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of persons in distress or persons who lack adequate opportunity or suitable environment.
Only two papers deal with spiritual distress or spiritual improvement. In both of them the spiritual element is treated not as an end, but as a means to social and individual welfare. However, no just fault can be found with this. Spiritual needs and spiritual improvement are the proper and formal concern of religious organizations. Were social workers to make the spiritual faculty their primary object, they would cease to be social workers and add one more to our already lengthy list of religious divisions.
Nevertheless, they cannot and should not ignore the spiritual side of life, the spiritual element in those to whom they minister. Social distress is fundamentally the distress of human beings, and a human being is something more than a combination of physical and mental powers. A part of his nature, by far the most important part, is spirit. To deal with a human being without taking into account his spiritual nature is to treat him inadequately. Sooner or later such one-sided treatment must do harm as well as good, and not infrequently the harm will exceed the good. Neglect of the spiritual element necessarily means neglect of the moral life and, frequently, of the material and intellectual life. In the second place, the social worker who ignores the spiritual element deprives himself of the most effective motive that is within his reach for conscientious and sustained social ministration. Although the majority of social workers are mainly occupied with specific problems of relief or prevention, their vision and aims are not restricted to the persons or groups with whom they deal immediately. All earnest and thoughtful social workers consider their tasks and functions in relation to social improvement. They look forward to better social conditions and arrangements, better social institutions, a better society, a better civilization.
What is social improvement, or social progress? What do we mean by better social institutions, or a better society? These questions cannot be answered by any social worker without taking an attitude toward the question of the spiritual element in humanity. Social progress is commonly conceived in terms of evolution. Among the various theories of social evolution that have at one time or another obtained considerable acceptance there are two which may with advantage receive brief notice here. In some respects they are opposites; in other respects they exhibit a good deal of mutual resemblance. They were, respectively, held by Herbert Spencer and F. G. W. Hegel.
According to Spencer:
The well-being of existing humanity, and the unfolding of it into ultimate perfection, are both secured by that same beneficent, though severe, discipline, to which the animal creation at large is subject: a discipline which is pitiless in the working out of good: a felicity-pursuing law which never swerves for the avoidance of partial and temporary suffering. The poverty of the incapable, the distresses that come upon the imprudent, the starvation of the idle, and those shoulderings aside of the weak by the strong, which leave so many in shallows and misery, are the decrees of a large, farseeing benevolence.
In the system excogitated by Hegel, the state is the highest expression, manifestation, evolution of the universal reason, or world-spirit. Since perfection of life consists in the continuous development of the universal reason, and since the universal reason obtains its highest development in the state, all persons and institutions should serve and magnify the state. The individual exists for the state, and bears the same relation to it as the branch does to the tree. Hence the state is the final and supreme end of human action; it is an end in itself.
Spencer's theory of social progress would leave no place for either social work or state assistance. The weaker members of society would be permitted to perish under unlimited competition. The competitive struggle would accomplish among human beings that which is brought about in the animal world by natural selection. The result would be a continuously improving human society, a gradually rising average of human perfection. While Hegel would probably not have excluded entirely social workers had they existed in his day, there is no doubt that he would have approved the most ruthless treatment of individuals whenever that course seemed to further the development or increase the power of the state. And he would have regarded this enhancement of state welfare as identical with social evolution and social progress.
Social workers have never fully accepted either of these theories. Substantially all their activities for the relief of social distress are directly opposed to the Spencerian program of eliminating the unfit. Nor have American social workers ever hesitated to invoke legislation and other appropriate state action on behalf of the weaker classes. In America, at any rate, social workers have not accepted the Hegelian theory of state omnipotence nor looked upon the state as identical with society.
