Robert Louis Stevenson on the Ten Commandments

From Lay Morals (1879) by Robert Louis Stevenson


But, I may be told, we teach the ten commandments, where a world of morals lies condensed, the very pith and epitome of all ethics and religion; and a young man with these precepts engraved upon his mind must follow after profit with some conscience and Christianity of method.  A man cannot go very far astray who neither dishonours his parents, nor kills, nor commits adultery, nor steals, nor bears false witness; for these things, rightly thought out, cover a vast field of duty.

Alas! what is a precept?  It is at best an illustration; it is case law at the best which can be learned by precept.  The letter is not only dead, but killing; the spirit which underlies, and cannot be uttered, alone is true and helpful.  This is trite to sickness; but familiarity has a cunning disenchantment; in a day or two she can steal all beauty from the mountain tops; and the most startling words begin to fall dead upon the ear after several repetitions.  If you see a thing too often, you no longer see it; if you hear a thing too often, you no longer hear it.  Our attention requires to be surprised; and to carry a fort by assault, or to gain a thoughtful hearing from the ruck of mankind, are feats of about an equal difficulty and must be tried by not dissimilar means.  The whole Bible has thus lost its message for the common run of hearers; it has become mere words of course; and the parson may bawl himself scarlet and beat the pulpit like a thing possessed, but his hearers will continue to nod; they are strangely at peace, they know all he has to say; ring the old bell as you choose, it is still the old bell and it cannot startle their composure.  And so with this byword about the letter and the spirit.  It is quite true, no doubt; but it has no meaning in the world to any man of us.  Alas! it has just this meaning, and neither more nor less: that while the spirit is true, the letter is eternally false.

The shadow of a great oak lies abroad upon the ground at noon, perfect, clear, and stable like the earth.  But let a man set himself to mark out the boundary with cords and pegs, and were he never so nimble and never so exact, what with the multiplicity of the leaves and the progression of the shadow as it flees before the travelling sun, long ere he has made the circuit the whole figure will have changed.  Life may be compared, not to a single tree, but to a great and complicated forest; circumstance is more swiftly changing than a shadow, language much more inexact than the tools of a surveyor; from day to day the trees fall and are renewed; the very essences are fleeting as we look; and the whole world of leaves is swinging tempest-tossed among the winds of time.  Look now for your shadows.  O man of formulæ, is this a place for you?  Have you fitted the spirit to a single case?  Alas, in the cycle of the ages when shall such another be proposed for the judgment of man?  Now when the sun shines and the winds blow, the wood is filled with an innumerable multitude of shadows, tumultuously tossed and changing; and at every gust the whole carpet leaps and becomes new.  Can you or your heart say more?

Look back now, for a moment, on your own brief experience of life; and although you lived it feelingly in your own person, and had every step of conduct burned in by pains and joys upon your memory, tell me what definite lesson does experience hand on from youth to manhood, or from both to age?  The settled tenor which first strikes the eye is but the shadow of a delusion.  This is gone; that never truly was; and you yourself are altered beyond recognition.  Times and men and circumstances change about your changing character, with a speed of which no earthly hurricane affords an image.  What was the best yesterday, is it still the best in this changed theatre of a to-morrow?  Will your own Past truly guide you in your own violent and unexpected Future?  And if this be questionable, with what humble, with what hopeless eyes, should we not watch other men driving beside us on their unknown careers, seeing with unlike eyes, impelled by different gales, doing and suffering in another sphere of things?

And as the authentic clue to such a labyrinth and change of scene, do you offer me these two score words? these five bald prohibitions?  For the moral precepts are no more than five; the first four deal rather with matters of observance than of conduct; the tenth, Thou shalt not covet, stands upon another basis, and shall be spoken of ere long.  The Jews, to whom they were first given, in the course of years began to find these precepts insufficient; and made an addition of no less than six hundred and fifty others!  They hoped to make a pocket-book of reference on morals, which should stand to life in some such relation, say, as Hoyle stands in to the scientific game of whist.  The comparison is just, and condemns the design; for those who play by rule will never be more than tolerable players; and you and I would like to play our game in life to the noblest and the most divine advantage.  Yet if the Jews took a petty and huckstering view of conduct, what view do we take ourselves, who callously leave youth to go forth into the enchanted forest, full of spells and dire chimeras, with no guidance more complete than is afforded by these five precepts?

Honour thy father and thy mother.  Yes, but does that mean to obey? and if so, how long and how far?  Thou shall not kill.  Yet the very intention and purport of the prohibition may be best fulfilled by killing.  Thou shall not commit adultery.  But some of the ugliest adulteries are committed in the bed of marriage and under the sanction of religion and law.  Thou shalt not bear false witness.  How? by speech or by silence also? or even by a smile?  Thou shalt not steal.  Ah, that indeed!  But what is to steal? Continue reading “Robert Louis Stevenson on the Ten Commandments”

