What defines a man’s moral worth? The person he is underneath or what he does?
While the film Inception had its characters navigating layers of dreams, the drama Hyde Jekyll, Me extended the same Russian-dolls-like concept to a fictionalized account of dissociative identity disorder, presenting a picture of a person within a person within a person. The dominant personality, Gu Seo-jin, was, on the surface, an unsmiling, mean and somewhat self-obsessed corporate director who made a child cry with his brutishness and literally pushed women into harm’s way to save his skin. Deep inside, though, he seemed to long for the innocence and beauty of children, having been wracked with guilt over a childhood incident in which he pushed a friend into the hands of a kidnapper to save himself. From the depths of this misery eventually emerged Robin, an alter ego the opposite of his image—heroic, cheerful and behaving with child-like tenderness. Robin, however, had one serious weakness—his existential fears. With Seo-jin’s family denying his identity and trying every method to stop his appearance, Robin’s life had long been fraught with the stress of uncertainty. When a love interest rejected him like a monster and Robin, losing sight of the meaning of his existence, finally got the psychiatrist to hypnotize him away, a third personality emerged towards the end of the hypnosis: Terry, an extremely savage man who attempted to kill the psychiatrist and injured numerous members of the security team dispatched to subdue him. Just who should a viewer judge Seo-jin by: his nasty outer shell, the sweet and gentle Robin he harbored inside, or the cold-blooded Terry lurking in the innermost depths of Robin’s psyche?
Examining the issue from the perspective of a potential beneficiary or victim, it can hardly be denied that, of all aspects of an individual, his actions hold the most practical value. Of what use is moral goodness if it is kept locked up in a person’s heart like treasures a miser refuses to release from his safe? Similarly, immoral sentiments that will never be converted into words or acts cannot quite inflict actual injuries on others. If Seo-jin’s gentler nature had not been brought out from within by his disorder, as would be the case in ordinary people, he would probably be someone a typical father-in-law would hesitate entrusting his daughter to. Conversely, if Terry would not be unleashed by the disorder, there would be little reason to keep a distance from Robin.
But both Seo-jin’s inner angel and Robin’s inner demon were released, and this illustrated the practical relevance of the morality of thoughts. Perhaps, the more negative thoughts an individual harbors and the longer they dwell inside him, the likelier they will boil over and turn into harmful words or acts. This probably applies to unconscious phenomena too. The catalyst to such transformations is often cognitive or emotional breakdown. Thought and emotion regulation is thus an indispensable aspect of moral life as well. To that end, Robin deserved admiration for managing to rein in Terry when a severe existential threat emerged again, so that he would live not just in any form, but as the lifesaving person he was loved for. Hence, the invisible actions a person performs inside himself should be factored into the opening question.
From a philosophical standpoint, however, moral worth is not always a simple question of impact. Some commentators opined that intentions matter too. If someone does or omits an act merely to avoid punishment, claim rewards, boost his image or feel good, the act is arguably a negative indication of his moral quality. And if an outcome has occurred by sheer serendipity or by a mechanism that an individual cannot effectively manipulate, it seems unfair to treat it as a symbol of character in itself. In the case of the disorder, the loss of physical and mental self-control was not something any of the personalities hoped for or anticipated at first. Just as Robin could not take blame for unknowingly harboring Terry, Seo-jin could not claim credit for unwillingly creating Robin. This complicates the answer to the opening question further as it means that the moral merit of an individual depends on how who he is underneath affects the acts he does.
It should be noted that this does not imply that acts with unintended outcomes are never blameworthy. After all, moral agents have a duty not only to do good but also to prevent harm. People who pursue acts without considering any accompanying risks and reasonable precautionary measures would be engaging in reckless behavior. For this reason, the moral relevance of a person’s acts is arguably also determined by who he omits to be underneath.
