I have long wanted to examine pragmatic altruism in KDrama narratives, a trope which exemplifies certain Confucian ethical tenets, yet is repeatedly deprecated as “noble idiocy” at interweb oases where KDrama aficionados gather, including DramaBeans, the go-to resource for KDrama news, recaps, and commentary. Finally compelled by this summer’s revelatory 운명처럼 널 사랑해 (Fated to Love You), a romantic comedy at once loud and subtle, playful, sly, culturally erudite and deeply moving –whether in mirth or in woe– (and a gem to which I intend to dedicate its own post proper), I would like to especially consider Lee Geon’s case of pragmatic altruism which many at DramaBeans are decrying as “noble idiocy” at its worst.
I don’t know how, when, or why the term “noble idiocy” gained purchase, but after encountering it repeatedly in discussions about a character’s decision to forego some pleasure or benefit for what they believe to be the greater good, I began to wonder whether it was possible to develop a reasonable ethical understanding of such behavior, and whether its significance was culture specific or whether it could be effectively translated from Eastern narrative fictions in a way that was meaningful to Western sensibilities.
The Urban Dictionary defines the term “Noble Idiot” thus: “A person who ‘sacrifices’ their own happiness with the assumption that they are bringing happiness to the person they are sacrificing for, when in fact, this sacrifice makes the other person even more unhappy.” Throughout KDrama examples abound of kcharacters – particularly protagonists – foregoing what appears to be the easy and obvious road to love and happiness and instead choosing to take the difficult path, often of separation from those they love. These are the “noble idiots” that apparently offend with their much abhorred “noble idiocy.” Well, with a definition like the one given above, it should be no wonder that for those KDrama fans who only want to see the OTP always together no matter what obstacles their situation forces them to face, the trope has become so reviled as to warrant outright censure the moment it makes an appearance.
Tropes are, by definition, recognizable motifs or clichés upon which the theme or narrative threads of a story turn to alter direction during its development. The more recognizable tropes usually function as signposts that significant changes are nigh and as such, should serve to prepare the audience for important transitions in the story. Skillfully deployed tropes will provide stable structural elements upon which to hang the details and ornaments of a well crafted tale.
However, many a ham-fisted writer will manhandle tropes, dealing them out haphazardly without regard for context and absent any narrative consistency to account for the trope’s use. So in cases where, say, a character suddenly out of the blue decides to abandon the already paved, easy and obvious road to happiness and instead chooses to take the difficult path because, well, the story needs a twist and some conflict so that’s just what the script says will happen at that point, the audience readily recognizes it as a narratively meaningless sleight of hand and collective outrage ensues. Such an atrocity is justifiably branded as “noble idiocy” and vehemently denounced as symptomatic of lazy and unimaginative writing.
So just what distinction is being made between “noble idiocy” and “pragmatic altruism” and why does that distinction merit consideration?
Well, with “noble idiocy” we have an empty sentimental gesture supposedly meant to safeguard the happiness of its beneficiary (i.e. the person for whom the ‘sacrifice’ is being made) but which, instead, only inflicts even greater pain on them. Furthermore, this device is inserted into the plot merely in order to up the ante on angst as a way of manipulating the audience emotionally to increase ratings.
With “pragmatic altruism,” on the other hand, the altruists are driven by a clear desire to minimize the suffering their beneficiaries must inevitably endure under the given circumstances and the choices a pragmatic altruist makes arise organically out of a stable context of relationships where the nature of each party’s character has been clearly established and remains consistent within the structure of the story.
While the “noble idiot” assumes that they are ensuring happiness, the “pragmatic altruist” can only hope that they are helping lessen the pain.
Lee Geon’s Choice
It so happens that a considerable number of netizens have taken to their keyboards to lambaste Lee Geon’s decision to isolate himself from at least two people who he loves dearly because of the sudden apparent onset of his Huntington’s disease, a wasting malady that is part of his family’s genetic legacy. With the heartbroken Se Ra –his globe-trotting, international ballerina-girlfriend from whom Fate (with Se Ra’s careless help) deemed fit to separate him– Geon is tender yet resolute in calling a definitive end to their relationship. However, with Mi Yeong, the gentle wife and expectant mother of his child –a woman with whom he has just started discovering such complete, consuming love that it simply goes to his head and leaves him mystified– Geon is ruthlessly stoic, hiding behind the curtain of his lost [but, as yet unbeknownst to her, already recovered] memory to sever ties forever because he cannot bear the thought of becoming a burden to her as his health deteriorates and he descends into dementia while losing control of his own body.
Despite what some restless viewers may say, it is a grave mistake to dismiss Lee Geon’s choice as mere “noble idiocy.” As a catch-all phrase for seemingly un-self-interested choices commonly made by players in KDrama, “noble idiocy” is a woefully shameful label for the kind of pragmatic altruism we see exemplified here; a pragmatic altruism that is readily ascribable to Confucian ethics and is all-but alien to contemporary Western sensibilities, especially in fiction. (It is, however, not altogether absent, as evidenced by many a literary classic of yore whose central concern cannot be understood without taking into account the role of pragmatic altruism in the characters’ choices. For example, Jane Eyre, in Charlotte Brontë’s eponymous masterpiece, does not choose to leave Mr. Rochester in order to indulge a self-aggrandizing sentimental sense of sacrifice, nor yet merely to service a plot device.) I therefore propose “pragmatic altruism” as more closely descriptive term for Geon’s choice than “noble idiocy,” for we know from his harsh, unsentimental demeanor that there is nothing “noble” or “idiotic” about Geon’s decision, and he knows it too.
