A Modern Theory of Ethics, by Olaf Stapledon

Chapter 1

The Need for Ethics 1

IT is a commonplace that ours is an age of disillusionment, and that we follow on an age of complacency. In the days before the war, optimism was maintained only by setting the telescope to the blind eye. For, apart from the social problem, which few even in those days could entirely shun, there loomed three troubles less urgent but more subtly disturbing. First, even by the plain man it was beginning to be suspected that the universe was indifferent to human desires. Man, it seemed, must outgrow his trust in a celestial protagonist, and must depend on himself alone both for his daily comfort and for telign: center achievement of his ideals.

Second, it was already rumoured that man was doomed not only to failure but to insincerity. He was charged with being at heart careless of everything but the satisfaction of crude animal instincts. He valued his ideals, we were told, only in so far as they afforded ‘symbolical fulfilment’ to his primitive cravings.

Third, and most unsettling, if this view of human nature were true, all judgments of ethical good and evil were vitiated. For whenever we judged anything to be objectively good, our value-judgment was determined (it was said,) not by the objective character and relations of the thing itself as a whole, but by some superficial and irrelevant feature which happened to stimulate instinctive or childhood cravings. Thus the considered judgments from which the ethical distinction was derived appeared invalid as data for ethics. And this view, that the distinction between good and bad was, after all, meaningless, was also strongly suggested by the chaotic state of ethical theory itself. For some writers defined ‘good’ in one way, some in others; and some said it was indefinable; and some explained it in such a modern and ‘scientific’ manner that they explained it away. Thus the very distinction on which any ideal must be based, the distinction which religion and common sense alike had assumed to be objective and universal, was beginning to seem arbitrary. All causes, all ideals, all obligations and enthusiasms, were suspect in the suspicion that ‘goodness’ itself was, after all, meaningless.

Such were the three doubts, cosmological, psychological, and ethical, that were creeping into the minds of thoughtful persons even in that distant age which ended in 1914. To-day they are more prevalent.

Now the first of these questions is perhaps of no great importance. During the rise of modern science, thoughtful persons began to wonder whether the world was really good, bad, or indifferent; or whether it was ‘on our side’ or not. When the more intelligent were as yet only beginning to wake from the dreams of the more naïve religious orthodoxy, this issue was bound to seem urgent. To-day we are perhaps no nearer an answer than in the days when Huxley first opposed the human to the cosmical; but we are more ready to shelve the question and tackle other matters. For it becomes clear that, if by ‘world’ we mean ‘the whole of being’, the answer must wait until we know something of the real nature of that whole. Moreover, the ultimate fate of our race and our ideals seems now more remote and less important than in the days before we realized the vastness of the future. But if by ‘world’ is meant the physical or ‘natural’ world, we are becoming reconciled to the knowledge that Nature, our ever-fascinating mother, is more resourceful than virtuous. We begin to cease from looking to her either as a model or as a protagonist. True to the modern fashion in filial piety, we are prone rather to correct than respect her. It is for us, not for her, to say what it is that is good, and to discover if possible whether or not goodness is but a delusion. As to her maternal protection, we are alternately braced and grieved to find that we must depend on ourselves alone. But we are no longer appalled.

The cosmological question thus deserves less attention than perhaps it gets. For, granted that. the good-bad distinction is valid, Nature, as our intellectual, and moral inferior, must simply be brought to heel, animal that she is. But as to the Whole, whether it is ‘on our side’ or not, how dare we pass judgment on it? For, granted the validity of the ethical distinction, none but a universally informed mind is entitled to judge the universe. It is possible that, though in our ethical distinction we truly grasp a universal principle, yet that which in the cosmical view must be seen to be good is far beyond the appreciative powers of our little minds. Much that seemed to Queen Victoria very bad is judged by us to be very good. Yet (though some of us easily forget it), the difference between the Queen’s horizon and our own is perhaps less than the difference between ours and the span of all being. Who are we, that we should judge the heavens by our childish values? Shall we, because the gods neither please us nor make themselves intelligible to us, dub them insensitive or stupid? Parents, it is said, are justified in fulfilling, not merely in pleasing their children. And the gods, if there be such, are to be justified not by the sweets they give us, who indeed are very simple children, but by the judgment of the fully enlightened mind, which may (conceivably) be theirs, but very surely is not ours. For these reasons it is as well to leave the cosmological question untouched.

