“The Grounds of Right” The American Sentinel 6, 13, pp. 97-99.

March 26, 1891

IN further notice of Mr. Bierbower’s system of “Ethics for Schools,” we are brought to the discussion of the grounds of morality or right. Last week we found that the only “reasons” which he gives for the virtues, are all summed up in the one word, “selfishness.” So entirely is this so that unselfishness itself is by this system turned into selfishness; thus every virtue is transformed into a vice, because selfishness is the root of all vice and of all sin. Now in examining the grounds of morality or right which this author propounds it is found that this also ends at the same place—in supreme selfishness. Thus says the book:—

As to what constitutes right, thinkers differ; some maintaining it to be a course in harmony with the necessary order of things; others, the will of God, as revealed in Revelation or nature; others, utility, happiness, or the general good of mankind. This question leads into speculative philosophy, which we shall not here enter. It is enough now to observe that, whatever men’s opinions touching the ground of right, they all deem those things right which are thought best for men, and consider that morality which will bring them most happiness.

They all deem those things right which are “thought” best for them. Thought by whom? Who is to do the thinking? Men themselves of course. Well then, if they themselves are to do the thinking, and by that decide what is best for men, then it follows that whatever men think best for themselves, that is right. This is, in fact, the statement of the book. The very next paragraph after the one just quoted, begins with these words:—

Accordingly when people are asked to do right, they are asked to do simply what is best for themselves.

Now it is a fact that multitudes of men often do what they know to be wrong simply because they do think it best for themselves. Yet, according to this system, whatever men may think best for themselves, that is right, and there is an end of it. In other words, that which a person knows to be wrong, becomes right if only he thinks it best for himself. And that is to be considered the ground of morality or right! But it is written: “There is a way that seemeth right unto a man, but the end thereof are the ways of death.”

This latter quotation from his book suggests another thought; it says, “When people are asked to do right,” etc. This suggests that some people are not doing right, and that they are to be asked by others to do right. But the rule has been already established that men do right when they do that which they think to be best for themselves. Now when it is suggested that any one shall be asked to do right, it is thereby argued that somebody else has taken it upon himself to think and decide what is best for the other man; and to decide for the other man what is right. Thus one man’s views of right are allowed to be the standard of action for another man, when that other has just as much right to think for himself as has anybody else on earth. In such a system of morality as this propounded by Mr. Bierbower, there is no morality at all. It is either selfishness on one hand, or man-worship on the other, and in either case is only naturalism. [98]

The truth of the matter is that, as respects real virtue and right, this whole book is but a series of platitudes. As regards virtue, it simply mentions as that which ought to be done, what everybody already knows ought to be done. Every person knows that he ought to be kind, cheerful, honest, truthful, deferential, and all the other things in the catalogue. The difficulty is not that men do not know that they ought to do these things : the difficulty is to do that which they know they ought to do, and which they know to be right.

Having noticed the “reasons” which Mr. Bierbower gives as to why these things ought to be done; and the reason why it is right to do them; it is of interest next to inquire the means by which he proposes that they may be done.

That men do not always do what they ought to do, is admitted by the book. For instance, one of the virtues inculcated is “thinking kindly of others,” yet, it is admitted that some do think badly of others. Thus says the book:—

If we think badly of others, it is more the result of a bad heart than of a good judgment.

Family love is one of the virtues inculcated, yet it is admitted that in some families love is not manifested. Thus says the book:—

If one does not think highly of his parents, it is not because they are unworthy, but because he is…. One who does not love his parents can not well take on any virtue.

Another virtue inculcated, is love for all mankind; yet, it is admitted that this is not manifested by all. Yet another virtue inculcated is kindness, which it is likewise admitted, is not always shown by all. Thus we might go through all the book, naming the virtues and finding the constant admission that those virtues are not always manifested by all. These which we have named, however, are sufficient to show that such a condition of things amongst mankind, is clearly recognized in this proposed system of morality.

Now, what help does the book give, or what source of help does it suggest, to enable men to do the good which is required? When it is admitted that to think badly of men is evidence of a bad heart rather than a good judgment, what remedy is proposed for the bad heart? Here it is:—

We should make it a habit of judgment to think well of everybody until we learn the contrary.

Can a bad heart be made good by “a habit of judgment”? More than this, where is the habit of judgment to come from? As he thinketh in his heart, so is he. Then, as to think badly of another is more the result of a bad heart, than of a good judgment, this is to say the judgment is bad also. In other words, the bad judgment is the result of the bad heart. Then if the heart is bad, how can it possibly be that the judgment may form a habit to think well. This is to say that the heart can reform itself, that the bad heart can make itself good. “Can the Ethiopian change his skin, or the leopard his spots? Then may ye also do good, that are accustomed to do evil.” But the Ethiopian can not change his skin, neither the leopard his spots. The heart being bad, it never can make itself good, nor can it ever create a habit of judgment that will think well of everybody.

Yet, we are reminded that the book does not say without qualification that the habit must be to think well of everybody. You are only to think well of everybody “until you learn the contrary.” Then, we suppose this system of morality and virtue would allow it to be virtuous to think ill of men. But “charity,” and that is morality, “thinketh no evil,” at any time.

