How to Get Away with Murder: Moral Nihilism in The Spy Who Came In From The Cold


John Le Carré’s world of Cold War espionage, according to some, depicts a straightforward structure on its surface level: “there were good guys and bad guys and they were easy to spot” (Boyd). However, anyone who goes beyond the surface will find that actually, the world in The Spy Who Came in from the Cold is not so straightforward. Instead, “good and bad are distributed evenly; instead of black and white, there is a gray that blurs the borders between the two sides” (Hindersmann 27). In this, Le Carré’s Spy concludes that the world of Cold War espionage is exceptional not so much in terms of its morality, but rather in that it highlights the concept of ‘morality’ as arbitrary and totally subjective, presenting several issues which are in line with J. L. Mackie’s view on morality as described in certain chapters of Ethics: Inventing Right and Wrong. A thread of moral nihilist ideas marks The Spy from start to end, starting with the depiction of Mackie’s ‘double effect’, the subjectivity of the term ‘wrong’ and finally landing upon the realisation that moral values are totally arbitrary, like Miss Crail’s rules in the library.

In order to look at Spy through the moral nihilist lense that is proposed by Mackie, a brief overview and analysis of his views are in place. Mackie starts his chapter “Moral Scepticism” on the notion that “[t]here are no objective values” (15). All his views epitomise that conclusion. The characters in Spy base many of their justifications on Mackie’s principle of ‘double effect’: in the case of a doctor being forced “to kill one innocent person to save the lives of several others” (“Absolutism and the Principle of Double Effect” 161), the idea of “absolute moral rules” can only be retained if the death of the ‘one innocent person’ is “a second effect and not a means” (162). However, this again demonstrates that the ‘absolute moral value’ that murder is ‘wrong’ can also be adapted in certain situations, indicating that this moral value is subjective and not absolute. Mackie’s chapters consider the origin of moral values, rather than what is already considered a truth (“Moral Scepticism” 16). An example of this is the following: “[i]t is a hard fact that cruel actions differ from kind ones, and hence that we can learn … to use the words ‘cruel’ and ‘kind’ with fairly clear descriptive meanings” (17). However, it is not an objective fact that there exists no difference “on the basis of which differing values are assigned” (17). Thus, and this will also become clear in Spy, ‘cruel’ and ‘kind’ can originate from different viewpoints, therefore inheriting differing descriptive meanings. Instead of judging that some things are either good or not because “they exemplify some general principle for which widespread implicit acceptance could be claimed,” people judge that some things are good “because something about those things arouses certain responses immediately in them” (“The Argument from Relativity” 36-37). The key point being that these same things “would arouse radically and irrevocably different responses in others” (37), therefore ‘right,’ though objectively differentiated from ‘wrong,’ is still a subjective concept.

Mackie’s views are demonstrated in Spy from beginning to end. Hindersmann notes correctly that “for the intelligence only results matter, and to achieve results, the service is willing to sacrifice the agent like a pawn in a chess game” (26). This is a mirroring of the ‘double effect’ described by Mackie. In this case the means is to beat communism, and if innocent people die this is merely a ‘side effect’, and therefore it is considered morally just. Hindersmann points out that not only the East employs the double effect: “Fiedler … has no moral difficulties with his job. He is willing to kill individuals, if that will promote communism” (27). For Fiedler, too, the casualties do not count as ‘murder’ because they are merely side effects in the attempt to beat a ‘wrong’ system. It is made clear several times that individuals are practical sacrifices for the greater good. Leamas blames communism for preaching to sacrifice “the individual to the mass” (Le Carré 242), whereas Fiedler blames Christianity for preaching that “it is expedient that one man should die for the benefit of many” (137). Though in both groups murder is morally considered ‘wrong’, in the case that a murder helps to reach the goal, it is considered a ‘side effect’, and therefore this structure allows for the absolute value to exist as a pretence; murder is wrong, but the goal is right, therefore murder in advantage of the goal is probably also right.

