By Edmund Opitz, author of The Libertarian Theology of Freedom and Religion and Capitalism: Allies, Not Enemies. This essay was originally published in the December 1969 issue of The Freeman, and is part of a chapter in Religion and Capitalism.
Nearly everyone is a moralist these days, and a moralist in popular caricature is one who always views with alarm. Even the self-proclaimed immoralists of our time fall into this category, for they denounce as "intolerant" any and all who look askance at their weird "beat" deviations. Disagreements are sharp at all levels, among the viewers with alarm, but the primary breach is between those who hold that the ultimate sanction for ethical standards must be sought in a supernatural order, and—on the other hand —those who assert that within the social and natural orders we may find the ingredients for a viable ethic. The first position is theistic; the latter humanistic.
The humanists, if we may be permitted this term for the second group, admit that the moral code which prevailed in the West until two or three generations ago was widely believed to have had its origin and sanction in religion. But, as they view the matter, the transcendent dimension has such a weak hold upon modern man that to insist on a metaphysical source of moral values in these times is to weaken ethics by tying it to a dead horse. Moral values, they assert, are autonomous if they are anything; let them therefore stand on their own feet. Detach ethics from religion, they urge, in order that men may be virtuous for the sake of happiness! Men should not do right in a vain effort to please some deity, or because they believe that God has arbitrarily commanded certain actions and forbidden others.
These nontraditionalists tout a "scientific" or "rational" ethic. The opposite of "rational" in this context is not "irrational"; it is "theistic," "customary," or "received." No one would admit that his own ethical system or moral code is irrational, and it is obvious to everyone who has checked into the matter that there have been and are ethicists of several schools who are powerful reasoners. Every philosopher relies on reason, and not only rationalists; however, reason does tell some men that reason is not the exclusive route to knowledge of the complex reality that environs us.
A distinction which arises at this point seems to elude many. It is a distinction between reason as a means for achieving a norm, and reason itself as the norm. Perhaps the point may be clarified by analogy. "How do you propose to go to Boston?" is a question which demands answers in two distinct categories. "By car" is one answer, which informs us that the means of transportation is not train, plane, foot, or horse. Having settled this point, we still need further information before the question can be regarded as answered. "By way of the Taconic, north, to the western end of the Massachusetts Turnpike, then east." This gives us the route, so that we know that the car will not proceed up the Merritt or over the New England Thruway.
Now take the serious question, "How shall we validate ethical norms?" Those who answer, "By reason," are really uttering a mere truism. "We’re going to think about it," they are saying. And everyone who thinks about these or any other matters is using his reason. This is our only means for figuring things out, and it is not a means belonging exclusively to rationalists; it is the common means employed by everyone who philosophizes. Using this means, we seek for answers to the question of how to validate ethical norms. This has to do with the realm where the sanctions may find anchorage, whether within nature and society, or in a realm beyond the natural and social orders. Reason is our tool for operating on the problem posed; it is not itself the answer.
Experts at Debate
There are dogmatists on both sides of this controversy, and the skilled among them can and do expose weaknesses in their opponent’s position. The humanist might charge his opposition as follows: The moral code is an acquired characteristic; it has to be learned anew by each generation. It is difficult enough to establish this code theoretically, even if we treat it as self-evidently useful to society and necessary for harmony in human relationships. Why, then, compound these difficulties and force things out of focus by involving ethics with metaphysics? The uncertain, in this or any other area, is shored up by relating it to the certain; but when you hook ethics up with metaphysics, you relate it to the even more uncertain, to the dubious! We don’t need a transcendent sanction in order to validate or prove a down-to-earth ethic.
To which the theist might respond: If you appeal to Nature to sanction human conduct, you haven’t looked very far into Nature. Not even Kropotkin with his mutual aid theories denied the Darwinian struggle for existence; he merely desired to point out that it was not the whole story. But it is part of the story, and a large enough part so that we are justified in saying that Nature gives a mandate to the powerful, the fleet, the unscrupulous to live off the weaker, the slower, the innocent. And if you think to draw your ethical sanctions from society, whose society are you talking about? A society of headhunters? Nazi society? Communist society? The Great Society? As a matter of fact, if a significant number of people can be made to believe that moral conduct is merely that which is sanctioned by the society in which they live, then morality is subverted into merely customary behavior and mere legality. Furthermore, you are confusing sanctions with consequences. An ethical code resides somewhere behind the sanctions advanced to validate it, and the consequences cited to justify it. If the code is put into practice, the consequences may well be personal happiness, interpersonal harmony, and a prosperous society. But these results do not constitute a set of sanctions; the sanctions are on the other side of the code, in the realm of philosophy. Once we are intellectually convinced that our moral code is valid, then muster enough will power to practice it, then—and only then—do we get a bonus in the form of well-being in society. But you have the thing turned around! So much for the preliminary give and take.
