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All sorts of insidious consequences follow secretly in the train of innocent-seeming acts; the value of following a given impulse is complicated in many ways of which the impulse itself does not inform us. We are the frequent victims of a sort of inward mirage, and have to learn to discount our hopes and fears. Morality is the corrector of these false valuations; it discriminates for us between real and counterfeit goods, teaches us to discount the pictures of our imagination and see the gnawed bones on the beach where the sirens sing.
(2) Our impulses often clash. And since, as we have just said, the relative worth to us of the acts is not always accurately represented by the impulses, we need to stand off and compare them impartially. No single passion must be allowed to run amuck; the opposing voices, however feeble, must be heard. When desires are at loggerheads, when a deadlock of interests arises an almost daily occurrence when life is kept at a white heat there must be some moderator, some governing power. Morality is the principle of coördination, the harmonizer, the arbitrator of conflicting claims.
(3) We often lack impulses which would add much to the worth of our lives; we are blind to all sorts of opportunities for rich and joyous living. We need to develop our latent needs, to expand our natures to their full potentiality, to learn to love many things we have not cared for. In general we ignore the joys that we have not ourselves experienced or imagined, and those which belong to a different realm from that of our temporary enthusiasms. A lovesick swain, an opium fiend, are utterly unable to respond to the lure of outdoor sport or the joy of the well-doing of work; these joys, though perhaps acknowledged as real possibilities for them, fail to attract their wills, touch no chord in them, have no influence on their choices. Morality is the great eye-opener and insistent reminder of ignored goods.
(4) We often have perverted impulses. We inherit disharmonies from other conditions of life, like the vermiform appendix and the many other vestigial organs which have come down to us only for harm. In general we inherit bodies and brains fairly well organized for our welfare; but there are still atavisms to be ruthlessly stamped out. The craving for stimulants or drugs, sexual perversions, kleptomania, pyromania, and the other manias, bad temper, jealousy there is a good deal of the old Adam in us which is just wholly bad and to be utterly done away with; rebellious impulses that are hopelessly at war with our own good and must go the way of cannibalism and polygamy. Morality is the stern exterminator of all such enemies of human welfare.
What factors are to be considered in estimating the worth of personal moral ideals?
This summary consideration of the obstacles that block the path to happiness through the heedless following of impulse, shows the necessity of moral ideals; that is to say, of directive codes which shall steer the will through the tumultuous seas of haphazard desire into the harbor of its true welfare. How, then, can we decide between conflicting ideals and estimate their relative value? It can only be by judging through experience the degree of happiness which they severally effect in the situations to which they are to be applied. But there are many factors which contribute to or detract from that happiness in its totality; and a proper estimation of ideals must note the degree in which they provide for each possible element of satisfaction.
(1) In the first place, the mere fact of yielding to an impulse, of whatever sort, brings a relief from craving, and a momentary satisfaction. Just to do what we wish to do is, negatively at least, a good; and in so far every act desired
is really desirable. An ideal which crosses inclination must have this initial price debited against it. At times the restlessness of pent-up longing is so great that it pays to gratify it even at some cost of pain or loss. But in general, desire can be modified to fit need; and rational ideals rather than silly wishes must guide us. It is dangerous to lay much stress on the urgency of desire, and almost always possible with a little firmness to hush the blind yearning and replace it with more ultimately satisfying desires.
(2) Normally, however, our desires represent real goods, which must bulk much larger in our calculation than the mere relief of yielding to the impulse. Not only is it ipso facto good to have what we want, but what we want is usually something that can directly or indirectly give us pleasure. The pleasure, then, to be attained through following this or that impulse is to be estimated, both in its intensity and its duration. The certainty or uncertainty of its attainment may also legitimately be considered. And this pleasure, though it is but one phase of the total situation, must be taken seriously into account in our appraisal of ideals which permit or forbid it.
(3) A further question is as to the purity of this pleasure, i.e., its freedom from mixture with pain. Most selfish and sensual pleasures, however keen, are so interwoven with restlessness, shame, or dissatisfaction, or so inevitably accompanied by a revulsion of feeling, disgust or loathing, that they must be sharply discounted in our calculus. Whereas intellectual, æsthetic, religious pleasures are generally free from such intermixture of pain, and so, though milder, on the whole preferable even in their immediacy and apart from ultimate consequences.
(4) But the most imperious need of life lies in the tracingout and paying heed to these extrinsic values, these aftereffects of conduct. The drinking of alcoholic liquors, for
example, not only stills a craving that arises in a man's mind, not only brings pleasure of taste and comfort of oblivion, not only brings the quick revulsion of emotional staleness and headache, but has its gradual and inevitable effects in undermining the constitution, lessening the power of resistance to disease, and decreasing the vitality of offspring. Quite commonly these ultimate consequences are the most important, and so the determining, factors in deciding our ideals. Among them may be included the influence of single acts in increasing or decreasing the power to resist future temptations, and the gradual paralysis of the will through unchecked self-indulgence.
(5) Another important aspect of any moral situation lies in the rejection which every choice involves. Not only must we ask what a given impulse has to offer us, in immediate and remote satisfaction; we must consider what alternative goods its adoption precludes. What might we have been doing with our time and strength or money? Is this act not only a good one, is it the best one for that moment of our lives? An important function of ideals is to point us to realms of happiness into which our preëxisting impulses might never have led us, and whose existence we might scarcely have suspected.
(6) Finally, we may ask of every proposed line of conduct, what will be its worth to us in memory? Not only in our leisure hours, but in a current of subconscious reflection that accompanies our active life, we constantly live in the presence of our past. And the nature of memory is such that it cannot well retain the traces of certain of our keenest pleasures, but can continually feed us upon other joys of our past. It is imperative, then, for a happy life, so to live that the years are pleasant to look back upon. Vicious selfindulgence and selfishness are rarely satisfying in retrospection, whereas all courage and heroism and tenderness are a
source of unending comfort. For better or worse, we are, and cannot shirk being, judges of our own conduct. We may be prejudiced, and may properly try to correct our prejudices; we may discount our own disapprovals, and seek to escape from our own self-condemnation. But after all, we 'must live with ourselves; and it pays to aim to please not only the evanescent impulses whose disapproval will soon be forgotten, but that more deeply rooted and insistent judgment that cannot wholly be stilled. Regret and remorse are among the greatest poisoners of happiness, and prospective ideals must bear that truth in mind.
"No matter what other elements in any moment of consciousness may tend to give it agreeable tone, if there is not the element of approval, there is not yet any deep, wide, and lasting pleasantness for consciousness. A flash of light here, a casual word there, and it is gone.
"Just when we are safest, there's a sunset-touch;
A fancy from a flower-bell, some one's death,
A chorus-ending from Euripides, -
to bring the shock of disapproval, and with it disagreeable feeling-tone continues till disapproval is removed or approval is won. If there be won this approval, other elements of disagreeableness, however great, can be endured. The massive movement of the complex unified consciousness of a Socrates drinking hemlock, of a Jesus dying on the cross, whatever strong eddies of pain there be in it, is still toned agreeably, as it makes head conqueringly toward that end which each has ideally constructed as fit.”1
No reference has been made, in this summary of the factors which determine our estimate of the worth of personal ideals,
1 H. G. Lord, in Essays Philosophical and Psychological in Honor of William James, p. 388-89.