Views of an Agnostic
by: Ross E. Browne
This is part 11 of Ross E. Browne's 1915 book, Views of an Agnostic.
To open a discussion on this article, please use the contact page to provide your comments
The feeling of responsibility is the main source of our worries and our efforts at self-control. We are generally, to some extent, conscious of having to answer in some way for our actions. We must render account to some power and accept the consequences. The powers variously considered are individual and public opinion, courts of law, the laws of nature, and a “Personal God.” We are governed in our actions partly by our natural tastes, partly by our consciences or ideas of justice, and largely by expediency or policy.
All civilized communities have codes of justice wherein the cardinal features are very similar. These are, as Spencer shows, the outgrowth of the requirements of social organization by processes of evolution. These processes have been going on ever since man first emerged from his barbaric and isolated state. Our code is apparently prescribed by the laws of nature applied to a special set of conditions, but was not originally inherent in our savage ancestors. In fact it is doubtful if it is now inherent to the extent commonly assumed. It is still mainly the result of early training and association.
Our code includes one principle in particular which nature does not appear to recognize. This is exemption from blame or punishment on account of ignorance or innocence of intention. But nature’s discipline for transgression of its laws is, as Huxley says, “a blow without a word, it being left to you to find out why your ears are boxed” ... “Ignorance is visited as sharply as wilful disobedience.”
A widely prevailing idea in our Christian communities is that man must render his account to God, and that God’s judgment will be in accord with each individual man’s innermost idea of justice. This is not exactly in conformity with the doctrine of the churches, but is what the conscience of the believer is most apt to dictate. The feeling is based partly upon an essential element of nobility of character, partly upon an apparent fallacy. The assumption of a personal Creator in Heaven who watches us with a fatherly interest, takes cognizance of all our individual actions, and finally decrees that we shall be punished or rewarded in another world, is an unverified picture of the imagination. It involves the idea that we are made of His own material and by His own design. It is not in accordance with our idea of justice that He should hold us responsible for shortcomings which are the result of His making.
Disregarding this faith, we know of nothing which could have entered into our composition excepting that which we inherited and that which has come to us through the medium of our environment, for neither of which are we justly responsible according to the prevailing notion of justice. The whole theory of just responsibility either to a personal Creator or to nature is inconsistent. The man of the future will require either a new idea of justice or a different motive for guidance. Even to-day the above motive is to a considerable extent overshadowed by the wish to be a desirable specimen in the eyes of our fellow-man, and the purpose to fit ourselves for a fuller enjoyment of life. Still we have an element of inner satisfaction in doing what we deem to be right, even when unappreciated by others, and it is this element which may be endangered by the relinquishment of the theory of just responsibility. It is one of the noblest elements of the character of man, and more rational motives will doubtless be cultivated for its maintenance and growth. It will probably be included, as an essential element, in the most rational of all motives, that of the fullest possible enjoyment of life.
There are of course good practical reasons for the feeling of responsibility, (just or unjust) to the courts of justice, to those who especially engage our affections or upon whom we are dependent for a living, and to our fellow-man in general, upon whose approval and sympathy we depend for our happiness in life.
Of most essential importance is our responsibility to the laws of nature, upon obedience to which depends our physical and mental welfare and in fact life itself. In connection with this responsibility there are direct questions of fact only and not of justice. Strange to say, it is this, the most fundamental of all our responsibilities, which we are most apt to disregard by excessive indulgence of our mental and physical appetites.