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level than the men who listened to Socrates
or were contemporary with Plutarch. The
enormously higher skill and efficiency of the
moderns in most provinces of thought and
action is altogether the result of training and
method. We constantly take a short straight
course where our ancestors wandered this way
and that. We have found out how, by reduc-
ing investigation to a system, and by recording
all the results which are reached by researchers,
to enable one man to start where another left
off, and so to build the roads of science across
swamps and deserts until we reach realms quite
inaccessible to our fathers.

And the comparison of the hive of bees with
the solitary bee, or the ant with the gnat,
encourages us to think that perhaps in the


future human society may, through better
discipline and closer association, reach an
ethical and intellectual level far beyond our
present reach. If we go on storing the results
of experience, we may save to each man born
so much time and energy, and give him so
splendid a field for exertion, that he may learn
to look upon us as we look on the natives of
Greenland or of Central Africa, whose brain
is not physiologically very different from ours,
but who are so unorganised that each man has
to give all his energy to the mere preservation
of his existence, to wear out a complicated
brain in the accomplishment of simple tasks.

The belief which lies at the root of all ethical
philosophy is that on the whole morality is
progressive. Indeed, without such a belief
there is no escape from the profoundest pessi-
mism. If we look at the ethical phenomena
of any particular age or country, it may be
hard to see any definite progress. Indeed, at
many periods there seems to be distinct retro-
gression. To suppose that ethical progress is
continuous is quite impossible to any student
of history. We find times of rapid improve-
ment followed by times of stagnation or of
deterioration. Some races seem for centuries
steadily to pursue a downward course. But
if we look at the broad trend of morality, and


take our points for comparison at a sufficient
distance apart, we shall find that progress is on
the whole more usual than decay.

In fact ethical progress, like all motion,
is in character rhythmical. Like the waves
of the sea as they break on the shore, it is
alternately advancing and receding. Usually
it is advancing in some respects, and receding
in others. It follows a course of evolution
like that followed in the case of all kinds of
living creatures, which are constantly putting
forth tentative variations, some of which are
in the line of degeneration, but which on
the whole tend, not merely to adapt the kind
of creature to its habitat and surroundings,
but really to improve it.

And man with his hopes and ideals, not
without divine help, cuts at every point into
the course of evolution. As he modifies the
development of domestic animals to suit his
needs, so he modifies the working of mere
cause and effect in the moral world. He
adopts and justifies courses of action which
might seem to lead to destruction by linking
them with higher needs and spiritual progress.
To take a simple example : the monastic
idea at first sight would seem to lead to ruin,
since it withdrew from society a multitude
of the best and noblest of both sexes, and


condemned them to sterility of offspring.
Yet he would be a bold historian who would
assert that on the whole it tended rather to
the ill than to the good of mediaeval society.

The paradoxes of Christianity as to the
value of the soul, the possibility of saving
one's life by sacrificing it, and losing it by
an unworthy clinging to it, the superiority
of the unseen to the seen and the eternal
to the temporal are true for all time, and
transpose into a new and higher order the
mere process of ethical change. There are
thus in any reasonable investigation of ethics
three things to consider : first, the natural con-
sequences of actions amid ordinary material
surroundings ; second, man's power to work
for the ideal and invisible rather than for
the obviously expedient ; and third, the
overruling hand of a Providence, sometimes
seen, more often suspected, in any case not
to be fully apprehended save by the eyes of
faith, which " shapes our ends, rough-hew
them how we will."


When we speak of scientific ethics, the
phrase is no doubt not strictly correct. For
ethics has to do with practical life and action,
science only with knowledge. No amount


of ordered and exact knowledge or science
would enable a man to choose well a course
of action or to avoid wrong-doing, apart from
the pursuit of ideals or the desire to accom-
plish something good. Science at most is a
light, to show the road ; but it does not help
us to walk in the road, still less to make it.
But the term scientific ethics is a convenient
one, and it is easily to be understood. It
means a system of ethics which can be
defended in the courts of reason, which works
out consistently the principles on which it is
based, which is self-consistent. And it also
means, almost necessarily, an ethic which is
based on a consideration of the consequences
which flow from various courses of action,
since effects are more easily observed and
recorded than other aspects of action.

Strictly speaking, a scientific system of
ethics may be built upon any principle which
a man may adopt. That principle might be
the desirability of happiness for the person who
constructs the system, to whose well-being
that of all other people is to be subordinated.
Or it might be the good and the prosperity of
a particular society or nation : such a summum
bonum as that has been in fact adopted by the
narrower of the ancient Jews and the modern
Germans. But most people feel such narrow


restriction to be profoundly immoral. The
most noted principles which have served as
bases for reasoned systems of morality are
conformity to nature, as preached by the Stoics,
and the search for the greatest happiness of
the greatest number upheld as the true law
of action by the various sects of modern

As regards the methodical or scientific side
of ethics, it is clear that, eugenics apart, it can
only be reached by systematic research. Such
research will naturally fall into two divisions,
the historic and the psychologic or analytic.
In examining the history of the past, we can
ascertain within certain limits to what results
various courses of action led, results whether
good or bad in the opinion of the searcher.
And by analysis we can in a measure determine
what kinds of action are most suitable to our
surroundings, physical or social, which best fit
in with our faculties and tend to further or to
diminish life and energy.