What happens when a person knows a decision will result in a negative side effect but makes it nonetheless for good intentions? Such decisions are supported by proponents of the doctrine of double effect (DDE) in euthanasia, medically necessary abortions, certain types of wars and a UK court case involving a separation surgery that would save one infant at the expense of her conjoined twin’s life. In The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, the famed novel which indirectly inspired the drama, Jekyll transformed himself into Hyde from time to time to split away his evil side partly to allow his remaining self to aspire to greater goodness, a rather well-meaning intention. Seo-jin’s shoving behavior mentioned earlier was similarly fueled in part by a pro-social motive, and this motive was far more urgent than Jekyll’s fanciful ambition. To him, dangerous circumstances likely to induce palpitations, which would trigger Robin’s appearance, were to be avoided at all costs so that the murderous Terry would not appear either—the reverse of Jekyll’s self-splitting endeavor. Both strategies are, nevertheless, contentious. By making a conscious choice between different DDE-characterizing acts and no action, the person in question is really attaching a relative value to the entity sacrificed under DDE (e.g. placing the welfare of individuals hurt by Hyde below that of people benefiting from his own enhanced kindness in the case of Jekyll). At the minimum, alternatives which avoid the harm should be sought and risk-benefit analysis carefully made before decisions involving DDE are carried out. Even then, some supporters of duty-based ethics would hold that certain harms are so cardinal they should never be violated. In that sense, Seo-jin’s decision, which was targeted at a serious threat, was less reckless and more justified than Jekyll’s but possibly imperfect. Ideally, perhaps, a person with an elevated moral standing would be one who performs visible and invisible actions driven by both good intentions and great prudence.
The discussion thus far may have given the impression that thoughts are relevant only insofar as they influence actions. Yet is there no intrinsic evil in, for instance, imagination of inflicting violence? Many people find the idea of being the object of violent fantasy repugnant, even if such fantasy will never be acted out. Even when these thoughts are targeted at imaginary people, they can be distasteful for their insult of general human dignity. Respect of actual persons and the human race as a whole is thus another reason, on top of the practical considerations mentioned above, why the suppression of malevolent thoughts arguably plays an important role in moral life. Still, intentions and prudence matter here too. An individual cannot be faulted for thoughts lying so deep in his mind that he can barely scrutinize, let alone control them, or for persistent thoughts generated by unmanageable mental conditions. Accordingly, Terry’s presence in the unconscious mind did not render Seo-jin (or Robin) inherently immoral.
What remains to be examined is the intrinsic moral value of benevolent thoughts that are not voluntarily translated into words or actions, as is the case with Seo-jin and his more saccharine nature embodied by Robin. If anti-social conscious thoughts are inherently bad, are pro-social conscious thoughts then inherently good? Unfortunately, the relationship between evil and good may be actually asymmetrical. Whereas the magnitude of an evil is seldom measured by the amount of effort taken to produce it, the magnitude of a moral good often is. A murder, for example, is abhorrent whether it takes meticulous scheming and huge strength or just a quick drop of poison. Jumping into a fire to save someone, though, often attracts far more praise than saving him by encouraging him from afar, even if the latter is the only option available for some reason. Considering that the generation of kind sentiments is frequently almost effortless, there is perhaps relatively little credit one can claim for merely possessing them. As such, even if Robin’s thoughts were originally Seo-jin’s, their boost to the latter’s moral worth was readily overshadowed by other aspects of him.
On the other hand, benevolent thoughts may possess significant potential value in light of the possibility of transforming them into actions. Sometimes, people do not act out these thoughts because of environmental factors, practical concerns, emotional barriers and/or ignorance about when and how to implement the thoughts. Indeed, Seo-jin felt compelled to suppress his warmer side and adopt a stoic personality under the uptight family environment he grew up, in which giving and receiving comfort was an alien concept. In these scenarios, the more rational approach may be to extend assistance to such individuals, helping to unlock rather than disregarding their inner treasures. The drama’s romance plot came into play here by having its heroine Hana nudge Seo-jin out of his shell, melting his heart with her insistent concern and pointing out that he could tap on his inner strength rather than ignore his emotions to cope with crises. Both Seo-jin and Robin developed affection for her, although it was Robin she preferred. Seo-jin’s love, nonetheless, eventually became so profound that after Terry’s emergence was blocked, he was willing to share his life with Robin until his death so that she would not lose the man she loved. In a twist, this acknowledgement of Robin initiated the integration of him into Seo-jin’s consciousness and outward personality, and the two previously walled-off selves melded as one, capping off Seo-jin’s heartwarming journey of transformation.
In a nutshell, moral character involves a complex interplay between actions and thoughts. Neither of them makes up a person by themselves. Discarding the whole because of a part may be narrow-sighted and a waste of potential. Embracing the whole because of a part may lead to loose standards. Life may be simpler without the cognitive dissonance generated by acknowledging a facet of someone (or some artistic work) while reproving another facet. But as Socrates would remark, it is the examined life that is worth living.