It is in the differing definitions of ‘wrong’ and ‘right’ where it becomes clear that Spy does not depict a world where ‘bad guys’ are easily recognised, since ‘bad’ means something completely opposite for both the East and the West. Mackie’s explanation can be used as a key to this confusion, as this blurring of ‘bad’ exemplifies that people judge what is ‘bad’ based on what response it awakens in them. To Control, communism is a phenomenon that will not allow “ordinary people here and elsewhere to sleep safely in their beds at night” (Le Carré 17), whereas to Fiedler, communism is a phenomenon that should be ‘promoted’. When Control tells Leamas that “you can’t be less ruthless than the opposition simply because your government’s policy is benevolent” (18), he also admits that even though the government has certain ‘absolute’ moral values, these can be broken because the opposition does not adhere to them either. This view is reinforced when looking at certain examples of killing in The Spy. Leamas considers Mundt a killer, and thinks that there is a “coldness about him … which perfectly equip[s] him for the business of murder” (171). However, in total contrast to the ‘wrong’ sounding description of Mundt, Leamas himself at a different point wonders “if he’d killed the guard”, and even hopes so (167). One could argue that Leamas himself also exhibits a certain ‘coldness’, equipping him too ‘for the business of murder’. Mundt himself condemns killing, as he decides to hang Leamus, because “[he] murdered a guard” and because he tried to murder Mundt himself (225).  Killing, then, fluctuates between being ‘wrong’ and ‘just’, making the moral attached to it subjective.

The absolute moral rules “which many people have believed to exist” (Mackie 17) throughout Spy turn out to be pretense, and instead morals are subjective, and mean nothing. This idea is allegorised also in The Spy through the rules of Miss Crail. Leamas, in his job at the library, is told that “only Miss Crail’s allowed to ink in the reference. It’s the rule” (Le Carré 31). When Leamas cynically asks whose rule this is, Liz answers: “Miss Crail’s” (31). This passage seems ironic because the rule seems to put Miss Crail at an advantage in the library, but the rule was also made by Miss Crail. This exemplifies how moral rules about killing, as shown earlier, are made based on whether it puts the group at an advantage or not. The rules are therefore arbitrary, and ultimately devoid of objective meaning. This is not where the allegory with Miss Crail ends. Miss Crail is surprised that Leamas had time to go to the shops: “If you only took a normal lunch break … you would not have time to go shopping …; we do not have time to shop” (32). Leamas in response asserts that if Miss Crail would also just take an extra half-hour, she would have time to go shopping (32). Leamas demonstrates here how the ‘absolute rules’ can be adapted to fit the person’s means, exactly as the ‘absolute moral rule’ that sees killing as wrong can be adapted using the ‘double effect’ principle and the definition of ‘wrong’ can be adapted depending on whose side the action benefits.

Together, these three aspects of the novel point towards a realisation that the concept of morality is arbitrary, subjective, and devoid of any objective meaning. Objectively, the difference between ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ is clear. When reading “the right side lost but the wrong side won” (Hindersmann 25) one is inclined to feel defeated because the fact that ‘the wrong side won’ is undesirable. However, as Spy has shown throughout, two opposite groups will see each other as ‘the wrong side’, which means that the true definition of ‘wrong’ is completely subjective, much like the condemnation of ‘a killer’.  As Mackie has written, “radical differences between first order moral judgements make it difficult to treat those judgements as apprehensions of objective truths” (36). Spy shows an understanding of this view on morality every time it poses the East and the West as similar in actuality, in how they allow the moral values to fluctuate between seemingly opposite entities.


Boyd, William. "Rereading: The Spy Who Came in from the Cold by John Le Carré." The Guardian.

Guardian News and Media, 24 July 2010. Web.

Carré, John Le. The Spy Who Came in from the Cold. London: Penguin Group, 2014. Print.

Hindersmann, Jost. "“The right side lost but the wrong side won”: John le Carré’s Spy Novels before and after the End of the Cold War." Clues: A journal of Detection 23 (2005): 25-37.

Mackie, J. L. "Absolutism and the Principle of Double Effect" Ethics: Inventing Right and Wrong. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1990. 160-168. Print.

Mackie, J. L. "Moral Scepticism." Ethics: Inventing Right and Wrong. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1990. 15-17. Print.

Mackie, J. L. "The Argument from Relativity" Ethics: Inventing Right and Wrong. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1990. 36-39. Print.

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I enjoy writing as my biggest hobby in life. Since I graduated from a BA in English Literature, I have been busy in my MA programme geared towards editing and writing. I love all things dark, from the Gothic era and before to modern dark writings.



LiteratureManou Jonink