The view of human goodness presented in the preceding chapter is one which is at present finding remarkably wide acceptance. Philosophers are often reproached with an indisposition to agree, and naturally where inquiry is active diversity will obtain. But to-day there appears a strange unanimity as regards the ultimate formula of ethics. The empirical schools state this as the highest form of the struggle for existence; the idealistic, as self-realization. The two are the same so far as they both regard morality as having to do with the development of life in persons. These curious beings, both also acknowledge, can never rest till they attain a completeness now incalculable.
Of course there is abundant diversity in the application of such formulae. In interpreting them we come upon problems no less urgent and tangled than those which vexed our fathers. Who and what is a person? How far is he detachable from nature? How far from his fellow men? Is his individuality an illusion, and each of us only an imperfect phase of a single universal being, so that in strictness we must own that there is none good but one, that is God? These and kindred questions naturally oppress the thought of our time. Yet all are but so many attempts to push the formula of self-realization into entire clearness. The considerable agreement in ethical formulae everywhere noticeable shows that at least so much advance has been made: morality has ceased to be primarily repressive, and is now regarded as the amplest exhibit of human nature, free from every external precept, however sacred. Man is the measure of the moral universe, and the development of himself his single duty.
But when we thus accept self-realization as our supreme aim, we bring ourselves into seeming conflict with one of our profoundest moral instincts. It is self-sacrifice that calls forth from all mankind, as nothing else does, the distinctively moral response of reverence. Intelligence, skill, beauty, learning–we admire them all; but when we see an act of self-sacrifice, however small, an awe falls on us; we bow our heads, fearful that we might not have been capable of anything so glorious. We thus acknowledge self-sacrifice to be the very culmination of the moral life. He who understand it has comprehended all righteousness, human and divine. But how does self-sacrifice accord with self-development? Will he who is busy cultivating himself sacrifice himself? Is there not a kind of conflict between the two? Yet can we abandon either? And if not, must not the formula of self- realization accept modification?
This, then, is the problem to which I must now turn: the possible adjustment of these two imperative claims,–the claim to realize one’s self and the claim to sacrifice one’s self. And I shall most easily set my theme before my readers if I state at once the four historic objections to the reality of self-sacrifice. I call them historic, for they have appeared and reappeared in the history of ethics, and have been worked out there on a great scale. While not altogether consistent with one another, no one of them is unimportant. Together they compactly present those conflicting considerations which must be borne in mind when we attempt to comprehend the subtleties of self- sacrifice. I will endeavor to state them briefly and sympathetically.
First, self-sacrifice is psychologically impossible. No man ever performs a strictly disinterested act, as has been shown in my chapter on self-direction. Before desire will start, his own interest must be engaged. In action we seek to accomplish something, and between that something and ourselves some sort of valued connection must be felt. Every wish indicates that the wisher experiences a need which he thinks might be supplied by the object wished for. It is true that wishes and wills are often directed upon external objects, but only because we believe that our own well-being is involved in their union with us. I devote...
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