The Casual Vacancy The Casual Vacancy question

How is moral responsibility portrayed in Rowling's novel?
Tiffany Toombs Tiffany Mar 18, 2013 12:06PM
Ontario High School Student 8
14 March 2013
*Spoiler Alert! This essay contains spoilers about The Casual Vacancy by J.K. Rowling!
Moral Responsibility in The Casual Vacancy

From beginning to end, J.K. Rowling provoked her readers to make disparaging judgments about several carefully crafted characters. One character in particular, Stuart (Fats) Walls, elicited outrage and provoked flaming accusations from the audience. However, as one scrutinizes what appear to be Rowling’s strong but debatable opinions on the blameworthiness of Pagford’s citizens, these initial reactions may prove to be premature. The objective of this paper is to reveal the injustice of the novel’s accusatory portrayal of Fats Walls and the appalling array of biased excuses that the author employs to pardon Krystal Weedon’s moral culpability. Furthermore, this paper will relate the moral philosophy of Princeton professor Gideon Rosen to the deliberate characterization in The Casual Vacancy and how the philosophy is used by Rowling to misdirect blame. Rosen’s concept of “skepticism about moral responsibility,” which establishes the taxonomy of ignorance that lessens the culpability of human actions, is evident in Rowling’s portrayal of Krystal, whose poor behavior is blatantly excused by her characterized ignorance. However, from Rowling’s unsympathetic depiction of Fats, whose actions may also be morally excusable, it remains clear that Rowling does not apply the same vindications to every character. If read with Rosen’s skepticism of moral responsibility in mind, The Casual Vacancy becomes increasingly biased in its portrayal of various characters. Rowling’s conditional use of moral skepticism harshly accuses Fats Walls, who under skepticism is a similarly blameless character, of being morally accountable while effectively diminishing Krystal Weedon’s moral responsibility.

To understand the novel’s use of moral skepticism, one must first understand a key concept behind the philosophy of Gideon Rosen, Stuart Professor of Philosophy and Chair of the Council of the Humanities at Princeton University. In Professor Rosen’s taxonomy of ignorance, he addresses the three main ways by which a person may be morally excused for an action: blameless factual ignorance, blameless moral ignorance, and normative ignorance. Rosen illustrates these types of ignorance through the following situations. For instance, if he were to give someone a cup of poisoned tea and killed that person, he would be held liable for giving the poisoned tea. Then imagine that he had not known the tea was poisoned, so under the shield of blameless factual ignorance, he would not be morally wrong. It is extremely important to note, Rosen’s skepticism about moral responsibility lies not on the grounds of whether the particular action of an individual is wrong, but whether the individual is morally responsible for the wrongdoing. The second type of ignorance, blameless moral ignorance, deals primarily with social conditioning. According to Rosen, ancient slave owners could not be held morally accountable for their abuse of another human being, because neither they nor the slaves believed physical beating of captive labor to be an immoral act. Lastly, in the case of normative ignorance, a person’s moral culpability may be lessened or diminished altogether if he or she is mistaken about the strength of moral reasons. For example, when Bill Clinton lied to his wife about cheating, he knew that lying was morally wrong. Yet maybe his self-interest told him that, in his case, it was better to lie and so he underestimated the moral importance of being honest. Though it is arguable whether or not he should be held morally accountable because no one knows for certain his thought process, the previous scenario excuses his wrongdoing (Rosen). These three reasons serve to lessen the moral blame of what may originally be deemed as culpable actions and are thoroughly exemplified by Rowling’s glorification of Krystal Weedon in The Casual Vacancy.

The novel directly addresses Krystal’s offensive behavior by revealing her ignorance of the facts that surround various situations, excusing her actions by what would be called blameless factual ignorance. In the incident where Krystal bitterly threatens Suhkvinder, “Your fu**ing mum killed my Nan! She’s gonna get fu**ing done and so are you,” Rowling defends Krystal as a victim who lost her great-grandmother (Rowling 261). In her angry thoughts, Krystal reveals her misconception that Sukhvinder’s mother had caused Nana Cath’s death. With the author’s deliberate statement that Krystal was ignorant of the facts, readers can easily forgive Krystal’s harmful threats to Suhkvinder and her family. Later, when Krystal realizes that her Nana Cath did not die by the hands of Parminder Jawanda, she regrets her malice toward Suhk. Her show of regret further allows the audience to sympathize with her actions. So even though her false accusation is to blame and her misdirected anger is to blame, Rowling’s skillful portrayal of the surrounding context leads the reader to absolve Krystal’s moral responsibility. Rowling shows that misdirecting blame and anger, though wrong, is morally excusable, because Krystal had no knowledge of the truth behind circumstances.

