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Ch. 5: Teachable Ethics

Our general knowledge of ethics is small and unreliable, and our practice in ethics even smaller and more unreliable. The good intentions of mankind are prominent; but our ideas of right behaviour are so contradictory and uncertain, our execution of such ideas as we hold so partial and irregular, that human behaviour continues to be most unsatisfactory. This condition we used to cheerfully attribute to the infirmity of human nature, taking ignominious consolation from the thought of our vicious tendencies and hopeless weakness.

The broad light of evolutionary study has removed this contemptible excuse. We now know human nature to be quite as good as the rest of nature, wherein everything is good after its kind; and that, furthermore, our human kind has made great improvement in conduct so far, and is capable of making a great deal more. We are not weak: we are strong. We are not wicked: we earnestly desire to be good. But we are still very ignorant of the science of ethics, and most inept in its practice.

We learn mathematics, and apply our knowledge with marvellous results. We learn physics, and use what we know therein to work miracles in the material world. Ethics is as plain a science as physics, and as easy of application. Ethics is the physics of social relation. The cause of our slow growth in ethics is this:—

The prominent importance of right action and constant need of some general standard to appeal to, strongly impress the human mind in its very earliest stage of development. Incapable as yet of scientific methods of study, ignorant, supremely credulous and timid, conservative and superstitious to a degree, primitive man promptly made "a religion" of his scant observations and deductions in ethics, and forbade all further study and experiment. Where other sciences have their recognised room for progress, a slowly accumulating and often changing knowledge behind, and a free field of uncertainty in front, ethics was promptly walled in with the absolute and the super-natural. The few lines of action then recognised as "moral" or "immoral" were defined in the most conclusive manner, and no room left for later study. It is most interesting to note the efforts of conscientious men in later ages to make an intelligible, consistent scheme of ethics out of these essentially incorrect early attempts. By these efforts a religion grew from a simple group of dogmas and rites to the complex ramifications of many commentators; and the occasional vigorous and progressive brain that saw more light has always had to suffer and struggle long to introduce new truth. We have forbidden, under awful penalties, all open-minded study in these lines; and this especially hindering mental attitude has kept the most general and simple of the sciences in a very backward condition, so that we go through school and college with no real enlightenment on the subject.

Thus a young man, quite proficient in languages, physics, and the higher mathematics, will be shamefully deficient in even the lowest ethics (right behaviour in regard to himself), and show no acquaintance whatever with the higher branches of the subject. We err very commonly in right treatment of ourselves, more commonly in treatment of one another; and our confusion of idea and behaviour increases with the square of the distance, our behaviour to other nations or other kinds of animals being lowest of all. We have a common scheme of behaviour, coming from various influences and conditions, which we cannot ourselves account for by any ethical rules; and this every-day working ethics of ours shows how social evolution unconsciously developes needed conduct, even where our conscious intelligence fails to recognise or recommend such conduct as ethical. Thus we have developed many stalwart and timely virtues in spite of rather than because of religious approval, and many serious vices flourish without religious opposition.

A conspicuous instance of this is in the pious contentment of a wealthy church corporation, the income of which is derived from tenement houses which are hotbeds of evil; and in the often observed conduct of an irreligious man, who practises the commonplace necessary virtues of daily business life. But this power of social evolution developes the immediate virtues essential to close personal intercourse more quickly than the higher range of virtue, needed in national and international affairs. Thus we often see "a good family man," friend, and perhaps even an honest business dealer, shamefully negligent or corrupt in political duty.

It would seem that the same brains which have brought us forward to such enormous knowledge in other lines might have made more progress in this. Some special cause must have operated, and be still operating, to prevent a normal growth in this deeply important field.

Much might be said here of the influence of religious custom; but the still closer and more invariable cause lies not in the church, but in the home.

Where in social relation our necessary enlargement and progress have forced upon us nobler characteristics, in the domestic relation small change has been made. The privacy and conservatism of the family group have made it a nursing ground of rudimentary survivals, long since outgrown in more open fields; and the ethical code of the family is patently behind that of the society in which it is located. The primitive instincts, affections, and passions are there; but justice, liberty, courtesy, and such later social sentiments are very weak.

