Off His Trolley:
Acting on Principle
13 April 2015

If you peer a bit at this picture, you may note that the allée of cherry trees in Carl Schurz Park has suffered the loss of two trees (on the right); perhaps you’ll have to take my word for it that they have been replaced by saplings. A chilling discovery for a chilly day. How established will these spindly twigs be, when I see them for the last time?

Another thing that you may have noticed is that I haven’t mentioned novelist Penelope Lively this month, not until now. That’s because I had to put down the novel that I picked up after Passing On. Like Moon Tiger, Cleopatra’s Sister has a North African setting and an unfortunate title. Come to think of it, it is also rather darker than the run of Lively’s fiction, although in an entirely different way. Where Moon Tiger looks back on a doomed wartime love affair — The English Patient without the hokum — Cleopatra’s Sister features contemporary state terrorism. A plane en route from London to Nairobi makes an emergency landing in Marsopolis, the fictional capital of fictional Callimbia (situated between Egypt and Libya, it seems), and its English passengers are caught in an ongoing revolution.

This diversion occurs midway in the novel. Up to that point, the chapters alternate between Howard, a paleontologist, and Lucy, a journalist. It is all but obvious that Howard and Lucy are going to meet and, in their dry English way, fall in love. (No gushing! We’re British!) The novelty is that we get to know them on their own, and not through the other’s shyly infatuated eyes. In between the Howard and Lucy chapters, Lively inserts brief instalments of the history of Callimbia through the ages. This doesn’t seem to have much to do with anything, which is also a novelty, since Lively’s experimentalism is no more blatant than her lovers’ passions. Shortly before the midpoint of the novel, however, there is a scraping twist: Callimbia’s military dictator turns out to be the son of an Englishwoman who served as a nursemaid in prewar Cairo and then settled down as a well-to-do Levantine matriarch. Suddenly, Callimbia isn’t so far away. Moments later, a crippled plane, holding, among others, Howard and Lucy, is making an unscheduled descent upon it.

What happens next, and next after that, and then after that, isn’t a lot of fun. Of course I cheated and went straight to the last pages. Even then, I could not bear the situation. Howard and Lucy were going to meet and fall in love, all right, but under such conditions! Conditions of awful discomfort and worse uncertainty. It was embarrassing to learn how safe I had felt from such misadventures in the pages of Penelope Lively. What a fool! I put down the book and picked up The Sitwells. Much better Eastertide reading, no? When the hubbub subsided, and the semi-annual visit to the cardiologist went so nicely that, henceforth, it’s to be an annual visit, I picked up Cleopatra’s Sister and marched through its second half.

Never stated in so many words at any point in Cleopatra’s Sister is the well-known axiom of Anglophone foreign policy: concessions will not be made to save the lives of hostages. If Howard and Lucy came out of this alive, it was not going to be thanks to kindhearted folk at the Foreign Office. It’s the principle of the thing! I got quite worked up about this as I labored through the suspense. My anger was a form of relief that distracted me nicely from the grave misgivings of the new friends. I could set aside what would become of them and punditrate on the wickedness of putting principles ahead of people.


And, all at once, I wished I were in college. Not young myself but surrounded by young minds. How much I’d like to sit in on a discussion of this point. Is it ever just to put the implementation of a principle ahead of the safety of a human life? Let’s grant that the human being in question is a countryman of the officials charged with acting on principle. Howard and Lucy are born Britons; the safety of their everyday lives is upheld by the power of the British government. Is it ever permissible for a government to withhold its power of protection in the name of a principle? I think not, but I should like very much to be challenged by a cascade of youthful hypotheticals.

I’m not talking about trolley problems — emergencies in which the “right” decision, whichever it is, will cost human lives. I don’t believe in reasoning by emergencies. What you or I would do in an emergency is something that we shall never know until we are faced with it, and there will be no time for rationality then. Emergency response is a gut maneuver. You fight or you fly without premeditation. To philosophize from such a vortex of contingency is inane.

I’m talking about the relatively deliberative situation that Lively sets out in Cleopatra’s Sister. The Callimbian government, now in the hands of a revolutionary general, seeks the return of enemies who have taken asylum in Britain. It holds the British passengers of the disabled plane as hostages. Please tell me what would be wrong with British cooperation? The Callimbians, who have presumably chosen to be enemies of the victorious dictator, must face their destiny at home. The hapless Britons would be rescued.

But Such cooperation is ruled out by the standard playbook, simply because cooperation is a kind of concession, and concession is a sign of weakness. So the British hostages must die in order to preserve the appearance of British strength. Excuse me, but who put something in this Kool-Aid? How is the British government clear, in such a case, from complicity in murder?

Like all systems, principles are conveniences. They solve crises with pre-packaged judgments and abstract exonerations. If/then. They are morally ambiguous: far from resolving moral crises, they render them murkier. The whole point of principles appears to be the evasion of difficult decisions. Of course you must have them in order to get through the day. But they are tools, not virtues. They are never, ever worth a human life.

In the stirring recent film about Alan Turing at Bletchley, The Imitation Game, no sooner is the Nazi Enigma code cracked than Turing’s team is forced to conclude that a convoy now discovered to be in harm’s way cannot be saved, lest the diversion tip the Germans off to the English discovery. Not a minute of film time later, however, Turing and his lovely sidekick, Joan Clarke, are making statistical calculations of plausible saves. Geniuses that they are, their minds don’t seem to have worked out quickly enough that the convoy, in which one of the team’s brother was sailing, might simply have been the first of the “lucky” — to the Germans, inexplicable — escapes. No, at Bletchley, as everywhere else in the world of Anglophone power, the first reaction is a show of impassivity. Nothing is done to protect lives at risk, lest the Germans figure out that Enigma is enigma no more. Only thereafter do the stalwarts grasp that, gee, some lives can be saved.

(Bandleader Glenn Miller was not one of the lucky ones. Ultra, as the new British fate-dispenser was named, did not make exceptions for cultural treasures.)

Does acting on principle signify strength, or merely inhumanity?