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- Problems of Conduct - 3/68 -

Man's effort to solve these problems is revealed outwardly in a multitude of precepts and laws, in customs and conventions; and inwardly in the sense of duty and shame, in aspiration, in the instinctive reactions of praise, blame, contentment, and remorse. The leadings of these forces are, however, often divergent, sometimes radically so. We must seek a completer insight. There must be some best way of solving the problem of life, some happiest, most useful way of living; its pursuit constitutes the field of ethics. Nothing could be more practical, more vital, more universally human.

Why should we study ethics?

(1) The most obvious reason for the study of ethics is that we may get more light for our daily problems. We are constantly having to choose how we shall act and being perplexed by opposing advantages. Decide one way or the other we must. On what grounds shall we decide? How shall we feel assured that we are following a real duty, pursuing an actual good, and not being led astray by a mere prejudice or convention? The alternative is, to decide on impulse, at haphazard, after some superficial and one-sided reflection; or to think the matter through, to get some definite criteria for judgments, and to face the recurrent question, what shall we do? In the steady light of those principles. [Footnote: Cf. Matthew Arnold, Essays in Criticism, vol. i: "Marcus Aurelius," opening paragraph: "The object of systems of morality is to take possession of human life, to save it from being abandoned to passion or allowed to drift at hazard, to give it happiness by establishing it in the practice of virtue; and this object they seek to attain by presenting to human life fixed principles of action, fixed rules of conduct. In its uninspired as well as in its inspired moments, in its days of languor or gloom as well as in its days of sunshine and energy, human life has thus always a clue to follow, and may always be making way towards its goal."]

(2) In addition to the fact that we all have unavoidable problems which we must solve one way or another, a little familiarity with life, an acquaintance with the biographies of great and good men, should lead us to suspect that beyond the horizon of these immediate needs lie whole ranges of beautiful and happy living to which comparatively few ever attain. There are better ways of doing things than most of us have dreamed. The study of ethics should reveal these vistas and stimulate us to a noble discontent with our inferior morals. [Footnote: Cf. Emerson, in a letter to Fraulein Gisela von Arnim: "In reading your letter, I felt, as when I read rarely a good novel, rebuked that I do not use in my life these delicious relations; or that I accept anything inferior or ugly."] Such a forward look and development of ideals not only adds greatly to the worth of life but prepares a man to meet perplexities and temptations which may some day arise. It pays to educate one's self for future emergencies by meditating not only upon present problems but upon the further potentialities of conduct, right and wrong, that may lie ahead, and building up a code for one's self that will make life not only richer but steadier and more secure.

(3) Another advantage of a systematic study of ethics is that it can make clearer to us WHY one act is better than another; why duty is justified in thwarting our inclinations and conscience is to be obeyed. Not only is this an intellectual gain, but it is an immense fortification to the will. There comes a time in the experience of every thinking man when a command not reinforced by a reason breeds distrust, and when until he can intelligently defend an ideal he will hesitate to give it his allegiance. Morality, to be depended upon, must be not a mere matter of breeding and convention, or of impulse and emotion, but the result of rational insight and conscious resolve. To many people morality seems nothing but convention, or an arbitrary tyranny, or a mysterious and awful necessity, something extraneous to their own desires, from which they would like to escape. To be able to refute these skeptics, expose the sophisms and specious arguments by which they support their wrongdoing, and show that they have chosen the lesser good, is a valuable help to the community and to one's own integrity of conduct. Too often the people perish for lack of vision; an understanding of the naturalness and enormous desirability of morality, together with an appreciation of its main injunctions, would enlist upon its side many restless spirits who now chafe under a sense of needless restraint and seek some delusory freedom which leads to pain and death. Morality is simply the best way of living; and the more fully men realize that, the more readily will they submit themselves to the sacrifices it requires.

