The Negation of Ethics
by Joseph Lewis
from his 1946 book "The Ten Commandments"
conclusion to the chapter "The Eighth Commandment"

If this Commandment read "Thou shalt be honest," the positive expression might not only act as a deterrent, but it would lack the negative suggestion of committing a wrong. Psychologists tell us that instructions which contain suggestions of things to be avoided often do far more harm than if no suggestion whatever had been given. They often induce a person to do the very thing that the words used were designed to prevent.

Because of the terrific struggle for existence under present economic conditions, particularly when one takes into account man's frailty and the pressure of circumstances, it is almost impossible at times to determine what actually constitutes stealing. Life is not fashioned on a plan where the demarcation between honest and dishonest conduct can always be accurately determined. The pattern of a perfect society was not ordained for us. Environment in a world antagonistic to one's physical and emotional nature is not without influence on conduct. We find ourselves buffeted by countless conflicting interests. The most scrupulous are often faced with perplexities, and the man or woman who always rises above strong personal interests and desires and does the intrinsically right thing is a rare phenomenon.

We cannot produce a high degree of morality by warning a child that he will be punished for violating a religious precept, when all about him he sees the prohibited act being committed with impunity. Such a doctrine is the very negation of ethics.

To pound into the ears of our children the negative suggestion "Thou shalt not steal" does not strengthen their resistance when the opportunity to steal presents itself. In fact, it often has the opposite effect. It is easier for a boy to obey when he is told to come directly home after school than if he is told not to go to the ball game to watch his schoolmates play. To tell a girl that she may not go to a dance, which she was unaware was to take place, only creates the desire to attend. Once curiosity has been aroused and the urge to participate manifested, the strongest moral strength is necessary to overcome it. Fortifying a child with precepts of a positive good makes that child's resistance to wrong less difficult. The advice to eat foods that are healthful will more likely be followed than the admonition to abstain from eating the tempting ones that are not. "In moral education," says Westermarck, "example plays a more important part than precept. But even in this respect, Christianity has unfortunately little reason to boast of its achievements."

The normal infant is neither a moral nor an immoral being, but rather new material from which either can be made. If anything, his inherited primitive traits impel him toward being an antisocial member of our bewildering, artificial and complicated society. It is for education to make of that child a social-minded being. The primary instinct of the newborn child is to satisfy its hunger, to sustain itself. The manner in which this is accomplished does not concern him in the slightest degree. He knows no laws, rules, restrictions or restraints. When these are imposed upon him, the natural tendency is rebellion, and his struggles and tantrums often prove to be effective weapons against these restrictions.

A well-known educator and authority on child psychology states this truth pertinently when he says: "For some time after birth, the child is little more than an incarnation of appetite which knows no restraint, and only yields to the undermining force of satiety. The child's entrance into social life through a growing consciousness of the existence of others is marked by much fierce opposition to their wishes." Dr. M. V. O'Shea, eminent in the field of child education, makes this significant statement: "The factors which may lead a child to take what does not belong to him are often subtle and complex. Unless this fact is appreciated, it will be impossible to protect children from developing the habit of stealing, or cure them when they have entered upon a criminal career.'"

The child is not born with the instincts of honesty implanted in its mind. Honesty as we want it practiced is a principle that must be taught very much like anything else in the field of human endeavor. We must early inculcate the principles of honesty in the mind of the child if we expect the desired results to follow. How well this is substantiated is furnished by the proofs of an exhaustive study in the field of ethics by Professors Hugh Hartshorne and Mark A. May. The study was sponsored by Teachers College, Columbia University, and was an "inquiry into character education with particular reference to religious education." After their scientific investigation, they were forced to the following conclusion with reference to honesty in children: "It [honesty] is supposed to be present in the child in the form of a ready-made force or mode of behavior requiring only to be evoked by precept, threat or reward. The method is prolific of wise sayings and moral caution, but as a means of producing universal honor among men we certainly cannot boast of its success."

Another eminent authority states: "If morality and intellect are finally demonstrated to be correlated throughout the whole range of individual differences, it is probably the most profoundly significant fact with which society has to deal."

Just as the child is taught how to spell, just as he learns the principles of grammar and arithmetic, so he must be taught a code of ethics and the principles of morality. A precept learned without understanding is as useless as a blueprint without explanation would be to an untrained mind. The rules of grammar and the principles of arithmetic are not based upon a supernatural conception but upon a purely scientific foundation; so must the concepts and principles of the moral order be based upon a natural and utilitarian basis.

