Is Ethics Practical

When we were considering whether the task of ethics is anything more than that of analyzing actual moral opinion, we might have added one thing--namely, that even those who reject the attempt to define ethics in this way do not by any means regard such analysis as irrelevant or useless to ethical investigation. They would be the first to insist that anyone who wished to come to some conclusions about the rightness or wrongness of conduct should consult the moral experience of men. To deny him access to this experience would come in the same category with cutting a plant from its roots or an army from its lines of communication. For without the materials which human problems and experiences furnish, moral reflection would come to nothing, quite as a plant would wither without nourishment or an army perish without supplies. Ethical theory cannot function in a vacuum.

For that reason even the most highly speculative moral thinker must constantly find his way back to the world of human affairs, if his thinking is to have any dependable relation to conduct. Otherwise his theory may turn out to be like a suit of clothes that fits no one. Imagine, for example, an adequate treatment of the subject of "Justice" by a Robinson Crusoe who had had no experience in social relationships and who had never entertained the idea that there could be another person on the globe than himself--not even a "Man Friday." Or imagine a dissertation on "Human Good and Evil" by a being so different from us that he has no conception of the nature of pleasures or pains, desires or frustrations. From neither an amoeba nor an angel could one expect a sensitive appreciation of the problems of men.

But if ethical thinking needs the stimulation and life-giving touch of the world of human actions, to what extent is the reverse true? What, if anything, has ethics to offer the world? Of what practical significance is ethical reflection for human affairs?

Presumably what is being asked may be put in this way: Assuming that by ethical reflection it is possible to gain some fuller insight into the proper conduct of life, what chance is there that this insight may be applied to good purpose in the actual business of living? Will knowledge of the standards of right action produce right action?

Answers to this question have tended to run to extremes. Some have replied that there is no necessary correlation whatsoever between knowledge and virtuous behavior; that the latter depends on motives, loyalties, emotional drives, whose origin and direction are deeply rooted in the training and experience of the individual If a person lacks the kind of motivation that makes for right conduct, it is argued, no mere adding to his store of information can be expected to affect his impulses to action. Indeed, additions to his knowledge may be held to lend increased potency to his wickedness and to render him more effectively dangerous by enabling him to adjust his sights more accurately on his nefarious objective. With such a target, where ignorance means a miss, 'tis folly to be wise.

This latter thesis has gained widespread credence through reflection on the uses to which knowledge from the physical and biological sciences has been put in atomic and bacteriological warfare. Hence many persons have come to look upon reason, and upon the sciences to which it has given birth, with apprehension and distrust. Man's gift of rationality, on which he prided himself and which he thought of as distinguishing him from the lower animals, has become, they say, too hot to handle, a spiritual explosive more dangerous than the physical explosives it has fashioned, a maddened Jove who has lost control of his thunderbolts. Better to trust to the intuitive impulses and feelings of unlearned men than to tamper further with a science that has brought the world to the brink of destruction.

It may be a proper retort to this point of view that it is one thing to seek knowledge of the nature of an atom, and quite another to seek knowledge of the nature of right and wrong--that the latter can hardly be regarded as having lethal consequences. What is wanted, however, is not assurance of the harmlessness of ethical reasoning, but assurance of its positive value. And offers of this assurance are not hard to find. There are those who are prepared to defend the method of rational understanding, both in ethics and in other fields, with the same vigor and ardor displayed by those attacking it. From the time of Socrates to the present, there have been numerous champions of the view that knowledge somehow guarantees virtue, that ignorance is the root of all evil. If men would resort to rational processes, so it is argued, they could drive evil from their midst. No people, capable of seeing with clarity the road which leads to human good, would deliberately adopt another course. The cure for science, wrongly applied, is simply more science. On this view, the solution to the problems of the world is essentially a matter of education, the creation of a genus Homo whose entire motivations would center about the search for truth. The ideal is perhaps fairly well typified in the cartoon of the modern mother, seeking to overcome her young son's reluctance to eat breakfast, who asks, "Johnnie, tell mother what it is that you don't understand about Oatsies?"

Now many will consider this estimate of the value of the understanding quite as blithely overoptimistic as its extreme opposite is dolefully overpessimistic, and will seek a more moderate view of the function of reflective thinking. For granting that men are not wholly composed of brains, it may yet be possible that a man's knowledge can be brought into some kind of beneficent relation to his conduct.

