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A Modern Theory of Ethics

W. Olaf Stapledon

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Chapters include: The Need for Ethics; Self-Fulfilment as the Ground of Ethics; Criticism of the Self-Fulfilment Theory; Pleasure as Constitutive of Good; Good as an Unique Quality; Teleology in Ethics; Tendency in Physics and Biology; Tendency in Psychology; Psychical Conflict; Objective Activity as the Ground of Ethics; Determinism and Free Will; Essentials of the Concrete Ideal; Reality and Admiration; Moral Zeal, Disillusion, and Ecstasy; and, Ecstasy and Ethical Theory.

This book has 247 pages in the PDF version, and was originally published in 1929.

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Excerpt from 'A Modern Theory of Ethics'

IT is a commonplace that ours is an age of disillusionment, and that we follow on an age of complacency. In the days before the war, optimism was maintained only by setting the telescope to the blind eye. For, apart from the social problem, which few even in those days could entirely shun, there loomed three troubles less urgent but more subtly disturbing. First, even by the plain man it was beginning to be suspected that the universe was indifferent to human desires. Man, it seemed, must outgrow his trust in a celestial protagonist, and must depend on himself alone both for his daily comfort and for the achievement of his ideals.

Second, it was already rumoured that man was doomed not only to failure but to insincerity. He was charged with being at heart careless of everything but the satisfaction of crude animal instincts. He valued his ideals, we were told, only in so far as they afforded ‘symbolical fulfilment’ to his primitive cravings.

Third, and most unsettling, if this view of human nature were true, all judgments of ethical good and evil were vitiated. For whenever we judged anything to be objectively good, our value-judgment was determined (it was said,) not by the objective character and relations of the thing itself as a whole, but by some superficial and irrelevant feature which happened to stimulate instinctive or childhood cravings. Thus the considered judgments from which the ethical distinction was derived appeared invalid as data for ethics. And this view, that the distinction between good and bad was, after all, meaningless, was also strongly suggested by the chaotic state of ethical theory itself. For some writers defined ‘good’ in one way, some in others; and some said it was indefinable; and some explained it in such a modern and ‘scientific’ manner that they explained it away. Thus the very distinction on which any ideal must be based, the distinction which religion and common sense alike had assumed to be objective and universal, was beginning to seem arbitrary. All causes, all ideals, all obligations and enthusiasms, were suspect in the suspicion that ‘goodness’ itself was, after all, meaningless.

Such were the three doubts, cosmological, psychological, and ethical, that were creeping into the minds of thoughtful persons even in that distant age which ended in 1914. To-day they are more prevalent.

Now the first of these questions is perhaps of no great importance. During the rise of modern science, thoughtful persons began to wonder whether the world was really good, bad, or indifferent; or whether it was ‘on our side’ or not. When the more intelligent were as yet only beginning to wake from the dreams of the more naïve religious orthodoxy, this issue was bound to seem urgent. To-day we are perhaps no nearer an answer than in the days when Huxley first opposed the human to the cosmical; but we are more ready to shelve the question and tackle other matters. For it becomes clear that, if by ‘world’ we mean ‘the whole of being’, the answer must wait until we know something of the real nature of that whole. Moreover, the ultimate fate of our race and our ideals seems now more remote and less important than in the days before we realized the vastness of the future. But if by ‘world’ is meant the physical or ‘natural’ world, we are becoming reconciled to the knowledge that Nature, our ever-fascinating mother, is more resourceful than virtuous. We begin to cease from looking to her either as a model or as a protagonist. True to the modern fashion in filial piety, we are prone rather to correct than respect her. It is for us, not for her, to say what it is that is good, and to discover if possible whether or not goodness is but a delusion. As to her maternal protection, we are alternately braced and grieved to find that we must depend on ourselves alone. But we are no longer appalled.

The cosmological question thus deserves less attention than perhaps it gets. For, granted that. the good-bad distinction is valid, Nature, as our intellectual, and moral inferior, must simply be brought to heel, animal that she is. But as to the Whole, whether it is ‘on our side’ or not, how dare we pass judgment on it? For, granted the validity of the ethical distinction, none but a universally informed mind is entitled to judge the universe. It is possible that, though in our ethical distinction we truly grasp a universal principle, yet that which in the cosmical view must be seen to be good is far beyond the appreciative powers of our little minds. Much that seemed to Queen Victoria very bad is judged by us to be very good. Yet (though some of us easily forget it), the difference between the Queen’s horizon and our own is perhaps less than the difference between ours and the span of all being. Who are we, that we should judge the heavens by our childish values? Shall we, because the gods neither please us nor make themselves intelligible to us, dub them insensitive or stupid? Parents, it is said, are justified in fulfilling, not merely in pleasing their children. And the gods, if there be such, are to be justified not by the sweets they give us, who indeed are very simple children, but by the judgment of the fully enlightened mind, which may (conceivably) be theirs, but very surely is not ours. For these reasons it is as well to leave the cosmological question untouched.

But the other two questions rightly become more insistent in the plain man’s mind every year. In the days when the teaching of the churches was accepted at least intellectually by the congregations (and even by the great uncongregated), there was no ethical problem in the plain man’s mind. Spiritual advisers told him what was good, and he accepted their verdict, in theory, if not in practice. Love was the good; and the plain man accepted it as the good, not because he saw that it was so, but because the churches said that God had said that it was so.

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