I realize now that under different circumstances that conversation might have been one of the crises of my life.
Nick has a curiously compartmentalized sense of morality. He is in the midst of setting up his neighbor for an affair with his cousin, a married woman. The marriage is merely a solemn vow of a committed pair, one of whom is his blood relation, a bond promised to hearts, to society, presumably to some god. These things don’t concern Nick. He also hasn’t much concern for whether his newfound friend is even pursuing something that is attainable or even worth attaining – is this chase going to lead to sustainable love, or only to heartbreaking ruin?
But when Gatsby suggests some means of making money to Nick, who is vaguely aware that Gatsby’s ways of making money aren’t held in high regard by polite society – well then, here is some moral crisis. The morality that Nick has already ignored at this point merely involves matters of love, marriage and friendship. The morality of money, the right and wrong ways to make it, is somehow less easy to ignore. Nick thinks that ‘because the offer was obviously and tactlessly for a service to be rendered, I had no choice except to cut him off there.’
Nick’s sense of morality here seems less thoughtful than habitual, something deeply bred but not deeply considered. He could only realize afterwards that he might have been facing a moral crisis; in the moment he was acting because he had ‘no choice,’ his refusal was a reflexive reaction rather than a decision point. But what precisely is so bad about being offered money to do something that perhaps you might have done anyway? Is the problem that an offer of money forces you to consider whether you really should be doing the thing for free, or doing it all?
Does Nick have any sense of morality that isn’t grounded only in politeness? He already knows at this point that this setup isn’t an innocent tea time. The irony here is that Nick did in fact face a moment of moral crisis, and he never even realized it, even after the fact. He chose to assist someone else’s adulterous, ruinous fantasy. He chose to ignore bonds of family and friendship. He can continue to sell his bonds from the moral high ground of having refused a little extra money from some shady connections, and continue to fail to think about whether his morality is grounded in truth or merely in custom.