But the other two questions rightly become more insistent in the plain man’s mind every year. In the days when the teaching of the churches was accepted at least intellectually by the congregations (and even by the great uncongregated), there was no ethical problem in the plain man’s mind. Spiritual advisers told him what was good, and he accepted their verdict, in theory, if not in practice. Love was the good; and the plain man accepted it as the good, not because he saw that it was so, but because the churches said that God had said that it was so.

Even before the war, however, very many had already ceased to take their professed religion seriously, even on the side of theory. The startling and bracing discoveries of science began to make us incredulous of the old teaching, even if also far too credulous of the new. But perhaps the, main effect of science was that it made the old hopes look trite and even childish. For the doctrine of science was austere; while the doctrine of the old faith was by now padded over with comfortable devices. Comfort cannot stir us to loyalty. Thus, while to some the orthodox view was merely unbelievable, to others, though they accepted it as true, it had ceased to be commanding. Consequently, while in some quarters there was a purely intellectual scepticism, in others there was a purely emotional disillusionment. Elsewhere these two dissatisfactions were combined. And so the ethical questions began to whisper themselves in many minds. Those who felt most strongly the objective validity of the good-bad distinction but had lost the old faith, craved most eagerly an ethical theory not incompatible with their new cosmology. Those who were still intuitively convinced that love was the best thing in the world, sought some justification other than the word of a God whose existence they were beginning to doubt.

Then came the war. It gave us something large to do and vivid to think. It pushed those doubts from the focus of our attention. Already in the years before the war the only vivid and widespread ideal was nationalism, and patriotism was the only compelling religion. The one thing bigger than themselves which most men could both believe in and care for was their ‘country’; and they readily accepted the war as the supreme religious rite of sacrifice to their romantic god.

It is true, of course, that the motives that led men to fight were diverse. Not in all, perhaps not in many, was this strictly religious impulse the main factor. Many, no doubt, went simply to stamp out a conflagration that seemed to threaten their homes and all whom they loved. Some, on the other hand, went to escape the tyranny of the economic mill; some to escape mere boredom; some to be quit of their families or their friends; some to assert their manhood in the eyes of women. The white feather flicked their self-esteem, and drove them to accept without enthusiasm the sacrament imposed by the only living orthodox faith, the faith in nationalism. But these, who fought primarily for their own good name and not for the romantic ideal, would never have been herded into khaki had they not assumed that to shirk this ordeal was in fact shameful~ Self-pride alone will not force normal persons to swim Niagara or swallow poison. They must feel that the deed is expected of them, and rightly expected. They must expect it of themselves. In fact, they must feel that to serve in the cause really is obligatory on all self-respecting persons. They must admit the ‘ought’, even though they fulfil it only for self-pride. Of course, there were many who went to the front for no reason whatever, but in response to herd-suggestion — with no more loyalty than sheep who follow their leader. But how did that suggestion ever come into being? It arose amongst those for whom ‘duty’ was a meaningful word, who judged, however reluctantly, that there is something other than the person of each that has a ‘claim’ on each because of its intrinsic goodness.

Some of us, perhaps, are over cynical about the war, or at least about the motives of those who fought. For we incline to forget that, in an age when the spur and the comfortable promises of religious faith were both of them less compelling than of old, when the objectivity of good was doubted and the hope of immortality fading, men freely gave themselves for the only ideal which seemed to claim them. As the religious faiths waned, the national faiths waxed. Traditions of national dignity, righteousness, and might seemed less improbable than the doctrines of the churches, and far more vivid. Moreover, patriotism was well within the capacity of the schoolboy culture, which alone was general, even among the educated. For the appeal of nationalism was twofold. It was easily assimilated to our egoism; yet it offered us something to serve, something other than, and greater than, our private selves. This was just what we craved: on the one hand salvation for our self-esteem (so crippled in the petty round of life), and on the other hand a clear obligation, a duty of service, however humble, in a great and vivid cause. Had the war offered satisfaction to one only of these impulses, its hold would have been less constant. But it fulfilled now the one and now the other as our need varied; and in no mood could we escape it.

