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Valjean, Lord Acton, and the Common Moral Code

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In this week’s Acton Commentary, “The Mundane Morality of Les Misérables,” I explore the new musical film and in particular a transitional episode where the main protagonist, Jean Valjean, is faced with a moral dilemma: “If I speak, I am condemned. If I stay silent, I am damned!”

Here’s a performance of the scene from the musical’s 10th anniversary, featuring Colm Wilkinson as Valjean:
What we see is Valjean consider, and then reject, an avenue of moral reasoning that would play off his responsibilities to “hundreds of workers” against his obligation to correct the unjust accusation of a misidentified innocent. As I write,

It is far too easy for us to over-emphasize the uniqueness of our responsibilities and our relationships to the extent that we minimize our objective and universal moral obligations. After all, if I am the only one who is placed as “master of hundreds of workers” and mayorial “office-holder in the town hall,” as in Valjean’s case, perhaps the fundamental moral obligation to not allow another to be unjustly punished for crimes he has not committed does not apply. Or in the case of business executives, perhaps their responsibility toward the well-being of their family, their shareholders, and their employees warrants some illicit or otherwise ethically dubious practices. Or in the case of politicians, perhaps the responsibility to their constituents means that the basic tenets of honesty and fair-dealing no longer apply.

The basic point is that there is a mundane quality to morality, such that no one’s office, no matter how high, exempts them from the basic requirements of the moral order.

The universal aspect of the moral order can be obscured when approaching various professions through the lens of special ethics. If “business ethics,” for instance, is treated as unattached or unrelated to more general, mundane ethical considerations, then it can easily be corrupted by such special moral pleading. It’s true that we do have unique responsibilities toward one another, and that these can vary, sometimes significantly, depending on our vocation. This is why Lord Acton observed, for instance, “The principles of public morality are as definite as those of the morality of private life; but they are not identical.”

That there is no special exemption from ethical requirements for those in high places is, in fact, one of the claims most controversially associated with Lord Acton, at least insofar as he connected this reality with the task of the historian. Thus, in disputing whether great historical figures should be placed under moral scrutiny, Lord Acton wrote about the mundane nature of morality:

Here again what I have said is not in any way mysterious or esoteric. It appeals to no hidden code. It aims at no secret moral. It supposes nothing, and implies nothing but what is universally current and familiar. It is the common, even the vulgar, code I appeal to.

Thus, he continued,

…I cannot accept your canon that we are to judge Pope and King unlike other men, with a favourable presumption that they did no wrong. If there is any presumption it is the other way, against the holders of power, increasing as the power increases. Historic responsibility has to make up for the want of legal responsibility. Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men, even when they exercise influence and not authority, still more when you superadd the tendency or the certainty of corruption by authority. There is no worse heresy than that the office sanctifies the holder of it.

The point in the case of Valjean is that he resists the rationalization of selfishness (or even self-preservation) based on his office as “master of hundreds of workers,” as well as his more direct responsibilities toward Fantine and Cosette.

None of those moral realities do anything to mitigate Valjean’s more basic responsibility to, as the song puts it, “right this wrong” of mistaken identity.

Jordan J. Ballor Jordan J. Ballor (Dr. theol., University of Zurich; Ph.D., Calvin Theological Seminary) is a senior research fellow and director of publishing at the Acton Institute for the Study of Religion & Liberty. He is also a postdoctoral researcher in theology and economics at the VU University Amsterdam as part of the "What Good Markets Are Good For" project. He is author of Get Your Hands Dirty: Essays on Christian Social Thought (and Action) (Wipf & Stock, 2013), Covenant, Causality, and Law: A Study in the Theology of Wolfgang Musculus (Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2012) and Ecumenical Babel: Confusing Economic Ideology and the Church's Social Witness (Christian's Library Press, 2010), as well as editor of numerous works, including Abraham Kuyper Collected Works in Public Theology. Jordan is also associate director of the Junius Institute for Digital Reformation Research at Calvin Theological Seminary.