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Popular Science Monthly/Volume 17/July 1880/A Vindication of Scientific Ethics

< Popular Science Monthly‎ | Volume 17‎ | July 1880

A VINDICATION OF SCIENTIFIC ETHICS.[1]
By WILLIAM D. LE SUEUR, B. A.

MR. SPENCER, in his "Data of Ethics," has not written a popular treatise on morals, nor has he appealed to any lower tribunal than the highest intelligence and the maturest judgment of his generation. The more I think of his book, the more it seems to me a sign that shall be spoken against, but a sign, at the same time, in which, or by which, great victories will be won for the human race. I am far from saying that it tells us everything we might wish to know in regard to the springs of conduct, or the special sources of moral energy; but I contend that it tells us much that is of supreme importance, and that anything we may require to add to the statements it contains will not be found in conflict with the writer's main positions.

Mr. Spencer, it must be understood, undertakes to trace for us the evolution of morality as an objective process. Morality, like everything else, must have a history. What is that history? This is the question to which Mr. Spencer addresses himself. If we can trace the development of morality in the past, we shall be better able to understand its characteristics in the present, and its probable course in the future. Mr. Spencer says truly that morality is a certain aspect of conduct in general; it is, as he holds, developed conduct; and, in order that we may understand what conduct is, he asks us to examine it in its earliest manifestations, and to follow it through the ages, as it gains in definiteness, in complexity, in range, and in the importance of its reactions upon consciousness. This is a view, the legitimacy of which it seems impossible to dispute. When our attention is arrested by any structure in nature, we very properly ask: "How has it come to be what it is? Did it spring into existence at once, in the form under which we behold it now, or was it shaped by slow degrees? If the latter, what were the stages through which it successively passed?" Do not tell us that the same questions can not profitably be asked in regard to morality until the questions have been fairly put and answered according to the best obtainable knowledge.

The great objection hitherto made to the scientific study of history, or of any moral subject, has been that all calculations based upon general laws of growth or progress are liable at any moment to be thrown into confusion by the appearance upon the scene of forces or of influences of a wholly exceptional character. Thus the birth of some man of transcendent abilities may alter, it is said, the whole course of a nation's history. The answer to this objection is twofold: first, that the great man or hero is himself a product of antecedent conditions, and is born into a society more or less fitted to feel and submit to his influence; secondly, that the effects wrought by exceptional characters are but exceptional, and that the great stream of human development follows its course but little affected by accidents here or there. Mr. Spencer, therefore, and those who think with him, may, without in the least compromising their system, make large admissions as to the influence of certain special agencies. They do not necessarily blind themselves to the course of history in the ordinary sense of the word, because they make a special study of the development of conduct. The line of observation and argument pursued in the "Data of Ethics" is hopelessly antagonistic only to that form of supernaturalism which disbelieves totally in evolution, preferring to regard human history as the theatre of forces having no relation to preceding conditions, and acting consequently as simple disturbers of the natural equilibrium of society. The adherents of this school must only fight the development theory as best they may. The battle is engaged, however, along the whole line, and, to defeat evolution, you must defeat it not in ethics only, but in biology and physics as well. As long as the two latter divisions hold their ground, be sure that any victory over the first can be but momentary.

It is obvious that the method pursued by Mr. Spencer must give rise to many misapprehensions. The first thought that suggests itself to even an attentive and earnest reader is, that he has left out of sight, and is prevented by his principles from doing justice to, a number of very important considerations. Our individual consciousness tells us nothing of the dependence of present modes of conduct upon past; but it tells us much of the special motives which influence us from moment to moment. So a wave of the sea, if we could imagine it conscious, might know much of the pressure of adjacent waves and its own adjustments of form in consequence of that pressure, but might know nothing of ocean-currents or the attraction of sun and moon. We feel the influence of some potent personality, but think little of the causes that have fitted us to do so; yet, to be able to trace and understand those causes, would give us a far more comprehensive theory of our moral nature than to be able to analyze and measure with the utmost accuracy the special personal influence by which we are so strongly affected. In a word, what may be called the accidents of our life fill an altogether larger space in consciousness than the general laws, in virtue of which we are substantially what we are. Mr. Spencer has undertaken to trace those general laws, leaving accidents out of sight as much as possible; and, naturally, consciousness protests. If, however, we only call to mind, and impress upon ourselves, what it is that Mr. Spencer attempts, we shall recall many of our criticisms, and find it better to listen attentively to what he has to say.

