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   Chapter 5 THE MATERIALS OF ETHICS

A Handbook of Ethical Theory By George Stuart Fullerton Characters: 6910

Updated: 2017-11-29 00:05


17. HOW THE MORALIST SHOULD PROCEED.-The above reflections on method suggest the materials of which the moralist should avail himself in rearing the edifice of his science.

(1) Evidently he should reflect upon the moral judgments which he finds in himself, the moral being with whom he is best acquainted. He should endeavor to render consistent and luminous moral judgments which, as he finds, have too often been inconsistent and more or less blind.

(2) He should take cognizance of his own setting-of the social conscience embodied in the community in which he lives.

(3) And since, as we have seen, the significance, either of the individual conscience, or of the social conscience revealed in custom, law and public opinion, can hardly become apparent to one who does not bring within his horizon many consciences individual and social, he should enlarge his view so as to include such. The moralists, in our day, show an increasing tendency to pay serious attention to this mass of materials. They do not confine their attention to the moral standard which this man or that has accepted as authoritative for him, nor to that accepted as authoritative in a given community. They study man- man in all stages of his development and in material and social settings the most diverse.

(4) Nor should the student of ethics overlook the work which has been done by those moralists who have gone before him. He who has studied descriptive anatomy is aware of the immense service which has been done him by the unwearied observations of his predecessors; observations which have been put on record, and which draw his attention to numberless details of structure that would, without such aid, certainly escape his attention. Ethics is an ancient discipline. It has fixed the attention of acute minds for many centuries. He who approaches the subject naively, without an acquaintance with the many ethical theories which have been advanced and the acute criticisms to which they have been subjected, will almost certainly say what someone has said before, and said, perhaps, much better. The valor of ignorance will involve him in ignominious defeat.

(5) It is evident that the moralist must make use of materials offered him by workers in many other fields of science. The biologist may have valuable suggestions to make touching the impulses and instincts of man. The psychologist treats of the same, and exhibits the work of the intellect in ordering and organizing the impulses. He studies the phenomena of desire, will, habit, the formation of character. The anthropologist and the sociologist are concerned with the codes of communities and with the laws of social development. The fields of economics, politics and comparative jurisprudence obviously march with that cultivated by the student of ethics.

18. THE PHILOSOPHER AS MORALIST.-In all these sciences at once it is not possible for the moralist to be an adept. The mass of the material they furnish is so vast that the ethical writer who starts out to master it in all its details may well dread that he may be overcome by senility before he is ready to undertake the formulation of an ethical theory.

It does not follow, however, that he should leave to those who occupy themselves professionally with any of these fields the task of framing a theory of morals. He must have sufficient information to be able to select with intelligence what has some important bearing upo

n the problem of conduct, but there are many details into which he need not go. It is well to note the following points:

(1) A multitude of details may be illustrative of a comparatively small number of general principles. It is with these general principles that the moralist is concerned. The anthropologist may regard it as his duty to spend much labor in the attempt to discover why this or that act, this or that article of food, happens in a given community to be taboo to certain persons. The student of ethics is not bound to take up the detailed investigation of such matters. Human nature, in its general constitution, is much the same in different races and peoples. The influence of environment is everywhere apparent. There are significant uniformities to be discovered even by one who has a limited amount of detailed information. "Those who come after us will see nothing new," said Antoninus, "nor have those before us seen anything more, but in a manner he who is forty years old; if he has any understanding at all, has seen by virtue of the uniformity which prevails all things which have been and all that will be." [Footnote: Thoughts, XI, 1. London, 1891, translated by GEORGE LONG.] Which is, to be sure, an overstatement of the case, but one containing a germ of truth.

(2) We find, by looking into their books, that men most intimately acquainted with the facts of the moral life as revealed in different races and peoples may differ widely in the ethical doctrine which they are inclined to base upon them. Not all men, even when endowed with no little learning, are gifted with the clearness of vision which can detect the significance of given facts; nor are all equally capable of weaving relevant facts into a consistent and reasonable theory. The keenness and the constructive genius of the individual count for much. And breadth of view counts for much also. We have seen that ethics touches many fields of investigation, and the philosopher is supposed, at least, to let his vision range over a broad realm, and to grasp the relations of the different sciences to each other. He is, moreover, supposed to be trained in reflective analysis, and of this ethical theory appears to stand in no little need.

(3) Finally, the mere fact that ethics has for so many centuries been regarded as one of the disciplines falling within the domain of the philosopher is not without its significance. One may deplore the tendency to base ethics upon this or that metaphysical doctrine, and desire to see it made an independent science; and yet one may be compelled to admit that it is not easy to comprehend and to estimate the value of many of the ethical theories which have been evolved in the past, without having rather an intimate acquaintance with the history of philosophy. The ethical teachings of Plato, of Aristotle, of St. Thomas, of Kant, of Hegel, of Green, lose much of their meaning when taken out of their setting. The history of ethical theory is blind when divorced from the history of philosophy, and with the history of ethical theory the moralist should be acquainted.

The philosopher has no prescriptive right to preempt the field of ethics. Many men may cultivate it with profit. Nevertheless, he, too, should cultivate it, not independently and with a disregard of what has been done by others, but in a spirit of hearty cooperation, thankfully accepting such help as is offered him by his neighbors.

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