A Biographical Appreciation of
Robert Green Ingersoll
WAS HE ‘A MERE ICONOCLAST’? (Cont.)
WERE HIS TEACHINGS INIMICAL TO LAW AND MORALITY?
One of the most serious features of the general charge of iconoclasm which has been preferred by the critics of Ingersoll is the implication that the adoption of his teachings would destroy the social fabric. All essential ideas in the countless laws which have been formulated for the government of modern society, they say, sprang from the Mosaic code, and to discredit the book of which that code is a part would consequently plunge civilization into anarchy.
Probably a majority of Ingersoll’s critics will admit, whatever their opinion as to the breadth and depth of his biblical scholarship, that his knowledge of jurisprudence was both wide and profound, and that, therefore, if there ever was a criticism to which he was peculiarly fitted to reply, it is the one in question. He says: —
“It has been contended for many years that the Ten Commandments are the foundation of all ideas of justice and law. Eminent jurists have bowed to popular prejudice, and deformed their works by statements to the effect that the Mosaic laws are the foundations from which spring all ideas right and wrong. Nothing can be more stupidly false than such assertions. Thousands of years before Moses was born, the Egyptians had a code of laws. They had laws against blasphemy, murder, adultery, larceny, perjury, laws for collection of debts, the enforcement of contracts, the ascertainment of damages, of debts, the enforcement of contracts, the ascertainment of damages, the redemption of property pawned, and upon nearly every subject of human interest. The Egyptian code was far better than the Mosaic.
“Laws spring from the instinct of self-preservation. Industry objected to supporting idleness, and laws were made against theft. Laws were made against murder, because a very large majority of the people have always objected to being murdered. All fundamental laws were born simply of the instinct of self-defence. Long before the Jewish savages assembled at the foot of Sinai, laws had been made and enforced, not only in Egypt and India, but by every tribe that ever existed.”
It would be both interesting and instructive to dwell upon Ingersoll’s views of the foundations of modern jurisprudence, but it is far more vital, considering the nature of the criticism here concerned, that we devote the space involved to the presentation of his opinions and teachings regarding a different subject, — a subject to which, however, jurisprudence itself is closely related.
It has often been asserted by his critics, that his teachings are, in the ultimate, antisocial and perverse, and that, therefore, their universal acceptance would blot out of the mind all notion of true ethics, and leave mankind without a moral standard. I shall examine this criticism somewhat at length, placing his ethical ideas in sharp contrast with those of his opponents, thus enabling us to ascertain the truth.
Now, broadly speaking, just as there are in all other branches of philosophy two directly opposed classes of thinkers, — on the one side, the monists, who believe that the universe is the natural, necessary, and eternal all, and, on the other side, the dualists, who believe that back of the universe is the supernatural, — so in ethics, or morals, there are two classes.
With the dualistic school of moralists, which includes the theological critics of Ingersoll, an act is right or wrong according as it does or does not harmonize with the alleged command of a supernatural being, which command either wells up as human consciousness, or is found inscribed in some so-called sacred book, or both. This means that an act is absolutely right or absolutely wrong, regardless of its consequences; in other words, that absolute right and absolute wrong exist in themselves, just as the uoumenon, — “the thing in itself,” — of the dualistic metaphysician is supposed to exist back of phenomena. It establishes a fiat in morals. It places ethical acts upon precisely the same artificial basis as civic acts. To-day it is lawful to throw refuse on to the street. To-morrow the governor signs a bill, and lo! the throwing of refuse on the street is “unlawful.” To-day, as far as we know, stealing is right. To-morrow we read in a book, “Thou shalt not steal,” and lo!stealing is absolutely wrong. Of course, if, as the theological moralists undeniably imply, stealing and certain other acts were made wrong by the commandments of Jehovah, it follows, as a necessarily unavoidable corollary, that those acts were right before, and that they would still be right had the commandments of Jehovah not been given. And this is only one side of the proposition. The assertion that a Supreme Being could by command make wrong that which before was right, necessarily and unavoidably implies that he could make right that which before was wrong. Nor is this all that is implied by dualistic theological morals.
If by the will or command of the Supreme Being certain acts were made either absolutely right or absolutely wrong, the fact of relativity, which applies in every other branch of thought, must be utterly ignored in ethics. If, for example, stealing is absolutely wrong, it is as great a crime to steal a grain of millet from the wealthiest man in the world as to steal the last penny from a helpless and homeless invalid. Indeed, we might make even more striking comparisons, since we are by no means logically limited to the comparison of acts of like nature. It is, I say, as great a crime, according to the dualistic theological critics of Ingersoll’s ethics, to covet your neighbor’s ox as to murder the happiest and most useful member of society. These, I urge, are not exaggerations but perfectly logical deductions from the premises of the dualistic theological moralist. And precisely the same reasoning is conversely applicable to such acts of virtue as were sanctioned or commanded by Jehovah.
