This brings me to the distinction between morals and righteousness, which is one for the mind of to-day to keep as clearly as possible before it. I have said that the refuge in God is not a question of morals; but it is one of righteousness. Between righteousness and morals, the difference is important.

Morals stand for a code of observances; righteousness for a direction of the life.

Morals represent just what the word implies, the customs of an age, a country, or a phase in civilization. They have no absolute standard. The morals of one century are not those of another. The morals of one race are not those of another even in the same century. In many respects, the morals of the Oriental differ radically from those of the Occidental, age-long usage being behind each. It is as hard to convince either that his are the inferior as it would be to make him think so of his mother-tongue. I once asked a cultivated Chinaman, a graduate of one of the great American universities and a Christian of the third generation, in what main respect he thought China superior to the United States. “In morals,” he replied, promptly; but even as a Christian educated in America his theory of morals was different from ours.

Among ourselves in the United States, the essence of morals is by no means a subject of unanimous agreement. You might say that a standard of morals is entirely a matter of opinion. There are millions of people who think it is immoral to play cards, to go to the theatre, to dance, or to drink wine. There are millions of other people who hold all these acts to be consistent with the highest moral conduct.

Moreover, wherever the emphasis is thrown on morals as distinct from righteousness, there is a tendency to put the weight on two or three points in which nations or individuals excel, and to ignore the rest. For example, not to go outside ourselves, the American people may be fairly said to exemplify two of the great virtues: On the whole they are, first, sober; secondly, continent. As a result we accentuate morals in these respects, but not in any others.

For instance, the current expression, “an immoral man,” is almost certain to apply only under the two headings cited above, and probably only under one. All other morals and immoralities go by the board. We should not class a dishonest man as an immoral man, nor an untruthful man, nor a profane, or spiteful, or ungenial, or bad-tempered, man. Our notion of morals hardly ever rises above the average custom of the community in which we happen to live. Except in the rarest instances, we never pause to reflect as to whether the customs of that community are or are not well founded. The consequence is that our cities, villages, countrysides, and social groupings are filled with men and women moral enough as far as the custom of the country goes, but quite noticeably unrighteous.

It is also a fact that where you find one or two virtues singled out for observance and the rest obscured there you find, too, throngs of outwardly “moral” people with corroded hearts. Villages, churches, and all the quieter communities are notorious for this, the peculiarity having formed for a hundred and fifty years the stockin-trade of novelists. Sobriety and continence being more or less in evidence the assumption is that all the requirements have been fulfilled. The community is “moral” not withstanding the backbitings, heart-burnings, slanders, cheatings, envies, hatreds, and bitternesses that may permeate it through and through. As I write, the cramped, venomous, unlovely life of the American small town is the favourite theme of our authors and readers of fiction. Since a number of the works now on the market have met with national approval, one must assume that the pictures they paint are accurate. The conditions are appalling, but, according to the custom of the country, they are “moral.” The shadow of insobriety and incontinence doesn’t touch the characters who move across these pages, and yet the level of the life is pictured as debased, and habits as hideous.

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PHOTO CREDIT : THOMAS VITALI
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