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Conscience & Christ : six lectures on Christian ethics online

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by ecclesiastical differences, but by controversies over

Moral Philosophy and Moral Authority 3

the broadest questions of social Ethics. It is not an
unknown experience even at the present day to hear
a clergyman at a clerical meeting actually maintain
that, if a man does not acknowledge the authority of
Christ, a Christian would have no common basis of
discussion with him as to such questions as strikes,
wages, SociaHsm and the Hke. And even less unphilo-
sophical Christians sometimes talk as though it were
only in the positive teaching of the Christian Scrip-
tures or the Christian Church that you can find
satisfactory principles for dealing with social diffi-

And, still more curiously, we sometimes find both
attitudes illustrated by the same man under different
circumstances. The Theologian may also be a Philos-
opher. A clergyman may be a teacher of Philosophy,
and when he discourses before his class upon Moral
Philosophy he will say a great deal about the authority
and validity of Conscience. Indeed, the more orthodox
he is as a Theologian, the more certain he is to adopt
the philosophical opinions which insist most strongly
upon the authority of Conscience. He will probably
treat Kant's theory of the Categorical Imperative with
profound respect, if he does not adopt all his opinions.
He is still more Ukely to accept Bishop Butler's view
that there is ** a superior principle of reflection or
conscience in every man, which distinguishes between
the internal principles of his heart, as well as his external
actions: which passes judgement upon himself and

4 Conscience and Christ

them ; pronounces determinately some actions to be in
themselves just, right, good, others to be in themselves
evil, wrong, unjust : which, without being consulted,
without being advised with, magisterially exerts itself
and condemns him, the doer of them, accordingly."^
You may be quite sure that you will never hear in a
philosophical lecture — even if delivered by a Bishop or
a lecturer in some definitely theological institution — the
faintest suggestion of the theory that the only way of
settling what is right and wrong is to discover a text
which bears upon the subject. The most conserva-
tive Theologian, when addressing a meeting of
w^orking men on some great moral question, or when
writing apologetically upon the fundamental truths of
ReUgion against Agnosticism and Naturahsm, will be
sure to adopt the same tone. But let the same man
get upon his legs in a Church assembly or take up his
pen to write an article in a Church newspaper upon a
moral question, and immediately the whole tone is
altered. We hear nothing more about Conscience or
the Moral Law or the Categorical Imperative, but only
about the true exegesis of some text in the Gospels, or
about the decrees of some Spanish Council in the
eighth century or the like. Sometimes we hear such
questions discussed by cultivated ecclesiastics as if
the solution to be given in the twentieth century, not
only by an individual Christian but by whole societies,
to the gravest problems of social policy must depend

* Sermon II.

Moral Philosophy and Moral Authority 5

upon the answer which critics give to a question of
various readings.

The contrast between these two methods may be
illustrated by an incident in which I was personally
concerned. I was requested to give evidence before
the Royal Commission which has recently been in-
vestigating the question of the Divorce Laws in Eng-
land. I ventured to suggest that the question was one
upon which the moral consciousness had something to
say. Thereupon I was severely cross-examined by
eminent ecclesiastical authorities as though I were a
setter forth of strange gods — and very dangerous and
unorthodox gods too. The most exalted of them
had enjoyed the advantage of a philosophical
education, had sat at the feet of Edward Caird,
had no doubt written plenty of essays upon
Moral Philosophy in his student days, and would
be quite capable of dealing with such problems in a
way befitting a philosopher : yet he pressed me to say
whether I did not think it was a very dangerous thing
to proclaim that such a question was one to be settled
by the moral consciousness. Another Commissioner,
an acute and learned High-church lawyer, talked as
if it really were the first time he had ever heard of
the moral consciousness, and as if the admission that
the human mind possessed any such activity would
be fraught with the gravest disaster to Church and

Now it is pretty obvious that this division of the

6 Conscience and Christ

mind into water-tight compartments is not a desirable
attitude. It may be assumed almost off-hand that
there must be something to be said for both points of
view. Only very uninstructed or very prejudiced
religious people will seriously deny the existence and
authority of Conscience : while the most liberal and
least dogmatic of Theologians are precisely those who
will be most disposed to insist that the following, the
imitation, the obeying of Christ represents an essential
element in the Christian ideal of life.^ If we are to
recognize both the authority of Conscience and the
authority of Christ, we ought surely to aim at clear
views about the relations between the two. And yet,
it would, I fear, be difficult to point to any work in
which the problem is satisfactorily dealt with from a
point of view which is at once modern and uncom-
promisingly Christian.

