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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."
enlist upon its side many restless spirits who now chafe under a sense of needless restraint and seek some delusory freedom which leads to pain and death. Morality is simply the best way of living; and the more fully men realize that, the more readily will they submit themselves to the sacrifices it requires.
(4) Finally, a study of ethics should help us to see what are the prevalent sins and moral dangers of our day, and thus arouse us to put the weight of our blame and praise where they are needed. Widespread public opinion is a force of incalculable power, which is largely unused. Politics and business, and to a far greater extent than now private life, will become clean and honest and kind just so soon as a sufficient number of people wake up and demand it. We have the power to make sins which are now generally tolerated and respectable, so odious, so infamous, that they will practically disappear. There are certain of the older forms of sin which the race in its long struggle upward has so effectually blacklisted that only a few perverts now lapse into them; we have execrated out of existence whole classes of cruelty and vice. But with the changing and ever more complex relations of society new forms of sin continually creep in; these we have not yet come to brand with the odium they deserve. Leaders of society and pillars of the church are often, and usually without disturbance of conscience, guilty of wrongdoing as grave in its effects, or graver, than many of the faults we relentlessly chastise. On the other hand, many really useful reforms are blocked because they awaken old prejudices or cross silly and meaningless conventions. The air is full of proposals, invectives, causes, movements; how shall we know which to espouse and which to reject, or where best to lend a hand? We need a consistent and well-founded point of view from which to judge. To get such a sane and far-sighted moral perspective; to see the
acts of our fellow men with a proper valuation; to be able to point out the insidious dangers of conduct which is not yet as generally rebuked as it ought to be; and at the same time to emancipate ourselves and others from the mistaken and merely arbitrary precepts that are intermingled with our genuine morality, and so attain the largest possible freedom of action,—such should be the outcome of a thorough study of ethical principles and ideals.