New truth is seen by new brains. As the organ we think with grows from age to age, we are able to think farther and deeper; but, if the growing brain is especially injured in any one department in early youth, it will not grow as fast in that one line. As a general rule,—a rule with rare exceptions,—we do thus injure the baby brain in the line of ethical thought and action. In other sciences we teach what we know, when we teach at all, and practise fairly; but, in teaching a child ethics, we do not give even what we have of knowledge, and our practice with him and the practice we demand from him are not at all in accordance with our true views.

In glaring instance is the habit of lying to children. A woman who would not lie to a grown friend will lie freely to her own child. A man who would not be unjust to his brother or a stranger will be unjust to his little son. The common courtesy given any adult is not given to the child. That delicate consideration for another's feelings, which is part of our common practice among friends, is lacking in our dealings with children. From the treatment they receive, children cannot learn any rational and consistent scheme of ethics. Their healthy little brains make early inference from the conduct of their elders, and incite behaviour on the same plan; but they speedily find that these are poor rules, for they do not work both ways. The conduct we seek to enforce from them does not accord with our conduct, nor form any consistent whole by itself. It is not based on any simple group of principles which a child can understand, but rests very largely on the personal equation and the minor variations of circumstance.

Take lying again as an instance. 1. We lie to the child. He discovers it. No evil is apparently resultant. 2. He accuses us of it, and we punish him for impertinence. 3. He lies to us, and meets severe penalties. 4. We accuse him of it, rightly or wrongly, and are not punished for impertinence. 5. He observes us lie to the visitor in the way of politeness with no evil result. 6. He lies to the visitor less skilfully, and is again made to suffer. 7. He lies to his more ignorant juniors, and nothing happens. 8. Meanwhile, if he receives any definite ethical instruction on the subject, he is probably told that God hates a liar, that to lie is a sin!

The elastic human brain can and does accommodate itself to this confusion, and grows up to complacently repeat the whole performance without any consciousness of inconsistency; but progress in ethics is hardly to be looked for under such conditions. It is pathetic to see this waste of power in each generation. We are born with the gentler and kinder impulses bred by long social interrelation. We have ever broader and subtler brains; but our good impulses are checked, twisted, tangled, weighed down with many artificial restrictions, and our restless questionings and suggestions are snubbed or neglected. A child is temptingly open to instruction in ethics. His primitive mental attitude recognises the importance of the main principles as strongly as the early savage did. His simple and guarded life makes it easy for us to supply profuse and continuous illustrations of the working of these principles; and his strong, keen feelings enable us to impress with lasting power the relative rightness and wrongness of different lines of action.

Yet this beautiful opportunity is not only neglected, but the fresh mind and its eager powers are blurred, confused, discouraged, by our senseless treatment. Our lack of knowledge does not excuse it. Our lingering religious restriction does not excuse it. We know something of ethics, and practise something, but treat the child as if he was a lower instead of a higher being. Surely, we can reduce our ethical knowledge into some simple and teachable shape, and take the same pains to teach this noblest, this most indispensable of sciences that we take to teach music or dancing. Physics is the science of molecular relation,—how things work in relation to other things. Ethics is the science of social relation,—how people work in relation to other people. To the individual there is no ethics but of self-development and reproduction. The lonely animal's behaviour goes no farther. But gregarious animals have to relate their behaviour to one another,—a more complex problem; and in our intricate co-relation there is so wide a field of inter-relative behaviour that its working principles and laws form a science.

However complex our ultimate acts, they are open to classification, and resolve themselves into certain general principles which long since were recognised and named. Liberty, justice, love,—we all know these and others, and can promptly square a given act by some familiar principle. The sense of justice developes very early, and may be used as a basis for a large range of conduct. "To play fair" can be early taught. "That isn't fair!" is one of a child's earliest perceptions. "When I want to go somewhere, you say I'm too little; and, when I cry, you say I'm too big! It isn't fair!" protests the child.

In training a child in the perception and practice of justice, we should always remember that the standard must suit the child's mind, not ours. What to our longer, wider sweep of vision seems quite just, to him may seem bitterly unjust; and, if we punish a child in a way that seems to him unjust, he is unjustly punished. So the instructor in ethics must have an extended knowledge of the child's point of view,—that of children in general and of the child being instructed in particular, and the illustrations measured accordingly. It ought to be unnecessary to remark that no more passion should be used in teaching ethics than in teaching arithmetic. The child will make mistakes, of course. We know that beforehand, and can largely provide for them. It is for us to arrange his successive problems so that they are not too rapid or too difficult, and to be no more impatient or displeased at a natural slip in this line of development than in any other.