We have excellent works on Moral Philosophy on
the one hand, and on Christian Ethics on the other,
in some of which no doubt the true relation between
the two subjects is incidentally assumed or suggested.
But I do not think that the exact problem which I
have in mind has often been formally discussed in recent
English or American Theology. The subject certainly
deserves more serious treatment than it hcts received.
I need hardly say that in these six lectures I cannot

^ At least this would have been their attitude a few years ago ;
among the ultra-eschatological Theologians this would not perhaps
be assumed. The attitude of such Theologians is dealt with in the
next Lecture.

Moral Philosophy and Moral Authority 7

hope to supply this desideratum in our theological
literature in any but the most inadequate way. In the
little time at my disposal, I shall not aim at any great
theoretical completeness, and can only hope to direct
your attention to some of the problems which most
pressingly demand solution, and offer a few sugges-
tions as to the way in which they ought to be dealt

The question with which we are concerned is at
bottom " What is the proper relation between philo-
sophical and theological Ethics — between the subject
usually called Moral Philosophy or Ethics and the
subject known among Roman Catholic divines as
Moral Theology, among Protestants more usually as
Christian Ethics ? " Now it is clear that such a discus-
sion must logically presuppose not merely that we know
something about philosophical Ethics, but that we
have adopted some particular ethical system ; for the
answer to our problem may, it is clear, be profoundly
affected by the particular views we adopt. It being
impossible in so brief a course to enter upon any real
discussion of these fundamental ethical problems, I
can only tell you in the barest and baldest way the
main conclusions which I shall presuppose.

I start then with the assumption that we have a
power of distinguishing between right and wrong. I
assume the existence and the validity of the moral
consciousness, or in more popular language the exis-
tence and authority of Conscience. This moral con-

8 Conscience and Christ

sciousness cannot be any kind of Moral Sense or
emotion or amalgam of emotions.^ For the strongest
of our moral convictions is precisely this — that the
Moral Law possesses objective validity : that acts
are right or wrong in themselves, independently of
what I or any other individual may chance to think or
feel about the matter. Our ultimate judgements are
therefore to be compared rather with the axioms of
mathematics or the physical laws of nature than with
mere emotions. They express propositions, which, if
true at all, are true for all minds whatsoever. A mere
feeling — an emotional approbation of one kind of con-
duct or disapprobation of another — could not possibly
claim any such objectivity. Mustard is not objec-
tively nice or objectively nasty : it is simply nice to
one person and nasty to another. If our prejudice
against murder were a mere emotional dislike, the man
who did not as a matter of fact see any harm in murder
would not be in error, any more than the colour-blind
man who experiences a sensation of indiscriminate
grey, when the majority of us see green or red, is in
error. The thing really is grey to him, red or green to
the normal-sighted person. Upon that view it is
senseless to discuss which view of murder is the right
one : murder would simply be wrong for you and me

* I have discussed this subject fully in The Theory of Good and
Evil, Bk. I, chap, iv sq., and more recently (in reference to recent
theories) in Is Conscience an Emotion? being the West Lectures
for 1913, published by Leland Stanford University (in England:
Fisher Unwin).

