What would you do to survive?

I wrote this for part of The Only Way is Ethics festival, which was a series of talks, events and installations surrounding my production of Man to Man and Nikolai Foster’s production of The Good Person of Sichuan at the Mercury Theatre in Colchester. Various people were asked to respond to a provocation about money, goodness and survival and their responses were recorded as talking heads to be played on a screen in the theatre during the festival. You can jump to 21 minutes 30 seconds in to see my response or scroll down to read the provocation and transcript.

The Provocation

‘For the practice of virtue a modicum of comfort is necessary’ – Thomas Aquinas

The poor, by necessity, will inevitably lean towards less virtuous lives while those with money will lead fuller and more generous existence. However, the more you have the greater the temptation to keep it.

In fact, is there anyone intrinsically good enough that money cannot corrupt? So, for your own moral well bring it is better to remain poor.

In desperate times what would you do to survive? How far will your principles get you before necessity takes over?

My response

In desperate times what would you do to survive? How far will your principles get you before necessity takes over?

And so I ask myself, what would I do?

And I find myself thinking in circles about the tricksy, tangled relationship between morality and survival. However rigid or solid our ethical principles might seem… do we really know they won’t be warped or twisted in the white heat of the moment when our existence is on the line. When it’s life or death, eat or be eaten, kill or be killed…

It’s so easy to judge from a comfortable distance, through the filter of a tv screen, or hindsight.

I turn the spotlight back on myself.

As a humanist, I find myself rattled by the implication that without a god there can be no morality. That we humans require an overseeing all powerful creator to tell us not to kill each other.

An answer I’ve given many times before – I believe in the good of humans and in the power of community – what we can achieve with the belief in a common humanity as a guiding principle.

But it’s very easy for me to sit here and say that now. Here and now. In my life.

I’ve never lived in a war torn country.

I’ve never been a position where I had no roof over my head, or been unable to feed myself, a family.

What happen to my rosy ‘common humanity’ when it’s dog eat dog?

Shen Te in Good Person tells us: “The good in our country cannot remain good. Where there’s nothing on the plates, the hungry come to blows” and asks the gods “how can I remain good when everything is so expensive?”

Then a link to a news article catches my eye: poverty impedes cognitive function.

New research shows that worrying about money causes cognitive impairments.

So now we’re being told that it’s been poor that leads you to make bad decisions.

While a government of millionaires make cuts and slashes that make the poor poorer and decimate our welfare state, founded in the belief that we all pay in and we all take out – we’re all in this together.

What’s to be done cries Zeus – the Gods are drunk…

The worse the situation, the better the good person performs in it. Suffering is a great purgative! – Is that the voice of Brecht’s god or a politician on the news?

Max Gericke can’t stand the unemployed – workshy scroungers. If you haven’t got a job – make one. Scatter a box of matches, pick them up.

Time and time again, faced with the most extreme of circumstances, Max lives by the principle  you do what you can. Even if that means sacrificing your own true identity, and living as your dead husband. And a life questioning behind closed doors, in the lonely silences in the early hours of the morning, who you really are and who you have become.

Your instruction once given me to be good and to live ripped me in two like a lightening bolt!

– Shen Te to the Gods.

I think about myself again – about the part of me that wants to be ethical and principled… and the part of me that will do what I need to, to survive. And how the two can live together side by side. For me, for now.



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