The sense and sensibility of betrayal: discovering the meaning of treachery through Jane Austen

Humanitas 13 (2):72-89 (2000)
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Betrayal is both a “people” problem and a philosopher’s problem. Philosophers should be able to clarify the concept of betrayal, compare and contrast it with other moral concepts, and critically assess betrayal situations. At the practical level people should be able to make honest sense of betrayal and also to temper its consequences: to handle it, not be assaulted by it. What we need is a conceptually clear account of betrayal that differentiates between genuine and merely perceived betrayal, and which also provides systematic guidance for the assessment of alleged betrayal in real life. In what follows I offer an account of betrayal that attempts to meet the two requirements of conceptual clarity and contextual adequacy. There is a great temptation to use the events in Washington of the past few years as the case study for such an analysis, but I believe that, for a variety of reasons, including the difficulty of viewing events from “within,” this would only complicate matters rather than clarify them. Rather, I believe that betrayal in literature is fruitful ground for analysis. I have chosen Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility for examples of trust and betrayal, because Austen displays the needed complexity and subtlety of human relationships and because she recognizes that violations of trust come in a variety of shades and colors. This particular novel, moreover, not only supplies multiple instances of trusting relationships gone awry, but also a common, detailed, and intelligible landscape within which these relationships exist. Again, however, in order to illuminate betrayal and appropriately assess a purported betrayal, rich examples are not enough. We need a clear concept of betrayal. I will develop this concept by beginning with the related concept of trust. By starting with an explicit definition of trust and using this definition to analyze the various examples Austen provides, betrayal will emerge as but one of two types of violation of trust. This in turn will allow us to distinguish actual from merely “felt” betrayals. I will finally argue that understanding and being sensitive to the other form of violation of trust, which I call abandonment, may be even more significant to our moral life.

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Rodger Jackson
Stockton University (formerly Richard Stockton College)


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