Arthur Miller’s The Crucible. A Moral Absolutism Essay Example

  • Category: Behavior, Psychology,
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  • Published: 03 September 2020
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Can morality be objectively defined in any way-by any convention? Is there some set of universal rules that one is always to follow if living a correct moral life? Or is the action with the most positive outcome the morally correct one? Ideas such as these have been troubling the human mind for centuries, yet there is no forthright answer. There is a school of thought that understands that when dealing with humanity, morality is defined situationally: nothing can be absolute. There is always some nuance of context that differentiates one set of morals from another, some circumstance that helps to define what is right. What is deemed “wrong” can, at times be right, and what is deemed “right” can, at times, be wrong-morality is a subjective thing. Not only can an absolute definition of morality not correctly define what is right and wrong, moral absolutism can be dangerous, both to an individual and their integrity, and to an entire society. 

Throughout history, the dangers presented by moral absolutism have been seen time and time again. In his own lifetime, Arthur Miller had witnessed and been impacted by these very dangers. His drama The Crucible came about in an effort to warn against this definition of morality; this idea that good and evil are strictly one thing. Juxtaposing notions that are often understood as absolute opposites, Miller is able to craft a tale of deception that doubles as his own critique on the morality of his time. He renders the struggle between innocence and guilt, truth and deception, community and the individual-and of course good and evil- in a way that clearly demonstrates the fact that they are not mutually exclusive nor fixed absolutes, but rather inextricably linked and situationally alterable. Arthur Miller writes The Crucible as a warning against an absolute definition of morality.  

Arthur Miller first establishes the society in which The Crucible takes place: a strictly puritan colonial town in 1692 Salem Massachusetts. From there, it becomes obvious that their morals are dictated by their interpretation of the puritan religion, and therefore become absolute. They believe certain actions are good, and will lead to eternal life in heaven with God, and others are strictly evil: resulting in perpetual damnation. Emphasized is the importance of conformity, and how each person must follow the same code of morals in order to achieve the ultimate goal of salvation. 

The moral absolutist code of the town is directly derived from what they believe the religion to be-from what they are told it means-and that follows down the generations of citizens. The people in this town follow a moral code that aligns with the divine command theory: the belief that morality is directly dictated by God. This alone raises questions that Miller is not comfortable with. A dilemma is brought up regarding what basis the commands by God have, and whether or not they can exist independent of religion by Plato in his dialogue Euthyphro: “The point which I should first wish to understand is whether the pious or holy is beloved by the gods because it is holy, or holy because it is beloved of the gods” (Euthyphro 5d). Miller writes as if the town accepts the horn of this dilemma that implies that God’s commands are right only because he commands them, which furthers the point that the absolutist values they follow are in fact quite arbitrary; they can (and do) lead the town to commit abhorrent acts. 

Miller’s largest argument against this divine command theory based absolutism is the fact that it limits the people’s ability to think freely for themselves, and develop moral autonomy. Their religion is a strict form of Puritanism, created directly in response to perceived flaws within the already established Catholicism. Stephen Fender notes, in an essay regarding morality and speech within The Crucible, the way in which John Preston, a Puritan theologians, spoke of his religion. He writes “Preston says all men are ‘good’ or ‘bad’ and  ‘there is no middle kind of man. …Puritan predestination breaks down the whole structure of Aristotelian-Scholastic ethics, sweeping away any idea of degrees of good and evil” (Fender 90).

This further proves the fact that the religion which the town derives their code of morals from is absolutist in essence, and gives their leaders a basis to dictate good and evil. In denying the idea of degrees of goodness, and saying that men can only be completely good or completely evil, Preston himself tells Puritanism to define morality absolutely. From there, the leaders and officials in the town are able to implement these laws in a way that completely limits the citizens in their ability to think freely for themselves. 

