IV. The Good. Act and Intention
THE UNIVERSAL moral law is contained, as noted above, in the Lord's own words, "Whatsoever ye would that men should do to you, do ye even so to them". This law challenges us to reflect, not for a moment, but continually throughout life, as to what it really is that we would that men should do to us. Our every action--to be moral--must come from a considered point of view, which leads us inevitably to deeper reflections as to what may be the highest good, the inmost goal desired by the soul of man. For we realize full well that the good which we seek from others is not that they should always cater to our momentary impulses, or satisfy our clamors for this or for that; for, as we know from experience, these impulses have often led us to the brink of misfortune. What we actually desire from others, is such action as will promote our lasting good, our eventual, permanent happiness. And the moral law then requires that we act towards others in a way that will promote their lasting welfare.
The history of civilization is largely the history (a) of the conceptions of men as to what constitutes the Highest Good, and (b) of the conflicts between these conceptions. The application of the Golden Rule, or the universal law of morality, is therefore accompanied with unending problems, just in so far as we are ignorant of that which would be for the permanent good of others, and of oneself. Life--despite the general law would then become a mere laboratory, where one learns by one's mistakes and bitter experiences, through the method of trial and error. The Good would come to light only accidentally, as a consequence of some chance action. A cynic would thus look back on the whole history of mankind's morals and see in it nothing but a series of experiments in human happiness, and incidentally, experiments which have taught the human race very little! And by this he would confirm his idea that there is no real Good--no law or pattern of happiness, no goal of life. To him, good appears only as the ephemeral pleasure of the individual. Life would be a bitter struggle--at best an armed truce, a barren compromise.
Now it is of course obviously true that it is through experience, or in the course of life, that we learn to recognize the moral values, the truths of moral perception ! But the other phase of this observation is, that besides the fact that Divine Revelations have ever pointed out the general law of moral life--man is furnished with the faculty of reason and thus of seeing moral truths and of drawing moral deductions from experience! And this means not only seeing the general truth of the "Golden Rule", but seeing the particular truths which enlighten us as to what would promote our lasting good, and therefore, also what would promote our neighbor's welfare.
The essence of the moral law is, that what is good for one is good for all: that the individual is not born for himself, but for his neighbor, for use. The Divine end, the Doctrine states, is good for all. The moral truth which man, if he so desires, can see, is that what is good for the whole--or for Society--is ultimately best for the part--or for the individual. What the individual therefore is concerned about, fundamentally, is to see the things, the qualities, which in the varied circumstances of the life of humanity have rendered the greatest services, the greatest results for lasting happiness, to the community; or--what is the same--to see those qualities in the individual which have contributed to the common good.
These abstract qualities (for we are not speaking of specific practices or acts or customs) are called virtues, and here we are specifically referring to the moral virtues. There are also spiritual virtues, which look to the spiritual and eternal good of mankind and of the individual; and which therefore refer to love to the Lord and to love of spiritual truth, and thus to the eternal ends of creation. But although we may describe such spiritual virtues, may preach about them, may hope that they might become lodged in our hearts, yet they cannot be expressed in practical life--or in the common life among men--unless man is also in the practice of the moral virtues which must serve as vessels and agents for carrying charity into rational effect.
The Writings therefore make the statement that "the goods of charity are nothing else than moral goods". (D. Wis. xi.) The goods of the love to the Lord, however, are distinct even in form.
Morality is said to consist in two things, honesty and decorum. The various moral virtues are simply the "essentials of honesty" (TCR 443). We hope to speak of some of these virtues later, in some detail. But here we must be content merely to show that honesty (honestas), as used in the Writings, is the general term for that which Society honors in a man, that which makes him a good citizen. "Honest--as" is therefore quite properly translated "what is honorable". It implies beauty of character, worthiness. In English, "honesty" is confined in its meaning to the particular virtue of not having anything to conceal, and being free from fraud, especially as relating to business transactions. But we can hardly so confine the meaning of the term as used in the Writings.
"Honesty" is the complex of all the moral virtues (AC 2915). It is defined as "wishing well to others from the heart in relation to the things of civil life". It is thus an attitude of good will towards society.
This good will enters into all the moral virtues: into justice, equity, sincerity, rectitude; into chastity and temperance; into truthfulness and prudence. And just as honesty is the complex of these virtues, decorum--or the decorous formalities, the decencies and proprieties of life--give to all these virtues an external form, and show a person's good will, or honesty, "in speech and hearing" (AC 4574). His honesty will display itself "in every least thing" of decorum or behavior.
A wide view of the importance of honesty and decorum is gained when we read that the Lord can be even with those to whom He is unknown. If they "live in the good of charity, and in what is just and equitable as to civil life, and in what is honorable and becoming (decorous) as to moral life, they are such that the Lord ran be with them: for the Lord's presence with man is in good, and therefore in what is just and equitable, and further in what is honorable and decorous--the honorable being the complex of all the moral virtues and decorum being simply its form; for these are goods that succeed in order, and are the planes in man on which conscience is founded by the Lord, and consequently intelligence and wisdom. But with those who are not in these goods (that is, from the heart or affection), nothing of heaven can be inseminated. . . . The Lord's presence is predicated according to the quality of the good; the quality of the good is according to the state of innocence, of love, and of charity, in which truths of faith have been implanted or can be implanted". (AC 2915) We can thus see why the Lord "looked" upon the rich young man of the parable and "loved him" (Mark 10:21).
