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- A Handbook of Ethical Theory - 6/52 -
not hesitate to compare, i. e., to treat as similar and yet dissimilar, the customs, laws and ethical maxims of different ages and of different races. This means that we have in our minds some standard, perhaps consciously formulated, perhaps dimly apprehended, according to which we rate them. The unreflective man is in danger of taking as this standard his own actual code, such as it is; of accepting, together with such elements of reason as it may contain, the whole mass of his inherited or acquired prejudices; the more reflective man will strive to be more rationally critical.
ETHICS AS SCIENCE
THE AWAKENING TO REFLECTION
13. THE DOGMATISM OF THE NATURAL MAN.--In morals and in politics it seems natural for man to be dogmatic, to take a position without hesitation, to defend it vehemently, to maintain that others are in the wrong.
This is not surprising. We are born into a moral environment as into an all-embracing atmosphere. From the cradle to the grave, we walk with our heads in a cloud of exhortations and prohibitions. From our earliest years we have been urged to make decisions and to act, and we have been furnished with general maxims to guide our action. When, therefore, we approach the solution of a moral problem, we do not, as a rule, acutely feel our fitness to solve it, even though we may be judged quite unfit by others.
This unruffled confidence in one's possession of an adequate supply of indubitable moral truth may be found in men who differ widely in their degree of intelligence and in the extent of their information. Some individuals seem born to it. We may come upon it in the ethical philosopher; we may meet it in the man of science, who knows that it has taken him a quarter of a century to fit himself to be an authority in matters chemical or physical, but who wanders in his hours of leisure into the field of ethics and has no hesitation in proposing radical reforms. But it is more natural to look for the unwavering confidence which knows no questionings among persons of restricted outlook, who have been brought into contact with but one set of opinions. It is characteristic of the child, of the uncultivated classes in all communities, of whole communities primitive in their culture and relatively unenlightened.
14. THE AWAKENING.--Manifestly, even the beginnings of ethical science are an impossibility where such a spirit prevails. Where there are no doubts, no questionings, there can be no attempt at rational construction.
Fortunately for the cause of human enlightenment there are forces at work which tend to arouse men from this state of lethargy. Horizons are broadened, new ideas make their appearance, there is a conflict of authorities, the birth of a doubt, and, finally, a more or less articulate appeal to Reason.
Even a child is capable of seeing that paternal and maternal injunctions and reactions are not wholly alike, and it sets them off against each other. Nor have all the children in the home precisely the same nature. One is temperamentally frank and open, but unsympathetic; another is affectionate, and prone to lying as the sparks fly upward. The virtues and vices are not spontaneously arranged in the same order of importance by children, and differences of opinion may arise. Nor does it take the child long to discover that the law of its own home is not identical with that of the house next door. At school the experience is repeated on a larger scale; many homes are represented, and, besides that, two codes of law claim allegiance, the code of the schoolboy and that of the master. They may be by no means in accord.
And when, in college, the student for the first time seriously addresses himself to the task of the study of ethics as science, he comes to it by no means wholly unprepared. He has had rather a broad experience of the contrasts which obtain between different codes. He is familiar with the code of the home, of the school, of the social class, of the religious community, of the civil community. There sit on the same benches with him the sensitively conscientious student who doubts whether it is a permissible deception of one's neighbor to apply a patch to an old garment so skillfully that it will escape detection; the sporting character who takes it to be the mutual understanding among men that truth shall not be demanded of those who deal in horses and dogs; the youth from Texas who claims that the French philosopher, Janet, cannot be an authority on morals, since he asserts that he who cheats at cards must feel a burning shame. With the ethics of the ancient Hebrews, of the Greeks, of the Romans, our young moralist has had the opportunity to acquire some familiarity, and he can compare them, if he will, with the Christian ethics of his own day. He knows something of history and biography; he has read books of travel, and has some acquaintance with the manners and customs of other peoples. Were he given to reflection, it ought not to surprise him to find a Portuguese sea-cook maintaining that it is wrong to steal, except from the rich; or to learn that a Wahabee saint rated the smoking of tobacco as the worst possible sin next to idolatry, while maintaining that murder, robbery, and such like, were peccadilloes which a merciful God might properly overlook.