Miler sees a lack of free and individual thought as an obvious flaw within this community. A sort of fear of the unknown manifests itself in the minds of those who have lived their entire lives only one way. Living in a conformist society, all people are trained to be the same: that is all one knows, and anything else is seen to pose a possible threat. This creates an irrational paranoia of all things that are different from the established norm. Individual thought threatens this norm; individuality creates fear. The fact that there is no freedom for an individual to develop their own beliefs and moral ideals poses a problem-in  Miller’s eyes- for both the collective good of the town, and the integrity and true development of the individual.  

In the very beginning of the play, an interaction between Abigail Williams and her uncle Reverend Parris portrays this very issue: the dangers of individuality being stripped from an entire generation. It was Abigail’s and her friends’ dancing in the woods that originally spurred the witch trials. Upon being asked, questioned, and interrogated by her uncle about what really happened in the forest, Abigail persists in this affirmation: “Uncle, we did dance; let you tell them I confessed it. But they‘re speaking‘ of witchcraft; Betty‘s not witched. …It were only sport, Uncle! …There is nothin‘ more. I swear it, Uncle” (Miller 2). The girls refused to conform to the absolute rules that were placed over them, yet they did not see what they were doing as devilish, or witchcraft.

Dancing and playing, the girls were merely seeking enjoyment and fun. The town, however, treated this as a moral wrong-they transgressed upon the absolutist society that was in place-even though the girls’ actions were not within their own definition of immoral or evil. As a result, out of the girls’ effort to save their own lives, the witch trials begin. Miller is attempting to represent the children, at this point, as sort of hope for the future: a future where a society allows for moral autonomy, and freedom in thought and action. He, however, also makes it clear that the fact that their society is based on moral absolutes is what that punishes the girls for something they saw as merely innocuous play. He further proving how moral absolutism is dangerous, and prohibits any kind of moral progress. The children-the physical representations of the future-were stifled by it. 

Miller does recognize his play as a critique on an absolutist society- specifically the one that existed in government during the time of the red scare. Experiencing the McCarthy trials himself, and personally being brought in front of the Human Un-American Activities Committee, he understands that deeming one set of ideas or actions alone to be an absolute good can have damaging effects on a society. In introducing John Proctor-the arguable protagonist of the play-he acknowledges the cyclic nature of these dangers; how they have always existed-just merely changed forms. In writing  “The world is still gripped between two diametrically opposed absolutes.

The concept of unity, in which positive and negative are attributes of the same force, in which good and evil are relative, ever-changing, and always joined to the same phenomenon,” Miller acknowledges that morality is relative; that good or evil cannot exist independent of the other. In writing that these two perceived opposites are joined to the same phenomenon, Miller recognizes the fact that good and evil can each be attributed to the same act: that one could not possibly exist without the other. In saying that they are ever changing, he makes his belief clear that there cannot be any concrete-absolute-definitions, and there cannot be one sole arbiter of morality. Upon those foundational beliefs, Miller then uses the occurrences of the rest of the drama to illustrate that ultimate downfall of a town that does abide by absolutist morality. 

Adhering to the absolute definitions of morality present in their society, the members of the town understand that confessions are regarded as absolute good; one is absolved of their actions if they make an honest telling of their sorrows. On the other side of this spectrum lies dishonesty: lying completely condemns an individual. What happens then when one confesses a lie; when a person will face corporeal salvation if they confess to an act they did not commit, but believes lying will sentence them to eternal damnation? What can they do? Lying defies the truth they know to exist, but not confessing at all has a greater material consequence. Miller attempts to break down the absolutes that are in existence: to portray within the town that confession is not absolutely correct, lying not absolutely wrong

In presenting the complication of confessing, Miller forces the reader to judge at the actions of the characters from both a deontological and teleological perspective in order to find that no matter what type of decision was made, it is the morally absolutist laws governing the decisions that lead to the ultimate moral depravity of the society. Although deontology is, in essence, absolutist, the absolute laws governing the society prohibited anyone from making a true deontological decision. While Miller does not make the case for teleology, he does portray how absolutism, dictated by a society, damages a person’s ability to make moral decisions for themselves . Frank Ardolino presents the idea regarding the trials that,  “The moral absolutism of the prosecution causes it to become the ally of the devil rather than his opponent” (64).  Miller claims that in a situation such as this, absolutes cannot correctly define the perfectly right course of actions.. 

