Morality and Religion
(b) Their Reconciliation
The practical severance of morality and religion.
WE now return to our immediate problem—namely that of the inter-relation of morality and religion. At present especially in our theoretical reflexions the opposition of the two is much in evidence. In our practical life unless I am unjust to my neighbours their antagonism is not so pronounced and its solution is not felt to be so urgent. Nevertheless the “religious” man is all too apt to confine his religion to the Sabbath day and its observances; and he is not usually expected to be more generous to his employees or more genial on his hearth or more honest in his business than others. And on the other hand the pre-eminently practical or “moral” man often fails to discern the need or the uses of religion. Religion and morality grow like rather sickly plants side by side giving one another no help.
The theoretical antagonism of morality and religion.
The responsibility of the moral agent and its implications.
The first of the theoretic difficulties of reconciling morality with religion arises from the responsibility of the moral agent for all those of his actions which we would call morally right or wrong. His responsibility in turn seems to imply his freedom of choice; his act is traceable to his personality issues thence and thence only whatever the palliating or contributory forces may have been. He must be the unambiguous author of the deed. In estimating his merit or guilt we no doubt take into consideration his history his temperament his character and his circumstances. But his responsibility be it great or small remains. He is still considered to have conceived and willed the act and to have done these things of himself and by himself. The language of the repentant moral consciousness always is “I alone did it.” It never seeks to share the guilt with others nor to attribute its deed to circumstances. It takes them wholly upon itself. In short moral responsibility seems to imply a kind of isolation. A man's neighbours his world can only look on. The father or mother teacher or friend may urge and tempt and threaten the boy using every art of persuasion; but in the end they must be content to await the issue. The teacher may explain illustrate and exemplify but he cannot make the child see. The act of apprehending and comprehending must be the child's own. And the same truth holds of our volitions and actions. They also are in the end whether good or bad our own. They are the results of our choice: they issue from our personality and they express its freedom and character.
The Utilitarian denial of freedom a non-moral doctrine.
I am not ignorant of the fact that great writers in both ancient and modern times have maintained that a man's deed may be approved as moral or condemned as immoral although he is not free. The consequence so far as I am able to judge is the denial of the specifically moral features of the actions and indeed the extrusion of morality in favour of at best a calculating prudence. Their doctrine deprives morality of its unconditional character and therefore destroys it. No good is sovereign; no duty imperative. The best that can be said of anything under such conditions is that it is useful which means that it derives its worth from something else. Utilitarianism cannot even be a hedonism without inconsistency for it cannot have any end which does not turn into means in its hands. Nothing justifies itself for a theory of utility. The theory admits nothing that is final or absolute; it commits the agent to the pursuit of an ever-receding and indefinite end.
A non-moral theory of mere utilities may go well with the denial of freedom. But the denial of freedom usually arises from another cause than lack of interest in the ethical qualities of man and his actions. Freedom is taken to imply the complete detachment of the agent or of his will from both antecedents and environment; and the possibility of such detachment is denied. His responsibility is taken to imply that the self or the will is in no sense continuous with the world in which he lives. On the assumption that he is free he must be quite separate from it. He must exclude it absolutely. There is no bridge over the chasm between the self or the willing part of the self and the not-self. The problem of freedom is held to be the problem of natural cause and causality means the transmutation of energy from one form to another according to fixed quantitative laws which physical science defines. No other kind of connexion is conceived in this controversy. Both the necessitarians and the libertarians assume that if there is real continuity between the will or the personality and the antecedents or environment freedom is impossible and both alike assume that any continuity must take the form of natural cause. Hence either the causal connexion or freedom must be rejected. The former reject the idea of freedom; the latter the idea of the continuity of what exists that is of the unity of the principle of reality. Mutual out-sidedness and exclusiveness is the last word on this theory—even as regards the relation of the finite and infinite; and as we shall see religion ought to be impossible to those who maintain such a doctrine.
Both Libertarianism and Necessitarianism make morality impossible.
But we must avoid following further the fortunes of the controversy of the libertarians and necessitarians; and with your permission I shall merely make a few dogmatic assertions—the truth of which you can easily test for yourselves—and pass on. In the first place neither of these schools saves morality. The libertarian makes morality impossible by subjecting man to the worst of all necessities namely that of pure chance for the self is absolutely irresponsible or the will is lawless. There is no law within or without that can be either kept or broken by the agent. The necessitarian does not strictly speaking pretend to save morality. The actions of man are for him purely natural events. Here we have law but no freedom that is no power either to accept or to reject what is proffered. The necessity of choice cannot arise in men any more than in gooseberry bushes. Each bears fruit according to its kind and condition. Thus we find that the libertarian gives freedom without law which in truth is caprice and chance; the necessitarian gives us law and denies freedom. But morality requires both. Its laws indeed are unconditional but they all spring from “the perfect law of freedom.”
