Here I want to discuss Jane Austen and Dorothy Sayers – and, in particular, Mansfield Park and Clouds of Witness – not as a literary critic, but as a moral philosopher.
Examining fiction is part of a trend in moral philosophy, especially in the work of Alasdair MacIntyre. In his book After Virtue, MacIntyre contrasted the subjectivist ethics of most modern philosophy with the older tradition of the virtues found in Aristotle, Aquinas and their heirs. He sought to re-establish the older tradition of the moral philosophy of the virtues. One of the key parts of his project is the narrative concept of the self as opposed to, for example, the empiricists’ “bundle” concept of self – that is, I am a bundle of my sense impressions.
The consequences of this concept of personal identity for ethics is shown in a story about Bertrand Russell, a philosophical descendent of British empiricism. He was cycling across Grantchester meadow, and realised that he was no longer the same person he was ten years ago. The Russell of ten years ago had married; but the present day Russell, he reasoned, could not be bound by those promises since he was now a different person. The narrative concept of the self would insist that the Russell cycling across the meadow was the same person as the Russell who married ten years ago: personal identity is a story of an individual life through time and space, interlocked with the narratives of other individuals. Hence, this Russell is bound by his promise.