Unhappily, it is just here that we almost always err. The child's slowly accumulating perceptions and increasing accuracy of expression are not only confused by our erroneous teaching, but greatly shocked and jarred by our manner, our evident excitement in cases of conduct which we call "matters of right and wrong." All conduct is right or wrong. A difference in praise or blame belongs to relative excellence of intention or of performance; but the formation of a delicate and accurate conscience is sadly interfered with by our violent feelings. It is this which renders ethical action so sensitive and morbid. Where in other lines we act calmly, according to our knowledge, or, if we err, calmly rectify the error, in ethics we are nervous, vacillating, unduly elated or depressed, because our early teachings in this field were so overweighted with intense feeling.

Self-control is one of the first essentials in the practice of ethics,—which is to say, in living. Self-control can be taught a child by gently graduated exercises, so that he shall come calmly into his first kingdom, and exercise this normal human power without self-consciousness. We do nothing actively to develope this power. We simply punish the lack of it when that lack happens to be disagreeable to us. A child who has "tantrums," for instance,—those helpless, prostrate passions of screaming and kicking,—is treated variously during the attack; but nothing is done during the placid interval to cultivate the desired power of control. Self-control is involved in all conscious acts. Therefore, it should not be hard to so arrange and relate those acts as to steadily develope the habit.

Games in varying degree require further exertion of self-control, and games are the child's daily lessons. The natural ethical sense of humanity is strongly and early shown in our games. It is a joy to us to learn "the rules" and play according to them, or to a maturer student to grasp the principles and work them out; and our quick condemnation of the poor player or the careless player, and our rage at him who "does not play fair," show how naturally we incline to right conduct. Life is a large game, with so many rules that it is very hard to learn by them; but its principles can be taught to the youngest. When we rightly understand those principles, we can leave off many arbitrary rules, and greatly simplify the game. The recognition of the rights of others is justice, and comes easily to the child. The generosity which goes beyond justice is also natural to the child in some degree, and open to easy culture. It should, however, always rest on its natural precursor, justice; and the child be led on to generosity gradually, and by the visible example of the higher pleasure involved.

To divide the fruit evenly is the first step. To show that you enjoy giving up your share, that you take pleasure in his pleasure, and then, when this act is imitated, to show such delight and gratitude as shall make the baby mind feel your satisfaction,—that is a slow but simple process. We usually neglect the foundation of justice, and then find it hard to teach loving-kindness to the young mind. Demands on the child's personal surrender and generosity should be made very gradually, and always with a clearly visible cause. Where any dawning faculty is overstrained in youth, it is hard and slow to re-establish the growth.

One simple ethical principle most needful in child-training, and usually most painfully lacking, is honesty. Aside from direct lying, we almost universally use concealment and evasion; and even earlier than that we assume an artificial manner with babies and young children which causes the dawning ethical sense strange perturbations.

It is a very common thing to demand from little children a show of affection without its natural prompting. Even between mother and child this playing at loving is often seen. "Come and kiss mamma! What! Don't you love mamma? Poor mamma! Mamma cry!" And mamma pretends to cry, in order to make baby pretend to love her. The adult visitor almost invariably simulates an interest and cordiality which is not felt, and does it in a palpably artificial manner. These may seem small matters. We pass them without notice daily, but they are important in the foundation impressions of the young brain. Children are usually very keen to detect the pretence. "Oh, you don't mean that: you only say so!" they remark. We thus help to develope a loose, straggling sense of honesty and honour, a chronic ethical inaccuracy, like a bad "ear" for music.

The baby-educator should see to it that she show only real feelings to the child; and show them in large letters, as it were. Do not say, "Mamma is angry," or "Mamma is grieved," or "Mamma is ashamed," but be angry, grieved, or ashamed visibly. Let the child observe the effect of his act on you, not hear you say you feel thus and so, and see no signs of it. We depend far too much on oral statements, and neglect the simpler, stronger, surer means of conveying impressions. The delicacy of perception of a child should be preserved and tenderly used. We often blur and weaken it by giving false, irregular, and disproportionate impressions, and then are forced to use more and more violence to make any impression at all. All this sensitiveness is to ethics what the "musical ear" is to music. In injuring it, we make it harder for the growing soul to discriminate delicately in ethical questions,—a difficulty but too common among us.

