Institutionalized moral and Anna Karenina
Moral can be individualized or social and as such institutionalized. Once moral is institutionalized, it has a tendency to limit individual behavior in an implicit but powerful way. Outside legal system, institutionalized moral is the only thing left to the “audience or public” to base their judgment about one’s actions. Can we today, from this temporal and ideological distance, even pretend to understand the actions of Anna Karenina?
We can think of the commonly used classification of institutionalized moral such as ethical minimum and ethical maximum. Most people are not willing to go any further than the ethical minimum, while ethical maximum may be seen as an ideal. Did Anna exit from the sphere of ethical minimum? Based on the prevailing ethical norms of the 19th century Russia, the answer seems to be yes. While her flirting with Vronsky initially may be seen as acceptable or even stylish by Russian aristocracy at the time, her divorce and leaving her son may not be (even if it is legal). The question truly is: Why is flirting of a married woman within the boundaries of ethical minimum but divorcing is not? Institutionalized moral indeed is difficult to grasp at times.
Living in a society and at a time where and when two thirds of marriages are divorced, the institution of marriage seems to be a very “fluid” category. And, true passion and love are rarely the reasons for the divorce. Can we then really appreciate the level of emotion and passion, sacrifice and self-distraction exhibited by both Anna Karenina and Alexei Vronsky? I beg the answer is no. But for sure we can pass judgments from our armchairs based on the unachievable ethical maximum while living our lives based on ever declining ethical minimum of today and here.