[Shortly after entering Harrow, England’s second most prestigious public school, in 1902, Arnold Lunn found himself faced with a painful moral decision. The choice he made caused him shame and remorse for the rest of his life, much more remorse than his decision to allow the British men’s ski team, of whom his son was captain, to participate in the Nazi-hosted winter Olympics of 1936—another choice he subsequently regretted. In the following excerpt from his 1968 memoir, Unkilled for So Long, the author describes in detail the nature of his dilemma. Although more than a century has passed, it should be apparent that some of the ethical questions that this incident raises are very difficult, but perhaps more relevant than ever. (It should be explained that ‘The Knoll’ was one of the ‘houses’ that public schools, like Harrow, are organized into, sub-units with a mix of boys from all forms, while a ‘blood’ was a member of the school athletocracy, and, in consequence, a privileged person to whom respect was due.)]
It was a boy, rather older than I was, who made all the difference to my first term in The Knoll. ‘Harry,’ as I propose to call him, was generously endowed with a charm which is as irresistible as it is impossible to define. I know why he appealed to me, but I never quite understood why he liked me as much as he did. Perhaps the fact that I often made him laugh was a partial explanation. Many times when we were gossiping in my room or his, a house ‘blood’ whom I will call ‘Bill,’ wandered in. Bill was obviously very fond of Harry.
On one of the many occasions when I had neglected my ‘prep’ because I had spent a jolly evening gossiping with Harry in his room, I woke an hour earlier than usual, and decided to recover from Harry’s room a school text book which I had left there, and devote this extra half hour to my neglected ‘prep.’ I opened the door of Harry’s room, and hurriedly retired without the text book, for Harry was not alone. Bill was with him, and it was only too obvious that it was not in search of a missing book that Bill had paid this early visit to Harry . . . .
I find it difficult to define what must have been my attitude to the Christian creed and to the Christian moral code in my early teens. My real religion was an idolatry of sorts, mountain worship, but I was still a practising Christian. I had been confirmed, and I went to Communion, but in reality I was a quasi-pagan with a Christian veneer. I was as unperturbed by certain aspects of school life as the average Greek was by what is sometimes described as ‘Greek love.’ I myself was never troubled by unwelcome attentions, unwelcome not so much for moral reasons as because that particular relationship would have both embarrassed and repelled me. My own temptations were strictly normal, nothing of ‘Greek-love’ about me.
I was momentarily dismayed on discovering the relationship between my friend Harry and Bill, but only momentarily. Neither he nor I ever referred to this incident which had not the slightest influence on our friendship.
During the week-ends, when my father took time off from the travel business which he founded, I used to spend most of my spare time at home. My father was a tremendous personality. I was very fond of him, and he was very fond of me. As a dedicated Christian, he was not unnaturally worried by what he suspected, with good reason, to be the low moral tone of the house. I was never anything but unhappy when he began to ask leading questions about this aspect of my school life. Vague replies normally led to a welcome change of conversation, but on the Sunday after the incident which I had witnessed, my answers were embarrassed, with the result that he suspected that I had seen or heard something which was definite evidence that a particular boy was corrupting the house.
Nothing could have been more ruthless than the manner in which he exploited my tentative admission. Did I realise, he asked again and again, the immense harm which could be done by a boy who was corrupting his juniors? I nodded a miserable and unconvinced affirmative. Was it not therefore my obvious duty to help my house master to get rid of the boy in question?
“Oh, no, no,” I protested, “you can’t ask me to sneak. I can’t sneak. I won’t sneak . . .” I held out the whole of that week-end, but he returned to the attack on the following Sunday. It was increasingly difficult to discover any plausible rejoinder to his contention that Bill was an evil influence in the house, and that Bill must somehow or other be got rid of. I was not really convinced, but found myself powerless to rebut his case. I finally acquiesced miserably in his plea that I should provide Mr. Owen with the necessary information to get rid of Bill.