It is hardly necessary to point out, that the system of ethics, or morals, the cardinal principles of which I have indicated in this brief exposition is, in the ultimate analysis, based solely and absolutely upon belief in a First Cause, or Creator, and that, so far as the Jewish and both the Catholic and the Protestant theologians are concerned, the base of the system in question is still further narrowed to belief in the Old and the New Testaments. After what has previously been written in this work, I shall not discuss the tenability of that belief, but shall proceed, at once, to contrast with the moral system ultimately resting upon it the ethical ideas of the Great Agnostic.
In the first place, to the dogmatic assertion of the dualistic theological moralist, that all rational beings derive their knowledge of right and wrong from a superior being, Ingersoll would propose the relentlessly logical query: How, then, can the most superior being, that is, the very Supreme Being himself, be moral?
If, as all theologians assert, the most superior (“most superior” itself implies relativity) being of whom we can conceive is absolutely good, it follows, as a necessarily unavoidable corollary, that the most inferior (“most inferior” also implies relativity) being of whom we can conceive is absolutely bad. But the most inferior being of whom we can conceive is not absolutely bad. Therefore, the first side of our proposition falls. To state the problem in a different way, we cannot conceive of absolute goodness unless we can conceive of absolute badness. We cannot conceive of absolute badness. Therefore, we cannot admit the absolute in morals — nothing absolutely good, nothing absolutely bad; nothing absolutely moral, nothing absolutely immoral. Both are alike inconceivable. “The absolute,” says Ingersoll, “is beyond the human mind.”
If, then, man did not derive from a being superior to himself, that is, from a supernatural being, his present knowledge of right and wrong, — of morality, — and if absolute right and absolute wrong, absolute morality and absolute immorality, are alike inconceivable, whence, according to Ingersoll, did man derive the knowledge in question? and what is man’s standard of conduct? We will allow Ingersoll himself to answer this question, in a few sentences carefully collated from here and there in his works: —
“Morality is based upon the experience of mankind.” “Man is a sentient being — he suffers and enjoys.” “Happiness is the true end and aim of life.” “Happiness is the only good.” “By happiness is meant not simply the joy of eating and drinking — the gratification of the appetite — but good, well-being, in the highest and noblest forms.” “In order to be happy * * * [man] must preserve the conditions of well-being — must live in accordance with certain facts by which he is surrounded.” “That which increases the sum of human happiness is moral; and that which diminishes the sum of human happiness is immoral.” “All actions must be judged by their consequences, * * * and all consequences are learned from experience. After we have had a certain amount of experience, we then reason from analogy. We apply our logic and say that a certain course will bring destruction, another course will bring happiness.” “There is in the moral world, as in the physical, the absolute and perfect relation of cause and effect.” “If consequence are good, so is the action. If action had no consequences, they would be neither good or bad.” “So, the foundations of the moral and the immoral are in the nature of things — in the necessary relation between conduct and well-being, and an infinite God cannot change these foundations, and cannot increase or diminish the natural consequences of actions.” “There is nothing inspired about morality — nothing supernatural.” “The highest possible standard is human.”
Ingersoll’s insistence, with Mill, Spencer, and other philosophers, upon the soundness of utilitarian morals, as implied by the single phrase “the greatest happiness for the greatest number” — a phrase which made glorious the name of Jeremy Bentham — is perhaps best shown by the following paragraph: —
“Morality is capable of being demonstrated. You do not have to take the word of anybody; you can observe and examine for yourself. Larceny is the enemy of industry, and industry is good; therefore larceny is immoral. The family is the unit of good government; anything that tends to destroy the family is immoral. Honesty is the mother of confidence; it unites, combines and solidifies society. Dishonesty is disintegration; it destroys confidence; it brings social chaos, it is therefore immoral.”
After this brief presentation, I cannot refrain from quoting Ingersoll’s comparison of the practical workings of the two ethical theories here concerned: —
“Christianity teaches that all offenses can be forgiven. Every church unconsciously allows people to commit crimes on credit. I do not mean by this that any church consciously advocates immorality. I most cheerfully admit that thousands and thousands of ministers are endeavoring to do good — that they are pure, self-denying men, trying to make this world better. But there is a frightful defect in their philosophy. They say to the bank cashier: You must not steal, you must not take a dollar — larceny is wrong, it is contrary to all law, human and divine — but if you do steal every cent in the bank, God will as gladly, quickly forgive you in Canada as he will in the United States. On the other hand, what is called infidelity says: There is no being in the universe who rewards, and there is no being who punishes — every act has its consequences. If the act is good, the consequences are good; if the act is bad, and these consequences must be born by the actor. It says to every human being: You must reap what you sow. There is no reward, there is no punishment, but there are consequences, and these consequences are the invisible and implacable police of nature. They cannot be avoided. They cannot be bribed. No power can awe them, and there is not gold enough in the world to make them pause. Even a God cannot induce them to release for one instant their victim.
“This great truth is, in my judgement, the gospel of morality. If all men knew that they must inevitably bear the consequences of their own actions — if they absolutely knew that they could not injure another without injuring themselves, the world, in my judgement, would be far better than it is.”
Finally, the combined ultimate conclusions of all moralists, from Confucius to the present, amount to no more than this single epigram of Ingersoll: —
“Morality is the best thing to do under the circumstances.”