Historical Reprints Ethics/ Honesty/ Truth Handbook of Ethical Theory

Handbook of Ethical Theory

Handbook of Ethical Theory
Catalog # SKU1478
Publisher TGS Publishing
Weight 1.00 lbs
Author Name George Stewart Fullerton


Handbook of Ethical Theory

By George Stuart Fullerton

We are all amply provided, with moral maxims, which we hold with more or less confidence, but an insight into their significance is not attained without reflection and some serious effort. Yet, surely, in a field in which there are so many differences of opinion, clearness of insight and breadth of view are eminently desirable.


1. THE POINT IN DISPUTE.--Is there an accepted content of morals? Can we use the expression without going on to ask: Accepted where, when, and by whom?

To be sure, certain eminent moralists have inclined to maintain that men are in substantial agreement in regard to their moral judgments. Joseph Butler, writing in the first half of the eighteenth century, came to the conclusion that, however men may dispute about particulars, there is an universally acknowledged standard of virtue, professed in public in all ages and all countries, made a show of by all men, enforced by the primary and fundamental laws of all civil constitutions: namely, justice, veracity, and regard to common good.

Sir Leslie Stephen, writing in the latter half of the nineteenth, tells us that "in one sense moralists are almost unanimous; in another they are hopelessly discordant. They are unanimous in pronouncing certain classes of conduct to be right and the opposite wrong. No moralist denies that cruelty, falsity and intemperance are vicious, or that mercy, truth and temperance are virtuous."

In other words, these writers would teach us that men are, on the whole, agreed in approving, explicitly or implicitly, some standard of conduct sufficiently definite to serve as a code of morals. But that there is such a substantial agreement among men has not impressed all observers to the same degree. Locke, who wrote before Butler, based his arguments against the existence of innate moral maxims upon the wide divergencies found among various classes of men touching what is right and what is wrong. The historian, the anthropologist and the sociologist reinforce his reasonings with a wealth of illustration not open to the men of an earlier time. They present us with codes, not a code; with multitudinous standards, not a single standard; with what has been accepted here or there, at this time or at that; and we may well ask ourselves where, amid this profusion, we are to find the one and acceptable code.

2. WHAT CONSTITUTES SUBSTANTIAL AGREEMENT?--To be sure, we may be very generous in our interpretation of what constitutes substantial agreement; we may deny significance to all sorts of discrepancies by relegating them to the unimpressive class of "disputes about particulars." Such an impressionistic indifference to detail may leave us with something on our hands as little serviceable as a composite photograph made from individual objects which have little in common, a blur lacking all definite outline and not recognizable as any object at all. No man can guide his conduct by the common core of many or of all moral codes. Taken in its bald abstraction, it is not a code or anything like a code. Who can walk, without walking in some particular way, in some direction, at some time? Who can mind his manners without being mannerly in accordance with the usages of some race or people?

Those who content themselves with enunciating very general moral principles may, it is true, be of no little service to their fellow-men; but that is only because their fellow-men are able to supply the details that convert the blur into a picture. Some twenty-four hundred years ago Heraclitus told his contemporaries "to act according to nature with understanding"; we are often told today that the rule of our lives should be "to do good." Had the ancient Greek not possessed his own notions of what might properly be meant by nature and by understanding, did we not ourselves have some rather definite conception of what actions may properly fall under the caption of doing good, such admonitions could not lead to the stirring of a finger. Who would appeal to his physician for advice as to diet, if he expected from him no more than the counsel to eat, at the proper hours, enough, but not too much, of suitable food?

If, then, we confine our admonitions to the group of abstractions which constitute the universally acknowledged standard of virtue when all the individual differences which characterize different codes have been ignored, we preach what, taken alone, no man can live by, and no community of men has ever attempted to live by. If we leave it to our hearers to drape our naked abstractions with concrete details, each will set to work in a different way. The method of the composite photograph seems unprofitable in attempting to solve the problem of morals.

Softcover, 5" x 8", 320+ pages


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