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Popular Science Monthly/Volume 20/April 1882/Editor's Table

< Popular Science Monthly‎ | Volume 20‎ | April 1882


AMONG all subjects now undergoing investigation there is, perhaps, none so important as that of the relation of science to morality; and hence every real contribution to it, however apparently slight, should be cordially welcomed. But it is not the easiest of subjects to deal with. The number of those qualified for the original elucidation of scientific ethics is not great; traditional opinions resist revision, and there is a wide-spread jealousy of science which resents its entrance into this sphere of thought as a needless and a dangerous intrusion. This often gives rise to a one-sidedness and an unfairness in controversy that are greatly to be regretted. The argument of Professor Goldwin Smith, which we republish, notwithstanding the ability with which it is written, is open to this objection. We give it in full as a first-rate representation of the "other side" (which we have been accused of neglecting), but it can not be suffered to pass without some emphatic protest.

In the first place, there seems a misleading element in Professor Smith's question-title. It would naturally be inferred that the paper is an inquiry into the validity and adequacy of a code of morals scientifically based; but this is not so. The writer does not ask, "Is science competent to elucidate the grounds and determine the principles of morality?" nor, "Is there such a thing as a valid science of ethics?" nor, even, "What is the relation of science to morality?" but be asks, "Has science yet found a new basis for morality?" The implication here is, that science has been hunting after something of questionable existence, and now claims to have found it, and offers it as a new foundation of morals. This conveys a wholly wrong impression of the nature of ethical science. Professor Smith might as well have asked, "Has science yet found a new basis for combustion?" The answer will, of course, depend upon what is meant by a "new basis"; but any answer only raises the further question, "What has science really done in regard to the phenomena of combustion?" To this we should have to say that combustion is a natural process of which men knew a great deal that was true and indispensable long before science appeared. What science did was simply to develop, step by step, the pre-existing common knowledge upon the subject into a more complete, accurate, and methodical form. So also with morality, or the phenomena of human conduct, in respect to its quality of right and wrong. Much was known about it that was true, practical, and essential to human society before science was ever dreamed of. But the early knowledge was imperfect, and required to be improved and made more clear and systematic by the establishment of principles, as has been the case with other forms of knowledge that have gradually grown into science. There was never any "new basis" in this process of growth. Practical morality has always been grounded in nature and in common experience—has always, to some extent, recognized the right and wrong of human conduct as determined by the known consequences of human actions. Scientific morality was never something to be "found" or done without; it was an inevitable stage in the development of thought and a part of the great modern movement of the study of the order of nature. The problem has not been to find a new thing to replace an old one, but to make the old one better. The problem of our time has come to be to determine the bearing of the later and more highly developed sciences upon the improvement or progress of ethics.

Professor Smith believes that owing to the great advances of modern thought there is a loosening of old bonds and a great peril to morality. He says: "Science, in combination with historical philosophy and literary criticism, is breaking up religious beliefs; and the break-up of religious beliefs is attended, as experience seems to show, with danger to popular morality." Twenty-five years ago Herbert Spencer foresaw the emergency that Professor Smith declares has now arisen, and, adopting what Professor Smith considers to be the "unspeakably momentous" principle of evolution for his guide, gave himself entirely to the mastering and reconstruction of those divisions of knowledge which lead up to ethical science, or "the establishment of rules of right conduct on a scientific basis." Having reached the subject with this profound and systematic preparation, he has given us a preliminary outline of his views of scientific morality in the small volume of the "Data of Ethics." Professor Smith's article is an attack—and, we regret to say, a most unscrupulous attack—upon this book.

Throughout his article Professor Smith represents Mr. Spencer as asserting, in his ethical volume, that the individual is to decide the right and wrong of an action by a direct balancing of the pleasures and pains involved, not to the community in general, but simply to himself. This is not so. Even had Mr. Spencer made no disavowal of this doctrine, the most cursory examination of his work would have shown that he takes no such position. But, when he dwells specifically upon the point, shows the fallacy of the idea, and explicitly repudiates it, the charge made against him is, to say the least, without excuse.

Spencer says, "It is quite possible to assert that happiness is the ultimate aim of action and at the same time to deny that it can be reached by making it the immediate aim." And, again: "The view for which I contend is, that morality, properly so called, the science of right conduct, has for its object to determine how and why certain modes of conduct are detrimental and certain other modes beneficial. These good and bad results can not be accidental but must be necessary consequences of the constitution of things; and I conceive it to be the business of moral science to deduce from the laws of life and the conditions of existence what kinds of action necessarily tend to produce happiness, and what kinds to produce unhappiness. Having done this, its deductions are to be recognized as laws of conduct, and are to be conformed to irrespective of a direct estimation of happiness or misery." The italics are our own, but they broadly and positively define Mr. Spencer's position to be the reverse of that charged upon him in this article. Yet, notwithstanding this unequivocal statement, it pleases Professor Smith to represent Spencer's moral doctrines as absolving men from all moral obligation, and as giving a virtual license to crime by making immediate pleasure and pain the test of right and wrong; and, that his accusation might be sufficiently offensive, he draws pictures of a voluptuary and of a murderer excusing their actions by the principles of the "Data of Ethics."

