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   Chapter 1 IS THERE AN ACCEPTED CONTENT

A Handbook of Ethical Theory By George Stuart Fullerton Characters: 8016

Updated: 2017-11-29 00:05


1. THE POINT IN DISPUTE.-Is there an accepted content of morals? Can we use the expression without going on to ask: Accepted where, when, and by whom?

To be sure, certain eminent moralists have inclined to maintain that men are in substantial agreement in regard to their moral judgments. Joseph Butler, writing in the first half of the eighteenth century, came to the conclusion that, however men may dispute about particulars, there is an universally acknowledged standard of virtue, professed in public in all ages and all countries, made a show of by all men, enforced by the primary and fundamental laws of all civil constitutions: namely, justice, veracity, and regard to common good. [Footnote: Dissertation on the Nature of Virtue.] Sir Leslie Stephen, writing in the latter half of the nineteenth, tells us that "in one sense moralists are almost unanimous; in another they are hopelessly discordant. They are unanimous in pronouncing certain classes of conduct to be right and the opposite wrong. No moralist denies that cruelty, falsity and intemperance are vicious, or that mercy, truth and temperance are virtuous." [Footnote: The Science of Ethics, chapter i, Sec. 1.]

In other words, these writers would teach us that men are, on the whole, agreed in approving, explicitly or implicitly, some standard of conduct sufficiently definite to serve as a code of morals. But that there is such a substantial agreement among men has not impressed all observers to the same degree. Locke, who wrote before Butler, based his arguments against the existence of innate moral maxims upon the wide divergencies found among various classes of men touching what is right and what is wrong. [Footnote: Essay Concerning Human Understanding, Book I, chapter iii.] The historian, the anthropologist and the sociologist reinforce his reasonings with a wealth of illustration not open to the men of an earlier time. They present us with codes, not a code; with multitudinous standards, not a single standard; with what has been accepted here or there, at this time or at that; and we may well ask ourselves where, amid this profusion, we are to find the one and acceptable code.

2. WHAT CONSTITUTES SUBSTANTIAL AGREEMENT?-To be sure, we may be very generous in our interpretation of what constitutes substantial agreement; we may deny significance to all sorts of discrepancies by relegating them to the unimpressive class of "disputes about particulars." Such an impressionistic indifference to detail may leave us with something on our hands as little serviceable as a composite photograph made from individual objects which have little in common, a blur lacking all definite outline and not recognizable as any object at all. No man can guide his conduct by the common core of many or of all moral codes. Taken in its bald abstraction, it is not a code or anything like a code. Who can walk, without walking in some particular way, in some direction, at some time? Who can mind his manners without being mannerly in accordance with the usages of some race or people?

Those who content themselves with enunciating very general moral principles may, it is true, be of no little service to their fellow-men; but that is only because their fellow-men are able to supply the details that convert the blur into a picture. Some twenty-four hundred years ago Heraclitus told his contemporaries "to act according to nature with understanding"; we are often told today that the rule of our lives should be "to do good." Had the ancient Greek not possessed his own notions of what might properly be meant by nature and by understanding, did we not ourselves have some rather definite conception of what actions may properly fall under the caption of doing good, such admonitions could not lead to the stirring of a finger. Who would appeal to his physician for advice as to diet, if he expected from him no more than the counsel to eat, at the proper hours, enough, but not too much, of suitable food?

If, t

hen, we confine our admonitions to the group of abstractions which constitute the universally acknowledged standard of virtue when all the individual differences which characterize different codes have been ignored, we preach what, taken alone, no man can live by, and no community of men has ever attempted to live by. If we leave it to our hearers to drape our naked abstractions with concrete details, each will set to work in a different way. The method of the composite photograph seems unprofitable in attempting to solve the problem of morals.

3. DOGMATIC ASSUMPTION.-There is, however, a second way by which the variations which characterize different codes may come to be relegated to a position of relative insignificance. We may assume that our own code is the ultimate standard by which all others are to be judged, and we may set down deviations from it to the account of the ignorance or the perversity of our fellowmen. So regarded, they are aberrations from the normal, and only true code of conduct; interesting, perhaps, but little enlightening, for they can have little bearing upon our conception of what we ought to do.

A presumption against this arbitrary assumption that we have the one and only desirable code is suggested the unthinking acceptance of the traditional by those who are lacking in enlightenment and in the capacity reflection. Is it not significant that a contact with new ways of thinking has a tendency, at least, to make men broaden their horizon and to revise some of their views?

In other fields, we hope to attain to a capacity for self-criticism. We expect to learn from other men. Why should we, in the sphere of morals, lay claim to the possession of the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth? Why should we refuse to learn from anyone? Such a position seems unreasoning. It puts moral judgments beyond the pale of argument and intelligent discussion. It is an assumption of infallibility little in harmony with the spirit of science. The fact that a given standard of conduct is in harmony with our traditions, habits of thought, and emotional responses, does not prove to other men that it is, not one of a number of accepted codes, but in a quite peculiar sense acceptable, a thing to put in a class by itself-the class into which each mother puts her own child, as over against other children.

Moreover, such an unreasoned assumption of superiority must make one little sympathetic in one's attitude toward the moral life of other peoples. Into the significance of their social organization, of their customs, their laws, one can gain no insight. Their hopes, their fears, their strivings, their successes and their failures, their approval and disapproval of their fellows, their peace of conscience and their remorse, must leave us cold and aloof.

It is not profitable for us to assume at the outset that the differences exhibited in the moral judgments of individuals or of peoples are of minor significance. They are facts to be dealt with in the light of some theory. An ethical theory which ignores them must rest upon a narrow and insecure foundation. It is exposed to assault from many quarters. It may, in default of better means of defence, be compelled to take refuge behind the blind wall of dogmatic assertion. On the other hand, a theory which gives them frank recognition, and strives to exhibit their real significance in the life of the individual and of the race, may be able to show lying among them the golden cord of reason which saves them from the charge of being incoherent facts. It may even lead us back to a conservatism no longer unreasoning, but rationally defensible and conscious of its proper limits. The blindly conservative man seems to be faced with the alternative of stagnation or revolution. The rationally conservative may regard the development of the moral life as a Pilgrim's Progress, not without its untoward accidents, but, in spite of them, a gradual advance toward a desirable goal.

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