As it is difficult for some people to understand the mechanism of the solar system, so there are people who will find it difficult to comprehend the complicated principles of higher ethics. They are not to be held responsible for their mental deficiency. Our whole system of criminal jurisprudence will undergo a change when morality is regarded not as a divine plan, but as a purely human institution. Religion's greatest failure is in the field of ethics, because it considers ritual performances the equivalent of moral acts. McHugh and Cullam found that, "It was never the function of religion to make men virtuous -- and it was considered that the greatest sins a person could commit were acts against the faith. These acts were condemned as worse than sins against the moral virtues." That is why religionists are so often embarrassed when confronted with criminal statistics. Bishop Gallagher of Detroit, Michigan, when shown the prison statistics of his community, was forced to admit:

"It is a matter of serious reproach to the Church that more Catholic boys, in proportion to the total number, get into trouble than those of any other denomination. One-fifth [20%] of the people of Michigan are Catholics, but fifty per cent of the boys in the Industrial School for Boys at Lansing are Catholics."

Ethical principles, when mixed with religion, are like good food adulterated with preservatives; and just as the adulterated food is robbed of its nutritional values, so ethics are contaminated with superstition and the morality of the act is lost in the confusion of religious ceremonies.

In a paper read before the Ninth International Congress of Psychology, held at Yale University on September 6, 1929, Professor Pleasant R. Hightower of Butler University made this startling and significant report:

Students of Bible Found Less Honest

"People have been saying for years that if you give children a knowledge of the Bible, they will walk the straight and narrow way. The result shows that they won't walk the straight and narrow way. It does indicate very definitely that mere knowledge of the Bible of itself is not sufficient to insure the proper character attitudes."

Professor Hightower's experiment was the result of a test given to more than 3,300 children, and proves beyond the possibility of a doubt that unless a child is taught and educated, he will not know.

Dr. George Rex Mursall, chief psychologist of the Ohio Department of Welfare, examined comparable groups of boys in the Ohio Reform School at Lancaster and of supposedly law-abiding children outside. He found that the inmates of the reformatory had received fully as much religious training as those outside. He concluded that "it seems safe to state that there is no significant relation between religious training and delinquent or non-delinquent behavior." This same conclusion was reached in a similar study of conditions among school children in England. In Bradford, England, the City Council appointed Mrs. E. M. Henshaw to investigate and report on juvenile delinquency. She discovered and reported that the Church schools have a substantially higher rate of delinquents than State schools, the rates being in State schools 6.6 per thousand; in Church of England schools, 7.5 per thousand; and in Roman Catholic schools, 15.3 per thousand. She declared: "I think that children get fundamental ethical teaching in school, quite apart from religious teaching, in their contacts with real people as distinct from a superimposed dogma, religious or otherwise." The report includes this statement: "There has in the past been some confusion between the terms 'religious training' and 'character training.' These two are not synonymous."

When a child is born, it knows nothing about reading, 'riting and 'rithmetic. And if anyone thinks that by merely giving a rule in arithmetic or grammar the child will be able to grasp the subject, his knowledge of education is so utterly deficient that he himself is the best proof of the need for instruction. The complexities of life must be explained to a child before he is able to understand his place in society and the proper conduct he is expected to perform. Education is a slow process. We can learn only by doing. Mere words are meaningless. Unless the child has the capacity to understand, even teaching will prove valueless.

Not very long ago New York City was stirred by the exploits of a young desperado -- "two-gun" Crowley. When he was captured, he boldly confessed to the murder of an officer of the law. "Of course, I killed that cop," he said. "I don't like cops. No, I don't want any lawyer. Get it over with. Repent? Hell, no! My conscience was never so clear in my life. What I want is a square meal." The kindhearted district attorney suggested a beefsteak. "No, sir; no meat for me," said the young killer. "Don't you know this is Friday?"

What did Crowley's religion teach him? That it was a greater sin to eat meat on Friday than to murder a man?

Although he was in jail on charges of stealing scrolls from a synagogue at Long Beach, Mohrdehel Rashinsky, eighteen years old, insisted on observing the feast of the Passover. When his breakfast was brought to him, he declined to eat it, asking for special Passover food. This young man would rather take a chance on stealing and letting the law take its course than incur the wrath of the Bible God for eating tabooed food. Is not such a religious concept the very negation of ethics?

When Earle Peacox was apprehended after the frightful murder of his wife, he was found to be the proud possessor of a medal for six years of perfect attendance at Sunday school.

A desperate criminal, caught leaving a house after looting it and killing members of the household, was shot dead by a policeman. A search of his clothes revealed a number of religious articles on his person which caused the police to report that the bandit "had attended church just before committing his crimes." How much further removed in mental development was this criminal from the members of a certain African tribe who, when they are about to commit a crime, lay aside their fetish and cover up their deity that the latter may not be privy to the deed? And how could it be otherwise, since religion is not concerned with morality, but with ritual and ceremony?

