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"(Kant, 30) Thus, Dorothea's action coincides with the first formulation of the categorical imperative. Had she determined to refuse the request made by Casaubon, the law would have contained a contradiction in itself and thus would have been violated. It is arguable that when asked for help, a person should grant it at the expense of his or her personal comfort. The contrary law could not have any validity since it would deny the existence of kindness and selflessness among people. Dorothea acted selflessly, although she did waver to make this sacrifice simply because she did not feel the actual end of the action would be noble enough. Nevertheless, the immediate end, that of completing her duty to her husband as a fellow human being, is a noble end in itself, and this is why Dorothea chose to fulfill it. Dorothea significantly rejects the circumstance- that of having to perform something which is both toilsome and futile- and makes the morally correct decision of respecting her duty for her husband: "Neither law nor the world's opinion compelled her to this -- only her husband's nature and her own compassion, only the ideal and not the real yoke of marriage."(Eliot, 523) She is thus evidently compelled by an 'ideal' rather than a real, immediate duty.
The second formulation of the categorical imperative sheds new light on Dorothea's decision. According to this beautiful principle thus, everyone should act in a way in which humanity, both in oneself and in the other fellow beings should be treated as an end and not only a means: "Act in such a way that you treat humanity, whether in your own person or in the person of any other, always at the same time as an end and never merely as a means to an end."(Kant, 36) This is to say that a person should not only aim at being humane but at actually cherishing and emphasizing humanity as an abstract and probably the most important quality in a human being. Thus, Dorothea's action is plainly the most acceptable one, since she envisages an ideal principle of marriage and duty towards her husband. She aims not only at treating him kindly, but ultimately her selflessness tokens the absolute respect for her humanity as well as for his. She is unable to hurt him precisely because she knows she would damage his soul: "She saw clearly enough the whole situation, yet she was fettered: she could not smite the stricken soul that entreated hers. If that were weakness, Dorothea was weak."(Eliot, 523) Dorothea's action is thus both humane and aiming at a higher respect for humanity as an abstract virtue in human beings.
Dorothea's decision to make a promise that would save her husband but bind her is thus an instance of selfless and ethical behavior. She reaches the decision by renouncing her own welfare in favor of her husband towards whom she is bound in duty. My own action in a similar situation would be the same as Dorothea's, since one can not purposely trample with another person's wishes or well-being, even if the decision affects the personal comfort in an unpleasant way. Dorothea thus abides by both of Kant's formulations of the categorical imperative. First of all, she acts out of moral idealism, which compels her to sacrifice her own comfort for that of another human being, a situation which surpasses the actual duties imposed on a faithful wife by the social system. Secondly, in deciding to give her promise, Dorothea respects herself as a human being as well as her husband, thus emphasizing the quality of humanity as the crucial virtue.
Thus, it can be concluded that, from an ethical point-of-view, certain action may be necessary despite their apparent futility. The purpose of helping with a work that is not in itself truly useful becomes noble when it saves another human being.
Eliot, George. Middlemarch. New York: Penguin, 1984
Kant, Immanuel. Grounding for the Metaphysics of Morals. Translated by James W. Ellington.…[continue]
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