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- A Handbook of Ethical Theory - 10/52 -
absorbing. The simple life is not necessarily an unhappy life, if the simplicity which characterizes it be not too extreme. In judging broadly of the significance for human life of the control over nature which is implied in the advance of civilization, one must take into consideration several points of capital importance:
(1) The multiplication of man's wants results, not in happiness, but in unhappiness, unless the satisfaction of those wants can be adequately provided for.
(2) The effort to satisfy the new wants which have been called into being may be accompanied by an enormous expenditure of effort. Where the effort is excessive man becomes again the slave of his environment. His task is set for him, and he fulfills it under the lash of an imperious necessity. The higher standard may become as inexorable a task-master as was the lower.
(3) It does not follow that, because a given community is set free from the bondage of the daily anxiety touching the problem of living at all, and may address itself deliberately to the problem of living well, it will necessarily take up into its ideal of what constitutes living well all those goods upon which developed man is apt to set a value. A civilization may be a grossly material one, even when endowed with no little wealth. With wealth comes the opportunity for the development of the arts which embellish life, but that opportunity may not be embraced. Man may be materially rich and spiritually poor; he may allow some of his faculties to lie dormant, and may lose the enjoyments which would have been his had they been developed. The Athenian citizen two millenniums ago had no such mastery over the forces of nature as we possess today. Nevertheless, he was enabled to live a many-sided life beside which the life of the modern man may appear poor and bare. It is by no means self- evident that the good of man consists in the multitude of the material things which he can compel to his service.
(4) Moreover, it does not follow that, because the sum of man's activities, his behavior, broadly taken, is vastly altered, by an increase in his control over his material environment, the result is an advance in moralization. An advance in civilization--in knowledge, in the control over nature's resources, in the evolution of the industrial and even of the fine arts--does not necessarily imply a corresponding ethical advance on the part of a given community. New conditions, brought about by an increase of knowledge, of wealth, of power, may result in ethical degeneration.
What constitutes the moral in human behavior, what marks out right or wrong conduct from conduct ethically indifferent, we have not yet considered. But no man is wholly without information in the field of morals, and we may here fall back upon such conceptions as men generally possess before they have evolved a science of morals. In the light of such conceptions a simple and comparatively undeveloped culture may compare very favorably with one much higher in the scale of civilization.
In the simplest groups of human beings, justice, veracity and a regard to common good may be conspicuous; the claim of each man upon his fellow-man may be generally acknowledged. In communities more advanced, the growth of class distinctions and the inequalities due to the amassing of wealth on the part of individuals may go far to nullify the advantage to the individual of any advance made by the community as a whole. The social bonds which have obtained between members of the same group may be relaxed; the devotion to the common good may be replaced by the selfish calculation of profit to the individual; the exploitation of man by his fellow-man may be accepted as natural and normal. It is not without its significance that the most highly civilized of states have, under the pressure of economic advance, come to adopt the institution of slavery in its most degraded forms; that the problem of property and poverty may present itself as most pressing and most difficult of solution where national wealth has grown to enormous proportions. The body politic may be most prosperous from a material point of view, and at the same time, considered from the point of view of the moralist, thoroughly rotten in its constitution.
It is well to remember that, even in the most advanced of modern civilizations, whatever the degree of enlightenment and the power enjoyed by the community as a whole, it is quite possible for the individual to be condemned to a life little different in essentials from that of the lowest savage. He whose feverish existence is devoted to the nerve- racking occupation of gambling in stocks, who goes to his bed at night scheming how he may with impunity exploit his fellow-man, and who rises in the morning with a strained consciousness of possible fluctuations in the market which may overwhelm him in irretrievable disaster, lives in perils which easily bear comparison with those which threaten the precarious existence of primitive man. To masses of men in civilized communities the problem of the food supply is all-absorbing, and may exclude all other and broader interests. The factory-worker, with a mind stupefied by the mechanical repetition of some few simple physical movements of no possible interest to him except as resulting in the wage that keeps him alive, has no share in such light as may be scattered about him.
The control of the forces of nature brings about great changes in human societies, but it may leave the individual, whether rich or poor, a prey to dangers and anxieties, engaged in an unequal combat with his environment, absorbed in the satisfaction of material needs, undeveloped, unreflective and most restricted in his outlook. Of emancipation there can here be no question.
