“Some Reasons for Some Virtues” The American Sentinel 6, 12, pp. 89, 90.

March 19, 1891

THE subject of the public schools, is one of deep concern to every American citizen, and the question, What shall be taught therein? is of the greatest interest.

The churches are demanding that religion shall be taught in the public schools; and although the influence and support of this demand are great, the majority of the people are as yet opposed to it; because anybody who has taken the time to think of the matter to any extent, knows that such a system of teaching would destroy the public schools. There is another demand for a system of instruction in the public schools which is no less dangerous in itself, and much more dangerous on account of the more general support that it has; that is, the teaching of what is called morality, without religion. Such a system might not destroy the public schools so quickly as the religious, but it would more quickly destroy the State. This point has been discussed considerably through all the history of THE SENTINEL. Lately it has been necessary to notice it quite fully again. We now propose to recur to it in a way in which we have not discussed it before.

Although there is much demand made that instruction in morals, without religion, shall be given in the public schools, very few of those who make the demand have ever attempted to define what shall be taught As Morals, and why it shall be taught; and fewer yet have attempted to formulate a system or manual of morality which should be a part of the public school curriculum. About a year ago the American Secular Union offered a prize for such a manual; but it has not yet been published. There is, however, a book already in existence, issued in 1888, which sets forth “a system of ethics for society and schools.” It has been highly recommended. It is entitled, “The Virtues and Their Reasons.” It was written by Austin Bierbower, and is issued by George Sherwood & Co., Chicago. The preface states the object of the book, and, in view of what the book contains, is worthy to be quoted in full. Here it is:—

This treatise, while intended for the general reader, and emphasizing those virtues which have a particular interest at this time, is especially adapted for moral training in the public schools and higher institutions of learning. Moral instruction is often excluded from public schools on account of the different religions represented, and the want of text books acceptable to them all. This exclusion has led to serious attacks on our public-school system, threatening its existence. In presenting systematically that morality which is common to all civilized peoples, the author has had no occasion to take notice of religious differences. Catholics, Protestants, Jews, and unbelievers may use this book with equal approval.

As this subject is one of much interest just now we shall notice it quite fully. In this article, we shall notice the reasons which are given for the virtues which are recommended.

The virtues which are discussed are: kindness (in its several forms and manifestations, and its antagonistic vices), truth, honesty, family duties, public duties, self-development, industry, self-support, self-control, temperance, self-respect, purity, and conscientiousness.

The “reason” for the virtue of deference, is that

one who neglects such courtesies is disliked as mean; few get more respect than those who yield in trifles…. One who can make more by giving up than by retaining, is foolish not to give up.—Page 44.

Now according to THE SENTINEL’S idea of morality, that is not a sufficient reason for virtue, nor a sufficient incentive to keep [90] men virtuous, because, on the other hand, it might be said with equal reason that one who can make more by retaining than by giving up, is foolish not to retain.

The reason for the virtue of politeness is this:—

To wear a smile is to have a great power in society, making often all the difference between the popular and unpopular person…. The polite man only is considered a gentleman…. To be polite is to appear elegant and dignified.—Page 45.

Now the query is, if a person practices politeness, in order to have great power in society, to be popular, to be considered a gentleman, and to appear elegant and dignified, then in that case is politeness entirely a virtue?

The reasons for the virtue of cheerfulness, are as follows:—

The cheerful man has a great power in society. As an orator he gets attention by his quick sympathy; his good fellowship makes him desired as a companion; men like to trade with him, and women are more apt to love him.—Page 74.

Again, we ask, If a person is cheerful for such reasons as that, then in that case is such cheerfulness a virtue? Is it not rather a vice?

Next, the author discusses the vices which are antagonistic to the virtue of kindness; the first of which is hate. The reason why hate “is not the proper feeling to have for anything,” is because hate has no utility. It gives no pleasure, furnishes no protection, reforms no depravity … So that if one has simply his own happiness in view, he should avoid hate as unprofitable…. Nor is there any corresponding action for hate that is at all useful.—Page 82.

This is to argue if hate had utility, or if it gave great pleasure, or were profitable or useful, then it would be perfectly proper to exercise it for all it is worth. This is utilitarianism with a vengeance. As for us, indeed, we should not want our children to be taught that kind of morality in the public schools or anywhere else. His reasons for not indulging anger are to the same purpose. Merely, it is “useless” and gets little respect from either friend or foe.—Page 86.

One of the chief reasons for the virtue of veracity is this:—

No trait has more commercial value than veracity. When one is known to be unflinchingly true, so that in every circumstance he can be relied on, and especially in the greatest temptation, he becomes a man much sought after…. To be true and to have a reputation for truth is thus a large capital for the average man…. He who would lie much, and preserve a reputation for truth, will find his task harder than to tell the truth uniformly, and in the end less successful. The disadvantages of lying are obvious.—Pages 102, 103, 104.

Now from the “commercial” point of view, everybody knows that there are very often times when the advantage of lying is the most obvious thing in the world. Does anybody suppose that to all the millionaires in this country, the disadvantages of lying have always been obvious? But whether anybody supposes this or not, the questions still recur, Is that a sufficient reason for the virtue of veracity? are such reasons as this sufficient proof that veracity is a virtue? In other words, if lying had more commercial value than telling the truth, and was a larger capital to the average man, and if the advantage of it were obvious, then, according to this system of morality, would not lying be a virtue?

The reason for honesty, is the same precisely as that for veracity, as logically, it ought to be. Here it is:—

Honesty like truthfulness has much commercial value.—Pages 119.

And again, we may merely inquire, If it should be found that dishonesty has greater commercial value than honesty, that is, if a man can make more by being dishonest than by being honest, then is not dishonesty a virtue? These reasons throughout, it will be seen, are a large improvement upon that which we have so often heard that “honesty is the best policy.” By this system of morality, honesty is the best policy—if you can make it pay.

It is evident that if all these virtues should be exercised, for the reasons that are given in this book, the result in every case would be nothing else than a supreme selfishness clothed with a perfect self-satisfaction. This is not only the logic of the subject; it is the teaching of the book.

The reasons for the “virtue” of pride, are these:—

To take satisfaction in keeping within the virtues, and not merely within the fashions, is a worthy gratification, as also to take a lively interest in your abilities and not in your superficial accomplishments.—Page 258.

Yes, that is so. We remember having read somewhere, in an old book, a description of an individual who took satisfaction in just that kind of gratification, because of that kind of virtue. The description reads thus: “The Pharisee stood and prayed thus with himself, God, I thank thee, that I am not as other men are, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even as this publican. I fast twice in the week, I give tithes of all that I possess.” Luke 18:11, 12. This is a genuine and authentic description of the character that would be developed by conformity to the teachings of the book now under consideration. Every reason that is there given for every virtue that is there described, is summed up in one word, selfishness. To such an extent is this so, that by the teaching of the book, unselfishness itself is turned into selfishness; for it said:—

Selfishness is not necessarily self-sacrifice, but, as it is to our advantage to be unselfish, the unselfish man enjoys his own life wore than does the selfish.—Page 32.

Thus the logic of this system of morality is supreme selfishness. And that is proposed as a system of ethics for society and schools. There is enough selfishness in society already, without making it the chief element in the instruction of all the children in the country in the public schools.

This is also the logic of that every system proposed to teach morals without religion; but we shall have more of the same in subsequent articles.

A. T. J.

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