Popular Science Monthly/Volume 27/May 1885/Training in Ethical Science

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THE importance of education in the duties of life is recognized in a greater or less degree by all. People differ widely as to absolute standards of right and wrong, and as to the foundation or source of such standards, but all concede by daily acts, as well as by avowed opinions, the necessity of some kind of moral training. Every parent who restrains his child from the commission of a wrongful act, or approves its conduct when praiseworthy, does so in recognition of the importance of moral education. Every individual who uses his influence to keep others from evil associations, or who commends a noble or kindly act, thus manifests his appreciation of the necessity of moral or ethical culture. However undefined may be the limits, however imperfectly understood may be the sources of the laws of duty, it is continually forced upon the attention of every thoughtful person that a proper observance of these laws is of vast importance to mankind. The happiness of man—the great legitimate end of human effort—depends so largely upon the recognition and adoption of high standards of duty, that nothing can exceed in importance the cultivation of the science of duty and the spirit of right action.

The human race is still far from a condition of ideal perfection; man has not as yet reached his highest estate. In the words of Tennyson:

"A monstrous eft was of old the Lord and Master of Earth;
For him did his high sun shine, and his river billowing ran,
And he felt himself in his force to be Nature's crowning race.
As nine months go to the shaping an infant ripe for its birth,
So many a million of ages have gone to the making of man;
He now is first, but is he the last? is he not too base?"

The world is full of want and misery; the strong trample upon the rights of the weak, the cunning take advantage of the unwary, the impulsive and the irresolute are lured on to lives of vice and crime. From every quarter there arise appeals for help, for strength to overcome temptation, for power to resist oppression, for succor in distress. Beyond all these things, as we ascend in the scale of ethical development, there exists a demand for that recognition of the rights of others, that spirit of fellowship and true manhood which shall abridge and overcome the passion of grasping selfishness. How prevalent is the desire for that ostentatious splendor and luxurious ease which too often represent the fruits of many a hard and narrow life of penury and ill-requited toil!

We live in an age of observation, of investigation, of a study of Nature's laws and methods. Nor is the advance of the physical sciences more marked than that of the useful arts. Do not the problems of life also demand attention? Is a knowledge of the laws of the physical universe so all-important that no time shall be spared, no thought devoted to acquiring further knowledge of the laws of duty? Every thoughtful observer must admit that the great governing factor in the problem of the advancement of human happiness is the conduct of man toward his fellow-man. Immeasurable in importance is the fostering of a spirit of true devotion to duty. There is no loftier ambition, no nobler work, no higher ideal of life, than the promotion of the virtue, goodness, and happiness of mankind.

What are the means by which these ends shall be accomplished? Shall we rely solely upon our supposed consciousness of what is right and what is wrong, and let moral teaching consist simply of appeals for obedience to the dictates of conscience? That which is termed conscience is, in a large degree at least, a matter of inherited tendencies, education, and intellectual development, and varies with the individual, his surroundings, and the age in which he lives.

That which seems right to the mind of one man often seems wrong when presented to the intelligent judgment of other men. The conscience of the average member of a civilized community differs widely from the conscience of the average member of a savage tribe. To the American Indian, revenge is a virtue; to the Quaker, revenge is a crime. To Gautama, to Jesus of Nazareth, and to their ascetic disciples, the total rejection of personal interest or advancement absolute unselfishness and self-abnegation, unlimited benevolence, and an entire absence of the desire or habit of self-protection—were the greatest virtues and most obligatory duties.

On the other hand, the constitutions of all civilized governments, whether written or unwritten, the principles of the civil as well as those of the common law, and the teachings of wise men of ancient and of modern times, recognize as a duty the protection of individual or selfish interests. They recognize as just and necessary the restraint and punishment of wrong-doers, and the protection of the rights and interests of the individual in person and property. Educated to look upon these and kindred principles as embodying correct rules of conduct, we view with approval the resistance of oppression and injustice, and even the spirit which resents and punishes insult.

There can be no doubt that these are conflicting views of duty, but both extremes have been honestly maintained, and still are in some degree. It hardly admits of a doubt that men of pure motives and good intentions have committed acts of cruelty and inhumanity in the belief that they were simply discharging duties—perchance religious duties.

All these things point to the fallibility of human judgment regarding standards of duty, and the imperfect development of ideas of right and wrong. They furnish no excuse, however, for drifting through life without an attempt to investigate or discover the principles of the science of duty, or for neglecting to govern our actions by those principles, so far as we may be able to recognize them.

With the waning and crumbling of a faith in any books or records as containing absolute or inspired standards of duty, the study of the science and data of ethics should, it would seem, become one of greater interest and attention than ever before.

