The Human Origin of Morals/Chapter VII

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The Human Origin of Morals by Joseph McCabe
Chapter VII. Moral Law Is Social Law

Let us clear our minds of cant. That is now an old and threadbare saying, but it ought to be put at the beginning of every essay and book on morality. I dare not suggest that it ought to be the text of every sermon, or the sermons would be too short. We talk and write the most solemn, and often the most hypocritical, nonsense about morals. This series of books is for people who want facts, sane thinking, and fearless utterance. We have now seen the facts. Let us draw and express plain conclusions.

Moral-law is social law. We have the whole story of its evolution before us. We have studied tribes without moral ideas, tribes with a dull glimmer of moral sentiment, and tribes with a moral code in every stage of development. We have put these tribes in the strict order of their degree of culture—as is, unfortunately, very rarely done—and this corresponds to the various chronological stages in the evolution of the race. We have seen how even the eccentricities and distortions of the moral sentiment can be shown to be part of a normal and continuous development.

If this work were to run to a thousand pages, instead of less than one hundred, I could tell the whole wonderful story in fascinating detail. But we have seen enough here to convince any person; and other books develop the more important points. Moral law slowly dawns in the mind of the human race as a regulation of a man's relations with his fellows in the interest of social life. It is quite independent of religion, since it has entirely different roots in human psychology. It later partly by natural development and partly owing to the increasing ambition of priests, blends with religion. But it is still overwhelmingly human and utilitarian. Justice, honor, truthfulness, honesty, fidelity, and hospitality are its main lines. It is only at a late stage that it begins to include "virtues" and "vices" the utilitarian character of which can be disputed; and this development is plainly due in part to the—to the primitive mind—mysterious "uncleanness" of a woman's sexual physiology and to priestly calculations. Consecrated men and women find this an effective way of standing out from and above the common crowd. Virginity becomes the most shining of virtues.

We now see plainly how superfluous is the work of moral philosophers. This, they will say, is a "superficial" sketch, and they are "Profound." It is wholly untrue. What I have given the reader is a compilation of the most essential facts about the evolution of morals (never noticed by these theorists) and a series of the most rigorous and logical deductions from them. What they give their readers is an analysis of the "conscience" of a highly cultivated and refined modern man, in whose mind the influences of Christianity and a dozen other religions are confused with plain moral law.

It may be said that I explain the conscience of the savage and they explain the conscience of civilized man. They will themselves say—I know the rhetoric well—that it is quite natural that the more obtuse and coarser mind of the savage should first perceive the less refined and more utilitarian aspects of moral law, but as the mind of man becomes more sensitive and receptive, it perceives the finer shades of this august reality which has been slowly breaking through the mists. We now, they say, recognize "self-regarding" virtues, as well as rules of social value; and these, they insist, are completely inexplicable on the social or utilitarian theory of morals, yet are the most precious elements of character.

In this series of works I am not concerned with philosophers, as such. Not one of them is an orthodox Christian, and very few of them believe in any kind of God whom the plain man can understand. But the mysticism of philosophy in this respect encourages those who believe in God to suppose that in conscience we really have a reality, a fact, which science cannot explain, and which points, as Eucken says, to a spiritual and supernatural order. So let us work out the matter candidly.

At the time when I was a professor of philosophy (moral as well as mental) and a priest, it was my duty to know every detail of this controversy about ethics; and the controversy was then at its height, on account of the recent rise and rapid spread of Agnosticism. You cannot, on Agnostic principles, maintain the fine "self-regarding virtues," it was said to Rationalists. Since a self-regarding virtue obviously means one that does not affect our fellows, for good or evil, how could we urge it on social principles?

In the first place, we could not enforce it, we should have little force even in urging it upon the mass of mankind, but we could maintain it without the least inconsistency. It is possible for any group of men and women to set up a standard of character which they think admirable, and maintain it because they think it admirable. They may, as members of Ethical Culture Societies do, say that they will cultivate "the good life for its own sake." They think a chaste and obstemious man or woman far superior to one who is not chaste or one who drinks beer and smokes. There is no reason in the world why they should not maintain and practice their ideal; and they are, in general, admirable (if somewhat narrow-minded) bodies of men and women, of higher than the average Christian character.

