Page images
PDF
EPUB

complicated problems with certainty.* Now if, instead of adopting this method, geometricians had persisted in determining all questions concerning lines, angles, squares, circles, and the like, by the geometric sense—if they had tried to discover whether the three angles of a triangle are, or are not, equal to two right angles, and whether the areas of similiar polygons are, or are not, in the duplicate ratio of their homologous sides, by an effort of simple perception, they would have made the same mistake that moralists make, who try to solve all the problems of morality by the moral sense.

The reader will at once perceive the conclusion towards which this analogy points; namely, that as it is the office of the geometric sense to originate a geometric axiom, so it is the office of the moral sense to originate a moral axiom, from which reason may devolop a systematic morality.

And, varying the illustration, it may be further remarked that just as erroneous notions in mechanics—for instance, that large bodies fall faster than small ones, that water rises in a pump by suction, that perpetual motion is possible-formed by unaided mechanical sense, are set aside by the conclusions deduced from those primary laws of matter which the mechanical sense recognizes ; so may we expect the multitudes of conflicting beliefs about human duty dictated by unaided moral sense, to disappear before the deductions scientifically drawn from some primary law of man which the moral sense recognizes.

[NOTE.—It should be remarked that though in this chapter there is recognition of the truth that the judgments of the moral sense are variable, the recognition is not adequate. The facts that some races of men appear to have no consciences at all and that in other races of men

* Whether we adopt the views of Locke or of Kant as to the ultimate nature of what is here, for analogy's sake, called the geometric sense, does not affect the question. However originated, the fundamental perceptions attaching to it form the undecomposable bases of exact science. And this is all that is now assumed.

conscience gives verdicts quite unlike, and sometimes opposite to, the verdicts it gives among ourselves, are not even hinted. The evidences of this were not at that time before me. To prevent misapprehension it may be well here to say that the foregoing views concerning the moral sense are applicable only to races which have been long subject to certain kinds of discipline.]

WHAT IS MORALITY?

It is manifest that the moral law must be the law of the perfect man—the law in obedience to which perfection consists. There are but two propositions for us to choose between. It may either be asserted that morality is a code of rules for the behaviour of men as they are; or, otherwise, that it is a code of rules for the behaviour of men as they should be. Of the first alternative we must say, that any proposed system of morals which recognizes existing defects, and countenances acts made needful by them, stands self-condemned; seeing that, by the hypothesis, acts thus excused are not the best conceivable, that is, are not perfectly rightnot perfectly moral, and therefore a morality which permits them, is, in so far as it does this, not a morality at all. To escape from this contradiction is impossible, save by adopting the other alternative; namely, that the moral law, ignoring all vicious conditions, defects, and incapacities, prescribes the conduct of an ideal humanity. Pure rectitude can alone be its subject matter. Its object must be to determine the relations in which men ought to stand to one another—to point out the principles of action in a normal society. It must aim to give a systematic statement of those conditions under which human beings may harmoniously co-operate; and to this end it requires as its postulate, that such human beings be perfect.

Treating, therefore, as it does on the abstract principles of right conduct, a system of pure ethics cannot recognize evil, or any of those conditions which evil generates. It knows no such thing as an infraction of the laws, for it is merely a statement of what the laws are. It simply says, such and such are the principles on which men should act; and when these are broken it can do nothing but say that they are broken. If asked what ought any one to do when another has knocked him down, it will not tell : it can only answer that an assault is a trespass against the law, and gives rise to a wrong relation. It is silent as to the manner in which we should behave to a thief: all the information it affords is, that theft is a breach of rectitude. We may learn from it that debt implies an infraction of the moral code; but whether the debtor should or should not be imprisoned, cannot be decided by it. To all questions which presuppose some antecedent unlawful action, such as-Should a barrister defend any one whom he believes to be guilty ? Ought a man to break an oath which he has taken to do something wrong? Is it proper to publish the misconduct of our fellows ?—the perfect law can give no reply, because it does not recognize the premises. In seeking to settle such points on purely ethical principles, moralists have attempted impos. sibilities. As well might they have tried to solve mathe. matically a series of problems respecting crooked lines and broken-backed curves, or to deduce from the theorems of mechanics the proper method of setting to work a dislocated

a machine. No conclusions can lay claim to absolute truth but such as depend upon truths which are themselves absolute. A geometrician requires that the straight lines with which he deals shall be veritably straight; and that his circles, and ellipses, and parabolas, shall agree with precise definitions. If you put to him a question in which these conditions are not complied with, he tells you that it cannot be answered. So likewise is it with the philosophical moralist. He treats solely of the straight man. He describes how the straight man comports himself; shows in what relation he stands to other straight men; shows how a community of straight men

l is constituted. A problem in which a crooked man forms one of the elements is insoluble by him. He may state what he

. thinks about it—may give an approximate solution; but anything more is impossible.

Or perhaps the point may be most conveniently enforced, by using the science of the animal man to illustrate that of the moral man. Physiology is defined as a classified statement of the phenomena of bodily life. It treats of the functions of our several organs in their normal states. It exhibits the mutual dependence of the vital actions; and describes the condition of things constituting perfect health. Disease it does not even recognize, and can therefore solve no questions concerning it. To the inquiry—What is the cause of fever? or, what is the best remedy for a cold? it gives no answer. Such matters are out of its sphere. Could it reply it would be no longer Physiology, but Pathology or Therapeutics. Just so it is with a true morality, which might properly enough be called—Moral Physiology. Like its analogue, it has nothing to do with morbid actions and deranged functions. It deals only with the laws of a normal humanity, and cannot recognize a wrong, a depraved, or a disordered condition.

« PreviousContinue »