Again, the book says, that if one does not think highly of his parents, it is because “he is unworthy,” and such an one can not well take on any virtue. In this case, therefore, the key of the whole situation lies in that unworthiness being turned into worthiness. Lack of love for his parents is evidence of a fault in himself, and until this fault is remedied, he can not well take on any virtue. How, then, shall the fault be remedied? Well, only nine pages before this statement, under the heading of “Love for all,” are these words:—

Nobody can be unkind to one whom he well knows…. It is our duty, therefore, to know men well enough to love them.

But if a man does not know his parents, who in the world can he know? And if he does not know them well enough to love them, how can he ever find anybody whom he can know well enough to love? Especially when the reason that he does not love his parents is not in them but in himself. The lack of love for his parents is admitted not to be in his lack of knowledge of them, but in his own unworthiness. This brings us to the same point as before, that the fault is not primarily in the judgment, nor in outward circumstances but in the heart. And if the condition of the heart is such that he does not love the very ones whom he knows best and to whom he owes the most of all on earth, then how is that heart to be brought to a condition in which it will love anybody? The book says that it shall be “by thinking of them more and understanding them better.” But his heart is already impure, unloving, and bad, how, then, can thoughts of love come from it? The Ethiopian can not change his skin. The heart can not change itself. If love is not in the heart, it can not appear in the thoughts, nor in the life.

Again, when an individual does not find kindness manifesting itself in his conduct toward others how shall this lack be remedied? This book says it is “the object of ethics to engender this kindly feeling as the most general guarantee of morality.” How then is it proposed that this system of ethics shall engender kindly feeling? Here is the “how”:—

This may be done by concentrating the will unswervingly upon it and keeping the resolution to be continually kind.

Yes, that is quite a nice prescription if it was worth anything; but everybody knows by a lifelong experience, that it is utterly worthless. Every person knows for himself that he has attempted many a time to concentrate his will unswervingly upon such things as that, and he knows that his will has swerved man a time. Everybody knows that he has made resolutions of this sort an infinite number of times—New Year’s days, birthdays, and many other anniversaries—and he knows that the difficulty is not in making the resolutions, but in keeping them. It is written, and it is the living experience of every man on earth, that “that which I do, I allow not: for what I would, that do I not; but what I hate, that do I. If then I do that which I would not, I consent unto the law that it is good. Now then it is no more I that do it, but sin that dwelleth in me. For I know that in me (that is, in my flesh), dwelleth no good thing: for to will is present with me; but how to perform that which is good I find not. For the good that I would, I do not: but the evil which I would not, that do I…. I find then a law, that, when I would do good, evil is present with me.”

There is over every man a law which prevents him from doing the good that he knows, and that he wills to do—a law which causes evil to appear in the very best efforts of men to do strictly and continually what is right. That law is as fixed as the law of the seasons or of gravitation: and it will hold every man in the bondage of an everlasting and wretched captivity unless he will be delivered by Him who is above that law, that is by Jesus Christ. Jesus Christ has power and grace to deliver men from this law of sin and death, and to clothe them with the power to do the good, not only which they already know, but all additional good that may be made known by the Spirit of God. Professed philosophers, eminent teachers, and would-be saviours, in large numbers, have set forth systems of morality and rules of life; but they not only failed to bestow the power to perform, but they themselves failed to perform the duties which they enjoined. The excellency of the knowledge of Christ Jesus, the Lord, is in that he not only set forth the grandest system of right known to the universe, but he imparts the power to perform it. Therefore no man need ever be ashamed of “the gospel of Christ, for it is the power of God, unto salvation to every one that believeth.” And the power of God, working in him who is of faith, enables him “both to will and to do” of God’s good pleasure.

Without this power no man can ever do [99] the good that he knows. Not to do the good that he knows if immorality. To tell him that he ought to do the good that he already knows, without telling of the power by which alone he can do it, does not help him a particle. To tell him of the power by which alone he can do it, is to point him to Jesus Christ. To point him to Christ, to obtain this power, is to inculcate faith in Christ, because the power is manifested only to those who believe in him. This is to teach distinctively a religious and even a sectarian doctrine. Therefore the culmination of the logic of the whole matter is that upon which THE SENTINEL has always insisted, that aside from a living faith in Jesus Christ, there is no morality in this world; and that, as the State can not teach faith in Christ, by which alone morality can be attained, the State can not teach morality.

This work was committed by Christ to the Church. To the Church, and not to the State, he said, “Go and teach all Nations whatsoever I have commanded you, and lo, I am with you.” Upon the Church, not upon the State, he bestowed the gift of the Spirit of God, by which is manifested the power of God to men, enabling them to will and to do the good which every one may know. Instruction in morality, therefore, can be given only by the Church of Christ through the power of God. If the professed church of Christ has lost the power and Spirit of God, that is her fault. But when this loss is discovered, let not the State, either by the professed church, or by any, other consideration, suffer itself to be drawn into any attempt to do the work of the Church, and supply her lack. Let the civil Government keep its place, and attend to that which is civil. Let the State inculcate the principle of civil rights, not moral right. This the State can always do with profit. But the State can never touch the ground of moral right, without obtruding its clumsy form into the realm of faith and conscience, and working only irreparable wrong.

We have yet another article to present upon the system of ethics propounded in this book; therefore we shall close this one with the single observation that the grounds of morality or right presented by Mr. Bierbower—are only sinking sand, and will swallow up in both civil and moral perdition, all who put their trust in them.

A. T. J.

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