Granted, we may later discover that Geon allowed his pessimism to get the better of him when he could have been more circumspect about ending his marriage so abruptly. But even without the problem necessarily being the definitive onset of Huntington’s disease, let us remember that thanks to his genetic heritage, this man still has the sword of Democles hanging over him. As a result of his recent memory loss episode, he has also witnessed first hand how devastating the collateral damage can be—especially to these two women he loves and, by extension, to his anticipated child—should it fall and strike. And if, as Dr. Moon said, his father experienced the same kind of memory loss episodes (which might actually account for Mamma Yong and Little Yong’s presence in the Lee Family), Geon, who cannot bear to be compared to his father, knows only too well the misery that his mother (and his little self) went through because of his father’s condition (see exchange midway through Ep.7 with Yong’s mother about only ever seeing his mother’s back because she was always hiding her tears from him).
There is nothing idiotically self-sacrificing about him wanting to spare his own “beloved wife” that kind of misery and wanting to allocate resources and delegate responsibility properly, especially with respect to the care of his child in the event he ends up unable to provide that care himself (see the last amended divorce agreement). And for a man whose dominant personality trait is clearly that of care-taker and protector –(notice the dynamics of his 6-year relationship with Se Ra and his consistent tendency to protect and encourage Mi Yeong, especially in moments of crisis)– it is very easy to understand how he could not abide the thought of becoming a physical, psychological and emotional burden to someone to whom he has always been the protector. The drama makes a point of showing Geon watching video testimonials of family members of victims of the disease that looms over his lineage. In the scene just after the “fermented stingray-Geonnie cup birthday present lunch” and before Secretary Tak notices that his boss’s memory has returned, Geon watches a woman describe her husband’s ordeal with Huntington’s disease:
“At first when he found out, he was …humiliated… like he didn’t even really want to see his family. I don’t want to give up hope, but seeing him… changing and looking at my son and knowing that… it just kind of… hurts.”
Based on what he says to Secretary Tak during their exchange (in addition to what Dr. Moon confirmed), we see that Geon BELIEVES his debilitating disease has been definitively triggered and he cannot imagine how much pain having to bear with his condition will cause Mi Yeong. I thought, at first, that he was unreasonably harsh and quite out of character during his break-up dinner with her. But then I recalled the day of his wedding, when he willingly swallowed the pain of losing his dreamed-of future with Se Ra in order to respond to his duty as the expectant father to the child inadvertently conceived with Mi Yeong. The point here is that Geon accepts that pain and loss are part of taking responsibility and considers it necessary and reasonable that both he and Mi Yeong bear the pain of parting sooner rather than later. Since he is unaware of Se Ra’s own machinations in messing with Mi Yeong’s mind, he can’t know that he is twisting the knife that Sa Ra already plunged into Mi Yeong’s heart.
But he does know Mi Yeong well enough to be correct in assuming that she would not leave him – regardless of his illness or state of degeneration; he knows that she is herself a caretaker and protector (even when it is at her own expense); he knows that she loves him completely (she has made that abundantly clear); and he knows that Mi Yeong’s dream is to become a strong mother – Bond Girl, Super Glue strong – for their Gaettong-ie. He is also aware that she has been slowly but steadily growing in that direction. Based on what he has learned about the disease he believes has began to attack his mind and body, he cannot abide the thought of siphoning all that life energy from her and from their child while he wastes away. So even after the break-up dinner, painful as it was [Jang Na Ra just slays me!], even after the miscarriage and after refusing Mi Yeong’s final attempt to reconcile her fractured family, all I can see of Geon’s decision following his memory loss episode is well reasoned pragmatic altruism.
Empathy for the afflicted; sympathy for their helpers
Part of the reason the term “noble idiocy” is just wrong in cases like this where the story has gone to great and detailed lengths to establish a viable context for pragmatic altruism is because it urges the audience to be lazy about seriously considering and empathizing with the reasons that compell people to make choices like Geon’s. We are uncomfortable with putting ourselves in their shoes and discovering for ourselves what drives them to do things that they believe will minimize the pain their loved ones experience even as it shatters their own hearts. The way this story establishes Geon’s personality and presents his family history, “pragmatic altruism” is not only the more responsive term logically, but also culturally — an assertion whose validity is easily demonstrated:
If we really look at ourselves in a dispassionate light, we human beings rarely, if ever, make self-depriving choices merely in order to be [considered] noble. I’d go as far as even say we NEVER intentionally act in ways that are contrary to our self-interest and when we appear to do so, it is only because we are instead choosing to serve an alternate, more compelling self-interest. Consider Geon’s case: the thing he wants most at this moment in his life is Mi Yeong and Geattong-ie: all those contortions in bed when he can’t touch her, the teddy bear-envy, her bath towel-envy, NeighborhoodOppa-jealousy; his uneasiness when he can’t be near her; his pain and discomfort when she is in distress; his empathic morning sickness; his gleefully warm delight when she expresses her gratitude to him or when she praises and compliments him; his overwhelming joy when she offers him even modest gifts… clearly he has bonded with her body and soul and she is all of everything he wants, indeed, craves.