A Way Through the Dilemma
Evidently, each side has a case which might be spelled out at length. Is it a deadlock, or do we have here an instance of an impasse due to the hardening of the categories on either side to the point where their usefulness as conceptual tools has been impaired? And, if this is so, is there a way between the horns of the dilemma? There might be such a breakthrough if we could—by adopting a new perspective—pose and develop a thesis which might avail itself of certain strong points in both positions. Here’s such a thesis: The moral code plays a role in the life of man comparable to the role of instinct in the lower organisms, in that each functions to relate the inner nature of the respective organism to the full range of its environment.
The recently published Harper Encyclopedia of Science says that "the scientific study of instinct has increased greatly in recent years, and the concept itself has regained an academic respectability it has not had since the time of Darwin." At the forefront of this research, much of it under field conditions, are Tinbergen, Lorenz, Thorne and Barrends; Europeans all. "It now seems clear," the entry continues, "that instinct and intelligence are two quite different ways by which animals meet life’s problems. Instincts are essentially prefabricated answers." In a word, an organism’s instinctual equipment adapts it optimally to its normal environment. Animals—along with birds, insects, and fish—are equipped with a kind of internal servomechanism, or automatic pilot, which keeps them effortlessly on the beam. Instincts align the animal with the forces of life, or with the laws of its own nature. Organism and environment are thus kept "in play" with each other—except when environmental changes are so catastrophic that the automatic adjustment equipment fails, the organism perishes, and perhaps a species becomes extinct.
The very perfection of automatic, instinctual adjustment may prove the undoing of organisms relying on this device; when survival depends on a creative response to novel environmental changes, something other than instinct is needed. This is, of course, intelligence. Instinct is not a mere precursor of intelligence, nor is intelligence an outgrowth of instinct; they are radically different. In order for intelligence in man to have an opportunity to flourish, the instincts had to be suppressed.
The Absence of Instincts
Human beings are virtually without specific instincts. There is no servomechanism in men which automatically keeps the human organism or the species within the pattern laid down for human life. Men have to figure things out and, by enormous effort, learn to conform their actions to the relevant norms in the various sectors of life. This absence of instincts in man constitutes the ground for man’s radical inner freedom, the freedom of his will. Animal lives are fixed to run in narrow, constricted channels; they obey the will of God willy-nilly. Men, however, vary enormously from each other at birth, and the differences widen as individuals mature each into his specialized individuality. And each person has the gift of a freedom so radical that he can deny the existence of the creative forces which produced him. This freedom of his makes it not only possible but mandatory that man take a hand in the fashioning of his own life. No man creates himself, but every man makes himself, using the created portions of his being as his resources. This is what it means to say that man is a responsible being.
A magnificent animal like Man o’ War is not a natural horse; he is the product of generations of human breeders and trainers of horses. They are mainly responsible for his superiority, not he. Of all the orders of creation only man is a responsible being; everything else, every horse, dog, lion, tiger, and shark is what it is. Only man is, in any measure, responsible for what he is. Man makes himself, and therefore each person is morally responsible for himself. This is possible because man has escaped from the strait jacket of instinct.
Let me quote from a once well-known Dreiser novel, Sister Carrie, which appeared in 1900. "Among the forces which sweep and play throughout the universe, untutored man is but a wisp in the wind. Our civilization is but a wisp in the wind, scarcely beast, in that it is no longer wholly guided by instinct; scarcely human, in that it is not yet wholly guided by reason. On the tiger no responsibility rests. We see him aligned by nature with the forces of life—he is born into their keeping and without thought he is protected. We see man far removed from the lairs of the jungles, his innate instincts dulled by too near approach to free will, his free will not sufficiently developed to replace his instincts and afford him perfect guidance. He is becoming too wise to hearken always to instincts and desire; he is still too weak to always prevail against them."
