Stephen Ward.

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Study in Ethics




LONDON : Humphrey Milford



Oxford University Press

London Edinburgh Glasgo-w New Tork

Toronto Melbourne Cape Town Bombay
Humphrey Milford Publisher to the University

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IT might be doubted whether the whole range of
ethical speculation could be covered in a short book, or
whether, if it were done, it was done adequately. But
the doubt, to my mind, is irrelevant. Ethics resemble
science in that what is most promising is also most
debatable. Old knowledge is nothing but the point
of vantage from which we win new. Except for this
purpose it is even, in a sense, unprofitable. So the aim
of ethics should be, not to say all that has been said,
but to establish new ethical relations, and, by means of
these, yet others, according to the increasing subtlety
and capacity of human kind. And this cannot be done
by one man, or one book, however comprehensive.

Comprehensiveness is, in fact, a drawback. I might
have developed my opinions at greater length, were it
not for the fear that the more they served me the less
would they be likely to serve another. The value of
thoughts is their value in exchange, and were the im-
press too individual they might lose this precious quality.


6 Preface

We should like to be oracles. We should like to be
immortal. But has nature so provided ? The thoughts
of a man which are true pass into current speech, and
his name is forgotten. If we are remembered, it is mainly
in order to point out our mistakes.

I write, therefore, not in the hope of prescribing the
limits within which the future must walk. I have no
wish to capture To-morrow and clip its wings. The
question, as I see it, is not what I make of posterity,
but what posterity will make of me. One way or
another, it will live on our bones, and we can contrive
no more than that it should extract such nourishment
as they contain with the greatest possible ease. We
can hand over, not our life, but our vitality : not a book,
but the curiosity which made it. Even in our own time
the voice of Authority rings in an empty room : it is
vain to expect that the future will give it greater

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1. Analysis of Human Society . . . Page 9

2. Analysis of Desire 14

3. Analysis of Activity 19

4. The Function of Knowledge . . . -25

5. Pleasure and the Theory of Games . . -35

6. Choice, Deliberation, and Responsibility . . 44

7. Human Destiny 49

8. The Possibilities of Existence .... 58


1. Preliminary Considerations . . . Page 69

2. Morality as Taboo 76

3. Morality as Humanism 83

4. Duty 89

5. Free Will 95

6. The Moral Consciousness . . . . 101

7. The Potentialities of Reason . . . .107

8. The Sense of Humour . . .118

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MAN is a co-operative creature. This is to take him
as we find him. Fanciful reconstructions of some period
of early time, in order to form conclusions as to his
' natural ' state, are not very helpful. The life of natural
or primitive man may have been ' solitary, poor, nasty,

S brutish, and short ', or it may have been a golden age of
constitutional felicity. It is more likely, if human nature
then was much what it is now, that it was a compound
of a desire to profit by some one else's work without

/ a corresponding return and an unwilling recognition of
the fact that such courses ultimately led to disaster.
Man cannot ignore his fellow men. Like all animals he
has an instinctive interest in the others of the same
species. When dog meets dog there follows an in-
teresting sniffing passage by which both parties ascertain
whether the friendly or the hostile element is to prevail.
The manoeuvre signifies some hidden bond ; a dog
shows no interest of this kind in cow or cat, with which,
except under the influence of domestication, no friendly
intercourse takes place. The same thing is to be seen

/ in one child when it meets another ; the same possibility
of close association is implied in their approaches. That
is, the bond between man and man is illustrated long

' before there is any power to realize it intellectually.