Again, with every action there goes a certain accompaniment of individual feeling. We have a sense of its voluntariness, and a consequent sense of responsibility. To us, each action stands and is seen in relation to the sum of our own individual actions, and the proportion when it bears to that sum is very different from the proportion it bears to the whole sum of action in general. It is easy, therefore, to conceive how different the subjective view of action must be from the objective, and how far a history of action such as Mr. Spencer undertakes to write must be from such an account as we might gather from the dicta of consciousness. But, if our individual lives are but links in one great chain of life, which we have learned in these latter days to extend to the lowest forms of the animate creation, can the individual consciousness, however bright and penetrating we may suppose it, be trusted in its affirmations regarding the genesis of action and the development of moral feeling? What can mere consciousness—apart from knowledge derived from external sources—tell us of our bodily constitution and development? It is occupied almost solely with sensations of pleasure and pain; it knows what are proximate causes of one or the other; but what the laws are that rule the human organization it is wholly ignorant. We have absolutely no consciousness of the nature of digestion or respiration; we only know in a rough way what creates disturbances in one region or the other, and what promotes comfort. Is it likely that we shall know any better from a simple questioning of our individual consciousness how our actions are produced, or what is their essential character and true significance? It seems to me that the feelings accompanying moral action are no safer guides to a true understanding of that action than the feelings accompanying digestion are to a true understanding of digestion. The objective method of study, as applied to human conduct, has this great advantage, that, while looking at things from the outside, and grasping the enchainement of cause and effect through all past time, it can also take account of the direct revelations of consciousness, so far as these seem to furnish any safe guidance. Mr. Spencer, it may be presumed, knows something personally of the inner life of humanity. He has written this treatise in full view of all that his personal experience has taught him of the motives by which men are swayed, and we must suppose that, in his mind at least, there is no contradiction between his philosophical theories and the teachings of life or the affirmations of consciousness. It is well to bear in mind that philosophers after all are men first and philosophers only afterward.

The adverse criticisms that have been offered upon Mr. Spencer's last work may be said to resolve themselves into two leading objections: first, that he does away with the essential distinction between right and wrong; and, second, that, for regulative purposes, his system is wholly unadapted to human wants. I propose to consider these points separately.

Let us, in the first place, try to understand clearly what Mr. Spencer's view is. Looking at conduct objectively he sees, as we advance from lower to higher forms in nature, an ever-increasing and improving adaptation, first to the preservation of individual life, and next to the preservation of the life of progeny. The lowest creatures in the animal kingdom possess little or no power of self-protection, and are therefore, broadly speaking, wholly at the mercy of their environment. With greater complexity of structure comes greater power of providing for wants and averting dangers; while the interests of the progeny become more and more a care to the parent animals. The time comes, in process of evolution, when the individual acquires the power of choice between opposite courses of action. One sense may prompt to a certain line of action, and another to a different one. Smell, for example, may attract to food, but sight may reveal an enemy of superior power; or certain mental images, which the sight of offered food, or of the apparatus in which it is placed, calls up, may inspire caution and compel abstinence. Mr. Spencer here shows that the interest of the individual is generally concerned in obeying the higher or more lately-developed sense, instinct; or faculty, in preference to the simpler and more primitive impulse; and this distinction between actions inspired by more far-reaching and those inspired by less far-reaching perceptions he considers as homologous to the distinction which emerges in the human region—and which, as civilization advances, becomes ever more pronounced—between right and wrong. In the one case the individual weighs present gratification against his permanent interests as an individual; in the second he weighs his interests as an individual against those of the social body in which he is included. In either case he does well if he yield to the larger thought—that which summons to self-control, and which promises a continuance and enlargement of his activities. From this point of view the conduct which places a man in harmony with society is simply an extension, a further development, of the conduct which places him in harmony with himself, by subordinating his momentary desires to his permanent interests. In the one case he says: "I have a larger life to consider than that of this moment; I have all my past, the memory of which I would not wish to extinguish; I have all my future, which I am not prepared to sacrifice." In the latter he says: "I have a larger life to consider than that which is made up of my personal pains and pleasures; I have inherited sympathies and acquired attachments; the good will of my fellow-man is much to me, and I feel that, apart from the support and assistance that they render me and apart from the activities I exercise as a member of society, I should be a miserably contracted creature. Shall I therefore in the interests of my narrower self make war upon my larger and better self by pursuing anti-social courses of action?" The argument in both cases is the same; the only difference is that in one case length of life is at stake, and in the other breadth of life; but all higher action, it may be assumed as a principle, tends to life. "Do this and ye shall live"; in these words lies all that the evolution philosophy has to teach on the subject of morals; for they summon to right action, and they point to the reward—Life.

