THEOSOPHY, Vol. 42, No. 8, June, 1954
(Pages 352-356; Size: 15K)


[Part 11 of a 29-part series]

IT is easily conceivable that more could be written concerning the words ethics and morality than about any other two terms in the English language. This, for the reason that, from a theosophical point of view, every man has a concern with establishing some measure of consistency, purpose, and general helpfulness to others -- and also finds he is being measured by the yardsticks of other peoples' customs. Thus he is at once involved in both ethics and morality. The latter, of course, thrusts itself upon him at every turn, while his ethical interests are galvanized only by his own will.

Morality, actually, comprises the bedrock of politics, as well as of religion. Ideal political systems are, for instance, attempts to establish canons of morality according to principles of organization; the same holds true with utopian economies. Every philosophical system is somewhat similarly concerned, and, if we turn to the arts, here again is noted the inescapable human propensity for contrasting the ideal with the non-ideal, even if only in terms of the search for beauty or perfection of form; this, too, has to do with ethics and morality.

Though often used synonymously, however, ethics and morality carry with them distinguishing implications. Yet we need not regret this somewhat confusing common usage of both terms since nothing could be more destructive of enlightenment than an easy conviction that all matters containing the "good" are easily classifiable. In this eventuality we would have nothing but "mores," even if pretentiously misnamed ethics. This type of approach to solving the ethical dilemma consistently runs hand in hand with authoritarianism -- and condemnation of all deviations from established norms of thinking or behavior.

The Theosophist is bound to feel a certain preference for the word ethics over morality, since ethics, according to Webster, includes concern with "motive or character." Morality is a more limited designation, emphasis being placed upon "manner, custom, habit." The man who strives to be an ethical philosopher, in other words, is preoccupied with the principles of philosophy, whereas the moralist is the man whose approach to the mysteries of human conduct is categorical rather than inquisitive or sympathetic.

Cicero is said to have coined the word moral as a derivation of the Greek ethicos; subsequently, Latin usage of moral implied matters of custom and conventionality rather than of ethical principle. As Joseph Shipley has it in his Dictionary of Word Origins, "an immoral act was originally just one to which folks were unaccustomed -- was related to morose, which at first meant fastidious, as a stickler for the customary, the proper thing; then (by excess of this) unsocial, gloomy, sour."

With this background one can understand why the psychiatrist, Brock Chisholm, while acting as Director General of the World Health Organization, once attributed nearly all of the difficulties of humanity to "the idea of morality itself." Dr. Chisholm did not mean to imply that he had no interest in ethics -- in fact, his denunciation of morality was apparently inspired by an ethical concern. He simply saw that men turned moralists became authoritarians in the home, despots in religion, and dictators in politics. Hence the belief that one knows what is good for everyone else obviously leads him away from sympathetic understanding, toward condemnation, and ultimately, to favor punishment for deviation.

An enlightening article upon the distinctions to be made between the philosophy of ethics and the philosophy of morality appears in James Hastings' monumental Encyclopædia of Religion and Ethics. Under the heading of "Moral Law," we find the following:

The concept of law is one of the two concepts which may be taken as fundamental in an ethical system. According as we start from the idea of a good to be attained or of a law to be obeyed, we have a teleological or a jural theory of ethics. The former of these was the characteristic type of Greek theories; the latter became predominant in Christian times. Under the teleological conception morality is looked upon as fundamentally a matter of self-expression or self-realization, and its laws are regarded as rules for the attainment of a good which every man naturally seeks. It is in this sense that Socrates was able to maintain his paradoxical position that no man is willingly vicious and that all vice is ignorance. Such a position is essentially a naturalistic one, implying a native goodness in human nature which needs only enlightenment to realize its natural good. Moral conduct is the rational pursuit of happiness.

In a jural system of ethics, on the other hand, human nature is conceived as divided against itself and therefore in natural opposition to the good. Morality is not a harmonious development of natural powers guided by the idea of happiness, but a life of discipline and subordination to an authoritative law. It is not the natural value or the pleasure of an act that renders it moral, but its value as commanded by the law. It is not commanded because it is good, but it is good because commanded.

It is evident, therefore, from this distinction of starting-points and attitudes that the term 'moral law,' in its strict meaning, denotes an imperative, regarded as having practical efficacy in conduct. The idea is of an order which is to be imposed upon human nature and, accordingly, to be accepted by the rational will. One must, therefore, distinguish between such an imperative, which does not rest upon any natural desire for happiness, and a moral rule or law in the teleological sense of the term. The moral laws, in the teleological view, are not imperative, but counsels of prudence, pointing out the best ways for the attainment of happiness. Their practical efficacy rests upon a natural desire for satisfaction, and hence, in their hypothetical character, they have more the nature of uniformities in the scientific sense of the term 'law.' They are rules of applied psychology. Although such rules are often spoken of as laws, yet, lacking the element of imperativeness, they are perhaps better not designated by that term.

