Thursday, April 19, 2012

Ethics on the Titanic

Last week I finally watched TITANIC, which one of our sons had urged me off and on to watch. It truly is a gripping movie, despite being over three hours long!

The conclusion seems to me to pose an ethical dilemma.

Of course, the story contains many moments of ethical crisis. The ship's officer who shoots men to stop them from forcing their way onto a lifeboat ahead of women and children. The ship's builders who, for either financial or aesthetic reasons, didn't include enough lifeboats in the first place. Rose's horrid fiance, who tricks the crew into letting him onto a boat by picking up a random little girl and implying he's her father. He acted from selfish motives and took a place someone else could have occupied, yet the child might have died if he hadn't gotten her on the boat in the course of saving his own life.

I'm mainly thinking, though, of the choice Rose makes after her rescue. I don't dispute that she would have been justified in breaking her engagement to the rich, selfish bully, whom she was supposed to marry just to save her mother and herself from financial ruin. Her mother could have sold the family property to pay off her late husband's debts, and Rose could have found honest work to support them. Her mother would have just had to get used to living in reduced circumstances. However, is Rose justified in assuming a new identity and leaving her mother to mourn her as dead for all the years to come? Not to mention that her mother's attitude toward financial security suggests that, without either Rose's support or the wealthy lifestyle they're accustomed to, the mother would probably be helpless. The audience is clearly expected to applaud Rose's choice of a clean break with her old life, but can it be argued that her decision is selfish? How far does an individual's "right to happiness" extend (using a problematic phrase C. S. Lewis discusses in one of his late essays, "We Have No Right to Happiness")?

Margaret L. Carter
Carter's Crypt

1 comment:

  1. I haven't seen this movie, and doubt I ever will, if I haven't yet - I didn't get caught up in the supposed romance and hype of the film and, frankly, knowing that in reality there were poor folk who died that the rich might live turns my stomach.

    BUT ANYWAY - to speak to the question you raise in your post: if Rose's life (or another's life) had been in actual peril, then making a clean break might be justified. It seems, from the way you've described things, though, that her actions were ultimately cowardly and yes, definitely selfish. Much harder to be truthful and disappoint people, of course. But ultimately, that's part of growing up, isn't it? Learning to stand up for yourself, in a way that's respectful but firm. As a mother, I can't applaud any child who'd trick her family in such a horrible way. As a mother, you may or may not forgive, but I think, at least, you're owed the truth.

    Some Dark Romantic