The Fallacy of Ethics

A YEAR ago I received a printed letter from America which contained a problem in ethics, and the sender proposed that I should answer it. He added that he had sent the same conundrum to many notable people and that he hoped that by collating the replies he would arrive at an absolute answer. I have unfortunately lost the printed letter, but it ran something like this: —

‘A is a good boy, B is a bad boy. When A and B are together, B breaks a window notwithstanding A’s remonstrance. The teacher finds the broken window and suspects that A knows who broke it. Should A tell? And should the teacher bring pressure to bear on A to make him tell?'

My correspondent supposed there was an answer that was always true; he was in search of the absolute.

There is, I suppose, nothing that men have searched for, hoped for, tried for, from the beginning as they have for the absolute. They have dreamed of an absolute happiness; they have imagined an absolute ethic as a means to that happiness.

Very early man began it by making proverbs and wise sayings. These are some of them common to most peoples:

Do not put off till to-morrow what you can do to-day.

Marry in haste and repent at leisure.

Well begun is half done.

Whatever thy hand findeth to do, do it with all thy might.

A burnt child dreads the fire.

It is better to be lucky than wise.

These proverbs rejoiced him for a time. They seemed so true. He could see that in experience they were sometimes true, and he closed his eyes to the fact that the exceptions were as numerous as the examples. He hoped that he was finding absolute truth, that he was reducing life to formulæ so that he need not think about anything, and the idea made him happy.

Unfortunately there were other proverb-makers as true as the first, and they made these proverbs: —

More haste, less speed.

Happy the wooing that’s not long in doing.

Fine before seven, wet before eleven.

Point de zéle.

Familiarity breeds contempt.

Fortune’s best gift is wisdom.

All his truths were thus contradicted by other truths. For unfortunately these second proverbs were as good as the former. They were just as true, had just as many examples and just as many exceptions. It was exasperating to be thus driven out of his complacency, and early man was angry. ‘Neither of them is completely true,’ he declared, ‘therefore both are false. They are false because they are both exaggerations. The truth lies between. A curse on both your houses; “ in medio tutissimus ibo.” ’

That was a saying that filled him with delight because of its evident soundness and balance. ‘That is matured wisdom,’ he thought: ‘avoid all extremes; go slowly and carefully and safely.’ It was in fact the beginning of philosophy, though unfortunately not the end of it.

It was, however, the end of every early man who believed and practiced it.

Fighting was common in those days, and there were only two kinds of early man who survived at all. One kind was he who went into battle determined to conquer or to die; the second was he who was equally determined, if he could not conquer, to run away. The philosopher who went to battle half-heartedly had it in him neither to conquer nor run away, but was always killed and was generally eaten afterwards. So that fixed ethics led a precarious existence in those stirring times. Still they did not die, and ever with increasing civilization they increased as well.

Then they took the form of religions taught by priests.

They came to him in one form or another and said, ‘You have not found the absolute truth? No, of course you have not. You could not. Absolute truth cannot be found. It can only be revealed. It has been so revealed to us. We know the absolute. Do what we tell you and all will be well.’

And man at first willingly resigned himself. ‘It is hard work thinking, therefore let the priests do it for me. It seems an endless labor, saving myself; let the priests save me. Now responsibility is off my shoulders I shall be happy and free.’

But he soon found that he was neither. He had sold himself into a spiritual bondage, and to his surprise this did not make him happy. However hard he tried, there was something in his soul that would not accept this state of things. There was a criticizing spirit that would not accept as truth what it was told, a spirit of independence that kept whispering in his ear, ‘You alone are a true judge of what is true for you. No one can judge for you because no one can be you. Can’t you feel that a great deal of what they tell you is n’t true?’

But this was not all. It was not merely, or even mainly, that what faiths told him and priests bade him and ethics directed was not true, for sometimes it was true; it was that it was as bad when it was true as when it was untrue.

