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Popular Science Monthly/Volume 86/May 1915/Moral Progress

< Popular Science Monthly‎ | Volume 86‎ | May 1915



MORAL progress has two aspects: one, social and psychological; the other, individual and biological. The former appears to have a superficial, temporary and changeable basis, with an element of compulsion; the latter appears to be fundamental, permanent and spontaneous.

Moral conduct may be secured by the compulsion of tradition. Usages and customs exert a "steam-roller" effect in crushing out antisocial conduct. The preparation and selection of foods is almost entirely a matter of custom. Custom and style set the standards of what sort of attire is proper under given conditions. We have police ordinances which specifically prohibit indecent exposure in public places. In business relations, certain standards are recognized and some usages have received quite general acceptance. We have laws which punish felony and misdemeanor. To ignore this body of tradition is to invite social ostracism or even more summary punishment.

But most of us are subject to strange and inconsistent moral lapses. The loving father and generous husband is too often brutally unscrupulous and cruel in his business dealings. Unexpected disclosures frequently show how many of our "respected citizens" are patrons of houses of ill repute. Thus there is one code of morals in the family and another in business and outside life. Corrupt politicians are often model husbands and staunch friends, yet they feel no scruples at taking the public's money. They regard "graft" as legitimate gain. In a lesser degree, church members and moral leaders will not hesitate to cheat the transit corporation of a rightful carfare. Wealthy men will give large sums of money to charity with one hand, and with the other ruin a competitor by cut-throat methods, or solemnly dispose of worthless watered stock in a market of credulous buyers. "Gentlemen farmers" who want to liquidate a bad real estate investment will dump garbage and turn hogs into a stream which supplies a neighboring town with drinking water, in order to force the purchase of their land by the fever-threatened community. A flimsy pretext precipitates the holocaust of Europe. Thus moral conduct is often but a thin veneer which covers up unsuspected depths of primitive brutishness and crude impulse.

On the other hand, we all know certain men and women of our acquaintance who in nearly every situation seem to do the wise thing, while others can invariably be counted upon to do the wrong thing. Halfway between, most of us stand by in hesitation. These naturally moral individuals who seem to have an innate sense of honor and proportion are found in all walks of life. They appear to be types whose general attractiveness and good sense are recognized by all classes with whom they come in contact.

Thus moral conduct which is the result of repression of anti-social impulse is but a negative social virtue. Moral conduct which is the result of spontaneous action is a positive social virtue. The former is analogous to the veneer which covers up the basic crudeness; the latter is analogous to the solid rare wood.

Historically considered, moral conduct seems to have been most frequently of the psychological sort—very rarely of the biological sort. Rigid customs and established usages have from time immemorial sought to reduce variable human units in China and India, to spiritless followers of prescribed conduct. Each new generation is remorselessly trained to mechanical practises, the following of which is thought to signify moral conduct. Oriental peoples have proceeded farther than Occidental peoples in the direction of rigidly standardizing conduct. May not the adoption in recent times of some of the freer western standards by the supposedly tradition-bound east, be taken to signify the superior practicability and greater value of plastic standards over rigid ones?

But moral conduct by compulsion is a social policy not exclusively confined to Oriental peoples. We of the western world have had our experience with political and religious intolerance. Often the compulsory production of moral conduct has been carried to such extremes that it has become more than a repressive force, it has become a selective agency. Witness the case of the Roman Catholic inquisition. By the exaction of celibacy and by the torture and death of unorthodox and original persons, the perpetuation of the most intelligent stock was hindered. The enforcement of compulsory standards of moral conduct and the extermination of the intellectual, effectively rooted out of society many of those people who had within them the possibilities of genuine social conduct. In this way customs have been so rigidly preserved that it seems as if their chief object has been to crush without discrimination all variation from the prescribed conduct. The ultraconservative elements of society seem to consider that the extension of the sphere within which custom works to the line in ironing out all' innovation and in rigidly standardizing conduct, is the best possible evidence of moral progress.

In recent times we have begun to think that genuine moral progress consists in the loosening up and in the simplification of binding customs. That flexible state of tradition which is consistent with the closest adaptation of conduct as a means to the end of securing the greatest amount of enduring human happiness, is the goal. To this end we must steer between lax standards which allow license, and rigid standards which produce hypocrisy. We must avoid, on the one hand, that extreme of rigid regulation which unintelligently crushes out all variation and preserves only the spiritless, and, on the other hand, avoid that total absence of social conduct which is anarchy. Now this middle course is possible only when a majority of the people are moral by nature. The reason for this is the fact that most people need the constant pressure of custom to force them to lead thoroughly moral lives, hence only the naturally moral person will lead the moral life in a society of plastic standards. The problem of moral progress is therefore twofold: first, of creating flexible standards which will allow variation and adaptation to changing needs; second, of securing the preservation and perpetuation of a human stock that may be depended upon to lead moral lives without the necessity of much social compulsion.