Whether we regard the ability to distinguish between right and wrong conduct as in a great degree inherent in the human mind, or as having arisen in the course of the evolution of the race, as a sense of that which is conducive to the happiness of man, it is certainly a faculty or sense which is largely developed by educational training and example. Without this, it surely can not be relied upon as an unerring guide in all the problems of life. Man does not possess a power to distinguish between right and wrong action which rises superior to the need of cultivation. For such culture teachers are required, and the great necessity of united action is apparent. If associated action in the shape of schools of moral or ethical training, and agencies for charitable work—the fruit of such training—are demanded, we are confronted with the question of what their nature should be, and how far the want is already supplied. If the means now provided for these purposes are as good as any that can be devised, and if they are suited to the needs and uses of all, it were idle to supply other agencies.

Foremost, perhaps, among the agencies now existing, are the churches. According to the theories adopted and taught by the various religious organizations which are collectively known as Christian, the cultivation of ethical truths, or, in other words, the recognition and adoption of high standards of duty, is regarded as but a part of a religious system founded upon the revealed will of a Divine Being.

To those who accept so-called revelation as infallible truth, the rules of conduct or systems of ethics recognized in their Scriptures furnish, in theory, and so far as they can be harmonized, final and absolute standards of human duty. To them, theoretically at least, right or wrong action is such simply by reason of its adherence to or departure from certain standards of duty recognized in their sacred writings.

To the individual who looks upon the sacred books of Jew and Christian, of Mohammedan and Buddhist, as alike the works of men—men of varying degrees of mental and moral development—the idea of accepting their conclusions as final upon the great problems of the duty of man seems narrow and illogical. To him the absolute acceptance of these standards as final, however high he may concede some of them to be, is to place a limit upon moral development and to deny that

"The thoughts of men are widened with the process of the suns."

But it does not follow, even from the point of view of the agnostic, that there is nothing of value in the ethical teachings of the orthodox Christian churches. Most if not all religions have recognized, and in some sense demanded, the adoption of certain exalted standards of duty, and in this particular the Christian religion stands deservedly high among the great religions of the world. Charity, kindness, and love, are not less beautiful because recognized as such by the churches. A true statement of the duty of man to his fellow-man does not become false because attributed to a Divine Being, or declared to be inspired. It does not become false even when the observance of the duty is sought to be enforced by an appeal to selfish interests—by the promise of reward or the threat of punishment in a life of which we know not.

Nor is the value of the moral teaching of the churches to be ignored merely because they insist that it is the duty of all to accept and adopt their theological teachings—their conception of the infinite and unknown, with its attendant dogmas and "cramping bounds of creed."

The crude and sometimes wholly indefensible theories of right and wrong which are recognized and treated as of divine authority in portions of the Scriptures do not furnish a sufficient reason for an unqualified condemnation of the ethical teachings of the churches. It is in general only in some strained theory—rarely in a practical application to the duties of life—that the most extreme and ultra standards of duty recognized in the writings which are collectively known as the Bible are inculcated, or even defended, inside the churches. Even those men whose mistaken zeal and religious bias lead them to attempt a defense of all the varying and inconsistent standards of duty recognized or promulgated by the many authors of the writings which make up our Bible, do so rather in theory than in fact. In their daily life, or practical advice to others, they adopt neither the standard of implacable and indiscriminating revenge and cruelty on the one hand, nor that of absolute self-abasement and meek submission to insult and injury on the other, which are alternately represented as attributes of the Divine character by the respective authors of these so-called sacred writings.

Without stopping here to discuss the objectionable features of a system of ethical training or education which has its nominal foundation in the supposed fiat of a Divine Intelligence, and which in theory necessarily precludes the possibility of the development of higher standards, it may be conceded that such education in morals is better than none. The value of such education is not wholly counterbalanced by the evil of its constant appeal to the selfish interests by promises of personal reward or threats of punishment, rather than to the nobler sentiments of the mind. Conceding the moral education of the churches to be imperfect in theory, in the manner in which it is imparted, and the means by which it is sought to be enforced, it nevertheless contains elements of good to those who can-receive it.

The believer of course finds in the ethical teachings of his church a deeper and fuller moral education than they impart to others. He can at least give due weight to their real merits, and they are to him authoritative in a greater or less—degree the degree being dependent upon his faith in their divine origin. From long association of ideas and the influence of early education, the attendant theological teachings do not suggest to him that sense of incongruity and inconsistency which they present to others.

But how far is the moral education furnished by the Church suited to the needs of those who are compelled to reject its theological dogmas concerning the unknown, and to regard its standards of duty as those of fallible men only? Does it furnish to the earnest and fearless seeker for moral truth an undeviating path to the object of his search? Is he not constantly invited to depart from his course on journeys through the pathless wastes of theological speculation, where each man thinks his diverging creed marks the true highway to heaven?

