Human Nature and Conduct

Part 4: Conclusion:
Section II: Morals are human

Table of Contents | Next | Previous

Since morals is concerned with conduct, it grows out of specific empirical facts. Almost all influential moral theories, with the exception of the utilitarian, have refused to admit this idea. For Christendom as a whole, morality has been connected with supernatural commands, rewards and penalties. Those who have escaped this superstition have contented themselves with converting the difference between this world and the neat into a distinction between the actual and the ideal, what is and what should be. The actual world has not been surrendered to the devil in name, but it is treated as a display of physical forces incapable of generating moral values. Consequently, moral considerations must be introduced from above. Human nature may not be officially declared to be infected because of some aboriginal sin, but it is said to be sensuous, impulsive, subjected to necessity, while natural intelligence is such that it cannot rise above a reckoning of private expediency.

But in fact morals is the most humane of all subjects. It is that which is closest to human nature; it is ineradicably empirical, not theological nor metaphysical nor mathematical. Since it directly concerns human nature, everything that can be known of the human mind and body in physiology, medicine, anthro-

(296) -pology, and psychology is pertinent to moral inquiry. Human nature exists and operates in an environment. And it is not " in " that environment as coins are in a box, but as a plant is in the sunlight and soil. It is of them, continuous with their energies, dependent upon their support, capable of increase only as it utilizes them, and as it gradually rebuilds from their crude indifference an environment genially civilized. Hence physics, chemistry, history, statistics, engineering science, are a part of disciplined moral knowledge so far as they enable us to understand the conditions and agencies through which man lives, and on account of which he forms and executes his plans. Moral science is not something with a separate province. It is physical, biological and historic knowledge placed in a human context where it will illuminate and guide the activities of men. 

The path of truth is narrow and straitened. It is only too easy to wander beyond the course from this side to that. In a reaction from that error which has made morals fanatic or fantastic, sentimental or authoritative by severing them from actual facts and forces, theorists have gone to the other extreme. They have insisted that natural laws are themselves moral laws, so that it remains, after noting them, only to conform to them. This doctrine of accord with nature has usually marked a transition period. When mythology is dying in its open forms, and when social life is so disturbed that custom and tradition fail to supply their wonted control, men resort to Nature as a norm.

(297) They apply to Nature all the eulogistic predicates previously associated with divine law; or natural law is conceived of as the only true divine law. This happened in one form in Stoicism. It happened in another form in the deism of the eighteenth century with its notion of a benevolent, harmonious, wholly rational order of Nature.

In our time this notion has been perpetuated in connection with a laissez-faire social philosophy and the theory of evolution. Human intelligence is thought to mark an artificial interference if it does more than register fixed natural laws as rules of human action. The process of natural evolution is conceived as the exact model of human endeavor. The two ideas met in Spencer. To the " enlightened " of a former generation,. Spencer's evolutionary philosophy seemed to afford a scientific sanction for the necessity of moral progress, while it also proved, up to the hilt, the futility of deliberate " interference " with the benevolent operations of nature. The idea of ,justice was identified with the law of cause and effect. Transgression of natural law wrought in the struggle for existence its own penalty of elimination, and conformity with it brought the reward of increased vitality and happiness. By this process egoistic desire is gradually coming into harmony with the necessity of tilt' environment, till at last the individual automatically finds happiness in doing what the natural and social environment demands, and serves himself in serving others. From this point of view, earlier " scientific " philosophers made a mistake, but

( 298) only the mistake of anticipating the date of complete natural harmony. All that reason can do is to acknowledge the evolutionary forces, and thereby refrain from retarding the arrival of the happy day of perfect harmony. Meantime justice demands that the weak and ignorant suffer the effect of violation of natural law, while the wise and able reap the rewards of their superiority. 