I fail to see that under this mode of treatment the distinction between right and wrong is in danger of disappearing. Those possibly who have considered it a pious thing not to know why right is right or why wrong is wrong may resent being told that a rationale of the antagonism between the two has been discovered. They may insist that they have hitherto done right and avoided wrong from motives far transcending in elevation any regard for perpetuation or improvement of life, their own or others'; and it would be ungracious, doubtless, to contradict them. But, for all that, as a motive to sway the mass of mankind, the thought that right action tends to life and higher life, that wrong action tends to lower life and ultimately to extinction of life, should scarcely, one would think, be a sterile or inoperative one. Much would depend, no doubt, upon the mode in which the thought was presented by those who have it in their power to influence public opinion. That the minds of a large portion of the community have been so poisoned by the drugs of a false theology as to be incapable of responding to any teaching based on the pure laws of nature there is only too much reason to believe; but I should refuse to admit as valid against the evolutionist system of morals any argument drawn from their present condition or requirements.

The objections made to Mr. Spencer's explanation of the difference between right and wrong are very similar to those made to the Darwinian theory of the descent of man. In the dispute which raged more violently some years ago than it does now in reference to this question, an angelic character pronounced himself "on the side of the angels," as was but natural. It was thought utterly derogatory to man's dignity to suppose that his ancestry could run back into the brute creation; and so to-day it seems to threaten the stability of all moral distinctions to connect moral actions, by any process of filiation, with actions which, as we understand morality, present no moral character whatever. But just as no theory of man's origin can make him other than he actually is to-day, so no theory of the origin of morality can affect the fact that in the conscience of the modern civilized man there is a great gulf fixed between right and wrong. But, some will say, upon the evolution theory the highest morality is but self-seeking. Be it so, but if myself embraces other selves, if my personality has globed itself out till it includes a large portion of humanity, I can afford to be self-seeking without any falling away from nobility or disinterestedness. When Jesus said, "He that saveth his life shall lose it, and he that loseth his life shall save it," he meant, as we have always understood, that a careful study and pursuit of narrow personal interests would involve the sacrifice of wider and nobler interests; and that, on the other hand, by a surrender of our lower selves, we could rise to higher life. From whichever point we view it, he bids us aim at life, and so far he might be accused of prompting to self-seeking; but when we once see how life may be understood, and what it may be made to include, we perceive how pointless is the objection. It is indeed difficult to imagine how any person, except one who had been restrained from evil simply by superstitious fears, could feel himself less bound to do right and avoid wrong because he had been shown that right actions to-day are the lineal descendants of all those actions, conscious and unconscious, by which life has been preserved, and improved in the past, and that wrong actions claim their paternity in whatever in the past has tended to disintegration, degradation, and death. Who would not rather be on the side of the forces of life, in harmony with and aiding the upward movement of nature, than helping to tear down the good work that the toiling ages have wrought?

