David R. Henderson  

A Question of Principle?

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I watched most of the movie Paradise Road yesterday. I recommend it, by the way. It's about a large group of women who were captured in Singapore during World War II and taken prisoner by the Japanese government to the island of Sumatra. It's quite moving.

The lead character, Adrienne Pargiter, played by Glenn Close, puts an orchestra together to sing Dvorak's New World Symphony a capella. It's amazingly good. I had never heard Dvorak's symphony done a capella before first seeing this movie. The Japanese prison guards are moved by it and, momentarily, become slightly less inhumane.

Later, one of the guards asks Pargiter if she will put together an arrangement of a Japanese folk song. She refuses and it's clear, from her tone and body language, that this is an issue of principle for her. She hates what they have done to the women so much that she refuses to cooperate.

It seems clear from the context that some of the guards and even the prison commander are willing to trade. The Japanese soldiers have, apparently, stolen their rations, withheld quinine, and generally been nasty. But earlier in the movie a Jewish doctor in the camp, Dr. Verstak (played by Francis McDormand) managed to get quinine by trading or making concessions. (I've forgotten which.)

So in refusing to conduct the Japanese song, Pargiter is giving up a chance to trade for food and/or quinine, which could save innocent people's lives.

I don't see this as a question of principle. Remember, they had been asked to sing a folk song, not the Japanese anthem. (Even with the Japanese anthem, I would have agreed if it had got food or quinine for some of the prisoners.)

I believe in living by strong principles. But I also believe that you should identify very clearly where there really is a principle at stake and where there isn't.

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CATEGORIES: moral reasoning

COMMENTS (15 to date)
Tom West writes:

Interesting. I see the principle quite clearly (do not reward wrong-doing), but as someone who tends to value consequences over principles, I think her choice was wrong as well.

David R. Henderson writes:

@Tom West,
Maybe the difference between us is in what we see as being the role of principles. I see them as ways to live life well. “Do not reward wrong-doing” is too general. The reason not to reward wrong-doing, if that were my principle, would be so that we get less of it. (The law of supply.) But in that society, by singing the song, she would have got less wrong-doing: i.e., the prison guards would have given the prisoners something.

Matt Drews writes:

Yes, but that's a rather non-standard view of principles: most people view them as "rule of law" rather than "rule of thumb". You can restate it as "By committing never to (help wrong-doers), we will get less wrong-doing".

The problem with allowing individuals to make the judgement is that the benefits of trade here accrue to the collaborators, while any negative effects (More likely to capture prisoners, run camps), although negligible here, would happen to other people. This creates a great incentive to consciously or unconsciously cheat. So by committing to a rule, there's far less incentive to cheat and far greater moral legibility: with one paragraph you can determine easily whether or not the woman followed the rule. Greater legibility in turn leads to far easier enforcement. The question isn't whether in any particular edge case there's benefit from ignoring the rule, but if those cumulative edge cases make up for the increased propensity to cheat and loss of moral legibility. People who believe strongly in sticking with principles believe the latter.

Matt Drews writes:


The amount of rations/quinine the soldiers steal is not either a flat amount or a base percentage: instead, it is whatever they can get away with. The only limit is ensuring that the prisoners get enough that not too many die, so higher levels of the army don't take a look at the camp. By establishing a (repeatable) trade for food, all that actually happens is the prisoners have to sing more often to maintain the same amount of food, since the guards are free to take more of the initial inflow.

Andy writes:

That the patients don't get the quinine can't be considered a moral consequence of their refusal to perform. It's not a deal when one side is using force, it can't be upheld by any court, and there's nothing that can make the guards give the quinine if they do perform.

I don't think it can be a moral question if you are forced to perform an action. My preference would be to have the guards actually use force, rather than have this pretence that it is a voluntary exchange, the performance for the quinine.

Some other David writes:

When you cooperate with or fail to resist an oppressor, you increase the net benefit of oppressing you and those predictably similar to you, and therefore increase the amount of such oppression. Even for a consequentialist, this cost needs to be compared to the benefits of cooperation ex ante, because an oppressor can contrive to make cooperation your best choice ex post.

If *everyone* *always* responded to oppression by fighting unconditionally to the death to do the greatest possible harm to their oppressor, hardly any kind of oppression would be worthwhile.

The downside of that approach is that people don't always agree about what is oppression or wrongdoing. If no one ever submitted to something *they* feel is wrong, we might not be able to have a civilization at all.

Insight writes:

Such principles allow you to make a credible commitment you otherwise couldn't. Saying "if you capture me I won't give you the beautiful music you want even if you bribe me with food" isn't credible by itself. But if there is a strong enough principle behind it, it might be credible.

Richard A. writes:

I haven't seen this movie but words were put to the 2nd moventment of Dvorak's New World Symphony way back when and given the song title of Goin' Home.

Here is Lawrence Tibbett singing Goin' Home.

steve writes:

Survival is about more than food and water. The will to live matters an awful lot. If you read the survival literature, it seems pretty clear that maintaining group morale is important. Assuming they had enough food to not starve, a decision to not trade may have been quite rational and a sign of good leadership. If you have not, read Endurance sometime.


One of the instructions given to members of the Armed Forces who may be captured is, when it comes to food, do what your captors want. Keeping the rations coming is number one priority. Granted, there are things I wouldn't do even for food, such as assisting anti-American propaganda, but if it doesn't hurt the country, I'd go along with it just to keep the food coming.

Max writes:

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Tharma writes:

I think this is about the cost of principle. First let's look at the "trade" (song for provisions) from the perspective of the incarcerated individual. The fact that she declined to engage in said trade indicates that she believes that the cost of engaging in the trade exceeded the benefit. I haven't seen the movie but it may have been the case that the performance of the symphony was a way in which the incarcerated individuals coped with their incarceration or a statement that the jailers could not take everything away from them. This individual may feel that if they were to sing the folk song it would be yet another thing that the Japanese have taken away from them. Adrienne Pargiter has put a very high price on the statement singing the symphony made, a price higher than the price of the ability to save lives. Personally my principles can be bought for the ability to save lives. There is nothing wrong with either valuation of principles. It is a market, the market for principles. Some individuals people value their principles highly and other don't.

Roy writes:

Is there a price on principle? What sort of trade would she have agreed to? I think we have to take into account that a trade of this form is the same as a market exchange where someone purchases fruit from a vendor; if the price is right, fruit (in this case, the arrangement of the Japanese folk song) will be bought. In this case, the price of Adrienne's "principle" was not met with merely quinine and food. I think it's fair to say that she would have gladly agreed to an arrangement of the Japanese folk song had they offered to set her free...

Ken B writes:

It is possible for otherwise neutral acts to become imbued with symbolism and cease to be neutral. Not having seen the movie I cannot tell if that has happened here. And first steps can be important, so important to resist. One also wonders if Close's character was asked to sing words she did not understand.

I recommend the first season of the old British TV series Enemy at the Door, which is about the occupation of the Channel Islands, and the dilemma, what is accomodation to be decent and make life better, and what is collaboration.

Ken B writes:

I guess I'm more admiring of the refusal than DRH is. I am reminded of Giles Corey. He was a farmer in Salem in the 1690s. Accused of witchcraft he showed his defiance by refusing to plead to the charge at all. As a result he was pressed: he was placed under a pallet and rocks were loaded on until he would agree to plea. He refused and was pressed to death. When asked near the end if he had anything to say his response was "More weight".

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