The Basis of Morality/Chapter III

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To those whose intelligence and conscience had revolted against the crude and immoral maxims mixed up with noble precepts in Revelation; to those who recognised the impossibility of accepting the varying voices of Intuition as a moral guide; to all those the theory that Morality was based on Utility, came as a welcome and rational relief. It promised a scientific certitude to moral precepts; it left the intellect free to inquire and to challenge; it threw man back on grounds which were found in this world alone, and could be tested by reason and experience; it derived no authority from antiquity, no sanction from religion; it stood entirely on its own feet, independently of the many conflicting elements which were found in the religions of the past and present.

The basis for morality, according to Utility, is the greatest happiness of the greatest number; that which conduces to the greatest happiness of the greatest number is Right; that which does not is Wrong.

This general maxim being laid down, it remains for the student to study history, to analyse experience, and by a close and careful investigation into human nature and human relations to elaborate a moral code which would bring about general happiness and well-being. This, so far, has not been done. Utility has been a "hand-to-mouth" moral basis, and certain rough rules of conduct have grown up by experience and the necessities of life, without any definite investigation into, or codifying of, experience. Man's moral basis as a rule is a compound of partially accepted revelations and partially admitted consciences, with a practical application of the principle of "that which works best". The majority are not philosophers, and care little for a logical basis. They are unconscious empirics, and their morality is empirical.

Mr. Charles Bradlaugh, considering that the maxim did not sufficiently guard the interests of the minority, and that, so far as was possible, these also should be considered and guarded, added another phrase; his basis ran: "The greatest happiness of the greatest number, with the least injury to any." The rule was certainly improved by the addition, but it did not remove many of the objections raised.

It was urged by the Utilitarian that morality had developed out of the social side of human beings; that men, as social animals, desired to live in permanent relations with each other, and that this resulted in the formation of families; men could not be happy in solitude; the persistence of these groups, amid the conflicting interests of the individuals who composed them, could only be secured by recognising that the interests of the majority must prevail, and form the rule of conduct for the whole family. Morality, it was pointed out, thus began in family relations, and conduct which disrupted the family was wrong, while that which strengthened and consolidated it was right. Thus family morality was established. As families congregated together for mutual protection and support, their separate interests as families were found to be conflicting, and so a modus vivendi was sought in the same principle which governed relations within the family: the common interests of the grouped families, the tribe, must prevail over the separate and conflicting interests of the separate families; that which disrupted the tribe was wrong, while that which strengthened and consolidated it was right. Thus tribal morality was established. The next step was taken as tribes grouped themselves together and became a nation, and morality extended so as to include all who were within the nation; that which disrupted the nation was wrong, and that which consolidated and strengthened it was right. Thus national morality was established. Further than that, utilitarian morality has not progressed, and international relations have not yet been moralised; they remain in the savage state, and recognise no moral law. Germany has boldly accepted this position, and declares formally that, for the State, Might is Right, and that all which the State can do for its own aggrandisement, for the increase of its power, it may and ought to do, for there is no rule of conduct to which it owes obedience; it is a law unto itself. Other nations have not formularised the statement in their literature as Germany has done, but the strong nations have acted upon it in their dealings with the weaker nations, although the dawning sense of an international morality in the better of them has led to the defence of international wrong by "the tyrant's plea, necessity". The most flagrant instance of the utter disregard of right and wrong as between nations, is, perhaps, the action of the allied European nations against China—in which the Hun theory of "frightfulness" was enunciated by the German Kaiser—but the history of nations so far is a history of continual tramplings on the weak by the strong, and with the coming to the front of the Christian white nations, and their growth in scientific knowledge and thereby in power, the coloured nations and tribes, whether civilised or savage, have been continually exploited and oppressed. International morality, at present, does not exist. Murder within the family, the tribe, and the nation is marked as a crime, save that judicial murder, capital punishment, is permitted—on the principle of (supposed) Utility. But multiple murder outside the nation—War—is not regarded as criminal, nor is theft "wrong," when committed by a strong nation on a weak one. It may be that out of the widespread misery caused by the present War, some international morality may be developed.