Can such a system, however, possess any binding force? Here we find ourselves face to face with the question, whether the evolutionist theory of morals is really adapted to take the place of those regulative systems which Mr. Spencer represents as ready to pass away. One thing is certain: it does not act upon the mind in the same way as systems which appeal to supernatural terrors and hold out a prospect of supernatural rewards. It will not awaken as powerful emotions as theology has in the past awakened; for theology has connected with theologically-right action rewards wholly incommensurate with the merit of such action, and with theologically-wrong action punishments equally incommensurate with its demerit; while the natural theory of morals can only point to the natural results of actions and promote, as best it can, a disposition to respect natural laws. No doubt this is tame work after what we have been accustomed to; but everything grows tame, in a sense, as civilization advances. We no longer torture criminals, nor feast our piety with autos-da-fe. We no longer thrash knowledge into school-children; and we are so dead to the necessity of cultivating national spirit that we forbid prize-fighting. Upon every hand, the drastic methods of the past are discredited, for we find, in point of fact, that gentler methods are better. Sangrado no longer depletes our veins of the blood needed for carrying on the processes of life; we keep our blood and let Nature have her way as much as possible. No doubt there is further progress to be made in the same direction; and who shall say that a system of rational rewards and punishments in this life, such as the evolution philosophy unfolds, may not be found more efficacious than the monstrous rewards and punishments of the supernatural sphere. Such a system may not inspire death-bed terrors, but neither will it provoke life-long jeerings; and, if once understood theoretically, its gentle—though not always gentle—pressure would rarely be absent from consciousness. The villain, it may be said, will think little of sacrificing his higher social to his lower personal self; and, in his case, therefore, the system would be inoperative. Precisely, and how does Monsieur the villain comport himself now? Does he occupy a front seat at church (something here whispers that sometimes he does, but that is another kind of villain, and there is no use in mixing up matters), and send his children to Sunday-school, and show in every way the great influence which theological instruction has had upon his mind? Or we may ask whether, in the "ages of faith," the villain was an unknown character? History tells us that, when supernatural hopes and fears—above all fears, which are more potent than hopes—were at their highest, precisely then was there most of violence and crime. And, when natural morality finally succeeds to supernatural, it is safe to predict that it will find some heavy arrears of work on hand.

We need not trouble ourselves, then, with considering how the lowest types of humanity will act under the supposed régime; what we are concerned with is the effect likely to be produced upon the mass of society. As regards men in general, will natural morality exert a sufficient regulative force? To this question I should be inclined to answer unhesitatingly yes, provided only proper means be taken to bring the new system home to people's understandings. No one will pretend that the theology now in possession exerts all the regulative influence that could be desired. For one thing, it can not make itself believed by large multitudes; and, in the second place, very many of those who do believe it, or who profess to do so, are far from leading edifying lives. Every leading religious denomination has numerous representatives in our jails and penitentiaries, as official documents show; while, if we turn to the records of the insolvency courts, we shall find ample evidence that men can be at once zealous supporters of a church and sadly inexact—to say the least—in money matters. Why do I mention these things? Surely not to cause any one pain, but simply to show how the question stands. Some people argue as if we had now a perfect regulative system, which the new opinions are in danger of disturbing. But no; we have a very imperfect regulative system, upon which it is hoped a great improvement may be made. Theologians have, for some time past, been sensible of the shortcomings of the old teaching, for they have been trying to graft upon it the idea of the naturalness of the rewards and punishments to be meted out to right-and wrong-doers respectively. We hear now that sinners will not be overtaken by any external penalties, but will be left to the simple and inevitable consequences of their own misconduct. They would not be happy, we are told, in heaven, because their characters are not adapted to that abode of bliss; and, upon the whole, therefore, they are better off on the other side of the great gulf. How all this can be reconciled with the teaching of the Bible, where hell is represented, not as prepared by the sinner for himself, but as prepared by God for the devil and his angels, and heaven, in like manner, as something specially prepared for the righteous, who there enjoy a felicity with which the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared, it is not for me to say. One thing is clear, however, and that is, that such glosses as these are recognitions of and concessions to the principle of development. Heaven, according to this hypothesis, is the developed life of righteousness, and hell the developed life of moral rebellion; but, though theology may dally with this view, it can never do more than dally with it; it can never make it its own, seeing that the text of the Bible so plainly declares the cataclysmal nature of the change which takes place at death. But, if theology has to dally with development, how much better founded, and how much better adapted for acting upon men's minds, must a system be which, from first to last, assumes development, and which is not checked in its exposition and application of natural laws by any stereotyped creed or text?

