Popular Science Monthly/Volume 40/March 1892/Moral Educability

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FOR a long time the brain has been accepted, popularly as well as scientifically, as a gauge of intellectual capacity; less widely it has been known as an equally accurate gauge of physical and also of moral energy. If narrow compass and few and shallow convolutions in what are known as the intellectual "areas" infallibly indicate mental deficiency, the same conditions in the moral areas as infallibly indicate moral deficiency. It is a hard saying, but, whatever bearing it may have upon the doctrine of free moral agency and personal responsibility for action, it is as true as it is hard.

But there is a great difference in the results of feeble or arrested development in the three different sets of brain areas. Each case is attended with disadvantages peculiar to itself; only in the case of the moral areas are these disadvantages looked upon as "penalties." If the physical basis of intellect is ill developed, the subject may be doomed to obscurity, neglect, and perhaps hard manual labor for his livelihood; if the ganglia which supply his muscles and vital organs with nerve-force are small and weak, he must suffer life-long invalidism; in either case he is simply "unfortunate"; but if Nature has allowed him only an ill-developed physical basis for the moral faculties, his unhappy deficiency is visited with the abhorrence and indignation of his fellow-men; he is a criminal, and he must suffer the "just punishment of his misdeeds" in prison or on the gallows.

Whether these differences involve an element of injustice on the part of Nature or her controller, or on the part of man, is not our question. Suffice that they exist, and that they are, in a measure at least, inevitable, since society does not need to be protected from the mental or the physical imbecile as it does from the moral imbecile. Both justice and policy demand, however, that the chief motive and purpose of society in dealing with the moral imbecile should be self-protection rather than punishment for the sake of punishment. We do not slay mad dogs to punish them for the crime of rabies, but simply to prevent ourselves and others from being bitten.

The idea is gradually gaining strength that the most just as well as the most effective means of protection from the moral imbecile is moral education. If there is injustice involved in the fact that he was created a moral imbecile, then this is the most direct and obvious means of righting that wrong; if there is no such injustice, it still remains the best possible policy, both as regards society and the subject himself.

And, happily, of the three sets of brain areas, that which forms the physical basis of the moral faculties is by far the most capable of improvement by cultivation. It is the part which most quickly and fully responds to educative influences. And there is entire correspondence in the improved outward conduct, which may as truly be looked upon as the effect of increased brainpower as stronger muscular action is of more highly developed muscles.

History demonstrates the pre-eminent educability of the moral part of man. The ancient athlete did not differ essentially from his modern ectype. There is not much to choose intellectually between Cicero and Wendell Phillips, between Aristotle and Herbert Spencer, between Copernicus and Charles Darwin, between the prehistoric genius who first smelted iron ore and Edison. The intellectual status of the educated classes of ancient Rome did not differ materially from that of the corresponding classes of modern London or New York; but compare their moral status! The wealth, beauty, and fashion of Rome assembled in eager thousands to witness the entertaining spectacle of wholesale human butchery: we stigmatize a bull-fight as intolerable savagery, worthy only of belated Spain, Portugal, or Mexico, and even the blood and bruises of a prize-fight are too much for the humanity and self-respect of any but blacklegs, thieves, "sports," and of a few scions of royalty and other quasi-respectable men. The ancients punished not only their criminals but often their innocent captives with death by torture: imagine a populous city of our day, absorbed in its various employments and pleasures, unconcerned while in full sight on a neighboring plain men are for days together writhing and moaning out the inconceivable agonies of crucifixion! Not only would such a thing be impossible in our day, but we are actually divided in opinion as to whether painless death by electrocution is not too barbarous a way of disposing of criminals. The ancients immured their lunatics and idiots in noisome subterranean dungeons, and left their paupers, their halt, blind, and deaf to shift for themselves or to depend upon casual private benevolence: we build almshouses, hospitals, and asylums, and our best scientific skill is taxed to its utmost in behalf of our unfortunates of these classes.

Such are a few of the ways in which improvement in the average moral sentiment of humanity within the Christian era is shown. We wonder at the monstrous cruelties of past ages. How could they have been possible, we ask, since "human nature has always been the same"? But human nature has not always been the same; it has always been changing; it is changing now, and it will always continue to change. And the rate of improvement is continually accelerating. Those born since the war find it difficult to comprehend the barbarities of even one short generation ago. Their children will find the barbarities of to-day equally-incredible. The horrors of Siberia, of the Russian persecution of Israel, of the no less infamous sweat-shops in our own country, may relegate the latter third of the nineteenth century to the same limbo of infamy to which the ages of Nero and Simon Legree are condemned, notwithstanding the comparatively great ameliorations in the average condition of the human race. Still later generations will wonder at the possibility of inhumanity which in our day condemns the many to life-shortening and life-embittering toil that the few may consume in luxurious idleness the price of their sweat and suffering; at the travesty of justice which punishes the criminal who robs his one victim with his puny arm of flesh and bends the knee to the ruffian who despoils his thousands with his mightier brain; at the selfish greed of the titled idlers who partition the soil among themselves and take heavy toll of the multitude of Earth's children for presuming to live upon the bosom of their common mother; at the unspeakable cruelty of the sex which flatters and spoils with indulgence a portion of the other sex, and drives by its tyranny another portion to starvation, suicide, or infamy.

Thus the mists which becloud the moral perceptions of men and chill their nobler impulses will lift one after another, as generation succeeds generation. But not until the law of love shall have made civil laws with their penalties superfluous and obsolete, not until the universal enforcement of the golden rule, not by objective, but by subjective penalties, will the moral education of mankind be complete.

In his later work, on Leonardo da Vinci and the Alps, Prof. Gustavo Uzielli treats of certain passages in the great artist's manuscripts containing references to the Alps. Telling of his ascent of Monboso or Monte Rosa in the middle of July, Leonardo incidentally remarks that snow rarely falls on the summit, but only hail in the summer, when the clouds are highest; also, that the extreme darkness of the sky and the luminosity of the sun are accounted for by the less extent of atmosphere between the spectator and the sun than if he stood on the lower plains at the foot of the mountain. The fruits of Leonardo's observations of the Alps are to be found in his works as an artist, and particularly in his portrait of the Mona Lisa, whom he placed amid their snows. But he studied them also with a practical eye, with a view to the utilization of the water that flows down their sides to the plains of Lombardy. Operations in connection with this purpose required the personal examination of the formation of the mountains; and while on his excursions he studied their geology, the density of matter, the action of light, and the composition of the atmosphere. His attention was also occupied with botanical studies and observations of the flight of birds. And there is evidence that he looked at the mountains also with the eye of a military engineer.