Ethics, II

See also the McClintock and Strong Biblical Cyclopedia.

II. Historical Sketch of Ethics.

A comprehensive treatment of our subject would naturally include a history of ethics from the earliest times to the present. For ethics as a branch of philosophical inquiry partakes of the historical development of all thought, and the problems which it presents to our day can be rightly appreciated only in the light of certain categories and concepts--such as end, good, virtue, duty, pleasure, egoism and altruism--which have been evolved through the successive stages of the movement of ethical thoughts. All we can attempt here, however, is the baldest outline of the different epochs of ethical inquiry as indicating the preparatory stages which lead up to and find their solution in the ethics of Christianity.

1. Greek Philosophy:

(1) Sophists.

All the great religions of the world--of India, Persia and Egypt--have had their ethical implicates, but these have consisted for the most part of loosely connected moral precepts or adages. Before the golden age of Greek philosophy there were no ethics in the strict sense. The moral consciousness of the Greeks takes its rise with the Sophists, and particularly with Socrates, who were the first to protest against the long-established customs and traditions of their land. The so-called "wise men" were in part moralists, but their sayings are but isolated maxims presenting no unity or connection. Philosophy proper occupied itself primarily with purely metaphysical or ontological questions as to the nature of being, the form and origin and primal elements of the world. It was only when Greek religion and poetry had lost their hold upon the cultured and the beliefs of the past had come to be doubted, that questions as to the meaning of life and conduct arose.

(2) Socrates.

Already the Sophists had drawn attention to the vagueness and inconsistency of common opinion, and had begun to teach the art of conduct, but it was Socrates who, as it was said, first brought philosophy down from heaven to the sphere of the earth and directed men's minds from merely natural things to human life. He was indeed the first moral philosopher, inasmuch as, while the Sophists talked about justice and law and temperance, they could not tell, when pressed, what these things were. The first task of Socrates, therefore, was to expose human ignorance. All our confusion and disputes about good arise, says. Socrates, from want of clear knowledge. He aimed, therefore, at producing knowledge, not merely for its own sake, but because he believed it to be the ground of all right conduct. Nobody does wrong willingly. Let a man know what is good, that is, what is truly beneficial, and he will do it. Hence, the famous Socratic dictum, "Virtue is knowledge and vice is ignorance." With all his intellectualism Socrates was really a hedonist, believing that pleasure was the ultimate end of life. For it must not be imagined that he conceived of knowledge of virtue as distinct from interest. Everyone naturally seeks the good because the good is really identified with his happiness. The wise man is necessarily the happy man, and hence, "to know one's self" is to learn the secret of well-being.

(3) Plato.

While Socrates was the first to direct attention to the nature of virtue, his one-sided and fragmentary conception of it received a more systematic treatment from Plato, who attempted to define the nature and end of man by his place in the cosmos. Plato thus brought ethics into intimate connection with metaphysics. He conceived an ideal world in which everything earthly and human had its prototype. The human soul is derived from the world-soul and, like it, is a mixture of two elements. On the one side, in virtue of reason, it participates in the world of ideas, or the life of God; and on the other, by virtue of its animal impulses, it partakes of the world of decay, the corporeal world. These two dissimilar parts are connected by an intermediate element, which Plato calls thumos, embracing courage, the love of honor and the affections of the heart--a term which may be translated by the will. The constitution of the inner man is manifested in his outward organization. The head is the seat of reason, the breast of the heart and the affections, and the lower part of the body of the organs of animal desire. If we ask, Who is the just man? Plato answers, The man in whom the three elements just mentioned harmonize. We thus arrive at the scheme of the so-called "cardinal virtues" which have persisted through all ages and have given direction to all ethical discussion--wisdom, courage, temperance which, in combination, give us justice. It will thus be observed that virtue is no longer simply identified with knowledge; but another form of bad conduct besides ignorance is assumed, namely, the internal disorder and conflict of the soul, in which the lower impulses war with the higher. This, it will be seen, is a distinct advance on the one-sided position of Socrates; but in his attempt to reconcile the two movements in the conflict of life, Plato does not succeed in overcoming the duality. The inner impulses are ever dragging man down, and man's true well-being lies in the attainment of the life of reason. But though there are gleams of a higher solution in Plato, as a rule he falls back upon the idea that virtue is to be attained only by the suppression of the animal passions and the mortifying of the lower life. Plato affords us also the primal elements of social ethics. Morality as conceived by him is not something belonging merely to the individual, but has its full realization in the state. Man is indeed but-a type of the larger cosmos, and it is not as an individual but as a citizen that he is capable of realizing his true life.

(4) Aristotle.