It would seem that as an absolutist society, the members of the town would have demanded a course of action that followed their rules at all costs: a deontological one. However, this path would require one not lie and break a universal law. However, as no witchcraft was performed, telling the truth would prevent them from making a confession, when confessing was their ultimate good. In taking the more teleological route, one was required to confess, for that would save the person’s life, warranting a better material outcome. With a confession, however, they were forced to lie, tainting their sense of integrity.

From there it becomes important to pose the question of which is a worse consequence: a life lost in vain, or a life that has to persist with a guilty conscience, and lack of integrity.  The societally dictated absolutes prevent a person from carrying out their own ethical belief. Writing of this restriction, Miller presents his specific issue with absolutism: how it completely obstructs moral freedom and any form of individual thought. Furthermore, Miller presents this connection between confession and lies deliberately to show how they are intrinsically linked. As previously mentioned, he describes good and evil as “attributes of the same force,” and here it is actually the same force leading to both; in the same breath one either both confesses and lies, or does neither.

There are women who fit in to both of these absolutes: those who confess to lies, and those who do not. In the case of Goody Good, she made her confession in an attempt to save herself. This brands her as a teleologist: she was willing to lie in order to secure a better outcome for herself. It is important, however, that she did not actively and consciously choose these beliefs, but instead happened to subscribe to them in an attempt at self preservation. She was not given the freedom to make her own moral decision, which Miller uses to show to the reader how it is impossible for such a teleological perspective to exist under absolutism.

Living through the McCarthy trials, it becomes evident that Miller himself experienced the complete eradication of an entire school of thought, and obviously saw it is an egregious flaw within any society. Moreover, in Goody Good’s case, making the confession perpetuated the trials. Without any confessions, the court would have eventually lost credibility, and the horrific actions they committed would have ceased. Objectively speaking, the perpetuation of these trials-which have the power to end numerous lives-is a worse consequence than a single person’s death, thus creating a contradiction if it were to be said that Good subscribed to teleology. Miller does this to show that no matter what the belief, it is dangerous to follow blindly any theory or idea that dictates how one is always to act. These are absolutes, and Miller clearly finds danger within them. 

Goody Osburn took quite the opposite route in her trial: she refused to transgress her own sense of integrity, and the moral truths she held drove her to remain honest, and not confess to witchcraft. It must be examined, however, on what basis she adopted these truths. Looking more closely at the decision he made, it is evident that she did not create and follow her own ethical set of beliefs, but rather they were derived from the absolutist society. Therefore, she did not autonomously create a deontological moral code for herself, rather she blindly accepted absolutist rule.

Miller does not, however, take a direct side on the moral stance of confessing a lie. In warning against absolutism, he does not objectively define an absolute track of determining a personal code of ethics. What he does argue, however, is how the moral absolutist society that the women live in completely takes away their ability to develop moral autonomy. Although when examining the confessions, it is possible to analyze ethical perspectives, once again that creates two absolutes; neither of which were carried out without contradiction.

The truths that Goody Osburn based her decision were dictated by the society. In trying to secure the best outcome for herself, Goody Good perpetuates the trials for the others involved. Teleology and deontology can be described as “diametrically opposed opposites,” insofar as they represent two absolutes. The message Miller so desperately wants to instill is not contingent upon deciding the moral stance of confessing a lie, but rather upon realizing that it cannot be decided; that one single correct answer cannot be determined. Rather, Miller argues that all people should individually conceive of their personal moral stance, which absolutism prevents. 

