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. Continue reading