Social Ethics: Sociology and the Future of Society

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

Chapter 10
INSTANCES

IN STUDYING the pitiful deficiencies of our primitive ethics in the face of immediate modern problems, it is illuminating to show instances. Properly to rate such instances we need new and definite standards of measurements; and some gradation in order of importance.

“Sin,” the old generalization, was “breaking the law of God”; and, from that point of view, one sin was as bad as another. Both church and state, however, have always recognized gradations, and administered penance and punishment accordingly.

Our new recognition of wrong conduct as something which injures the individual, the family, or humanity, is open to the most full and careful gradation. To eat green apples and so bring on a colic is bad, but not so bad as to take prussic acid—self-made indigestion is not so evil as suicide. Neither is plain unqualified “sin,” for there might be occasion when green apples were the only attainable food, or when suicide was quite justifiable.1

So in family ethics it is bad to be an ill-natured and censorious father, but not so bad as to be no father at all—fault-finding is less wicked than desertion. And in Social Ethics, to offend against the State by mere apathy is bad enough, but to offend by some direct injury to human life, to human happiness, virtue or improvement, is far worse.

The simple old standards of arbitrary “right” and “wrong” were quite easy to follow—or to break.

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