What would you have done?

My partner and I spent the weekend at a quiet and pleasant spa hotel in the quiet and pleasant countryside of South Moravia. Indeed, so quiet and pleasant were both the hotel and the countryside, that I can remember little about either. But that was the point.

We briefly escaped on Saturday evening to visit Telc, one of the most beautiful small country towns in the Czech Republic, so beautiful and so unique in its architecture that it is now protected by UNESCO.

Telc 2

Telc 1

The town dates back to the 13th century but its remarkable central square is mostly 15th century and later. Physically it seems largely to have escaped the ravages of time. The square is  intact – on all sides there are arcaded rows of high-gabled Renaissance and Baroque houses. There was plague, I think, which killed indiscriminately (there’s a plague column raised by the survivors), and there was the Second World War, which killed very particularly. Just outside the entrance to the Church of St Jakub there’s a long list of victims of the Nazi occupation, most of them Jews who were deported and murdered in Auschwitz.

It’s always difficult to imagine terrible things happening in beautiful places. You wonder what there can be to argue about. Telc must then have been a complacent and prosperous town.  But perhaps there are still old men and women alive today who remember those days and worry about them. Could anyone have done more?

What would you have done? What would I have done?

I ask this, because on Sunday evening, back in Prague, I caught up with a film I’ve wanted to see since I saw it reviewed in the Economist some months ago. Force Majeure is a Swedish film by director Ruben Östlund that examines what happens in a moment of terror during a skiing holiday when an avalanche appears to threaten a family lunching on the terrace of a restaurant. Thomas instinctively reaches for his mobile phone and flees, whilst his wife instinctively reaches for their children. All survive.

Force_Majeure_poster

This near-disaster happens in the first ten minutes of the film, and the next hour and forty minutes are concerned with the corrosive effect of Thomas’s ‘cowardice’ on his marriage and himself.

What would you have done? What would I have done?

The fact is that most of us don’t face moral challenges on this scale. Our sense of ourselves, of our character, of our moral character, is built on principle and hypothesis. We all like to think we would do the right thing if challenged, but we cannot know.

What we assume ourselves and others to be, indeed, often what we might love in others is partially theoretical, untested. And when the test comes, if it comes, we can’t always choose what we do. We can’t examine our principles and calculate the right course of action. In Thomas’s case, there’s no time to think. Instinct takes over and he grabs his mobile phone.

But this does nothing to excuse him. The moral aspect of what he does, or doesn’t do, isn’t removed if we say that he can’t help what he does, that at the moment of weakness he is animal not rational. Moral character includes instinct, and we admire those whose instincts are virtuous.

It’s a good film. I hadn’t expected subtitles, but it’s worth the effort. It’s a little too long, but not as didactic or as definite in its judgements as I make it sound.

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