The Sense and Sensibility of Betrayal: Discovering the Meaning of Treachery through Jane Austen

Article excerpt

Introduction

In the past few years the charge of "betrayal" has become all too common. Yet, with all the fanfare and publicity attached to these charges, there has been surprisingly little written about what we even mean by the term. It clearly matters a great deal to us. An act of betrayal makes us appreciate Dante's reserving the innermost ring of the Inferno for the betrayers. We can even say there is a characteristic "feel" to betrayal. The betrayed experience powerful sensations of violation; they feel used and damaged. Betrayal, however, elicits more than strong feelings. Psychologists offer clinical evidence attesting to the devastating effects of betrayal. [1] Betrayal acts as an assault on the integrity of individuals, affecting the capacity to trust, undermining confidence in judgment, and contracting the possibilities of the world by increasing distrust and scepticism. [2] Betrayal changes not only our sense of the world, but our sensibility toward the world.

A charge of betrayal, then, must be taken seriously. While it may be that a particular case of betrayal is justified, the burden of offering that justification clearly belongs to the betrayer, not to the betrayed. Many, however, have been accused of betraying someone and felt wronged.

Distinguishing genuine instances of betrayal from those that are merely "felt."

They respond with outrage, defensiveness, or merely confusion. Sincerely believing their actions do not constitute betrayal, they do not feel obliged to offer justification. Instead they may demand explanations and apologies from the accuser, who already feels injured. Such conflicts raise the important question: how do we separate genuine instances of betrayal from merely "felt" instances? Psychological studies do little to illuminate this question, since such studies typically concern the effects of betrayal on an individual, and for this purpose it matters little whether the betrayal is genuine or not.

For the purposes of moral assessment, however, it surely matters a great deal whether an actual betrayal occurred. Further, because even a merely perceived betrayal ruptures trust and contaminates relationships for both parties, negative consequences may be mitigated if a legitimate interpretation of the incident can be offered. Refining and clarifying exactly what betrayal is, the context within which it occurs, and how it differs from other trust violations, may allow a more reasonable assessment of betrayal. Therefore, we must turn away from psychology and look to moral philosophy for enlightenment.

Unhappily, the philosophical literature does not offer as much help as one would like to sort through this issue. Two in-depth discussions of betrayal, however, are found in Judith Shklar's "The Ambiguities of Betrayal" [3] and Peter Johnson's Frames of Deceit. [4] Although Shklar deftly uncovers the many ambiguities surrounding betrayal and Johnson provides an excellent study of forgiveness, neither furnishes a detailed discussion of what the term 'betrayal' means. But only a clear sense of betrayal will allow the reasonable assessment that puts betrayal in its proper place.

For example, Shklar does at one point characterize betrayal as an act in which "one person should have both intentionally convinced another person of his future loyalty and then deliberately rejected him." [5] Yet she lists as "betrayals" such examples as experiencing the social mores and traditions one grew up with becoming outdated and being in a marriage where one partner outgrows the other. Shklar is interested in exploring our mixed feelings about such familiar experiences. To categorize these sorts of situations with Von Stauffenberg's betrayal of Hitler or Madame Bovary's infidelity, however, makes it very difficult to sort out the salient features of actual betrayals, assess them morally, or determine appropriate responses to them.

Both Shklar and Johnson argue, however, that trust and betrayal are best understood through a careful reading of literature. …