Material for reflection he has in abundance--and he often remains relatively dogmatic and unplagued by doubt. But only relatively so; and only so long as the claims of conflicting authorities are not forced upon his attention, rendered importunate in the light of discussion, made so familiar as to seem real and substantial. It is the tendency of the widening of the horizon to arouse men to reflection, to stimulate to criticism. From such criticism the science of ethics has its birth.
What is true of the individual is true of men in the mass. The blind life of social classes long laid in chains by custom and tradition may come to be illuminated by new ideas, and passive acquiescence may give way to active participation in social endeavor. Nor can primitive peoples remain wholly primitive except in isolation. With the increased intercourse between races and peoples, men are brought to a clear consciousness that the accepted in morals is manifold and diverse; the next step is to question whether it is, in any given instance, of unquestionable authority; thus do men become ripe for the search for the _acceptable_.
15. INDUCTIVE AND DEDUCTIVE METHOD.--Professor Henry Sidgwick has defined a method of ethics as "any rational procedure by which we determine what is right for individual human beings to do, or to seek to realize by voluntary action." [Footnote: _The Methods of Ethics_, Book I, chapter i, Sec I.]
He points out that many methods are natural and are habitually used, but claims that only one can be rational. By which he means that the several methods of determining right conduct urged by the different schools of the moralists must be reconciled, or all but one must be rejected. [Footnote: _Ibid_., chapter i, Sec 3.]
In this chapter I shall not discuss in detail the schools of the moralists and the specific methods which characterize them. I am here concerned only with the general distinction between the scientific methods of deduction and induction, and its bearing upon ethical investigations.
How do we discover that, in an isosceles triangle, the sides which subtend the equal angles are equal? We do not go about collecting the opinions of individuals upon the subject, nor do we consult the records of other peoples, past or present. We do not measure a great number of triangles and arrive at our conclusion after a calculation of the probable error of our measurements. The appeal to authorities does not interest us; that measurements are always more or less inaccurate, and that all actual triangles are more or less irregular, we freely admit, but we do not regard such facts as significant. We use a single triangle as an illustration, and from what is given in, or along with, that individual instance, we deduce certain consequences in which we have the highest confidence. Here we follow the method of deduction. We accept a "given," with its validity we do not concern ourselves; our aim is the discovery of what may be gotten out of it.
In the inductive sciences the individual instance has an importance of quite a different sort. It is not a mere illustration, unequivocally embodying a general truth to which we may appeal directly, treating the instance as a mere vehicle, in itself of little significance. Individual instances are observed and compared; uniformities are searched for; it is sought to establish general truths, not directly evident, but whose authority rests upon the particular facts that have been observed and classified.
It is a commonplace of logic that both induction and deduction may be employed in many fields of science. We may attain by inductive inquiry to more or less general truths, which we no longer care to call in question, and which we accept as a "given," to be exploited and carried out in its consequences. Indeed, we need not betake ourselves to science to have an illustration of this method of procedure. In everyday life men have maxims by which they judge of the probable actions of their fellow-men and in the light of which they direct their dealings with them. Such maxims as that men may be counted upon to consult their own interests have certainly not been adopted independently of an experience of what, on particular occasions, men have shown themselves to be. But, once adopted, they may be treated as, for practical purposes, unquestionable; men are concerned to apply them, not to substantiate them. In so far, men reason from them deductively and pass from the general rule to the particular instance.
16. THE AUTHORITY OF THE "GIVEN."--Obviously the "given," in the sense indicated, may possess, in certain cases, a very high degree of authority, and, in others, a very low degree.
In the case of the mathematical truth referred to above, men do not, in fact, find it necessary to call in question the "given," though they may be divided in their notions touching the general nature of mathematical evidence and whence it draws its apparently indisputable authority. In certain of the inductive sciences, as in mechanics, physics and chemistry, generalizations have been attained in which even the critical repose much confidence. In other fields men are constantly making general statements which are promptly contradicted by their fellows, and are drawing from them inferences the justice of which is in many quarters disallowed. There are axioms and axioms, maxims and maxims. The
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