Perspective: 3 ethical questions raised by the Harry-William soap opera
The world’s interest in Prince Harry’s tell-all memoir is prompted in part by competing moral visions of life, including the boundaries of family loyalty and what constitutes meaningful work
You’d have to be living under a rock not to know that Prince Harry’s tell-all memoir “Spare” was released this week. The book, of course, is not the first foray into Harry’s recollections: there have been multiple high-profile media interviews as well, including one with Oprah Winfrey.
The book’s premature release in Spain last week began a dribble of stories that revealed the overarching theme seems to be Harry’s view of his brother William as his “archnemesis.” Various anecdotes have been offered by Harry to justify this description, from a physical fight to jealousy over whose beard had to be shorn for whose wedding.
It’s tempting to dismiss all this as the fluffiest of news, as the ultimate in “First World” problems. These are two very wealthy young men who have never known real want in their lives. One is the future king of the United Kingdom, and the other is making millions of dollars as a celebrity based in California.
Yet there is something deeper here, which prompts much of the world to be discussing Harry’s revelations to a degree far beyond their actual interest in the lives of these two particular men. There’s a sense in which the Harry-William soap opera offers us a chance to talk about competing moral visions. I see several levels of ethical debate catalyzed by this family drama.
The first debate is over the appropriate parameters of family loyalty. We are all aware of cases where family loyalty, promoted above all other values, becomes merely a means to keep evil alive. One of my favorite books is “The Good Mothers: The True Story of the Women Who Took on the World’s Most Powerful Mafia” by Alex Perry. It is the story of how several Mafia wives, who had been born Mafia princesses, testified against their husbands and helped cripple the ’Ndrangheta mafia organization in Calabria, a region of southern Italy.
The women broke the code of omerta — silence or death — in exchange for the Italian government spiriting their children away to grow up outside of the evil in their own families. And most of these women did wind up dead as a result. It is a tale of immense moral courage.
So clearly there must be bounds to family loyalty. The Harry-William drama forces us to ask ourselves where that line is for us. I hope we all believe that we would never remain silent about evil in our own family — child abuse, domestic violence, racketeering — but would work with authorities to confront those crimes. But what about thoughtless or unkind words? Slights, intentional or unintentional? Would we announce those to the world, or take our brother aside privately and talk to him instead? If our brother did not listen to us, does that leave us completely free to speak at will, or are considerations of loyalty still in play? Are we still “our brother’s keeper”? Is there a sense in which silence permits greater change?
When I taught Sunday School for teens, I once had three students stand up, and I instructed one to stand very close to the second, face to face, and the third to stand at the second’s back, again very close. I then asked the second student to turn around; they couldn’t, of course. My students caught on that sometimes you have to give someone a little space if you expect them to change. It means standing down from one’s righteous indignation, which can be difficult. It means backing away, but not cutting all ties.
I think there’s also a second, related debate over the ethics of selling one’s disparaging family recollections for millions of dollars. Harry received a reported $20 million advance for his memoir. Is there in a sense in which this is selling your family for gain? We are all pleased that, in Genesis, Joseph’s brothers did not kill him, but are we pleased that they sold him instead? Is this an ethical business model for supporting oneself in life?
More broadly, a third consideration in the Harry-William drama concerns what constitutes meaningful work in the world we live in. Many would suggest that a life of service, a life that includes duty and obligations to others, is the most meaningful of lives. Others might disagree. But is there a sense in which an almost exclusive emphasis on self, and what has been denied the self, is not conducive to a healthy approach to life? Perhaps it is no coincidence that the first and only commandment with a promise is “Honor thy father and thy mother, that thy days may be long upon the land which the Lord thy God has given thee,” a commandment referring specifically to family obligations.
While I can’t say I will be buying the book “Spare,” its publication certainly deserves serious ethical discussion as we make our way in a post-modern, perhaps post-Christian, world.
Valerie M. Hudson is a university distinguished professor at the Bush School of Government and Public Service at Texas A&M University and a Deseret News contributor. Her views are her own.