TO Analysis of Human Society

Present society, indeed, is far from any natural inter-
course whether desirable or otherwise. They are the
fetters of history which unite man with man ; the
articles of association are artificial. Elements in the
present situation are due to measures taken centuries
ago, in some cases, when it is obvious that the needs of
the present, or even the possibility of its existing at all,
were not taken into consideration. While we criticize
the past in the light of present knowledge, it is not fail-
to blame it for not possessing the knowledge we have,
and which we have in large part acquired as a result of
their mistakes. The bankruptcy, for example, of the
theory that a society based upon privilege could be
permanently prosperous is due in the main to the fact
that our forefathers tried to establish such a society,
which the course of years has shown to be unworkable.
As a theory it has its attractions. Plato and Aristotle,
to mention no others, based their hopes of human
salvation upon it. Time alone has demonstrated that
in practice it makes too great a demand upon the self-
restraint of the average man, and offers too many
temptations. Much, then, in modern institutions is
merely the wreck of past experiment, and there is no
need to lash our indignation too severely against such
errors ; still less to hold that they sprang of a deliberate
intention to oppress the many in the interest of a few.

But the mere correction of past error is not enough to
establish the human community on right lines. If we
do not wish merely to reap another crop of mistakes we
must have such knowledge of human propensities as it
is possible to obtain. Social organization must have
some regard for human nature, both what it is and what
it may become, and an understanding of human nature

Analysis of Human Society n

is not innate, is, in fact, only to be had by the patient
and impartial methods of the other sciences. That feeling
on the subject should run high is the reverse of helpful.

The co-operative character of man has a consequence
which is inevitable throughout all the complications of
history. This is that each person in the community has
a function more or less special to himself. The function
is not one to which, as in the community of bees, you
are born. There it seems to be provided that, according
to the food with which you are fed, you will turn out the
mother of the tribe, a sterile worker with no ambitions
beyond, or a do-nothing drone whose life though short
may be presumed to be happy. In the case of man
training has to take the place of food. How the bees
learn their work heaven alone knows. Man learns his
with much labour and many mistakes ; but the advan-
tage, as it seems to us, is that, while the bees still perform
the work of which Virgil sang, the history of man is ever
changing. Suppose a Roman bee to have survived to
this day, there is little doubt that, introduced with
proper precautions into a modern hive, she could start
upon her immemorial labours without delay. A Roman
senator in similar case would take no small time to learn
the customs of the country.

There is an infinity of crafts and an infinity of crafts-
men, the results of whose activities make up the human
cosmos. In consequence, no one person reflects more
than a very small part of the world in which he lives.
The sailmaker may have never been to sea, the states-
man have never seen a slum. Each man's circle of
interest is small, and, as things are, it may well be that
the particular work which he contributes to the com-
munity is that which interests him the least. Apart

12 Analysis of Human Society

from his work he has what he calls his ' life ', a bundle of
personal interests, most of them trivial to outward
seeming, yet such as he would resign very unwillingly.
What is important to other people is his work. It is
a commonplace that the individual can produce a great
deal more of any one commodity than he has any need
for. The sailmaker on a desert island would bury him-
self under a heap of his discarded output and die a poor
man ; living among his fellows he" can dispose of all he
makes, and can, or should, die rich. He exchanges his
work against that of others ; and thus it is that he, with
the rest, has leisure for his idiosyncrasies. Of course the
variety of exchange itself lends colour to his life; the
greater the number of commodities, the fuller is, or
should be, his existence.

Co-operation means that each man contributes his
share and takes whatever is going. As he can eat,
drink, wear, and destroy only a certain amount in the
course of a short life, it is plain that a state in which he
is sufficiently provided with necessaries is soon reached
very soon, when it is considered that the word necessaries
is of elastic meaning. In this matter there is a strange
contrast among the human races. Some are content
with the barest minimum and continue in the same
course of life for countless thousands of years. Others
no sooner satisfy one want than it leads the way to
another. Of this kind are the European nations, at
least of recent centuries. Yet even this cannot be said
without qualification. We are not wholly enamoured of
progress, nor is the savage wholly indifferent to it, if he
is shown the way. A large number of us resent innova-
tion, and invest present conditions with a kind of sanctity
which to alter seems impious.

