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The Parents' Review

A Monthly Magazine of Home-Training and Culture

Edited by Charlotte Mason.

"Education is an atmosphere, a discipline, a life."
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Motives of Moral Action

by Mr. C. Montefiore
Volume 12, 1901, pgs. 591-600


The greatest ignorance, as Plato says, is "when a man hates that which he nevertheless knows to be good and noble, and loves and embraces that which he knows to be unrighteous and evil." We all are aware how keenly Ruskin. . . adopts this doctrine, emphatically asserting that "what we like determines what we are and is the sign of what we are, and that to teach taste is inevitably to form character."

Mr. C. Montefiore then read his paper on Motives of Moral Action.

The order from great to small is unnatural. From the village we pass to our country, from our country to mankind. The great must contain the small, but not destroy it; the love of many must ennoble patriotism, but not efface it. The unbalanced and spurious liberality which is always eager to find its own country in the wrong is a far more foolish and immoral aberration than the Chauvinism which always seeks to prove it in the right.

I must apologize for reading an address to you this evening which, both in substance and in form, will, I fear, be very inadequate. Owing, however, to unforeseen circumstances, I have been able to give but scanty time to its preparation. Yet, perhaps, what I do say may suggest to some of those here present trains of thought wherewith to complete and correct what is erroneous and insufficient.

I propose to make a few remarks on the subject of motives of moral action, springs of doing. We are all agreed that the moral value of an action lies, not so much in its outward appearance, as in its inward meaning. The intention, the object, the motive,--these are the qualifications or tests by which, in the last resort, we should want to think right or judge it. Why do you live a virtuous life? Why do you avoid evil and choose good? Till we reflect upon the question and the answers which truth and knowledge would give to it, we are perhaps conscious of the complexity of the problem and of the variety of possible solutions. Some of our reasons, at least for abstention from evil, may be of no moral value, as for instance the fear of unpleasant consequences; some may be more difficult to gauge, as, for instance, the force of public opinion, the desire of approbation, the sting of ambition; others may be still higher in moral scale, noblesse oblige, or the love of a particular person, or patriotism, or self-respect, while in the highest class of all we should place the conscious love of humanity or the conscious love of God. We should also be inclined to say that some persons do or are good because they like it, or because it is their nature, or because it has become an almost unconscious habit.

Now, when we relate these thoughts to the subject of education, we are driven to ask, how far ought we to foster all these motives in children? To answer that question fully would need a treatise on the one hand, and great knowledge on the other, and before we could answer it at all there would be certain preliminaries to settle. The motives I have mentioned, and many others I have not, can be roughly divided into three classes: bad, good and mixed. It often happens that, for a single act, there are two motives, one good and one bad; as for instance, if I give a thousand pounds to a hospital partly from a genuine desire to help the poor, and partly because I like the resulting letter of thanks from the president. Putting apart the bad motives, is it desirable to have many strings to one's moral bow? Most persons would, I imagine, answer in the affirmative. The strings may not be all of the same value, but if they are good of their kind, their number add to the width and richness of character. To have many "motives" largely corresponds to "many-sidedness of interest" in a Herbartian sense of the word. Moreover, as Dr. Felix Adler has reminded us, what is not against morality is for it. A prudential motive, if in its proper place of dependence, is not the enemy of virtue, but its ally. And in the fully-grown character, though many motives have been absorbed into it, action constantly proceeds with no conscious reference to any of them. The moral habit and the moral taste have been so completely formed, that only in comparatively rare circumstances is there any preceding consciousness as to why any particular deed is chosen, attempted or accomplished.

Many rules and problems suggest themselves when we seek to find out what motives we should choose for our children to adopt. People hardly realise how important or many-sided this question really is. Whether a certain boy or girl should learn French or German is less grave a matter than the kind of man or women, regarded as a moral personality, which is to ensue. Yet on the motives of action which education and environment suggest to them, the bent and force of the adult personality will very largely depend.

Such a rule, for instance, would be that the small and the concrete must precede the large and the general. Motives must rarely be directly preached; they must be suggested and stimulated. The subjects and methods of school, the discipline and habits of the home will supply the springs of action. Yet if a direct injuction is attempted, the same rule holds. "Duty for duty's sake" is too vague and abstract; "be a good boy" is too indefinite and colourless. The small realities, the narrower circles must first be brought into play. Keep up the honour of your village, the credit of your name--that will appeal. If the honour of the village, the credit of the name, point in the same direction as general morality, it is surely desirable to begin with these narrower motives; they will hereafter fall into their proper places. The order from great to small is unnatural. From the village we pass to our country, from our country to mankind. The great must contain the small, but not destroy it; the love of many must ennoble patriotism, but not efface it. The unbalanced and spurious liberality which is always eager to find its own country in the wrong is a far more foolish and immoral aberration than the Chauvinism which always seeks to prove it in the right.

