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Full text of "Man In The Modern World"

PHILOSOPHY IN A WORLD AT WAR
which to adopt, the so-called absolute ethical and moral principles
will only take us part of the way.
The same is true of the individual. As he grows up, he finds that
his apparently absolute ethical values constantly need the assistance of
relativism, in the shape of rational judgment in the light of experience,
if they are to be applicable to particular situations. It is wrong to lie;
but we all know circumstances where it is more wrong to tell the
truth. It is wrong to take life; but it needs rational judgment to
decide whether this applies to war, to certain cases of suicide and
abortion, to euthanasia, to birth-control.
In fact, one of the chief tasks before each individual is to make
a rational and relative adjustment of the apparent absolute of his
primitive ethics, derived from infantile repression, to the practical
realities of life. To accomplish this, it may even be necessary that the
original structure of repressed and repressing forces be destroyed,
whether by some violent emotional or religious experience, or by the
deliberate "mental operation" of psychoanalysis or other form of
psychotherapy.
Looked at from the evolutionary point of view, both the individual
ethical values of the super-ego and the collective ones of the current
system of religion and morality are adaptations enabling human life
to carry on without too great a degree of incertitude and inner
conflict. This means that they must have some degree of external
relevance to the environment in which they arise, and are bound to
change as it changes. For instance, so long as infectious disease was
supposed to be a punishment for sin, it was possible to regard sacrifice
to the gods as an ethical duty in times of pestilence. To-day our
modern knowledge makes it ethical for us to compel the forcible isola-
tion of sufferers from such diseases. Again, under the new conditions
of Hitler's aggression and hateful methods of warfare, many con-
vinced pacifists have changed their strong ethical belief that war is
always wrong.
In the light of these facts, the dilemma of ethics begins to look rather
different. The absoluteness of ethical values turns out to be apparent
only, springing partly from the feeling of certitude or even compulsion
associated with repression, partly from man's natural yearning for
certitude, partly from his language habits. On the other hand,
the inconstancy of ethical values revealed by history and anthro-
pology, which is at first so confusing and distressing, turns out not
to be wholly at random. Ethics is related, though incompletely and
indirectly, to the solid facts of man's environment: it is a social
adaptation.
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