Analysis of Human Society 13

This is the influence of habit. Life tends to settle
down in a groove in which one is content that what
happened yesterday should happen again to-day. But
whether you want to go on or to stay still, in both cases
you have wants. A stationary and a progressive society
alike have wants ; it is in the nature of their wants that
they differ. Both show a tendency to conservatism ; so
that while it has never entered the heads of the Australian
Aruntas to keep themselves warm at nights with the
skins of the animals they catch, it is almost within living
memory that the construction of railways met the fiercest
opposition, and there are those who still make a pride of
not using a motor.

The difference, therefore, between savagery and civili-
zation is not in the nature or intensity, but in the variety,
of wants. And the variety of wants depends upon the
amount of knowledge which is brought to bear for the
purpose of elucidating and supplying them. In this
connexion it is to be remembered that the European's
conviction of his superiority to any other is a very recent
growth. Marco Polo wrote of the great Khan of Cathay
and his empire as in all respects comparable to anything
in Europe ; nor was the Turk of the fifteenth century
regarded by us as inferior in civilization. The change of
attitude has come about through the development of
science, which is the product of Western Europe alone,
however much it may owe for its start to other races or
times. It has reversed the relations of man and nature :
before, the question was how could nature be prevented
from subduing man ; it now is to what lengths can man
go in subduing nature. The consciousness of power is
changing the face of society, and man is disposed to
doubt the necessity of hardships he formerly regarded

14 Analysis of Human Society

as inevitable. Mechanical improvements in the crafts
have not only suggested a radical alteration in the social
structure but have shown the means by which it might
be effected. The old force in the appeal of conservatism
that, though it might not be the best course, it was at
least the safest, is gone. Science holds us in its grip, and
as we cannot go back we are compelled to go forward.
^ Science, of course, is only another word for knowledge ;
it is not a word of which we need be in the least
frightened, and we shall have occasion later to examine
its claims and its possibilities. But before that some-
thing else is necessary, an analysis of this capacity in
man for wanting something, which seems to be the
mainspring of his existence. If he ceases to want, he
will disappear. In fact, there is no other way of
accounting for the decay of forceful peoples like the
Romans and Greeks. Life, one may presume, ceased
to amuse, whether because they had reached what
appeared to be the limits of human knowledge, or for
whatever reason. They lost their wants and their
hopes ; their populations declined, and they were
swamped by ruder races which in their prime they had


A BABY cries. We know that it cries for food. Can
the baby be said to know that it is food it wants ? Unless
one would extend the normal meaning of knowledge the
answer seems to be No. The cry is an expression of
vague discomfort. Its real want may be food, or warmth,
or something else ; it does not know, and we have to

Analysis of Desire 15

guess. This is the hazard of nursing ; for, not needing
food, it may well absorb another bottle to its ultimate
distress, or, needing food very badly, it may refuse to
take it.

The cry is a vague way of expressing a want, and it is
the expression of a vague want. The wants grow more
precise according as the power of expressing them grows.
The baby is not a creature of few wants and simple. It
.is plain to the eye of any one who has handled them that
from the hour of its birth one baby is as different from
- another as two eight-pound bipeds are able to be. Tem-
peramental crises, bad enough in adults, are the baby's
special bane ; in its rages are involved all the potential
elements of its character. In the last resort, fortunately,
the primal necessities of food and sleep reduce its being
to some sort of order ; but within these limits it is quite
capable of refusing what it demonstrably wants, or crying
for no apparent reason.

Its wants, then, are neither few nor many, but vague.
As it grows we begin by telling it what it wants, and it
ends by believing us. We make our classification by
what we have observed of the normal desires and ten-
dencies in human nature. The child is painfully at the
mercy of its pastors and masters both for what it learns
and for the values it attaches to the several parts of its
character. An inquiring mind may be called curiosity,
shyness secretiveness ; it may be taught to despise its
most fruitful qualities. We grown-ups pass on our
mistakes as well as our experience, and this is the abiding
thorn of education ; if the child could only learn to be
what he is without it, how much nicer he would be. But
he cannot ; he must discover his parents' mistakes when
making his own, and if he has not been pricked too

i6 Analysis of Desire

roughly the damage is reparable. Without question,
however, harm is often done. False values and false
analysis are responsible for the most awful monstrosities.
Thus it is that a prig and a boor can call himself a
puritan, or a little wanton trifler an artist.