A similar rule may be observed in another application by which personal proclivities are brought into the service of educational ends. Childish curiosity starts a process which ends in the love of knowledge. Or again, the love of a person who is good culminates in the love of goodness. But at this point, rules quickly pass into problems. Questions arise with regard to the conflict of motives with each other. The servant may become the master; what was meant for a stepping stone may become a drag.

There is a Jewish adage which is constantly quoted in the Talmud: a man should study the law--which, to the old Rabbis, means, should lead the ideal life--for its own sake, but whether for its own sake or not for its own sake, let him study it, because by studying it from the wrong motive, he will end by studying it from the right motive. How far is this true? May one use questionable motives not merely for excellent ends, but in the hope that they will either back up and strengthen good motives or gradually fade into them? No general rule can be laid down; each case must be dealt with on its merits, and the answers will be almost as various as the problems which call for them. It may, for instance, be true that "perfect love casts out fear," but it is none the less true that a high degree of love can combine with a considerable quantity of fear. In the race, the gear of God, at first in a lower and then in a higher sense, has partly been the precursor of the love of Him and has partly accompanied that love. The fear of authority has nurtured the respect for authority, and these developments of the race can, to some extent, be paralleled in the individual. The lower motive of fear, partly conscious and partly sub-conscious, need not conflict with, but may even strengthen and purify, the higher motive of love.

The case of praise and reward is more difficult and complex. The desire for recognition is natural and legitimate; to deprive endeavour and achievement of all acknowledgement is to check a natural spring of action which is only base in its perversion. The grown man and woman may be able to endure misunderstanding, neglect, lack of sympathy and ill-deserved failure, but no one would say that such an environment is desirable, or, for the average man, likely to conduce to the maximum of good result. Far less desirable it is for the child. For him, the sunshine of praise and encouragement is on all hands admitted to be legitimate and even necessary. The only question is one of manner, method and degree. Praise and love go excellently together and produce a splendid stimulus or motive. In such a combination the dangers of praise are greatly diminished. A mother of a child who attended a certain school where there are no regular prizes told me that her daughter was far keener about her work now than she had been in two or three other schools where there existed the usual stimulus of marks and prizes. The truth was that the child has conceived a tremendous admiration for her teacher, and to win a word of praise, or a "very good" appended to an exercise from the teacher, was more desirable and delightful than ever had been the chance of a prize. The motive of sustained endeavour was not duty for duty's sake, or a love of the work, or a yearning for knowledge; but nevertheless, it was not unlikely to absorb these motives as well. It was self-regarding in one sense, but yet unselfish in the other, for the child knew that if she won praise, she also bestowed pleasure. Moreover, the praise had little publicity; it could not easily generate into the production of vanity or pride. This individual case may seem to give some help in the vexed question of prizes and rewards. Every writer on education has discoursed on this fruitful subject, and I naturally have nothing new to say. It is not difficult to see both the virtues and the vices of prize-giving. The prize need not become the sole motive, because it assists others; it may encourage taste rather than destroy it. Again a prize is the outward and permanent result of honest toil, and in school life no other outward result is possible. In adult life these outward results exist; though they are not necessarily prizes. The author toils at a book, and at last the book is there; but the boy toils at Latin, and the only result is a certain state of the mind: there is no outward sign. This is expressed in the prize. Is it quite impossible to employ the method of prizes so judiciously that there is no danger of the means becoming the end? But it is also true that marks and prizes can so ruin the character and the will that, where their stimulus is removed, all effort is paralysed; or again, that under the pressure of their excitement and sting, all growing and genuine taste is crushed and blunted. A lady recently told me that a small nephew of hers who had a distinct taste for something or other and was keen on it for its own sake, went to a school where for each school subject there was a special prize. She assured me that she had witnessed the sure and gradual crushing out of the taste and the keenness by the desire for the prize, so that the means had stepped into the place of the end, and had positively rooted out those very springs of endeavour which they were started and supposed to develop and to encourage.

