As soon as a man begins to care about what others will say of circumstances not under his own control, such as his race, his origin, his appearance, his physical defects, or his lack of wealth or natural talents, he may be laying up for himself a store of incalculable misery, and is certainly enfeebling his character and impairing his chances of future usefulness.
It is under the influence of this motive, for instance, that many a man lives above his income, not for the purpose of gratifying any real wants either of himself or his family, but for the sake of 'keeping up appearances,' though he is exposing his creditors to considerable losses, his family to many probable disadvantages, and himself to almost certain disgrace in the future. It is under the influence of this motive, too, that many men, in the upper and middle classes, rather than marries on a modest income, and drop out of the society of their fashionable acquaintance, form irregular sexual connections, which are a source of injury to themselves and ruin to their victims.
Much of the trouble, vexation, and misery of which men are the cause to themselves is due to cowardice, or the false shame which results from attaching undue importance to custom, fashion, or the opinion of others, even when that opinion is not confirmed by their own reflection. Shame is an invaluable protection to men, as a restraining feeling.
We at one time think ourselves or others more, and, at another time, less blamable for the self-same acts, or we come to regard some particular class of acts in a different light from what we used to do, either modifying our praise or blame, or, in extreme cases, actually substituting one for the other.
Human nature, in its normal condition, is so constituted that the remorse felt, when we look back upon a wrong action, far outweighs any pleasure we may have derived from it, just as the satisfaction with which we look back upon a right action far more than compensates for any pain with which it may have been attended. A man must; ultimately, be the judge of his own conduct, and, as he acts or does not act according to his own best judgment, so he will subsequently feel satisfaction or remorse.
We have a variety of appetites and desires, which centre in ourselves, including what has been called rational self-love, or a desire for what, on cool reflection, we conceive to be our own highest good on the whole, as well as self-respect, or a regard for our own dignity and character, and for our own opinion of ourselves. When any of these various appetites or desires is gratified, we feel satisfaction, and, on the other hand, when they are thwarted, we feel dissatisfaction.
Similarly, we have a number of affections, of which others are the object, some of them of a malevolent or resentful, but most of them of a benevolent character, including a general desire to confer all the happiness that we can. Here, again, we feel satisfaction, when our affections are gratified, and dissatisfaction, when they are thwarted.
We praise a man who, by due economy, makes decent provision for himself in old age, as we blame a man who fails to do so. Quite apart from any public or social considerations, we admire and applaud in the one man the power of self-restraint and the habit of foresight, which enable him to subordinate his immediate gratifications to his larger interests in the remote future, and to forego sensual and passing pleasures for the purpose of preserving his self-respect and personal independence in later life. And we admire and applaud him still more, if to these purely self-regarding considerations he adds the social one of wishing to avoid becoming a burden on his family or his friends or the public. Just in the same way, we condemn the other man, who, rather than sacrifice his immediate gratification, will incur the risk of forfeiting his self-respect and independence in after years as well as of making others suffer for his improvidence.
A man who, by the exercise of similar economy and forethought, makes provision for his family or relations we esteem still more than the man who simply makes provision for himself, because the sacrifice of passing pleasures is generally still greater, and because there is also, in this case, a total sacrifice of all self-regarding interests, except, perhaps, self-respect and reputation, for the sake of others. Similarly, the man who has a family or relations dependent upon him, and who neglects to make future provision for them, deservedly incurs our censure far more than the man who merely neglects to make provision for him.
Society is apt to insist on all men being cast in one mould, without much caring to examine the character of the mould which it has adopted. And it frequently happens that a wholly disproportionate value thus comes to be attached to the observance of mere rules of etiquette and good-breeding as compared with acts and feelings which really concern the moral and social welfare of mankind. There is many a man, moving in good society, who would rather be guilty of, and even detected in, an act of unkindness or mendacity, than be seen in an unfashionable dress or commit a grammatical solecism or a broach of social etiquette. Vulgarity to such men is a worse reproach than hardness of heart or indifferent morality.
The great majority of our acts is too trivial to merit any notice, such as is implied in a moral judgment. When a man makes way for another in the street, or refrains from eating or drinking more than is good for him, neither he nor the bystander probably ever thinks of regarding the act as a meritorious one. It is taken as a matter of course, though the opposite conduct might, under certain circumstances, be of sufficient importance to incur censure. It is impossible here, as in most other cases where we speak of 'importance,' to draw a definite line, but it may at least be laid down that an act, in order to be regarded as moral or immoral, must be of sufficient importance to arrest attention, and stimulate reflection.
We applaud generosity; we censure meanness: but there is a large intermediate class of acts which can neither be designated as neither generous nor mean. It will be observed that, in enumeration of the classes of acts to which praise and blame, self-approbation and self-disapprobation attach, there is a distinction between the invariable connection which obtains between certain acts and the ethical approval of ourselves or others, and the only general connection which obtains between the omission of those acts and the ethical feeling of disapproval. Simply to fall short of the ethical standard which we approve neither merits nor receives censure, though there is a degree of deficiency, determined roughly by society at large and by each individual for himself, at which this indifference is converted into positive condemnation. A like neutral zone of acts which we neither applaud nor condemn, of course, exists also in the case of acts which simply affect ourselves or simply affect others.
Human nature, in its last analysis, seems, so far as it is concerned with action, to consist of certain impulses or feelings, and a power of comparing with one another the results which follow from the gratification of these feelings, which power reacts upon the several feelings themselves by way of intensifying, checking, or controlling them. This power we call Reason. The feelings themselves fall into two principal groups, the egoistic or self-regarding feelings, which centre in a man's self, and are developed by his personal needs, and the altruistic or sympathetic feelings, which centre in others and are developed by the social surroundings in which he finds himself placed.
Cowardice and fear of 'what people will say' lies at the bottom of much ill-considered charity and of that facility with which men, often to the injury of themselves or their families, if not of the very objects pleaded for, listen to the solicitations of the inconsiderate or interested subscription-monger.