The ethics of Aristotle, while it completes, does not essentially differ from that of Plato. He is the first to treat of the subject formally as a science, which assumes in his hands a division of politics. For, as he says, man is really "a social animal"; and, even more decisively than Plato, he treats of man as a part of society. Aristotle begins his great work on ethics with the discussion of the chief good, which he declares to be happiness or well-being. Happiness does not consist, however, in sensual pleasure, or even in the pursuit of honor, but in a life of well-ordered contemplation, "an activity of the soul in accordance with reason" (Nic. Eth., I, chapter v). But to reach the goal of right thinking and right doing, both favorable surroundings and proper instruction are required. Virtue is not virtue until it is a habit, and the only way to become virtuous is to practice virtue. It will thus be seen that Aristotle balances the one-sided emphasis of Socrates and Plato upon knowledge by the insistence upon habit. Activity must be combined with reason. The past and the present, environment and knowledge, must both be acknowledged as elements in the making of life. The virtues are thus habits, but habits of deliberate choice. Virtue is therefore an activity which at every point seeks to strike the mean between two opposite excesses. Plato's list of virtues had the merit of simplicity, but Aristotle's, though fuller, lacks system and consists generally of right actions which are determined in reference to two extremes. One defect which strikes a modern is that among the virtues benevolence is not recognized except obscurely as a form of liberality; and in general the gentler self-sacrificing virtues so prominent in Christianity have no place. The virtues. are chiefly aristocratic and are impossible for a slave. Again while Aristotle did well, in opposition to previous philosophy, to recognize the function of habit, it must be pointed out that habit of itself cannot make a man virtuous. Mere habit may be a hindrance and not a help to higher attainment. You cannot reduce morality to a succession of customary acts. But the main defect of Aristotle's treatment of virtue is that he regards the passions as wholly irrational and immoral. He does not see that passion in this sense can have no mean. If you may have too much of a good thing, you cannot have even a little of a bad thing. In man the desires and impulses are never purely irrational. Reason enters into all his appetites and gives to the body and all the physical powers an ethical value and a moral use. We do not become virtuous by curbing the passions but by transfiguring them into the vehicle of good. Aristotle, not less than Plato, is affected by the Greek duality which makes an antithesis between reason and impulse, and imparts to the former an external supremacy.

(5) Stoics and Epicureans.

The two conflicting elements of reason and impulse which neither Plato nor Aristotle succeeded in harmonizing ultimately gave rise to two opposite interpretations of the moral life. The Stoics selected the rational nature as the true guide to an ethical system, but they gave to it a supremacy so rigid as to threaten the extinction of the affections. The Epicureans, on the other hand, seizing the doctrine that happiness is the chief good, so accentuated the emotional side of nature as to open the door for all manner of sensual enjoyment. Both agree in determining the happiness of the individual as the final goal of moral conduct. It, is not necessary to dwell upon the particular tenets of Epicurus and his followers. For though both Epicureanism and Stoicism, as representing the chief tendencies of ethical inquiry, have exercised incalculable influence upon speculation and practical morals of later ages, it is the doctrines of Stoicism which have more specially come into contact with Christianity.

(6) Stoicism.

Without dwelling upon the stoic conception of the world, according to which the universe was a whole, interpenetrated and controlled by an inherent spirit, and the consequent view of life as proceeding from God and being in all its parts equally Divine, we may note that the Stoics, like Plato and Aristotle, regarded the realization of man's natural purpose as the true well-being or highest good. This idea they formulated into a principle: "Life according to Nature." The wise man is he who strives to live in agreement with his rational nature in all the circumstances of life. The law of Nature is to avoid what is hurtful and strive for what is appropriate; and pleasure arises as an accompaniment when a being obtains that which is fitting. Pleasure and pain are, however, to be regarded as mere accidents or incidents of life and to be met by the wise man with indifference. He alone is free, the master of himself and the world, who acknowledges the absolute supremacy of reason and makes himself independent of earthly desires. This life of freedom is open to all, for all men are equal, members of one great body. The slave may be as free as the consul and each can make the world his servant by living in harmony with it.

