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Jean Valjean in Les Miserables Novel by Victor Hugo

Having served nineteen years in prison for stealing a loaf of bread, a peasant named Jean Valjean is released to savor his freedom. However, Jean has to carry with him a yellow passport which identifies him as a convict. The society rejects him although he has paid for his atrocities to the last drop, the convict end up sleeping on the streets and goes for many days without eating anything. This changes his attitude toward the society, because he becomes bitter and angry. Unable to stand his miserable status, Jean goes on to steal silverware belonging to a certain bishop. Luckily for Jean, the bishop salvages him from an angry mob which was ready to teach him a lesson of not stealing again. This gesture by the bishop transforms Jean into a good person; he does away with his wary past and embraces exemplary morals. Jean disguises himself as Monsieur Madeline and seeks refuge in a town called Montreuil-sur-Mer. After living in this town for six years, Jean becomes a wealthy owner of a factory and is appointed the mayor of this town.

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One day Jean learns about the fate of an unfortunate beggar, who has to be sent away in prison, the beggar has been mistakenly identified as Jean. At this point, Jean considers whether it is his moral duty to reveal who he is. Note that doing this would have unrelenting effects on his new found reputation. Jean would be sent back to prison and serve a cruel and unjust sentence. If Jean was to apply ethical egoism under such a situation, he would have done what he thought was fulfilling to his self-interest. Having spent most of all of his life in prison, Jean should not care what happened to the beggar. At this point in Jeans life, freedom is the most valuable thing he should be concerned with. By presenting himself to the authorities and claiming that the beggar should be released, he would end up in prison.

In ethical egoism, a person should be concerned by his/her well being. By revealing who he was, Jean would be doing a disservice to his self-interest. There are limited chances that the authorities would spare him if his past behaviors are put into consideration. It is clear that Jean has identified his personal needs. He should work towards fulfilling those needs and stop worrying himself about the situation of the beggar. Jean is not involved in any way with the theft, why should he get involved in it? He has nothing to get from this situation, however, if he gets himself involved in it he will have himself to blame. His past will always haunt him because the authorities will send him back to prison without second thoughts. However fixed the beggar might be, Jean should mind his own business. Egoists are of the opinion that helping out someone amounts to discrediting hi/her. The beggar should device his own ways of relieving himself from that situation. In as much as Jean might want to help the beggar, ethical egoism refutes such behaviors (Stuart 56).

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If Jean was to approach this situation in a Utilitarian manner, then happiness should be the driving force being his actions. Jean has got two options if he wishes to go the utilitarian way, he can decide to abscond his happiness at the expense of the beggars’ or choose the beggar’s happiness at the expense of his own. Stuart (15) asserts that actions are proportionally right if they promote happiness. Using Stuart’s assertion, Jean can decide to choose one course of action that would make him contented without hurting his feelings or the beggar’s feelings. An egoist would advise jean not to reveal his identity, to an egoist, helping out the beggar would mean Jean cared less for his self-interest.

Naturally, mankind has been placed under two supreme masters, pleasure and pain (Bentham 122). Both masters bring happiness to those who experience it depending on the situations a person finds hi/he self. In Jeans situation, he might decide to help out the beggar; by so doing Jean would feel elated because he would have helped a hapless person from an uncompromising situation. After enduring pain and suffering in prison, Jean understands the difficulties one might face in prison. By standing aside and seeing the beggar being sent to prison, Jean might never be happy. Jean has got all the resources needed to salvage the situation of the poor beggar. The past life of jean had been filled with pain; it is clear that this pain does not bring any happiness in Jean’s life. It Jean’s duty to ensure that the poor beggar does not feel the same pain he felt back in prison.

As stated earlier, Jean might decide to help the beggar or otherwise. If he decides not to help-out the beggar, Jean would be creating a picture of a person who wants to continue enjoying the pleasures of the free world. The mere thought of going back to prison for the sake of a beggar should send shivers down anybody’s spine. With all the wealth he had accumulated, and the social status he had gained, Jean should be living the best part of his life. According to utilitarianism, it would be satirical for Jean to intervene for the beggar at the expense of his happiness. On the other hand, Jean’s intervention would be beneficial to the beggar. Being taken to prison would have adverse effects to the beggar. Freedom is pleasurable to every person, regardless of the individual’s status in the society. That freedom in essence brings happiness to the beggar, by taking him to prison, his happiness would end abruptly. It up to Jean to juggle between his happiness and the happiness of the beggar, as a matter of fact, his happiness should surpass that of the beggar because he had endured nine years of pain and misery already.

Based on Immanuel Kant’s teachings Jean might contemplate salvaging the beggar from his tight position. Morally, Jean should reveal his true identity to express his sense of duty. In helping out the beggar, Jean should no base his action on pity. He should not expect any rewards for his actions because the society had rewarded him already. Kantian ethics would require him to help out the beggar because that is what Jean ought to do (Flikschuh 34). The status of the beggar in the society should not be the basis of Jean’s help. By helping the beggar because of his status, Jean would not be morally right. By helping out the beggar, Jean would have nothing to lose according to Kantian ethics. The truth is Jean would be sent back to prison, however, by revealing his true identity; Jean would have performed a moral act which is lauded by Kantians.


If Jean was to help out the beggar out of pity, Kantians would never approve his gesture as being morally valid. Jean should reveal his true identity because that is the moral thing he can do to help the beggar. One would ask “what about the aftermath of Jeans revelation of his identity?” the answer is simple. The moral aspect that would have led Jean into helping the beggar would cover everything up (Flikschuh 122). A Kantian would tell Jean to reveal his identity for the sake of the beggar, since that would be the moral thing to do. Finally, the decision Jean decides to take entirely depends on him, nobody should criticize him since the aftermath of his decision would entirely lie on his head.

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