How Far do Ethics & Morality Depend on
Environment, Heredity and Culture?
We grow with years more fragile in body, but morally stouter, and can throw off the chill of a bad conscience almost at once.
Logan Pearsall Smith
Ethics is essentially a product of the gregarious instinct, that is to say, of the instinct to co-operate with those who are to form our own group against those who belong to other groups. Those who belong to our own group are good; those who belong to hostile groups are wicked. The ends which are pursued by our own group are desirable ends, the ends pursued by hostile groups are nefarious. The subjectivity of this situation is not apparent to the gregarious animal, which feels that the general principles of justice are on the side of its own herd. When the animal has arrived at the dignity of the metaphysician, it invents ethics as the embodiment of its belief in the justice of its own herd.
A dogmatic belief in objective value is necessary to the very idea of a rule which is not tyranny or an obedience which is not slavery.
C. S. Lewis
Until modern times no thinker of the first rank ever doubted that our judgements of value were rational judgements or that what they discovered was objective. It was taken for granted that in temptation passion was opposed, not to some sentiment, but to reason. Thus Plato thought, thus Aristotle, thus Hooker, Butler and Doctor Johnson. The modern view is very different. It does not believe that value judgements are really judgements at all. They are sentiments, or complexes, or attitudes, produced in a community by the pressure of its environment and its traditions, and differing from one community to another. To say that a thing is good is merely to express our feeling about it; and our feeling about it is the feeling we have been socially conditioned to have.
C. S. Lewis
Morality is a biological adaptation no less than are hands and feet and teeth. Considered as a rationally justifiable set of claims about an objective something, ethics is illusory.
[In the famous 1948 BBC radio debate on the existence of God between Bertrand Russell and Fr. Frederick Copleston, S.J., the two participants grappled with the problem of good and evil. Here is an excerpt from the part entitled “The Moral Argument.”]
RUSSELL: You see, I feel that some things are good and that other things are bad. I love the things that are good, that I think are good, and I hate the things that I think are bad. I don’t say that these things are good because they participate in the Divine goodness.
COPLESTON: Yes, but what’s your justification for distinguishing between good and bad or how do you view the distinction between them?
RUSSELL: I don’t have any justification any more than I have when I distinguish between blue and yellow. What is my justification for distinguishing between blue and yellow? I can see they are different.
COPLESTON: Well, that is an excellent justification, I agree. You distinguish blue and yellow by seeing them, so you distinguish good and bad by what faculty?
RUSSELL: My feelings.
COPLESTON: By your feelings. Well, that’s what I was asking. You think that good and evil have reference simply to feeling?
RUSSELL: Well, why does one type of object look yellow and another look blue? I can more or less give an answer to that thanks to the physicists, and as to why I think one sort of thing good and another evil, probably there is an answer of the same sort, but it hasn’t been gone into in the same way and I couldn’t give it [to] you.
About morals, I know only that what is moral is what you feel good after and what is immoral is what you feel bad after.
[Is this a fair, although crudely expressed, statement of “consequentialism,” the theory that the goodness or badness of any action is never inherent, but is solely dependent on the perceived consequences of that action?]
I suppose we can say that there are some things that are wrong because we have agreed to act as if they are wrong for such a long time, and the acting as if they are wrong appears to be right. That’s what an ultimate truth is to me, to be really philosophical here. When something, over and over again, generation after generation, turns out to be destructive and to be perceived as wrong, and rightfully perceived as wrong, meaning everybody agrees to act as if it’s wrong and it works to act as if it’s wrong for 10,000 years, that begins to look like an ultimate truth.
To preach morality is easy, but to provide a foundation for it is hard.
To understand the Eskimo, one must understand and share his life. He lies and steals, believing it will help him survive. He murders because of fear, or for what he believes to be necessity. He suppresses his baby daughters, not through wanton cruelty, but because he sincerely believes he is serving the general good. If, one day, he kills himself, it is because he feels he has become a burden upon the community, a useless mouth. “Primo vivere,” the philosopher wrote. “First, live!” To live. The entire Eskimo code of conduct is conditioned by that primary objective, and to it his morality has been adapted. “Primo vivere, deinde philosophare.” The Eskimos have neither the time nor the means to go beyond the first two words. And perhaps they would ask you how many caribou a system of philosophy would help you kill.
Fr. Roger P. Buliard (Oblate missionary)
Blaming or scapegoating someone always implies the claim that we would have done better in their shoes. It’s a way of protesting our innocence and brightening our self-esteem.
Culture is not instinctive to human beings. It has to be conquered by a continuous moral effort which involves the sublimation of natural instinct, and the subordination and sacrifice of individual impulse to the social purpose. It is the fundamental error of the liberal humanist to believe that man can abandon moral effort and spiritual discipline, and yet preserve all the achievements of culture.
Practically all advanced Victorian minds proceeded on the assumption that you could destroy the religious beliefs of a nation without affecting its moral standards.
Professional moralists have made too much of self-denial, and in so doing have put the emphasis in the wrong place. Conscious self-denial leaves a man self-absorbed and vividly aware of what he has sacrificed; in consequence it fails often of its immediate object and almost always of its ultimate purpose.
If your morals make you dreary, depend on it, they are wrong.
Robert Louis Stevenson
Thoughts about Ethics & Morality
Aristotle said that only those who have been well brought up can usefully study ethics: to the corrupted man, the man who stands outside the Tao, [natural law or traditional morality or the first principles of practical reason] the very starting point of this science is invisible.
The most dangerous person in society is the thinker who questions fundamental moral and sentimental certitudes.
He who would live must fight. He who does not wish to fight in this world, where permanent struggle is the law of life, has not the right to exist.
The ethical progress of society depends not on imitating the cosmic process but in combating it.
T. H. Huxley
Life is livable because we know that wherever we go most of the people we meet will be restrained in their actions toward us by an almost instinctive network of taboos.
I am very doubtful whether history shows us one example of a man who, having stepped outside traditional morality and attained power, has used that power benevolently.
C. S. Lewis
Morality is simply the attitude we adopt towards people we personally dislike.
I was glad when I found Celia (his wife) was unfaithful. I felt it was all right for me to dislike her.
Charles Ryder (to Julia in Brideshead Revisited)
Morality is the theory that every human act must be either right or wrong and that ninety-nine per cent of them are wrong.
H. L. Mencken
Art is like morality. Both consist in deciding where to draw the line.
G. K. Chesterton
One is apt to think of moral failure as due to weakness of character: more often it is due to an inadequate ideal.
None of us know what exactly is the sexual code we believe in, approving of many things on paper which we violently object to when they are practised by those we care about.
One of the greatest delusions in the world is the hope that the evils of this world can be cured by legislation.
All reform except a moral one will prove unavailing.
Political correctness becomes a code word for a new form of moral tyranny.
The worst tyranny is that which imposes a higher standard of conduct than is natural.
George Bernard Shaw
The Christian Church speaks for the control of sexual appetite and a general restraint of the appetites.
Nothing shocked Victorian rationalists more than the charge that they were undermining Christian morality, for they professed the greatest concern for the purity of the English home. The modern sceptic is more intelligent. He has no use for the restraints of a creed whose consolations he rejects.
The sex trade in much of Asia is on a different moral plane from that in the West, and it takes a little getting used to.
Ethical advances that are made in one generation are very often lost in the next.
When plunder becomes a way of life for a group of men living together in society, they create for themselves in the course of time a legal system that authorizes it and a moral code that glorifies it.
There is no villainy [evil] to which education cannot reconcile us.
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