In the first place, if there are men in whom can be found the wish to acquit themselves in this life as excellently and generously as possible, these men would presumably be grateful for whatever guidance ethical reflection can afford. Whenever individuals are seriously disturbed as to the right thing to do, whenever they seek the "best solution" to a personal or community problem, they are in need of the wisest ethical judgment available. Furthermore, such persons, if they are sincere and persistent, will themselves inevitably indulge in genuine ethical speculation. They will think their problems through in terms of ends they consider worth-while, of standards they feel ought to be met, of a theory of right and wrong. They may not be wholly conscious of the ends and standards they use; they probably will not reach the levels of abstraction which the specialist might attain; and they will almost certainly operate without benefit of that technical vocabulary (invented, as some have thought, for the express purpose of confusing the layman) by which philosophers have hoped to secure precision in the interchange of ideas. To inform such persons that they have been engaged in the practice of moral philosophy would doubtless produce in them as much astonishment as was shown by the man in the play when he learned that he had been speaking prose all his life. But these individuals, during that portion of their deliberations when they are reflecting on standards and not simply on their application, are as truly philosophers as any professional savant. It is necessary only to throw a person into a situation where a suitable perplexity arises, and, assuming that his mind is not in a condition of suspended animation, philosophizing will come as naturally and unconsciously as breathing.

We may conclude, then, that the man of good impulse will be impelled to seek wisdom in ethical reflection and that he will be likely to make good use of whatever wisdom he may come by.

But what, it may be asked, of those in whom the impulse to good works is less strongly implanted? To what degree may such persons be expected to respond to the study of ethics--assuming that they can be led into it at all?

That depends. There is probably no one who does not, to some extent, conduct himself in terms of his beliefs and convictions. He may never reach the point of putting these beliefs into words and of hanging them, appropriately framed, on his bedroom wall. But they undergird his behavior, and can usually be brought to the surface when the occasion demands.

Convictions feed, more or less unconsciously, on many things, including items of knowledge and considerations of logic. Our lives are sufficiently a whole and our various activities sufficiently integrated within our total selves to make it unlikely that a person who has examined in good faith the bases of moral behavior and reflected at all systematically on the ends of human living can escape from this process unscathed. Critical reflection on the springs of one's own conduct, or on that of some group or institution with which one has identified one's self, can produce a reaction not dissimilar to that which comes to the primitive man who for the first time observes his image in a mirror. Motives that are acknowledged are often thereby already changed. Thus, while the study of ethics can hardly be counted on to make us flawless paragons of virtue, it may at the very least be expected to help us fatten our moral batting averages.

The whole point here, of course, is that the relation between belief and behavior corresponds to that between ethics and morality. To say that a man's character cannot be severed from his beliefs is to assert the connectedness of ethics and morality. What a person believes, what he sets up as his objectives and aims, what he wants and works for--these things reveal his ethical convictions as much as they express his moral qualities. To the extent that morality is important, ethics is important, since ethics is, in a good sense, only morality become self-conscious, beginning to think about itself and to take itself somewhat seriously.

But it may be said that nothing is more important for man than morality, since morality is itself nothing more than man's own opinion, translated into behavior, of what he himself regards as important. To be sure, he may be quite unconscious both of the opinion and of the behavior, but it is valuations, preferences, loyalties, as appearing in his behavior--in his selection of a job, of companions, of books and hobbies, of political and religious affiliations, and the like--that are the stuff of morality. By such choices the very course of civilization is determined. Men's wants and valuations elect congresses, support or oppose wars and strikes and Community Chest campaigns, determine the decisions of juries and the violence of the lynching mob, make laws and defy laws, denude the hills of their forests and clothe them again, regulate (through their effect on supply and demand) the functioning of the economic system. The sciences of economics, political theory, and jurisprudence presuppose the existence of those human behavior patterns that are so closely linked to and so much the consequence of human ethical evaluations.

If we may conclude, then, that the range of influence which must be assigned to ethics is hardly less than the whole of human life, we can turn to our examination of the grounds of conduct with a sense both of the immensity and of the dignity of our task.

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