Nevertheless, there is a real danger that they will adopt some of the worst features in both these theories unless they hold fast to the truth of man's spiritual nature. If we think of society as an entity, a good apart from its component individuals, we can easily and logically draw the conclusion that individuals who are not reformable, who are not capable of becoming useful to society, should be eliminated; or at least that they should be so treated as to diminish their power for harming society without helping them for their own sake. And we can become sufficiently Hegelian in our social thinking as to demand that this task of elimination or of subordination should be performed by the state. While social workers are not likely to regard aggrandizement of the state as the proper end of their efforts, they can easily come to hold that drastic action upon the individual by the state is a legitimate means of promoting social progress.
Perhaps it is worth while to define just what we mean by the spiritual element. The word "spiritual" is frequently misused and used vaguely. Sometimes it is a synonym for "emotional," or "idealistic," or "unselfish." It is much more than any of these. The spiritual element is not the same as the religious element; for the latter refers to a religious creed, religious observances, church affiliations.
While religion is extremely important in social work, it can be properly applied only under the direction of religious organizations. It is therefore outside the sphere of all social workers except those who are employed by churches.
The definition of "spiritual" in the Century Dictionary is sufficiently clear and serviceable. It means "pertaining to the soul." The spiritual element, therefore, is the soul. The spiritual element in social work means the recognition of the soul as the supreme good in a human being. It is the soul which gives to man his intrinsic worth as a person, instead of a mere means to the welfare of society. Because of his soul, his personality, his intrinsic worth, the human individual is endowed with certain rights which may not be violated even in the interest of social progress. After all, social progress means the progress of human beings. Apart from human beings, social progress and society itself are empty abstractions. To use any class of human beings as mere instruments to social improvement is, in reality, to subordinate one group of persons to another, albeit a larger group of persons. For such a policy there can be no moral justification.
If this conception of the human individual as having intrinsic worth seems intangible or metaphysical, the answer is that every ultimate standard of values is intangible and metaphysical. To the person who believes that weak and socially useless individuals ought to be sacrificed to social welfare, society appears as good in itself, as metaphysically good. To the question, Why should we further the interests of society? the answer must be in terms of metaphysics. The assumption must be made that society is its own justification, that there is no further end to which society might be made an instrument.
So much for the general principle concerning the supreme worth of the individual as derived from his spiritual element. Let us consider two or three particular applications of the principle. Many social workers are today interested in eugenics. They believe that the presence of great numbers of mentally and physically subnormal persons is a grave menace to racial integrity and racial improvement. Therefore they desire that the number of such persons should be reduced both absolutely and relatively. Some of the means advocated to reach this end are drastic, and until recently would have seemed shocking and inhuman to substantially all our people. Among these are severe restrictions upon the marriage of the relatively unfit and universal laws for sterilization. If laws of the latter character could be enforced, it is contended that "less than four generations would eliminate nine-tenths of the crime, insanity, and sickness of the present generation in our land. Asylums, prisons, and hospitals would decrease, and the problems of the unemployed, the indigent old, and the hopelessly degenerate would cease to trouble civilization."
No social worker who gives due recognition to the spiritual element can approve these brutal proposals. Even if we assume that it is possible to identify all persons whose offspring would be a social liability rather than a social asset, the proposed means of forbidding them the opportunity of marriage and parenthood are immoral. A considerable immediate gain would come to society if all
the insane, all the hopelessly crippled, all the irredeemable criminals, and all the incurably infirm were put to death. For two reasons this remedy finds few, if any, advocates. The first reason is that it would violate the right to live which these afflicted groups possess in common with their more fortunate fellows. In the second place, there is grave reason to fear that the disregard of human sacredness involved in this wholesale killing for a social end would bring about a continuous decline in human sympathy and in the sense of human values generally. Human society would revert to the practices of the jungle.
