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lived. Legislation is, to be sure, continually on the increase, shutting men out from the ever new ways they discover to prey upon their fellows. But nevertheless, the freedom with which men may now live their own lives according to their own ideas is almost a new phenomenon upon the earth. When we compare the free range that our individuality has with the tyranny of public opinion even so recently as the lifetime of our Puritan grandparents, when we see the new experiments in personal life and social legislation which are being tried on every hand, when we read a few of the thousands of books and magazines and newspapers that are pouring a continual flood of new ideas into the world, we must realize the immense change from the stereotyped customs of nearly all past epochs. In each of our forty-eight States different codes are showing their relative advantages; here woman's suffrage is on trial, there the initiative and referendum, there the recall. Almost every sort of possible marriage law, it would seem, is being tried somewhere. It is a time of moral confusion, of the unsettling of old conceptions and a groping, stumbling progress toward the
In such a situation it is no wonder that we have two types of thought, two sets of forces, at work. On the one hand we have the conservatives, the "stand-patters," the maintainers of the existing order; on the other hand are the progressives, the radicals, the reformers of the existing order. For the former the moral standards of their particular age and country tend to have an absolute and unconditional worth, which must not be criticized or questioned. The necessity of allegiance to morality has been so deeply stamped upon their minds that it has become a loyalty to the particular brand of morality they have grown up in, however flagrantly inadequate or tyrannous it may be. For the latter a commendable impatience with the imperfect is apt to
foster a blindness to the value that almost always lies in ancient customs and a lack of regard for the need of stability and common agreement on some plane. These iconoclasts, vociferous in condemnation, are often most empty-handed, giving us nothing wiser or more advantageous wherewith to replace the conventions they discard. So it is difficult to say whether humanity is more in danger from the redhanded radicalism which destroys the precious fruit of long experience, or from the obstinate obstructionists who by the dead weight of their apathy or the positive pull-back of their antagonism delay the remedying of existing evils. The ideal lies in keeping morality plastic while giving its approved forms our hearty allegiance. Widely different ideals are theoretically conceivable; but we live in a specific time and place and must defer to the code of our fellows; it is along these lines, and by gradual steps, that progress must be made. We must be on the alert for new suggestions, but slow to tear down till we can build better. The greatest of prophets, keenly as he saw the flaws in existing standards, proclaimed that he came not to destroy but to fulfill.
It is evident enough to the impartial observer that our present chaos and mutual antagonism of conflicting viewpoints is not ideal; we need to work out of this disorder into some sane and stable order; when we can find the best way of life we must discard these manifold variations, most of which are foolish and ill-advised. The undesirability of this contemporary disagreement, which in some matters amounts to almost a complete moral anarchy, is enough to explain the pull-back of the conservatives. And it is precisely the purpose of such a volume as this to help in the crystallizing of definite and universally accepted moral principles for personal and social life. But, on the other hand, this temporary chaos is more pregnant with promise than the older blind acquiescence in existing codes. We must bring the
full light of criticism and experiment to bear upon the laws and customs of the past.
"New occasions teach new duties,
Time makes ancient good uncouth."
We should reverence the great seers and lawmakers of the past; but their true disciples are not those who slavishly accept their dicta, they are rather those who think for themselves, as they did, and contribute, as they did, toward the slow progress of man.
What are the dangers of conventional morality?
The reasons why we cannot be content with our fathers' conservatism in morals, and our fathers' custom-bound conscience, may be summarized as follows:
(1) Conventional morality is almost necessarily too general; it is not elastic enough to fit the infinite variations in specific cases, not detailed enough to fit all needs. It therefore often causes needless and cruel repression; the most sensitive and aspiring spirits have often revolted from the morality of their times because of its harshness. It is well for the marriage-tie to be binding; divorce has generally been deemed unchristian. But if this judgment is rigidly enforced, special cases arise, very piteous, very pathetic, crying out for a more discriminating rule. Our forebears, with their grave realization of the dangers of frivolousness, forbade by law and a stern public opinion many innocent and wholesome diversions. Such injustices are inevitable where custom has unchecked sway. The general aim and result may be very salutary, but the application is too sweeping, and brings suffering to many unfortunate individuals, or to the community as a whole, by its indiscrimination. (2) But even in its general result custom may be harmful. Morals have developed blindly, as we have seen, through all sorts of irrational influences, swayed this way by class
interest, by rulers or priests, veered that way by superstition, passion, and stupidity. Morality has not understood itself; and the natural forces which have developed it into its enormous usefulness have not always weeded out the baneful elements. The persecution of heretics was sheer mistake, but it was acceded to by practically the entire Church in the Middle Ages, and practised with utter conscientiousness. The hostility of the Puritans to music and art was pure folly, though it seemed to them their grim duty.
(3) New situations are continually arising, new sins appearing. Conventional morality, while sometimes oversevere against old and well-recognized sins, lags far behind in its branding of the newer forms. The evils arising from the modern congestion of population, the unscrupulousness of modern business, the selfishness of politicians, the servility of newspapers to the "interests" and to advertisers, for example, find too little reprobation in our established moral codes. "Business is business" has been said by respectable church-members. A successful American boss, when asked if he was not in politics for his pocketbook, said, "Of course! Are n't you?" with no sense of shame. Probably he was very "moral" along the old lines - an excellent father, a kind husband, an agreeable neighbor; but his conventional code, shared by most of his contemporaries, did not include the reprobation of the practice of politics for private gain. In the upper classes are many people who are "good" by the old standards, but who are unhelpful and trivial-minded, mere parasites devoted to sport or society, with never a qualm of conscience for their selfishness. The old standards need the constant infusion of new blood; our consciences need to be adjusted to our new relations and deeper insight.1
1 Cf. Ross, Sin and Society, p. 14: "One might suppose that an exasperated public would sternly castigate these modern sins. But the fact is,
(4) Custom-morality tends to literalism, a mere formal observance of law or custom without the true spirit of service, without any inward sweetness or power. Christ's condemnation of the Pharisees will occur to every one; the parable of the Pharisee and publican, and that of the widow's mite, among others, are classic illustrations of a cut-anddried formalism in morality. Such a legalism Paul found could not save him. And forever the prophets and spiritual leaders of men have had to burst the bonds of tradition to awaken a real love of and devotion to the good. The letter killeth, and a punctilious observance of rules may choke out the aspirations of the soul.
(5) Finally, conflicts between customs inevitably arise. Which shall a man obey? The moral perplexity thus caused gives a great deal of its poignancy to the tragedy of life. When one accepted ideal pulls us one way, and another standard, to which we have given allegiance, calls us the other, when we cry out with Desdemona, "I do perceive here a divided duty," the only solution lies in the development of insight and a recognition of the transition-nature of much of our accepted code. If for no other reason, to avoid these conflicts of ideals we must comprehend the ultimate aims of morality and take existing standards with a sort of tentative allegiance.
It should be clear, then, that the individualizing of conscience, which has been going on observably in recent times, is, in spite of its dangers, a necessary and desirable process. the very qualities that lull the conscience of the sinner blind the eyes of the onlookers. People are sentimental, and bastinado wrongdoing not according to its harmfulness, but according to the infamy that has come to attach to it. Undiscerning, they chastise with scorpions the old authentic sins, but spare the new. They do not see that... blackmail is piracy, that embezzlement is theft, that speculation is gambling . . . that deleterious adulteration is murder. . . . The cloven hoof hides in patent leather; and today, as in Hosea's time, the people are destroyed for lack of knowledge.'”