There should be a vacation for certain overworked words, and in particular the word “crisis.” What “service” is to a Kiwanis booster, the word “crisis” is to a moralist. This latter class has used it so often as to prove without doubt that Stevenson was right in saying that not by bread alone do men live but principally by catchwords. It is hardly possible to pick up a magazine today without reading an article by some self-styled ethicist on “The Crisis in Morals.”

The repeated use of the word “crisis” in reference to morals is interesting, for it reveals a tendency on the part of many modern writers to blame the abstract when the concrete is really at fault. They speak, for example, of the problem of crime, rather than of the crimminal; of the problem of poverty, rather than of the poor; and of the “crisis in morals,” when really the crisis is amongst men who are not living morally. The crisis is not in ethics but in the unethical. The failure is not in the law, but in the law-breakers. The truth of this observation is borne out by the failure of such writers to distinguish between the problem of making men conform to standards and that of making standards conform to men. Instead of urging men to pass the test, they alter the test. Instead of inspiring them to hold to their ideals, they change the ideals. In accordance with this logic, they urge that morals be changed to suit those who cannot live morally, and that ethics be changed to please those who cannot live ethically. All this takes place in accordance with the democratic principle of certain philosophers, who are prepared to construct any kind of philosophy that man desires. …

There are ultimately only two possible adjustments in life: one is to suit our lives to principles; the other is to suit principles to our lives. “If we do not live as we think, we soon begin to think as we live.” The method of adjusting moral principles to the way men live is just such a perversion of the due order of things. Just suppose this logic were applied in the classroom. Boys and girls find it difficult to spell “knapsack” and “pneumonia,” because the spelling of these words is not in the line of least phonetic resistance. Others, too, find it very hard to learn the multiplication table. Many a budding liberal mathematician cannot crush the urge to say that three times three equals six. Now here is a real “crisis” in spelling and mathematics, a kind of intellectual anarchy much akin to the moral anarchy described by our intelligentsia. How meet the “crisis” ? One way to meet it is the way to meet any crisis, that is, by criticsm; the other way to meet it is to write a new speller and a new mathematics entitled “A Preface to Spelling” or “Crisis in Mathematics.” This is precisely what has taken place in the field of morals. Instead of making men conform to principles of morality, they change the principles. This kind of philosophy would never have permitted the Prodigal Son to return to his father’s house. It would have settled the ‘crisis’ by finding a new and handsome name for the husks he was throwing to the swine, and called it “progress away from antiquated modes of morality.”

All the books and articles on “the crisis in moralitiy” touch on three points: the nature of morality, its origin, and its test. In discussing the general nature of morality, most authors reduce it to convention or taste. But before arriving at that conclusion they seem to sense the inadequacy of the very solution they propose, and one of them makes this rather excellent observation: “Social conventions change: the particular actions calculated to suit them change with them …

Archbishop Fulton Sheen
Old Errors New Labels
Ethics for the Unethical
c. 1930