2.1 Moral Confusion and the Recession of Revealed Religions


The argument to this point has been essentially that, in spite of the powerful grip on the emotional thinking of man which religion and the arts have acquired, the only dependable path toward clarifying that which art and religion seek to understand is the path of scientific method. Our emotional life needs to be shaped afresh, in sanity, from this new source. But the proposition is strange to most ears, and at this juncture in history will kindle enthusiasm only in a minority.

Yet, as this chapter proposes to show, this very point in history is one at which a new Dark Age of confusion threatens to overwhelm society. Fateful moral decisions have to be made, from the outcome of which the whole bio-cultural experiment which is mankind may either go downward to the dust or climb to the brightness of new horizons. Ominous though the spectacle may be, it behooves us, before we propose the voyage which later chapters will undertake, to look at the mounting confusion in this contemporary point of departure. For only when the seriousness of the situation is appreciated will citizens be prepared for those sacrifices of the familiar comforts of religious and artistic consolation, and for the realistic and unusual reasoning that are now required.

It is apparently the rule in history as a new genre of historical research is revealing that people do not know what is happening to them at the time it is happening. Previously, historians have made the mistake of supposing that the writings which come down to us actually the works of a few odd, wise men represented what people generally were thinking at the time. But what Noah foresaw, or Francis Bacon wrote at the birth of Renaissance science, or H. G. Wells said in predicting the date of World War II, were evidently viewed as the merest "epiphenomena" by the masses at the time, who believed that matters of current importance lay in quite different directions. Our contention here is that we are living in a generation of confusion and dissolution of values, the full magnitude and consequence of which is not generally realized.

People are, of course, aware of confusion, and of the strong attempts to abrade values and exacting standards by which society has been maintained. But men of experience know that such attacks by the unadjusted are as old as the untamed ocean's attack upon the land, and they rightly suspect that almost every age has claimed the distinction of being an age of anxiety. Nevertheless, a psychologist with the perspective of a cultural anthropologist, and a sense of history, must conclude that the perplexities which thinking people express today, and the turmoil in the behavior of less thinking people, go unusually deep. It is our contention that beyond and beneath the present economic, political, and behavioral disorganization lies primarily the disintegration of the imperatives of dogmatic "revealed" religious values. To many this is a chance to revert to sensual and feral man: to a few it is the great opportunity to raise ethics on to a rational basis, consistent with the developments which science is bringing into the rest of our lives.

Intellectual confusion, ethical uncertainty, and social disturbance are, of course, three different things but they have some common roots and common consequences. As far as social crisis is concerned, the "developed " countries are, at the moment, seemingly more comfortably remote from pestilence, world wars, and famine than at any time in history. But the rising tide of crime and addiction to drugs represents a new and strange threat, the limits of which, in our ignorance, we cannot predict. And as to moral uncertainty, intellectuals can rightly say it is a sign of educational maturity to be able deliberately to question tradition and to tolerate uncertainty long enough to investigate and re-evaluate. But men and countries have to act as well as think, putting their reputations and their lives "on the line" every day. And in matters of morals we quickly pass from polite uncertainty to positively lethal confusion unless the toleration of uncertainty is accompanied by a determination and a research method to end the uncertainty. Criminals are the chief beneficiaries from prolonged abrogation of moral standards. In the academic's aim to "investigate and re-evaluate" the emphasis must be on hard scientific investigation, not sheltered, dilettante, speculative doubts.

There is a type of writer, often calling himself and called by others a "liberal" (though the true liberal is more responsible) for whom a great variety of beliefs are equally sound, and for whom variety cannot be too great. He is seldom a scientist, for a scientist believes that one theory is more correct than another or should soon be made so while a thousand other alternatives are clearly wrong. Neither is the type of writer to whom the label liberal has mostly nowadays become attached by a bastard descent from the true nineteenth century liberal usually a careful or serious student of the life of societies. For there is every indication that there exists an optimum variety of values in a healthy society, which stops far short of infinity. When that optimum is not reached the members of that society, though perhaps happy as Spartans, Christian monks and Communists can be happy in a global peace of mind yet lack the seeds of growth. When that optimum is exceeded, mutual trust and willingness to sacrifice for society are apt to decline and important group undertakings "turn awry and lose the name of action" in the endless friction of incompatible values.

Around such terms as "relativism," "authority," "deviation," "authoritarian," "freedom," "responsibility," a host of misunderstandings cling today, some of them willful. Until social science steps in to define, quantify and calculate, the discussion of social questions in most current writings will continue to move in a semantic quagmire. For example, no difference is drawn, either by the person who loves or the person who detests deviation, between such totally distinct varieties of non-conformity as (1) experimental deviation based on originality, (2) mechanical deviation based on a desire to be different (for whatever reasons), and (3) criminal, anti-social deviation, which resembles the two first only in being deviant. Similarly, the schools have apparently not taught the distinction between freedom and license, or the fact that, in the social world as more obviously in the natural world where the laws of physics and chemistry prevail the greatest freedom of self-expression is enjoyed by those who grasp and respect the nature of laws.

