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To Kill a Mockingbird

by Harper Lee

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In the context of To Kill a Mockingbird, to what extent should morals and principles guide one's decisions?

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In To Kill a Mockingbird, Atticus Finch demonstrates morals which consistently place the needs of others above himself. Atticus chooses to defend Tom Robinson, a Black man accused of violating a white woman, even though some in his town hate him for it. Atticus is criticized behind his back for his work, and people make racist comments about his defense of Tom in front of Scout and Jem, Atticus's children. Bob Ewell, the father of the woman who was supposedly attacked, even physically threatens Atticus and spits in his face.

Yet Atticus makes no apologies for his tireless efforts to protect an innocent man. Although he never anticipated a case of this magnitude, confessing that he had "hoped to get through life without a case of this kind" (chapter 9), Atticus refuses to bend to the racist views of his town. Atticus believes in his work, professing his faith that the courts are "the great leveler of all people."

Atticus's actions reflect qualities that are worthwhile principles: honesty, loyalty, integrity, respect, selflessness, and responsibility. These qualities provide a fairly solid standard by which to judge morals and principles. The second part of your question is how much these principles should influence personal decisions and actions. The easy answer would be to say that morals should always govern your actions, but that isn't always a practical position. It is easier, for instance, to be selfless if your actions only impact yourself. But what if being selfless also impacts your family, causing them to endure some hardship? Similarly, what if your loyalty to a company means that you make half the income which you could make with another similar company? If people never lied, the Underground Railroad would never have helped rescue many slaves; likewise, many more Jews would have died in the Holocaust if people had been truthful and refused to hide Jews from the Nazis.

Practically speaking, morals and principles which demonstrate the above qualities should certainly guide decisions, but ultimately people must make personal decisions about their own moral code. Keeping the golden rule in mind is a good standard for evaluating such decisions, reminding us that our impact on others' lives holds tremendous value.

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