This is confirmed by the statement made by the Rev. Charles J. Woodbridge of the First Presbyterian Church, Flushing, New York, who said: "Let me remind you that even the life of extreme self-sacrifice does not make the Christian. Nothing that man can do along the lines of virtue or righteousness will make him anything but an unprofitable servant. We simply cannot save ourselves by morality." How advanced is this present-day evaluation of religion and morality from that of a bishop of the seventh century, canonized by the Church of Rome, who described a good Christian as a man "who comes frequently to church; who presents the oblation which is offered to God upon the altar; who doth not taste of the fruits of his own industry until he has consecrated a part of them to God; who, when holy festivals approach, lives chastely with his wife for several days that with a safe conscience he may draw near the altar of God; and who, in the last place, can repeat the creed and the Lord's prayer." In this statement is crystallized the religious viewpoint which is concerned completely with ritual observance and does not require a single act of morality. It is predicated on the belief that man is a sinful being, and it is considered more important to cleanse himself of his sinful heritage than to live a life of moral perfection.

The result of this viewpoint is shown in criminal statistics. Naples, which had the worst record of any European city for crimes against the person, was also the most religious city in Europe. In Italy and other Church-dominated countries, it was held more infamous to transgress the slightest ceremonial of the Church than to transgress any moral duty. However, Laing, the noted historian, stated that in no country in Europe did he find so much morality and so little religion as in Switzerland. Westermarck notes that "a high degree of religious devotion is frequently accompanied by great laxity of morals," and that, with one or two exceptions, "the practice of religion may be taken as a sure index of low morality in a tribe." For proof of how wicked religious people can be, we need but recall the tortures of the Inquisition, the horrors of the Massacre of St. Bartholomew's Eve, the frightful crimes of the Crusaders, the persecution by the Puritans, and the innumerable other crimes for which religion has been responsible. All these were prompted by the obligation imposed upon the devotees of nearly all religious systems to avenge offenses against their deity, which is not only utterly devoid of any moral qualities, but automatically negates moral conduct.

Professor Hudson Hoagland of Clark University found that "ethics may be something quite independent of religion" and that "there is no necessary connection between religion and the problems of good and evil. Good and evil refer to that which is good and bad for a particular organism at a particular time." In view of these facts, the conclusion is inevitable that a greater sense of honesty will be inculcated in the mind of a child who is taught morality without religion than in the child who is taught religion without morality.

It was the opinion of Robert Erskine Ely, Director Emeritus of the Town Hall, New York, that of the thousands of men who spoke at Town Hall -- including Presidents, preachers and other noted personages -- "the noblest man, the one really greatest of them all was Prince Peter Kropotkin, a self-professed atheist and a great man of science."

Governor Walter E. Edge, of New Jersey, our former Ambassador to France, in a letter to the New York Times, July 21, 1944, recalling the twelve Premiers who held that high office during his four official years in Paris said, that Edouard Herriot (an avowed Freethinker and Anticlerical) was beyond doubt the most dependable of them all.

The Rev. Harry Emerson Fosdick admits that many nonreligious people are "devoted philanthropists, loyal servants of a better day for mankind, and they will do for the salvation of society more than many of us will do. They are filled with the love of man...." 

Not only in prison statistics, but in previous pages of this book, evidence has been submitted to show that religion has been a failure as a restraining force against committing crimes.

Stealing will continue in direct ratio to the struggle for existence. The rule governing the proportion of murders and suicides to the population rate operates likewise in the number of thefts that will be committed, provided always that conditions are the same. Acts today will be provocative of thefts in the future. By determining the prevalence of the dangers in relation to the child's age classification, the wise parent can assist it successfully across the danger zone. All the prayers in the world cannot save a child whose associations and tendencies do not make for honesty. Intelligent supervision and training are the only effective instruments.

Thievery, like disease, seems to be an ever-present problem, and just as disease was once treated by prayer and other superstitious religious practices without success, so dishonesty will continue to prevail as long as it is believed that it can be cured by religious precepts and taboos.

Just as the scientific study of disease has already eradicated many of the ills of mankind which religion thought had been sent as punishment for sin, so will the application of ethical principles to the problems of dishonesty eradicate this propensity in modern man. Only by educating one to meet the exigencies of changing conditions, and applying intelligent analysis of intent and purpose to the problem when it arises, will the evil of dishonesty be dispelled.

Not until man ceases to devote his energies to the love of God and to rely on the performance of his "religious duty," and instead dedicates himself to the eradication of his primitive antisocial instincts by a rationalistic analysis of his troubles, will he achieve any degree of success in solving the problems of society.

I am optimist enough to believe that just as there have been scientific achievements in preventing and curing diseases which formerly plagued the human race with misery and death, so will high moral principles, intelligently applied to ethical conduct, save mankind from the plague of thievery and make the world a community of honest men and women.

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