Society and Morals. Part I. Morality

When we examine the mental condition of any people or section of mankind it is invariably found that, among each and all of them, human actions are judged as good or evil according to the degree they approximate to an ideal standard of conduct, held up and “somehow or other” acquired by the people in question. This standard by which conduct is judged is usually termed their moral or ethical code. The voluntary actions and opinions of men, be they savage or civilised, are guided by the moral code which either they have partly inherited, unconsciously grown up to accept, or their ripened experience has suggested.

The utmost variety is to be found in the moral notions of mankind. Cannibalism, incest, nudity in public, chattel-slavery, piracy, and a host of other practices to-day considered immoral have, in their age and place, all been perfectly moral and thoroughly justifiable.

The Problem of Ethics
The problem of the origin and nature of the “moral law” has been one which thinkers in all ages have taxed their brains to solve. We all remember being told in our childhood how the god of the Jews gave to his “chosen people” the ten commandments. Most barbaric peoples believe their moral standard to be thus decreed by their god or gods.

Among all people who hold this view, be they uncivilised, or civilised people who accept the barbarian beliefs of Christianity, we naturally enough find a violent intolerance of those codes which differ from their own and sanction actions which theirs condemn. Those people who hold and act up to these other codes, are “working against the will of God” ; they are condemned as wicked, perverse, immoral, or as devoid of a “moral sense.” The books of missionaries are full of such allusions regarding the “heathen.”

It was only after morality in general was made the subject of research in the critical scientific spirit that any serious opposition to the “god theory” was forthcoming. Even the ancient Greeks did striking work in this field considering their very limited means. Notably the so-called “Sophists” of the Protagorean school denied the absolute and emphasised the relative character of morals. With the revival and growth of science in Europe since the fifteenth noiitury, ethical science advanced step by step ; Adam Smith, Kant, Locke, Hume and others building up a scientific theory which was finally rounded off by the work of Darwin, Spencer, Marx, and Morgan.

Social Regulations
The labours of travellers, explorers, and historians gradually piled up data and widened the field for investigation. As in all other branches of science, the accumulated array of material first had to be sorted out and classified by finding the common characters in which the seemingly unlike agreed. It was then discovered that there is one common factor running right through all varieties of morality—they all have a social basis.

We have stated that the moral law is a guide to action. But all the activities of men do not come within the scope of the moral code. In the wearing of clothes there are fashions and customs the violation of which is not, usually, to-day, regarded as immoral. In the performing of the normal operations of living, e.g., eating, drinking, and sleeping, there are certain manners and customs, but they are not considered moral obligations where they affect only the personal welfare. But consider certain variations of the above cases. Let a man over-eat so as to knowingly deprive others of food ; or by being drunk cause obstruction in the public highway ; or being a working man remain in bed when he “should be working for his employer,” then contempt and perhaps punishment are meted out to him for he has outraged the morality of the community.

This is the crux of the matter. It is those activities which, when performed by an individual, affect and interfere with his fellows which are embraced within the moral law. Morality is a regulator of the relations existing between beings living in association. It is essentially a social phenomenon. A few illustrations will make this clear.

To-day a farmer may plough his land, sow and reap his crop on any day which suits him without regard to his neighbours ; but in the Mediaeval village where the villagers held several strips of land each, these strips being strewn and intermingled over a large area, such independence would have led to endless confusion, and accordingly certain days were allotted for the various kinds of field work and the whole agriculture of the community was carried on according to customary rules. Strict adherence to these rules was of the highest moral importance. In the first case, the labour was an individual concern ; in the second, one affecting the entire village community.

Again, the killing of a person, for private reasons, which brings discord into a society, is highly immoral ; when the killing, however, is multiplied a millionfold, but is in the “national interest,” showers of praise fall upon the heads of the slaughterers.

Barbarian societies are usually small, self-sufficing, and independent of other communities. While, in them, theft, fraud and murder are considered awful crimes when a fellow-tribesman (a kinsman) is the victim, such actions are permitted against men of other groups, are indeed, considered glorious and praiseworthy, for the neighbouring tribes are usually dangerous enemies and thus any injury to them is beneficial to the community.

That which is believed, by the bulk of its members, to be in the interests of the social group, is regarded as moral, that which is injurious to it—immoral. Apart from, society morality has no significance—solitary beings would have no use for it.

The Light of Evolution
Before the science of society itself developed, the moral code could never be really understood and this was the great handicap upon the early ethicists. One school carrying their belief in the “supremacy of reason” to the extreme believed society to have originated in a consciously made agreement or contract entered into by primitive man. All moral principles were the product of reasoning from experience. Recognised social utility was, they argued, the basis of morals, hence this school is often entitled, the “utilitarian.”

Another school pointed out, however, that the basic impulses towards social unity and harmony appear to be grafted into the very personality of man—to be part of his physico-mental nature.
Conflict waged between the two schools until the evolution theory revealed for the first time man’s real place in the scheme of nature. Man was then clearly proven to be the outcome of a long line of changing animal ancestors, developing in succession from a jelly speck in the warm primeval ocean, through the worm, fish, reptile, lowly mammal and finally ape stages. Darwin showed in his “Descent of Man” that altruism and social solidarity is widespread among the higher types of gregarious animals and that a sort of instinctive “morality” is very prevalent.

It required the historical materialism of Karl Marx, Engels, and Morgan, to reveal how, granting the animal origin of sociability, its many-sided applications as reflected in morality are worked out, as we see them, in human society—savage, barbarian and civilised.

The Social Instinct
Animal societies are bewildering in their number and variety. There are temporary unions like the wolf packs for hunting in winter ; the wonderful organisations of the ants and bees ; the fine examples of mutual support, among the hoofed animals, the rodents and the monkeys. The closer and more permanent the unions, the more developed are the social impulses of sympathy, self-sacrifice, the sense of duty and responsibility which are vital to a society’s existence, for they function as a protective discipline against the too full assertion of the primary instinct for purely personal welfare.

The impulses bound up with sociability therefore, develop in the same proportion as the greater efficiency of co-operation over individual competition asserts itself in the struggle for existence which pervades the animal kingdom.

The social instinct was, it must be remembered, not evolved to safeguard the community for its own sake, but only because the organisation was a factor in securing the welfare and survival of the bulk of its members, as individuals capable of perpetuating the species. The more thoroughly social a species becomes the more dependent upon the association is the individual creature, and, correspondingly, the greater is its danger and helplessness when isolated from its kind.

Early man, conspicuous and yet without any efficient organic means of defence, was forced to use collective might and action to struggle successfully against opposing nature. Speech evolved through and for social intercourse, and reacting, greatly aided his intellectual development. Even the artificial tools and weapons which man uses were dependent upon social habits for their progress. Perfected by an infinite series of modifications, such did not pass away with the death of the inventors but were taken up, adopted and passed on to succeeding generations by their fellows. Primitive man was therefore as dependent upon his social organisation as is a lion upon its teeth and claws.

At their dawn the social impulses are as unreasoned and instinctive as those of sex or maternity and so can hardly yet be classed as moral forces, which presuppose a certain consciousness of choice in actions. But once reason begins to supersede blind instinct in the ordinary work of living it also urges in man an enquiry into the why and the wherefore of his conduct in relation to his fellow man, and a conscious conception of morality gradually takes the place of unreasoned, half or non-conscious social impulsiveness.

(To be Continued.)


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