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The film The Reader by Stephen Daldry is based on the cognominal novel written by Bernhard Schlink. The plot develops around the concept of German guilt present to German society even decades after World War II. After the war and after the fail of the Nazi regime, people started waking up and trying to comprehend what happened during the last years and who was guilty. Hardly any ethical theory would argue that killing millions of people in concentration camps was right. Still, the dilemma is whether it is right to condemn a person who was acting correspondingly to the laws of that period, along with thousands of others.
Plot Summary and the Ethical Dilemma
The protagonist Michael Berg, a fifteen-year-old youth, meets Hanna Schmidt, a significantly older woman who works as a tram conductor. Their relationship quickly becomes close and intimate, but there is a lot of secrecy about Hanna. She reluctantly tells him her name when they meet for the third time and speaks neither of her past nor about any of her relatives or friends. She always asks Michael to read to her, although she never takes a book herself.
One day she disappears out of town, and Michael hears of her only when he is a student at a University in a law department. His group observes trials on the war crimes as a part of one of their law courses, and he sees Hanna among the defendants. She is tried for being a guard at Auschwitz, one of the concentration camps, where she was responsible for picking people for other camps where they were going to die. Along with the other five defendants, she is questioned about the fire in which many of the prisoners were killed.
In the court, Hanna reveals the dilemma which is behind the process, claiming that they all did that. She probably meant herself and other defendants who were working with her as guards. However, we can consider it as the author’s reference to the whole society that allowed such crimes to happen. Hanna clearly demonstrates that she does not understand what wrong she did as her actions were considered legal and normal at that time.
She is surprised and confused by the hypocrisy of the judges and her co-defendants, who act as if they do not remember that period and as if they were not part of that society. For her inability to say “it was not me, someone other did that,” she is convicted of a life sentence.
Although the central dramatic development takes place in court, the scene that represents the author’s ideas occurs in the University class. The professor explains his vision as follows: “Societies think they operate by something called morality, but they don’t. They operate by something called law… The question is never, “Was it wrong?” but “Was it legal?” And not by our laws. By the laws of the time” (The Reader).
This viewpoint diminishes the guilt of individuals who were acting according to law. However, it emphasizes that the fault is probably in the laws, and those who implemented it are guilty. The professor then argues: “On the other hand, I suspect, people who kill other people tend to be aware that it is wrong” (The Reader). This statement means that people have their moral imperative, which does not depend on laws. This idea, in its narrow sense, may relate to the convicts of the trial, but in a broad meaning, it touches everyone who knew what was going on and accepted it as normal.
The Perspective of the Ethical Theories on the Dilemma
Moral dilemmas are situations in decision making between two alternatives, neither of which is unanimously accepted and right. It usually arises in the case of conflict between two rule systems, for example, law and morality, when siding with one imperative results in crossing the other. The dilemma presented in The Reader concerns the choice between social or legal norms and moral regulations. The ethical theories can be roughly divided into those that emphasize formal rules and regulations and those that recognize the existence and meaning of morality, disregarding laws.
The theory of Positive Law implies the supremacy of human-made law on all aspects of life. According to this theory, everything that is legal is right, and no trials of the Nazis who acted according to the laws should happen. It mitigates the guilt of specific individuals who did not create those laws. However, the crimes of World War II are so clamant that they should not be recognized as legal and forgotten. Such situations help to reveal the drawbacks of Positive Law theory, as they prove that laws can be wrong.
On the contrary, Natural Law theory focuses on the imperatives that are universal for the whole of humanity at all times. Formal laws may change under different governments, and it is often difficult to adapt to a new way of thinking imposed from above. Natural Law is the opposition to dictatorship regimes as it grants freedom and human rights to all nations. According to this theory, the crimes that the guards committed are wrong. However, natural law does not account for the influence that propaganda and formal law may have on human morality.
