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- Problems of Conduct - 6/68 -



What is the difference between morals and non-moral customs?

MORALITY, before it is a matter of legal prescription or of reflective insight, is a matter of instinctive and unconsciously imitated habit. That this is so is shown by the fact that many ethical terms are by their etymology connected with the idea of custom. "Morals" and "morality" are from the Latin mores, usually translated "customs," "ethics," from a Greek root of similar sense. The German Sitten has the same fused meanings. Most of our present-day morality is a matter of custom or convention; and there are those who make a complete identification of the two concepts, morality being simply to them conventional habits of conduct. But a little thought will show that there is a distinction in our common usage; the two categories overlap, but are not identical. On the one hand, our highest moral ideals have never become customary; we long, in our best moments, to make them habitual, but seldom actually attain them. The morals of Jesus, of Buddha, of Marcus Aurelius, have never become habits with any but the saints, yet we recognize them as the high-water mark of human morality. On the other hand, many of our customs have no moral aspect. I may have a fixed habit of going from my home to my office by a certain one out of a number of equally advantageous routes. All of the members of my set may habitually pronounce a given word in a certain way rather equally correct. But about such habits there is nothing moral or immoral. In a word, MORALS ARE CUSTOMS THAT MATTER, OR ARE SUPPOSED TO MATTER; standards to which each member of a group is expected by the other members to conform, and for the neglect of which he is punished, frowned upon, scorned, or blamed. Toward these standards he feels, therefore, a vague or definite pressure, the reflection in him of he feelings of his fellows.

The line between mere habits or manners and morals is differently drawn in different times and places, according to the differing ideas as to what matters. The same actions which are moral to one community ( i.e, arouse feelings or judgments of commendation) may be immoral to another community ( i.e., arouse reprobation or scorn) and non-moral to a third ( i.e., arouse no such response at all). For example, in one tribe tattooing may be a mere matter of personal liking, of no importance and with no group-judgment upon it; yet certain habits with regard to it may become widespread. In another tribe certain tattoos may be thought to be enjoined by the god, and their neglect deemed a matter of serious importance to the tribe as a whole; tattooing may here be said to be a part of the tribal morals. To us moderns it is probably a morally indifferent affair; but if we should learn it to be seriously deleterious to the body, it would again become a moral matter. In short, morals are customs that affect, or are supposed to affect, a man's life or that of his tribe for weal or woe. Obviously, this discrimination is not consciously made by savages; indeed, to this day, such distinctions are enveloped in a haze for the average man. Men do not realize the raison d'etre of morals. They follow them because their fathers did or their fellows do; because they inherit instincts that drive them in their direction or inevitably imitate those who have formed the habits before; because they feel a pressure toward them and are uncomfortable if they hold out against it. When pressed for a justification of their conduct, they are usually surprised at the inquiry; such action seems obviously the thing to do, and that is the end of it. Or they will hit upon some of the secondary sanctions that have grown up about these habits the penalties of the law, the commandment of the gods, or what not. But with our resources of analysis and reflection, it is not difficult to discern that the various forces at work have been such as to preserve, in general, habits which made for the welfare of individual or tribe and discard the harmful ones. It is, then, not merely habits, but habits that matter, moral habits, with whose growth and alteration we are here concerned. What, in general, has been the direction of moral progress? We have noted the main causes at work in the production of morality; we now ask in what general direction these forces push. We have in mind the concrete virtues which have been developed; but what common function have these habits of conduct, so produced, had in human life? What has been the net result of the process? At first sight a generalized answer seems impossible. All sorts of chance causes bring about local alterations in morals. The momentary dominance of an impulse ordinarily weak, the whim of a ruler, the self-interest of classes, superstitious interpretation of omens, the attribution of some success to a prior act which may have had nothing to do with it such accidental and irrational sources of morals, and the resulting codes, are numberless. But as in the process of organic evolution the various obscure physiological alterations which produce variations of type are all overruled and guided in a few directions of value to the species by the law of natural selection, so in the evolution of in all directions are subject to the law of the survival of the fittest. It is really of comparatively little importance to discover how a given moral habit first arose; it may have arisen in a hundred different ways in a hundred different places; indeed, the precise origin of most of the cardinal virtues lies too far back in the mists of the past to be traced with assurance. But the important truth to observe is not the particular details of their haphazard origin but the causes of their survival. Overlaying the countless originating causes of moral ideals are two main preservation--causes, two constant factors which retain certain of the innumerable impulses for one reason or other momentarily dominant. These are of extreme significance for a comprehension of the function of morality in life.

