are acting out of passion versus a premeditated act. Criminal law does allow circumstances to be taken into consideration when we determine punishment and culpability. How do we decide whether someone is evil and deserves no compassion as opposed to treating someone as ill in some way and thus deserving more understanding?

    The writers have made Margaret a terrible person; I wasn’t defending her. All I was saying is that perhaps we would think of her differently if the writers had given her a backstory that explained how and why she became a terrible person. After all, we forgive Martin many of his quirks because of his upbringing. Of course, he’s not evil like Margaret, but it’s all a question of line drawing, isn’t it? Is Eleanor also evil because she abandoned Louisa? Is the annoying psychotic sidekick of Louisa’s father evil when he holds them hostage or is he just sick? How do we draw these lines?

  12. Joan Yow

    Hi Karen, thanks for this post. I like these discussions because intelligent thoughts help me justify my obsession with Doc Martin besides finding Martin and Phillipa as having very attractive personalities. I think trying to differentiate morality, ethics, rudeness, not niceness and illness is more complicated than this discussion suggests so far. Each can do harm but without knowing the circumstances it’s difficult to determine which is worse. Grenfell Tower is clearly immoral but also unethical, not nice and possibly influenced by someone with a mental illness. The Doc’s rudeness to his patients is definitely unethical and sometimes immoral like when he told the man who wasn’t listening to his instructions “or you can just die”Funny but also horrifying. His use of placebos were unethical in my opinion but not immoral since the outcomes were positive and demonstrated his compassion and cleverness. Margaret was immoral, possibly ill and definitely rude in the way she dealt with everyone, and cruel to her son. It’s important to sort through the behaviors to understand what’s going on and how to respond.

  13. Post author

    Joan, I agree entirely that each character and each action should be seen on its own. It’s interesting to see how you differentiate between immoral acts and unethical ones. Or in some cases you consider them both. Your breakdown of each example indicates that you think there is a certain compilation of ethical behavior but that morals are more subjective. I’m sure you would find some proponents of that view. Thank you for your thoughts.

  14. Santa Traugott

    As usual, I am overthinking things, but I do find that how I define morality becomes slippier the more I ponder it.

    I’ts somewhat easier for me to pin down what Louisa is thinking when she describes Martin as “moral.” In my opinion, she is saying that he has a definite code of right behavior. the contents of which she largely shares, and he makes every effort to live up to that code. One might say, in some circles, that he has a very strong “super-ego.”

    It’s instructive to compare him with Bert, who is his exact opposite on many dimensions. Bert is the artful dodger, but with a heart. He’s given to cutting corners and to behavior which is, at the least, sketchy (think of the biofuel he inflicted on the cab driver in S4E8, or bottling water to sell without testing it). I couldn’t describe Bert as “moral.” But he is also the character who, early on, convinces Martin to stay, by being attuned to the needs of his Portwenn neighbors and representing them to Martin.

    Margaret has no redeeming characteristics. She has no heart. That, in the Doc Martin world, is the ultimate and unforgivable offense against morality. Or sin, if you will.

    Martin is redeemable, because, beneath his rigid exterior and abrasive manner, is real humanity, which, although buried (repressed) does break through sometimes in real compassion for some of his patients. and of course, in love for his wife and son and aunts.

    I guess my only conclusion is that the series, Doc Martin, has a moral posture, in the sense that there is a definite point of view about how people ought to strive to behave toward each other: that justice ought to be tempered with mercy (think of Louisa persuading Martin to not turn Peter Kronk in for his dishonesty re drugs for his mother), and that compassion can occasionally trump codes of ethics, that everyone has moral lapses (arguably, Martin not telling Louisa of his plan to move to London) but that as long as there is some basic level of humanity to others, they’re OK.

    I am interested in how morality arises. I do think that, since we are a social species, that it has always been necessary to evolve some rules for how we behave toward each other in groups, so that our group can prosper, and defend itself against enemies (sadly, other groups). Since it is to our evolutionary advantage to develop these rules, I think that we are probably born with the capacity to develop a moral sense.

  15. Post author

    Thanks for your insights. It’s fascinating that we can all agree that Martin is portrayed as having a strong moral code, which can mean he follows the norms for moral behavior, yet he falls outside many norms in general. In addition, his parents were not very instrumental in fostering that code so we can wonder how he came by it.