Moral Philosophy and Moral Authority 9

who are repelled by such an act, right for a man like
Benvenuto Cellini who gloried in it. And this is just
what the moral consciousness of most people un-
doubtedly refuses to admit. Our moral judgements
claim to be objective — to state a matter of objective
fact, something which is true not for this or that
person, but for all minds whatsoever. If this claim is
to be admitted, they must come from the intellectual
part of our nature, whether we call it Reason or Moral
Reason or anything else — not from a Moral Sense or
any other emotional capacity. Objectivity, of course,
does not imply infallibihty. People may make mis-
takes about questions of right and wrong, just as they
may make mistakes in doing a sum in Mathematics, or
in the formulation of a scientific law, or in determining
the guilt of a prisoner at the bar. What it does mean
is that if A says " I ought to do this under such and
such circumstances," and B says, " you ought not to
do so," one or other of them must be wrong. The
moral faculty has, of course, developed slowly — just
like any other intellectual capacity. Not only are the
moral ideas of savages different from ours in detail,
but it may even be doubted whether the lowest
savages can really be said to possess at all the notion
of an absolute or objective right and wrong as that
notion existed in the mind of a Socrates or a Kant.
As applied to the lowest savage, the emotional theory
of Ethics developed by such writers as Professor
Westermarck and Mr. MacDougall is not perhaps so

lo Conscience and Christ

very far wrong : the merest germ of the notion of an
objective " duty " is to be detected in such minds.
But the existence and vahdity of an objective MoraUty
is no more affected by its gradual development, or by
the fact that infants and very low savages may not
possess the notion at all, than the validity of mathe-
matical axioms is affected by the fact, if it be a fact,
that some savages cannot count more than ten, or
that mathematically deficient minds — sometimes very
brilliant minds in other ways — cannot follow the
simplest geometrical reasoning.

As regards the nature and authority of the Moral
Consciousness then, I agree in the main with the
rationaUstic School of morahsts, though I should admit
that emotion has a great deal more to do with our
actual moral judgements in detail than morahsts of the
Kantian type have commonly recognized. But I must
not dwell further upon that matter.

When we pass from the question of right and wrong
in general to the question of the ethical criterion — that
is, the question how we are to ascertain what particular
actions are right or wrong — we find that writers who
believe our ultimate moral judgements to be self-
evident deliverances of Reason have often supposed
that it is possible to determine the morality of par-
ticular actions without reference to their consequences.
If I want to know whether I ought to tell a lie or not,
I must (so one kind of Intuitionist would say) wait
till the moment of action, and then I shall hear a

Moral Philosophy and Moral Authority it

commanding voice within me telling me not to tell
this particular lie or (it may be — in very exceptional
circumstances) to tell it. Or (according to another
School) I am supposed to find written on my con-
sciousness a general law which tells me that it is always
wrong to lie — even (so Kant explicitly held) when an
armed highwayman asks me the whereabouts of my
best friend. I must not stay to develope the absurd
consequences — as they seem to me — of accepting
either of these systems. It is impossible logically to
distinguish between an act and its consequences. The
consequences, so far as they can be foreseen, are in-
cluded in the act. And if we once admit that con-
sequences are to be considered, there is no logical
stopping at any particular point. We must consider
all the consequences, so far as we can. The true, ideal,
final solution of a moral problem must depend upon
the effect of the particular act upon the well-being
of the whole human race, though for obvious reasons
it is not necessary as a rule to trace out those conse-
quences so far : it is enough to know that its more
immediate consequences will be better than those of
any alternative course which presents itself to us, and
that we have no reason to anticipate any remoter
bad consequences which would outweigh the good.
So far I agree with the creed commonly kno\vn as
Utilitarianism. But Utilitarianism, as it is ordinarily
understood, is committed to the further position that
human well-being means nothing but pleasure, and