There is a certain sublimity in the ethics of Stoicism. It was a philosophy which appealed to noble minds and "it inspired nearly all the great characters of the early Roman empire and nerved every attempt to maintain the dignity and freedom of the human soul" (Lecky, History of European Morals, I, chapter ii). We cannot, however, be blind to its defects. With all their talk of Divine immanence and providence, it was nothing but an impersonal destiny which the Stoics recognized as governing the universe. "Harmony with Nature" was simply a sense of proud self-sufficiency. Stoicism is the glorification of reason, even to the extent of suppressing all emotion. It has no real sense of sin. Sin is un-reason, and salvation lies in the external control of the passions, in indifference and apathy begotten of the atrophy of desire. The great merit of the Stoics is that they emphasized inner moral integrity as the one condition of all right action and true happiness, and in an age of degeneracy insisted on the necessity of virtue. In its preference for the joys of the inner life and its scorn of the delights of sense; in its emphasis upon duty and its advocacy of a common humanity, together with its belief in the direct relation of each human soul to God, Stoicism, as revealed in the writings of a Seneca, a Marcus Aurelius and an Epictetus, not only showed how high paganism at its best could reach, but proved in a measure a preparation for Christianity with whose practical tenets, in spite of its imperfections, it had much in common.

(7) Stoicism and Paul.

That there are remarkable affinities between Stoicism and Pauline ethics has frequently been pointed out. The similarity both in language and sentiment can scarcely be accounted for by mere coincidence. There were elements in Stoic philosophy which Paul would not have dreamed of assimilating, and features with which he could have no sympathy. The pantheistic view of God and the material conception of the world, the self-conscious pride, the absence of all sense of sin and need of pardon, the temper of apathy and the unnatural suppression of feelings--these were features which could not but rouse in the apostle's mind strong antagonism. But on the other hand there were certain well-known characteristics of a nobler order in Stoic morality which we may believe Paul found ready to his hand, ideas which he did not hesitate to incorporate in his teaching and employ in the service of the gospel. Without enlarging upon this line of thought (compare Alexander, Ethics of Paul), of these we may mention the immanence of God as the pervading cause of all life and activity; the idea of wisdom or knowledge as the ideal of man; the conception of freedom as the prerogative of the individual; and the notion of brotherhood as the goal of humanity.

2. Scholasticism:

It will be possible only to sketch in a few rapid strokes the subsequent development of ethical thought. After the varied life of the early centuries had passed, Christian ethic (so prominent in the Gospels and Epistles), like Christian theology, fell under the blight of Gnostieism (Alexandrian philosophy; compare Hatch, Hibbert Lectures) and latterly, of Scholasticism. Christian truth stiffened into a cumbrous catalogue of ecclesiastical observances. In the early Fathers (Barnabas, Clement, Origen, Gregory), dogmatic and ethical teaching were hardly distinguished. Cyprian discussed moral questions from the standpoint of church discipline.

The first real attempt at a Christian ethic was made by Ambrose, whose treatise on the Duties is an imitation of Cicero's work of the same title. Even Augustine, notwithstanding his profound insight into the nature of sin, treats of moral questions incidentally. Perhaps the only writers among the schoolmen, except Alcuin (Virtues and Vices), who afford anything like elaborate moral treatises, are Abelard (Ethica, or Scito te Ipsum), Peter Lombard (Sentences), and, above all, Thomas Aquinas (Summa, II).

3. Reformation:

Emancipation from a legal dogmatism first came with the Reformation which was in essence a moral revival. The relation of God and man came to be re-stated under the inspiration of Biblical truth, and the value and rights of man as man, so long obscured, were disclosed. The conscience was liberated and Luther became the champion of individual liberty.

Descartes and Spinoza.

The philosophical writers who most fully express in the domain of pure thought the protestant spirit are Descartes and Spinoza, with whom speculation with regard to man's distinctive nature and obligations took a new departure. Without following the fortunes of philosophy on the continent of Europe, which took a pantheistic form in Germany and a materialistic tone in France (though Rousseau directed the thought of Europe to the constitution of man), we may remark that in England thought assumed a practical complexion, and on the basis of the inquiries of Locke, Berkeley and Hume into the nature and limits of the human understanding, the quest. ions as to the source of moral obligation and the faculty of moral judgment came to the front.

4. English Moralists:

British moralists may be classified mainly cording to their views on this subject. Beginning with Hobbes, who maintained that man was naturally selfish and that all his actions were self-regarding, Cudworth, More, Wallaston, Shaftesbury, Hutchison, Adam Smith and others discussed the problem, with varying success, of the relation of individual and social virtues, agreeing generally that the right balance between the two is due' to moral sense which, like taste or perception of beauty, guides us in things moral. All these intuitional writers fall back upon a native selfish instinct. Selfishness, disguise it as we may, or, as it came to be called, utility, is really the spring and standard of action. Butler in his contention for the supremacy and uniqueness of conscience took an independent but scarcely more logical attitude. Both he and all the later British moralists, Paley, Bentham, Mill, suffer from a narrow, artificial psychology which conceives of the various faculties as separate and independent elements lying in man.

