« AnteriorContinuar »
PROBLEMS OF CONDUCT
What is the field of ethics?
To know what exists, in its stark reality, is the concern of natural science and natural philosophy; to know what matters, is the field of moral philosophy, or ethics. The one group of studies deals with facts simply as facts, the other with their values. Human life is checkered with the sunshine and shadow of good and evil, joy and pain; it is these qualitative differences that make it something more than a meaningless eddy in the cosmic whirl. Natural philosophy (including the physical and psychological sciences), drawing its impartial map of existence, is interesting and important; it informs us about our environment and ourselves, shows us our resources and our powers, what we can do and how to do it. Moral philosophy asks the deeper and more significant question, What shall we do? For the momentous fact about life is that it has differences in value, and, more than that, that we can make differences in value. Caught as we are by the irresistible flux of existence, we find ourselves able so to steer our lives as to change the proportion of light and shade, to give greater value to a life that might have had less. This possibility makes our moral problem. What shall we choose and from what refrain? To what aims shall we give our allegiance? What shall we fight for and what against?
For the savage practically all of his activity is determined by his imperative needs, so that there is little opportunity
for choice or reflection upon the aims of his life. He must find food, and shelter, and clothing to keep himself warm and dry; he must protect himself from the enemies that menace him, and rest when he is tired. Nor are most of us to-day far removed from that primitive condition; the moments when we consciously choose and steer our course are few and fleeting. Yet with the development of civilization the elemental burdens are to some extent lifted; men come to have superfluous strength, leisure hours, freedom to do something more than merely earn their living. And further, with the development of intelligence, new ways of fulfilling the necessary tasks suggest themselves, moral problems arise where none were felt before. Men learn that they have not made the most of their opportunities or lived the best possible lives; they have veered this way and that according to the moment's impulse, they have been misled by ingrained habits and paralyzed by inertia, they have wandered at random for lack of a clear vision of their goal. The task of the moralist is to attain such a clear vision; to understand, first, the basis of all preference, and then, in detail, the reasons for preferring this concrete act to that. Here are a thousand impulses and instincts drawing us, with infinite further possibilities suggesting themselves to reflection; the more developed our natures the more frequently do our desires conflict. Why is any one better than another? How can we decide between them? Or shall we perhaps disown them all for some other and better way.
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.1
(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
1 Cf. Matthew Arnold, Essays in Criticism, vol. 1: “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."
morals. 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
1 Cf. Emerson, in a letter to Fräulein 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."