How far these evils of prize-giving may be avoided, many text books discuss; there is no time for such discussion here. But one particular form of prize-giving may be briefly noticed. Prizes may be given for a certain standard of excellence, or on the methods of competition and of rivalry. Mr. James, in his delightful book Talk to Teachers, says: "Unquestionably, emulation with one's former self is a noble form of the passion of rivalry and has a wide scope in the training of the young; but to veto and taboo all possible rivalry of one youth with another because such rivalry may degenerate into greedy and selfish excess, does seem to savour somewhat of sentimentality or even or fanaticism. The feeling of rivalry lies at the very basis of our being, all social improvement being largely due to it. There is a noble and generous kind of rivalry as well as a spiteful and greedy kind, and the noble and generous form is particularly common in childhood. All games owe the zest which they bring with them to the fact that they are rooted in the emulous passion, yet they are the chief means of training in fairness and magnanimity. Can the teacher afford to throw such an ally away? Ought we seriously to hope that marks, distinctions, prizes, and other goals of effort based on the pursuit of recognized superiority, should be for-ever banished from our schools? As a psychologist, obliged to notice the deep and pervasive character of the emulous passion, I must confess my doubts. The wise teacher will use this instinct as he uses others, reaping its advantages, and appealing to it in such a way as to reap a maximum of benefit with a minimum of harm, for, after all, we must confess that the deepest spring of action in us is the sight of action in another; the spectacle of effort is what awakens and sustains our own effort. No runner running all alone on a race track will find in his own will the power of stimulation which his rivalry with other runners incites, when he feels them at his heels, about to pass. When a trotting horse is speeded, a running horse must go beside him to keep him to the pace."

May one venture to criticise the passage, suggestive though it be and with many elements of truth? Certainly one object at school is self-development; to get the best out of yourself, to expand your powers, physical and mental, to the very utmost is one of its principal aims. But is there not a danger lest the competitive prize system, pushed to an extreme, make Smith's aim, not to do his own level best, but to beat Jones? My own boy is at a preparatory school, and every week his position in the form is recorded. I am bound to say that I notice a tendency in him to have an eye on his neighbour's progress quite as much as on his own. I have never been able to understand why the Oxford system of Class Lists in alphabetical order could not be applied to school life; why, in short, the aim should not be to attain to a high standard which all could reach, if all were good enough, but which did not become the easier to any through the sloth or dullness of his neighbour. When in an elementary school I see a banner in the room where, during that particular week, the attendance has been best, I wonder whether it would not be better to have more than one banner and to allow each room to display it when the attendance had reached a certain high level of excellence. The maxim of the Homeric education we all know: "Always to excel and be the first." But must this motive for the youthful Achilles still remain the motive for ourselves? The limits of legitimate ambition are hard to fix. A certain sentence of Herbart's is often quoted: "The main thing," he says, "is not to foster ambition artificially, but to take care not to crush out any natural and true self-esteem" (Ehrgefuhl). How this is to be done depends upon the tact of the teacher or the parent in each individual case rather than upon rules and principles. The duty of self-development in the ultimate interest of the whole is a motive which combines and unites both the self-regarding and the altruistic impulses. To do one's best for the sake of the school, both in school life and beyond, has appealed, as a potent spring of action, to many a boy and even to many a man. It is one of the advantages of school life that this union of personal and social morality is so well compatible within its own limits. The opportunities which it gives in this direction have been notoriously used to good effect by the best masters.

One more remark on this part of the subject may perhaps be allowed me. Rewards and prizes, and even the cultivation of legitimate ambition, largely proceed upon the basis of the maxim that "Honesty is the best policy," or upon the assumption that the good are the happy. Without entering problems of theology, we should all acknowledge that the maxim, "Honesty is the best policy," is not always literally true, and that the good are not always happy except perchance in a higher, more spiritual sense. Thus, as Froebel points out, since, to the child, inner and outer good, inner and outer happiness, inner and outer life, are still undivided, the inner fruits of goodness are looked upon as coalescing with and accompanying the external fruits, and vice versa. Therefore, steps must be taken, partly by teaching, but partly also by a certain experience, to bring home to the child the truth that the highest good is not obtained without its cost in trouble, sacrifice and pain. Froebel indeed thinks--and we must remember that he was a practical teacher and had much experience with boys--that the child can be and should be trained in the pure inner joy of right doing. "Does the good child or boy," he asks, "conscious of having acted in a way worthy of the father and in obedience to his will, need more than the joy of this consciousness? If," he cries, "the human being is enabled at an early period to live in accordance with genuine humanity, he can and should at all times appreciate the dignity of his being, and at all times the consciousness of having lived worthily and in accordance with the requirements of his being should be his highest reward, needing no addition of external recompense." Most persons will say that Froebel takes too ideal a view of human nature in this passage, but in any case it seems to me that appealing and educative attempts should be made along these lines, even although lower motives are appealed to at the same time. The great requirement is that these lower motives should be used in the service of the higher, checked, controlled and tempered by the loftier purposes which are before the mind of the educator, though not yet consciously presented to the child. The Herbartian doctrine of interest and the Platonic doctrine of right taste can largely help to this end. They can hold the best motives as it were in solution; the precipitate will gradually settle into the mind and dye it, as Plato would say, to the proper colour.