And yet, what he wants even more than feeding his own appetite and satisfying his own need is for Mi Yeong to thrive and be happy. Recall that even before he knew she would be a meaningful part of his life, when he saw her in distress in Macau, he pulled out all the stops to showcase her at her most brilliantly desirable – as a strong and thriving Bond Girl – all the while encouraging her to shed the ‘Post-It’ demeanor and own the ‘Super Glue’ attitude as he walked her into the casino. Later, once she becomes part of his life, he puts aside his own [admittedly misconceived] sense of having been trapped, and proceeds to facilitate the improvement of her home island. When he takes his timid wife to see his office, he gently invites her to stand beside him as his equal…
So when he imagines – nay, firmly believes – that his illness means that he is diminished and a burden; that he no longer has the right to stand beside her; that he will become a lifelong obstacle to her thriving and blossoming to her full potential, he chooses to give up what he wants most, Mi Yeong, for what he wants even more, her health and happiness without his wasting disease to hold her down. Hence “pragmatic altruism.”
“仁” (Virtue: Humaneness, Benevolence, Kindness)
In Confucian terms, Geon has, since episode 1, exemplified the principles of “仁” (ren). The idiograph “仁”, is composed of four strokes and combines the radical for person, 人, with with two parallel horizontal strokes to signify the idea of man connecting heaven and earth. Consider this passage from the Analects, especially the underlined section:
子曰。何事於仁 必也聖乎。堯舜其猶病諸 夫仁者、己欲立而立人、己欲達而達人。能近取譬、可謂仁之方也已。
Zi Gong asked: “Suppose there were a leader who benefited the people far and wide and was capable of bringing salvation to the multitude, what would you think of him? Might he be called virtuous?”
The Master said, “Why speak only of virtue? He would undoubtedly be a sage. Even Yao and Shun would have had to strive to achieve this. Now the man of perfect virtue (ren), wishing himself to be established, sees that others are established, and, wishing himself to be successful, sees that others are successful. To be able to empathize when judging others may be called the art of virtue (ren).”
SOURCE: The Analects of Confucius
Geon may not be a man of perfect virtue, but he is certainly a GOOD man in so many many many ways, including his enormous capacity for empathy. The crises that lead him to this crucial point in his life have been growing in volume and urgency for three unrelenting months. Just try to imagine how much stress this man has had to endure since the poetic love of his life so casually bailed on his big proposal and then he suddenly found himself expecting a baby and married, still heartbroken about Se Ra yet learning Mi Yeong and trying to keep her safe by deflecting the arrows of public censure aimed her way, all while fending off usurpers to the family throne. Yet he has taken every blow in stride only to have it all culminate in a glaringly public scandal by which his heart’s new love –a quite, gentle, big-hearted hummingbird of a woman who he now can’t live without– is wrenched from him by her outraged family. No wonder he finally collapsed in the middle of the road! Were it not for that unpredictable and debilitating genetic disease lurking in the shadows of Geon’s beleaguered mind and body, we might be forgiven for imagining that he suffered a mild stroke due to the the crippling pressures of his life’s unrelenting demands. With brutal immediacy, the collapse and subsequent (brief) memory loss remind Geon that, latent though it may be, the illness that runs in his family line is one of deadly gravity.
Deprecating his pragmatic altruism as “noble idiocy” — because he has made what he believes to be the kindest, most reasonable choice to minimize the future suffering of the woman he loves in the wake of a traumatizing crisis that is further compounded by the agonizing loss of his unborn child — shows, I believe, a cruel lack of empathy.
I will close by tipping my hat to the Fated to Love You OST team whose brilliant lyrical sensibility lets us hear Ailee’s 잠시 안녕처럼 (Goodbye My Love) for both Geon and Mi Yeong — first for him as he first loses and then recovers his memory, then for both of them and their child as she loses the baby, and finally at the airport when she leaves for France and he races desperately to catch up with her but fails. Although neither one has explicitly said that key word, “사랑해” to the other, this song says everything about what they are both experiencing at their core.
Initial draft of this post first posted on DramaBeans.
NB: This is part 1 of a three-part series on the Korean romantic comedy drama 운명처럼 널 사랑해 (Fated to Love You). It was written and published immediately after the live broadcast of Episode 12 of the show and draws on its developments only up to episode 12.
The second installment in the series, Love in 운명처럼 널 사랑해 (Fated to Love You), draws upon the story’s development up to Episode 16.
The third and final installment in the Fated to Love You series, The Perfection of 운명처럼 널 사랑해 (Fated to Love You) draws upon the drama in its entirety, from Episode 1-20.
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