The basis of human ethics, being social, requires for its growth a growing perception of collective and inter-relative rights and duties. Our continual object with the child is to establish in his mind this common consciousness and an accurate measure in perception. It is at first a simple matter of arithmetic. Here is the group of little ones, and the equal number of cookies: palpably, each should have one. Here is one extra cookie. Who shall have it? Robby, because his is the smallest. Jamie cries that his is as small as Robby's. Is it? The fact is ascertained. Divide the extra cookie, then: that's fair. Or here is one who was not well yesterday and had no cookies. Give it to him. These things are not to be ostentatiously done nor too continually, but always with care and accuracy, as lessons more important than any others. The deeper and larger sense of social duty,—not the personal balancing of rights, which is easy to even the youngest mind, but the devotion to the service of all, the recognition that the greater includes the less,—this must be shown by personal example long before it can be imitated.

Parents neglect this where it would help them most, and substitute, to meet the child's inquiries, only personal authority and compulsion. If the parent would constantly manifest a recognition of duty and performance of it even against desire, it would be a great help to the child. Most children imagine that grown persons do just as they want to; and that the stringent code of behaviour enforced upon them is requisite only in childhood, and enforceable only because of their weakness. Much of the parent's conduct can be used as an object-lesson to the child; but its skilful employment needs clear ethical perception and much educational ability. For instance, if the mother elaborately explains that she is obliged to do something which seems to the child absurd, or if she claims to have to do a certain thing which the child can see that she really enjoys, the impressions made are not correct ones. A recognition of the importance of right teaching of ethics to the child would help adult conduct in most cases. And, if the child were receiving proper grounding in ethics from a special educator, he could come home and perplex his parents with problems, as a bright child often does now in other sciences.

This, of course, points to the need of accepted text-books on ethics, and will allow of disputes between authorities and disagreement on many points; but these conditions exist in all sciences. There are different authorities and "schools," much disagreement and dispute and varying conduct based on our various scientific beliefs. But out of the study, discussion, and ensuing behaviour comes the gradual proof of what is really true; and we establish certain generally accepted facts and principles, while still allowing a margin for divergence of opinion and further knowledge.

Our dread of studying ethics as a science on account of this divergence of opinion is a hereditary brain tendency, due to the long association of ethical values with one infallible religious text-book,—Koran or Bible or Talmud or Zend-Avesta.

"It is written" was the most conclusive of statements to the ancient mind. The modern mind ought by this time to have developed a wide and healthy distrust of that which is written. While our "written" ethics has remained at a standstill always until the upward sweep of social conduct demanded and produced a better religion, our unnoticed practice of ethics has worked out many common rules.

In the fearless study of this field of practical ethics lies our way to such simple text-books as may be used to teach children. There is no question as to whether we should or should not teach ethics to very little children. We do, we must, whether we will or not. The real question is what to teach and how. They learn from our daily walk and conversation; and they learn strange things. Most palpable of all among the wrong impressions given to our children is that of the pre-eminent importance of the primitive relations of life, and the utter unimportance of the great social relations of our time. Whatever ideas of right and wrong the child succeeds in gathering, they are all of a closely personal nature, based on interpersonal conduct in the family relation, or in such restricted and shallow social relations as is covered by our code of "company manners."

The greatest need of better ethics to-day is in our true social relation,—the economic and political field of action in which lie our major activities, and in which we are still so grossly uncivilised. Not until he goes to school does the child begin to appreciate any general basis of conduct; and even there the ethics of the position are open to much clearer treatment.

As the mother is so prominent a factor in influencing the child's life, it is pre-eminently necessary that she should be grounded in this larger ethics, and able to teach it by example as well as by description. She needs a perception of the proportionate duties of mankind,—an understanding of their true basis, and a trained skill in imparting this knowledge to the child. If she cannot properly teach ethics, she should provide a teacher more competent. At present the only special ethical teaching for the child outside the family is in the Sunday-school; and Sunday-school teachers are usually amiable young ladies who are besought on any terms—with no preparation whatever—to give this instruction. Once we boldly enter the field of ethical study, and reduce its simple principles to a teachable basis,—when we make clear to ourselves and our children the legitimate reasons of right conduct,—the same intelligence and ambition which carry us on so far in other sciences will lift the standard of behaviour of our race, both in theory and practice. Meanwhile, with such knowledge and practice as we have to-day, let us see to it that we give to little children our best ethics by precept and example, with hopes that they may go on to higher levels.

Charlotte Perkins Gilman