We give names to wants of necessity, but we should
be careful not to attach too much importance to them ;
for ultimately a man's wants can only be identified with his
character, and character, as we all know, eludes classifica-
tion. Viewed from without, a bundle of desires and motives
called character can be given a rough label according to
its bearing upon social needs and standards; viewed
from within, it is so subtle, imperious, necessary, that to
classify it seems almost an insult. A knave can justify
to his own conscience conduct for which the world shuts
him up.

Character in a community such as ours is not a purely
natural development. Misunderstanding is one thing,
but there are external needs also to which it must con-
form. So far as man is bound to find food and warmth
and to deliver himself from enemies its finer shades must
remain undeveloped. Similarly, certain extravagances,
like ambition understanding by this a desire to have
more glory than one's fellows require pruning by reason
of their bad effect on the community. These limitations
apart, the greater its variety the fuller and more intense
a man's life is, not only to himself but to his neighbours.
If one blot is more apparent than another in present-day
existence, it is the unnecessary conventionalization of
character by prejudice and ignorance. The world should
be less matter-of-fact in assigning vocations, and less
brutal with those who hesitate. For the want of a little
understanding a man may be off his true bent all his

Analysis of Desire 17

life, and, without knowing why. will have the air of one
who has been disappointed. The people who really know
what they want to do and are in a position to do it are
few and lucky. When a girl becomes melancholy and
full of whims her mother is probably wrong in deciding
that what she wants is a husband ; but only a Florence
Nightingale is strong enough to resist the conventional
remedy vigorously enough to discover her own destiny.

But the society does not merely exert a mechanical
pressure on personal character. The society itself has
something which might be called character. The French
boy becomes a Frenchman, not a Spaniard : a Yorkshire-
man is very different from a man of Sussex. A body of
men living and working together through an extreme
period of time develops subtle and intimate peculiarities,
so that a nation has the appearance and growth of a vital
organism. What happens is that the character of the
individuals reacts on the character of the race, and this in
turn influences the individual. The child unconsciously
learns a certain way of looking at things, and even though
he spends his life in upsetting all he has learnt, his thought
bears the impress of the moulds in which it has been
formed. He learns a language, a code of manners, the
current valuations of the stock-in-trade of life. His first
step to knowledge is to learn what others know ; so that
by the time he endeavours to take an independent view
of his own personality this has already received a very
definite shape. He is not a free-lance ; for good or ill he
must take his place in the community.

The conclusion of this is that of all the variety of
activity which makes up a man's life there is very little
which he could say he does out of the call of his persona-
lity. He finds himself a bundle of wants, which he

1 8 Analysis of Desire

tries to realize ; but arising as they do from such mani-
fold influences, they are not necessarily consistent or com-
patible one with another. In fact, for this reason desires
are commonly regarded as contradictory things which
can only be brought to order by suppression and training.
The view is unquestionably wrong, but it springs from
a failure to distinguish between a man's personality and
the variety of influences at work upon it. Living in
a community a man need only copy his neighbours, and
his life will acquire some semblance of character and
purpose. A quality here, a quality there will seem
admirable, and he will imitate them, regardless whether
they are consistent. He may aspire to be, all at once,
an athlete and a gay dog, chivalrous and yet imperious,
trustworthy yet artful, rugged yet fashionable. He
emulates these qualities, but has not the knowledge to see
that they cannot all be worn at once.

