The beginning of the second act takes place in Sir Robert Chiltern’s morning-room, where Sir Robert and Lord Goring are discussing Robert’s predicament. Goring tells Robert that he should have been completely honest with his wife, but Robert explains that if she knew the whole truth she would end their marriage, since she herself is perfect. Lord Goring decides to talk to Lady Chiltern, to try to alter her views on life and perfection.
Robert more or less explains the purity contract to Lord Goring. It seems to make Lord Goring sad and thoughtful – unlike his usual self. He finds its terms neither fair nor realistic. His comments imply that no one is perfect, not even Lady Chiltern. Moreover, he believes that perfection is not anything to be desired, especially in a marriage.
Sir Robert speaks resentfully of the shame that would befall him were his misdeed to become public, and complains that the act was essentially harmless; Lord Goring points out gently that the misdeed harmed him, above all. Sir Robert goes on trying to excuse himself: he claims that men should not be judged by youthful mistakes, and that it would have been impossible for him to succeed without the money he earned from the divulged secret. Lord Goring disagrees on every point. Ultimately, he implies, Robert betrayed his principles for money.
In trying to maintain his self-image as a morally faultless person – a person who does not allow for gray areas – Robert in fact creates gray areas where there are none. To remain morally faultless, Robert must redefine his actions as morally acceptable. In this way, the impulse to purity becomes paradoxical. It makes Robert blur his otherwise clear categories of right and wrong.
Robert reveals that it was Baron Arnheim that put the idea in his head. He describes an evening he spent with Baron Arnheim when he was very young. The Baron mesmerized him with beautiful speeches about power, which he considered the one thing truly worth having. Robert still sees the wisdom in this idea, though Lord Goring finds it “thoroughly shallow.” Robert is torn between remorse and stubborn pride.
Such blurring is the origin of Robert’s troubles. Baron Arnheim, from Robert’s description, seems to have been proficient at sophistry – reasoning that is artful but false. Baron Arnheim used his rhetorical talent to convince his listeners that power is the only thing of value.
Finally, Robert asks his friend for advice. A confession, Lord Goring says, would ruin his career forever; what he must do now is tell his wife everything. Goring mentions that he was once briefly engaged to Mrs. Cheveley, and tells Robert that he must find a way to fight her, perhaps using some detail from her past. Robert takes only the second part of Goring’s advice; he decides to write a telegram to an acquaintance in Vienna to inquire about Mrs. Cheveley’s secrets or past embarrassments. Lord Goring notes cautiously that women like Mrs. Cheveley are not easily embarrassed – that they enjoy scandals.
Lord Goring enjoys pretense and games, and cultivates an appearance of triviality; Robert enjoys important political work, and cultivates an appearance of seriousness. Yet Lord Goring’s actual moral base is much more solid that Robert’s. Goring fully believes that it is wrong to sell government secrets, and right to be honest with one’s wife – no two ways about it. The appearance of seriousness and the appearance of triviality do not necessarily correspond to underlying attitudes.
Lady Chiltern joins them; she has just come home from a meeting of the Women’s Liberal Association, which advocates labor and women’s rights. Lord Goring jokes that they must have thorough discussions of hats, and she scolds him good-humoredly. She leaves the room for a moment; Robert thanks Lord Goring warmly for his advice and leaves to do some work.
In fact, it is Lord Goring’s belief that truth and appearance do not – or ought not – go hand in hand. That is why he returns again and again to an irreverent, joking attitude. He believes that such an attitude safeguards true moral seriousness. It also happens to be delightful, a value in its own right.