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- A Handbook of Ethical Theory - 3/52 -


Heraclitus told his contemporaries "to act according to nature with understanding"; we are often told today that the rule of our lives should be "to do good." Had the ancient Greek not possessed his own notions of what might properly be meant by nature and by understanding, did we not ourselves have some rather definite conception of what actions may properly fall under the caption of doing good, such admonitions could not lead to the stirring of a finger. Who would appeal to his physician for advice as to diet, if he expected from him no more than the counsel to eat, at the proper hours, enough, but not too much, of suitable food?

If, then, we confine our admonitions to the group of abstractions which constitute the universally acknowledged standard of virtue when all the individual differences which characterize different codes have been ignored, we preach what, taken alone, no man can live by, and no community of men has ever attempted to live by. If we leave it to our hearers to drape our naked abstractions with concrete details, each will set to work in a different way. The method of the composite photograph seems unprofitable in attempting to solve the problem of morals.

3. DOGMATIC ASSUMPTION.--There is, however, a second way by which the variations which characterize different codes may come to be relegated to a position of relative insignificance. We may assume that our own code is the ultimate standard by which all others are to be judged, and we may set down deviations from it to the account of the ignorance or the perversity of our fellowmen. So regarded, they are aberrations from the normal, and only true code of conduct; interesting, perhaps, but little enlightening, for they can have little bearing upon our conception of what we ought to do.

A presumption against this arbitrary assumption that we have the one and only desirable code is suggested the unthinking acceptance of the traditional by those who are lacking in enlightenment and in the capacity reflection. Is it not significant that a contact with new ways of thinking has a tendency, at least, to make men broaden their horizon and to revise some of their views?

In other fields, we hope to attain to a capacity for self-criticism. We expect to learn from other men. Why should we, in the sphere of morals, lay claim to the possession of the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth? Why should we refuse to learn from anyone? Such a position seems unreasoning. It puts moral judgments beyond the pale of argument and intelligent discussion. It is an assumption of infallibility little in harmony with the spirit of science. The fact that a given standard of conduct is in harmony with our traditions, habits of thought, and emotional responses, does not prove to other men that it is, not one of a number of accepted codes, but in a quite peculiar sense acceptable, a thing to put in a class by itself--the class into which each mother puts her own child, as over against other children.

Moreover, such an unreasoned assumption of superiority must make one little sympathetic in one's attitude toward the moral life of other peoples. Into the significance of their social organization, of their customs, their laws, one can gain no insight. Their hopes, their fears, their strivings, their successes and their failures, their approval and disapproval of their fellows, their peace of conscience and their remorse, must leave us cold and aloof.

It is not profitable for us to assume at the outset that the differences exhibited in the moral judgments of individuals or of peoples are of minor significance. They are facts to be dealt with in the light of some theory. An ethical theory which ignores them must rest upon a narrow and insecure foundation. It is exposed to assault from many quarters. It may, in default of better means of defence, be compelled to take refuge behind the blind wall of dogmatic assertion. On the other hand, a theory which gives them frank recognition, and strives to exhibit their real significance in the life of the individual and of the race, may be able to show lying among them the golden cord of reason which saves them from the charge of being incoherent facts. It may even lead us back to a conservatism no longer unreasoning, but rationally defensible and conscious of its proper limits. The blindly conservative man seems to be faced with the alternative of stagnation or revolution. The rationally conservative may regard the development of the moral life as a Pilgrim's Progress, not without its untoward accidents, but, in spite of them, a gradual advance toward a desirable goal.

CHAPTER II

THE CODES OF COMMUNITIES

4. THE CODES OF COMMUNITIES: JUSTICE.--In view of the existing tendency in the average man, and even in some philosophers, to pass lightly over the diversities exhibited by different codes, it is well to cast a brief preliminary glance at the content of morals as accepted, both by communities of men, and by their more reflective spokesmen, the moralists. Let us first take a look at the codes of communities.

We have seen that Butler viewed justice, veracity and regard to common good as virtues accepted among men everywhere. But we may also see, if we look into his pages, that he neglected to point out that there may be the widest divergencies in men's notions of what constitutes justice, veracity and common good. And men differ widely on the score of the degree of emphasis to be laid upon their observance.

Take justice. Where men possess a code, written or unwritten, that may properly be called moral, we expect of them the judgment that guilt should be punished. But what shall be accounted guilt? What shall be the measure of retribution? Who shall be fixed upon as guilty?

