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A Handbook of Ethical Theory By George Stuart Fullerton Characters: 16443

Updated: 2017-11-29 00:05

7. THE MORALISTS.-If, from the codes, or the more or less vague bodies of opinion, which have characterized different communities, we turn to the moralists, we find similar food for thought.

But who are the moralists? Can we put into one class those who preach a short-sighted selfishness or a calculating egoism and those who urge upon us the law of love? Those who recommend a contempt of mankind, and those who inculcate a reverence for humanity? Those who incline to leave us to our own devices, telling us to listen to conscience, and those who draw up for us elaborate sets of rules to guide conduct? The histories of ethics are rather tolerant in herding together sheep and goats. And not without reason. Those whom they include have been in a sense the spokesmen of their fellows. Their words have found an echo in the souls of many. They are concerned with a rule of life, and their rule of life, such as it is, rests upon some principle which has impressed men as being not wholly unreasonable.

In taking a glance at what they have to offer us, I shall not go far afield, and shall exercise a brevity compatible with the purpose of mere illustration. To the moralists of ancient Greece, and, to a lesser degree, to those of the Roman Empire, to the Christian teachers who succeeded to their heritage in the centuries which followed, and to the more or less independent thinkers who made their appearance after the Reformation, we can trace our ethical pedigree. For our purpose we need seek no wider field. Here we may find sufficiently notable contrasts of opinion to disturb the dogmatic slumber of even an inert mind. The most cursory glance makes us inclined to accept with some reserve Stephen's claim that "the difference between different systems is chiefly in the details and special application of generally admitted principles."

8. EPICUREAN AND STOIC.-Thus, Aristippus of Cyrene advised men to grasp the pleasure of the moment rather than to await the more uncertain pleasure of the future; but he also counselled, for prudential reasons, the avoidance of a conflict with the laws. Such advice takes cognizance of the self-love of the individual, and is not self-love reasonable? Nevertheless, such advice might be given by a discouraged criminal of a reflective turn of mind, on his release from prison, to a comrade not yet chastened by incarceration. Epicurus praises temperance and fortitude, but only as measures of prudence. He praises justice, but only in so far as it enables us to escape harm, and frees us from that dread of discovery that haunts the steps of the evil-doer. His more specific maxims, do not fall in love with a woman, become the father of a family, or, generally, go into politics, smack strongly of the rule of life recommended to Feuillet's hero, Monsieur de Camors, by his worldly-wise and cynical father.

Contrast with these men the Stoics, whose rule of life was to follow Nature, and to eschew the pursuit of pleasure. Man's nature, said Epictetus, is social; wrongdoing is antisocial; affection is natural. [Footnote: Discourses, Book I, chapter xxiii-a clever answer to Epicurus.] Said Marcus Aurelius, it is characteristic of the rational soul for a man to love his neighbor. The cautious bachelor imbued with Epicurean principles would find strange and disconcerting the Stoic position touching citizenship: "My nature is rational and social; and my city and country, so far as I am Antoninus, is Rome, but so far as I am a man, it is the world. The things then which are useful to these cities are alone useful to me." [Footnote: Thoughts, Book VI, 44; translated by GEORGE LONG.]

9. PLATO; ARISTOTLE; THE CHURCH.-No more famous classification of the virtues-those qualities of character which it is desirable for a man to have, and which determine his doing what it is desirable that he should do-has ever been drawn up than that offered us by Plato: Wisdom, Courage, Temperance and Justice. [Footnote: For PLATO's account of the virtues see the Republic, Book IV, and the Laws, Book I.] It is interesting to lay beside it the longer list drawn up by Aristotle, and to compare both with that which commended itself to the mind of the mediaeval churchman.

With Aristotle, the virtues are made to include: [Footnote: Ethics; I refer the reader to the admirable exposition and criticism by SIDGWICK, History of Ethics, London, 1896, chapter ii, Sec 10-12; compare ZELLER, Aristotle and the Earlier Peripatetics, English translation London, 1897, Volume II, chapter xii.]












Decorous Wit

and it is suggested that, although scarcely a virtue, a sense of shame is becoming in youth.

We find the Christian teachers especially recommending: [Footnote: See SIDGWICK'S sympathetic account of the Churchman's view of the virtues, loc. cit., chapter iii.]






Alienation from the "World"

Alienation from the "Flesh"

and their lists of the "deadly sins" they select from the following:









Languid Indifference.

