In Human Traits and their Social Significance, Irwin Edman wrote about moral and customs:
In civilized life, the whole institution of education, as has been repeatedly emphasized, is designed to transmit to the young those habits of thought, feeling, and action which their influential elders wish to perpetuate. As was noted in connection with man's gregariousness, the normal becomes the "respectable," the regular becomes the "proper." We still speak of things that it is not "nice" to do. This tendency to identify the moral with the customary is brought about through early habituating the members of the group to the group standards and securing for them thereby the emotional support that goes with all habitual action.
Morality at this stage is clearly social in its origins and its operations. The standards are group standards, and the individual's single duty is obedience and conformity to the established social sanctions. The problem of morals begins, as we have seen, in the collision of interests of similarly constituted individuals living together. Adjustments of conflicting interests are effected by group standards more or less consciously transmitted and enforced by education, public opinion, and law.
The moral problem is essentially a social problem, the problem of the adjustment of the desires of individuals living together. For an individual living altogether alone in the world there could hardly be a moral problem, a question of "ought." There might be problems of how to attain satisfaction, but no sense of duty or moral obligation. Custom is the first great stage through which morality passes, and the only form in which morality exists for many people. In civilized life there is, to be sure, considerable reflection and querying of custom, but for the vast majority of men "right" and "wrong" are determined by the standards to which their early education and environment have accustomed them. In primitive life, reflective criticism on the part of the individual is almost unknown, and custom remains the great arbiter of action, the outstanding source of social and moral control.
Customs, moreover, are the first invasion of moral chaos. They establish enduring standards; they give common and permanent bases of action. It is only through the establishment and transmission of customary standards that one generation is in any way superior to its predecessors. Customs, in civilized life, include all the established effective ways of civilization, its arts, its sciences, its industries, and its useful modes of cooperation.
While custom is thus valuable as a moral agent in establishing standards of social life and rendering them continuous and enduring, a morality that is completely based upon it has serious defects. Though customs may start as allegedly or actually useful practices, they tend, so strong is the influence of habit over the individual, to outlive their usefulness, and may become, indeed, altogether disadvantageous conventions. "Dr. Arthur Smith tells of the advantage it would be in some parts of China to build a door on the south side of the house, in order to get the breeze, in hot weather." The simple and sufficient answer to such a suggestion is, "We don't build doors on the south side."
The trivial and the important in a morality based upon custom receive the same unconsidered support. "Tithing mint, anise, and cum min are quite likely to involve the neglect of weightier matters of the law." Physical, emotional, and moral energies that should be devoted to matters genuinely affecting human welfare are lavished upon the trivial and the incidental. We may come to be concerned more with manners than with morals; with ritual, than with right. Customary morality tends to emphasize, moreover, the letter rather than the spirit of the law. It implies complete and punctilious obedience, meticulous conformity. It emphasizes form rather than content. Since conformity is the only criterion, the appearance of conformity is all that is required. The individual may fear to dissent openly rather than actually. This is seen frequently in the ritualistic performance or fulfillment of a duty in all its external details, rather than the actual and positive performance of its content.
Emphasis upon customs as already established tends to promote fixity and repetition, and to discourage change regardless of the benefits to be derived from specific changes. Custom is supported by the group merely because it is custom; and the ineffective modes of life are maintained along with those which are more useful. Progress comes about through individual variation, and conformity and individual variation are frequently in diametrical collision. It is only when, in Bagehot's phrase, "the cake of custom" is broken, that changes making for good have a possibility of introduction and support. Where the only moral sanctions are the sanctions of custom, change of whatever sort is at a discount. For change implies deviation from the ways of life sanctioned by the group, and deviation is itself, in a custom-bound morality, regarded with suspicion.