Low down in the scale of taste comes that heavy but all-important English motive known as "good form," which restrains a man from cheating at cards, but does not restrain him from ruining a woman. "Good form," I suppose, works as potently within the school walls as beyond them, and obviously supplies one of the most important moral levers from which the teacher can work. For he can explain by word and deed to the older boys and girls that the value of the "form" depends upon its contents, and that these contents, like the moral consciousness of the wider world beyond, are developed and modified even by those who receive the good form from their predecessors and submit to it themselves. It is for them while recognising and enforcing the binding of character of "the form," to improve it and purify it by conscious effort and aspiration. And in this very endeavour and high responsibility there will lie a further incentive of the noblest kind.

But "good form" is, in a certain sense, an outward compulsion, not an inner desire and delight. The true aim of education is, I suppose, to make one like what one ought to like, and to loathe what one ought to loathe. For the greatest ignorance, as Plato says, is "when a man hates that which he nevertheless knows to be good and noble, and loves and embraces that which he knows to be unrighteous and evil." We all are aware how keenly Ruskin, that arch-hater of the stimulus of competition in every form and disguise, adopts this doctrine, emphatically asserting that "what we like determines what we are and is the sign of what we are, and that to teach taste is inevitably to form character." The doctrine of Aristotle may be said in our days to have conquered once more. The best man is not he who does good by effort and against the grain, because he bows down before the moral law, overcomes temptation and obeys, but he is the best man who does the good because he likes it. The various motives for right doing of which we have hitherto spoken, so far as they are right and legitimate, are merged in him into a perfect unity, and this unity, in the ordinary affairs of life, acts with ease and spontaneity. The man sees the right thing to do, he likes the vision, he does the deed. The cultivation of "good form" must culminate in good taste, so that in the often quoted words of Plato, "While he praises and rejoices over and receives into his soul the good, and becomes noble and good, he will justly blame and hate the bad, now in the days of his youth, even before he is able to know the reason why, and when reason comes he will recognize and salute the friend with whom his education had made him long familiar." On how high a plane does Plato here place the office and responsibility of education, "the first and fairest thing," as he says, "that the best of men can ever have, and which, though liable to take a wrong direction, is capable of reformation."

Much remains to be said, and what has been said is mere suggestion and not always consistent. For the aspects of truth are various, and it requires a higher mind to combine them into a single harmony. If I have not spoken of the motives of religion, that is because they are too delicate and important to be crowded into half an hour's address. One word more. No law of psychology or of human nature seems more beneficent than that according to which, in every healthy human being, activity is to a large extent its own end, supplying its own satisfaction and its own motive. Man is most himself when he is active, and this self-realization constantly passes but constantly returns. Both for children and grown-ups alike it has been well said that the best thing in life is the activity of one's own powers in the service of an important, a useful, or a beneficent end. One true imitation of God, which is motive and object in one, is to do and to be, for the activity of the soul in accordance with virtue is, as Aristotle said long ago, the supreme good of man.

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Lord Aberdeen proposed a cordial vote of thanks to Mr. Montefiore.

Lady Hamilton said: It is with a great deal of pleasure that I rise to second this vote of thanks, and to thank Mr. Montefiore for his most delightful and thoughtful paper. A year ago I was not a member of your Association, but I happened to go down to South Woodford to read a paper to the members of that branch, and was so impressed by their enthusiasm that I immediately enrolled myself a member. The whole of this educational movement has interested me deeply, it is less "cut-and-dried" than most. I should like to follow up what Lady Aberdeen has said as regard headmasters. I have had half-a-dozen sons, and I want to tell mothers never to be afraid of headmasters. I beseech you therefore take courage and go straight to masters as well as mistresses in any difficulty.

Dr. Schofield, in moving a vote of thanks to Lord and Lady Aberdeen, said: The remarkable character of the P.N.E.U. was brought home to me last week, when at the close of a branch meeting a gentleman got up and said, "Can you show me any child brought up upon the principles you have advocated?" It then occurred to me that one of the characteristics of our Union is that it is entirely occupied with potentialities, with sowing seeds which never show a harvest, for the harvest is not of a nature to be shown or published, but is known only to the hearts of mothers and fathers.

Lady Campbell said: It is a special pleasure to me to be associated in the vote of thanks to our co-Presidents. The very fact of their being co-Presidents emphasizes one of the strongest points of our Union-it is not merely a Union of mothers or fathers, but a Parents' Union.

Lord Aberdeen replied as follows: I am very proud to be associated with Lady Aberdeen in this vote of thanks, not only because of the brief but delightful speeches in which it was proposed, but because I think we are apt to lose sight of the responsibility of fathers in education.


Proofread by Leslie Noelani Laurio, May 2009