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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 classinterest, 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 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.""
Dewey and Tufts, Ethics, chaps. V. IX. W. Bagehot, Physics and Politics, chaps. II, VI. F. Paulsen, System of Ethics, pt. 11, chap. v, sec. 6. S. E. Mezes, Ethics, chap. VIII, pp. 164–83. J. H. Coffin, The Socialized Conscience, pp. 12–23. R. B. Perry, The Moral Economy, chap. iv. W. Lippmann, A Preface to Politics, chap. II. F. M. McMurry, How to Study, chap. ix. E. J. Swift, Learning and Doing, chap. VI. Boris Sidis, Philistine and Genius.
CAN WE BASE MORALITY UPON CONSCIENCE ?
What is the meaning of "moral intuitionism"?
With the growth of individualism in morals, the relaxing of the constraint of publicly accepted standards, there is, of course, a dangerous drift toward self-indulgence and moral nihilism. It becomes all the more necessary that conscience be strong and sensitive, that inner restraints take the place of outer. In the lack of a mature moral insight, which is one of the latest of mental developments, and indeed, where it exists, to reinforce its pale affirmations with greater impulsive power, a stern sense of duty is a veritable rock of salvation. Many a people have perished, many a brilliant hope of civilization been lost, because of its lack. So we cannot wonder when moralists put it forward as the foundation-stone of all morality and seek to build their systems upon it. To a man who has been bred to obey the inner voice, it seems the very source and basis of the right; it is no unescapable, so authoritative, that it cannot be deemed derived, or evolved by a mechanical process of selection. It figures as something ultimate and unanalyzable, if not frankly supernatural; that it is a mere instrument in the attainment of an ulterior end, to be used or rejected according to its observed usefulness, is an abhorrent thought.
There has thus arisen a school of philosophers who base their justification of morality entirely upon the deliverances of conscience. Their theories vary in detail and have received sundry names; we will group them here for convenience under the general caption "moral intuitionism." As a rule they steer clear of the historic point of view; they refuse to