In spite of difficulties, character remains the most
consistent thing about us. Other things being equal it
is character which predominates in desires, and a man's
desires can in the main be regarded as so many aspects of
his personality. The names and classifications which we
ascribe to them are convenient and useful, but it is not to
be supposed that there exist, separately and independently!
entities corresponding to those terms. On the contrary, it
is to be supposed that a man's individuality starts with his
first moment and remains peculiar to him, even though it
has aspects common to other men. That these aspects
should be numerous the essential sameness of the condi-
tions of human existence ensures. But though a man
does the same things as other people it does not follow
that he does them in the same way ; though he has
the same wants he does not have them in the same

A nalysis of Desire 19

proportion. And what he wants most and most in-
timately is precisely that which it is most difficult to

The best name, therefore, to give to that which moves
him and makes him is desire in the singular, because
under all its manifestations it is one.

A man desires to do or to be that which he desires.
What exactly is gained by realizing a desire, or how it is
done, are questions we do not, in practice, stop to answer ;
but in an inquiry of the present kind they naturally form
the next stage.


THERE could be no activity without a body. This
to a certain extent is obvious, though some forms of
activity, pure mathematics for example, might be thought
to be hampered rather than helped by the body and
this may well be the case. Disembodied reason, how-
ever, is something beyond our experience. Most of us
regard action as the aim of existence ; and if asked what
we mean by action we should say that it means putting
our body in or through such postures that the end
desired is achieved, and what was fancy becomes fact.

Yet the questions why should mere alterations of
posture make all this difference ? how is it that our bodies
respond to our direction ? and what is the nature of this
direction ? present a good many puzzles.

The normal answer to the question what exactly is
meant by realizing a desire, would be, presumably, some-
what to the effect that a desire is in itself incomplete.
It is an idea in a man's head : when it is realized it

B 2,

2o Analysis of Activity

becomes part of the real world. The answer, that is,
would distinguish between a real world and a world of
thoughts and fancies. This is a common distinction, and
no one except for the sake of paradox would deny that
it was, in some sense, valid ; yet no explanation is with-
out its difficulties.

The real world, one might say, is that which I appre-
hend with my senses and which is the object of my
thoughts. The senses are sight, hearing, touch, taste,
smell. By the eye one learns the colour, shape, and
spatial relations of things ; by touch their feel and
weight, and by the other three other peculiarities which
are not so easy to specify. Each contributes to form
the material of the real world ; it is about the real world
that man thinks, and in it that he acts.

Here arise questions ; how does the material of sense
become thought, and how does thought have any applica-
tion to the real world ? In what consists the difference
between the real world and your thought of it ? Some-
times by real world we mean things as our senses appre-
hend them, as when we talk of the sun rising and setting ;
sometimes we mean what thought declares to be happen-
ing, as that it is the earth which revolves round the sun,
not the sun round the earth.

The fact is that the matter is not capable of brief or
simple statement. As the subject of this book is not
metaphysics, to enter into detail would be out of place.
All that is necessary for the present purpose is to show
that such terms as thought, sense, real world, desire, and
activity are by no means independent of each other ; on
the contrary, they are interwoven in a definite, but at
some points very obscure fashion.

It is first to be noted that any questions which arise

Analysis of Activity 21

must be answered, if at all, by thought. This is the
more evident if one reflects that thought is not merely
the means by which questions can be answered ; it is the
only possible means by which a question can be raised.
In fact, thought is asking questions.

A second point is that we only know of the senses,
whether in themselves or for what they transmit, by
means of thought. There is a possibility of misunder-
standing here because of the various shades of knowledge.
One can apprehend something without knowing 'all
about it ' ; but any apprehension demands a certain
degree of knowledge, if merely to know it is there.

It follows, therefore, that though thought regards the
distinction between thought and senses and the objects
of the senses as a distinction of fact, it is in the first
instance a distinction of thought, whatever else it may be.

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Online LibraryStephen WardThe ways of life; a study in ethics → online text (page 1 of 9)