Throughout the play, many other characters were forced to make this decision: confess to witchcraft when none was performed, or be sentenced to hanging. This decision was first made by Tituba, Reverend Parris’s slave, and she was the first one to confess to witchcraft she has not committed. Put under the harsh questioning of Reverend Hale and Reverend Parris, Tituba admits that she was in communication with the devil, but now she turns back to God. Rather than seeing her as a liar, Reverend Hale views her as a messenger sent from God. Her identity is boiled down to merely her race and cultural background, thus causing the members of the town to see her as without conscience or goodness. Simply, it becomes a matter of black and white, here not symbolically, as due to her failure to resemble the accepted absolute good, she is regarded as evil. At least until she actually commits an evil. 

As for her confession, she appears to turn away from her sins, and towards the goodness of God. That is enough for the others, and not only is she pardoned, but praised. This would make sense within the context of the defined moral absolutes of the town, only she is lying. In an effort to save her own life, Tituba tells of a sin she has not committed. She admits to speaking with the devil when in actuality she has not. Lloyd W Brown makes the argument that Miller uses Tituba’s confession and conversion to dramatize “The politicization of moral definitions in  Christian civilizations… [which] underlines the deliberate political motives that make moral absolutism an evil” (121).  The definitions of good and evil were said to have been derived from God, yet they had underlying political motives in the trials. The townspeople often made accusations that were based solely on vengeance, a desire for payback, and other selfish motives.  

In Tituba’s case, she made accusations out of her desire to preserve her own life. She lied simply so she would not die. Many times, lying is the morally wrong course of action; thus in an absolutist society it would always be the morally incorrect course of action, yet the second Tituba tells a lie, her entire being and morality changes in the eyes of Reverend Parris. Miller deliberately shows how an action that the town would deem morally wrong is what saved Tituba, and was deemed correct to show that moral absolutism is not only dangerous, but paradoxical in application, and cannot truly exist in a society. This, in addition to the contradictions in the society’s opinions of Goody Good and Goody Osburn’s actions illustrate the paradox in applying an absolute morality. 

As previously mentioned, many of the others accused followed in this course of actions, and confessed in the witch trials to lies. Those who make the untrue confessions save their own life, thus the physical consequence is lesser, yet they have betrayed their own personal integrity. Those who decided to confess to a lie then retained their integrity, but at a greater cost. How then can one option always be morally correct? Depending on the perspective from which one looks at it, lying is not necessarily wrong, confession not absolutely right. The moral stance of confessing to a lie cannot be determined through absolutism, but in the drama it is. Miller shows innocent lives being taken due to the moral absolutism of the judges and the court in an effort to further his ideas warning against it. 

When it is John Proctor’s turn to confess, his thought process differs greatly from that of the women previously mentioned. He becomes somewhat more aware of the precarious situation the trials have placed him in. Awaiting his confession, he turns to his wife, and asks her what he is to do. Elizabeth’s replies: “Do what you will. But let none be your judge. There is no higher judge under Heaven than Proctor is” (Miller Arthur 213)! Although subtle, these words of Elizabeth Proctor embody the message that Miller is making about moral decisions.

No one other than John Proctor can make the decision of what is best for him to do. Elizabeth tells John not to let anyone else be his judge; not the court officials, not the society and not even his wife. Proctor has to be autonomous in his decision; no one else can tell him what to do, as no one should have the authority to tell him how to think. Elizabeth continues in this line of thought, and in telling of why she did not plead for John’s confession, says “He has his goodness now. God forbid I take it from him” John Proctor’s goodness was in the decision he made for himself. Whether or not it aligned with the morality dictated by the town did not matter, for it did align with his personal beliefs. Placed in such a dire situation, Proctor was forced to reflect on what he felt was right, independent of the society. 

Although Proctor does ‘have his goodness’, it is difficult to categorize him as a good or a bad person. For the most part, Miller presents his characters in a way that deliberately and clearly draws a line between protagonist and antagonist. This becomes interesting to examine in the context of moral absolutism because when looking closely at the characters, it becomes apparent that many of them are not absolutely good or absolutely evil, but rather all share a similar self serving desire. John Proctor, by some the regarded hero of the play, is the character that does not quite fall into Miller’s two absolutes, although he is imperfect, and similar in some ways to the rest of the town.