For the same inner voice he feared so much would not be still, would not submit. It wanted the mastery of itself, not that others should have it. ‘Think,’ it said aloud. ‘Say you do well. If others bade you, to whom the profit? Not to you. Obedience profiteth nothing. That which profiteth a man is what he himself thinks, what his soul determines and no other. If you obey others you kill me, because I must have air and exercise and see the light. Would you sell your soul for a lot of maxims ? What will it profit you if you go safely through life by listening to others? The object of life is accomplishment, not safety; yet again, at the end it is not what you have done or left undone that avails, but what you are, what your soul is. And what shall I be if you make me a slave, bind me in chains and drive me down into the dark? I am the Inward Light. If you put me out, wherewith can you be lighted? ’

Man was afraid and tried to kill this critic, tried with all his might, and the faiths helped him with all their might.

Yet it lived.

And not only lived but forced him, willy-nilly, from the enervating air of these soul-lethal chambers back into the outer air again.

He would much rather not have gone, but he had to go.

Therefore faiths failed him, but he would not learn from that. ‘Truth is evidently not revealed,’ he admitted, reverting to his first idea; ‘it must be found. The world must find it, for no doubt it’s there. I want an absolute rule of conduct, so that in every difficulty I shall only have to turn to it and find out what to do. It must be fixed and absolute, the same for all. No doubt there is such a rule.’

That was his ideal. He did not wish the daily labor of thought, of sight. He did not want to guide himself; he was afraid to do so. He wanted rigid rails of conduct on which to run as a locomotive does: rails he would never leave even to avoid collision, rails leading only to a bourne where thought and freedom never come, where eyes are useless in that dark, and the ideal is the machine.

Then arose philosophies and systems of ethics. ‘Wise’ men worked at these, work at them yet, and make out systems for the world to follow. These systems are innumerable.

Man has found not one but hundreds of ethics, and then has gone on to find that they were no good. The wrong turned out right quite as often as wrong. The more surely he found absolute truth, the more certainly he discovered it to be absolute falsehood. There was once a great philosopher, greatest, they say, of modern times; he found one ethic— ‘Always speak the truth.’ It sounded well, for truth is truth. But is it possible? That carping critic in Man’s soul would not be silent. ‘If,’ he asked, ‘when you were walking on a moor you met a fugitive, an honest honorable man, escaping from would-be murderers, and you saw him hide; then came the murderers and demanded from you where their victim hid,—would you declare the truth?’

‘I would,’ he answered, stubbornly refusing to leave his rails of conduct.

‘And make yourself accessory to a vile murder? ’

‘I would.’

But the world cried scorn upon him, forced thereto by that within souls which never will be killed.

Yet again there are cases where truth would stand higher even than a man’s life.

Systems of ethics! How many have we seen which have been true? Not one, nor in one detail. If in any part a half-truth was obtained it was exceptional. Any ethic is partly true sometimes, a few are true often, and none always.

Do not kill? Must not the soldier kill, the policeman, the man acting in self-defense? And there are still more exceptions, which can never be reduced to rule.

Must the soldier always kill, the policeman, or he who acts in self-defense? Go out into the world and see. The nearest you can get to any rule in this matter is this: ‘You must not kill unless by killing you prevent a greater evil.’ But what is a greater evil, and whether killing will prevent it, depends on time and place and persons.

I suppose no man has sought more insistently, more sincerely, and more carefully for a system of right and wrong than did the author of Ecclesiastes. Did he find it? Hear what he said: —

‘To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven:

‘A time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to pluck up that which is planted;

‘A time to kill, and a time to heal; a time to break down, and a time to build up;

‘A time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance;

‘A time to cast away stones, and a time to gather stones together; a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing;

‘A time to love, and a time to hate; a time of war, and a time of peace.’

So wrote he that was the Preacher, that there is no emotion that is not good in its place and in its time.

And did he say how that place and time could be discovered? Did he lay down any rule for discovering the time to love and the time to hate, the time to kill and the time to save alive? He did not; he knew that there is no such rule, nor can be.