Could there be a more striking contrast than that between the mediaeval code and those of the great Greek thinkers? Plato recommended as virtues certain general characteristics of character much admired by the Greek of his day. Aristotle accepted them and added to them. He has painted much more in detail the gifts and graces of a well-born and well-situated Greek gentleman as he conceived him. The personage would cut a sorry figure in the role of a mediaeval saint; the mediaeval saint would wear a tarnished halo if endowed with the Aristotelian virtues.

The one ideal, the Greek, breathes an air of self-assertion; the other one of self-abnegation. Benevolence, Purity, Humility and Unworldliness are not to be found in the former; Justice, Courage and Veracity appear to be missing in the latter. Wisdom, insight, has given place to the Obedience appropriate to a man clearly conscious of a Law, not man-made, to which man feels himself to be subject.

Indeed, the discrepancy between the ideals is such that Aristotle's virtuously high-minded man would have been conceived by the mediaeval churchman to be living in deadly sin, as the very embodiment of pride and arrogance. We find him portrayed as neither seeking nor avoiding danger, for there are few things about which he cares; as ashamed to accept favors, since that implies inferiority; as sluggish and indifferent except when stimulated by some great honor to be gained or some great work to be performed; as frank, for this is characteristic of the man who despises others; as admiring little, for nothing is great to him. His pride prevents him from harboring resentment, from seeking praise, and from praising others. This Nietzschean hero would attract attention upon any stage: "The step of the high-minded man is slow, his voice deep, and his language stately, for he who feels anxiety about few things is not apt to be in a hurry; and he who thinks highly of nothing is not vehement." [Footnote: Ethics, Book IV, chapter in, 19, translation by R. W. BROWNE, London, 1865.]

To be sure, virtues not on a given list may be found in, or read into, some of the writings of the man who presents it. It would be absurd to maintain that the mediaeval churchman had no regard for justice, courage and veracity, as he would define them, or that Plato and Aristotle were wholly deaf to the claims of benevolence. Nevertheless, the variations in the emphasis laid on this virtue or on that, or in the conception of what constitutes this virtue or that, may yield ideals of character and of conduct which bear but a slight family resemblance. Imagine St. Francis of Assisi lowering his voice, slowing his step, and cultivating "high- mindedness," or striving to make himself a pattern of decorous wit.

10. LATER LISTS OF THE VIRTUES.-The codes proposed by the moralists of a later time are numerous and widely scattering. It is impossible to do justice

to them in any brief compass. A very few instances, selected from among those most familiar to English readers, must suffice to indicate the diversity of their nature.

Hobbes [Footnote: Leviathan, chapter xv.], deeply concerned to discover some modus vivendi which should put a check upon strife between man and his fellow-man, and save us from a life "solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short," recommends among other virtues:



Requital of benefits


A moderate degree of forgiveness

The avoidance of pride and arrogance.

Locke [Footnote: Essay, Book IV, chapter iii, Sec. 18; Of Civil Government, Book II, chapter ii.], who believes that moral principles must be intuitively evident to one who contemplates the nature of God and the relations of men to Him and to each other, thinks it worth while to set down such random maxims as:

No government allows absolute liberty.

Where there is no property there is no injustice.

All men are originally equal.

Men ought not to harm one another.

Parents have a right to control their children.

Hume, [Footnote: An Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals, Sec 6, Part I] whose two classes of virtues comprise the qualities immediately agreeable or useful to ourselves and those immediately agreeable or useful to others, offers us an extended list. He puts into the first class:







Good Sense, etc.







Order, etc.

In the second class he includes:









Manifestly, the lists may be indefinitely prolonged. Why not add to the first class the pachydermatous indifference to rebuffs which is of such service to the social climber, and, to the second, taste in dress and the habit of not repeating stories?

Thomas Reid lays stress upon the deliverances of the individual conscience, when consulted in a quiet hour. Nevertheless he proposes five fundamental maxims: [Footnote: On the Active Powers of Man, Essay V, chapter i.]

We ought to exercise a rational self-love, and prefer a greater to a

lesser good.

We should follow nature, as revealed in the constitution of man.

We should exercise benevolence.

Right and wrong are the same for all in the same circumstances.

We should venerate and obey God.

With such writers we may contrast the Utilitarians and the adherents of the doctrine of Self-realization, [Footnote: These will be discussed below, chapters xxv and xxvi.] who lay little stress upon lists of virtues or duties, but aim, respectively, at the greatest happiness of the greatest number, and at the harmonious development of the faculties of man, regarding as virtues such qualities of character as make for the attainment, in the long run, of the one or the other of these ends.