12 Conscience and Christ

pleasure measured quantitatively. From that posi-
tion I entirely dissent. The behef in duty carries with
it the further conviction that the doing of one's duty
— the good will, goodness, virtue, character — is an end-
in-itself, that it is itself a good, and the highest of all
goods. And I believe many other elements in human
life to be intrinsically valuable besides goodness and
pleasure — knowledge, intellectual activity, aesthetic
satisfaction ; affections, emotions, and desires of
many sorts. All these kinds of conscious life and
activity are normally accompanied by pleasure, but
their value is not always proportionate to their pleas-
antness. And when we do think of them in the light
of pleasures, we recognize that they differ in kind :
their value is not (as the Hedonist supposes) dependent
upon their mere duration and intensity taken together.
Human Well-being or Good includes a whole hierarchy
of goods. There is a good of the will or moral good : a
good of the intellect : a good of feeling. True good —
good in the singular — includes all these goods in
due proportion. Acts are right so far as they tend to
bring about for all mankind such a true good — the
largest amount of it that is possible and the justest
distribution of it that is possible. When we have to
choose between different goods, our aim should be to
bring about the greatest attainable good on the whole.
The Utilitarian is right, it seems to me, in aiming at
the maximum of human Well-being and a just distribu-
tion of it : he is wrong in identifying that Well-being

Moral Philosophy and Moral Authority 13

with maximum pleasure. The Intuitionist of the
traditional type is right in holding that the ultimate
moral judgement is intuitive, immediate, or, if you like,
a priori : he is wrong only in treating isolated im-
promptu judgements upon particular cases of conduct,
or, again, hard and fast exceptionless rules as to
whole classes of acts, as final, irreversible, absolutely
binding deliverances of the moral consciousness. The
true ultimate moral judgement relates not to acts but
to ends : the true moral judgement is a judgement of
value. It is expressed in the form " this is good,"
not " this is right." The concept of good no doubt
includes that of right or duty. If something is good,
that means that it is always right to try to bring it
into existence, except so far as it stands in the way of
some greater good. On the other hand, the judgement
** this act is right " always, if thought out, implies
that there is some good which ought to be realized,
absolutely, for its own sake, as a means to no end but
itself. What the good is, it is for the moral conscious-
ness to pronounce. The good is an ideal which the
moral consciousness creates or recognizes. Such is in
barest outline the ethical system which I have ven-
tured to call " Ideal Utilitarianism."

I cannot hope, of course, in the time at my disposal
to explain and justify this mode of ethical thinking to
those to whom it is unfamiliar, or who have definitely
adopted some other system. I have thought it best to
indicate in this, I fear, rather dogmatic manner the

14 Conscience and Christ

point of view from which I myself approach the sub-
ject ; for I shall be obliged at times to assume a par-
ticular answer to certain ethical problems. But I
trust it will be possible for many to accept the general
view which I hope to set before you of the relation
between philosophical or (as some people might call it)
" natural " Ethics and the special Ethics of Christianity
without adopting my own particular answer to the
problem of the ethical criterion. In most of what I
have to say it will be enough to assume merely that
you agree with me in holding that we have a natural
power of determining what is right and wrong, and
that we ought in the last resort to guide our conduct
by the ethical judgements which we derive from this
moral faculty of ours. The problem which on such an
assumption confronts us is this : If we have this
natural power of judging between right and wrong,
where can we find room in our moral life for any
external authority — for any authoritative rules of
right and wrong such as we find in the Bible, in the
traditional laws or decisions of the Church, and especi-
ally in the commands and ethical sayings of our Lord
Himself — or (to put the problem in its most general
form) for any positive body of ethical doctrine such as
every historical Religion sets before its adherents ? If
Conscience is to be supreme, it might seem at first sight
that to set up any such body of ethical precepts as
final and infallible, or even as entitled to any particular
respect, must be superfluous or else pernicious. If we

Moral Philosophy and Moral Authority 15

already know what is right, why appeal to the authority
of any outside moral legislator ? Might we not (it
may be asked) apply to the enactments of such an
authority the dilemma by which the Khahf Omar is
said to have justified the conflagration of the Alex-
andrian Library ? "If these books contradict the
Koran, they are pernicious ; if they agree with it, they
are superfluous." If the precepts of authority agree
with those of our own Consciences, they must be super-
fluous : if they contradict them, they must be false.

