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MORAL philosophy is probably the most difficult branch of those various disciplines of the human spirit summed up in the general conception of philosophy. This difficulty is one which all the thinkers of our period recognised. Many of them, occupied with other problems on the psychological or metaphysical side, did not write explicitly upon ethics. Yet the problem of ethics, its place, significance and authority, is but the other side of that problem of freedom which has appeared throughout this development as central and vital. The ethical consciousness of man has never been content for long with the assertion that ethics is a purely positive science, although it has obviously a positive side. The essence of morality has been regarded as not merely a description of what exists, but what might, should or ought to exist. Ethics is normative, it erects or endeavours to outline a standard which is an ideal standard. This is the characteristic of ethics, and so long as the moral conscience of humanity, individually and collectively, does not slumber nor die, it will remain so. This conflict between the ideal and the real, the positive and normative is indeed the chief source of pain and conflict to man, but without it he would cease to be human.
Whatever the difficulties, the philosopher who aspires to look upon human life as a whole must give some interpretation of this vital aspect of human consciousness. It is in this connection that a solution of the problem of freedom is so valuable, for under a purely determinist and positivist reading of life, the moral sentiments become mere data for an anthropological survey, the hope and tragedy of human life are replaced, comfortably perhaps for some, by an interpretation in which the true significance of ethics is lost.
One of the outstanding features of the discussion upon ethics in our period is the fact that the social standpoint colours most of the discussion. This was largely due to the impulse given by Comte and continued by the sociologists. We have already remarked the importance which he attached to his new science of society or "sociology." However much the development of this branch of study may have disappointed the hopes of Comte, it has laid a powerful and necessary emphasis upon the solidarity of the problems of society. As Comte claimed that psychology could not be profitably studied in the isolated individual alone, so he insisted that ethics could only be studied with profit from a social standpoint. This was not forgotten by subsequent thinkers, even by those who were not his followers, and the main development of the ethical problem in our period is marked by an increasing insistence upon sociability and solidarity. Comte was able to turn the thoughts of philosophers away from pre-occupation with the isolated individual, conceived as a cold and calculating intellectual machine, a "fiction" which had engrossed the minds of thinkers of the previous century. He was able also to indicate the enormous part played by instincts, particularly "herd-instincts," by passion and feelings of social hatred and social sympathy. It was the extension of social sympathy upon which Comte insisted as the chief good. The great defect of Christianity from an ethical standpoint was, Comte pointed out, due to its individualistic ethic. To the doctrine of "saving one's own soul" Comte opposed that of the salvation of humanity. The social unit is not the individual man or woman, it is the family. In that society which is not a mere association but a union, arising from common interests and sympathy, the individual realises himself as part of society. The highest ethical conception, however, arises when the individual, transcending himself and his family, feels and acts as a member of humanity itself, not only in his public, but also in his private life. In the idea of humanity Comte finds the concrete form of that universal which in the ethic of Kant was the symbol of duty itself.
It was by this insistence on human social solidarity that Comte left his mark upon the ethical problem. Many of the details of social ethics given in the last three large volumes of his work are extremely thoughtful and interesting, in spite of their excessive optimism, but we can only here indicate what is sufficient for our purpose, his influence over subsequent thought. That is summed up in the words "solidarity" and "social standpoint."
We may observe that the supreme problems in social ethics Comte regarded as being those of education or mental development and the "right to work."* He foresaw, as did Renan, that Culture and Economic Justice were the two foci around which the ethical problems were to be ranged in the immediate future. He regretted that the proletariat in their cry for justice had not sufficient culture to observe that they themselves are not a class apart, however class-conscious they be. They stand solid with the community, and Comte prophesied that, finding this out sooner or later, they would have to realise the folly of violent revolution. Only a positive culture or education of the democracy could, he believed, solve this social problem, which is there precisely because the proletariat are not sufficiently, and do not feel themselves to be, incorporated in the life of the community or of humanity. Only when they realise this will work be ennobled by a feeling of service. The Church has a moral advantage here, in that she has her organisation complete for furthering the conception of service to God. Comte realised this advantage of religious morality, but he thought it would come also to "positive" morality when men came to a conception of service for humanity To this great end, he urged, our education should be directed, and it should aim, he thought, at the decline and elimination of militarism which, in Comte's view corresponds to the second stage of development (marked also by theology), a stage to be superseded in man's development, by an era in which the war-spirit will be replaced by that of productive service performed not only pour la patrie, but pour l'humanité.
[Footnote * : Comte criticised the teaching given to the young in France as being "instruction" rather than "education." This has frequently been insisted upon since his time.]
In viewing the general influences which bore upon the study of the ethical problem in our period this stress upon the social character of morality is supreme, and is the most distinctly marked. But in addition to the sociological influence there are others which it is both interesting and important to note briefly. There is the influence of traditional religious morality, bound up with Christianity as presented by the Roman Catholic Church. The deficiencies of this are frequently brought out in the discussion, but in certain of the thinkers, chiefly the "modernists," it appears as an influence contributing to a religious morality and as offering, indeed, the basis of a religion. Other writers, however, while rejecting the traditional morality of the Church, lay stress upon a humanitarian ethic which has an affinity to the idealistic morality preached by the founder of Christianity, a morality which manifests a spirit different from that which his Church has usually shown. Indeed, the general tendency of the ethical development in our period is one of opposition to the ecclesiastical and traditional standpoint in ethics.
Then there is the influence of Kant's ethics, and here again, although Renouvier owed much to Kant, the general tendency is to get away from the formalism and rigorism of his "categorical imperative." The current of English Utilitarian ethics appears as rather a negative influence, and is rather scorned when mentioned. The common feature is that of the social standpoint, issuing in conceptions of social justice or humanitarianism and finding in action and life a concrete morality which is but the reflection of the living conscience of mankind creating itself and finding in the claims of the practical reason that Absolute or Ideal to which the pure reason feels it cannot alone attain.
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