The theory of Social Contract justifies the need for formal regulation rather than natural behavior. The defenders of this theory claim that people must refuse the part of their freedom to the authorities to avoid the chaos of living by natural laws. It is a descriptive theory that focuses on why things happen as they happen. However, it cannot explain why the crimes against humanity discussed in The Reader happened. It does not answer the questions, what responsibility people have after giving up their freedom.
Utilitarian Ethics was employed by the Nazis as the imperative that focuses on consequences for the majority of people, disregarding the methods. They intended to create a better society where everyone would be happy, but they failed to recognize what this happiness should include, and instead of everyone, they imposed the idea of the chosen nation. The crimes against humanity are morally wrong, and they undermine the idea that means of achieving happiness are secondary.
Deontology is contrasted to the Utilitarian principles as it claims that actions are meaningful, not only the consequences. It implies that people should perform their universal duties to others. According to this theory, Hanna’s actions were wrong, as neither consequences nor laws can justify murder. However, her guilt should be shared with everyone who adhered to the rules of that time and especially those who were responsible for creating such rules.
Moral Relativism relies on the absence of objective truth, stating that morality is relevant to the norms of one culture. Still, when those norms change so rapidly as in the case with Germany after World War II, morals and one generation have to judge the previous one according to the new laws, ethical conflicts arise. People may ask whether Hanna was right according to the laws of her time. The answer will be “yes,” but the problem is that she has to live in another time when all moral norms have changed. That is why Relativism cannot explain the rapid changes in morality. Nihilism is often related to Relativism, as it also argues against objective moral values. However, when Relativism recognizes ethical regulations as subjective to cultures, nihilism goes further, denying that any action can be morally right or wrong.
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The emphasis of Virtue Ethics is on the significance of character for morality. It does not prescribe what a person should do; instead, it focuses on what type of person one should be. The defenders of Virtue Ethics argue that a good and moral person is typically inclined to do good and moral things. The sense of virtue was distorted for Hanna from The Reader as she followed the laws of that time. Still, she expressed her vision of good by pitying some prisoners. The problem is that her virtue was limited by the frame of norms of behavior typical to Nazism.
Egoism is a descriptive ethical principle that explains the motivation for human actions as self-beneficial. What Hanna did during World War II was motivated by her desire not to be punished by the authority. If she could predict the fail of Nazism and the reform of morality, she would probably acct differently, following egoistic motivation. The defenders of Altruism, on the contrary, may judge Hanna for the absence of selflessness. According to this theory, her actions are wrong, as they brought harm to other individuals.
Discussion and Solution
The ethical dilemma raised in The Reader concerns the conflict between formal regulations and moral imperatives. In a narrow context, the theme question of the film appears as follows: “Should a single person be convicted for the actions that were not criminal at the time of execution?” The legal point of view clearly answers this question with the negation. However, the crimes of the Nazism regime created a legal precedent as humanity refused to recognize killing millions of people as a legitimate and normal action.
The trials that followed after World War II undermined such ethical theories as relativism and positive law, addressing universal moral rules. Turning back to Hanna, it is necessary to note that she should be held responsible for her actions. However, she should not be tried alone, but along with the thousands who worked for SS. It is her victim that “happened to write a book about the concentration camps” (The Reader). Still, it does not mean that her guilt is more significant than the others.
By interpreting the ethical dilemma of the film in a broad context, it can be defined as the relation between morality and formalized norms. Such theories as Positive Law or Social Contract turned out to be insufficient to regulate or explain all the aspects of social life. Crimes against humanity cannot be justified by a theory of Relativism. The dilemma of the film proves that people need a strong universal moral imperative at the foundation of their beliefs and actions that would not shake under the change of laws. Still, actual historical events demonstrate that any theory can be imposed perversely to fit a particular ideology.
That is why the most suitable solution is to grant moral freedom to people and detach morality from authority. In other words, politics and legislature should not employ any ideology and avoid imposing any moral beliefs on individuals.
The Reader. Directed by Stephen Daldry, performances by Kate Winslet, Ralph Fiennes, David Kross, Lena Olin, and Bruno Ganz, The Weinstein Company, 2008.