    We agree about Margaret, and again I find it striking that her unforgivable “sin” is her lack of heart. I think Larry Churchill, and most bioethicists, would identify that as a lack of beneficence. We adhere to that principle because of our preference for being accepted into a social group. As you say, Martin exhibits that quality. Your paragraph about the series having a moral posture also relates to bioethics in that you suggest that people have autonomy (which is a critical precept of bioethics), and that they strive to demonstrate a sense of justice (another principle tenet of bioethics). I would love to know if that part of the show was ever discussed.

    I am still curious about whether we are born with goodness as a fundamental trait or whether we learn that through the examples around us, or unlearn it. You say we are born with the capacity. Does that mean you are on the side of morality being a trait that needs developing by social influences, especially parents? If so, is Martin an exception, or was Joan enough of a good influence to counteract the damage his parents did? (I want to qualify this question with keeping in mind that although we are talking about fictional characters, some of this discussion is pertinent to people in general.)

  16. Amy

    I also think the origins of morality is a fascinating question. There must be studies of young children that focus on that question. We’ve all seen toddlers attack other toddlers and also seen them express compassion and empathy for another person. I think we are all born with both the capacity to be good and the capacity to be evil, and as we grow, our parents, peers, teachers, and society itself shape us and determine whether we control the evil impulses and develop our good impulses. I can remember being told as a very young child which behaviors were good and which were bad by my parents, and since I wanted to please them, I tried to be good and not bad.

    I would imagine that most children who are raised the way Martin was would end up in some ways confused about good versus bad. But I am sure there are studies that show that not all abused children end up as abusive adults or mentally ill or socially inept. And certainly not every criminal grew up with bad parents. So who knows….

  17. Amy

    I am pondering Santa’s description of Bert. It is true that Bert cuts corners and is a bit of a screw-up, but does he ever intend harm? Isn’t he just careless and stupid about the water and the biofuel? I don’t think of his conduct or of him as immoral. He’s loving, cares deeply about his son and about Louisa, and tries hard to be a good person. He’s kicked around a lot by people and circumstances, but always come back, going with the flow, still being an optimist, as Al says. I think he has a moral code—but he’s just not a very smart or careful businessperson.

    I agree that the show does have a moral point of view—that people should be kind, compassionate, forgiving, and loving. And that in truth almost all of the characters are moral in that sense. Except Martin and Christopher. And maybe Edith!

  18. Post author

    Small correction…I think you mean Margaret and Christopher. I would also include Edith. She had only herself in mind and was devious and deceptive, not to mention unprofessional and willing to operate without thorough examination.

    Edith and Margaret are two women who reveal the basest of human instincts. They were included as obstacles and foils, IMO.

  19. Amy

    But maybe Martin was a Freudian slip? After all some would say he is not kind or compassionate. I would disagree, but then we are supposed to empathize and love the guy despite his flaws.

  20. Santa Traugott

    I think it is possible to have compassion for Margaret, the small child. Margaret as we see her — no. At least, not for me.

    On Bert: I agree that he is not actively ill-intentioned toward anyone. But So, can he really be said to be “immoral” if he’s just careless and dumb about his various projects? I have to think that his “cutting corners” (i.e., serving roadkill in his restaurant, which he has to know is against the law) is wrong because it ignores the risk of doing harm to others, just because it is easier, or more convenient, or more profitable to do so. But there I am, sounding moralistic, which generally I deplore.

    There is in fact a wealth of literature on how children develop a moral sense, starting with Jean Piaget. It is true that development of a moral sense can be stunted, but that does not say that there was never the capacity to develop it, in the first place. Of course, the content of that moral code can differ greatly over time and across social groups/societies. . .

  21. Amy

    Yes, Piaget—of course. I never studied child psychology, but am familiar with his name and somewhat with his work. What did his conclude? Are we born to be good and taught to be bad? Or are we born to be bad and taught to be good? Or is it all just something that develops based on our upbringing?

    As for Bert, I think that we can say that all of the characters (and all of us) have at some time or another done something that some would consider immoral—Louisa gets pregnant out of wedlock, she is sometimes harsh and rude; Mrs T covets another man while married, she takes drugs without a prescription; Joan commits adultery; Pauline gambles; Penhale takes advantage of a woman who is suffering from amnesia; Martin is rude and insensitive, gives patients placebos, and never apologizes; and so on. Overall, I think the program shows us that all of us have the capacity for doing things that others might consider immoral. But are any of them bad people? I don’t think so. And we all might draw different lines as to what we consider immoral—getting pregnant out of wedlock doesn’t make many blink an eye today but adultery and stealing and lying still do.