The problem of moral theory.
Hence the problem of morality rightly presented differs from that of both of these schools. Each of these schools bears witness to only one-half of the truth and denies the other. But the moral convictions of man the moral world as we say can be established only on the basis of both necessary law and freedom and of both reconciled within the moral agent. That is to say we cannot maintain that man or man's character and actions have any moral qualities are either right or wrong unless he is at once essentially related to and continuous with the world and subject to law and also in so far as he does right or wrong “free”—his will or rather his personality genuinely sovereign and his authorship of his actions unambiguous.
This problem takes many forms. It is one of the ways in which the difficulty appears of maintaining and reconciling differences with unity. To effect that reconciliation means a refusal to regard independence as implying isolation or difference as equivalent to opposition or to admit that the relation of mutual exclusion is ultimate or that mere negation can be a final fact. The ultimate relation even between opposites must be positive.
There is one consideration which makes it much easier to maintain than to reject the conviction that one and the same principle reveals itself in all things and that it takes the whole of the differences as related in one system to set forth the nature of that principle. To come to the particular case which we are considering there is one fact that makes it difficult to doubt that man is positively related as a part of or element in the world in which he lives. That fact is the utter emptiness meaninglessness of his “self” if it is deprived of that which it has borrowed from the world whether natural or social; and its helplessness if it endeavours to do anything—to project or carry out any purpose—except with its concurrent help.
Kant in one of the best-known passages of all his works makes man as a physical being a part and a most insignificant part of a vast natural system that extends to worlds beyond worlds and times beyond times. Man borrows from it the matter of which he is made and after a short time must give it back again. But Kant lifts man as a moral being clean out of the natural system. His dualism is quite frank. The moral and the natural worlds that of the responsible will and that of the desires are quite separate. So alien are these that the subjection of the desires can never be complete; no action can be morally perfect; the pursuit of the moral end is along an asymptotic path which never reaches its goal.
Had Kant been consistent he would have denied the possibility even of a conflict between the spiritual and natural or between duty and inclination. For even a conflict implies that man lives in both worlds and that morality consists in the application of the ideal to the actual in the attempted conversion of “what is” into “what ought to be.”
Man even as a rational and moral being a part of the world.
Man's social indebtedness.
The truth is that man is no more isolated as a moral being than he is physically. His antecedents and environment enter into the tissue of his soul if we may so speak as they do into that of his physical frame. No doubt he claims a distinct individuality a personality which is his own in the fullest and even in the most exclusive sense; and his individuality has indefeasible rights. But if we isolate this individuality or rather if we despoil it of all that it has received from its social world how much of it will remain? We can ask the uncompromising individualist with his exclusive Ego: “Left to yourself and apart from your community what language would you speak? Every word you now use or have ever heard is that of your country and neighbours. You have probably never invented one. Deprived of this single endowment of your social world you would stand mute and helpless amongst your fellows understanding and understood of no one. Would you be an intelligent being? Granted your language what of the things which language conveys? Whose songs were sung around your cradle and whose fables delighted your dawning mind? From the time when your outlook on your little world was widened through hearing that ‘Jack and Jill went up the hill’ until possibly like Lear
‘A poor infirm weak and despis'd old man’
‘Bide the pelting of the pitiless storm’
let loose by man's wickedness and are ready to cry with him to the ‘All shaking thunder’ to
‘Smite flat the thick rotundity of the world’
it is your country's thoughts that have gone with you every step of the way. You are a maker of some kind if you are a worker and if your individuality has any use or power. Who has provided you with your material and taught you skilful ways of dealing with it and who buys your product and makes some recompense for your toil? You have eaten your morning meal at your country's table instead of gathering berries or seeking the flesh of wild animals in the woods; you have walked to your work along your country's roads and will return at evening to a home your ‘castle’ whose safety and privacy come from your country's care. If you are married and have children and you find an ample return for all your toil in the constancy of their loyalty and the sweet service of their love under whose charge and through whose fostering has the happiness of your hearth been made possible? It has been for countless centuries in the making. If you examine the material out of which it has been spun you will find therein the trace of the wisdom and the toil and the suffering and the endurance of good men in whom and through whom generation after generation traditions were formed and customs were established whose mystic virtues have sufficed to change the instincts desires and passions of primitive man crude and gross and often lawless beyond those of brute beasts into one of the fairest possessions the heart of man can desire.”1
It is amply evident that if we are to give a true account of a man's rational nature or personality we cannot overlook or even limit his indebtedness to his social world or loosen the bonds of his relations to it. Its truths and errors its merits and defects its limitations and achievements are to a greater or less extent his inheritance. Whether that inheritance be rich or poor it is all that intervenes between him and helpless idiocy; his indebtedness to his world as a moral being is as deep and his connexion as intimate and constitutive as is his physical connexion with it.
