Social Ethics: Sociology and the Future of Society

By Charlotte Perkins Gilman; Michael R. Hill et al. | Go to book overview

Chapter 6
VIRTUES AND PRINCIPLES

THE REAL weakness of ethics, as it has been presented to us in the past, is in its explanations. “Why is this right?” asks the child, or, more rebelliously, the older student, and, going further, “Why is this more right than that—what is most right?”

Our old answer was mere authority—“Thus saith the Lord,” but when the student saw that some most grievous evils, such as gambling, bribery and treason, were not specifically forbidden; and that some of the noblest virtues, such as courage, patriotism, and intellectual honesty were not commanded—then was the student perplexed.

Certain general standards of morality he finds common to many religions, but the explanation of them lies in old race customs more than in the religious sanction. If he is a real student, using his own mind; if he looks at life about him, or in past history, to found judgment on fact, then there appears so tumultuous and perplexing an array of facts that judgment is most difficult.

Out of this welter we have evolved some fairly good rules of conduct, known as “principles.” These principles are drawn from a large number of cases, and are supposed to hold conduct up to standard even when the immediate conditions are most confusing.

Today we are changing our ideas about the old principles, and have not developed satisfactory new ones. Those who founded their beliefs on authority and revelation, are horrified at those who dispute authority, deny revelation, and demand reasons for their ethics.

-55-

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