We may admit that, as a matter of historical and present fact, Utility has been everywhere tacitly accepted as the basis of morality, defective as it is as a theory. Utility is used as the test of Revelation, as the test of Intuition, and precepts of Manu, Zarathushtra, Moses, Christ, Muhammad, are acted on, or disregarded, according as they are considered to be useful, or harmful, or impracticable, to be suitable or unsuitable to the times. Inconsistencies in these matters do not trouble the "practical" ordinary man.

The chief attack on the theory of Utility as a basis for morality has come from Christians, and has been effected by challenging the word "happiness" as the equivalent of "pleasure," the "greatest number" as equivalent to "individual," and then denouncing the maxim as "a morality for swine". "Virtue" is placed in antagonism to happiness, and virtue, not happiness, is said to be the right aim for man. This really begs the question, for what is "virtue"? The crux of the whole matter lies there. Is "virtue" opposed to "happiness," or is it a means to happiness? Why is the word "pleasure" substituted for "happiness" when utility is attacked? We may take the second question first.

"Pleasure," in ordinary parlance, means an immediate and transitory form of happiness and usually a happiness of the body rather than of the emotions and the mind. Hence the "swine". A sensual enjoyment is a "pleasure"; union with God would not be called a pleasure, but happiness. An old definition of man's true object is: "To know God, and to enjoy Him for ever." There happiness is clearly made the true end of man. The assailant changes the "greatest happiness of the greatest number" into the "pleasure of the individual," and having created this man of straw, he triumphantly knocks it down.

Does not virtue lead to happiness? Is it not a condition of happiness? How does the Christian define virtue? It is obedience to the Will of God. But he only obeys that Will as "revealed" so far as it agrees with Utility. He no longer slays the heretic, and he suffers the witch to live. He does not give his cloak to the thief who has stolen his coat, but he hands over the thief to the policeman. Moreover, as Herbert Spencer pointed out, he follows virtue as leading to heaven; if right conduct led him to everlasting torture, would he still pursue it? Or would he revise his idea of right conduct? The martyr dies for the truth he sees, because it is easier to him to die than to betray truth. He could not live on happily as a conscious liar. The nobility of a man's character is tested by the things which give him pleasure. The joy in following truth, in striving after the noblest he can see—that is the greatest happiness; to sacrifice present enjoyment for the service of others is not self-denial, but self-expression, to the Spirit who is man.

Where Utility fails is that it does not inspire, save where the spiritual life is already seen to be the highest happiness of the individual, because it conduces to the good of all, not only of the "greatest number". Men who thus feel have inspiration from within themselves and need no outside moral code, no compelling external law. Ordinary men, the huge majority at the present stage of evolution, need either compulsion or inspiration, otherwise they will not control their animal nature, they will not sacrifice an immediate pleasure to a permanent increase of happiness, they will not sacrifice personal gain to the common good. The least developed of these are almost entirely influenced by fear of personal pain and wish for personal pleasure; they will not put their hand into the fire, because they know that fire burns, and no one accuses them of a "low motive" because they do not burn themselves; religion shows them that the results of the disregard of moral and mental law work out in suffering after death as well as before it, and that the results of obedience to such laws similarly work out in post-mortem pleasure. It thus supplies a useful element in the early stages of moral development.

At a higher stage, love of God and the wish to "please Him" by leading an exemplary life is a motive offered by religion, and this inspires to purity and to self-sacrifice; again, this is no more ignoble than the wish to please the father, the mother, the friend. Many a lad keeps pure to please his mother, because he loves her. So religious men try to live nobly to please God, because they love Him. At a higher stage yet, the good of the people, the good of the race, of humanity in the future, acts as a potent inspiration. But this does not touch the selfish lower types. Hence Utility fails as a compelling power with the majority, and is insufficient as motive. Add to this the radical fault that it does not place morality on a universal basis, the happiness of all, that it disregards the happiness of the minority, and its unsatisfactory nature is seen. It has much of truth in it; it enters as a determining factor into all systems of ethics, even where nominally ignored or directly rejected; it is a better basis in theory, though a worse one in practice, than either Revelation or Intuition, but it is incomplete. We must seek further for a solid basis of morality.