    Margaret is certainly made the most villainous of the many characters, and we never see remorse or regret from her. Edith has also few redeeming qualities—she’s manipulative, she violates professional ethics with Louisa, she is selfish, and she isn’t a very competent doctor. We feel no sympathy for her when Martin casts her aside.

    But Christopher is probably just as evil a person—he was abusive to Martin, he was an adulterer, he lied, he tried to cheat his own sister—but somehow we don’t hate him as much. Because he is charming? Because he is male and we expect him to be a “bad boy”? Is that also why we don’t find Bert despicable—because he’s also just being a “guy”? Is there some sexism in how the writers depict the characters? Or is it our (maybe just my) perception of them?

  22. Santa Traugott

    See, I don’t necessarily consider any of them “bad” people — just flawed to various degrees, some more so than others. Surely on most scales, one would place Bert some distance from Louisa? But maybe that’s just me, I have never liked the character.

    The parent Christopher — I don’t give him any kind of a pass, whether he’s masculine or not or for any other reason.

    The question about Piaget is interesting and I am rapidly out of my depth. I think what is developed is a capacity to think abstractly and reason about moral topics, such as what is right or wrong. I think the trend is toward developing more empathy for others, but I could well be wrong about that.

  23. Amy

    I think we are saying the same thing, Santa—they are all flawed, and we are all flawed to various degrees. I wasn’t equating Louisa with Bert with anyone else. Just saying we all have done things that might in the eyes of some people be considered immoral. I find Bert annoying, but not bad—he is in many ways the epitome of the Portwenn character—a bit eccentric, somewhat of a scoundrel, but big hearted. He knows and cares about everyone in the village.

    And certainly I agree that Christopher doesn’t deserve a pass—but from what I’ve read of comments here and in other places, he does not spark the same animosity as Margaret or Edith. People hate those two women but barely mention Christopher.

    As for Piaget—if I understand what you said, he believes we develop a moral code as we grow, but are not necessarily born to be good. Is that right?

  24. Santa Traugott

    I think I am out of my depth on Piaget. I am tempted to say, “define ‘good'”. I think that he (and Kohlberg) are talking about the capacity for moral reasoning, i.e., the ability to decide whether something is right or wrong. I would like to say that people, whose development is not stunted for some reason, develop an ability to put themselves in other’s shoes, and to sometimes behave altruistically. It might be a topic worth digging further into.

  25. Amy

    Thanks, Santa. It’s certainly way out of my depth! But I find the topic fascinating, and I am so glad that Karen brought this up. Thanks, Karen!

  26. Kathy

    I have to comment on fan reaction to Christopher versus Margaret. One of the reason most fans find Margaret so despicable is because of the hateful words she said to Martin, how her life was ruined because of him. Christopher criticizes Martin for many reasons, but he never actually accused him of ruining his life – true we know he beat Martin with a table tennis bat or with his belt – perhaps punishment common to Martin’s peers. But his mum locked him in the dark in a closet under the stairs … and then she told him how much she wished he had never been born and how she tried to keep him out of her life by sending him to school … and she said these words in an almost mocking tone, showing absolutely no remorse. No wonder we all hate her.

  27. Amy

    I think that that was in part my point, Kathy. Christoper did horrible things to Martin also—he physically abused him, he terrorized him (remember the butterfly dream?), he demeans him as a doctor (belittling his decision to be a GP), and he puts down his ability to attract women (at the pub). He uses him to get information to use against Joan, and then he leaves him hanging when Joan accuses Martin of betraying her. He did many terrible things to Martin, not only when Martin was a child, but during that visit.

    And yet people don’t hate him. I hate Margaret—no question. But I think Christopher is just as awful as Margaret. Perhaps the real difference is that for some reason, we see that Martin still cared about his mother and her feelings. We see how she hurts him; we only see contempt in Martin’s eyes when his father insults him. So maybe it’s the way the actors played it out or the way the writers did. Maybe the writers for some reason decided to make Margaret the real villain and let Christopher off the hook.

    (I sometimes wonder if he really died—we never saw a body, we never saw a funeral, and Margaret is a pathological liar. Maybe Christopher will return at some point to haunt Martin.)

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