The presence of the Lord is according to a man's honesty and decorum. And thus we may judge as to all those states and acts in which our behavior does not express our honesty, our honorableness, our charity, our faith, our sincere intentions. Thus viewed, decorum becomes a very vital thing--the ultimate of our conjunction with the Lord, whose presence as it were recedes in proportion as innocence is absent, or in proportion as our speech and bearing belie our sense of what is honorable.
Honesty has to do with motives. Decorum has to do with actions. Morality therefore has to do with both of these, not only one. It looks towards an integration or unification of the whole conscious personality. But in actual life we are constantly confronted here by a grave moral problem: Shall we judge men by their works, or by their will ? How shall we deal with them ? According to their intentions? Or according to their actions? We shall speak of this as the Problem of Motive and Act.
Morality, besides, implies an attitude of good will toward Society, or a recognition of the rights of others. This is inherent in the "Golden Rule". What, if any, are our rights ? How shall we reconcile our rights with those of others ? This problem we shall refer to as that of Rights and Responsibilities.
Finally, the moral law, as we have noted, asked us to ascertain what is that good which we would that others should do unto us; so that we might know how to act rightly towards them. And this brings up a third important quandary, which is the Problem of Moral Values.
These three problems ought to be given some reflection, before we try to define what the moral virtues, each by themselves, really are. For the honorable attitude which takes account of these three problems is what makes such virtues to be virtues.
Relation of Motive to Act
In order that a man may become moral, he must from rational light learn to discriminate between act and intention. This he can do, because he recognizes in himself a conflict between his inner desires and his outward actions, which are frequently restrained by fears and by customary training. Some time during childhood or more happily later, in adolescence, he is suddenly shocked into the recognition that all is not as it seems. He finds that someone has done good hypocritically, with a bad intention. Earlier in life, he has already realized that his own innocent intentions sometimes led him to do things for which he was punished instead of praised. Gradually it dawns on him that man is not judged only from motive, but from his actual accomplishment and results. And from that time on he begins to judge others rather cruelly, sometimes from the strict standard of external perfection, as he then imperfectly understands it. Yet he is bewildered, for he knows that the motive (certainly, his own) must be taken into account.
It is thus that "manly judgment" grows from infancy (AC 60892, 6751). And this comes as a development of the natural mind, and its judging must ever be confined to the things of the natural mind!
The Writings definitely state that moral judgments must be allowed, lest society perish. It is the part of morality to peer beneath the surface. Even the courts of justice inquire into the probable motives of an act. Therefore Swedenborg notes in his Diary that "it is allowable to judge concerning the interiors of a man which regard his civil life".
"Sometimes I have discussed with spirits whether it is allowable to judge of the interiors of a man. And when they consented that it was allowable, it was said to them that it is indeed allowable to judge of their civil and moral life, but not of their spiritual life, of which the Lord alone can judge, because He alone knows it. Inasmuch as in the world societies are thus formed, it is allowable to explore men's moral and civil life from their words and actions, that it may be known whether one ought to associate with them for various reasons and to various ends; otherwise, as things now are, a man might easily be seduced into evils and robbed of all his goods. ... By moral life is understood all honesty in respect to society. But how far a man's moral virtues cooperate with faith, and of what quality his interiors are in respect to faith, concerning these man cannot judge." (SD 1220.)
From this it appears, that we must sometimes speculate as to the honesty of a man's intentions. Yet never except for the practical purpose of some use in hand. We are allowed to judge the sincerity of others in civil and social matters. And we will be right according as our moral judgment and ripened experience have made us good judges of character; not--necessarily--according to the degree of our regeneration.
But as to the spiritual motives that lie behind that moral virtue in others, we are not allowed to judge.
We must distinguish between good and evil in their moral manifestations; but it is not our function to impute evil or guilt, or even virtue, to others. (See CL 523, AE 62914, AC 22843, SS 515, De Verbo 153.) We can judge the morality of a person's act, yet refrain from judging that person's spiritual state as to faith and charity. For this the Lord alone can do. Thus we read:
"I have frequently spoken with spirits as to how it is to be understood that one is not to judge concerning others; and it was agreed that everyone may judge concerning another as to his civil life, and also as to his moral life so far as this regards the civil, and what associations to enter into; and it is to be found out how far others are to be trusted, what is suitable to one and what is not, lest one be deceived. For there are pretenders, deceivers, hypocrites, adulterers, and every kind of evil men; there are those who are wise and those who are stupid; there arc those who esteem the public good as nothing, but prefer themselves; and there are others who are different. Thus without reflection, thought, and thus the exercise of private judgment, no one could ever carry on in civil life. And especially on the question whether this man or that is fit for discharging some public office, one can have no discernment without making private judgments about others.