The untrained newspaper reader is served a semantic trick, again, by writers from Mussolini to Popper or Leary, who have mixed up authority and authoritarian. Authority may be highly desirable in medicine, for example, where there are professional and quack treatments, in scholarship, where authorities recognize, for example, correct and incorrect translations, and so on. Indeed, the aim of knowledge is to clarify authority. On the other hand, authoritarian interference with harmless freedoms may stultify the growth of individual character or convert social progress from an evolutionary to a wasteful, hate-producing revolutionary mode. These few words must suffice for the present to warn that we have no intention of accepting here the game of stereotypes liberal, fascist, free, communist, etc. which, used by knaves to make a trap for fools, at present characteristically drags discussion into foul emotional whirlpools.

As pointed out above, although the sinister, significant rise in criminal, anti-social action throughout most "civilized" countries over the last twenty years; or the increasing alienation and identity crises of youth; or the emotionality cult against logical analysis (Hofstadter, 1963); or the rising suicide and drug addiction, have associations with (a) economic causes, notably an increasing real standard of living (leisure and lack of hunger promote experiment), yet the most highly correlated association is (b) the appearance of "moral relativism" or the decay of agreed ethical authority. The vacuum in real life pressures occasioned by the first, through sudden technological alleviation of the severity of life is not our concern here. If Bernard Darwin was right in his book The Next Million Years (1952), the period of lushness will be a quite temporary respite from reality pressures and an only momentary proliferation of temptation, whereas the pressure of the problem of rational moral direction has begun in earnest and will stay with us indefinitely.

Genuine moral relativism theoretically need not mean any loss of moral determination, but only an experiment with different kinds of values, each ardently and uniformly accepted in its own community. Such group experiment, with special conditions discussed later, is vital for progress. But without the deliberate planning of these special conditions there is little doubt that in most societies relativism especially individual moral relativism will coincide with deterioration of standards. For, (a) the splitting up into ethical splinter groups has historically necessarily tended to coincide with the breakdown of a monolithic and powerful "universal" religion, (b) the experiencing of too great a diversity of values as child guidance clinic experience soon showed (Burt, 1925; Cattell, 1937b) is apt to breed in the individual a casualness about all values, (c) in the universal tendency of the Freudian id to avoid moral responsibility and inhibition, the claim that moral systems are merely relative is one of the best defenses for the unscrupulous intellectual to use as an evasive rationalization. (The experimental relativity defined here, by contrast, does not say all are equally correct, but that one is correct, though we do not yet know which.) And, (d) although experiment and deferred adjustment are conditions of progress, if lack of "closure" persists too long one may suspect that insufficient effort and intelligence are being applied to find the true solution.

For, apart from the minor relativity due to people starting from different historical positions and temperaments, an ethical goal, as we have suggested, must by its nature be monolithic. Experimentation and variation are only different means to an end. And if moral scientists dally too long over giving authority to some solution, we may doubt, as we would with physicians or scientists who take too long to find the remedy for a disease, whether they are effective scientists. One wonders how anyone with the barest acquaintance with science can write (as Popper does) as if uncertainty and toleration (ad lib) were virtues in and of themselves. It is a mistake to interpret liberalism as indefinite toleration (e.g., of fascism), or to fail to see that in science toleration really means initial unbiased entertainment of any idea, but is properly followed by fierce intolerance of experimental error, or of sloppy thinking.

The theologians of the twentieth century have either fought a gallant rearguard action "in defense of God" or have seemed to capitulate to contemporary philosophy in a despairful admission that "God is dead." So long as moral relativism ranged only within a religion, as in the innumerable interpretations of the Christian bible (Mangasarian, 1960) which Catholicism regarded as mistaken, the loss of prestige of moral authority was small. Respect for ethical behavior will deteriorate on a grander scale in an age of complete intellectual individualism in moral interpretation. Organized traditional religions complain today that "men no longer acknowledge sin and no longer seek divine mercy." But they are quite unprepared to abdicate from the position of revelation and seek ethical values in research. A cynic or a radical might put this down simply to the fact that religions are highly economically endowed, as going concerns with vested interests. (Are they not the largest real estate owners in most countries?) But there is no reason to accuse revealed religion of lack of sincerity or conviction. Nevertheless, if the chief institutions charged with maintaining ethical values and morale in society are resting on an untenable intellectual position, in the eyes of most educated people, their obstinate obstruction can only add to the severity of the final disorder. Those of us who participated in the warfare between science and religion (the present writer's books in 1933 and 1938 are instances) hoped that in loosening the superstitious grip of "revealed" religion the way might, in this generation, be opened to a rational ethics. Today the present writer would put more emphasis on the construction of a new source of positive values, and less on the demolition of obstructions. Yet it remains true that a sufficient force of men to work on the new is possible only if the endowments of the old are re-distributed. Whether the spectacle attracts or repels, the fact is that there is a receding tide of faith, whose "melancholy roar" the perceptive ear of Matthew Arnold heard so early on "Dover Beach." This falling tide may leave some stranded or wrecked cultures, unless the pilots are indeed alerted to the danger.















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