However, factual ignorance is not the most frequent form of excuse used to defend Krystal. Rowling tactfully uses Krystal’s childhood in The Fields to refute that Krystal is morally accountable for her despicable and inappropriate actions, such as crude speech, and to win the sympathy of readers. Much of Krystal’s appalling behavior is regarded as morally blameless under her ignorance of what society deems as “morally right.” In the passage that shows how she and Sukhvinder became friends, Krystal has called Suhk a “Paki bit**” (Rowling 131). After being sharply reprimanded by Barry, Krystal sheepishly apologizes to Suhk and claims that she “wuz jokin’” (Rowling 132). Even Sukhvinder had to acknowledge that Krystal “seemed to see no difference” between offensive and proper words to use (Rowling 132). Rowling included this scene to further characterize Krystal as a truly innocent girl. Krystal could not be held morally culpable for her actions because she did not realize the offensiveness of such a term.
Contrarily, Rowling does not excuse Fats in the same way. Her ridiculing tone of Fats search for “authenticity” proves that she holds Fats guilty for his bad actions, purposely neglecting to consider whether or not he falls under blameless moral ignorance. Whereas Krystal is merely oblivious to what is right or wrong to say, Fats is mocked for his quest to fight superficiality. Yet his code of authenticity is an underlying set of morals that seem to him to be of importance. “Honesty was Fats’ currency” and he was never afraid of the truth leaking out (Rowling 65). Although his attraction to things that are “ugly but honest” resulted in his selfish sexual relationship with Krystal, he nevertheless believed that those were the sacrifices needed to achieve authenticity (Rowling 65). Therefore, if readers apply the philosophy of moral ignorance, Fats would not be morally culpable of his search for the reality. He is morally mistaken by his own desire to be authentic and fails to follow the morals set for him in the novel.

Beyond the blameless factual and moral ignorance is the normative ignorance. It is difficult to defend, yet strategically used or left out by Rowling to further defend Krystal’s mishaps and misconstrue the true nature of Fats’ actions. Normative ignorance is the circumstance in which one misjudges the strength of certain moral obligations, meaning the individual knows fully well what is wrong and what is right but mistakenly decides that it would be better to satisfy “self-interest” (Rosen). Rowling portrays this in Krystal’s attempt to become pregnant; despite knowing that it is wrong of her to have sex with Fats, she reasons that she must do it to “save” herself and Robbie. The author deliberately reveals Krystal’s thought process before she performed her culpable action, allowing the reader to hold Terri’s addiction responsible and excuse Krystal’s moral responsibility. In the case of Fats however, Rowling does not attempt to show possible normative ignorance in his thoughts and behavior. Fats’ reasoning behind his actions are deliberately hidden from the reader, so as to conceal any excuses that may similarly clear his name. From Rowling’s intention to place moral blame on him by hiding what might have been going through Fats’ head while he misbehaved, the audience is led to believe that he is morally culpable while Krystal is not.

Through deliberate usage of the skepticism about moral responsibility, Rowling glorifies Krystal, reducing her moral culpability, while placing blame on Fats Walls, whose culpability might also be reduced if she had applied the same skepticism. Through Rowling’s manipulation of The Casual Vacancy and the biased characterization, she continually points fingers at certain people while unjustly pardoning the others. And so it seems, in accordance with rest of the novel and society as a whole, blame and moral culpability, whether it is on oneself or others, exists as long as humans exist. As for Gideon Rosen’s skepticism of moral responsibility, it may ideally lift accusations and the effects of retaliation, if applied to every situation. However, Rowling’s The Casual Vacancy blatantly illustrates the difficulty of such a practice. The taxonomy of ignorance can only be applied unconditionally in a perfect utopian society, not in the realistic society of Pagford.

Works Cited
Rosen, Gideon. "Gideon Rosen on Moral Responsibility." Interview by David Edmonds and Nigel Warburton. Philosophy Bites. The Institute of Philosophy, 7 Nov. 2010. Web. 28 Jan. 2013. .
Rowling, J. K. The Casual Vacancy. New York: Little, Brown &, 2012. Nook.

I enjoyed this essay, never saw the book through this filter before. Although I didn't really get the Bill Clinton example of normative ignorance, the example with Krystal's intention to get pregnant made up for it, so this paper did a nice job of explaining the taxonomy of ignorace that can excuse someone of moral responsibility.
Also, after reading this paper I almost have to say that I've noticed almost a bias in Rowling's words. She does seem to favor Krystal (the poor) and criticize Fats (the well-off). Maybe something in her personal history has something to do with this? I know that she is involved in an organization that helps under-privileged kids so that may be partly responsible for her bias.
Nice work.

Since you opened quite a few topics with your essays by now: What exactly do you want? To discuss or someone to check your essays?
I don't think the forums are a place for your homework. This is a website about books. We might as well discuss books then, not check homeworks.

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