What Is Best?
( Originally Published 1916 )
WHAT is the best? We all agree we should strive for it, but what is it? Christians say the answer is found in the Bible, Mahometans in the Koran, some say it is in the theories of Herbert Spencer, others of Descartes.
These have been given as "the greatest good" : righteousness, happiness, wisdom, love, holiness, and so on.
My own notion is that "the best" is whatever favors the fullest development of the personality. I believe we are set in this garden of the world to grow, and that he who grows most perfectly is the best man.
There are in us sensual, selfish, and other so-called "evil" qualities, and others called "higher" elements or "good." What is the difference?
The evil elements are those which the experience of the race has shown to be destructive, their pleasure is brief ; the higher are those proven to be both lasting in themselves and preservative and strengthening to the whole man.
Over the individual man is mankind. From this comes a still truer fact. Whatever is hostile to the full development and permanent order, health, and joy of the whole race becomes a "bad" thing for the single person; and whatever promotes the welfare of humanity is a "good" in the one man.
From this comes what we call morality, which is the limiting of the individual self-expression by the collective. I may have an impulse to gluttonize, steal, or kill; if 1 and all others freely indulged such promptings the race would be imperilled; hence they are "wicked."
The moralities therefore are not the inventions of priests, are not forms of tyranny. No man nor conspiracy could establish a fake or artificial system of ethics which will stand the test of time. For morals are the feeling of self-preservation in the race, superimposed upon the feeling of self-expression in the individual.
The great "law-givers" never "gave" laws at all. They discovered them. They were poets, seers. Moses discovered the Ten Commandments; he perceived them to be the real principles of racial self-preservation. Socrates, Buddha, Confucius and all the sages merely saw vast race-principles and gave them to us as correctives of individual forces.
Let us go back to our definition, "the best is whatever favors the fullest growth of the personality," and ask how we may know what this is. The answer is, by experience, not only individual experience, but the experience of the whole world.
The latter is stored in our conscience, cellared in our inborn sense of right and wrong.
The man who pursues only self-expression, and gives self up to sensual, intellectual, or spiritual self-indulgence, is a dangerous man. He is surely headed for tragedy.
But the man who, while freely indulging every instinct, every desire, yet feels in himself a race-consciousness that controls his private impulses, such a man is truly altruistic.
When altruism becomes a passion we call it religion.
Thus, then, we may know what is "best." First, it is whatever in us seeks expression, it is the forthputting of our personality. And second, it is the world-consciousness, more or less manifested in love, patriotism, God, and all inclusive race-passions, guiding and fostering our individual desires.
I know that hope, faith, courage, and chaste-mindedness are good because I feel that if all the world practised them it would be well. I know that fear, pride, petulance, greed, and such things are bad, because if everybody were governed by such emotions it would produce chaos and universal unhappiness. This is practically Kant's "categorical imperative." It is a simple, understandable means of deciding by commonsense, and not by authority nor hearsay, what is "best."