As regards the adoption of principles of
conduct, there have certainly been strong drifts
in our time. Almost all people take a more
or less utilitarian view; that is, they assume
that whatever leads to greater happiness in a
community is ethically good. But this, after
all, is only taking the whole question one


stage further back ; for the question, What is
good ? we substitute the question, What is
happiness ? and this is really a matter in which
opinions differ as widely as they do in regard
to the good. But one or two points are to be
observed in all, or almost all, modern schemes
of scientific ethics. In the first place, they
eliminate the future life. This in itself is an
enormous change ; for in the Middle Ages the
question of happiness and misery in the future
life quite dominated the discussion as to what
was right and what wrong in the present state
of existence. I do not mean that people
generally disbelieve in a future state. But
those who do believe in it have come to think
that it will not be swayed by different laws
and principles from those which dominate the
present life? that it will not be cataclysmic
and discontinuous with the present. And in
the second place, modern scientific moralists do
not accept as infallible any dicta of authority,
not even from the Gospels. Though some-
times Christians, they think that it is necessary
to revise all the dicta of ancient authority in
the light of present and ascertainable fact.

I do not mean to say that they are neces-
sarily right in this procedure ; but it is so
universal that it must have some sort of justi-
fication in the conditions of the time. It


shows, at all events, the direction in which
trained arid educated minds are drifting. And
it becomes necessary to consider whether some
of the ethical notions which we have inherited
from Christian ancestors, and probably imbibed
with our mother's milk, can hold their own
amid the changed intellectual conditions of the
twentieth century. There is in our age, as in
all past ages, a certain consensus or agreement
as to the best principles of action, the line
which progress is likely to take. But the
question imperatively presents itself how far
the present agreement is Christian in character.
I eliminate, as after the argument of Chapter
III. I think I have a right to eliminate, the
more short-sighted and materialist cult of
utility. On those who are satisfied with such
a cult nothing that I can say is likely to have
any bearing. I am speaking of the wiser and
more thoughtful ethical investigators, such
as some of the teachers in our universities
and the writers who have by common consent
reached a high level as moralists. What such
men have to say must needs be worthy of
careful consideration.


Some thoughtful writers who have studied
ethics from the rational and evolutional point


of view, while they have been strongly im-
pressed by the necessity of changing our
notions of ethics to bring them into focus
with a reasonable view of man's position and
functions in the world, and with an evolutional
view of history, do not see how such a view is
to be brought into harmony with Christianity.
There is, in their opinion, an irreconcilable
contradiction between the outlook of philo-
sophic ethics and the outlook which belongs to
Christianity. It is necessary to consider this
position carefully. In a paper read at the
Conference of Modern Churchmen held at
Oxford in August 1916, Professor Caldecott
set forth the main points as to which this
contradiction exists with great clearness and
force. 1 The present discussion will in the
main follow the lines which he traced.

Christianity, it is said, lays stress upon sym-
pathy with weakness and suffering. It is
ready to praise the devotion of the strong to
the weak, the self-limitation of the strong
in order to help the weak. If a man ruins
his career, gives up his prospects of usefulness
to society for the sake of an ailing parent or
a delicate child ; or if a woman spoils her own

1 Now printed in the Modern Churchman for October
1916. With this may be compared Dean RashdalPs more
elaborate Conscience and Christ.


life from devotion to a weak and helpless
friend, Christianity will applaud the sacrifice.
But more robust ethics, thinking of the general
good, will not commend the sacrifice of the
more valuable to the less valuable life.

Christianity, it is said, insists upon frequent
repentance, upon allowing the mind to dwell
on failures in the past, and living in contrite
remembrance. A healthier morality will set
aside a painful dwelling on past shortcomings
or transgressions as morbid, and will direct
attention rather to duty which lies in front ;
will be too busy with good works to waste
time on self-condemnation and remorse.

Christianity, it is said, regards suffering as
a heaven-sent discipline, to be accepted and
endured in obedience to the divine will :
philosophic ethics will be unwilling to endure
any suffering for which a remedy may be
found ; will be restive under the hand of
affliction, and determined not 'to suffer.

Christianity, it is said, by bringing in the
notion of retribution for good or evil in a
future life, sets before men another set of
motives than the desire to do good and to
further happiness in the world, which is the
only purpose of life which systematic ethics
can accept as satisfactory.