Moral philosophers slow to admit man's connexion as a moral agent with the world.
But moral philosophers and especially the more Stoical whether ancient or modern have been somewhat slow and reluctant to recognize this side of man's history. The connexion if positive and vital is assumed to threaten his individuality freedom and moral attainments. The dualism of Kant for instance is only moderated by T. H. Green. It is true that Green finds the spiritual and natural to be related positively but he has left such a priority to the former as to make it possible to understand him to establish not a single system revealing in every part and operation the presence and activity of the principle but the natural plus the spiritual plus a relation between them. The externality and contingency of the relation are not overcome. They may or may not be brought together. They are not seen by him to be aspects or elements of a single real.
Caird whose Idealism was more pronounced insists in his persistent way on “the unity behind the difference of subject and object.” But I think he never explained the phrase or illustrated its truth with a concrete example. And I doubt whether he would maintain in a decisive way that there is nothing in the mind or soul of man any more than in his bodily frame—no element or particle of his spiritual structure—that is not the same as that which exists in his world. He would scarcely admit I think that the world participates and makes possible the free agents’ choice and is active in and as his will. He does not plainly state that man does nothing attempts nothing conceives nothing in which his long antecedents and limitless environment do not participate more or less directly. A certain isolation is always maintained for man as subject. But I do not think that the world presents us with a single example of a genuinely isolated fact: certainly not of that empty phantom an isolated personality.
The plant and its world its dependence.
Nevertheless we find (again as matters of fact whether we can explain them or not) a certain independence of existence and action a certain freshness of use of antecedents a certain mastery over environment on the part of lower kinds of beings than man which at least symbolize or point the way towards freedom. Let me illustrate what I mean. Long ago geologists tell us central masses of vapour threw out nebulae the nebulae formed systems one of which is the solar system; the solar system cooled condensed contracted into planets amongst them the earth; the earth in turn cooled as to its outer surface on which we live seasons succeeded one another soil was formed plants grew and amongst them Tennyson's “little flower in the crannied wall.” I believe our scientific teachers will tell us that all the vast changes we have mentioned were preparations without which the little flower was not possible and that to understand its full history and structure we must recognize that they have all in their fashion entered into it. In a word omit any one of these antecedents and the little flower is impossible.
Its independence and recoil.
But on the other hand the little flower which seems to be nothing except the momentary resting-place of forces that are eternally on their way can live not one instant longer than it can keep these forces at bay. It stands opposed to the big world. Nothing from that world is allowed within unless it is first transmuted by the little plant into sustenance. The outer world of the little flower is mastered and made to serve so long as the plant is living. Its world becomes its food drink air light or warmth. Selection takes place on the part of the plant. The plant takes up what it requires and rejects the rest. That which it takes up it assimilates changes incorporates with itself. In a word the plant re-acts in its own unique fashion and makes use of its little world for its own purposes. Its connexion with that world is not severed. It is utilized. It is the powers which it has borrowed from its world that the plant employs in its recoil upon the world. There is a certain aloofness on the part of the plant and a kind of individuality; but it is the aloofness of mastery and temporary sovereignty. There is no break.
The plant is prophetic of more.
The life of the plant in this way revealing itself in what it does gives us the first hint of the nature of an independent individuality. Every one of the main characteristics is adumbrated. There is in the first place that appropriation of what is without that negation of otherness which we do not find explicit in the physical world where mutual exclusion rules. In the next place there is the actual reconciliation of community and privacy. There is no doubt that the activities turned by the plant upon its world are those of the world; nevertheless they are peculiarly its own private possession. Lastly there is a hint of freedom of a tendency and way of action which—whatever their history—spring up anew as if newly originated and focussed in the life of the plant.
The coincidence of inner and outer law is freedom.