Had the peoples been able to take Christianity to heart, they would not have needed the psychical ‘release’ afforded by passionate nationalism. Their egoism would have found fulfilment in the certainty of eternal salvation; and their loyalty might have found in the Christ-god an object both vivid and universal. But since this could not be; the nation was taken as a substitute, and war as the great rite. And the war, even if it has done nothing else of value, has, I should say, underlined in red two facts of human nature. It has shown, on the one hand, how subtly egoism can disguise itself even from itself, accepting even agony and death for mere pride. But, on the other hand, it has shown that. self-disregarding loyalty is a quite normal capacity of man, and a capacity which can become active even on a superb scale when a clear call comes. ‘Cant!’ says the sceptic. But is it cant? Looking back to those days, remembering the details of the behaviour of our friends, and for that matter our own heart-searchings, can we deny that each of us was determined to a greater or less extent by the cognition of values in relation to which our private needs were seen to be irrelevant?

But the nation is a sorry substitute for the God of Love; and the war disillusioned many. Nationalism, of course, is not yet seriously in decline. Even to-day most of us but seldom and hesitatingly transcend it. Indeed, on the fringes of our Western civilization it spreads alarmingly; and now it threatens to inflame even the East. But, in the regions where it was born, patriotic zeal is perhaps tempered slightly. Even Fascism, its most modern and extravagant phase, may be regarded as a final, though long-drawn-out paroxysm, the last and hopeless protest of barbarians, who at heart feel themselves to have been mentally outdistanced. Even if this is too optimistic a view, we may hope that, as the world becomes more and more unified culturally, nationalism may be. reduced from a conflagration to a wholesome warmth in our hearts.

But the failure (or impending failure) of nationalism as a faith, and of the nation as the supreme object of practical loyalty, forces once more on the attention of thoughtful persons those ethical problems which, in a period of urgent action, they had sought to ignore. Those who are consciously troubled about these questions are indeed few; for most folk consider ethical inquiry a priggish and futile occupation. Yet these questions lurk in the background of all minds; and so they tend to get themselves answered inattentively, and to become the secret source of prejudice and savage behaviour.

Consider the outstanding movements of the day. Apart from the slow but sure conquests of the intelligence in many fields, the most remarkable features of our age are Fascism, Bolshevism, and a recrudescence of the more superstitious and preposterous ‘religious’ sects. Fascism is accepted by those who, still paying respect to the older religion of Europe, but finding in nationalism the only commanding ideal, can conceive loyalty only in terms of fear and hate of rival nations and parties. Fascism assumes its ideal uncritically. It also uncritically assumes the validity of the fundamental ethical concept. It offers a faith, and exacts devotion; and therein lies its power. Bolshevism equally makes ethical assumptions: Although it affects to despise ethics and metaphysics, and to reduce obligation to egoism, yet it is evidently felt as a faith, and as an ideal which has an absolute claim on the faithful. Thus in days of widespread disillusionment any ideal, however crude, however rationally indefensible, is felt to be better than no ideal at all.

Both these movements owe their strength in part to a dread of doubt that increases as doubt becomes more insistent. Both win adherents by satisfying the craving for activity in a cause conceived as objectively important. This phobia of uncertainty is perhaps also one source of the increase of the cruder kinds of religious fanaticism. In this case, of course, as in the others, one motive is the desire for mere personal salvation, in this world or another; but it can scarcely be questioned that the average fanatic, of whatever persuasion, does honestly feel that it is supremely important, not merely for him but for the world, that the flood of doubt be dammed, and that his policy be followed as the only means to world-salvation. And thus it happens that an age of increasing scepticism is also an age of increasing fanaticism. Very many persons have desperately shut their eyes and swallowed whole whatever comforting or commanding creed was available. They have willingly exposed themselves to religious suggestion, or political suggestion, till in time they have attained a real, but artificial, state of faith. On the other hand, an increasing number have definitely freed themselves from every kind of theological allegiance; while on the political side also there are signs of a growing disillusionment with established social ideals. Thus in both spheres, religious and political, it is lip-service that wanes; faith and frank unfaith alike increase.

