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Les MisйRables And Catholic Social Teaching

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Written by Victor Hugo after the French Revolution, Les Misйrables is a story that examines the many levels of social injustice in nineteenth-century France. Its protagonist, Jean Valjean, is central to the understanding of this injustice. Sentenced to 19 years in prison for committing a petty crime, Valjean comes to observe the law as an arbitrary force lacking in compassion and equality. However, Valjean's view is fanatically contradicted by Inspector Javert, a man whose commitment to the law is absolute. Through Kohlberg's Theory of Moral Reasoning, the successive conflicts between these two characters are given a basis of reason that is defined by the stages at which they function. Kohlberg's theory can also explain the opposing interpretations of the Common Good in relation to the moral stages of Valjean and Javert.

Functioning at the highest stage of Kohlberg's Theory of Moral Reasoning, Jean Valjean is guided by personal ethical principles. Even Valjean's initial crime of stealing a loaf of bread can be justified if a more important principle, such as the prevention of suffering, is upheld. This correlates with a fundamental concept of Stage 6, Universal Ethical Principle, which dictates that law should be discarded when it fails to represent justice. This concept repeats itself when Valjean shelters Fantine, a woman forced into illegal prostitution by a society that is incapable of maintaining her welfare. As with social justice, "...if the soul is left in darkness, sins will be committed. The guilty one is not he who commits the sin, but the one who causes the darkness." [1] Thus, Valjean was able to view Fantine not as a criminal, but as a victim. Jean Valjean is also capable of exemplifying a second concept of Stage 6, which requires him to be concerned about equality as opposed to personal gain. When a man is arrested under his name and is about to be committed for his crimes, Valjean declares his identity to the court, thus exonerating the man. This is because, due to his ethical reasoning, Valjean could not allow the "miserable wretch" to suffer for him.

Throughout Les Misйrables, the entirety of Inspector Javert's character is committed to the maintenance of law and order. Thus, Javert is categorized under Stage 4 of Kohlberg's Theory of Moral Reasoning, Law and Order Orientation. Believing that no one group is above the law, Javert even criticizes his parents, and "would have arrested his own father if he escaped from prison and turned in his own mother for breaking parole." [2] The staunchness of Javert's reverence for authority is further exemplified when he offers to resign himself as chief police officer after believing he had wrongfully denounced Valjean. However, in understanding Stage 4, one can see that Javert "...orients to society as a system of fixed rules...



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