And a civilization in which the control of the forces of nature has been carried to the highest pitch of development may furnish a background to the darkest of passions. It may serve as a stage upon which callous indifference, greed, rapacity, gross sensuality, play their parts naked and unashamed. That some men sunk in ignorance and subject to such passions live in huts and have their noses pierced, and others have taken up from their environment the habit of dining in evening dress, is to the moralist a relatively insignificant detail. He looks at the man, and he finds him in each case essentially the same--a primitive and undeveloped creature who has not come into his rightful heritage.
MAN'S SOCIAL ENVIRONMENT
27. MAN IS ASSIGNED HIS PLACE.--The old fable of a social contract, by virtue of which man becomes a member of a society, agreeing to renounce certain rights he might exercise if wholly independent, and to receive in exchange legal rights which guarantee to the individual the protection of life and property and the manifold advantages to be derived from cooperative effort, points a moral, like other fables.
The contract in question never had an existence, but neither did the conversation between the grasshopper and the ant. In each case, a truth is illustrated by a play of the imagination. Contracts there have been in plenty, between individuals, between families, between social classes, between nations; but they have all been contracts between men already in a social state of some sort, capable of choice and merely desirous of modifying in some particular some aspect of that social state. The notion of an original contract, lying at the base of all association of man with man, is no more than a fiction which serves to illustrate the truth that the desires and wills of men are a significant factor in determining the particular forms under which that association reveals itself.
No man enters into a contract to be born, or to be born a Kaffir, a Malay, a Hindoo, an Englishman or an American. He enters the world without his own consent, and without his own connivance he is assigned a place in a social state of some sort. The reception which is accorded to him is of the utmost moment to him. He may be rejected utterly by the social forces presiding over his birth. In which case he does not start life independently, but is snuffed out as is a candle-flame by the wind. And if accepted, as he usually is in civilized communities, he takes his place in the definite social order into which he is born, and becomes the subject of education and training as a member of that particular community.
28. VARIETIES OF THE SOCIAL ORDER.--The social order into which he is thus ushered may be most varied in character. He may find himself a member of a small and primitive group of human beings, a family standing in more or less loose relations to a limited number of other families; he may belong to a clan in which family relationship still serves as a real or fictive bond; his clan may have its place in a confederation; or the body politic in which he is a unit may be a nation, or an empire including many nationalities.
His relations to his fellow-man will naturally present themselves to him in a different light according to the different nature of the social environment in which he finds himself. The community of feeling and of interests which defines rights, determines expectations, and prescribes duties, cannot be the same under differing conditions. Social life implies cooperation, but the limits of possible cooperation are very differently estimated by man at different stages of his development. To a few human beings each man is bound closely at every stage of his evolution. The family bond is everywhere recognized. But, beyond that, there are wider and looser relationships recognized in very diverse degrees, as intelligence expands, as economic advance and political enlightenment make possible a community life on a larger scale, as sympathy becomes less narrow and exclusive.
It is not easy for a member of a community at a given stage of its development even to conceive the possibility of such communities as may come into existence under widely different conditions. The simple, communistic savage, limited in his outlook, thinks in terms of small numbers. A handful of individuals enjoy membership in his group; he recognizes certain relations, more or less loose, to other groups, with which his group comes into contact; beyond is the stranger, the natural enemy, upon whom he has no claim and to whom he owes no duty.
At a higher level there comes into being the state, including a greater number of individuals and internally organized as the simpler society is not. But even in a highly civilized state much the same attitude towards different classes of human beings may seem natural and inevitable. To Plato there remained the strongly marked distinctions between the Athenian, the citizen of another Hellenic community, and the barbarian. War, when waged against the last, might justifiably be merciless; not so, when it was war between Greek states. [Footnote: Republic, Book V.] Into such conceptions of rights and duties men are born; they take them up with the very air that they breathe, and they may never feel impelled to subject them to the test of criticism.
It is instructive to remark that neither the speculative genius of a Plato nor the acute intelligence of an Aristotle could rise to the conception of an organized, self-governing community on a great scale. To each it seemed evident that the group proper must remain a comparatively small one. Plato finds it necessary to provide in his "Laws" that the number of households in the State shall be limited to five thousand and forty. Aristotle, less arbitrarily exact, allows a variation within rather broad limits, holding that a political community should not comprise a number of citizens smaller than ten, nor one greater than one hundred thousand. [FOOTNOTE: PLATO, _Laws_, v. ARISTOTLE,
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