In the new system we really have the reconciliation of self-interest and duty, for we see self-interest merging into duty, and we see duty bringing the highest rewards that self-interest could desire. To say that this system will be powerless for regulative purposes is to take a thoroughly unnatural view of human nature. It is to assume some tendency in man to evil, over and above the promptings of the self-protective instinct. Now, this surplusage of evil in human nature I, for one, strenuously deny. Every man comes into the world with a problem to solve, upon the solution of which his whole course in life depends; and that problem is the due balancing of higher and lower instincts in the interest of higher life. To suppress the lower at the bidding of the higher would, as Mr. Spencer shows, be to suppress life itself. This would be casting aside the problem, not solving it. What is important to remember is, that in the lower there is nothing essentially bad, and that the conflict between lower and higher goes on in the region of purely personal desires before it is carried into the region of social relations. An enlightened interpretation of self-interest in regard to personal matters is thus a preparation for enlightened and worthy action in the social region. For example, the man who has strenuously controlled appetite in the interest of health, and who has realized the satisfaction and happiness that come of doing so, will be better fitted to control selfish, in the interest of social, impulses than one who had never learned to control appetite at all. He comes to this higher test fortified by self-conquest, and with an increased sense of the dignity and worth of life—prepared, moreover, to believe that the path of true happiness is an ascending one. Let these truths—for they are truths—be believed and taught; let men see the path along which their moral development has lain in the past, and along which it must lie in the future, and we shall have little reason to regret the lures and terrors of the old theology. Either this, or there is some radical flaw in the constitution of things, by reason of which they tend to corruption—a belief which some may hold on theological grounds, but which I venture to say would never commend itself to any unbiased intelligence, irreconcilable, as it is, with the actual existence of good in human nature and human institutions.

The question, however, may finally be asked whether a naturalistic system of morals will ever excite the enthusiasm, ever create the same intense longing after purity of heart, that has been produced under the influence of the Christian creed. Will it ever show us the "quick eyed sanctity" which Dr. Newman mentions as a peculiar fruit of the Spirit? Will it ever call forth such a pleading for fuller and higher spiritual life as we find in Charles Wesley's hymn:

"I want a principle within

Of jealous, godly fear,
A sensibility to sin,
A pain to feel it near.

"I want the first approach to feel
Of pride or fond desire,
To catch the wandering of my will,
And quench the kindling fire.

"Quick as the apple of an eye,
God, my conscience make!
Awake my soul when sin is nigh,

And keep it still awake."

We have in these verses the expression of a passionate desire for conformity to a divine ideal, and the question is, whether we can expect any approach to the same earnestness in pursuit of such excellence or elevation of character as the evolution philosophy indicates as attainable. If allowance be made for the solemnity imparted to the above utterance by the momentous character of Christian beliefs, I see no reason why the moral enthusiasm of humanity should not flow in as full tide through the new channel as through the old. After all, there are but few in every generation who are fired by an intense desire for the highest holiness; and some, it must be remembered, who appear to have very lofty spiritual ambitions, give occasion for the remark that they might better have aimed at humbler achievements. We may, therefore, reasonably hope that, when once it is understood where the hopes of humanity lie, there will be no falling off, to say the least, in the number of those who will strive after nothing short of the highest ideal their minds are capable of conceiving.