Both these objections can be urged against the radical measures of race betterment proposed by many of the eugenists. The difference in the two situations is only a difference in degree. A due regard to the sacredness of human personality, to the spiritual element in the human being, requires that no person should be permanently deprived of the right to marry unless he is insane, or so feebleminded that his condition practically amounts to insanity. Ignore the spiritual element in any other kind of relatively inferior persons, any other group of so-called unfit, and you are introducing into society a deadly principle which can be extended indefinitely. The magic circle of fitness can be contracted more and more until it includes only recherché Nordics, or Class A in the army intelligence tests, or some other small but fortunate minority. Disregard the spiritual element in man and his essential sacredness, and you can set no logical or certain limit to the process of subjecting the supposedly less desirable individuals to the assumed welfare of society. If the abstraction which we call society is worth more than certain individuals, then it may be worth more than any number of individuals, however large, whom the social experts or the politicians may regard as a social liability.
Another application of the spiritual principle occurs in relation to artificial family limitation. Moved by the sad conditions of many large families, social workers sometimes advocate the practice of birth control. In these cases, at least, birth control appears to be a simple remedy. It is entirely too simple. Its delusive simplicity and its ultimate failure arise from its disregard of spiritual factor. Those who recommend it to or for poverty stricken families are thinking only of material and mental advantages. Their slogan is "a smaller quantity of children, but a better quality." The "better quality" which they have in mind comprehends only material conditions and larger opportunities of education. It cannot include moral qualities. In all the essentials of character, children in artificially restricted families are liable to be of inferior quality. They grow up in an environment which fosters selfishness, laziness, weakness of will, and flabbiness of intellect. They have not the capacity to overcome obstacles and to endure the unpleasant things of life. They lack the power to do without. Lacking this power, no person is able to achieve anything beyond mediocrity. Obviously these results would not occur immediately in families that are now very poor. Once these parents adopt the theory and practice of birth control, however, they assure its continuation in their offspring. The latter will subject
themselves and their children to all the disadvantages and evils which follow the practice in families and groups where it is well established.
It anyone objects that what I am now talking about is the moral rather than the spiritual element, the answer is that no true mortality nor any adequate conception of moral good is possible without a recognition of the human soul, the spiritual principle, in human beings. Without such recognition, morality becomes a mere calculus of pleasure and pain. The moral good becomes identified with the useful. Unless we think of man as possessing an indestructible spirit, made in the image and likeness of God, we cannot hold that he or his conduct has intrinsic worth. Murder, theft, and every other evil act cease to be wrong in themselves. Charity, justice, and all the other virtues cease to be good in themselves. They are good only in so far as they are useful. Useful for what? Evidently for one's own pleasure or happiness only. There can be no other good or conception of good which it is worth one's while to seek if one gives up the doctrine that some values have intrinsic worth. And this doctrine is necessarily given up when one abandons or ignores the truth of the spiritual element in
Concerning this question of quality and social fitness, I quote the following from an address by Professor Warren S. Thompson. He is discussing the position of those who think that they and their offspring will constitute a superior class through the practice of artificial family limitation.
Nature's answer is clear. She says that they are unfit. She shows clearly that she prefers the lower classes who live simply, who reproduce more or less instinctively, who do not think about the future of the race or of civilization, but who are carrying the burden of the future in the rearing of children. We may call these people brutish, we may say that they are intellectually inferior, we may hold that they have not risen above the level of instinctive reactions, we may believe that they carry the burden of the future only because they do not know how to avoid it, and because they do not yet feel it to be a burden, but they survive, and the future belongs to them.
The fate of the classes that have already committed themselves to this delusive theory will be shared by the whole American people if the practice of birth control becomes general. In order to keep population from declining there must be an average of about three and three-fifths children for each married couple. By this time we have sufficient experience to warrant the prediction that the average number of children in families addicted to birth control will remain considerably less than three and three-fifths. Hence this simple and sovereign remedy for poverty tends inevitably to bring about a declining population. When that condition arrives, the American people will be at the same disadvantage as that which now besets the so-called "superior" classes in relation to the so-called "inferior" but more prolific classes. The "inferior" peoples will conquer and survive. Social workers who advocate birth control are surely taking a short-sighted view of social progress. They are subordinating society as a whole, particularly the society of the future, to the material welfare of the in