§3. Vitally Important Truths
661. Conservatism, true conservatism, which is sentimental conservatism, and by those who have no powers of observation to see what sort of men conservatives are, is often called stupid conservatism, an epithet far more applicable to the false conservatism that looks to see on which side bread is buttered — true conservatism, I say, means not trusting to reasonings about questions of vital importance but rather to hereditary instincts and traditional sentiments. Place before the conservative arguments to which he can find no adequate reply and which go, let us say, to demonstrate that wisdom and virtue call upon him to offer to marry his own sister, and though he be unable to answer the arguments, he will not act upon their conclusion, because he believes that tradition and the feelings that tradition and custom have developed in him are safer guides than his own feeble ratiocination. Thus, true conservatism is sentimentalism. Of course, sentiment lays no claim to infallibility, in the sense of theoretical infallibility, a phrase that logical analysis proves to be a mere jingle of words with a jangle of contradictory meanings. The conservative need not forget that he might have been born a Brahmin with a traditional sentiment in favor of suttee — a reflection that tempts him to become a radical. But still, on the whole, he thinks his wisest plan is to reverence his deepest sentiments as his highest and ultimate authority, which is regarding them as for him practically infallible — that is, to say infallible in the only sense of the word in which infallible has any consistent meaning.
662. The opinion prevalent among radicals that conservatives, and sentimentalists generally, are fools is only a cropping-out of the tendency of men to conceited exaggeration of their reasoning powers. Uncompromising radical though I be upon some questions, inhabiting all my life an atmosphere of science, and not reckoned as particularly credulous, I must confess that the conservative sentimentalism I have defined recommends itself to my mind as eminently sane and wholesome. Commendable as it undoubtedly is to reason out matters of detail, yet to allow mere reasonings and reason's self-conceit to overslaw [over-slaugh? over-awe?] the normal and manly sentimentalism which ought to lie at the cornerstone of all our conduct seems to me to be foolish and despicable.
663. Philosophy after all is, at its highest valuation, nothing more than a branch of science, and as such is not a matter of vital importance; and those who represent it as being so are simply offering us a stone when we ask for bread. Mind, I do not deny that a philosophical or other scientific error may be fraught with disastrous consequences for the whole people. It might conceivably bring about the extirpation of the human race. Importance in that sense it might have in any degree. Nevertheless, in no case is it of vital importance.
664. A great calamity the error may be, qua event, in the sense in which an earthquake, or the impact of a comet, or the extinction of the sun would be an important event, and consequently, if it happens to lie in the line of my duty or of yours to investigate any philosophical question and to publish the more or less erroneous results of our investigations, I hope we shall not fail to do so, if we can. Certainly, any task which lies before us to be done has its importance. But there our responsibility ends. Nor is it the philosophy itself, qua cognition, that is vital, so much as it is our playing the part that is allotted to us.
665. You will observe that I have not said a single word in disparagement of the philosophy of religion, in general, which seems to me a most interesting study, at any rate, and possibly likely to lead to some useful result. Nor have I attacked any sect of that philosophy. It is not the philosophy which I hold to be baleful, but the representing it to be of vital importance, as if any genuine religion could come from the head instead of from the heart.
666. Somewhat allied to the philosophy of religion is the science of ethics. It is equally useless. Now books of casuistry, indeed, using the word »casuistry« not in any technical sense, but merely to signify discussions of what ought to be done in various difficult situations, might be made at once extremely entertaining and positively useful. But casuistry is just what the ordinary treatises upon ethics do not touch, at least not seriously. They chiefly occupy themselves with reasoning out the basis of morality and other questions secondary to that. Now what's the use of prying into the philosophical basis of morality? We all know what morality is: it is behaving as you were brought up to behave, that is, to think you ought to be punished for not behaving. But to believe in thinking as you have been brought up to think defines conservatism. It needs no reasoning to perceive that morality is conservatism. But conservatism again means, as you will surely agree, not trusting to one's reasoning powers. To be a moral man is to obey the traditional maxims of your community without hesitation or discussion. Hence, ethics, which is reasoning out an explanation of morality is — I will not say immoral, [for] that would be going too far — composed of the very substance of immorality. If you ever happen to be thrown in with an unprofessional thief, the only very bad kind of thief, so as to be able to study his psychological peculiarities, you will find that two things characterize him; first, an even more immense conceit in his own reasoning powers than is common, and second, a disposition to reason about the basis of morals.
667. Ethics, then, even if not a positively dangerous study, as it sometimes proves, is as useless a science as can be conceived. But it must be said, in favor of ethical writers, that they are commonly free from the nauseating custom of boasting of the utility of their science.
668. Far be it from me to decry. Though I do hail from New York,1) I shall hardly be mistaken for a Wall Street Philistine. A useless inquiry, provided it is a systematic one, is pretty much the same thing as a scientific inquiry. Or at any rate if a scientific inquiry becomes by any mischance useful, that aspect of it has to be kept sedulously out of sight during the investigation or else, as I shall try to show you another evening, its hopes of success are fatally cursed.
669. As long as ethics is recognized as not being a matter of vital importance or in any way touching the student's conscience, it is, to a normal and healthy mind, a civilizing and valuable study — somewhat more so than the theory of whist, much more so than the question of the landing of Columbus, which things are insignificant not at all because they are useless, nor even because they are little in themselves, but simply and solely because they are detached from the great continuum of ideas.