In conclusion, let us see what answer can be given to certain specific objections that have been made by able writers to Mr. Spencer's theories on this subject. "The Bystander" thinks that Mr. Spencer's indignation "against Jingoes and their political burglaries; against Fifeshire militiamen who, so long as they are sent to war, are ready to fight on either side; against Christian bishops who lend their sanction to invasion of Afghanistan," is, upon his own principles, unscientific; inasmuch as all these might retort that their actions were the natural product of their particular stage of development. To this I reply that Mr. Spencer's indignation is the measure of his own moral development, and signifies his instinctive recoil from courses of conduct which show the moral sense in a very backward state. Even when we understand how bad actions have come to be performed, and are prepared to make allowances for the perpetrators, we shrink from and denounce them none the less. We surely should allow the philosophers some common human privileges. As to the supposed answer of the burglarious Jingo, the unprejudiced militiaman, and the filibustering bishop, it is in substance, though not in form, the answer commonly made to moral remonstrance by people who can not understand the grounds of the remonstrance. It matters not whether you come in the name of a scientific morality or of a traditional theology, the man who "will have none of your reproofs" replies promptly, "I see no harm in it." Talk to him of God: he has, comme tout le monde, one of his own, who permits that wherein be indulges; and you will have much work to persuade him that your God is of higher authority than his. It will be as tough a task as explaining to him a chapter of "The Data of Ethics."

Professor Calderwood, writing in the January number of the "Contemporary Review," raises the objection that, whereas it is admitted by Mr. Spencer that the words good and bad are most emphatically applied to those deeds by which men affect one another, this ought not to be so, upon Mr. Spencer's own principles: on the contrary, "no ethical judgments should be so direct, unhesitating, or emphatic as those which pronounce upon the actions contributing to personal satisfaction." The answer to this is simple enough. The historical antecedents or the remote types of moral actions are not themselves necessarily moral. Purposive action in the lower animals is not moral, though it may be said to be a preparation for morality. We pronounce our most emphatic judgments upon those acts by which men affect one another, because in them we see most conspicuously the conflict of higher and lower impulses, and because members of society must have an especial interest in what men do as members of society. Every right action done adds to the security and happiness of life, every wrong action implies some diminution of happiness, and seems to threaten the general welfare. The whole of morality is based upon the fact that "there is a lower and a higher"; and wherever the two come plainly into conflict our feelings are more or less strongly engaged. Thus, if we see a man struggling with intemperance and enduring keen suffering in the attempt to conquer the vice, we commend him—even though he may have no wife and children to excite our interest as much as if we saw him performing, at great cost to himself, an act of social justice. And why? Because we feel so deeply that the struggle is one in the interest of higher, fuller life and happiness.

Professor Calderwood appears to think that he raises a serious difficulty when he asks, "How comes it to pass that actions most commonly and most emphatically commended are actions which most need to be enforced?" I observe that a recent critic[2] of Professor Calderwood's work on "The Relations of Mind and Brain," while giving the author credit for general intelligence, says that upon occasions he is positively "obtuse." I should certainly be inclined to say that he was in one of his "obtuse" moods when he put the above question. We commend certain actions more than others because the motives that prompt them are higher, because they imply a more distinct step in moral evolution, because the interest of the community is more concerned in their performance. Now, the Professor wants to know why such actions "most need to be enforced." The first thing to say in answer is that such actions are not commonly "enforced" at all. The acts we praise most highly are acts of patriotism, of eminent public spirit, of devotion to duty under trying circumstances. The acts we "enforce" are acts which, when done, we do not so highly praise, such as simple fulfillment of contract, and the performance of ordinary civic duties. It is possible, however, that Professor Calderwood, when he uses the word "enforced," does not mean legal enforcement, but merely the pressure of public opinion. His question would then be in substance, How is it that the actions which we most commend are those which most need to be commended? But he might as well ask how it is that the actions we most condemn are those which most need to be condemned; why the actions we laugh at are those that especially call for ridicule; and so on, through a whole series of ineptitudes. Why. certain actions are especially praised I have explained above, and it is manifest, from the nature of the actions referred to, that this social approval must powerfully reënforce the motives which prompt to such actions, but which, without social support, might not have vigor enough to fully assert themselves against countervailing motives. It is impossible, in fact, to understand why the praise is given without understanding at the same time why it is needed.

