The greater good?

Photo c/o The Guardian

Is it OK to commit an abhorrently immoral act in order to bring about a great good for a large number of people?

That was the question facing the Prime Minister in Anthony Jay and Jonathan Lynn’s stage version of Yes, Prime Minister which I saw on Friday night (it closed last night in London, I’m afraid, but is about to go on tour around the country, so you may still be able to catch it).

The PM, Jim Hacker, is down at Chequers (with, of course, his trusty colleagues Sir Humphrey Appleby and Bernard Woolley, as well as a Special Advisor, Claire Sutton) and is trying to secure a deal with the Foreign Minister of (the fictional) Kumranistan which will save both Britain’s and the European economies, reduce unemployment and, perhaps more importantly in Hacker’s eyes, boost his popularity and political strength.

The deal is almost closed when, after dinner, Bernard bursts into the PM’s study and reveals that the Foreign Minister has requested a sexual partner for the night – and requires an underage schoolgirl. Woolley’s initial reaction of horrified shock enraged the Foreign Minister, and he is now threatening not to sign the agreement unless his wishes are met.

It is an appalling request, and the PM and his staff are horrified. They can’t do it…can they?

The playwrights have created an excellent moral dilemma, and the characters explore every aspect of it. 

The good news, the Ambassador tells them when they call him in to talk it over, is that the Foreign Minister specifically doesn’t want a virgin – she must be someone who has been ‘defiled’ already, as it would be immoral for him to defile her. In Kumranistan, apparently, this is perfectly normal – once a girl has been defiled, she is worthless, rejected by her family and with no further prospects. The Foreign Minister is a generous man, he would give her hundreds of pounds for this night.

This makes it slightly easier for Hacker and his staff to accept – it’s a girl who is already, voluntarily, sexually active, and she’s probably going to be from the lower end of the social scale, so this might actually help her.

But can they really justify bringing her to the country estate in the Royal helicopter, at tax-payers’ expense…?

On the other hand, it would be such a benefit to the tax-payer over all, does all the good it would do outweigh the bad?

Going round and round considering the issue allows the characters to explore all the arguments underpinning so many of our contemporary moral dilemmas:

“We’re politicians, not bishops. We’re not here to do what’s right; we’re here to serve the public.”

“No-one would ever know.”
“That’s perfect!”
“How is that perfect? What about Human Rights?”

“Immoral? The future of Europe is at stake!”

They eventually realise that it doesn’t have to be a British girl – what if it were an illegal immigrant? In the minds of some of the characters, this would make it better (revealing the sense, still so prevalent, that those who are ‘not one of us’ are not really subject to the same moral standards and feelings as ‘us’).

It is a fascinating look at how immoral ideas can be justified and explained away if you don’t have either a line in the sand beyond which you know you simply cannot go, or the courage to do what is right even if it is not what is expedient.

Bernard is the character who maintains his sense of right and wrong throughout, and one of the most revealing moments, which is utterly illustrative of our times, is when Claire patronisingly says to him “Sometimes it’s hard for a rational answer to win over the ingrained emotional response.” Morality, in her mind as in those of so many liberals today, is equivalent to out-dated sentimentality.

The writers have done a great job of creating a scenario which all the characters find abhorrent, yet which those with no inherent sense of morality are able to justify and find a way of making it acceptable.

The play has lots of laughs, but in the midst of the laughter, it challenges our attitudes to big moral questions, and the way our society deals with them. How would you explain why it was wrong to procure underage sex for a rich man in order to seal a business deal? How would you argue – to someone who didn’t accept the existence or moral authority of God – that there are some things that are just wrong?

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