Invisible Man Essay: Ethics and Invisible Man

Invisible Man Essay: Ethics and Invisible Man

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Ethics and Invisible Man

  The issue of ethics is central to the theme of The Invisible Man.  This essay will examine the ethical issues presented in Ellison's novel in the context of Kenneth Strike's "Principle of Equal Respect".


In one incident Invisible Man is in his third year at a Negro college and is regarded by the President, Dr. Bledsoe, as bright and trustworthy, a young man who has potential. Dr. Bledsoe assigns him to drive a prominent trustee, Mr. Norton, on a tour of the vicinity. Invisible Man inadvertently drives Norton to the old slave quarters, past the home of Jim Trueblood, a local pariah who has committed incest with his young daughter; both his wife and daughter are pregnant by him. At Norton's insistence, the student stops. Norton feels compelled to hear Trueblood's spellbinding version of his crime. Embellished several times over, it is so effective that Norton has a mild stroke. Before leaving, however, Norton gives Trueblood $100, a gesture which angers Invisible Man, who sees it as a reward for a heinous crime. He is careful, though, to mask his emotion.


When he returns to campus, Invisible Man is severely reprimanded by Dr. Bledsoe for betraying his trust and for exposing the trustee to such "trash" as Jim Trueblood. Invisible Man is made to feel as though he should have acted in a deceptive manner; he should have had sense enough to deal with white folks. Then he is led to believe that he is being given a semester off, but the young man is, in fact, expelled from college. Bledsoe gives Invisible Man sealed letters to powerful men in New York City, saying that they will help him get a job. However, when Invisible Man visits the offices of these men, he is unable to get even one interview. Finally one man reveals that the letters call the bearer an enemy of the college who should not be helped but should be given the illusion of hope.


The reader may wonder whether Bledsoe behaves ethically or uses his power abusively. One may argue that, as president of the college, Dr. Bledsoe is responsible for the lives and education of hundreds of students. In this regard, he must be careful not to offend powerful supporters necessary for the institution's survival. But does this permit his sacrifice of Invisible Man?

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What signals are being sent to this young man as he observes the actions of his mentor? In his mind, he has done the right thing: He has followed instructions. Should Invisible Man have compromised his principles?


Later in the novel the protagonist is the subject of medical experimentation by doctors in a company hospital. When Invisible Man is seriously injured at work, the doctors use him as a guinea pig for their new electric shock machine, even though he has not given permission for this. The young man is poor and has no close family; therefore, he is at the mercy of his employers and the hospital.

Again, an important ethical issue is raised - the ethics of experimentation on patients.


The medical staff acted in an unprofessional and unethical manner. Neither Dr. Bledsoe nor the medical personnel at the factory hospital adhered to the "Principle of Equal Respect.....{which}requires that we act in ways that respect the equal worth of moral agents. It requires that we regard human beings as having intrinsic worth and treat them accordingly" (Strike 17). The essence of this idea is the Golden Rule: We have a duty to treat other people as we want to be treated.


The "Principle of Equal Respect" can be seen as involving three subsidiary ideas. First, it requires that we do not treat people as though they are simply a means to further our own goals; we must respect their goals as well. Second, when we are considering what it means to treat people as ends rather than means, we must respect their freedom of choice, even when we do not agree with their choices. Moreover, we must attach a high priority to enabling people to make responsible decisions. To this end it is important that people have the information and the education to enable them to function responsibly as free moral agents.


Third, no matter how people differ, as moral agents they are of equal value. This does not mean that people are equal in their abilities. Nor does it mean that relevant differences among people cannot be recognized in deciding how to treat them. It is not, for example, a violation of equal respect to pay one person more than another because that person works harder and contributes more. That people are of equal value as moral agents means that they are all entitled to the same basic rights and that their interests are of equal value. Everyone, regardless of native ability, is entitled to equal opportunity. Everyone is entitled to one vote in a democratic election, and every vote is equal. We are not entitled to act as though our happiness counts for more than the happiness of others.


The issues of ethics and values are central to the subject of The Invisible Man.  Strike's "Principle of Equal Respect" provides a vehicle for the reader to better understand the ethical issues presented in the novel.


Works Cited:

Ellison, Ralph. Invisible Man. New York, New York: Vintage Books, 1995.

Strike, Kenneth, Emil J. Haller, and Jonas F. Soltis. Ethics and The Invisible. New York: Teachers College, Columbia University, 1988.

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