Once my father had secured my agreement, he wasted no time. A telephone call brought Mr. Owen round to our home. He was genuinely sympathetic and realised what this was costing me. He raised no objection when I insisted that before I gave away any name, I must have a statement in writing, signed by him, that if the name of the younger boy, that is, of my great friend, Harry, came out accidentally no steps would be taken to punish anybody but the older boy. I wrote out what I wanted him to promise, and Mr. Owen duly signed what I had written.
“There’s one difficulty,” said Mr. Owen, “Supposing that we are met by a complete denial? After all, our only evidence is what you saw. I hope it won’t be necessary, but we might have to call on you to repeat what you have told us . . .”
“Oh, no, no . . .” I exclaimed.
There was a long pause.
“Very well, then,” I said bitterly, “have it your own way. If you call on me, I’ll have to leave Harrow the next day, and perhaps that’s all I deserve.”
Next day was a whole holiday. Somebody at breakfast said, “The old man looked hellish glum last night. I wonder what was wrong.”
I knew why Mr. Owen looked “hellish glum.”
The window of my room overlooked the road. Suddenly Mr. Owen appeared with Bill, whom he was taking to the Headmaster. I shall never forget the look of despair on Bill’s face. I have done many things in my life of which I am, and many more which I should be, heartily ashamed, but I recall nothing with greater shame than my action in this melancholy affair, an action for which my father had warmly praised me. Shame, indeed, was my predominant emotion, but not the only emotion. I dreaded the possibility that I might be summoned to confront Bill, and it was with a feeling of squalid relief that I saw Mr. Owen and Bill return. I remained at the window . . . I do not know why. I could hardly have had a presentiment of what I was next to see . . . Mr. Owen once again walking towards the Headmaster’s, and again he was not alone. Harry was with him. Harry, my best friend. On Harry’s face there was the same tragic look of despair that I had seen on Bill’s. This was by far the worst moment in my long life.
I did not move from that window until Mr. Owen and Harry returned. I burst into Mr. Owen’s study waving the scrap of paper which he had signed.
“You can’t,” I shouted, “you can’t sack Harry. You can’t. Here’s what you promised. I would never have given Bill away if I hadn’t trusted you. Read what you wrote. Read it.”
“I know, I know,” said Mr. Owen. “It was Bill who gave Harry away in an effort to save Harry. He assumed that we must have known about Harry, and he kept on saying that he alone was to blame. I told the Headmaster about what I had promised to you. I told him about the undertaking which I had signed. I did indeed. I begged him to let Harry stay, but he was adamant. He insisted that they were both equally guilty, and that there could be no justification for expelling Bill and letting Harry stay.”
“You ought to have thought of all that before,” I exclaimed. “You ought not to have signed that paper if there had been the least risk of the Headmaster going back on it. I trusted you, fool that I was. You’ve trapped me into getting Harry sacked. You have made me behave like a complete cad . . .”
I remember bursting forth into uncontrolled tears. Mr. Owen did not let me leave his study until I had quieted down, but all his efforts to comfort me were unavailing.
Just before I started this belated confiteor I dined with a charming lady who assured me that her religion was to obey her conscience.
“If my conscience tells me that what I propose to do is right, then I can do it with a clear conscience.”
A very accommodating religion, for it is delightfully easy to obtain a nihil obstat [i.e. he objects to nothing] from a properly conditioned conscience. It is only too easy to persuade ourselves that we are justified in doing what we want to do. Hence the paramount necessity for objective standards of right and wrong by which we can judge our own behavior. Though it is often wrong to do what we have succeeded in believing to be right, it is, I am convinced, always wrong to do what we believe to be wrong.
Bill was a bad influence in the house, and his expulsion was the first phase in the gradual transformation of the house under Mr. Owen. It was a good house when he left. Had I acted as I did out of conviction, had I given Bill’s name to Mr. Owen because I was sincerely anxious to make my own contribution to the reform of the house, I should have had nothing with which to reproach myself. Even if my action had been objectively correct, it was subjectively wrong. At that time, if I may adopt Newman’s distinction between real and notional assent, my assent to the schoolboy code which condemns sneaking was real, my assent to the Christian code only nominal. It was my code which I betrayed, and even now when my assent to the Christian creed and code is not merely notional but real, I still feel shame and bitter remorse for what I did.
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