Christianity, it is said, is dull and obtuse in


its recognition of the value of beauty, whether
in nature or in art. It is indifferent to aesthetic
considerations ; and the delight in a healthy
body and mind does not appeal to it. Beauty
and health are far more highly valued by the
systems of ethics more directly based upon
reason and the desire of well-being.

Finally, Christianity, it is said, in place of
regarding virtue as an infinite progress, main-
tains that the ideal of virtue was attained
once, and embodied in a historic character,
whom we may copy, but cannot surpass.
This, according to the rational moralists,
stunts virtue and checks aspiration, does away
with that goal towards which men ambitious
of goodness are ever striving. Rational ethics
places perfection as an ideal in the future
rather than as a record in the past. Such is,
in brief, the indictment which we have to

Of these objections to Christian ethics the
last is perhaps the most formidable. But it
is an objection, not to the essential principles
of Christianity, but to popular Christianity,
with its cataclysmic notions. If the Saviour
was in fact a purely supernatural revelation,
set forth in order that Christians for all time
should look back rather than forward or
upward, then indeed the infinite character of


virtue is obscured. But if we may regard
the divine logos or purpose as revealed indeed
in the historic life of Jesus, but revealed also
in the lives of those who carried on his work,
in the leaders and saints of the Christian
Church, and even in our own days, then the
ideal character of virtue is saved. In that
case we do not reach eternal life by a mere
obedience to the Christ of the Gospels ; but
as St Paul says, we may grow into Christ in
all things, and complete ourselves the suffer-
ings of Christ for the good of men.

There is indeed an astounding contrast
between a Christianity which only looks back
and the writings of the New Testament.
From beginning to end they speak not of
the past but of the future, of a world which
has to be changed and redeemed, of a
Kingdom of God which lies far in front of
us, and towards which the Society is ever
striving. It is for forgetting what is behind,
and reaching towards what is before. Such
is the Christianity of Christ and of St Paul.
And if Christianity be thus dynamic and not
static, a stream of tendency rather than an
organised system, the difficulties above set
forth lose their bitterness. Philosophic and
rational ethics itself is by no means a com-
pleted scheme, as to which all thinkers are


agreed, but merely the result of the best
thought of the time. In the future many
views which are now regarded as established
in the ethics of the schools may very probably
be abandoned. Twentieth-century moralists
are no more infallible than were the moralists
of the eighteenth century, whom we now value
but moderately. But Christianity also is not
a completed system ; and in the future, as in
the past, there will be give and take between
the philosophic and the Christian moralist.

For example, in the Middle Ages indis-
criminate almsgiving to the poor was regarded
as of the essence of Christianity. Now, all
sensible people see that unless giving is
exercised with caution and wisdom it must
tend to the utter demoralisation of the com-
munity. 1 In this case systematic ethics has
superseded popular Christianity in the minds
of all reflecting people. On the other hand,
in the past philosophic ethics has been wrong
in attributing too much value to mere
abstention, to the negative side of morality.
It has said "thou shalt not" far more often
than " thou shalt." But Christianity has been
comparatively free from this blot. From the
very first teaching of the Founder, Christian-
ity has laid stress upon the active virtues.

1 To this subject I return in Chapter VI.


It has dwelt upon active love to God and
man, upon self-surrender and zeal for God.
It has seen that man develops from the heart
outwards ; and that calculation of results,
though necessary, is not of the essence of

The first and last word of Christianity is
that men are to be judged by fruits. If
systematic ethics can show any principle of
action to lead to evil, Christianity will in
time reject it ; and will be able to do so
without suffering shipwreck. But meantime,
in most of the clashings between philosophic
and Christian ethics, Christianity seems to
be more in the right, because it regards men
in a more inward way, and lies closer to the
springs of action. The philosopher regrets
the sacrifice of the more efficient to the less
efficient. But has he considered what the
result would be in the world if the more
efficient took the law into their own hands,
and determined that their interests should be
first considered ? Would not all society soon
become hopelessly brutalised ? The commun-
ity would, it is true, have a perfect right, in
the general interest, to step in and forbid too
much self-sacrifice on the part of the efficient.
But that would be quite a different thing
from the practice of self- conservation by the


efficient on grounds of conscience. In the
ethics of the individual, self-sacrifice must
always hold a high place. But when it
becomes a danger to society, it is for society
to step in and set a limit to it.

Take the case of a shipwreck. It has been
the English rule always to save first the women
and children, to let male passengers come
next ; and the captain is usually one of the
last to take to the boats. Yet the captain's
life is probably the most valuable in the ship.
And many of the women are of far less value
to society than the men without whom they
would be even dependent on friends for their
daily bread. Yet surely no one would wish
to see the English rule invalidated. Some-
times, when the passengers are of a more
backward race, the men push their way to
the front and demand the first chance. Every-
one in such a case would justify the crew in
shooting them like dogs. Yet they might,
from a strictly utilitarian point of view,
establish some ground for their selfishness.

