Keepapitchinin, the Mormon History blog » Ethics for Young Girls: Lesson 1: Ethics

Ethics for Young Girls: Lesson 1: Ethics

By: Ardis E. Parshall - May 09, 2012

In 1900-1901 the young women of the Church studied 18 monthly lessons on “ethics for young girls” in their meetings of the Young Ladies’ Mutual Improvement Association. The subjects of these lessons ranged from the rights of family members and “chastity of thought” through gossip and “the ethics of the table.” In every case, I think, there are surprising bits: illustrations that would not be used in a lesson today, descriptions that suggest differences in church practices a century ago. At the very least, it feels odd to read gospel principles presented as “ethics” rather than as scriptural or prophetic teachings.

(Note: The lesson numbers assigned here are not always the same as they appeared in the original; some of the lessons in that series were unnumbered, and some lessons shared the same number.)

Ethics for Young Girls

Young Woman’s Journal, 1900-1901

Lesson 1: Ethics

Before beginning the special talks on ethics for young girls, it may be well to give a general view of the science of ethics. It is possible in this article only to touch on the fundamental principles of ethics.

Ethics is the science of ideal human relations. All nations have their ideals toward which they strive. Even the savage has his ideals of right and wrong. In formulating scientific principles of ethics, however, it is necessary to take for the field of study, humanity in its highest civilized states. As in other sciences, the test of the validity of a moral law is its universality. Most writers on ethics hold the opinion that a valid ethical law must be true of past, present, and future. In the main this is true; yet new conditions, changing social relations, require a readjustment of old ethical laws. For example, in our own Church, in ordinary conditions, it is wrong to forsake home, parents, friends; yet, when some of our Church members adopted our religious principles, new relations presented themselves, new ethical laws were understood and carried out; therefore, relatives and friends were left in foreign lands.

Materials from which to generalize or formulate ethical laws, is found in our own lives; in social life, including the home, the church, and the school; in history and in literature, for all great literature has ethical content; in biography, which brings to our knowledge lives of heroes and reformers; in the fine arts; in ideal lives; and in the bible.

The social life about us can be studied concretely. here is found the application of ethical principles, or the art of ethics; for this reason the succeeding talks will be mainly on the science and art of home ethics, and social ethics about us, the home being the unit of society.

The science of ethics was formulated before Christ by the Greeks. Many of the principles of the several formulators, we cannot now accept. One of the most interesting of these principles is that formulated by Epicurus.

The basic principle of his ethical science is: “To be good is to be happy.” His followers were called Epicureans. this term now means something almost gross, but it had not that significance in the time of Epicurus. He and his advocates held the opinion that it was impossible to be happy without being good. it is surprising what good he and his followers obtained from a principle of life which has happiness for its ultimate good. Happiness comes usually as a result of right doing, not because it is sought for. It is a strange fact, that those who seek happiness seldom find it, while those who unselfishly perform their duty, not thinking of the results, are often the happiest of people.

Closely connected to the Epicureans’ science of ethics is that of the Utilitarians. Their science was somewhat in advance of Epicurus. They believed that the greatest happiness for the greatest number should be the sole aim of all public action. The Greeks really formulated this law, but it was left for the Marquis Beccaris to work it out in scientific form. This was done in the eighteenth century. In modern times the home of utilitarianism has been England. John Locke, Hume, James Mill, John Stuart Mill and Spencer, were advocates of utilitarianism. John Stuart Mill distinguished between pleasure (animal gratification) and happiness (higher spiritual feeling_.
With the advent of Christ, ethical culture leaped from the depth of selfishness to the heights of Christianity. Christ is our perfect ethical teacher. His “Sermon on the Mount” is one series of ethical laws. From His time there has been an upward movement in human relations. the world as a whole is better now than it has ever been before. Other things being equal, the more intelligent a people, the more nearly true will be the ethical laws upon which they base their society. it is necessary, then, that the mind be educated in order that the moral judgment be educated.

Moral judgment is the power of recognizing just and true relations between right and wrong. “The moral judgment brings with it the force of an irrevocable decree.” the soul feels itself compelled to obey. Obedience to the moral law discerned by the moral judgment, brings with it a feeling of mastership, while disobedience to the moral judgment, which may be called conscience, is accompanied by a feeling of servitude of bondage.

