Laws and principles are not for the times when there is no temptation: they are for such moments as this, when the body and the soul rise in mutiny against their rigor; stringent are they; inviolable they shall be.
—Jane Eyre, Charlotte Brontë
This passage made a lasting impression on me the first time I read it.
In the story, Jane is at her lowest ebb. She just agreed to marry Rochester; and at the last moment it was revealed that he was already married. Rochester begs her to run away with him, to flee the hypocritical, pretentious morality of England and to have a happy life together. Jane is sorely tempted. She recognizes the injustice of the situation, and she is deeply in love with Rochester. But in the end, her principles overrule her passions, and she forces herself to leave him.
My feeling about this were mixed. On the one hand, it was clear to me, a modern, secular American, that the law preventing Rochester and Jane from marrying was idiotic and unjust. There was simply no logic behind it, just dumb prejudice and unthinking tradition. If I were Jane, I would have ran off with Rochester, and left all those dimwits to live within the narrow confines of their self-righteous morality. So I was a bit disappointed in Jane, normally a rebellious spirit, for being such a slave to custom.
Nevertheless, I couldn’t help admiring Jane for doing what she thought was right, even though it caused her so much pain. The second time I read the book, I found myself admiring her even more. What seemed at first to be obeisance to an old-fashioned prejudice looked now like loyalty to herself.
Jane knew that the negative opinion of eloping existed for a reason. Even though it was extremely tempting, she knew that running away with Rochester would ultimately be a betrayal of herself. It would be compromising on what she wanted and deserved: to be legally bound with someone she loved, in a union accepted and recognized by the community.
Remember that Jane was poor, and Rochester rich. Running away with him without the sanction of society would thus have put her fully and completely under his power. She would have no recourse if, one day, Rochester suddenly changed his mind and decided to leave her. She would have no claim on him. Thus her apparently unselfish act—to run away from Rochester—was really a more intelligent form of selfishness. (In my opinion, nobility normally consists, not in acting unselfishly, but in being more intelligently selfish.)
This quote and this story encapsulates why humans create moral rules. Most of the time, in daily life, our short-term and long-term desires are in harmony. We can satisfy our immediate desires without jeopardizing our future goals. In these situations, moral rules become rather irrelevant, or at the very least automatic, since the function of moral rules is, at base, to harmonize individual interests with group interests.
For example, no moral injunction is needed for me to go to work; nor is one needed for my employer to hire me. Both of us act selfishly, but in harmony, because each of our desires is satisfied by the other. I have something to gain from work (money), and my employer has something to gain from my work (English classes), so what need is there of any rule?
There are situations in life, however, when our short-term desires are so markedly out of harmony with our long-term goals that rules are needed to guide behavior. Jane Eyre’s situation was one such example; and in the end the choice turned out to be the right one.
The difficulty is that, sometimes, the temptations to have one’s cake and eat it too can be overwhelming. This especially applies in cases where, even if it is against the rules of society, an unethical act will most likely escape detection, and thus escape consequences. Every human has an interest in maintaining the rules of society as far as other people are concerned, and strategically breaking them in their own case. This is why E.O. Wilson, in his book about human nature, said: “It is exquisitely human to make spiritual commitments that are absolute to the very moment they are broken.”
But every breach of the moral code, however carefully concealed, carries a risk of detection. And even if you aren’t detected, the stress associated with concealing a secret can be punishment in itself. Epicurus made this point: “It is impossible for the person who secretly violates any article of the social compact to feel confident that he will remain undiscovered, even if he has already escaped ten thousand times; for right on to the end of his life he is never sure he will not be detected.”
Thus I think it is wise, as much as possible, to be consistent with your words and deeds, with the code you hold others to and the code you hold yourself to, and to act as though everything you do will one day be revealed. But, of course, all this is easier said than done.