by Jonathan Swift
Gulliver's Travels Theme of Morality and Ethics
We've spent a lot of time in this guide talking about Swift the satirist and hater: his criticisms of the hypocrisy and favoritism of King George I and his court, his disgust with learning for no practical purpose, and so on. But what we haven't remarked on so much is that Gulliver's Travels does show evidence of moral alternatives to replace the corruption Swift sees in contemporary English society. Swift is resolutely anti-war; he also appears to despise luxury and greed. But the thing that most seems to guarantee a virtuous society for him is "friendship and benevolence" (4.8.10). He mentions that the Brobdingnagians have a remarkably disciplined army because all of the soldiers are fighting under leaders they know from their hometowns. This kind of personal loyalty inspires men to more genuine, direct heroism and justice than abstract fights for a cause.
Questions About Morality and Ethics
- Gulliver claims to be working on applying the moral lessons he has learned with the Houyhnhnms to his life back in England. What kinds of lessons might he be able to use from the Houyhnhnms? What proof do we have that his behavior has changed over the course of his stay in Houyhnhnm Land?
- If human nature is inherently bad, what can Yahoos do to struggle for more perfect ethics? What are some of the specific recommendations Swift gives for making the best of our poor moral compasses?
- If Gulliver has become a more perfect moral being, what are we to make of his treatment of his wife and children at the end of the novel? Are there moral or ethical problems with his decision to become a hermit?
Chew on This
By the end of the novel, Gulliver's final moral recommendation appears to be that, if we are all sinful by nature, the least we can do is acknowledge the fact and be humble in the face of it. However, Gulliver himself remains convinced that he is more virtuous than other men, which calls his own humility into question.
Gulliver's decision to estrange himself from his family is morally problematic, and undercuts Gulliver's complete faith in his own moral improvement during his stay with the Houyhnhnms.