Higher Living Reflections

Moral Clarity at High Noon

Moral Clarity at High Noon

I am drawn to stories in which the protagonist is internally conflicted about themself or how to proceed through a fog of chaos in which the right course of action is not readily clear and available. In such situations, the protagonist is often confronted by a great moral crisis in which the character finds themself standing alone. Yet, they move forward undaunted, groping or plowing their way through the fog undaunted. For me, that is what a hero is made of.

Individualism reigns supreme in the pantheon of American values. Early American literature reflects that ethos. It was vividly portrayed by James Fenimore Cooper in his Last of the Mohicans: A Narrative of 1757, the second book of his pentalogy, The Leather-Stocking Tales. The struggle for the strong individualist erupts when they try or find themself needing to walk their own path—step to the beat of their own drum—while still living and acting within the confines of their tribe and social group. There the fight-flight-freeze rule applies.

Often though, the individual’s internal conflict involves or becomes a matter conscience, of needing to make moral choices. When that happens, tension generally arises between them and their tribe or society with the promise if not a guarantee of an ensuing volatile clash.

The classic film High Noon presents such a conflict in stark terms. The setting is a placid, isolated Old West town teeming with the “frontier spirit.” The town is, however, encumbered by strict social norms. The citizens have forged a strong, fairly homogenic community.

The story is a modern rendition of the late Middle Ages morality plays. In those, the theme focused on a high moral platitude portrayed through a sainted person’s life story. High Noon follows in the tradition of the old-time morality play with its length: About eighty-five minutes. It was filmed in black and white, which created the mood as well as presented the conflict in the stark moral contrast of good versus evil. Every citizen was forced to choose.

Initially, a sense the conflict could be avoided took hold of Marshal Kane, who the gunnie and his henchmen were coming for. He heeded the counsel by the town’s leaders and fled. But a short time away from the dusty town gave him space to examine his conscience. That is when clarity set in. Running was delusionary. It would not solve the problem. Rather, it would merely transfer and delay dealing with it. He concluded his only recourse was to return and deal with it.

Life is an ongoing choice making. Some choices involve ethical or moral issues, but most do not. If you are hungry, you might choose to eat in or to go out for a bite. But that presumes you have the means to make that choice. What if you don’t, and you and your children are starving with no handout available? Would it be okay for you to steal food to prevent starvation despite the moral and legal injunctions that stealing is forbidden? Is driving over the speed limit ever okay? Have you ever? Most drivers become apoplectic if another is weaving in and out and driving at breakneck speed. But what if that reckless driver was driving erratically because their passenger was experiencing a health episode that demanded immediate emergency care?

Rarely are we confronted by such existential crises, but when we are, it is not usually one we anticipated and prepared for. Nevertheless, it’s in your face, and you must choose. Just like the townspeople who refused to stand with the marshal, who personified the rule of law, either out of self-preservation—cowardice—or because the rule of law was bad for business. Either way, moral equivocation when confronted by great existential challenges is ultimately moral cowardice. There was no threading of the morality needle there.

Curiously, John Wayne called High Noon “the most un-American thing I’ve seen in my whole life.” But perhaps that was due to his familiarity with the movie’s director Carl Foreman who was blacklisted by the notorious House Un-American Activities Committee.

A few years after the film was produced, Dr. Martin Luther King said, “He who passively accepts evil is as much involved in it as he who helps to perpetrate it. He who accepts evil without protesting against it is really cooperating with it.”

His statement echoed one made by John Stuart Mill, nineteenth-century British political philosopher.

“Bad men need nothing more to compass their ends, than that good men should look on and do nothing,” he said.

That was and remains true unless, of course, they run into people like Marshal Will Kane.

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  • MARILYN BUEHLER
    May 6, 2022 at 4:54 pm

    HI jerry, I love your reference to High Noon because I am a huge fan of Cooper movies and especially this one. Seen it so many times. This moral conflict is brilliantly demonstrated. I think of simple every day decisions we make that challenge who we are. It is constant in this computer world and there are too many choices every day from isolation in the pandemic. Most of all, I think of Zelensky every single day in Ukraine and his moral decisions as he struggles to the necessity for freedom for all. O, the horror. I agree that we all have to fight evil when we see and not stop there. I miss you so much and hope to see you soon. I will be there and check with you before I come. I stil lhave work to do. Big Love to you..

  • Mary Lou Secor
    May 9, 2022 at 5:47 pm

    Good morning, Jerry, Today I find myself more than ever trying to find ways to fight evil when we see it. But I also find myself striving more to understand the reasoning of those whose moral compass differs so much from mine. This involves being less judgmental until I have more information. After watching again Seven Years in Tibet, I was reminded of the tremendous differences among all the nations/tribes/ ethnic groups/religions in the world which drives, in my mind, major conflicts. What one group finds “patriotic” another finds repulsive. So I guess for me the answer to fighting evil is trying to have more conversations with those whose beliefs differ so much with mine and hopefully finding out that ultimately we are more alike than different. But how do we change behaviors knowing that? How do we get to the conversation level with so much bitterness today? “So we beat on, boats against the current,….”
    ML