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   Chapter 6 THE AIM OF ETHICS AS SCIENCE

A Handbook of Ethical Theory By George Stuart Fullerton Characters: 7374

Updated: 2017-11-29 00:05


19. THE APPEAL TO REASON.-The proper aim of the scientific study of ethics appears to be suggested with sufficient clearness by what has been said in the chapters on the accepted content of morals.

Where individuals take up unreflectively the maxims which are to control their conduct, human life can scarcely be said to be under the guidance of reason. Where, moreover, the codes of individuals clash with each other or with the social conscience of their community, and where the codes of different communities are disconcertingly diverse, planful concerted action with a view to the control of conduct appears to be impracticable. Historical accident, blind impulse and caprice, cannot serve as guides for a rational creature seeking to live, along with others, a rational life.

"The aim of ethics," says Sidgwick, [Footnote: The Methods of Ethics, Book I, chapter vi, Sec 1.] "is to render scientific-i.e., true, and as far as possible systematic-the apparent cognitions that most men have of the rightness or reasonableness of conduct, whether the conduct be considered as right in itself, or as the means to some end conceived as ultimately reasonable." The use here of the word "cognitions" calls our attention to the fact that, when men say, "this is right, that is wrong," they mean no more than, "this I like, that I do not like"; and the use of the word "apparent" indicates that the judgments expressed may be approved by the man who makes them, and yet be erroneous. The appeal is to an objective standard; there is a demand for proof.

That most men recognize, in some cases dimly, in some cases clearly and explicitly, that the appeal to such a standard is justifiable, can scarcely be denied. Between "I choose" and "I ought to choose," between "the community demands," and "the community ought to demand," men generally recognize a distinction when they have attained to a capacity for reflection.

It has, however, been denied that the appeal is justifiable, and denied by no mean authority. "The presumed objectivity of moral judgments," writes Westermarck, [Footnote: 2 The Origin and Development of the Moral Ideas, chapter i, p. 17.] "being a chimera, there can be no moral truth in the sense in which this term is generally understood. The ultimate reason for this is, that the moral concepts are based upon emotions, and that the contents of an emotion fall entirely outside the category of truth. But it may be true or not that we have a certain emotion, it may be true or not that a given mode of conduct has a tendency to evoke in us moral indignation or moral approval. Hence a moral judgment is true or false according as its subject has or has not that tendency which the predicate attributes to it. If I say that it is wrong to resist evil, and yet resistance to evil has no tendency whatever to call forth in me an emotion of moral disapproval, then my judgment is false." The conclusion drawn from this is that there are no general moral truths, and that "the object of scientific ethics cannot be to fix rules for human conduct"; it can only be "to study the moral consciousness as a fact."

20. THE APPEAL TO REASON JUSTIFIED.-The words of so high an authority should not be passed over lightly. One is impelled to seek for their proper appreciation and their reconciliation with the judgment of other moralists. Such can be found, I think, by turning to two truths dwelt upon in what has preceded: the truth that the moralist should not assume that he is possessed of a "given" analogous to that of the geometer-a standard in no need of criticism; and the equally important truth that the moralist cannot hope to frame a code which will si

mply replace the codes of individual communities and will prescribe the details of human conduct while ignoring such codes altogether.

But it does not seem to follow that, because the moralist may not set up an arbitrary code of this sort, he is also forbidden to criticize and compare moral judgments, to arrange existing codes in a certain order as lower and higher, to frame some notion of what constitutes progress. He may hold before himself, in outline, at least, an ideal of conduct, and not one taken up arbitrarily but based upon the phenomena of the moral consciousness as he has observed them. And in the light of this ideal he may judge of conduct; his appeal is to an objective standard.

Thus, he who says that it is false that it is right to reduce to slavery prisoners taken in war may, if he be sufficiently unreflective, have no better reason for his judgment than a feeling of repugnance to such conduct. But, if he has risen to the point of taking broad views of men and their moral codes, he may very well assert the falsity of the statement even when he feels no personal repugnance to the holding of certain persons as slaves. His appeal is, in fact, to such a standard as is above indicated, and his condemnation of certain forms of conduct is based upon their incompatibility with it.

Hence, a man may significantly assert that certain conduct is objectively desirable, although it may not be desired by himself or by his community. He may judge a thing to be wrong without feeling it to be wrong. Whether anything would actually be judged to be wrong, if no one ever had any emotions, is a different question. With it we may class the question whether anything would be judged to be wrong if no one were possessed of even a spark of reason. There is small choice between having nothing to see and not being able to see anything. [Footnote: That, in the citation above given, WESTERMARCK'S attention was concentrated upon the extreme position taken by some moralists touching the function of the reason in moral judgments seems to me evident. He is far too able an observer to overlook the significance of the diversity of moral codes and the meaning of progress. He writes: "Though rooted in the emotional side of our nature, our moral opinions are in a large measure amenable to reason. Now in every society the traditional notions as to what is good or bad, obligatory or indifferent, are commonly accepted by the majority of people without further reflection. By tracing them to their source it will be found that not a few of these notions have their origin in sentimental likings and antipathies, to which a scrutinizing and enlightened judge can attach little importance; whilst, on the other hand, he must account blamable many an act and omission which public opinion, out of thoughtlessness, treats with indifference." Vol. I, pp. 2-3. See also his appeals to reason where it is a question of the attitude of the community toward legal responsibility on the part of the young, toward drunkenness, and toward the heedless production of offspring doomed to misery and disease, pp. 269 and 310.]

An appeal, thus, from the actual to the ideal appears to be possible. And, since the natural man, unenlightened and unreflective, is not more inclined to show himself to be a reasonable being in the sphere of morals than elsewhere, it seems that there is no little need of ethical science. Its aim is to bring about the needed enlightenment. Its value can only be logically denied by those who maintain seriously that it is easy to know what it is right to do. Do men really hold this, if they are thoughtful?

PART III

MAN AND HIS ENVIRONMENT

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