Again, Professor Calderwood can not understand how, on utilitarian principles, which he regards Mr. Spencer as adopting, intention should make so much difference in actions. "Two men might lose their lives by the hands of two of their fellows, and we should call the one a case of murder and the other a case of accidental death." Why—if actions are to be judged solely by their consequences? This is almost too puerile; but, since a Professor of Moral Philosophy at Edinburgh has raised the question, let me simply remark that, while the act of carelessness has no ulterior consequences, the act of felony has—or will have if left unpunished—the direst consequences to society. Further, in so far as an act of carelessness is felt to menace society as being likely to lead, if unchecked, to further carelessness, we do view the matter seriously, and visit it both with punishment and reprobation. The shipmaster who, through carelessness, loses his ship, has his certificate canceled or suspended. The engine-driver or conductor, through whose carelessness life is sacrificed, finds himself a criminal in the eye of the law. There is this difference, however, between the worst act of carelessness and an act of malignity, that, in the first case, the doer of the act generally suffers more or less in its consequences, and is therefore in a measure punished already; while the willful offender does not feel the wrong he has done, and consequently throws upon society the whole burden of his punishment.

Dr. McCosh, in the "Princeton Review" (November, 1879), touches, perhaps, a weak point in Mr. Spencer's book when he quotes from the chapter on "Absolute and Relative Ethics" the statement that "conduct which has any concomitant of pain, or any painful consequence, is partially wrong." I think we may fairly question Mr. Spencer's right to take the word "wrong" and divorce it so violently from its universally understood meaning as he does in this passage. If he had said that no action can be a perfect action "which has any concomitant of pain or any painful consequence," the statement might have passed with the explanation he gives. But to speak of an action which is the very best that can be done under given circumstances as "partially wrong," is to strain language unduly. How can it be partially wrong—to cite Dr. McCosh's examples—to submit to an amputation in order to preserve life, or to conquer a vice by painful effort?

Dr. McCosh is probably right, also, in holding that the teaching of the chapter on "Absolute and Relative Ethics" is of somewhat questionable tendency, as leaving altogether too much room for what he calls "the crooked casuistry of the heart." Mr. Spencer's essential meaning I hold to be right; but I hardly think that, considering the novelty of his views, he has been sufficiently guarded in his use of language. He might have said, without in any way betraying his fundamental principles: "The distinction between right and wrong is one that emerges in the region of human, and particularly of social, life; though right and wrong actions, considered as respectively making for or against the preservation and improvement of life, have their analogues in regions lower than the human. A perfect action is one all the consequences and relations of which are satisfactory, as tending to happiness or life; and, therefore, no action which has any accompaniment of pain—though the motive of the doer may be of the highest—can be a perfect action. The motive is pure and good, but it has a setting of painful circumstances, and the action as a whole belongs to an imperfect system of life. In practical life we have often to choose between evils, but he who does not choose for the best, when he sees it, violates the highest law of existence." The gist of Mr. Spencer's teaching, in so far as it assumes a moral character, might, I think, be summed up in these words. Taking the book as a whole, and looking, as we are bound to do, at its inner sense, it must, I think, be acknowledged that, while it does not deal with motives or the subjective aspect of morality, the view which it presents of the connections of moral action, the width of its survey over nature, the conclusive manner in which it demonstrates the healthfulness of what is right and the Tightness of what is healthful, should tend to confirm in right determinations even those who miss from it what they deem of most importance. To those, on the other hand, who have long been wistfully looking for an exposition of the natural laws and sanctions of morality, it will be a word spoken with power, and in many ways a help toward higher life. There is but little scandal, after all, if we come to think of it, in supposing that action which we call moral may be a developed form of action to which the name can not be applied; but there is great edification in the thought, now brought home to our understandings, that, by every truly moral act, we help to build up and improve the life of the world and make ourselves coworkers with the principle of life everywhere.

 

  1. This able article first appeared in "The Canadian Monthly," under the title of "Mr. Spencer and His Critics."
  2. London "Spectator," March 6, 1880.