Happy Non-Birthday, Frederick! And Welcome Rationalization 25A, Frederick’s Compulsion or “It’s My Duty!” To the Ethics Alarms Rationalization List

As any Gilbert and Sullivan fan knows, February 29 is the troublesome birthday of Frederick, the dim and conflicted hero of “The Pirates of Penzance.” (He doesn’t get a birthday this year.)  Apprenticed to a pirate as a child by mistake (his nurse heard “pirate” rather than “pilot”),  the lad was bound to serve as a cutthroat until his 21st birthday, and thinking that the terms specified his obligation to reach until his 21st year, quits the pirate band that raised him and joins the police, who are  seeking to put his old comrades behind bars, or worse. But poor Frederick  learns that because he would only be free of his obligations until his 21st birthday, and since he was born–Oh, horror!—on Leap Year,  he is technically only five (“and a little bit over”), and won’t be 21 by the terms of his apprenticeship until he is 84 years old. His beloved, the equally dim Mabel, vows to wait for him. Meanwhile Frederick, declaring himself a “slave of duty,” joins the pirates again, as they prepare to murder Mabel’s father.

W.S. Gilbert, who wrote this famously nutty plot, was satirizing the substitution of duty (and legal contracts) for reason, morality, ethics, and sanity. The latest addition to the Rationalizations List,  Frederick’s Compulsion is a sub-rationalization of #25. The Coercion Myth: “I have no choice!” Frederick believes that the existence of a contract creates a duty that he must obey without question, regardless of the consequences. He would have made a fine Nazi soldier. He would have shined in the Nixon White House.

Duty is seldom as simple, or simple-minded, as Frederick thinks. We all have competing duties; that’s what makes ethics difficult. He has a duty to the pirates (I would say that his stated determination to “wipe them off the face of the earth” is also unethical, given their treatment of him. He is, or should be conflicted. How ungrateful can you get? He has a duty to Mabel, the old “don’t murder your girl friend’s dad” duty. He, like all citizens, has a duty to obey the law, and once he has joined the police, he has a duty to fulfill his commitment. Duty is important as an ethical guideline, but it is not absolute. Even in the U.S. army, soldiers have a duty to obey orders and a duty not to obey illegal ones, despite the fact that it is their superiors, not them, who are charged with knowing the difference.

Ethics requires that when performing a duty will unquestionably result in injustice and harm to others, some consideration and balancing must be applied, followed by making one or more difficult choices.  Duty itself is not enough to dictate those choices, and ethics may, and often does, dictate that a duty must be superseded by other priorities.


20 thoughts on “Happy Non-Birthday, Frederick! And Welcome Rationalization 25A, Frederick’s Compulsion or “It’s My Duty!” To the Ethics Alarms Rationalization List

  1. You always have a choice. The alternative might be worse personally than the contract, but you still have a choice.

    A hard truth, and harder still to act out in life, especially given our microwave, feel good culture

  2. G&S’s characters are all quite dim (and cartoonish), with the possible exception of the Yeomen of the Guard, which is supposed to be somewhat closer to reality (though still not there). BTW, if you were directing a production of that show, would you give Jack Point gray hair or make him look ill in the second act, to show that A. this isn’t the ideal mate for the younger Elsie, and B. He was going to die soon anyway?

    I ask because my college choral director floated those things once, though he never directed YOTG at school before he died in 2003.

  3. Cartoonish is not quite right: they are Gilbertian, meaning that they act reasonably given absurd premises.

    Martyn Green, the greatest patter baritone of them all, used make-up that mad him look sickly from the very beginning, and looked worse and was more frail as the show went on. He said that a young Jack dying of a broken heart at the end was unbelievable, so Green gave as a full out heart attack. When I say him play the role, he was in his 50s, with a 20ish Elsie. Then you know his love of her is doomed from the start. Green’s heart attack as the chorus and orchestra swells in Sullivan’s finale gave me chills then and does just thinking about it now.

    I have directed Yeoman, but with a young, athletic JP. And the ending didn’t work.

    • I think we’re both on the same page – they are characters in a deliberately absurd world who act reasonably for that world, which looks cartoonish to me, who lives and moves in the real world.

      Yep, sounds about right. That said, I do think WSG was…working through his personal issues with some of his characters. I’m sure BOOKS have been written on that, though.

  4. I found these two thoughts interesting in your article today:

    “Frederick believes that the existence of a contract creates a duty that he must obey without question, regardless of the consequences.”


    “He, like all citizens, has a duty to obey the law.”

    And then I wonder… what is the law, other than some contract that we are all forced to obey without question? Interesting though patter you invoked this morning.

    • It’s not that interesting.

      There are many reasons to obey the law in addition to one’s social contract. The law protects everyone, and obeying them helps the laws work. Laws are a statement of how to achieve societal well-being, so disobeying the law undermines society. “It’s my duty” is a rationalization when that’s the only justification one can muster for objectively stupid and destructive behavior. In most cases, that doesn’t apply to duly passed laws.

      • “The law protects everyone”

        Does it really? I don’t believe that for a minute. If the law protected everyone, it would have to apply equally to everyone, but I can come up with situation after situation where the laws are not applied equally to everyone. Not even close.

        Anyway, I am not trying to get into it with you here. I just found those statements interesting. It was nice of you, however, to correct me about what I find interesting. I really appreciate it when people can tell me how I am feeling about something, especially when it is different from what I thought I was feeling about it.

        • 1. THE LAW, as in rule of law, legal system: yes, it does. Specific laws have specific purposes. Unequal protection is unconstitutional, and if laws do that, they will be challenged and be overturned.

          2. You know damn well what you meant by “interesting”—you meant to imply that my two statements were inconsistent. They aren’t and weren’t.

          • I did not say or even suggest that your statements were inconsistent. It just made my mind go somewhere that you probably did not intend. There was nothing inconsistent with what you said. In fact, I totally agree with the points you made.

            Anyway, like I said, I am not trying to get into it with you over this. I just thought that I could express my thoughts on what you wrote, I guess that is not okay here though?

            • If I misconstrued your intent, I am sorry. Similar phrasing, as in, “I find it interesting” is often employed as a back-door innuendo. Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar: I get paranoid sometimes. I apologize.

  5. Lawerance Kohlberg might call this the principle stage or as some have labeled it: the universal ethical principle.

    People in this stage adhere to a few abstract, universal principles (e.g., equality of all people, respect for human dignity, commitment to justice) that transcend specific norms and rules. They answer to a strong inner conscience and willingly disobey laws that violate their own ethical principles.

    • Are you saying that liberalism is just a phase and they will “grow out of it” (as my mother used to say of me and my friends when we were behaving as ‘normal’ teenagers) one day?

  6. Maybe members of both political parties should consider Frederick’s dilemma when voting for a particular piece of noxious legislation that party leaders insist that they must support.

    • Thanks for reminding me of the meaning of life, Other Bill. Another song from that film expresses one of the personal principles I try to adhere to: Every Sperm is Sacred.

  7. Duty, ethics, other choices.

    When you’re lying awake with a dismal headache
    And repose is taboo’d by anxiety,
    I conceive you may use any language you choose
    To indulge in, without impropriety;

  8. Rationalization No. 25A? Do you have a list? I tried searching your website without success. I thought this rationalization would have a higher place on the list, since it is the most common excuse I heard in my career in criminal defense law.

    And I will give a nod to the Nuremberg variation, which might be No. 25B: “I was just following orders”.

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