Herbart, in his definition of the perfect will, gives us the source of ethical law. The perfect will must first have the characteristic of obedience, i.e., it must obey the dictates of conscience. The will may obey conscience and yet do wrong through not seeing right relations, so the characteristic of intelligence must be added. This gives man the power of discerning right relations. if these two characteristics were absolute, no others would be needed; for if man understood what was right and did what conscience told him to do, he would always act rightly. But not being so, however, Herbart gives other essentials to a perfect will. The next is the idea of rights, which means that the rights of others must be considered and not trampled upon. Another characteristic is that of benevolence; with this quality in the will, man will not only act rightly, but will go out of himself to benefit mankind. It is this essential of the perfect will which caused asylums to be built for the unfortunate, the old, deaf, dumb, blind and feeble-minded. the last characteristic of the perfect will is that of equity. this means measure for measure. It is from this principle that the idea of wages comes. a man works for a merchant. In return for the work, he receives the value of it in wages. It is equal to give and take, and neither is under obligations to the other.

This perfect will, as formulated by Herbart, omits that which to us is the most beautiful of all, and that is, faith in God, which of itself softens and mellows the entire being and helps us to discern right relations and gives us the desire to act according to our light. had he added this characteristic to his perfect will, there is nothing more to be desired in it.


1. What is ethics ? (see Dictionary)
2. What is meant by “ideal human relations”?
3. What is the field of study in ethics?
4. Where is the material for ethical laws found?
5. What part of the material can be studied concretely?
6. Give a definition of “science.” Of “art.” (see Dictionary)
7. When was the science of ethics formulated?
8. Who was Epicurus?
9. Give an account of his ethical laws as found in encyclopedias. (see Epicurus or Ethics in Encyclopedia)
10. What did the advent of Christ mean to the science of ethics?
11. What is judgment?
12. What is the meaning of moral judgment?
13. Give Herbart’s definition of the perfect will.
14. Wherein is Herbart’s definition of the perfect will incomplete?

Let six of the girls give five-minute talks on the following topics:

Ideal Human Relations.
Moral Law.
Moral Philosophy.
the Rights of the Individual.
The Rights of Society.
The Rights of Nations.



  1. “…this term now means something almost gross, but it had not that significance in the time of Epicurus.” It’s always interesting to see how the meaning of words evolve over time. Almost gross then, and now there is a whole website of delicious recipes ( using a form of that name.

    I am kind of sad that there is nothing in an educational vein like this used to teach YW today. It is rather dry, but I like that it discusses prominent figures in history (beyond just church leaders) and that it is written in a way that leaves a lot of room for discussion about how this topic is reconciled with feeling the spirit (questions like; are the conscience and the spirit the same? Different?, etc.).

    I guess it was not written to foster such discussion, but I think it would be neat to see something like this publication used for mutual nowadays. Not for every activity, but maybe once a month in a Fostering Intellectual Thought type of vein … not that I complained at the time, but it seemed like most of my YW activities were fairly–often very– fluffy, and looking back now it would have been neat to be schooled in critical and academic thinking before entering college, and mutual would have been a good atmosphere for that).

    Comment by Lauren — May 9, 2012 @ 8:47 am

  2. Yeah, I think looking at familiar ideas from a new perspective not only helps situate us in the broader history of ideas, but helps us see those familiar ideas better. My cynicism suggests that few Young Women today would show up to a regular lessons from a book like this, but I wonder if some enterprising teachers couldn’t draw on these lessons to foster the kind of discussion you suggest.

    Some of the later lessons are this dry, but many of them do get better. It always seems that there has to be an introductory lesson that tries to scare people away with its tedious definitions and promises of what is to come!

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — May 9, 2012 @ 8:52 am

  3. That’s funny, I was going to mention that the reason activities were so fluffy was in hopes of drawing girls to attendance, so I am right there with you in your cynicism. It would take a talented teacher to make it work. I wonder how the lessons were presented back then — if they had problems with attendance — or if, because of the nature of the time period, the sense of duty to attend and participate was stronger than distaste in the lesson material and presentation.

    Oh the scare tactic. Too true. College classes that would do that on the first day were the worst. But it did seem, however, like the ones that had the most frightening first days ended up being, if not the easiest, some of the most enjoyable.

    Comment by Lauren — May 9, 2012 @ 9:07 am

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