But all these truths are merely foreshadowed in the plant. The biologist following the guidance of the world of life in plants and animals can show us stage by stage the growing strength of these propensities. The powers of the living creature multiply; its world becomes wider; it appropriates and assimilates more elements; its participation in what is common becomes fuller and its uses of it are more various and effective. Above all the intimacy of the living thing and its world becomes more close; for sensation appears and there follow fuller and clearer forms of consciousness which annul the foreignness of the object. At the same time the privacy and the subjectivity and consequent independence of the living thing also develop. Both of these apparently incompatible but really mutually implicative tendencies culminate in a rational animal we call man and reveal their fullest nature when man is at his best. The little man is the self-enclosed man. It is the great and good man in whom a wide world lives again. In him its purposes gain definiteness and direction; and it is he who has a great individuality. There is accord within and without between the best man and the best possibilities of his time. And when tendencies within and without are at one and the law of things is the law of life natural or spiritual as the case may be then there is freedom.
Freedom is fullest when ideal and real are in full accord. For there are degrees of freedom. Freedom is not only power to conceive but also to carry out purposes. It is an active power not frustrated by the environment but able to employ it. From this point of view we may affirm that mankind is on its way to freedom. As man's knowledge of things of their nature and capacities for service grows; still more especially as its conception of the relative value of utilities becomes more just and as a consequence its enterprises become ever more directly spiritual in ultimate intention the law of the Whole becomes more and more not only an inner desire but an inner necessity though a necessity freely chosen. Duty is then veritably categorical and the good sovereign. That which is without serves. Thus after all it is the good and the wise the best servants of mankind who “have the world at their feet.”
But it is time that we should turn back upon the main issue. That which I have been trying to show is a subordinate truth and only indirectly relevant to the main issue. I have insisted that the problem of Idealism which for me is the philosophy of the future involves an unstinted recognition of both the unity and continuity of the moral being with the world and his independence or freedom. I have indicated that as a matter of fact freedom does not imply severance from the world; that severance means helplessness; and that man is free not from his world but by means of his world. His world is the partner of his spiritual enterprises and he achieves in the degree in which he liberates the truest meaning and highest possibilities of the universe. At first sight morality which cannot compromise freedom in any way or degree seems to isolate man; at first sight religion which cannot compromise the intimacy of man's relation to the object of his worship seems to make what is Divine and Infinite overflow and overpower his finitude so that he no longer counts. He is one with lost in the object of his worship the God whom he serves and loves. This we believe to be a one-sided and therefore a false reading of both morality and religion. Man is free but not isolated; he loses himself in his God but only because in that act he has found himself. At the heart of morality there is a positive relation to the universe and its divine principle; at the heart of religion there is a limitless exaltation of the value of the finite personality and a deepening of the effective powers of individuality.
But we have to prove these truths and prove them after doing full justice to the difficulties.
The first of these difficulties as we have seen in part arises from the fact that as a moral being doing what is morally right or wrong the agent must be alone responsible—the sole author of his own deeds. Moral responsibility cannot be shared. Every participator in a common act is responsible for the whole of it. The moral actions of a man express his own individuality. To deny this solitary and complete responsibility of the moral agent is to destroy morality.
But may the moral world not be a delusion the creation of man's self-importance? May not the actions of man have no more significance from the point of view of a higher being than the busy toil of an ant-heap has for man? I do not think this is so. But once grant the reality of the moral world—once acknowledge the nature of the demands which we call duties—once grant that a man can and does now seek now betray a good that is absolute and there can no longer be any doubt as to the nature and extent of his responsibilities or of the binding and categorical nature of duty. Love turns its obligatoriness into a yearning desire. We may say with the wonderful author of the 119th Psalm “Thy law is my delight.”2
Morality implies personal and full responsibility.
But the change only makes the authority of the law more full by converting it into a law of freedom. The duty becomes the greatest of all privileges and delights as well as an obligation. The truth is that a man is what he does. (This holds of all objects and as we may see hereafter it is a most important truth carrying vast consequences.) He is not only manifested or expressed in his actions. His series of deeds are his living personality reacting upon its environment and attaining thereby either fresh characteristics or a fuller development of its present features. Moral action is not a mere matter of the will or of a self other than and lurking somewhere behind its activities; it is the individual in process of lifting “what is” to the level of “what ought to be.” Take away the personality and there are no actions; take away the actions and there is left only the promise and possibilities of a personality. A man is not at all except as at least capable of certain ways of behaviour. These ways are his character and his character is his concrete self.
Man is what he does however wide or narrow his range and must be judged thereby.