It is not surprising that in an age of intellectual perplexity men should take refuge either in irrational dogma or in a hand-to-mouth pursuit of pleasure. And mere pleasure-seeking is evidently an increasing fever to-day. The old-fashioned, unreasoned restraints are being removed; and there is an unabashed claim to free life, free thought, and even ‘free love’; in short for the free ‘creative’ exercise of all human faculties. In literature and art, war is waged against authority and restraint. We are familiar with the crusade for spontaneity, instinct, the subconscious, and with the cult of the creative and non-rational ‘life force’, which has been well called’ the dark god ‘. All this is wholesome as a reaction from an age of stuffy clothes and stuffy morals. But is freedom an end or a means? To the released captive it indeed seems for a while a sufficient end; and to those who lack pleasures, pleasure seems the end. Yet pleasure grows stale; and an aimless freedom becomes a prison. It is being well proved in these days that a life of mere impulse leads nowhere, and moreover is strangely unsatisfying. In our present disillusionment the only freedom to. be sought is, it seems, a free fling before the crash. Surely it is this conviction of the futility of all things that is at the root of our fever to snatch joy before we die.

Some indeed have assumed a very different attitude in the general disillusionment. They have devised a stoical ideal, which, by emancipating man from all passing impulses, should enable him to gain a kind of tragic triumph over the universe. They have said: ‘Man himself creates the distinction between good and evil. We will take as our ideal (just because it pleases us to do so) freedom from the tyranny of desire, and fearless contemplation of reality.’ Clearly if pessimism is intellectually justified, this is the only sane attitude. And even if the pessimistic view is mistaken, pessimism is a wholesome error. It was very necessary that we should learn not only the irrationality of the older optimisms but also their banality. The only way to an optimism of finer mood, if it be intellectually possible at all, is perhaps through heartfelt acceptance of pessimism.

What, then, is the most significant feature of our age? Shall we be remembered chiefly for our social conflicts, for our international confusion, for the brilliant adolescence of science, or for our disillusionment? These are the features that we, who are immersed in to-day, see most clearly. Yet there is a more memorable fact about the modern world, a fact which we scarcely notice. Ours is the age, not simply of disillusionment, but of the Vindication of man’s capacity for loyalty even in the teeth of disillusionment. For what has been happening since the days of secure faith? First, when the ancient fear of hell was removed, men were discovered on the whole not less but more responsible. And when later all the old beliefs began to seem legendary and even petty, men did not plunge into individualism light-heartedly. Desperately they made of individualism itself a kind of topsy-turvy ideal, and tried to be loyal to it; or at the very least they found excuses for it, as being a means to some universal end. But presently they began to tire of it, and to look round for some more commanding object of loyalty. And so to-day, alongside of the old religious objects, and the old uncriticized individualism, thrive the cults of nationalism, bolshevism, fascism — movements which, though deeply infused by man’s self-regard, would none of them be what they are, were they not also irradiated by his unquenchable capacity for loyalty. But of these faiths bolshevism is the most glorious example of devotion in disillusionment. Sown in contempt of human nature, it flowered into a self-forgetful enthusiasm by which, in spite of its intellectual wrong-headedness, human nature is vindicated.

None of these faiths can withstand dispassionate criticism. Each in turn must sooner or later seem incoherent and petty. And so, in conflicting waves of disillusionment and devotion to new objects, and again disillusionment, we live out our stormy age. Never before, perhaps, have the objects of loyalty been subjected to such keen criticism. Never before has loyalty been driven so desperately from object to object in search of that which, of its own nature, can command allegiance. Even when, in the last extremity, men try to live without any devotion whatever, they prove their essentially loyal nature by a sense of futility and guilt that they cannot explain away. On the other hand the stoic, disillusioned with all other objects, is driven to conceive in his own mind an ideal of conduct, and to achieve a precarious peace by pretending with all his might that this, which he believes to be a figment of his personal taste, is yet somehow of intrinsic and universal excellence.

