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Moral pluralism and the dismay of Amy Kane

There’s a scene in the movie High Noon that seems to me to capture an essential feature of our moral lives. Actually, it’s not the entire scene. It’s one moment really, two shots — a facial expression and a movement of the head of Grace Kelly.

The part she’s playing is that of Amy Kane, the wife of Marshal Will Kane (Gary Cooper). Amy Kane is a Quaker, and as such is opposed to violence of any kind. Indeed, she tells Kane she will marry him only if he resigns as marshal of Hadleyville and vows to put down his guns forever. He agrees. But shortly after the wedding Kane learns that four villains have plans to terrorize the town, and he comes to think it is he who must try to stop them. He picks up his guns in preparation to meet the villains, and in so doing breaks his vow to Amy.

Unrelenting in her passivism, Amy decides to leave Will. She boards the noon train out of town. Then she hears gunfire, and, just as the train is about to depart, she disembarks and rushes back. Meanwhile, Kane is battling the villains. He manages to kill two of them, but the remaining two have him cornered. It looks like the end for Kane. Then one of them falls.

Amy has picked up a gun and shot him in the back.

We briefly glimpse Amy’s face immediately after she has pulled the trigger. She is distraught, stricken. When the camera angle changes to a view from behind, we see her head fall with great sadness under the weight of what she’s done.

What’s going on with Amy at that moment? It’s possible, I suppose, that she believes she shouldn’t have shot the villain, that she let her emotions run away with her, that she thinks she did the wrong thing. But I doubt that’s it. More likely is that when Amy heard the gunshots she decided that the right thing for her to do was return to town and help her husband in his desperate fight. But why then is Amy dismayed? If she performed the action she thought was right, shouldn’t she feel only moral contentment with what she has done?

Studio publicity still of Grace Kelly for the film Rear Window (1954). Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.
Studio publicity still of Grace Kelly for the film Rear Window (1954). Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Grace Kelly could have played it differently. She could have whooped with delight at having offed the bad guy, perhaps dropping some “hasta la vista”-like catchphrase along the way. Or she could have set her ample square jaw in grim determination and gone after the remaining villain, signaling to us her decision to discard namby-pamby pacifism for the robust alternative of visceral western justice. But Amy Kane’s actual reaction is psychologically more plausible — and morally more interesting. While she believes she’s done what she had to do, she’s still dismayed. Why?

What Amy’s reaction shows, I believe, is that morality is pluralist, not monist.

Monistic moral theories tell us that there is one and only one ultimate moral end. If monism is true, in every situation it will always be at least theoretically possible to justify the right course of action by showing that everything of fundamental moral importance supports it. Jeremy Bentham is an example of a moral monist.

He held that pleasure is the single ultimate end. Another example is Immanuel Kant, who held that the single base for all of morality is the Categorical Imperative. According to monists,successful moral justification will always ends at a single point (even if they disagree among themselves about what that point is).

Pluralist moral theories, in contrast, hold that there is a multitude of basic moral principles that can come into conflict with each other. David Hume and W.D. Ross were both moral pluralists. They believed that various kinds of moral conflict can arise — justice can conflict with beneficence, keeping a promise can conflict with obeying the law, courage can conflict with prudence — and that there are no underlying rules that explain how such conflicts are to be resolved.

If Hume and Ross are right and pluralism is true, even after you have given the best justification for a course of action that it is possible to give, you may sometimes have to acknowledge that to follow that course will be to act in conflict with something of fundamental moral importance. Your best justification may fail to make all of the moral ends meet.

With that understanding of monism and pluralism on board, let’s now return to Grace Kelly as Amy Kane. Let’s return to the moment her righteous killing of the bad guy causes her to bow her head in moral remorse.

If we assume monism, Amy’s response will seem paradoxical, weird, in some way inappropriate. If there is one and only one ultimate end, then to think that a course of action is right will be to think that everything of fundamental importance supports it. And it would be paradoxical or weird — inappropriate in some way — for someone to regret doing something in line with everything of fundamental moral importance. If the moral justification of an action ends at a single point, then what could the point be of feeling remorse for doing it?

But Amy’s reaction is perfectly explicable if we take her to have a plurality of potentially-conflicting basic moral commitments. Moral pluralists will explain that Amy has decided that in this situation saving Kane from the villains has a fundamental moral importance that overrides the prohibition on killing, even while she continues to believe that there is something fundamentally morally terrible about killing. For pluralists, there is nothing strange about feeling remorse toward acting against something one takes to be of fundamental moral importance.

Indeed, feeling remorse in such a situation is just what we should expect. This is why we take Amy’s response to be apt, not paradoxical or weird. We think that she, like most of us, holds a plurality of fundamental moral commitments, one of which she rightly acted on even though it meant having to violate another.

The upshot is this. If you think Grace Kelly played the scene right — and if you think High Noon captures something about our moral lives that “hasta la vista”-type movies do not — then you ought to believe in moral pluralism.

Headline image: General Store Sepia Toned Wild West Town. © BCFC via iStock

Recent Comments

  1. Debbie

    Don’t be silly. There are many reasons for not feeling gleeful in such a situation even when confident of having done the monistic right thing: grief for the broken life that had turned to violence, empathy for the loved ones who will mourn, consternation for the fact of death itself.

  2. David Harley

    The Western genre is a catalogue of shifting American moral concerns, cast in the form of allegory. The list of films that show moral ambivalence, and the need for a hero willing to set aside or to abide by personal and moral interests, is a long one.

    Resistance to McCarthyism was a notable theme. A more recent one has been concern for ethnic minorities.

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