(4) Finally, a study of ethics should help us to see what are the prevalent sins and moral dangers of our day, and thus arouse us to put the weight of our blame and praise where they are needed. Widespread public opinion is a force of incalculable power, which is largely unused. Politics and business, and to a far greater extent than now private life, will become clean and honest and kind just so soon as a sufficient number of people wake up and demand it. We have the power to make sins which are now generally tolerated and respectable, so odious, so infamous, that they will practically disappear. There are certain of the older forms of sin which the race in its long struggle upward has so effectually blacklisted that only a few perverts now lapse into them; we have execrated out of existence whole classes of cruelty and vice. But with the changing and ever more complex relations of society new forms of sin continually creep in; these we have not yet come to brand with the odium they deserve. Leaders of society and pillars of the church are often, and usually without disturbance of conscience, guilty of wrongdoing as grave in its effects, or graver, than many of the faults we relentlessly chastise. On the other hand, many really useful reforms are blocked because they awaken old prejudices or cross silly and meaningless conventions. The air is full of proposals, invectives, causes, movements; how shall we know which to espouse and which to reject, or where best to lend a hand? We need a consistent and well-founded point of view from which to judge. To get such a sane and far-sighted moral perspective; to see the acts of our fellow men with a proper valuation; to be able to point out the insidious dangers of conduct which is not yet as generally rebuked as it ought to be; and at the same time to emancipate ourselves and others from the mistaken and merely arbitrary precepts that are intermingled with our genuine morality, and so attain the largest possible freedom of action, such should be the outcome of a thorough study of ethical principles and ideals.





In almost any field it is wise to precede definition by an impartial survey of the subject matter. So if we are to form an unbiased conception of what morality is, it will be safest to consider first what the morals of men actually have been, how they came into being, and what function they have served in human life. Thus we shall be sure that our theory is in touch with reality, and be saved from mere closet-philosophies and irrelevant speculations. Our task in this First Part will be not to criticize by reference to any ethical standards, but to observe and describe, as a mere bit of preliminary sociology, what it is in their lives to which men have given the name "morality," of what use it has been, and through the action of what forces it has tended to develop. With these data in mind, we shall be the better able, in the Second Part, to formulate our criteria for judging the different codes of morality; we shall find that we are but making explicit and conscious the considerations that, unexpressed and unrealized, have been the persistent and underlying factors in their development. How early in the evolutionary process did personal morality of some sort emerge? Of course the words (in any language) and the explicit conceptions "morality," "duty," "right," "wrong," etc, are very late in appearance, presupposing as they do a power of reflection and abstraction which develops only in man and with a considerable civilization. Even in the Homeric poems, which reflect a degree of mental cultivation in some respects equal to our own, these concepts hardly appear. But ages earlier, far back in the course of animal evolution, there emerged phenomena which we may consider rudimentary forms of morality; and all early human history was replete writh unanalyzed and unformulated moral struggles. Concretely, we mean by personal morality courage, industriousness, self-control, prudence, temperance, and other similar phenomena, which have this in common, that they involve a crossing of earlier-developed impulses and redirection of the individual's conduct, with the result, normally, that his welfare is enhanced. Exceptions to this result will be considered later; but the point to be noted at the outset is that personal morality is not at first the outcome of reflection, or a purely human affair. If we were to take the term "morality" in a narrower sense, as meaning conscious obedience to a sense of duty or to the moral law, it would obviously be a late product. But morality in this sense is only an ultimate development of what in its less conscious and reflective forms dates far back in pre-human history.

Take courage, for example, which may be briefly defined as action in spite of the instinct of fear and contrary to its leading. Nearly all of the higher animals exhibit courage in greater or less degree, and there are many touching instances of it recorded to the credit of those we best know. Industriousness, again, is proverbial in the case of bees and ants "Go to the ant, thou sluggard!"--and noteworthy in the case of many birds, of beavers, and a long list of other animals. Prudence may be illustrated by the case of the camel who fills himself with water enough to last for many desert days, or that of the bird who builds her nest with remarkable ingenuity and pains out of the reach of invaders. Whether or not we shall attribute self-control to the lower animals is a mere matter of definition; in the looser sense we may credit with it the hungry fox who does not touch the bait whose dangerous nature he vaguely suspects. Temperance is probably one of the latest of the virtues, and is rather conspicuously absent in much of human history and biography; but perhaps students of animal psychology can guarantee instances to which the name might fairly be given.

In lesser degree, then, but unmistakably present, we find the same sort of conduct appearing in the animals to which we give in man the names courage, prudence, etc. Purely instinctive these acts usually are though we may see even in the animals the beginnings of mental conflicts, of reasoning, of reflection. But morality (if we keep to the wider sense of the term) is none the less morality when it is instinctive and natural. Morality is a general name for certain KINDS of conduct, certain redirections of impulse. These redirections appeared in animal life long before the emergence of what we may call man from his ape-like ancestry; and all of our self-conscious moral idealism is but a continuation and development of the process then begun. Any theory of right and wrong must take account of the fact that morality, unlike art, science, and religion, is not an exclusively human affair. In contrast with these late and purely human innovations, it is hoary with antiquity and the possession, in some rudimentary form or other, of nearly the whole realm of organic life.

Problems of Conduct - 3/68

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