Political Morality – What is right?

When reading An Enemy of the People, I can’t help but notice the constant question of what is right when it comes to the decisions to be made by the people in charge of the town. From the very beginning, there is a disagreement about whether the baths should be closed, posing the question of who should be sacrificed, those who come to the baths for healing or the entire town. As the play progresses the question turns into if it is right to sacrifice Dr. Stockmann for the good of the town. More simply, this play is a question of sacrificing a few for the good of the whole.

Ibsen often wrote about current social issues, and the question posed in Enemy of the People was definitely current to him. Leading up to the 1870s, there was great political shifts in Europe, which included the movement from autocratic monarchies to forms of government that empowered the citizen. Many political leaders at the time believed in Utilitarianism, which is a philosophical school that preaches the greatest good for the greatest number. I feel like Ibsen wrote this play to challenge this philosophy, because you have someone who is advocating the greatest good for the greatest number (Peter Stockmann) even though he is covering up the truth.

As Dr. Stockmann begins his fight for what he believes is right, he says “They have tried to rob me of my most elementary rights as a man……. they have tried to degrade me, to make a coward of me, to force me to put personal interests before my most sacred convictions.” (Ibsen 35) Here he is saying that by trying to cover up the truth, Peter was depriving his brother of the most basic rights, his freedom to think and to speak his mind. Obviously Thomas did not subscribe to the Utilitarian philosophy, and he is constantly challenging it with his pursuit of the truth. Ibsen, however, does not answer explicitly state what the right thing to do is in this play, so we must read and decide for ourselves.



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