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. But the objects to which it properly attaches are wrong-doing, unkindness, discourtesy, to others, and, as regards us, ignorance, imprudence, intemperance, impurity, and avoidable defects or misfortunes.
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.
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.
The ancient morality, which was the product of the patriarchal form of society, when the patria potestas was still in vigor, laid peculiar stress on the duties of children to parents, while it almost ignored the reciprocal duties of parents to children. When the members of a family were seldom separated, and the pressure of population had not yet begun to be felt, this was the natural order of ideas with respect to the parental relation. But now that the common labor of the household is replaced by competition amongst individuals, and most young men and women have, at an early age, to leave their families and set about earning their own living, or carving out their own career, it is obvious, on reflection, that parents are guilty of a gross breach of duty, if they do not use their utmost endeavors to facilitate the introduction of their children to the active work of life, and to fit them for the circumstances in which they are likely to be placed. To bring up a son or daughter in idleness or ignorance ought to be as great a reproach to a parent as it is to a child to dishonor its father or mother. And yet, in the upper and middle classes at all events, there are many parents who, without incurring much reprobation from their friends, prefer to treat their children like playthings or pet animals rather than to take the pains to train them with a view to their future trials and duties.
It ought to be thoroughly realized, and, as the moral consciousness becomes better adapted to the existing circumstances of society, it is to be trusted that it will be realized, that parents have no moral right to do what they choose with their children, but that they are under a strict obligation both to society and to their children themselves so to mould their dispositions and develop their faculties and inform their minds and train their bodies as to render them good and useful citizens, and honest and skilful men.
(Adapted from The Project Gutenberg EBook of Progressive Morality, by Thomas Fowler)