It is clear that complete conformity is impossible save in a society of automate. There will be some individuals who will not be able to curb their desires to fit the inhibitions fixed by the group; there will be some who will deliberately stand out against the group commands and prohibitions, and assert their own imperious impulses against their fellows. Where such men are powerful or persuasive they may indeed bring about a trans valuation of all values; they may create a new morality. There are geniuses of the moral as well Page 424 as the intellectual life, whose sudden insight becomes a standard for succeeding generations.
Throughout human history, there have been periods of individualism, of self-assertion against the traditional morality, which have been marked by loss of moral restraints, by a breakdown of the old standards without a substitution of new and sounder ones. There has been, in the beginning of almost every advance toward a new stage of moral valuation, the accompaniment of liberty by license.
Many men, perhaps after a first flush of altruistic rebellion in adolescence, settle down with more or less complacency to the current moral codes. They do in Rome as the Romans do. They may have an intellectual awareness of the crassness, the stupidity, the essential injustice and inadequacy of the codes by which men in contemporary society live, but they may also, out of selfish preoccupation with their own interests, let things go at that. If the established ways are not as they ought to be, at least they are as they are. And since the current system is the one by which a man must live, assent is the better part of wisdom. There are comparatively few who persist in a criticism of prevailing standards, or who are troubled very much beyond their early twenties by a tormenting conviction that things are not done as they ought to be done. It is from the few who realize intellectually the inadequacies of prevailing customs, and are emotionally disturbed by them, that moral criticism arises. And it is only by such criticism that moral progress is made possible. "The duty of some exercise of discriminating intelligence as to existing customs, for the sake of improvement and progress, is thus a mark of reflective morality—of the regime of conscience as over against custom."
Moral standards, in order to be effective, must have emotional support and be constantly applied. Men must be in love with the good, if good is to be their habitual practice. And only when the good is an habitual practice, can men be said to be living a moral life instead of merely subscribing verbally to a set of moral ideals. Justice, honesty, charity, mercy, benevolence, these are names for types of behavior, and are real in so far as they do describe men's actions. As Aristotle says, in another connection: "A person must be utterly senseless if he does not know that moral states are formed by the exercise of the powers in one way or another." The virtues are not static or frozen; they are names we give to varieties of action, and are exhibited, as they exist, only in action.
Ideals of life, when they remain mere closet-ideals, are interesting academic specimens, but are hardly effective in the helpful amendment of the lives of mankind. "Whoever contemplates the world in the light of an ideal," writes Bertrand Russell, "whether what he seeks be intellect or art, or love, or simple happiness, or all together, must feel a great sorrow in the evils which men allow needlessly to continue and—if he is a man of force and vital energy—an urgent desire to lead men to the realization of the good which inspires his creative vision." Great thinkers upon morals have not been content to work out interesting systems which were logically conclusive, abstract methods of attaining happiness. They have worked out their ethical systems as genuinely preferred ways of life, they have offered them as solutions of the difficulties men experience in controlling their own passions and in adapting their desires to the conditions which limit their fulfillment.
Happiness may, as Aristotle observes, be differently conceived by different people. To some it may mean a life of sensual enjoyment; to some men a life of money-making. But it is the attainment of complete satisfaction and self-realization by the individual that ethical theories should promote; for such self-realization constitutes happiness. It is sufficient here to point out that all so-called 'teleological' or 'relativistic' moralities, insist that the morality of an action is not determinable a priori, or absolutely. To revert to the illustration used in connection with the discussion of Absolutism, to lie in order to save a life would, on this basis, be construed as good rather than evil.
Social customs which are transmitted in education, become fixed in law. So that, as Aristotle points out in this same connection, laws are symptomatic of the moral values which the group regards as of the highest importance. Laws are customs given all the sanction, support, and significance that the group can put into them. Education transmits the values, ideals, and traditions cherished by the group, but the laws and customs already current largely control the scope and methods of education. Education proceeds ultimately from the patterns furnished by institutions, customs, and laws. Only in a just state will these be such as to give the right education.
(Excerpts from The Project Gutenberg E Book of Human Traits and their Social Significance, by Irwin Edman)