There are various reasons why the earnest seeker for truth who is without religious belief can not feel content with the Church as a teacher of moral duty. The energy, the time, the money which should be devoted to building up character, to a recognition of the duties of man to his fellow-man, to the relief of the afflicted, to an intelligent dealing with the great problems of this life—he sees devoted largely to building up, promulgating, or seeking excuse for dogmas and theories from which his intelligence revolts. With want and suffering appealing for relief, with ignorance demanding enlightenment, with a thousand duties at our doors which scarcely receive a passing notice, we are asked to follow these blind teachers of the blind away from the things of this world, and to enjoy with them their irrational conception of what is to us the unknown—perhaps the unknowable.

Of what value is a sermon on the duty and efficacy of prayer, to one who looks upon the question of the existence of a Divine Being as an insoluble problem? Of what use or benefit to him is a discourse on the nature of the Trinity, or the theory of the atonement?

The rationalist is compelled to look upon the books which make up the Bible as simply the work of fallible men, of varying degrees of intelligence, and representing the thought of widely differing periods of human development. To him, what is there of interest in attempts to reconcile their contradictions and inconsistencies—attempts to establish the untenable theory that they embody and set forth the plan and design of an all-wise Author of the universe?

If the rationalist would support and uphold the ethical school of the Church, he is in a measure also supporting and upholding theological ideas which are to him in the last degree unreasonable and improbable. His money pays misguided men for teaching the ignorant of earth that the all-foreseeing and merciful Author of all things would doom his creatures to suffer untold agony throughout eternity for the sins and mistakes of a short life, or for using the reason with which he has endowed them! Where one dollar goes to relieve want, or build up character, two go to build up church or creed. The relief of the widow and the fatherless is thought a matter of less importance than acquainting the heathen with the theological dogmas of the Christian Church.

Of course the church-going and church-supporting rationalist must expect to be continually reminded of the culpability of his unbelief, which, so far as he can judge, arises simply from an exercise of his reasoning faculties, and not from any wrongful intention. He becomes wearied and disheartened by the want of consideration shown for the duties of this life, and the undue prominence given to a supposed preparation for an alleged future life, of which he has no evidence and can form no conception.

But though the Church fails to furnish adequate ethical training to those who can not accept its theological teachings, some kind of moral education is necessary if we would have true moral development. While much can be done in the home circle in teaching the rudiments of the science of duty—the beauty of love and charity and other attributes of noble character—this is not alone sufficient to meet the demand which should exist for true ethical culture. Teachers are needed. The complicated interests which surround most of the great social and moral problems demand the most careful and patient study, and only he who has brought to these tasks the forces of a well-trained mind can suggest the true means of relief from conditions which all may recognize as deplorable. The value of association with a broad and generous mind—a mind filled with high and pure conceptions of duty a mind which ever presents and holds before us high and noble ideals, can not well be overestimated.

The time may come when the Church will so far outgrow the myths, the dogmas, and the beliefs with which it now straggles that there will be room within it for all who would earnestly unite in efforts to better the condition of man, and to diffuse a knowledge of those principles which lie at the foundation of human happiness. There is, indeed, a progress of thought in the Church far broader and deeper than any actual modifications of written creeds would indicate. We will not pause to inquire as to what class of thinkers is chiefly entitled to the credit for this progress. This rapid development in the direction of individual freedom of thought may give us at length a church—by whatever name it may be designated—where the only creed held binding will be the creed of love, the only devotion essential to true fellowship a devotion to truth and duty.

Meanwhile, though there are signs of progress, and noble exceptions in the few societies for ethical culture now existing, and in similar organizations, it is evident that the demand for ethical progress outside the Church has not as yet culminated in any general constructive effort either in the direction of improving the condition of the weak, the needy, and the suffering, or in the cultivation of the science of duty.

It is in one sense an unfortunate circumstance that most rationalists are persons of very independent habits of thought. Their work in the past has been necessarily and perhaps almost too largely one of iconoclasm. The exposure of shams, the demolition of creed and dogma, the unveiling of myth and traditional faith based upon foundations which have slowly crumbled away in the light of increasing intelligence, have thus far largely occupied the attention of the rationalist. The men who have done this work are not of a nature which bids them cling together for mutual support and sympathy, and as a whole they have hardly the characteristics which would qualify them for united constructive effort. Nevertheless, association is needed. A comparison of views, each individual reaping the benefit of the thought of his co-workers, is of the highest value. Without associated action but little enthusiasm can be expected, and enthusiasm is all-important in carrying forward any good work. The employment of earnest and competent teachers and leaders in thought is practicable only through united action. For charitable work—the relief of want, the alleviation of suffering, the furnishing of employment, the assistance which helps others to help themselves—associated and united effort is well-nigh indispensable. And in earnest exertions to improve the condition and add to the happiness of our fellows, may be found the best and highest ethical culture, giving to those who engage in the work a new conception as it were of the higher duties and nobler life of man.