5. Utilitarianism:

Utilitarianism is a scheme of consequences which finds the moral quality of conduct in the effects and feelings created in the subject. With all their differences of detail the representatives of theory are at one in regarding the chief end of man as happiness. Bentham and Mill made the attempt to deduce benevolence from the egoistic startingpoint. "No reason can be given," says Mill (Utilitarianism, chapter iv), "why the general happiness is desirable except that each person .... desires his own happiness .... and the general happiness therefore is a good to the aggregate of all persons." Late utilitarians, dissatisfied with this non-sequitur and renouncing the dogma of personal pleasure, maintain that we ought to derive universal happiness because reason bids us (compare Sidgwick, Methods of Ethics,III , xiii). But what, we may ask, is this reason, and why should I listen to her voice?

6. Evolutionary Ethics:

The intuitional theory has more recently allied itself with the hypothesis of organic evolution. "These feelings of self-love and benevolence are really," says Spencer, "the products of development. The natural instincts and impulses to social good, though existent in a rudimentary animal form, have been evolved through environment, heredity and social institutions to which man through his long history has been subject." But this theory only carries the problem farther back, for, as Green well says (Proleg. to Ethics), "that countless generations should have passed during which a transmitted organism was progressively modified by reaction on its surroundings till an eternal consciousness could realize itself .... might add to the wonder, but it could not alter the results."

7. Kant:

The great rival of the pleasure-philosophy is that which has been styled "duty for duty's sake." This position was first taken by Kant whose principle of the "Categorical Imperative" utterly broke down theory of "pleasure for pleasure's sake." For Kant, conscience is simply practical reason; and its laws by him are reduced to unity. Reason, though limited in its knowledge of objects to phenomena of the senses, in the region of practice transcends the phenomenal and attains the real. The autonomy of the will carries us beyond the phenomenal into the supersensible world. Here the "Categorical Imperative" or moral law utters its "thou shalt" and prescribes' a principle of conduct irrespective of desire or ulterior end. In accordance with the nature of the Categorical Imperative, the formula of all morality is, "Act from a maxim at all times fit for law universal" (Kritik d. praktischen Vernunft and Grundlage zur Metaphysik der Sitten).

This principle is, however, defective. For while it determines the subjective or formal side of duty, it tells us nothing of the objective side, of the content of duty. We may learn from Kant the grandeur of duty in the abstract and the need of obedience to it, but we do not learn what duty is. Kant's law remains formal, abstract and contentless, without relation to the matter of practical life.

8. German Idealists:

To overcome this abstraction, to give content to the law of reason and find its realization in the institutions and relationships of life and society, has been the aim of the later idealistic philosophy which starts from Kant.

(1) Hegel.

Following Fichte, for whom morality is action according to the ideas of reason--selfconsciousness finding itself in and through a world of deeds--Hegel starts with the Idea as the source of all reality, and develops the conception of Conscious Personality which, by overcoming the antithesis of impulse and thought, gradually attains to the full unity and realization of self in the consciousness of the world and of God. The law of Right or of all ethical ideal is, "Be a person and respect others as persons" (Hegel, Philosophic des Rechtes, section 31). These views have been worked out in recent British and American works of speculative ethics by Green, Bradley, Caird, McTaggart, Harris, Royce, Dewey, Watson.

Man as a self is rooted in an infinite self or personality. Our individual self-consciousness is derived from and maintained by an infinite eternal and universal self-consciousness. Knowledge is, therefore, but the gradual discovery of mind in things, the progressive realization of the world as the self-manifestation of an infinite Personality with whom the finite intelligence of man is one. Hence, morality is the gradual unfolding of an eternal purpose whose whole is the perfection of man.

(2) Watchwords: Pleasure and Duty.

We have thus seen that in the history of ethics two great rival watchwords have been sounded--pleasure and duty, or, to put it another way, egoism and altruism. Both have their justification, yet each taken separately is abstract and one-sided. The problem of ethics is how to harmonize without suppressing these two extremes, how to unite social duty and individual right in a higher unity. We have seen that philosophical ethics has sought a synthesis of these conflicting moments in the higher and more adequate conception of human personality--a personality whose ideals and activities are identified with the eternal and universal personality of God. Christianity also recognizes the truth contained in the several types of ethical philosophy which we have passed under review, but it adds something which is distinctively its own, and thereby gives a new meaning to happiness and to duty, to self and to others.

Christian synthesis:

Christianity also emphasizes the realization of personality with all that it implies as the true goal of man; but while Christ bids man "be perfect as God is perfect," He shows us that we only find ourselves as we find ourselves in others; only by dying do we live; and only through profound self-surrender and sacrifice do we become ourselves and achieve the highest good.

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