But as I have pointed out to them for years, having lectured for them for three decades, there is not the slightest use in appealing to large bodies of people to "cultivate the good life for its own sake." Only those who share their taste, their standard of character, will join. They make no progress.

That proves the failure of Rationalists to sustain character, says the moral philosopher. In point of fact, one of the leading British philosophers, Professor Bosanquet, who used to lecture in the Ethical Movement, quitted it a few years before his death, making precisely this statement. Religion was necessary, he said. What, then, did he offer the world instead as a basis of conduct? Hegelian Absolutism—the most incomprehensible of all the metaphysical webs that were ever spun by the great spiders!

Let us be practical. What are these self-regarding virtues which cannot be sustained or enforced on social principles, and the command of which in the human conscience today disproves the social theory of morality?

First, of course, chastity: in fact, one may as well say, first and second and third and last—chastity. The great struggle is about chastity or purity. I am going to face that very candidly and fully, and I devote the next and last chapter to it. Let us be quite sure that it is the only point.

As a rule it is said that the three great vices are impurity, drinking and gambling. Impurity, as I said, we take up in the next chapter. Gambling on a small scale is so little connected with morality that I have known parsons and bishops to indulge in it, with a laugh. Practically everybody will admit that it becomes a "vice" only when it is liable to have consequences for others, for your wife and children. In fact, the girl who gambles in a club at New York or London, or even Cincinnati or Kansas City, often runs the risk of very serious consequences, as everybody knows. In other words, when gambling is a vice, it is because of its consequences.

As for drunkenness, I have never been drunk except once (in Prohibitionist Chicago) when a man whose character I did not at the time know secretly drugged my innocent wine with alcohol. Most of us have not the least temptation to get drunk. It means illness, incapacity for work, hours of misery for an hour's pleasure. In grave cases of habitual drunkenness injury is done to dependents, and the social principle at once enters. In cases of occasional drunkenness there is no need to invoke the moralist. The next morning will preach its own sermon. The idea that we shall all get drunk more frequently when we cease to believe in God is one of the funniest of propositions. In point of statistical fact, drunkenness during the last hundred years has decayed in almost the same proportion as religion.

In respect of all three "major vices" we shall prove that the world has grown steadily better while ethical philosophers and preachers were proving to demonstration that it must be growing steadily worse.

Well, what are the other self-regarding virtues? Truthfulness? Theologians have always dealt with veracity as a utilitarian quality. The little lie, the "white lie," was only a venial sin. The lie that injured others was proportionately grave. In fact, truthfulness is so obviously a desirable social quality that it is absurd, to mention it in this controversy.

What about unseen acts? Either they have consequences to others (and therefore fall under the social code) or consequences to the man himself (in which case he is a fool rather than immoral) or no consequences at all. The only serious case is that of sexual behavior, and we discuss it presently.

But can we maintain a fine sense of honor, generosity, loyalty, and unselfishness? You have only to reflect on the human consequences if we could not, the human advantages if we could, to answer yourself. No system of morals or religion ever did maintain such a standard generally. The task still lies before the race. We are steadily getting nearer to it. Take the word "utility" in its broadest (but quite legitimate) sense, and ask yourself whether it would be of any "utility" to the race to have all men, or even the minority, strictly honorable, chivalrous, loyal, generous, kindly and good-natured. The human value to each and all of us would be incalculable.

Finally, remember that there is such a thing as a momentum of character. I mean that a fine character once formed (a splendid human asset) expresses itself in every act. The honorableness and generosity extend to things where, on strict calculation, the man might act otherwise. I have known thousands of such characters, Christian and Agnostic. They are not tempted to betray a confidence, as another man would be. They are not tempted to steal or cheat when nobody looks on. Rhetoric apart, we want a better society composed of such men and women; and the intrinsic human value of such an ideal, the happiness and comfort and welfare it would bring, make it an essential part of our code of social morals. Some day right conduct will be automatic,