Ethics and Modern Thought, by Rudolf Eucken, winner of Nobel prize (1908), describes the path taken by ethical considerations or morality, from the olden days to the present and examines its flow forward. Beginning by identifying the origins of ethics in the basic tendency of man to find in everything an inner world, it studies how ethics caused man to raise himself to a higher plane of life, differentiating humans from all other forms of life. In a chapter titled a defence of ethical principles, the author describes the opposition to these and how, they were overcome. The first challenge it faced, ‘as all human actions must lead to self-preservation, which should have made self-interest a prime requirement, how is morality, which is the absence of self interest, possible?’ is probed. He finds an answer, the independent and different individuality possible in the higher plane. For example, the pain and suffering of telling truth is overshadowed by certain gains (spiritual gain) in the higher plane.
Since ethical principles can now identify clearly a different form of life, spiritual life, further growth of these tenets is closely linked with spiritual life. During such progress, whenever spiritual world and ethics happen to face doubts, obstacles, and adversaries, what came to its help was religion. Or rather this can be taken as the reason behind religion, something to defend the ethical principles against the onslaught by time.
In the last chapter, which is ‘the present state of morality’ is recounted, the profits and losses to ethical principles from the present times. As religion lost out on its prime role in governing the society, significant changes also happened. The reprehensible punishments of yesteryears are no more in our midst, but morality took a good beating.
But he makes an interesting observation. Modern society is more confused than the earlier ones, but less error prone. As we do not commit errors, the opportunity to find the truth is eluding us. Quoting Bacon the author says ‘Truth can more easily emerge from error than from confusion.’ By encouraging confusion but suppressing errors, we are affecting our future.
This book gives a good overview of the formation of ethical principles and moral rules. It identifies towards the end, how modern work culture makes us more united and caring but wary about the quest for truth. He however ends on a sad note. ‘If we review the whole and consider the balance of moral profit and loss in our day, the result cannot be a favourable one. No full substitute is offered for what is lost. We have gained in breadth, but we have lost in depth and strength.’