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Coetzee and moral principles

By Peter Sellick - posted Monday, 19 December 2016

There are times during reading in which a statement or observation is made that leaps off the page and infects the mind. This happens when something is written that goes against the prevailing view but which is obviously true. These are statements that disassemble current orthodoxy and promise a new and truer view.

I discovered one such statement in Coetzee's Elizabeth Costello that is subtitled "Eight Lessons". The book follows a time-honoured method in philosophy in which characters are inserted into a narrative framework from which philosophical ideas emerge. It is not so much a novel but a series of lectures. This method avoids arid philosophical discourse and gives the ideas a human face. Coetzee thus avoids abstraction and embodies his ideas in fictional characters.

The principle character in this novel is Elisabeth Costello an Australian novelist. I will focus on Lesson three "The Lives of Animals" in which she argues against the wholesale slaughter of animals for food.


In Lives she debates with academics about her views on animals and at a dinner held in her honour the president of the college, in an attempt to get the conversation onto safer ground, asserts that her vegetarianism is the result of moral conviction. Her answer is galvanising: "No, I don't think so. It comes out of a desire to save my soul." The answer brings silence only broken by the clink of plates.

We can speculate about that silence. Did her hearers think she was espousing the beliefs prevalent in the Medieval Church, or was she an adherent of modern Christian fundamentalism, both of which were and are concerned with our destiny after death? Thus a desire to save ones soul refers to the desire to go to heaven. Our destiny, of course, is linked to our actions in this life.

I would suggest that such a construction does not represent what Elizabeth intends when she talks about the desire to save her soul.

The first part of her answer is a rejection of ethics as a rationally derived set of principles by which one lives. Any reader of Stanley Hauerwas would recognise this. The project of a rationally derived ethical system has been shown to be a fantasy. Not only does it presume that such a universal system could be formulated, it also presumes that people could act according to such formulations.

Any attempt to live thus would be inhuman because ethical formulations would become a barrier to real intimate human interactions. This is why St Paul had such a problem with the law. He saw slavish obedience to the law as an obstacle to Christian community.

Elizabeth Costello's answer to the president is an example of how Coetzee favours the embodied over the abstract. There is nothing more abstract than ethical principles.


To talk about saving ones soul in an academic situation is asking for trouble, the trouble that results in speechlessness and embarrassment because the humanities in our universities have become so secularised that such a statement is met with derision. But what could be more central to the concern of the humanities than the desire to save one's soul?

Notice that she does not say that she wants to save her soul by rationally sorting out a system of ethics. She desires to save her soul; desire is embodied. This is an argument for embodiment and against reason. To say this in an academic setting is to invite bewilderment.

We need at this point to abandon any idea of body/soul dualism and understand humanity as being ensouled bodies. The soul is the essence of the person, the psyche, the consciousness of living.

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About the Author

Peter Sellick an Anglican deacon working in Perth with a background in the biological sciences.

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