Hastings also notes that the concept of ethics inevitably carries with it the idea of necessary self-discipline. The ethical man is one who is attempting to learn the essentials of an improved philosophy. He thus becomes a "disciple," and his discipline "is, properly, instruction." He may find his instruction in doctrine, but only if he converts the words of the doctrine or doctrines considered into understanding of the principles they are meant to represent. The ethical man, then, must be an independent thinker -- one does not become ethical by dutiful religious observances nor by practice of piety, unless the spontaneous element of self-discovery is present in evolving reasons to sustain these traditional counsels of perfection.

Lookout for January, 1953, reported some sentiments voiced by Sir Gladwyn Jebb which are illustrative of this point. According to Sir Gladwyn:

We should "make our own laws" in the sense of embracing some principles which justify, at any rate to ourselves, an otherwise purposeless and meaningless existence. That is hard enough, but "keeping our own laws" is harder. Here one sometimes feels like the Latin poet who said, "I recognize better things and approve them: I pursue worse things." Yet even to recognize the good is something: indeed it is a great deal. It means constantly acquiring knowledge, whether in great books or in the great school of life. It means having sympathy and understanding. It means striving. And it means having a readiness, at least, for some kind of personal self-sacrifice.

All of us have occasionally met people who seem to have made and kept their own laws. They are the creative ones. Their personalities are in some way illuminated from within. Perhaps, as the Greeks thought, they have often learned through suffering. But they alone are happy because they are fulfilling their manhood.

Mohandas Gandhi spoke similarly in a lecture to students, insisting upon the necessity for spontaneity in all genuine ethical conduct -- thus repeating the sentiment expressed by Krishna in The Bhagavad-Gita to the effect that "restraint" is a poor substitute for those improved perceptions which make improved conduct automatic. Then Gandhi added a dimension important to Theosophists, calling attention to the fact that we have the traditions of the great sages of all time to think about; their inspiration, at least in part, can become an inspiration of our own towards wider ethical awareness. Yet the time and manner of adopting the ethical principles of a sage, Gandhi implied, must be determined by each one for himself.

The moralist is, by definition and often by temperament, a factionalist. He has a political view of both religion and education, believing that other men must be fitted to his mold. Thus he tends to become the wrong sort of politician and the wrong sort of educator. He will, at least in extremity, employ force to gain conformity, and thus he also exhibits the psychological attitude of a dictator. Easy it is, once one begins to travel this road, to be much more concerned with potential enemies than with potential friends. Similarly, since the educator is obliged to draw out from the child his own innate ethical perceptions, the moralist works in opposition to all true teachers -- not being concerned with anyone's formulation of right or wrong save his own.

"Moralisms" can easily find sanctuary in nationalist complexes, being associated with the feeling of national or cultural superiority. Some recent remarks by Alvin C. Eurich, an official serving the Ford Foundation's Advancement of Education fund, are here pertinent:

When we reach the point where we feel that we are superior to all other peoples, when we decide what is best for them regardless of their inheritance, when we try by every means available to us to impose our culture on another -- then we can be sure that we are going down hill. These tendencies toward strong centralization of power and abdication of individual responsibility, toward forcing conformity on our citizens, toward imposing our way of life on another, -- a debtor nation -- these tendencies are all violations of the principles that made our country great.

Clearly the dangers to our future arise internally from our failure to recognize the need to provide equal opportunities to all men regardless of race, color, national origin, or economic status; our failure to adhere to the basic ideas and principles of freedom on which this nation was founded and from our lack of acceptance of our individual responsibilities. Externally, our chief dangers arise from sheer ignorance of our failure to learn about other peoples and cultures and our unwillingness to apply to peoples everywhere those very principles that have made our own country great.

Mr. Eurich is here making an ethical criticism of a contemporary American morality. He asks his fellow citizens to assess, philosophically, their own preconceptions and prejudices. Similarly, though in somewhat different context, H. P. Blavatsky criticized conventional moralities of her day. In neither case, though, we may note, do denunciations of personal character play a part, this unnecessary aspect of controversy being reserved for the moralists themselves.

H.P.B. does write of the need for an improved morality, but makes it clear that such improvement is only to be obtained by devotion to the principles of a philosophy which embodies the spirit of universal brotherhood. We cannot, of course, do without all morality, any more than we are presently able to do without some form of religion or, in our daily living, without habits. But we can and should recognize that all our moralities are in need of improvement.

And morality is a private matter, as intimated by Sir Gladwyn. When we philosophize, or weigh our own motives in terms of ethical principles, we are speaking a universal language; in our determination of ways and means for implementing ethical principles, the language is private, both the "morals" and responsibility for them being entirely our own. Finally, then, the relationship between ethics and morality seems to be essentially the same as that existing between religion and philosophy, or between belief and knowledge. Transition from the point of view of "morals" to the point of view of ethics may be obtained, through the same slow evolutionary process which may someday make divisive creeds and factional illusions of superiority ultimately vanish from the face of the earth. Further, incarnation of the Manasic principle -- referred to more than once in H. P. Blavatsky's Five Messages to the American Theosophists -- will, in all three instances, supply the necessary dynamic.

Next article:
[Evolution. Darwin. Nature. Pantheistic.
Theology. Science. Materialism. Factionalism.
Evolutionists. Natural Selection.
Mutations. Progress. Environment.
Marxism. Psychological Evolution.]
[Part 12 of a 29-part series]

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