Department of English

Fall 2006 Edition

Ideas, Ideals and Isolation

Anthony Carter
Expository 1010 1st place
Professor: Dr. Kurt Harris

Morals, ethics, standards, rules of conduct, and integrity-- these are the pillars that human society is built upon. Society entirely depends on these concepts in order to maintain order. While there are a few who violate these established and sometimes unspoken expectations, it is the striving of the whole that keeps ultimate chaos at a safe distance. Is this relationship between morality and society symbiotic? Can ethics survive without society? If a person is completely isolated from human contact and influence, would he still develop the same codes of behavior that someone immersed in society would? No. Morals are dictated entirely by a society’s culture and the social standards they develop. An individual man, if entirely cut off from this society, would be completely absent from such ideas or ideals as honesty, virtue, duty, and even guilt.

If society is the source and origin of all forms of ethics, then what is society?  As defined in the Dictionary of Sociology, “[Society is] the social totality of all the relationships in a given space” (Lawson 232). This introduces the key factor in society responsible for moral establishment: relationships. In fact, Elyse Warren, author of “Moral Development,” explains the effect that man’s actions have on the rights, duties, and welfare of others that constitutes a man’s morality (848). For example, the established “virtue” of honesty is not for the sake of oneself, but the disillusion and danger that it can have on others. If honesty did not exist, then there would be no trust in society, and it would fall apart. People as a whole need to be able to trust in order to live, and so the concept of honesty is given weight. Sometimes it is not even the existence of honesty, but merely the expectation of it that maintains order. Even though mankind in its nature has a rampant tendency to lie, whether for personal gain or protection, the overall hope of the common man for its existence maintains order.

Now, strip a man of all of these expectations. If he were alienated from human contact, there would no longer exist any object or driving reason for dishonesty. What is there to be accomplished by lying when there is no one to deceive? In fact, the desire or instinct to lie at all would not exist. This would create what society would esteem an ideally “virtuous” man, one who has no concept of or desire for dishonesty. But even though this isolated man has achieved something highly esteemed by society, is he in fact virtuous?

Aristotle spoke volumes when he said, “The greatest virtues are those which are most useful to other persons” (Moncur). In truth, virtue’s entire existence depends on two things: its polar opposite and a society to esteem it. Since, in an isolated environment, there is nothing to oppose virtue then there is no virtue either. So, even though this theoretical man never lies, this does not mean he is honest. Neither can he be said to have virtue, for virtue is entirely determined from the ideals established by society. According to Michael Shwalbe, philosopher and author of “Self and Self-Concept,” behavior is aimed at pleasing the audiences that most powerfully affect a man’s self-conception (685). This explains what it is about society and culture that directly affects morality: its affect on man’s concept of self. Schwalbe goes on to explain Charles Horton Cooley’s concept of the “looking glass self” as coming from self-conceptions that derive from imagining how others judge (685). Indeed, it is the concept of self and the value given to the opinion of others that gives virtue its weight; thus, there is irony in Diogenes Laertius’ advice that, “One ought to seek out virtue for its own sake, without being influenced by fear or hope, or by any external influence” (Moncur). When virtue’s entire existence depends on “external influence” it is futile to seek it out for “its own sake.” Thus the theoretical isolated man, even though he may possess many qualities attributed to virtue, without a culture to place value on these qualities, he is entirely without it.

One of the most obvious esteemed standards of man that disappears in complete isolation is duty. Duty entirely depends on others in order to exist.  To whom would this theoretical man hold a duty to? Any kind of duty relates to an obligation to others. Duty to country, paternal duty, and duty to family or friends are all prime examples of the direct relation of duty and society. Without the “moral strains” of society, duty cannot exist (Schwalbe 685).

Even with all of these established virtues, morals, ethics, and social standards, every member of society at one point will inevitably violate them. Considering this staggering fact, what is left to maintain order within society? Guilt. When a person violates the standards they have been taught, then they feel a sense of regret. This feeling is also entirely dependent upon the culture a person lives in. Guilt is the ultimate fear of loss of the approval of others due to prior action. George Sewell shares this opinion: “Fear is the tax that conscience pays to guilt” (Moncur). This fear is generated from the society in which one lives. Guilt is the fear of exile, shame, and disapproval of one’s people. So, would a man who has no people ever experience guilt? If he were to kill the very last animal of a certain species would he feel regret? No. Without others to look down on him, or to tell him of the “gravity” of his action, the isolated man would not feel a thing. Like each of the ideals previously discussed, guilt depends on the “moral strains” put upon man by those around him (Schwalbe 685).

Which is the ideal life? Living in a world bound by rules, rewards, expectations, punishment, and responsibility, or a life free of such boundaries with the end goal of simply being? Living in society, we are inevitably pulled in hundreds of directions because “a man has as many social selves as there are individuals who recognize him and carry an image of him in their mind” (James 294). What an experience it would be to free oneself from the ties of honesty, virtue, duty, and guilt--to live, as William James points out, as a single person (294). Yet it is impossible for mankind to achieve this state. Each person is eternally bound by morals, judged by standards, and expected to follow ethics. However, after examining the true origin of morality, how much weight can one truly give it?

Works Cited

James, William. The Principles of Psychology. Vol. 1. New York: Henry Holt, 1918.

Lawson, Tony, and Joan Garrod. Dictionary of Sociology. Chicago: Fitzroy Dearborn Publishers, 2001.

Schwalbe, Michael. “Self and Self Concept.” Encyclopedia of Social Theory. Ed. George Ritzer. Vol 2. London: Sage Publications, 2005.

The Quotations Page. Ed. Michael Moncur. 1994. 10 November 2006         <>.

Warren, Elyse A. “Moral Development.” Encyclopedia of Human Development. Ed. Neil J. Salkind. Vol. 2. London: Sage Publications, 2006. 848-853.