A Man for All Seasons
by Kenneth Wagner
The film A Man for All Seasons
is a cinematic tour de force. Directed by the legendary Fred
Zinnemann (High Noon) and starring such exemplary actors
as Paul Scofield, Orson Welles, and John Hurt it won six academy
awards in 1966. The film uses the historical story of Sir Thomas
More to explore one of Zinnemann's favorite themes, that of a
person standing up for their personal convictions. However,
the film also wrestles with several themes that deal with legal
issues such as how to deal with conscientious objectors, natural
versus positive law, consequentialism versus deontology and the
history of legal safeguards in the Common Law tradition.
character of Sir Thomas More (who sat on the Kings Council and
eventually became Lord Chancellor) is a jurist who is devoted
to the laws and sovereign of England. He performs his duties
diligently, turning down numerous attempts at bribery and ruling
with a learned justice. He is a personal friend of the King.
However, he is also a devout Catholic Christian. When the King
seeks a divorce from his barren wife so that he can wed his mistress
and is rebuffed by the Church, he declares himself the head of
the Church and puts pressure on the clergy to accept his divorce
and new wife. More's conscience does not allow him to approve.
He resigns his post as Lord Chancellor in protest. Parliament,
at the urging of the King, passes a law requiring subjects to
swear an oath that the King's marriage (and any future heirs
from that marriage) is legitimate. For religious reasons More
refuses to sign the oath and is consequently jailed and prosecuted
More's refusal to sign the
oath brings up the difference between civil disobedience and
conscientious objection as drawn by John Rawls. Civil disobedience
for Rawls is a form of debate, a non-violent action aimed at
the public and guided by political principles. Change is the
central point. Rawls differentiates this from conscientious
objection, which is the non-compliance with laws one sees as
immoral. Conscientious objection is not meant to change the
political sphere; it is just a decision to risk punishment rather
than violate one's moral principles. The character of More certainly
falls into the category of conscientious objector. He does not
use his position to rail against the King's oath; he does not
counsel others on the immorality of the oath itself (though certainly
this is in part to defend himself through silence). Instead,
he refers to himself as a loyal subject to the King who simply
will not swear to the oath (he does not even say that by not
swearing we should read into his silence disapproval of the oath).
Rawls defends civil disobedience
by stating that it acts as a vigilant police on the laws of society,
constantly forcing us to examine our laws and measure them by
the yardstick of justice. Conscientious objection on the other
hand is a personal issue; it is only morally permissible if the
harm caused by non-compliance is outweighed by the correctness
of the personal principle invoked in conscientious objection.
What is the harm that More's refusal could possibly cause?
The movie actually hints at such harm when at the beginning Cardinal
Woolsey defends his 'flexibility' on Church law in granting the
King a divorce by pointing to the possible civil strife that
could follow an heir-less sovereign. In this context, More's
refusal could be a morally impermissible act.
This actually brings up two
of the other issues of legal philosophy thrust upon us by the
film. More's refusal to take the oath despite the consequences
to himself, his family, and his realm constitute a form of deontological
ethics. According to deontology, some acts are inherently immoral
despite the consequences that follow. Thus, the philosopher
Immanuel Kant in his famed categorical imperative stated that
it was wrong to tell a lie, even in the case of whether one should
lie to a murderer who was stalking his victim hidden in the nearby
closet. Cardinal Woolsey represents another view, that of the
consequentialist. He admonishes More to 'come down to earth'
when More refused to change his position even when warned of
the strife that could follow his defiance. In a similar vein,
Karl Marx admonished those who clung to an abstract and 'neutral'
rule of law that had negative consequences on the poor and oppressed.
Mores refusal also invokes
the debate between positive and natural law. When his soon to
be son-in-law, a political radical, argues the law must be made
malleable to the interests of justice, More launches into a long
defense of the importance of 'man's laws.' He states that they
are all that exist to protect citizens of his realm, and that
when they are swept away to ensure 'justice' then all would
stand unprotected (the actual metaphor used is whether the law
should apply to the Devil, in other words one who we know is
evil and thus should have no protection of positive law). More's
speech invokes the theorists of positive law such as John Austin
who maintained that man made law, the order of the sovereign,
is all the law there is. Ironically, it is More who is later
caught up in the very positive law he defended and in response,
he speaks of his duty to his soul. This appeal to God's laws
invokes the perpetual counter-argument of natural law theorists
who hold that positive law can and should be measured by a 'higher'
Law of Nature. The King's law has the power to execute More,
but does it have the authority?
One of the last striking things
about this film may be a much-overlooked feature. Many viewers
of the film will likely pessimistically comment on the trumped
up nature of the prosecution of More played out brilliantly at
the end of the film. However, such pessimism may be unwarranted.
More's knowledge of the law enables him to conduct a legal strategy
based on the precedent that silence on an issue does not necessarily
imply disapproval of the Kings position (which would then warrant
High Treason). In his trial More is given a jury (though one
surely bullied by the Crown, as in the scene where the prosecutor
declares that surely no break for jury deliberations is necessary
and so the verdict is immediately rendered), an account of the
charges against him, and the right to defend himself (including
cross examination of witnesses). It is only because of the distortion
of evidence (the implication that More took a bribe that he clearly
did not) and the testimony of a false witness that More is ultimately
convicted. The question of course remains, does this show the
advanced state of English rights of the accused at this ancient
state, or does it point to the more unsettling conclusion that
even abstract legal safeguards cannot protect one when prosecutorial
dishonesty rears its ugly head?
Posted February 15, 2005