“Morality Is the Adjustment of Matter to Its Environment” — H.P. Lovecraft

Morality is the adjustment of matter to its environment—the natural arrangement of molecules. More especially it may be considered as dealing with organic molecules. Conventionally it is the science of reconciling the animal Homo (more or less) sapiens to the forces and conditions with which he is surrounded. It is linked with religion only so far as the natural elements it deals with are deified and personified. Morality antedated the Christian religion, and has many times risen superior to coexistent religions. It has powerful support from very non-religious human impulses. Personally, I am intensely moral and intensely irreligious. My morality can be traced to two distinct sources, scientific and aesthetic. My love of truth is outraged by the flagrant disturbance of sociological relations involved in so-called wrong; whilst my aesthetic sense is outraged and disgusted with the violations of taste and harmony thereupon attendant. But to me the question presents no ground for connexion with the grovelling instinct of religion. However—you may exclude me from the argument, if you will. I am unduly secluded though unavoidably so. We will deal only with materials that may presumably lie within my feeble reach. Only one more touch of ego. I am not at all passive or indifferent in my zeal for a high morality. But I cannot consider morality the essence of religion, as you seem to. In discussing religion, the whole fabric must bear examination before the uses or purposes are considered. We must investigate the cause as well as alleged effects if we are to define the relation between the two, and the reality of the former. And more, granting that the phenomenon of faith is indeed the true cause of the observed moral effects; the absolute basis of that phenomenon remains to be examined. The issue between theists and atheists is certainly not, as you seem to think, the mere question of whether religion is useful or detrimental.

— From H.P. Lovecraft’s 1918 letter to his friend Maurice W. Moe; the letter is collected in The Portable Atheist (ed. Christopher Hitchens).

“What Happens in the Meadow at Dusk?” (Dinner Scene, I ❤ Huckabees)

J.M. Coetzee and Ethics — Anton Lesit & Peter Singer

In their introduction to J.M. Coetzee and Ethics, editors Anton Lesit and Peter Singer make the claim that the essays in the new collection “show the folly of Plato’s idea that literature has nothing to contribute to philosophical discussion. Instead they are an invitation to a dialogue that can sharpen the issues that literature raises while making philosophy more imaginative.” Lesit and Singer briefly review the philosophical tradition, from the time of Plato’s call to banish the poets to the current wars between pragmatists and postmodernists, specifically foregrounding the case for Coetzee’s literature as a legitimate source of philosophical inquiry. They identify three specific features of his works — reflectivity, truth seeking, and an exploration of social ethics — that merit critical attention. The essays in the volume address “the psychological and moral phenomenology of personal relationships; the consequences of human suffering, evildoing, and death for human rationality and reason; and the literary methods invoked to open areas of experience beyond the abstract language of philosophers.” The editors also point out that “Unsurprisingly, the ethics of animals looms large in this collection,” a concern that might attract animal ethicists and others interested in animal-human relationships who might not immediately turn to literature for answers (or questions). On the whole, J.M. Coetzee and Ethics, while obviously a specialty volume, strives to appeal to a wider audience, eschewing much of the acadamese that plagues (and obfuscates the arguments of) so many critical volumes. Fans of Coetzee will wish to take note. J.M. Coetzee and Ethics is new in hardback from Columbia University Press.

Moral Relativism — Steven Lukes

Moral relativism is the belief that ideals of right and wrong and good and bad are contextually determined by one’s local culture, as opposed to a theory of morality that holds that good and bad exist as absolute, metaphysical values existing cross-culturally, values intrinsic to one’s humanness. At the same time, individuals, even those (sometimes especially those) who see moral relativism as the overwhelmingly rational, sensical position, nonetheless are inextricably tied to their own sense of right and wrong, and this sense often leads them into a position of judgment–and perhaps action–against, over, and/or in reaction to the perceived wrongs of other cultures and societies.

In his new book Moral Relativism, NYU sociology professor Steven Lukes employs an interdisciplinary approach to tackle one of the biggest sticking points of contemporary thought. Using a variety of methods including philosophy, anthropology, history, and literature, Lukes addresses the fundamental conflict of moral relativism: that what’s right and good in one’s own culture may not be right and good in another’s culture, yet a will remains to believe in ideals of universal human rights. Lukes uses a number of timely concrete examples, including female genital circumcision, Islamic fundamentalism, and mass immigration, to assess the costs and payoffs of holding a view that says that no absolute morality exists. Perhaps the most fascinating part of Moral Relativism is Lukes’s negotiation of Western (or globally Northern, as he saliently points out) human rights actions as an extension of colonialism, with the one-time colonists imposing their values–again–upon the one-time colonized.

Lukes concludes that “the question Who are we to judge other cultures? is a bad question.” Arguing that the “postcolonial and multicultural contexts of our time do not require us to see the discourse and practice of human rights as ethnocentric,” Lukes takes up a position–well-argued–that a moral fundamentalist might claim is simply a liberal humanist wanting to have his cake and eat it too. Which, of course, is the problem with the book. It’s a fantastic argument for moral relativism, one that points out that no one–no one–is absolutely relativist, and that, in fact, being a moral relativist entails recognizing that within cultures certain perceived absolutes exist. The idea that right and wrong are relative doesn’t mean that right and wrong are arbitrary or don’t exist–it simply means that ideals of right and wrong have to be reconstituted within different systems of social and cultural order. Yet Lukes’s book isn’t going to convince the types that need convincing. Still, those of us who think that moral relativism is simple common sense will find plenty of concrete, contemporary, real world ammunition here in case we feel like arguing with a–gasp–moral fundamentalist.

Moral Relativism, available now, is part of the new BIG IDEAS // small books series from Picador Books.