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“Speak what we feel, not what we ought to say”

Moral distress and bioethics

By Leigh E. Rich and Michael A. Ashby

At the tragic end of Shakespeare’s King Lear, Edgar, the son of the Earl of Gloucester, clearly sides with the emotions as he laments the state of the king and his kingdom: “The weight of this sad time we must obey,/Speak what we feel, not what we ought to say” (V.iii.323–324).1 Although long debated by Shakespeare scholars, these last lines, according to Russell A. Peck, illustrate Edgar’s passage from a naïve and egocentric though dutiful son, who is deceived by his brother and disinherited and exiled by his father, to that of “a good man” (1967, 235) and even “a kind of universal son” (1967, 230), who “learns to see beyond himself” (1967, 224) and “empathize with and take upon himself the afflictions of his fellow men” (1967, 226). “Through his trials,” Peck notes, “Edgar attains maturity and even gains a kind of authority” (1967, 234)—but an authority beyond merely that of victor on the side of justice. Rather, he is painted as a philosopher, whose examined life (as Socrates would have it) through the donning of various disguises and identities enables him (and us) to answer “the most oft asked question in the play: ‘What are you?’” (Peck 1967, 231).

Moral philosophers, of course, when reading this line outside of the context of the play surely would think Edgar has it backwards: that one “ought” to say (or do) what is morally required, not whatever fits best one’s inclinations. The “ought” in “not what we ought to say” as used by Edgar and Shakespeare, however, refers to the desires of others, particularly those in various positions of power that can bestow upon us pleasure or pain. And in phrasing the concept of “doing what is morally required” in this way—that is, in terms of “[s]peak[ing] what we feel, not what we ought to say,” Edgar and Shakespeare re-elevate that “unruly emotion,” long discredited as the disruptive and dark forces of “passion” and “Unreason” (Held and Lloyd cited in Held 2002, 54), and thus illuminate its role and essential value in the good.

Peck translates Edgar’s and King Lear’s final lines in this way: “Behold and feel: that is all we may conclude. Yet perhaps that is the highest tribute one man living in this world may pay another. That is the end at which the pilgrim Edgar arrives” (1967, 237). [continued …]

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Rich, Leigh E., and Michael A. Ashby. 2013. “Speak what we feel, not what we ought to say”: Moral distress and bioethics. Journal of Bioethical Inquiry 10(3): 277–281.

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