John Le Carre's classic spy novel, The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, is set in 1963 at the height of the Cold War. The novel's protagonist, Alec Leamas, is a seasoned and distinguished British agent who has come to have significant and important reservations about the morality of his job after he loses an agent in the field. Due to the ever-louder rumblings of his conscience, he returns to his home base with the idea in mind that he will resign from his commission and stop his activities in espionage. His boss, Control, however, persuades him to undertake one final mission to bring down the head of the enemy espionage unit in East Germany. In convincing Leamas to undertake this mission, Control appeals to him by saying that the ends will justify his seemingly unethical method. This moral appeal would be an example of a utilitarian morality. While the simplicity of this appeal convinces Leamas to undertake this final journey, the complexities, ambiguities, and difficulties with a utilitarian conception of morality become clear. By the end of Le Carre's novel, it has become increasingly clear that adhering to a utilitarian set of principle introduces a moral ambiguity that allows for horrible acts of treachery.
The setting for John Le Carre's intense spy-thriller The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, is during the Cold War between the West and the East, or between capitalist and communist countries. The Cold War was so named because it was a war conducted without any battles in the true sense, because there was no overt aggression, no intense clashing of armies, no historical bloody battles. The reason for this lack of aggression was the fact that both sides in the war possessed nuclear weapons, and both countries had enough weapons to ensure the destruction of the other country if ever an attack was launched. This principle, known as "mutually assured destruction," kept both sides in check because an act of unmitigated aggression on the one side could lead to an unchecked response by the other in which their entire nuclear arsenal was brought to bear leading to worldwide chaos and destruction. As a result of mutually assured destruction, neither side could launch any sort of significant military attack for the fear that the response would be so terrible that they would be destroyed. Essentially, anyone who opted for out and out war would've been effectively committing suicide. So the countries competed in other ways, such as in the "Space Race," in which both countries worked to develop a better and more effective space program than the other. Similarly, in what was known as the "Arms Race," both countries attempted to create larger and more significant stockpiles of weaponry in an attempt to make their military might seem more imposing and thereby gain an advantage or at least maintain the status quo enough to keep the other side from launching an attack. Also, both countries participated in intense amounts of espionage, spying on one another to gain valuable information and attempting to sabotage one another's programs through subterfuge. Thus, espionage provided one of the main "battlefronts" of the Cold War, and much of the nation's aggression was released in this way. This conflict serves as the backdrop for John Le Carre's The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, and it is extremely important to the story. Indeed, the title of the work itself is a pun on the "Cold War." While Alec Leamas, the main character uses this idea of "coming in from the cold" as a metaphor for warming to our human sympathies, coming in from the cold also suggests the idea of removing oneself from the espionage battles of the Cold War. Fittingly, it is on exactly this premise that the novel begins.
The basic premise of Le Carre's novel involves the idea that the main character, Alec Leamas, after a distinguished and successful career in the world of espionage, finds himself suddenly tiring of the spy game and lacking the stomach to continue in pursuing its goals. The thrill of the hunt is gone for Leamas, and in its place is a burgeoning horror at the inhumanities that one must undertake in order to be successful in the world of espionage. Leamas, deciding that he can no longer accept these harsh and cruel realities of the spy game, returns to his mission control office in Cambridge Circus tells his boss, known as Control, that he has decided to quit. At first, Control seems sympathetic to Leamas' wishes. He agrees with his concerns about inhumanity and even understands his newfound desire to retire from action, but Control argues that there is no need for him to leave his job without completing his ultimate task; Leamas is considering leaving without first taking down Hans-Dieter Mundt, his East German Communist rival. Mundt has just killed a spy under Leamas, and so Leamas feels not only guilt about the other spy's death, but also a responsibility for it and a thirst for Mundt's vengeance. Control appeals to these feelings of Leamas, and convinces him to go out on one final mission -- a mission in which he will take down Mundt.
Control's plan for taking down Mundt is ingenious and twisted. The plan, however, is exceptionally elaborate, so only an old seasoned veteran like Leamas would be capable of executing, but in order to do it, he must allow his name and reputation to be soiled and to offer himself as a sort of bait for Mundt. Only by making these vital sacrifices can the plan work. The plan is for Leamas to into enemy territory after being dismissed as a "disgraced" spy. After infiltrating Mundt's organization, he will orchestrate events such that Mundt's people suspecting him of treason and bring him to trial ultimately killing him. Indeed, we immediately admire Leamas' bravery for undertaking such a dangerous mission. Of course, as the novel goes on, the plot becomes increasingly complicated, and it becomes increasingly unclear which side is the one to be trusted and if Leamas' own bosses aren't intending to double cross him for their own purposes. But this issue will be discussed more at length later on in the paper.
When control convinces Leamas to take this dangerous and difficult assignment to take down Mundt by the inside, he does so by making a plea to a different sort of morality. Leamas, who is becoming deeply bothered by the inhumanity of his profession and who is moved by a sympathy that one cannot entertain if one is to succeed in espionage, feels that his action violate conventional notions of morality. Control argues this idea, by pushing forward a different conception of morality, one in which "the ends justify the means." In this idea of morality, actions cannot be judged by the short-term morality of undertaking the action, but in terms of what they achieve in long-term goals. If lives can be saved and the West's agenda furthered through the death of Mundt, isn't such an extreme and immoral action then justifiable? Control's argument, which Leamas finds persuasive enough to agree to take the assignment, would fall under a "utilitarian" concept of morality.
A utilitarian understanding of morality argues that actions can only be judged by the ends that they achieve. Such a worldview dismissed the idea that attempting to act with a moral purpose can have any value for us in the world, and would most likely instead embrace the famous proverb that "the road to hell is paved with good intentions." The Oxford Dictionary of Philosophy defines the principle of moral utilitarianism in the following manner:
direct consequentialism [is] the view that the rightness and goodness of any action, motive, or political institution depends solely on the goodness of the overall state of affairs consequent upon it.... most current direct (or act-) utilitarians want to say that an act is morally obligatory if and only if it produces a greater balance of pleasure, or of desire satisfaction than any alternative action available to an agent. An act is then morally right, or not wrong, if it produces as great a balance of pleasure over pain as alternative action open to the agent.
This notion of morality then argues that the morality of actions can only be decided in view of their ends, but it leaves several principle concerns open for debate. The first and most obvious concern one might express with such an idea of morality is, what if actions undertaken for bringing about an increase in overall pleasure don't actually result in such an increase? Given the uncertainty of the world, it is impossible to undertake an action and be certain of that action's outcome; as quantum mechanics shows us, that uncertainty is fundamental. Even further, one might wonder how in the world we would measure overall happiness and its increases? According to what schema would we be able to weigh such increases and decreases? Lastly,…