In considering these problems, it should be noted that during the historical period there appears to have been little, if any, improvement in the innate mental constitution of man. While other animal species have advanced because of improvement in the stock, man's progress has been chiefly due to improvement in the content of Ms tradition, which, as generations have come and gone, has been worked over, until, by the gradual elimination of the superstitious, superfluous, irrational and inconsistent elements, it has become more elastic and better adapted to changing needs and interests. This progress can be well illustrated by a comparison of the content of the mind of primitive man with that of modern man. The tradition of many primitive groups is that disease is an object which can be driven or frightened away from the body of the sick person by proper charms, dances and alarming noises. After one of these grotesque ceremonies, the medicine man exhibits a quartz crystal which is supposed to represent the disease that he has taken from the person in the course of making him well. Compare this with the modern notion that disease is a disordered condition of the mind or body, and that by rest, proper food, care, drugs, and exercise, the body can be restored to a normal healthy condition. As a means to the end of curing the sick, the primitive method is quite wide of the mark, ridiculously crude as compared with the efficient methods of scientific medicine—vaccination, anti-toxin, antisepsis and aseptic methods. The difference between the two systems is simply that our modern methods are the result of a longer experience, during which, in the course of experiment, trial and failure, we have learned to eliminate many superfluous efforts and inconsistent practises. Thus the usages of civilized man are more efficient instruments to certain ends than are the customs of primitive men.

In recent times the improvement of the great body of human tradition has been greatly accelerated by remarkable advances in the means of communication. Under the incidence of those broadening influences represented by the press, the railroad, the steamship, the telegraph and the telephone, local prejudices and customs are gradually breaking down. The enormous expansion of commercial enterprises and the ease of travel have developed a tolerance of thought undreamed of a few generations ago. We do not hear so much in these days of the "Heathen Chinee," and much of the virulence of other national and racial prejudices has been softened. Communities which have developed picturesque usages on account of their isolation from the great current of human thought and ideas at the swarming centers of civilization, are gradually losing their old-time seclusion with the introduction of the railroad, the telegraph, the telephone and the camera. By overcoming the restraining conditions of time and space, the great modern inventions have combined to loosen up the former rigidity of tradition, thus making for more flexible standards.

But as we have stated above, the enduring character of a civilization whose standards are fluid and plastic, depends upon the quality of the people. There appears to be no scientific reason for believing that the mind of modern man is in any marked way superior to the mind of primitive man. The reason for this is found in the fact that improvement in the innate mental constitution of a species comes only through the agency of selection, the extermination of the dull and unadaptable, the preservation of the alert and adaptable to be the progenitors of future generations. Now natural selection is not as great a factor in the lives of human beings as in the lives of other animals. Because of his greater cleverness, memory and foresight, man has been able to protect himself from many hostile forces and has materially modified the ruthless struggle for existence. Thus it has been that many individuals unfitted for a more rigorous existence have had their lives prolonged to leave more than their natural quota of sickly offspring. For this reason, leading authorities agree that there has been little improvement in the innate mental constitution of man during the historical period. In proportion as he has simplified his tradition and made of his customs more efficient instruments, man has learned to control the forces of nature which worked him harm and has been able gradually to limit the sphere within which pitiless natural selection operates.

At the present time our traditions are openly or indirectly, as the case may be, hostile to natural selection as a means of human improvement. Humanitarian ideals, democratic principles. Christian beliefs and medical practises, are unalterably opposed to the ruthless extinction of the unfit. Yet our mores need to have injected into them the idea that abiding human progress can come only through the improvement of the stock of the people. Under modern social conditions improvement in the human stock can come only through securing an approximation to the selective birth-rate, since our traditions are uncompromisingly opposed to the cruelty of the selective death-rate. Therefore we ought to get into our mores the idea that the children of the present generation must be born of physically healthy and mentally capable parents, the idea that the propagation of the weak and defective human stocks must be stopped by humane but firm methods. If this can be done, then we shall have overcome most of the bad consequences which have resulted from our interference with the extinction of unfit members of the human race on the grounds of sympathy, mercy and pity. An approximation to the selective birth-rate is all that is practicable under the present democratic constitution of society. But since natural selection still exterminates the grossest cases of unfitness (imbeciles die before thirty years of age, consumptives die early, children of mothers and fathers who die young generally die before leaving the normal quota of offspring), the establishment of an approximately selective birthrate will effectively limit the procreation of the other undesirable classes. In this way the cruelty of ruthless natural selection will be avoided and yet the perpetuation of the better stock secured.

Modern states have already embarked on programs of social legislation which aim at checking the multiplication of the unfit. In some states, health certificates must precede the granting of marriage licenses. In other states there are laws which require the sterilization of congenital criminals. Massachusetts is at present endeavoring to secure the segregation of feeble-minded persons during the reproductive period. In all of these ways we are endeavoring to secure an approximately selective birth-rate. What is required if this notion of the selective birthrate is to become a widely recognized standard, is to get the idea of better parentage into the mores of the masses as the necessary complement of humanitarian, democratic. Christian and medical ideas already traditionalized. When this has been done we shall have secured a guaranty of continuous and abiding moral progress. Already the word "eugenics" has been taken up by popular periodicals and newspapers. Life pokes fun at the idea and the press has learned to use the word. Realizing that the concept of better parentage may be gotten into the popular mind by extensive educational propaganda, the Galton Laboratory for National Eugenics of the University of London, and the Eugenics Record Office of the Carnegie Station for Experimental Evolution at Cold Spring Harbor, Long Island, have embarked on programs of popular as well as scientific education in this matter.