The perpetual battle between morality and accountability

There is an uncomfortable truth to the good things we do: if no one sees us doing them they don’t feel as good. It doesn’t matter if it’s donating to a charity, volunteering, or just picking up litter – being benevolent doesn’t quite feel the same if you can’t tell someone, or at least put it on your Instagram story.

So, if no one was around to see – or care about – us being a good person, would we still strive to be one?

It’s easy to see where we get our understanding of what an upstanding citizen is, and the idea we should want that for ourselves. Imbued with morals and mantras as children, and read to from books full of kind and honest characters, how could we not aspire towards Mathilda’s wisdom, Winne the Pooh’s loyalty, and Harry Potter’s bravery? As we get older and life becomes more complicated, we see that the world isn’t as clear-cut as our bedtime stories led us to believe. Concepts like morality, once safe in the pages of books, are suddenly all too real, leading us to question whether we are truly good or have been told frequently enough that we are expected to be.

For decades, William Golding’s Lord of the Flies has remained imperative to understanding humanity’s innate darkness, being taught in schools and colleges across the world. A group of school boys are stranded on an island, with no one but each other and nothing but their naive understanding of the world, tasked with keeping themselves alive. Ralph, the symbol of civilisation, claims “the rules are the only thing we’ve got.” He believes the best way to survive is to maintain the moral and social order of the society they are familiar with. Jack, the antithesis of Ralph’s civility, wants to submit to barbarism and abandon accountability or logic.

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By Joanna Davies: Literature Columnist

As the boys unravel and the clash between civilisation and savagery escalates, Ralph finds it increasingly hard to fight his own corner. The complete liberation from society’s expectations and opportunity to do what they want is just more fun than being nice to everyone. The social conscience that once dictated their lives has almost completely dissolved, allowing Jack’s despotic regime to thrive, bringing violence and horror.

No one is holding the boys accountable for anything they do, whether it’s good or not, so why should they do the ‘right’ thing? Golding’s story erodes the veneer of social etiquette to reveal his idea of the real human condition: cruel, violent, selfish, savage.

If Lord of the Flies serves as anything in a real life context, it is a reminder that there is evil in all of us. Reflected in the brutes of Golding’s story is our own struggle with good and evil, the never ending tension between what society expects and what we want. But our own morality is contingent on our willingness to follow the rules that we have the power to make.

John Steinbeck wrote that “there ain’t no sin, and there ain’t no virtue. There’s just stuff people do”. Depressing as it may seem to reduce human behaviour to meaningless actions, freedom can be found in it. If right and wrong are not as black and white as we thought, then all we really need is a basic desire to make the world a nicer place to be. It is only the accountability to which we hold each other that allows morality and goodness to endure.