11. THE STRETCHING OF MORAL CONCEPTS.-The instances given suffice to show that the moralists speak with a variety of tongues. The code of one age is apt to seem strange and foreign to the men of another. Even where there is apparent agreement, a closer scrutiny often reveals that it has been attained by a process of stretching conceptions. Take for example the so-called "cardinal" virtues [Footnote: From cardo, a hinge. These virtues were supposed to be fundamental. The name given to them was first used by AMBROSE in the fourth century A.D. See SIDGWICK, History of Ethics, chap, ii, p. 44.] dwelt upon by Plato. The Stoics, who made use of his list, changed its spirit. Cicero stretches justice so as to make it cover a watery benevolence. St. Augustine finds the cardinal virtues to be different aspects of Love to God. The great scholastic philosopher of the thirteenth century, St. Thomas, places in the first rank the Christian graces of Faith, Hope and Charity, but still finds it convenient to use the Platonic scheme in ordering a list of the self- regarding virtues taken from Aristotle. Thus may the pillars of a pagan temple be utilized as structural units in, or embellishments of, a Christian church.

Our own age reveals the same tendency. Thomas Hill Green, the Oxford professor, follows Plato. But with him we find wisdom stretched to cover artistic creation; we see that courage and temperance have taken on new faces; and justice appears to be able to gather under its wings both benevolence and veracity. [Footnote: Prolegomena to Ethics, Book III, chapter iii, and Book IV, chapter v.] A still wider divergence from the original understanding of the cardinal virtues is that of Dewey, who conceives of them as "traits essential to all morality." He treats, under temperance, of purity and reverence; he makes courage synonymous with persistent vigor; he extends justice so as to include love and sympathy; he transforms wisdom into conscientiousness. [Footnote: DEWEY AND TUFTS, Ethics, pp. 404-423.]

This variation in the content of moral concepts may be illustrated from any quarter in the field of ethics. Cicero's circumspect "benevolence" advances the doctrine that "whatever one can give without suffering loss should be given even to an entire stranger." Among such obligations he reckons: to prohibit no one from drinking at a stream of running water; to permit anyone who wishes to light fire from fire; to give faithful advice to one who is in doubt; which things, as he naively remarks, "are useful to the receiver and do no harm to the giver." [Footnote: De Officiis, Book I, chapter xvi.]

Compare with this the admonition to love one's neighbor as oneself; Sidgwick's "self-evident" proposition that "I ought not to prefer my own lesser good to the greater good of another;" [Footnote: The Methods of Ethics, Book III, chapter xiii, Sec 3.] Bentham's utilitarian formula, "everybody to count for one, and nobody for more than one." The admonition, "be benevolent," may mean many things.

12. THE REFLECTIVE MIND AND THE MORAL CODES.-Even the cursory glance we have given above to the moral codes of different communities and those proposed by individual moralists must suffice to bring any thoughtful man to the consciousness that they differ widely among themselves, and that the differences can scarcely be dismissed as insignificant. A little reflection will suffice to convince him, furthermore, that to treat all other codes as if they were mere pathological variations from his own is indefensibly dogmatic.

On the other hand, the differences between codes should not be unduly emphasized. The core of identity is there, and, although in its bald abstractness it is not enough to live by, it is vastly significant, nevertheless. If there were not some congruity in the materials, they would never be brought together as the subject of one science. Unless "good," "right," "obligation," "approval," etc., or the rudimentary conceptions which foreshadow them in the mind of the most primitive human beings, had a core of identity which could be traced in societies the most diverse, there would be no significance in speaking of the enlightened morality of one people and the degraded and undeveloped morality of another. There could be no history of the development of the moral ideas. Collections of disparate and disconnected facts do not constitute a science, nor are they the proper subject of a history.

As a matter of fact, we all do speak of degraded moral conceptions, of a perverted conscience, of a lofty morality, of a fine sense of duty; we do not hesitate to compare, i. e., to treat as similar and yet dissimilar, the customs, laws and ethical maxims of different ages and of different races. This means that we have in our minds some standard, perhaps consciously formulated, perhaps dimly apprehended, according to which we rate them. The unreflective man is in danger of taking as this standard his own actual code, such as it is; of accepting, together with such elements of reason as it may contain, the whole mass of his inherited or acquired prejudices; the more reflective man will strive to be more rationally critical.



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