Now at this point I must remind you that the process
of deciding what ought to be done in any conjunction
of circumstances is not really so easy a process as it
might at first sight appear from the simple assertion
that human Reason gives us certain self-evident
judgements on the subject, (i) In the first place these
self-evident judgements relate, as we have seen, to the
value of ends : what are the means to the end judged
to be good, we must learn from experience. A great
deal of knowledge about plain matters of fact is re-
quired to enable an individual mind — even an adult
developed mind at an advanced period of civiUzation
— to give a right answer as to what ought to be done
in any particular conjunction of circumstances. Such
a judgement demands much knowledge about the conse-
quences of actions which can only be ascertained fully
by an experience much wider than that of the average
individual. And then (2), even in pronouncing upon
the value of an end, the individual is always limited

i6 Conscience and Christ

to his own experience or to some experience which he
can understand by the analogy of his own. If the
question be as to the relative importance of culture
and (say) athletic exercise, an individual must have
some experience of both before he can decide : he
need not have an actual knowledge of the particular
literature or music whose value is in question, or else
it would never be possible to decide upon the value of
any experience till it was over, but he must have had
some analogous experience. He need not wait to
justify his spending time upon hearing Wagner or
reading the last new poet till he has made acquaint-
ance with their works : but he cannot decide whether
music or poetry are good without knowing to some
extent what music and poetry in general are like.
And (3) it must be remembered that, even when the
actual experiences are before him — when he knows that
act A will lead to such and such a state of consciousness
and act B to some other state of consciousness, and
knows what these states of consciousness really are, —
not everyone possesses equal powers of judging values,
any more than all individuals are equally good
judges of scientific truth or of historical evidence or
are equally competent critics of poetry and painting.

From these considerations it follows that the great
majority of individuals in the great majority of their
actions cannot possibly decide for themselves about
their rightness or wrongness in the way that is often
assumed to be possible in the abstract discussions o

Moral Philosophy and Moral Authority 17

moral philosophers. That would be so even if each
individual were born into the world with his faculties
already fully developed. Still less are children capable
of giving an independent answer of their own to such
problems. As a matter of fact the earliest state of the
human infant is one in which he differs from a low type
of animal only in having less strong and valuable
guidance from his instincts and a greater capacity for
future development : while, if we look to the history
of the race, the civilized modern man has emerged
from a savage ancestor in whom it is hard to detect
any such rational reflection upon conduct as the moral
philosopher presupposes, and further back from an
animal in which there was certainly no such reflection.
Even when we turn to the developed intelligence in
its most reflective moments, we at once recognize that
the behaviour of most men in most circumstances is
determined by instinct, by passion, by custom and
habit, or (in so far as it is based upon consciously
accepted ethical principle) by rules which are not due
to the independent working of their own intellect but
have been handed down by social tradition and are
imposed upon them by a social environment. It is
unnecessary for the present purpose to ask what deter-
mines the established morality of a community in
early times — how much is due to instinct, how much to
the operation of natural selection, how much to the
teaching of experience and conscious utilitarian cal-
culation, how much to the influence of leading minds

i8 Conscience and Christ

and the traditions which they have created, how much
to emotion and how much to Reason. It is enough for
us to take note of the fact that in primitive communities
morahty consists mainly in obedience to custom ; and
that in so far as custom is due to the working of the
moral Reason, it is largely the Reason of the community
rather than the deliberate reflective verdict of any
particular Conscience that expresses itself in its
moraUty. As civilization and moralization advance,
Morality tends to become more conscious, more reflec-
tive, and more individual. But even in the most
advanced and developed communities, the greater part
of the average individual's moral ideal is the ideal of
his community. He starts with a set of rules, ideals,
institutions, which he does not consciously question, and
the ultimate grounds of which he does not investigate.
The part which his own Conscience plays in the matter
is for the most part that of accepting and recognizing
the moral ideal of his community, or in choosing
between several social ideals which may be contending

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Online LibraryHastings RashdallConscience & Christ : six lectures on Christian ethics → online text (page 2 of 23)