But Professor Smith goes still further, and labors to show that Mr. Spencer has laid down principles which he has not himself the courage to pursue to their applications, and which cut up, root and branch, all pretext of any morality whatever. He quotes largely and repeatedly, from a late book of Dr. Van Buren Denslow, certain brutal passages in which the idea of any morality, except the will of the strongest, is sneered at as ridiculous. It is denied in these quotations that there is any such thing as a moral law which is broken by lying or stealing, and it is declared that the rules which have arisen against these practices are only expressions of a predominant brute force in society, which maintains them as a means of imposing upon and plundering the weak and the defenseless.

And how does Professor Smith make out that this is the outcome of Spencer's doctrines? By representing that Dr. Van Buren Denslow is a "profound admirer" and a "disciple" of Herbert Spencer who is only more "fearless" than his "master," and carries out his doctrines to their legitimate conclusions. The "Saturday Review" reproduces the substance of Professor Smith's article, and gives special distinctness to this feature of it. It says: "The case will become clearer if we turn from Mr. Spencer himself to his American admirer and disciple, Dr. Van Buren Denslow, who, as sometimes happens with disciples, has carried out his master's principles more consistently to their logical results. In a work entitled 'Modern Thinkers,' and commended to the public by a preface of Mr. Robert Ingersoll's, the chief apostle of agnosticism in America, he argues that on scientific principles there is no such thing as a moral law irrespective of the will of the strongest."

Now, the whole force of this case depends upon the assertion of Goldwin Smith that Dr. Van Buren Denslow is a "disciple" of Herbert Spencer. But the assertion is not true in any sense or in any degree. On the contrary, Dr. Denslow is an open antagonist of Mr. Spencer. His essay on Spencer's philosophy, first published in the Chicago "Times," while speaking of the man in the usual terms of perfunctory compliment, as have also Goldwin Smith and the "Saturday Review," is adverse, carping, and depreciatory on every point that he considers. The criticism was regarded as so damaging that Spencer's friends were told they must reply to it or for ever hold their peace; and we were confidently assured that the last we should ever hear of Spencer's system was the thud of the clods that Denslow had thrown upon its coffin. When the revised essay appeared in "Modern Thinkers," there was added a sharp attack upon the "Data of Ethics," in which the whole argument was scouted. And yet this man is paraded as Spencer's "disciple" for the unworthy purpose of fastening upon him the odium of opinions in total contradiction to all that he has ever written. Mr. Spencer is accused of relaxing the restraints of morality; but he has simply sought to make its reasons clearer, its foundations deeper, and to give to its principles the authority of science. Is morality weakened by being better understood, or are its obligations loosened by changing blind rules into rational principles? It is the peculiarity, and we may add that it is the difficulty, of scientific ethics that it is the most stringent of all systems. Where else are we taught so emphatically that the penalties of misdoing follow necessarily in the very nature of things and can not be escaped? Scientific ethics teaches that moral laws can not be broken with impunity, because of the inexorable causal relation between actions and results. This is, indeed, its great power as a controlling system, and it needs but to be thoroughly realized to exert its full influence. That it can not be so realized is largely because the community is educated in a different system. While it is recognized in common experience that immorality has its natural retributions, and while society embodies this principle in its laws by annexing inexorable penalties to criminal actions, yet the moral system which claims the highest sanction is of quite another order. A morality is taught by religious authority in which sins are forgiven in the sense of a remission of the penalties of immoral actions. In the current moral code the relation of cause and effect in conduct, as an inevitable law, finds no place; nay, the doctrine that the consequences of evil-doing may be escaped is a permanent ground of appeal to the evil-doer.

Professor Smith says: "Can it be maintained that the belief in an All-seeing Eye—in infallible, inflexible, and all-powerful justice, in a sure reward for well-doing and a sure retribution for evil-doing—has been without influence on the conduct of the mass of man-kind?" But has the belief in an All-seeing Eye been associated in the past, or is it now associated, with "infallible, inflexible justice"? Are we not rather taught that the All-beholding has a plan by which the "vilest sinner" maybe saved from the consequences of immoral conduct? Do our ten thousand churches teach this view, or do they not? In what system is righteousness accounted as but "filthy rags"? Is it agnostics, or theists, who for centuries have trafficked in absolution? Who furnishes the weekly passports of murderers from the gallows to glory? Stupendous and immortal penalties have been threatened against wrong actions, and then the evasion of these penalties has been conveniently provided for. Is not this easy system of morals, which arranges for the defeat of justice, more open to the charge of laxity than a scientific system in which penalties are both proportioned to transgressions and follow them with a salutary certainty?



The present number closes the twentieth volume of "The Popular Science Monthly." The contents of these volumes are esteemed so valuable for reference that there have been many applications for a full index. This is now in preparation, and will shortly be issued in a separate form.