There are no ethics worth a thought; there cannot be. At the best any generalization is but an average, therefore never quite true even of one instance, and it will have as many exceptions as inclusions. And prima facie no one can tell which is an inclusion or which an exception, because there never have been, never are, and never can be two cases quite the same. Life is not dead but living; it has no fixed data; change is life and life is change. How can there be finality in change?

Then there is law.

To those who have had no experience of courts and laws, they seem most excellent. Are they not courts of justice? Are not the laws the wisdom of the wisest men distilled in wisest words? Are not offenses all defined with the greatest care, made absolute, so that there can be no doubt when a man has committed a crime, that it is a crime and even a specially labeled crime? To the public of most countries their laws stand for wisdom and their courts for justice,— but to those within them, it is not so.

‘I do not sit here to administer justice but law,’ a great judge said. They are two very different things, as different as a body and a soul. Let us consider the body.

If law were justice, why a jury ? The law is clear; a judge can tell far better than a jury when according to law a crime is proved or not. He has no bias. No one doubts that our judges are honest, able, honorable men; why then a jury?

To stand between the accused person and the law.

If the law were justice there would be no need, but the law is not justice. No one who knows it thinks it is or can be.

‘The law is a ass, a idiot,’ complained Bumble when he found himself confronted with one of the assumptions which underlie law, which are supposed to be true always and which are so only sometimes. And every one who has had to go to law echoes his complaint. You cannot apply the absolute to human affairs because you cannot standardize humanity. It changes, it evolves, and what was true yesterday is not so to-day; what is true for you is not so for me.

Therefore the world has failed, must always fail, to find the absolute. Because the absolute means death, and only death. It is the end, but life has never any end.

You cannot standardize human conduct because that would destroy life. You cannot have a fixed ethic because that would do away with thought and judgment.

There may at the best be generalizations which are useful if it be remembered that they are never completely true. Man’s true guide is his conscience, that which is in him when he is born, which should be cultivated all his life.

That is the Inward Light, and this is what was written about it, maybe three thousand years ago: —

‘What light hath this Man-Soul?’

‘Sun’s light, O King,’ said he; ‘’t is with the sun for light that he sitteth, goeth about, doeth his work, and cometh back.’

‘Verily it is so. When the sun hath gone down what light hath this ManSoul?’

‘Moon’s light, O King,’ said he; ‘’t is with the moon for light that he sitteth, goeth about, doeth his work and cometh back.’

‘Verily it is so. When the sun hath gone down, when the moon hath gone down, what light hath this Man-Soul?’

‘Fire’s light, O King,’ said he; ‘’t is with fire for light that he sitteth, goeth about, doeth his work, and cometh back.’

‘Verily it is so. When the sun hath gone down, when the moon hath gone down, when the fire is stilled, what light, hath this Man-Soul?’

‘Voice’s light, O King. ’T is with Voice for light that he sitteth, goeth about, doeth his work, cometh back. Therefore when a voice is uplifted thither he goeth, albeit he cannot behold there his own hand.’

‘Verily it is so. When the sun hath gone down, when the moon hath gone down, when the fire is stilled, when the voice is hushed, what light hath this Man-Soul ? ’

‘The light of Self, O King,’ said he; ‘’t is with self for light that he sitteth, goeth about, doeth his work, cometh back.’

‘What is the Self?’

‘It is the Man-Soul made of understanding amid the Breaths, the Inward Light within the heart; he becometh an understanding dream and fareth beyond this world.’

But if you have never cultivated this Inward Light, if you have no oil for that lamp, wherein it burns, no judgment, no self-confidence, with what will you light yourself?

And there is no better way to kill it than by teaching any fixed ethic as the absolute.

That brings me back to the conundrum with which I started. What is the answer? There is of course no answer. It would depend on A’s, on B’s, on the teacher’s personalities, on innumerable circumstances of time and place and other persons, on antecedents and on probable consequences. How can you have a fixed answer to meet all contingencies? Men are not machines.