The fundamental defect of such views is that they fail to see the difference made in conditions and energies by perception of them. It is the first business of mind to be " realistic," to see things " as they are." If, for example, biology can give us knowledge of the causes of competency and incompetency, strength and weakness, that knowledge is all to the good. A nonsentimental morals will seek for all the instruction natural science can give concerning the biological conditions and consequences of inferiority and superiority. But knowledge of facts does not entail conformity and acquiescence. The contrary is the case. Perception of things as they are is but a stage in the process of making them different. They have already begun to be different in being known, for by that fact they enter into a different context, a context of foresight and judgment of better and worse. A false psychology of a separate realm of consciousness is the only reason this fact is not generally acknowledged. Morality resides not in perception of fact, but in the use made of its perception. It is a monstrous assumption that its sole use is to utter benedictions upon fact and its

(299) offspring. It is the part of intelligence to tell when to use the fact to conform and perpetuate, and when to use it to vary conditions and consequences.

It is absurd to suppose that knowledge about the connection between inferiority and its consequences prescribes adherence to that connection. It is like supposing that knowledge of the connection between malaria and mosquitoes enjoins breeding mosquitoes. The fact when it is known enters into a new environment. Without ceasing to belong to the physical environment it enters also into a medium of human activities, of desires and aversions, habits and instincts. It thereby gains new potencies, new capacities. Gunpowder in water does not act the same as gunpowder next a flame. A fact known does not operate the same as a fact unperceived. When it is known it comes into contact with the flame of desire and the cold bath of antipathy. Knowledge of the conditions that breed incapacity may fit into some desire to maintain others in that state while averting it for one's self. Or it may fall in with a character which finds itself blocked by such facts, and therefore strives to use knowledge of causes to make a change in effects. Morality begins at this point of use of knowledge of natural law, a use varying with the active system of dispositions and desires. Intelligent action 1s not concerned with the bare consequences of the thing known, but with consequences to be brought into existence by action conditioned on the knowledge. Men may use their knowledge to induce conformity or exaggeration, or to effect change and abolition of con-

(300) -ditions. The quality of these consequences determines the question of better or worse.

The exaggeration of the harmony attributed to Nature aroused men to note its disharmonies. An optimistic view of natural benevolence was followed by a more honest, less romantic view of struggle and conflict in nature. After Helvetius and Bentham came Malthus and Darwin. The problem of morals is the problem of desire and intelligence. What is to be done with these facts of disharmony and conflict? After we have discovered the place and consequences of conflict in nature, we have still to discover its place and working in human need and thought. What is its office, its function, its possibility, or use? In general, the answer is simple. Conflict is the gadfly of thought. It stirs us to observation and memory. It instigates to invention. It shocks us out of sheep-like passivity, and sets us at noting and contriving. Not that it always effects this result; but that conflict is a sine qua non of reflection and ingenuity. When this possibility of making use of conflict has once been noted, it is possible to utilize it systematically to substitute the arbitration of mind for that of brutal attack and brute collapse. But the tendency to take natural law for a norm of action which the supposedly scientific have inherited from eighteenth century rationalism leads to an idealization of the principle of conflict itself. Its office in promoting progress through arousing intelligence is overlooked, and it is erected into the generator of progress. Karl Marx borrowed from the dialectic of Hegel the idea of the

(301) necessity of a negative element, of opposition, for advance. He projected it into social affairs and reached the conclusion that all social development comes from conflict between classes, and that therefore class-warfare is to be cultivated. Hence a supposedly scientific form of the doctrine of social evolution preaches social hostility as the road to social harmony. It would be difficult to find a more striking instance of what happens when natural events are given a social and practical sanctification. Darwinism has been similarly used to justify war and the brutalities of competition for wealth and power.

The excuse, the provocation, though not the justification for such a doctrine is found in the actions of those who say peace, peace, when there is no peace, who refuse to recognize facts as they are, who proclaim a natural harmony of wealth and merit, of capital and labor, and the natural justice, in the main, of existing conditions. There is something horrible, something that makes one fear for civilization, in denunciations of class-differences and class struggles which proceed from a class in power, one that is seizing every means, even to a monopoly of moral ideals, to carry on its struggle for class-power. This class adds hypocrisy to conflict and brings all idealism into disrepute. It does everything which ingenuity and prestige can do to give color to the assertions of those who say that all moral considerations are irrelevant, and that the issue is one of brute trial of forces between this side and that. The alternative, here as elsewhere, is not between denying

( 302) facts in behalf of something termed moral ideals and accepting facts as final. There remains the possibility of recognizing facts and using them as a challenge to intelligence to modify the environment and change habits.


No notes

Valid HTML 4.01 Strict Valid CSS2