His death can be seen as a self sacrifice for his own values, or it can be seen as a self inflicted punishment for his adultery. Susan C. W. Abbotson introduces this idea in saying “His death is less a noble sacrifice, than an apology for sins past” (20). Why then, does Miller present him as a protagonist-arguably a hero. It goes back to Preston’s idea of Puritanism: that there are ‘no middle kinds men,’ yet Proctor is exactly that. He is not an absolute; he is human.  That is why readers are able to relate to him-to see themselves in him: while he is flawed, he is heroic in breaking down absolutes. 

Throughout the trials, it is the girls who have the power to dictate what is right and wrong, and the town accepts that as a correct interpretation of the moral law. They have lived so long under the notion that what is said to be right is right, and what is said to be wrong is wrong, that in a time of fear and hysteria, they have no problem accepting this. Miller brings a final challenge to moral absolutism-specifically the divine command theory they follow-in this. Boiled down to its essence, the trials acquit liars-in a society where lying has been considered absolutely morally improper.

Hearkening back to the dilemma Plato commented about in Euthyphro, the people accepted commands against what they knew to be true, solely on the basis that they believed that God instructed them to do so. These were the ‘abhorrent commands,’ yet so many were so quick to accept them. Furthermore, the moral absolutes in this instance change: the girls call good what majority considers evil, and evil what they consider good. Miller does this specifically to prove that the notions of good and evil are arbitrary, that they can change situationally, and that each one needs the other to exist. They are, as he says, ‘two sides of the same coin:’ this coin which can flip at any given moment. 

Now this is not to say Miller does not condemn the trials as an evil; that by some convention they can be determined good, thus making it impossible to castigate them. In a sense, Miller does find an ‘evil’ within the trials: the evil of absolutism. He worries himself more with the fact that people were stripped of their moral autonomy. In a different society, these trials would not have been plausible. Miller uses the confessions, the characters, and the society as a whole, in different ways to prove moral absolutism this evil.

The ends or the means? The truth or the lies? The good or the evil? So often is everything broken up like that; two options-nothing more. How restrictive would it be if one were only ever to look at things two ways, and they were to denounce one entirely? Even further, what if one was told that there were only two ways to look at things, and told which to adopt and which to denounce? How would anyone be able to think again? Life would just become a series of blind allegiances, living one action to the next, subscribing to a set of beliefs yet unsure if you even believe them.

This, above all, is what Miller finds as evil: the inability to think, to be autonomous in decisions and in beliefs. In describing a divine command theorist based conformist society, he sets the foundation of this. In presenting forced deontological and teleological actions, he forces readers to reflect on this. In writing of a court system where moral laws have been flipped on their heads, he dramatizes this. And in creating characters that fall within the spectrum of goodness, he makes this human; after all a society is merely a group of humans, forced by proximity to establish order. Miller does not denounce society, and he does not condemn religion; he merely wants people to think. 

Works Cited

Abbotson, Susan C. W. “A Reassessment of the ‘Goodness’ of John Proctor: Fair or Foul?” The Arthur Miller Journal, vol. 7, no. 1/2, 2012, pp. 15–21. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/ 42909488.

Ardolino, Frank. "Babylonian confusion and biblical inversion in Miller's The Crucible." Journal of Evolutionary Psychology, 2003, pp. 64. Academic OneFile, Accessed 23 May 2019.

Brown, Lloyd W. “Tituba of Barbados and the American Conscience: Historical Perspectives in Arthur Miller and Ann Petry.” Caribbean Studies, vol. 13, no. 4, 1974, pp. 118–126. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/25612575.

Fender, Stephen. “Precision and Pseudo Precision in ‘The Crucible.’” Journal of American Studies, vol. 1, no. 1, 1967, pp. 87–98. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/27552765.

Miller, Arthur. The Crucible: A Play In Four Acts. New York : Penguin Books, 1976. Print.

Plato. Five Dialogues : Euthyphro, Apology, Crito, Meno, Phaedo. Indianapolis :Hackett Pub. Co., 2002.