Dreiser makes full use of a novelist’s liberties here, but his pointer is in the right direction. Something within the tiger causes it to obey the laws of its inner nature unconsciously and easily, and, by so doing, the beast is in harmony with outer nature as well. But man’s case is radically different. Does he have a true nature deep within him, visible when the environmentally imposed camouflages are peeled off? And, if so, what are its mandates? Once man knows the laws of his own being, how shall he muster sufficient will power to obey them while avoiding distractions and temptations that emanate from other facets of his complex nature?
My thesis is that the role played by instinct in the lower order—keeping the organism on target—is assumed in man by the ethical code. Animals have instincts but no morals; men have morality but no instincts. An animal’s instincts guarantee that he will neither disobey nor deviate from the law of his being; a fish does not seek the dry land, a robin does not try to burrow in the ground, a gibbon does not yearn to swing on the North Pole. But man fulfills the law of his being only with the utmost difficulty —if then—and the only means at his disposal to align him with the forces of life is his ethical code. It is this code, and this alone, which may provide him with a life-giving, life-enhancing regimen.
A Single Ethical Code
Let me anticipate two quibbles. Instinct is sometimes contrasted with intelligence, and it is the latter, some say, on which man must rely. Or reason, as Dreiser suggests above. This is a play on words. We rely on intelligence to improve transportation, but we actually ride in automobiles or airplanes, which are the end result of applying intelligence to the problem of getting from here to there. Similarly, it is intelligence that discovers, analyzes, frames, and selects the ethical code. Which brings up the second quibble. Why the ethical code? Are there not many conflicting codes? Well, no—to be dogmatic! There is a hard core of similarity, almost identity, in every one of the world’s developed moral codes. This is the Tao, the Way, referred to by the great ethical and religious teachers in all cultures. Without it, man ceases to be man. (For an expansion of this point the interested reader is referred to C. S. Lewis’ The Abolition of Man.)
This begins to move us away from the humanistic ethics referred to earlier. Do we need to part company, and if so, by how much? The two most prominent schools of naturalistic ethics are the utilitarians and the pragmatists. It was John Stuart Mill who invented the name and argued the case for the former. He described it as "the creed which accepts as the foundation of morals, utility, or the Greatest Happiness Principle." It "holds that actions are right in proportion as they tend to promote happiness, wrong as they tend to produce the reverse of happiness. By happiness is intended pleasure, and the absence of pain; by unhappiness, pain, and the privation of pleasure."
Pleasure and happiness are desirable indeed, and we wish more of them for everyone. But to equate "pleasure producing" with "right" at the outset of a proposed ethical inquiry is to beg the question. There is undoubtedly a connection here, for doing the right thing has a high degree of correlation with happiness, but the connection is along the lines of the intelligence-automobile illustration above. It is as if the utilitarian were asked, "What is the temperature of this room?" and he answered, "I feel chilly." Now there is some relation between this question and the answer, but the answer is not directly responsive to the question. It evades the question, implying that there is no way of finding out the temperature. There is no thermometer, perhaps. Mill and the utilitarians do not really get at the ethical question. They think they are talking about ethics when, in fact, they are discussing something else. Similarly, the pragmatists.
Why Does It Work?
The pragmatists are mainly concerned with workability; it’s right if it works. Here is a map of the New England states. The pragmatist follows it and drives to Boston without getting lost. "Wherein lies the virtue of this map?" you ask him. "This map is good because it works; it got me to where I wanted to go." "Why," you pursue, "do you suppose this map got you to your destination?" "That," says our pragmatist, "is a metaphysical question of the sort I cannot be bothered with." So, we have to answer the question for him. The map "worked" because it was not just any old map; it was a map which corresponded to the terrain over which our pragmatist traveled.
An eminent British philosopher of a generation or two ago, W. P. Sorley, neatly wraps up and disposes of utility-workability theories. "It may be allowed," he writes, that the "relation between theory and practice does not necessitate the pragmatic explanation that the truth of the theory simply consists in its practical utility. The correspondence between theory and practice can also be explained on the view that the knowledge proves itself useful in its applications because it is true: the utility does not make it true; its truth is the ground of its utility. The former explanation is open to the fatal objection that it tends to discredit itself; for, according to it, the truth of the view that truth consists in utility must consist in the utility of this view. It would be difficult to show any practical utility which the explanation possesses; but if we did succeed in showing such utility, it would be formulated in yet another proposition, whose truth again would have to consist in some practical end supposed to be served by it, and so on indefinitely. But if the truth of the proposition does not consist in or depend upon its utility, then we may hold that its utility depends upon its truth: it is useful because it expresses reality or real relations in the form of knowledge, and this brings them within the range, and possibly within the power, of the human mind."