What the history of his self may be or the range of his personality; how much and what of the past of the world and of its present social and other forces operate within him as elements of his living self; how far he can reach his hand and help or harm the world these things do not concern us at present. What I maintain is that his moral responsibility and his personal action are coextensive or that his good and bad deeds are his alone. He is the heir of a very ancient and a very crude ancestry—reaching back to the dwellers in caves and the tree-tops; a very mixed and most powerful accumulation of social influences good and bad of traditions true and false play around him no less constantly than the forces of the physical world. He is tossed by these forces it would seem like a bit of sea-weed on the ocean wave. All the same those actions which we call right or wrong are the actions in which he expresses his rational
nature his veritable manhood and are as much the outcome of his personality as if he stood alone in an empty universe. There can be no denying the fact that morality isolates. The repentant sinner never lessens or shares his blame. “I acknowledge my transgressions and my sin is ever before me. Against thee thee only have I sinned and done this evil in thy sight that thou mightest be justified when thou speakest and be clear when thou judgest.”3
The man upon whom the light of the moral world has broken makes no excuses.
The solitariness of the moral agent not affected by his history.
In these days it is somewhat customary to melt down the individuality of man into antecedents and environment; and because the unity of man with his world is assumed to be inconsistent with his freedom this melting down of man is at the expense of his responsibility as a moral being. For these reasons the focal intensity the privacy the solitariness the exclusiveness of the self can bear some emphasis; and I make no apology in closing this lecture for referring once more to our biologists. They tell us that all the universe has been at work preparing for the
Beside the lake beneath the trees
Fluttering and dancing in the breeze.”
They are engaged in exhibiting the affinity of the daffodils to the life that went before and came after them. The biological world is one wondrous whole. Nevertheless every one of these dancing deities has to maintain itself against as well as by means of the world. Without their response without the spontaneous reaction of their apparently independent single and separate lives all the universe could not maintain the daffodils. There are things that every daffodil in order to be a daffodil must do for itself and in its own way.
How much more evident all this becomes when we deal with man even when he is very rudimentary. Until the mind of the child works not all his teachers can show him that two and two make four. Life and living mind above all remakes all its content. Memory for instance is no passive substance upon which you can make an impression. Understanding (or experience) is not a mere receptacle into which truths can be poured. Every mind must create its possessions.
Moral action whether right or wrong always involves free assent.
This privacy of man's activities is perhaps even more evident when we observe his ethical conduct. Moral personality cannot be overcome by force. Personality ends just as natural life perishes when mere force enters. But personality is never overcome unless it surrenders. If there be no traitor within to hold parley with the enemy without the self is safe from all the assaults of temptation. On the other hand it is not less within our power to withstand the onsets of the benevolent and helpful powers of the world. We have seen youths callous to all the pleadings of their parents; we have seen parents regardless of the misery their intemperance brings; and possibly we have ourselves turned a deaf ear to the nature of things when it warns us of the consequences of our deeds. But the environment cannot dictate. No one can enslave a man except the man himself. He is limited not by his surroundings but by his own pettiness—his ignorance his meanness his selfishness. It is only in relation to the moral agent that the environment acquires any power for either good or evil. It takes its character from him. The environment which to one man is the means of his degeneration into duplicity or selfishness is for another the opportunity for an honest and generous life. However much we insist upon morality as the application of principles to circumstances and upon the intimacy of their relation we must not obscure the fact that it is from the side of the agent that the moral qualities spring.
On the other hand if nature in itself has no ethical character we must not forget that nature in itself is an abstract fiction a mere aspect of what is real. And in the second place the fact that nature in itself is neither moral nor immoral and that it is the material on which the bad and good will alike operate does not justify us in assuming that it lends itself to the uses of the wicked will with the same entirety and finality as it does to those of the good will. The nature of things taken in its full compass is rational.
There is no doubt that man on occasion re-interprets the world in which he lives and that he does it in a most fundamental way. There is order where once there was chaos the rule of righteousness instead of blind destiny; hope where there was naught but despair and heart-break; beauty and kindness instead of ugliness and heartlessness. Paracelsus saw no good in man till in his own heart love had
“been made wise
To trace love's faint beginnings in mankind
To know even hate is but a mask of love's;
To see a good in evil and a hope
In ill-success; to sympathize be proud
Of their half-reasons faint aspirings dim
Struggles for truth.”
The world is made new. It becomes the scene of the operation of universal Love: God's own workshop.
But at this point morality seems to merge into religion and what we have to do with at present is their contradiction.