McCarthy’s novel explores the human struggle toward a definition and framework of morality and ethics. Several of the novel’s characters search for a moral center—some reference point against which they may measure their decision, actions, and beliefs—as they confront extreme instances of violence and corruption. The novel’s three main characters, Llewellyn Moss, Sheriff Ed Tom Bell, and Anton Chigurh, each operate in the world with different conceptions of morality and ethics. Each man holds a different moral code, and each character’s actions work to challenge common frameworks of morality and ethics.
Sheriff Bell struggles to find a moral center against which he might explain the gruesome violence he encounters throughout the narrative. Since he was a young sheriff, he has perceived the law, religion, and truth as the reference points for morality. These moral frameworks have not only provided a clear sense of right and wrong, they have given him a clear sense of obligation and duty as a sheriff, husband, and community member. Llewellyn Moss’s philosophy is not as clear-cut as Bell’s. Common frameworks of morality and ethics defined by law and religion do not guide him. His sense of morality comes from within, through his desire for authenticity, autonomy, and freedom.
Moss is operating in a framework that is not defined externally, by society or god, but by his own internal framework. Chigurh provides a counterpoint to these different moral positions. He operates outside of any single understanding of morality and ethics, and continually raises philosophical questions to his victims. His actions do not fall into any single philosophical framework. During the scene with the proprietor, he shifts the situation from a moral decision to chance by introducing the coin. When he kills Wells, his philosophy hinges on pragmatism. And when he kills Carla Jean, he does so out of moral duty. He acts in ways that complicate human attempts to construct moral frameworks and guidelines for their lives and society.
Through the exploration of these characters, their decisions, and the outcomes, the novel raises questions about human conceptions of morality and ethics, but does not seem to offer any single answer beyond the fact that the world remains indifferent to the strivings of its people. The novel is not concerned with providing an answer or a version of the “correct” moral philosophy. Instead, the novel aims to explore the limits and frailties of several philosophical frameworks dealing with morality and ethics, leaving the reader to face their own conceptions of these ideas.
Philosophy, Morality, and Ethics ThemeTracker
Philosophy, Morality, and Ethics Quotes in No Country for Old Men
But there is another view of the world out there and other eyes to see it and that where this is going…Somewhere there is a true and living prophet of destruction and I dont want to confront him.
Anything can be an instrument, Chigurh said. Small things. Things you wouldnt even notice. They pass from hand to hand. People dont pay attention. And then one day there is an accounting. And after that nothing is the same…you see the problem. To separate the act from the thing. As if parts of some moment in history might be interchangeable with the parts of some other moment. How could that be? Well, it’s just a coin. Yes. That’s true. Is it?
The ones that really ought to be on death row will never make it. You remember certain things about [an execution]. People didnt know what to wear. There was one or two that come dressed in black, which I suppose was all right...Still they seemed to know what to do and that surprised me. Most of em I know had never been to a execution before. When it was over they pulled this curtain back around the gas chamber with him in there settin slumped over and people just got up and filed out. Like out of church or somthin.
It’s a odd thing when you come to think about it. The opportunities for abuse are just about everywhere. There’s no requirements in the Texas State Constitution for bein a sheriff. Not a one. There is no such thing as county law. You think about a job where you have pretty much the same authority as God and there is no requirements put upon you and you are charged with preservin nonexistent laws and you tell me if that’s peculiar or not. Because I say it is…it takes very little to govern good people. Very little. And bad people can’t be governed at all.
I know they’s a lot of things in a family history that just plain aint so. Any family. The stories get passed on and the truth gets passed over…which I reckon some would take as meaning that the truth cant compete. But I dont believe that. I think that when the lies are all told and forgot the truth will be there yet.
I guess in all honesty I would have to say that I never knew nor did I ever hear of anybody that money didnt change.
You can’t make a deal with him. Let me say it again. Even if you gave him the money he’d still kill you. There’s no one alive on this planet that’s ever had even a cross word with him. They’re all dead. These are not good odds. He’s a peculiar man. You could even say that he has principals. Principals that transcend money or drugs or anything like that.
What is that Torbert says? About truth and justice?
We dedicate ourselves anew daily. Somthin like that.
I think I’m goin to commence dedicatin myself twice daily. It may come to three fore it’s over.
If the rule you followed led you to this of what use was the rule?
You’ve been giving up things for years to get here. I dont think I even understood that. How does a man decide in what order to abandon his life? We’re in the same line of work. Up to a point. Did you hold me in such contempt? Why would you do that? How did you let yourself get in this situation?
That aint half of it. [The drug dealers] dont even think about the law. It dont seem to even concern em. Of course here a while back in San Antonio they shot and killed a federal judge. I guess he concerned em. Add to that that there’s peace officers along this border getting rich off narcotics. That’s a painful thing to know. Or it is for me. I dont believe that was true even ten years ago. A crooked peace officer is just a damn abomination.
Not everyone is suited to this line of work. The prospect of outsized profits leads people to exaggerate their own capabilities. In their minds. They pretend to themselves that they are in control of events where perhaps they are not. And it is always one’s stance upon uncertain ground that invites the attentions of one’s enemies. Or discourages it.
Every moment in your life is a turning and every one a choosing. Somewhere you made a choice. All followed to this. The accounting is scrupulous. The shape is drawn. No line can be erased. I had no believe in your ability to move a coin to your bidding. How could you? A Person’s path through the world seldom changes and even more seldom will it change abruptly. And the shape of your path was visible from the beginning.
How come people dont feel like this country has got a lot to answer for? They dont. You can say that the country is just the country, it dont actively do nothing, but that dont mean much…This country will kill you in a heartbeat and still people love it. You understand what I’m sayin?
I told him that a lawyer one time told me that in law school they try and teach you not to worry about right and wrong but just to follow the law and I said I wasnt so sure about that. He thought about that and he nodded and he said that he pretty much had to agree…if you dont follow the law right and wrong wont save you.
She was tryin to be a reporter. She said: Sheriff how come you to let crime get so out of hand in your county? Sounded like a fair question I reckon. Maybe it was a fair question. Anyway I told her, I said: It starts when you begin to overlook bad manners. Anytime you quit hearin Sir and Mam the end is pretty much in sight. I told her, I said: It reaches into every strata. You’ve heard about that aint you?...I told her that you cant have a dope business without dopers. A lot of em are well dressed and holdin down goodpayin jobs too.
This man had set down with a hammer and a chisel and carved out a stone water trough to last ten thousand years. Why was that? What was it that he had faith in? It wasn’t that nothing would change. Which is what you might think, I suppose. He had to know bettern that. I’ve thought about it a great deal…And I have to say that the only thing I can think is that there was some sort of promise in his heart.