Objective Moral Values
And now what about the weaknesses in the case for the theistic ethics, as that case is usually put? Fundamental to this position is the conviction that moral norms and standards are as much a part of the ultimate nature of things as the fact of the specific gravity of water. It might be convenient, at times, if water had other characteristics, but wishing won’t alter the facts. Likewise, moral values. Honesty is right, and most of the time it may also be the best policy. But there are times when dishonesty would pay, where honesty makes us mighty uncomfortable; there is a conflict between what I want to do and what I know I ought to do. In order to maintain the integrity of the moral life, the ethicist champions the view that moral values are "out there," objective, as impervious to human tampering as any other fact of nature. Emphasis on their objectivity seems to imply that moral values are alien to human nature, and, if alien, hostile to man. If they are equated with God’s will, God comes to seem an Oriental despot inflicting arbitrary and perverse rules upon his creatures for his pleasure and their frustration. This syndrome is, of course, a caricature.
Moral values are said to be objective in the sense that their validity is part of the system and order of the universe, of that same universe which is manifested also in persons. Neither is alien to the other, because both are part of the same reality. Sorley goes a step further. "The objective moral value is valid independently of me and my will, and yet it is something which satisfies my purpose and completes my nature." The ethical code may come into conflict with our superficial self on occasion, precisely because it takes its orders from our real self. Inner conflicts are a part of living, and we encounter them in all the ventures of life.
Take any sport played to win.
It becomes a day and night preoccupation, with hours given over day after day for years to strenuous workouts. But this is only the visible part of the story. There is also a perpetual conflict with the impulse that wants to break training, to goof off, to lead a more normal life. Then there is the agony of the contest itself where the will to win takes over and pushes the athlete beyond his powers of conscious endurance into collapse the moment after his victory. His deepest will had attached itself to a regimen for optimum functioning, overcoming the continuous static and rebellion from other facets of his personality. Similar experiences are encountered in the intellectual life, and in the moral life.
Check out the latter with a medieval theologian. Thomas Aquinas says: "If virtue were at odds with man’s nature, it would not be an act of the man himself, but of some alien force subtracting from or going beyond the man’s own identity." Go back to St. Paul. The Gentiles do not have the Mosaic law, he writes in his Epistle to the Romans, but "they show the work of a law written in their hearts." And Moses himself, as recorded in Deuteronomy, commends the keeping of God’s commandments in order that there shall be flourishing life. "Choose life," he says. Where is this commandment, he asks rhetorically; is it up in heaven or beyond the sea? No, he declares, "the word is very nigh unto thee, in thy mouth and in thy heart, that thou mayest do it." What are we to understand Thomas, Paul, and Moses to be saying? Are they saying that to obey God’s will for us is equivalent to following the laws of our own being? It’s pretty close to that. And that is precisely what an animal’s instincts do for him. The difference is that we are free to ignore or disobey the laws of our being, whereas no animal has that power.
Tested by Time, the Human Potential Emerges
In the course of several thousand generations of human beings a slow deposit has accumulated as the result of individuals here and there successfully realizing a portion of the human potential. The recipes they left behind, tested and winnowed over the centuries, form the hard core of the ethical code. This is not a prescription for a life of power-seeking, or one of money-making, or a life devoted to fun and games, or to fame. These things are not intrinsically evil, but an inordinate attachment to any one of them breaks training, so to speak. Proper use of them, on the other hand, is part of life’s schooling process.
What are we being schooled for? A clear-cut positive answer to this question is impossible, for it outruns human experience. But a pretty clear hint comes through when we contemplate the alternatives. Wealth, pleasure, power, and even knowledge, when sought as ends in themselves, begin to send up signals that they are, in reality, only means to ends beyond themselves. The space scientists "build redundancy" into their capsules, more of everything than normal requirements would ever demand. Man, too, is overbuilt, in that each person has a wide range of potencies and a reservoir of untapped energy at his disposal, more than any of us ever use. Nor is man left on dead center with all this latent power. He has a chart containing the salient landmarks, and this chart is the ethical code. Let him begin to use this chart and the pieces fall into place, bits of the great design begin to emerge, the person fulfills his destiny. "The event is in the hands of God."