Research: When Do Ethics Become Ethical?
Ethics, according to the -Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary, is defined as "the discipline dealing with what is good and bad..." or "a guiding philosophy." In the poem "Ethics" by Linda Pastan, a thought-provoking look is taken into what ethics are to a person at a young age versus an older age. Can people really understand the meaning of ethics when they are young or does the necessity of being exposed to it and growing old contribute the ability of being able to understand what a person's ethics really are?
The passage of time is indicated in a few ways. In the poem, Pastan indicates the past in the first line, "In ethics class so many years ago." This passage of time comes off as the way a woman at a high school reunion would refer to her un-pretty hair and slightly over-weight self in high school, "The seventeen year old me? Girl, that was so many years ago." This line shows the reader how young she thinks she was when the first question regarding ethics came to her. Near the end of the poem in line 23, Pastan once again indicates not only the passage of time, but also that her mind has grown as well. "I know now..." is what she says, as if she didn't know certain things before.
In the duration of the poem, it seems as if the reader can watch Pastan grow up from a person who did not know or care to know the meaning of ethics, to someone who took it upon herself to understand it. In lines 4-6, when the question, "Which would you save, a Rembrandt painting / or an old woman who hadn't many / years left anyhow?" is first stated, Paston lets us know that this was a general directed to everyone in the class by saying "our teacher" (line 2). As a student, she might have thought, "Oh I don't have to answer this question, it's a question to everyone; maybe she won't call on me." That kind of thought shows that most students did not care to think about this question but rather that they have better things to do than ponder it. This, I think, is proven when she says the students are "restless on hard chairs" in line 6 and also they would "always" reply "half-heartedly" (line 9).
After a passage of time had taken place, indicated by saying "one year..." in line 13, there is no longer a reference to the class as a whole. In the same line, she takes a stance. She becomes a person who is not only part of a class, but a person with her own way of thinking. She says, "I." Simple as it may be, saying "I," gives herself individuality among the class. When she says, "I replied," the view is no longer held that the question is just a meaningless task to ask the class, she has now realized that she can answer this question, or at least try to (line 13).
The circle that embodied the whole class and "our teacher" had shrunk. Now, as a thoughtful student who is one step closer to understanding ethics, the circle has shrunk to embody everyone on a more personal basis. The teacher was no longer "our teacher" but actually, a teacher with a name: Linda (line 15). She no longer sees the teacher as just some random teacher who has to teach everyone in the class, this indication of her name may be a way of showing that she got more personal with the teacher or more comfortable in the class; comfortable enough to ask in response to Linda's question, "Why not let the woman decide herself?" (line 14).
Even still, that question evades having to answer the question. Though Pastan had grown up enough to understand and be able to analyze the teacher's question, she may not yet have understood the meaning of ethics. The teacher says that letting the woman choose would be eschewing "the burdens of responsibility," basically, running away from her duty of choosing (lines 15-16). It might be in that line that is shows Pastan tried to understand, but even as a more adult person, still did not fully understand ethics.
Her choice for the title signifies her pathway to the understanding of the term ethics. The poem shows how a person can come to understand the meaning of ethics over a period of time. At the same time the reader is treated to the opportunity of being able to see this change take place in a matter of minutes within words that take up no more than a small page.
As stated earlier, the definition of ethics is "the discipline dealing with what is good and bad..." Lesson 2 in the online class says that "denotations are rarely bound by context; they remain static regardless of the context." I think that I am going to have to disagree with the latter part of that line and steal the word "rarely" in the first and run with it. The rest of the denotative version in the dictionary ends with "...and with moral duty and obligation." The remaining portion of that definition seems like it should be saved for the connotative version.
Connotations are overtone or suggestions of additional meaning (Gioia, 368). Why then, is the seemingly connotative version written in the denotation? Is it because ethics is simply so difficult to understand that just a simple definition cannot define it? Do we have to take "all the contexts we have met in the past" to understand what ethics means, even if it means adding to the denotation what belongs to the connotation (Gioia, 368)? It's possible. In line 16, "the burden of responsibility" is the connotation of ethics. The connotation goes hand in hand with that last part of the denotation, "with moral duty and obligation."
Is it in the end where she finally understands the meaning of ethics? I feel like she is saying, "I don't want to be saved by people who don't understand," when she says women, paintings and seasons are "all beyond saving by children" (line 25). By saying children, she is referring to herself as well as her classmates at the beginning of the poem. The three things she listed are beyond saving by the people to whom the question was asked, the children. Pastan remembers the thoughts that were provoked when she was asked "the question" as a young person. She simply did not care; she, as well as the other class, figured it would be more morally right to save the old woman as said in line 8 with "we'd opt for one year of life, the next for art."
It is by remembering her previous thoughts, the way she gives us the theme. It is only by learning, experiencing, and perhaps getting older that give a person the understanding of what ethics really is. This timeline of learning aligns with its tone as well. She is thinking about the past events and thoughts in reflective form. She also leans toward the philosophical side near the end of the poem.
At the end of her poem, by saying that things were beyond saving, she has come to an understanding. By saying "beyond" she is telling us that she's over it and has accepted the reality of people's thoughts and choices. If there was a fire in a museum (line 3) that she was in, maybe she feels that she would rather not be saved if the saving is done by a person who is only doing it because it's "the right thing to do." It's as if she might say the following to a kid trying to help her: "Ma'am, we have to get you out of here." As she responds, "Oh child, do you even know why you're saving me?"
Maybe the question wasn't necessarily "which" would those students save. As Pastan grew up and became the person on the other side of the question, it is possible that she realized the meaning of ethics doesn't relying on what a person is going to do or not do. It is possible that she came to a realization that as one grows older, that person might learn that ethics is not the question of doing or not doing, but rather, why is that person choosing to do that particular thing.Works Cited
"Ethics." Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary.
Kennedy, X.J., and Diana Gioia. Backpack Literature: an Introduction to Fiction, Poetry, and Drama. New York: Pearson Longman.