The case is not dissimilar with regard to
repentance. It may be carried to excess ; and
a man who has once -gone astray may be so
prostrated by remorse that his power of doing
good is utterly crushed. But this extreme is
less of a danger, as it is certainly far less


common, than its opposite. If a man who has
done evil merely says, like Achilles in the
Iliad, " I went astray," and takes no further
thought about the matter, he shows a callous
conscience and a hard heart. He ought to
feel that a deed of wrong is not only harmful
to the community, but a sin, an act of rebellion
against the Power of Good in the world, a
discord in the scheme of the universe. And
he ought to feel bitterly sorry : indeed, unless
he really repents he is as like as not to do the
same thing again. In this matter, as in many,
Christianity is wiser than the wisdom of the

In regard to our duty to regard evil and
suffering as things to be opposed and not
to be endured, the true principle seems
to me to lie midway between popular Chris-
tianity and systematic ethics. Both, in fact,
are right in their assertions and wrong in their
denials. Evil and suffering are certainly our
enemies, to be met and remedied in every case,
in the way in which Jesus met disease. And
yet any experience of life will show that under
these malign forms there often lurks a spiritual
meaning. Looking back on his life, a man
may well see two things constantly intertwined:
on one side suffering as the result of weakness
of will or of folly, for in the course of the



world unwisdom is punished as severely as
badness of intention, and on the other side a
certainty that by bearing in a manly spirit of
faith the punishment which came upon him,
he has risen to a higher plane of the spiritual
life. This is one of the practical paradoxes
which appear in the course of life on every
side. At any rate a man who takes life
seriously will often feel that if some kindly
neighbour had merely saved him from the
consequences of his own misdeeds, it would
have been a very bad thing from the higher
point of view. Evil is evil ; and yet evil is
often turned into an instrument for good.
We may consider the parallel case of pain.
Pain in the body is in itself a bad thing: yet
very often it reveals to us that something is
going wrong with our members, that we have
taken to wrong ways of feeding or living ; and
the pain warns us to give them up. If we
were to apply to a physician, and he, instead
of searching out the root of the evil, merely
gave us some anaesthetic to deaden the disquiet,
we should embark on a downward course.

And, after all, our knowledge of what is good
or bad for us and for our friends is closely
limited. We judge very superficially. It
often turns out that an event which at the
time seemed to be a calamity, has in the end


been one of the milestones of the better life.
Considering our shortness of sight, it appears
not to be the wisest plan to struggle against
all that at the moment offends, but rather to
have a large belief in the Providence which
shapes our ends, and to be on the watch to
discern the indications of a higher purpose
which may come to us either through success
or through failure.

No doubt, in some things Christianity as it
exists may well learn from reasoned ethics.
It is an undoubted blot upon many schools of
Christianity, and especially upon those pre-
valent in England, Scotland, and America,
that we do not fully realise how greatly an
appreciation of natural and human beauty
tends to the happiness and health of the
world. The reason why Christianity has been
dull to this side of life is quite obvious. It
arose among the Jews, a people who for
historic reasons had quarrelled with and pro-
scribed any representation in art of living
things. The Second Commandment of the
Decalogue was accepted literally by the Jews,
as it is to this day accepted literally by the
Mohammedans. Even the Jews were not
obtuse to the beauties of natural scenery, as
is clearly shown in many of the Psalms. And
in the first teaching of Christianity there


breathes, in what is said about birds and
flowers, corn-fields and pasture, a very keen
sense of natural beauty. All through the
history of Christianity this sense has been
from time to time conspicuous. On the other
hand, the imitative arts of painting and sculp-
ture have not been fully christianised. In
particular, the beauty of the human body,
and of art representation of man and nature,
has not been appreciated by Christianity in
its more ascetic and mystic moods. This
was the side of revelation committed to the
Greeks ; and with the ancient Greek race it
perished, until the Gospel of Greece was in
some degree revived in the Renaissance.
Gothic art, however, laid stress on certain
aspects of nature, and produced an archi-
tecture suited to certain forms of Christianity.
There is surely no reason why art should not,
in our days, make a closer alliance with Chris-
tianity : art will certainly never come to any
real understanding with philosophic ethics,
which repels the artist by its cold and puritanic
tone. This, however, is far too large a subject
to be here discussed. 1

As to the future life, our horizon is fast
changing, and it would not be easy to antici-
pate what part the belief in it will occupy in

1 Chapter VIII. deals more fully with this matter.


the Christianity of the future. There has been
in recent times a great strengthening of the
view that to allow the hope of a future life

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Online LibraryPercy GardnerEvolution in Christian ethics → online text (page 5 of 15)