Thus on all hands man’s loyalty is vindicated. But to see that loyalty is a real factor in human nature is not to answer those ancient ethical questions with which all thoughtful persons are confronted to-day. Indeed, the mere prevalence of devotion to causes does not itself prove that loyalty ever is, as it purports to be, actually called into being by the intrinsic value of its object, and not merely by some secret and primitive itch of the experient himself. Still less is it clear that the ethical distinction between good and bad, on which loyalty claims to rest, is an intelligible distinction. What do we really mean when we speak of things as good and bad absolutely or universally? What, if anything, can we mean intelligibly by such phrases? Has ‘good’ ultimately no meaning at all, save ‘good for‘ some conscious being or other? Or is our delight in the goodness of a thing, not prior to its goodness, but consequent on it? And in what sense ‘ought’ a man to act so as to bring goods into being and abolish bads? What does it mean to say that he ought to do so whether he wants to or not, and even that the act itself ought to be done whether anyone admits the obligation or not?

And further if the ethical distinction is not simply a delusion, what kinds of things is it that in this actual world are good, and what bad? And what is it that would be the ideal, the best of all? What is the end for which we all ought to be striving? These latter indeed are the really interesting questions; but clearly the others are more fundamental. And perhaps the true answer to these fundamental ethical questions might turn out to be after all simply that they are meaningless.

Such briefly are the well-worn theoretical problems which, I suggest, have to-day become practical problems. Just because no ethical theory is now taken for granted, a sound ethical science is needed, whether its findings be positive or negative. Ethics has not hitherto been a live issue; and so books about ethics have mostly been abstract and remote. Only lately has ethical scepticism been not merely propounded but deliberately put into practice. Only lately has it begun to break down well-established habits of behaviour. For to-day, while much human conduct is still based on the old assumption of the universality of good and bad, much also springs definitely from the conviction that this distinction is invalid. Now that theoretical differences are carried into practice, our practice becomes more radically and bitterly discordant than ever before. May our theory in turn be revivified by its new practical import!

Not all of us, indeed, are aware of the ethical problems explicitly. But all our lives are influenced by the fact that there is no agreement about them; and probably every intelligent person is at some time or other painfully conscious of them. They have, of course, been faced many times in the past, and many times answered in terms of successive cultures. Yet they remain for most of us still unsolved, and we cry out for a solution of them in our modem speech. For just as physical science is finding itself no longer able to avoid philosophical questions, so politics, social reform, and even private life, are being influenced by doubts whose nature is philosophical. In fact there lurks in the background of every mind to-day a profound ethical perplexity.

Ethics is a hackneyed, treacherous, tedious, and, many would say, a stagnant and profitless subject. It offers none of the ceaseless adventures of physics, nor the shocks of psychology. But to-day we are ‘up against’ ethics whether we will or no. It is an obscure little matter that has somehow to be cleared up, or remain a secret and spreading rot in the foundations of our thought and practice. The trouble has perhaps been that ethics has been too sternly isolated as a self-contained science. In the recent somewhat disorderly advance of biology and psychology fierce battles have been fought on the borders of ethics. Some claim that ethics has been annihilated, others that it has established its sovereign independence. While agreeing with the latter party, I hold that ethics cannot afford to isolate itself, but must seek mutually profitable intercourse with its neighbours. Biology, psychology, and ethics are certainly distinct sciences,; yet if we would properly understand the principles of any one of them, we must bear in mind the principles of both the others.

In this book, though I shall try to show the bearings of ethics on psychology, my chief aim is to envisage in the light of biology and psychology the basic ethical problems themselves. First, however, it will be necessary to consider ethics as an isolated subject, and to form some opinion about various contemporary ethical theories. We shall then be in a position to correlate whatever seems sound in these theories with recent thought in biology and psychology. Thus I hope to get a clearer view of the basic principles of ethics itself.

Problems of the logical nature of ‘good’, and the logical ground of obligation, constitute the more abstract and perhaps the less interesting ethical task. Having come to some opinion on these subjects, we should be able to discuss with more assurance, though only schematically, the concrete character of the ideal implied in the nature of our world. Such a discussion I shall attempt towards the end of this book. And finally, since our subject inevitably leads on to metaphysical questions, I shall indulge in some highly speculative thought upon the status of ‘good and bad’ in the constitution of the universe.

1 Based on an article which appeared in The Open Court, April 1927

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Last updated Wednesday, March 5, 2014 at 22:30