A Discussion in Ethics: (October 1886)

CONTRARY to my custom, I showed some verses — before the ink and my affection for them had taken the time to dry — to a critical friend. Now this lady’s mind is so constructed that when you attack it with ever so casual a remark or question you never know what may happen. On this occasion what happened was a discussion in ethics. But I had better give the lines first of all: —


Black the storming ocean, crests that leap and whelm;
Ship a tumbling ruin, stripped of spar and helm.
Now she shudders upward, strangled with a sea;
Then she hangs a moment, and the moon breaks free
On her huddled creatures, waiting but to drown,
As she reels and staggers, ready to go down.
Crash! the glassy mountain whirls her to her grave.
In the foam three struggle; one his love will save.
There’s a plank for two, but, as he lifts her there,
Lo! his rival sinking; eyes that clutch despair.
Only a swift instant left him to decide, —
Shall he drown, and yield the other life and bride?
In the peaceful morning stays a snowy sail.
Two afloat, — one missing. Which one? Did he fail, —
Coward, merely man? Or did the great sea darken eyes
All divinely shining with self-sacrifice?

I waited while she read them. Then I waited while she read them again. Then there was a pause, and I said, ‘Well?’ Then there was more pause, during which the mercury of my estimate of the verses slowly sank. Then I said, humbly, ‘I did think of sending them to The Magazine.’

‘Yes,’ said she, slowly. (The mercury continued to go down.) ‘ But I don’t believe in the ethics of it.’

‘Is that all?’ said I, brightly.

‘Is that all ? ’ said she, darkly.

‘Well, then,’ said I, humbled again, ‘what is wrong with the ethics? Instance me, good shepherd.’

‘In the first place,’ she was good enough to explain, ‘I don’t like this handing a girl around as if she were a transferable piece of property. It is wrong, anti, what is worse, it is sentimental. Because, of course, the one whom, in a fair field, she loves is the one who has a right to her, and how can he give her up without sacrificing her too?’

‘But,’ said I, ‘the fact that she is his bride does not necessarily imply that she loves him best.’

‘Does n’t it!’ interjected she.

‘At least we may suppose that in the case given the woman’s affection or fancy — for it may as yet be only that — is evenly balanced between the two.’

‘Then,’ said she, ‘let his own love for her decide him. That he knows. He cannot know that the other loves her so well.’

‘But,’ still objected I, ‘suppose he is a very common-sense, hard-headed person, and his view of love is that, as a mere sentiment, it amounts to nothing; that the important question is, Whose love is likely to surround her with the most comfortable existence, the best opportunities — in short, the greatest happiness? And suppose he is perfectly aware that he himself is the old, sad, and every way undesirable Doe, while the rival is the young, chipper, and every way desirable Roe.’

‘You talk,’ said she, ‘as if the man himself had no rights, no claims to happiness on his own account.’

‘Oh, but,’ said I, ‘must he not recognize as well the other’s rights and claims, and “love his neighbor as himself”?’

‘But,’ she insisted, ‘not better than himself.’

‘Would you have him, then, make a cool calculation — on a plank at sea! — of the exact relative values of himself and the other man, and adjudge the bride and the life to the most worthy?’

‘I know,’ she replied, ‘that in all the small matters of daily intercourse it is the sweeter and more dignified course to give up, regardless of all question of who has the right, or which is the more worthy. But when it comes to the uttermost, when one’s hold on life or on the thing that alone could make life valuable is at stake, why should not a rational mind look down upon the whole matter as might an unbiased inhabitant of Mars, and give the prize to him who has the most desert?’

‘But,’ said I, ‘could even the most rational mind ever hope to be an unbiased judge of the relative claims of another and himself? And besides, supposing the two men are justly estimated as precisely equal in value, the world would still be the gainer for the first possessor’s giving up the plank. In either case, it would have had a living man; but now it has the man plus the act of self-sacrifice. To save the other man instead of himself is not merely substituting x for x; it substitutes x+y. For my part, I must still hold to the ethics of x+y.’

She let me have the last word, and there we left it.