(1) In the first place, a certain number of these blind, hit-or-miss experiments in conduct were, as we have seen, of use to individuals or the tribe in increasing their chances of survival in the ceaseless rivalry for life. The inclemency's of nature and the enmity of the beasts and other men kill more often the less moral than the more moral. So that in general and in the long run those that developed the higher moral habits outlived the others and transmitted their morals to the future. Even within historic times this same weeding-out process has been observable. On the whole, the races and the individuals with the more advanced moral standards survive, while those of lower standards perish. This law accounts, for instance, in some measure probably for the relatively greater increase of whites than of Negroes in the United States, in spite of the higher birth rate of the latter. Other causes are, to be sure, also at work in this competition for life; for one thing, the long period of intercommunication between European races has largely weeded out the stocks most liable to certain diseases, while the antecedent isolation of savage tribes, with no such elimination at work, allows them to fall victims in greater numbers to European diseases when mutual contact is established. But the degree of the moralization of a people has been certainly one of the criteria of survival; and thus by a purely mechanical elimination mankind has grown more and more moral. It hardly needs to be added that the conscious selection of codes that tend to preserve life is a factor of growing importance in insuring movement in this same direction. Altogether, moral progress consists primarily in an increasing adaptation of codes to the preservation of life.

(2) Morality, however, makes not only for life, thus insuring its own perpetuation; it makes also for happiness. Arbitrary and tyrannous rules, cruel or needlessly prohibitive customs, engender restlessness, and are not stable. Such barbarous morals may long persist, propped by the power of the rulers, the superstitions of the people, and all the forces of conservatism; but sooner or later they breed rebellion and are cast aside. On the other hand, more rational codes promote peace and security, banish fear and hatred, and make for all the benefits of civilization. Such codes are in relatively more stable equilibrium and gradually tend to replace the others. All morality is, of course, in one aspect, a restraint upon desire, a check upon impulse; rebelliousness against its decrees will be perpetually recurrent until human nature itself is completely refashioned and men have no inordinate and dangerous desires. But while all codes of conduct are repressive at the moment of passion, they vary widely in the degree in which they satisfy or thwart man's deeper needs. Such institutions as the gladiatorial games of Rome, human sacrifice, or slavery, were fruitful of so much pain that they were bound in time to perish. In contrast with these cruel customs, the prohibitions of the Jewish law, the Ten Commandments, for example, were so humane, so productive of security and concord and a deep-rooted and lasting satisfaction, that they persisted and became the parent of much of our present day morality. An increasing part in this progress has been played by the conscious recognition of the advantages of code over code; but long before such explicit perception of advantage, the blind instincts and emotions of men were making for the gradual humanizing of morals, the selection of ideals and laws that make for human happiness. As civilization advances, the consideration of mere preservation counts for less, and that of happiness for more; the margin, the breathing space, for liberal interests, grows. Men become interested in causes for which they willingly risk their lives. But, except as these causes are fanatical, off the real track of moral progress, they make for human happiness. And the center of interest can never shift too far. For not only is premature death, an evil in itself, it precludes the cultivation of the humane pursuits that life might have allowed.

Men have to learn to find their happiness not in what saps health or invites death, but in what makes for health and life. What definition of morality emerges from this? The foregoing summary permits us to formulate a definition of morality. Historically, there has been a gradual, though not continuous, progress toward CODES OF CONDUCT WHICH MAKE FOR THE PRESERVATION OF LIFE AND FOR HAPPINESS. These codes have received an imaginative consecration, and all sorts of secondary sanctions; but it is their underlying utility that is of ultimate importance. Very simple and obvious causes have continually tended to destroy customs which made in the contrary direction and to select those which, however originating, made for either or both of these two ends. It is these customs, important for the welfare of the individual or tribe, which we call morality. If the original instincts of mankind had been delicately enough adjusted to their needs, there would have been no need of these secondary and overruling impulses, and the differentiation of impulse and duty, of the natural and the spiritual man, would never have arisen. But actually, mankind inherited from its brute ancestry instincts which, unguided, wrought great harm. Without the development of some system of checks men would forever have been the prey of overindulgence, sexual wantonness, civil strife, and apathy. They would have remained beasts and never won their dominance on the earth. Even rudimentary moral codes came as an amelioration of this dangerous and unhappy situation; they enabled men, by abstention from dangerous passions and from idleness, to make their lives efficient, interesting, and comparatively free from pain; by cooperation and mutual service to resist their enemies and develop a civilization. Morality thus has been the greatest instrument of progress, the most fundamental of man's achievements, the most important part of the wisdom of the race.

Is moral progress certain?

A measure of hopefulness is to be won from the observation that, quite apart from the conscious effort of men, natural laws have been making for moral progress. And unquestionably there has been a great advance in morality within historic times. We are forever past the age of cannibalism, of human torture, of slavery, of widespread infanticide. War is on the wane and may vanish within a few generations. Never before was there so much sympathy, so much conscious dedication to human service, in the world. We are apt to idealize the past; we sigh

Problems of Conduct - 6/68

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