"But in respect to the interiors, as to the life of faith, and similar things, concerning these we must not judge; the Lord alone knows them. A thousand persons may appear alike in externals, nay, may speak alike, and yet be altogether different as to those things, and in those respects the ends of each one of them can never be known. To judge from actions concerning them is to be deceived. ... I spoke with spirits saying that in the other life there is altogether another kingdom, another form of government, another regime, other laws; nay, other wars wars against evils and against infernal spirits; and other consociations, which are according to the interior ends of life; these never stand forth before others in the life of the body; wherefore concerning these things one is not to judge. From much experience I learnt that some which the world had condemned as evil interiorly, were among the blessed, while others whom they had judged good, are among the unhappy." (SD 4425, 4426.)
Since it is thus allowable to estimate the acts and speech of our fellows in the light of their probable moral intention, we do the same with ourselves. We fail in some good enterprise, and we console ourselves, save ourselves from bitterness and discouragement, by the reflection that we at least intended well. We ask our friends to take the will for the deed. And in turn, from a general judgment of their character, we concede that they intended no harm by their unfortunate words or clumsy action.
This principle of Tolerance, however, has its limitations in actual application. Moral judgment cannot confine its full attention to motives. In a world of uses waiting to be done, a man must not only be good, but good for something. Ineffective idealism that produces no uses, is not for this world. The scoffer calls men that walk in the clouds of impractical dreams "too good for this world", and the expression, "He means well", disguises the judgment that his honesty is not expressed in the proper decorum. "The road to hell is paved with good intentions", is the saying. It would be truer to say this of the road to heaven. Yet a road is of no use unless you follow it--walk on it in actual life. Moral virtues, to be such, must be practical. The tree is, after all, known only by its fruit.
This is unfortunately one of the lessons which it takes us a long time to grasp. We necessarily sway in our moral judgment back and forth, between an estimation of the motive as the most important and a stressing of the act as being most important. It seems almost a recurrent, and insoluble, problem.
Suppose that we harbor a motive which looks to the good of society or of the Church. How far will that justify our acts--the methods by which we proceed to reach our goal? Shall we convert the heathen by the sword, as did the kings of the Dark Ages? or shall we slay our opponents by poison, as that code permits which claims that "the end justifies the means"? The ostensibly good motive is herein made to condone various evil acts. This principle is thus false--since good has for its object to shun evils. A good end will select good means. The end will qualify, purify, the means! It will select the best possible mode; the least hurtful, if nothing remains but a choice between evils. In modern life, the same problem takes other forms: Shall we use unfair business methods to maintain our support of worthy causes? or is there a moral quality in the act, as well as in the intention?
We believe that the very definition which the Writings give for morality supplies the answer. The honorable, clothed by the decorous, constitutes a moral act. The very expression, "an honorable intention", implies a good motive seeking a proper and orderly way of realizing itself, a decorous mode : not an impatient overthrow of all obstacles, without concern for others.
There is another philosophy than this, one which so stresses the actual result that it claims that the motive does not matter in the least. Modern materialistic civilization is gradually encouraging this attitude. Efficiency has become the god of a great many. Who cares why an inventor works, if he only produces new contraptions? Let the motive be fear or gain or fame, so long as we--mankind, society--reap the benefit! Such a philosophy is utilitarian, purely. It is, however, not very farsighted even on the material plane; for unless there be a moral motive the external accomplishments are soon apt to take unsocial directions.
The motive is important in the act. The happiness which we receive from an object given to us from friendship or from a high consideration of use, is incomparably greater than the satisfaction of simply acquiring that object. Every event or act is valued, as we shall see, largely from its motive. Even the cruelties of war which we impose on our enemies are condoned as an evil necessity when we act not from hatred or lust of conquest but from the compulsion of self-defense. And when our country has been attacked, it may be that an offensive proves our best defense. It is the end in view which gives character to an action. (Char. 164, TCR 407)
On the other hand, an act may in itself have a specific moral meaning. Acts which are the natural forms of evil are called immoral even though they may be employed (in the exceptional case) in the cause of a moral purpose. The Ten Commandments forbid certain acts. Under the heading of killing, adultery, theft, and lying, are forbidden all cruel, lascivious, fraudulent, or deceptive acts. Those acts are wrong, not as to the bodily motions employed, but considered as organized procedures which are forms of evil and correspond to evil intentions and thus invite the influx of the corresponding hells. Such acts are opposed to Decorum, and are not the proper ultimate expressions of what is Honorable.
"Decorum" is a Latin word which combines in it the meanings of "suitable," "proper," "fitting," "seemly," "becoming" and "correct." Decorous action is orderly, and therefore it invites the presence and general influx of heaven, with all its blessings. It also gives protection among men--protection against enmities and misfortunes. It makes possible a continuance of a broad freedom in all phases of life and use. It gives a basis for friendship and for all human relationships.
Society has, from long experience, recognized certain acts as destructive of human welfare. And the function of morality is to show more clearly the principle on which this discrimination between good acts and evil acts rests, so that the individual may intelligently cooperate with society. For there is nothing in man's most private life, which will not eventually affect society in some way or other.
In the next chapter we propose to inquire more definitely what are the Human Rights of the individual in this complex scheme of cooperation which we call Society.