Alfred P. Doolittle is the likable rogue of My Fair Lady, the one who sings “With a Little Bit of Luck,” which begins:
The Lord above gave man an arm of iron
So he could do his job and never shirk.
The Lord gave man an arm of iron—but
With a little bit of luck, with a little bit of luck
Someone else’ll do the blinkin’ work.
The lyrics go on to outline what God wants and what luck can do in other areas of life. Booze: “With a little bit of luck you’ll give right in” (to temptation). Marriage: “With a little bit of luck you can have it all and not get hooked.” Helping your neighbor: “With a little bit of luck, when he comes around you won’t be home.” Adultery: “With a little bit of luck you can see the bloodhound don’t find out.”
Alfie’s ethical approach causes Colonel Pickering to cry, “Have you no morals, man?”
“No, no,” Alfie replies. “I can’t afford ‘em, guv’nah, and neither could you if you was as poor as me.”
Alfie rejects what he calls “middle-class morality,” but it’s really Christian morality he’s talking about: temperance, chastity, charity, fidelity. Alfie’s attitude is so singular that Professor Higgins jokingly calls him a “philosophical genius of the first order” and “one of the most original moralists in England.” He warns Pickering that “if we listen to this man for another minute we shall have no convictions left.”
Apparently we have listened to that man and others of his ilk. In today’s society, Alfie’s lack of morals is not shocking but rather the norm. We’ve watched any number of “philosophical geniuses” and “original moralists” crusade against temperance, chastity, charity, and fidelity.
In a society with Christian morals, a character like Alfie makes good comedy, but a whole society of Alfies is tragic. One.aspect of that tragedy is that the noise it generates tends to drown out the voice of conscience—or to change the meaning of conscience altogether. But “[a] well-formed conscience is about doing what God wants, not what I want,” as Leon Suprenant points out in his fine article beginning on page 20. He offers some tips for hearing that inner voice and understanding what it really means to follow our conscience.
To his credit, after Alfie inherits a fortune, he steps up to the plate, marries his mistress, and begins supporting his relations. There’s hope for all of us.