There’s some good in this world—and it’s worth fighting for. But what is it? (New Line Cinema)
Is moral action distinct from selfish action? This is a perpetual question of ethics. Ultimately, we might morally appraise the world according to our interests and therefore only act with self-concern, which doesn’t seem like the kind of thing we want to say about morality.
Take an example. Perhaps I choose to help an elderly person cross the road. Or possibly I help my village by keeping it clean. Now, is there a reason I helped other than to please myself? The act, on the face of it, is selfless; but maybe my good conduct only served to make me feel better about myself and my place within society.
The above is a somewhat negative spin on morality. In what follows a wonderful metaphor from The Lord of the Rings (Book 6) is used to help us understand the problem and maybe reverse that negativity.
Samwise Gamgee and Morality
‘Sam's mallorn tree sapling in Hobbiton planted next to the stump of the Party Tree’ by Matěj Čadil.
By the end of The Lord of the Rings Sauron has perished, the great evils that previously besieged Middle-earth have been wiped out, and thus the Third Age is over. Yet wicked marks remain.
Samwise Gamgee (Sam) is a simple folk and a gardener who happens to care, primarily, about the Shire, Hobbits, and nature. Frodo urges Sam to focus his reparatory efforts in moving into the Fourth Age on building a legacy (something I wrote about recently):
You will be the Mayor, of course, as long as you want to be, and the most famous gardener in history; and you will read things out of the Red Book, and keep alive the memory of the age that is gone, so that people will remember the Great Danger and so love their beloved land all the more. And that will keep you as busy and as happy as anyone can be, as long as your part of the Story goes on.
However, Sam is said to grieve ‘over more than anything else’ the trees of the Shire that Saruman had mercilessly cut down. As much becomes apparent in the actions of Sam, who from Galadriel had previously received ‘a grey dust, soft and fine, in the middle of which was a seed, like a small nut with a silver shale’.
Frodo recommends Sam do as follows with it:
Use all the wits and knowledge you have of your own, Sam,' said Frodo, 'and then use the gift to help your work and better it. And use it sparingly. There is not much here, and I expect every grain has a value.
Somewhat surprisingly, Pippin is somewhat selfless in his suggestion:
Throw it in the air on a breezy day and let it do its work!
Sam has multiple options; he could fix many things. But, as a matter of priority, he acts thusly:
So Sam planted saplings in all the places where specially beautiful or beloved trees had been destroyed, and he put a grain of the precious dust in the soil at the root of each. He went up and down the Shire in this labour; but if he paid special attention to Hobbiton and Bywater no one blamed him. And at the end he found that he still had a little of the dust left; so he went to the Three-farthing Stone, which is as near the centre of the Shire as no matter, and cast it in the air with his blessing. The little silver nut he planted in the Party Field where the tree had once been; and he wondered what would come of it. All through the winter he remained as patient as he could, and tried to restrain himself from going round constantly to see if anything was happening.
Spring surpassed his wildest hopes. His trees began to sprout and grow, as if time was in a hurry and wished to make one year do for twenty. In the Party Field a beautiful young sapling leaped up: it had silver bark and long leaves and burst into golden flowers in April. It was indeed a mallorn, and it was the wonder of the neighbourhood. In after years, as it grew in grace and beauty, it was known far and wide and people would come long journeys to see it: the only mallorn west of the Mountains and east of the Sea, and one of the finest in the world.
So is Sam moral or not?
In an article from 2020 we address the philosophy of The Lord of the Rings. (New Line Cinema)
Whatever philosophical system of ethics we come up with for Sam, his morals ring disproportionate. The presence of nature in his people’s neighbourhood takes precedent in his priorities over various other charitable and compensatory acts which are better able to cure the ills of Sauron. Does this make Sam a particularly bad or ignorant person? No. This conclusion doesn’t seem exactly fair or right; for Sam is a wonderfully dedicated and loyal hobbit.
But, just like you and your values, he cares most about things which are personal to his life and how he’s lived it.
Individually, we fight for whichever forms of social justice, freedoms, and causes we can make sense of and which are closest and most-familiar to us. Family, culture, income, race, gender, sexuality, and so on—these are great determinants of our moral beliefs alongside actual pain caused in the world or of our duties to beings in it.
We hear the words ‘rationality’, ‘logic’, and ‘reason’ a lot—especially online—as if we come up with objective moral facts with them. But, actually, it seems as though most of us don’t even try to come up with objective bases for our moral beliefs.
We have no reasonable scale for suffering or duty. Our communities and what we think they stand for take precedent.
Hundreds of millions of people mourned the death of a Queen; but they don’t even spare a thought for hundreds of millions of people who die within their lifetimes.
Tens of billions of sentient animals are killed each year for food. Yet 48 % of philosophers think that eating animals is morally permissible (PhilPapers 2020). Somehow many ‘environmentalists’ agree.
In terms of supporting charities, men care more about defeating prostate cancer than breast cancer. For women it’s the other way round.
But perhaps such absurdity is an inevitable part of being human and being otherwise is not realistic. We can’t make ourselves care about things; that doesn’t mean what we choose to fix isn’t worth fixing.
Still, there’s reason to think there is such a thing as morality beyond ourselves—beyond our own attitudes towards things and our personal values. There are duties to fellow humans and moral reasoning, for example. There is virtue. There are gods. Philosophers are just in the process of making sense of it all.