As to what constitutes guilt. We have only to remind ourselves that the Dyak head-hunter is not condemned by his fellows, but is admired; [Footnote: WESTERMARCK, _The Origin and Development of the Moral Ideas_, London, 1906, I, chapter xiv.] that the fattening and eating of a slave may, in a given primitive community, be accounted no crime; [Footnote: WESTERMARCK, _op. cit._ II, chapter xlvi.] that infanticide has been most widely approved, and that not merely in primitive communities, for Greece and Rome, when they were far from primitive, practiced certain forms of it with a view to the good of the state; [Footnote: _Ibid._, I, chapter xvii.] that the holding of a fellow-creature in bondage, and exploiting him for one's own advantage, even under the lash, was, until recently, not a crime in the eye of the law even in the most civilized states. On the other hand, it may be a crime to eat a female opossum. [Footnote: _Ibid._, I, chapter iv, p. 124.] The impressive imperative: Thou shalt not! appears to bear unmistakable reference to time and circumstance.

And what is the natural and proper measure of punishment? The ancient and primitive rule of an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth suggests the figure of the scales, the impartially meting out to each man of his due. It is obviously a rule that cannot be applied in all cases. One cannot take the tooth of a toothless man, or compel a thievish beggar to restore fruit which he has eaten. We should be horrified were any serious attempt made to make the rule the basis of legislation in any civilized state today, but men have not always been so fastidious. Approximations to it have been incorporated into the laws of various peoples.

But all have modified it to some degree, and the modifications have taken many forms--the punishment of someone not the criminal, compensation in money or in goods, incarceration, and what not. Nor have the modifications been made solely on account of the difficulty of applying the rule baldly stated. Other influences have been at work.

Thus, in the famous Babylonian code, the man who struck out the eye of a patrician lost his own eye in return, and his tooth answered for the tooth of an equal--but the rule was not made general. [Footnote: 5 HOBHOUSE, _Morals in Evolution,_ I, chapter iii, Sec 3; New York, 1906.] In state after state it has been found just to treat differently the patrician, the plebeian, the slave, the man, the woman, the priest. In the very state to which Butler belonged, benefit of clergy could be claimed, up to relatively recent times, by those who could read. The educated criminal escaped hanging for offences for which his illiterate neighbor had to swing. [Footnote: _Ibid.,_ Sec. 11.]

Nor is there any clear concensus of opinion touching the question of who shall be selected as the bearer of punishment. If a man has injured another unintentionally, shall he be held to make amends? It has seemed just to men that he should. [Footnote: WESTERMARCK, chapter ix.] That one man should be made responsible for the misdeeds of another, under the principle of collective responsibility, has commended itself as just to a multitude of minds. Not merely the sins of the fathers, but those of the most distant relations, those of neighbors, of fellow-tribesmen, of fellow-citizens, have been visited upon those whose sole guilt lay in such a connection with the directly guilty parties. This is not a sporadic phenomenon. Among the ancient Hebrews, in Babylonia, in Greece, in the later legislation of Rome, in medieval and even in modern Europe, the principle of collective responsibility has been accepted and has seemed acceptable. Asia, Africa and Oceania have cast votes for it. So have the Americas. [Footnote: WESTERMARCK, I, chapter ii; DEWEY AND TUFTS, _Ethics_, New York, 1919, Part I, chapter ii.]

5. THE CODES OF COMMUNITES: VERACITY.--As to veracity: It has undoubtedly been valued to some degree, and with certain limitations, by tribes and nations the most diverse in their degrees of culture. Did men never speak the truth they might well never speak at all. But to maintain that absolute veracity has at all times been greatly valued would be an exaggeration. The lie of courtesy, the clever lie, the lie to the stranger, have been and still are, in many communities both uncivilized and more advanced, not merely condoned, but approved. With the defence which has been made of the doctrines of mental reservation and pious fraud students of church history are familiar. In diplomacy and in war today highly civilized nations find deceptions of many sorts profitable to them, nor are such generally condemned. [Footnote: WESTERMARCK, II, chapters xxx and xxxi.]

What modern government does not employ secret service agents, and value them in proportion to the degree of skill with which they manage to deceive their fellows, while limiting the exercise of professional good faith to their intercourse with their paymaster? The secret service agent of transparent frankness, who could not bear to deceive his neighbor, would not hold his post for a day. He would be a subject for Homeric laughter.

Moreover, if the question may be raised: what constitutes justice? may one not equally well ask: what constitutes veracity or its opposite? Where does the silence of indifference shade into purposed concealment, and the latter into what is unequivocally deception? At what point does deception blossom out into the unmistakable lie? One may take advantage of an accidental misunderstanding of what one has said; one may use ambiguous language; one may point instead of speaking. Between going about with a head of glass, with all one's thoughts displayed as in a show-case to every comer, and the settled purpose to deceive by the direct verbal falsification, there is a long series of intermediate positions. The commercial maxim that one is not bound to teach the man with whom one is dealing how to conduct his business, and the lawyer's dictum that the advocate is under no obligation to put himself in the position of the judge, obviously, will bear much stretching.


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