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  • Kinga Rajzak

Joan Didion's take on morality

Book Review

By Kinga Rajzak

In morality the individual willingly relinquishes the self to follow a recipe of a respectable code of being. Morality then will appear as an inherent and indispensable element of the mind’s make up, morphing into a nerve in the brain urgently forcing the individual to act in accordance with the right principles.

But what does it mean to be moral?

“We have no way of knowing – beyond that fundamental loyalty to the social code what is right and what is wrong, what is good and what is evil,” writes Joan Didion in her essay On Morality, where she carefully dissects the paradoxes imminent to doing the right things.

Didion unveils morality as the opposite of self-righteousness, a form of giving up free will, or not even having access to it in the first place. Conversely, she also shows how that socially celebrated right conduct can become susceptible to failing when the circumstances are not demanding moral thinking.

To demonstrate the contradictions inherent to morality, she uses different anecdotes to examine the strata of good and bad, and indicates that in certain places and to some people, being and acting morally will mean “nothing manageable.”

To depict a familiar trope of morality Didion shows us the pressure of moral responsibility bearing down on the individual.

In one of her anecdotes she describes an accident in the middle of the Death Valley, where a nurse and her husband find a car turned over with the driver killed, but the girlfriend still alive, albeit severely injured. The nurse takes the survivor to the nearest hospital, which is over 185 miles away, and leaves her husband behind to mind the dead body till the coroner’s arrival. The nurse justifies the latter gesture as an obligation, following the only right conscious decision, since leaving the body behind would be “immoral”.

“If a body is left alone for even a few minutes in the desert, the coyotes close in and eat the flesh,” she argues.

Didion says, if the individual abides by the impulses of morals then the dead body will be guarded, else guilt will set in. Never mind that social norms are reflected in this noble deed, and that the conscious act is in fact an unconscious reproduction of the social patterns of morality.

However, in the Death Valley the most obvious convictions appear dubious. “Antimatter” prevails, and “good” as “knowable quantity” de-materializes. The couple’s “wagon-train morality” to guard a dead body appears ridiculous, sort of unmasked.

Didion suggests that in hostile environments like this, reality defies common sense, and by proxy, the principles of morality.

On the other hand, what if an individual relies on their conscience that might be outside of the commonly shared concepts of morality?

“I followed my conscience,” says the madman and the murderer.

Didion argues that not everyone is swayed by the fear of guilt, and some will deliberately breach the social contract that binds people together.

To understand the sedimentation of morality, it is essential to revisit the ancient Greek self-care technique based on achieving an ethically engineered beautiful existence - techne tou biou – as Plato put it, “the craft of life and one’s duty to the enlightened self” that did not follow any socially shared principles.

The Greeks did not act on the basis of pleasing others, the way morality demands it. They instead conducted themselves in accordance with their own understanding of being good. Christianity borrowed a lot from Greek ethics, but also introduced the idea of sin, thereby guilt, the pillars of morality.

“The soul is the prison of the body,” said philosopher Michel Foucault.

So, whichever way we look at it, there is no outside to socially approved, righteous conduct. The Greek understanding of ethics is inaccessible to us now. We have been buried under the weight of morality that demands that individuals follow a set of guidelines in order to pass as honorable subjects. Though, without these principles we would not be able to live together either. It is simply impossible to assume that people would conduct themselves ethically, in good faith, without the internalized, moral rule book that's there to guide them.

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