Popular Science Monthly/Volume 24/December 1883/The Morality of Happiness I




IT is known to all who watch the signs of the times—obvious, indeed, to them, and known to many who are less observant—that those moral restraints which claim to be of sacred origin are no longer accepted by a large and increasing number of persons. I have no wish to inquire here whether those restraints should be regarded as of divine origin or not. I note only the fact that by many they are not so regarded. I am not concerned to ask whether it is well or ill that their authority should be rejected, and their controlling influence be diminishing or disappearing among many; it suffices, so far as my present purpose is concerned, that the fact is so. The question then presents itself, Does any rule of conduct promise to have power now or soon among those who have rejected the regulative system formerly prevalent? We need not consider whether such a rule of conduct, necessarily secular in origin, is in itself better or worse than a rule based on commandments regarded as divine. All we have at present to ask is whether such a regulative system is likely to replace the older one with those over whom that older law no longer has influence.

Here at the outset we find that those who hold extreme views on either side of the questions I have left untouched agree in one view which is, I think, erroneous. On the one hand, those who maintain the divine character of the current creed insist, not only that it is sufficient for all, but that, in the nature of things, no other guide is possible. On the other hand, those who reject the authority of that creed most energetically, assert as positively that no new regulative system, no new controlling agency, is necessary. As Mr. Herbert Spencer has well put it, "both contemplate a vacuum, which one wishes and the other fears." But those who take wiser and more moderate views, who, in the first place, recognize facts as they are, and, in the next, are ready to subordinate their own ideas of what is necessary or best for the ideal man to the necessities of man as he really is, perceive that for the many who no longer value a regulative system which, so far as they are concerned, is decaying, if not dead, another regulative system is essential. Again, to use the words of the great philosopher whose teachings are to be our chief guide in this series of papers, "Few things can happen more disastrous than the decay and death of a regulative system no longer fit" (for those we are considering), "before another and fitter regulative system has grown up to replace it."

My purpose in these papers is to show how rules of conduct may be established on a scientific basis for those who regard the so-called religious basis as unsound.[1] I shall follow chiefly the teachings of one who has inculcated in their best and purest form the scientific doctrines of morality, and may be regarded as head, if not founder, of that school of philosophy which, on purely scientific grounds, sets happiness as the test of duty the measure of moral obligation. To Mr. Herbert Spencer we owe, I take it, the fullest and clearest answer to the melancholy question, "Is Life Worth Living?" whether asked whiningly, as in the feeble lamentations of such folk as Mr. Mallock, or gloomily and sternly, as in the Promethean groans of Carlyle. The doctrine that happiness is to be sought for one's self (but as a duty to others as well as to self), that the happiness of others is to be sought as a duty (to one's self as well as to them) happiness as a means, happiness as the chief end such has been the outcome of the much-maligned philosophy of Mr. Herbert Spencer, such has been the lesson resulting from his pursuance of what he himself describes as his "ultimate purpose, lying behind all proximate purposes," that of "finding for the principles of right and wrong, in conduct at large, a scientific basis."

If I can help to bring this noble and beautiful doctrine for noble and beautiful even those must admit it to be who deny its truth before the many who regard Herbert Spencer's teachings with fear and trembling, not knowing what they are, I shall be content. But I would advise all, who have time, to read the words of the master himself. Apart from the great doctrines which they convey, they are delightful reading, clear and simple in language, graceful and dignified in tone, almost as worthy to be studied as examples of force and clearness in exposition as for that which nevertheless constitutes their real value the pure and beautiful moral doctrines which they offer to those over whom current creeds have lost their influence.

Let me hope that none will be deterred from following this study, by the inviting aspect of the moral rules advanced by the great modern teacher even as in past times men were anxious, or even angry, when another teacher showed more consideration for human weaknesses than had seemed right to the men of older times. I will not ask here whether doctrines of repellent aspect are likely to be more desirable than those which are more benignantly advanced. It suffices that with many the former now exert no influence, whether they should do so or not. So that, as far as these (for whom I am chiefly writing) are concerned, all must admit the truth of what Mr. Spencer says respecting the benefits to be derived from presenting moral rule under that attractive aspect which it has when undisturbed by superstition and asceticism. To close these introductory remarks by a quotation from the charming pages of his "Data of Ethics": "If a father, sternly enforcing numerous commands, some needful and some needless, adds to his severe control a behavior wholly unsympathetic if his children have to take their pleasures by stealth, or, when timidly looking up from their play, ever meet a cold glance, or more frequently a frown, his government will inevitably be disliked, if not hated; and the aim will be to evade it as much as possible. Contrariwise, a father who, equally firm in maintaining restraints needful for the well-being of his children, or the well-being of other persons, not only avoids needless restraints, but, giving his sanction to all legitimate gratifications, and providing the means for them, looks on at their gambols with an approving smile, can scarcely fail to gain an influence which, no less efficient for the time being, will also be permanently efficient. The controls of such two fathers symbolize the controls of morality as it is and morality as it should be."


Morality relates to those parts of our conduct of which it can be said that they are right or wrong. Under the general subject conduct, then, morality is included as a part. On regarding the word "duty" as implying all that we ought to do and all that we ought to avoid, we may say that duty is a part of conduct. All actions which are not purposeless may be regarded as included under the word "conduct," as well as some which, though purposeless at the time, result from actions originally done with purpose until a fixed habit had been acquired. But only those actions which we consider good or bad are referred to when we speak of duty; and the principles of what we call morality relate only to these.

Here, however, we have already recognized a connection between duty and conduct generally, which should show all who are familiar with scientific methods that morality can not properly be discussed in its scientific aspect without discussing conduct at large. Every student of science knows that, rightly to consider a part, he must consider the whole to which it belongs. In every department of science this general law holds, though it is not always recognized. No scientific subject has ever been properly dealt with until it has been considered in its relations to its surroundings as well as separately. Even in matters not usually considered from a scientific stand-point the same law holds. To go no further than our own pages, the writer who is dealing with the question "How to get strong?" would not consider how the arms are to be strengthened without duly considering that the arms are part of the body, their exercise related to the exercise of other portions, their development associated with the development of other limbs, with the action of other parts of the body, with the regimen proper for the whole frame.

It may not by many be regarded as a fault of most systems of morality that they overlook the necessary connection between conduct in general and conduct as guided by moral considerations. For many are content to regard moral laws as existing apart from any of the results of experience whether derived from individual conduct, the conduct of men generally, or conduct as seen among creatures of all orders. With many, morality is looked upon as a whole the whole duty of man not as a part of conduct. They even consider that moral obligations must be weakened when their dependence on conduct in general is insisted upon. Moral rules, with them, are right in themselves and of necessity and whether inculcated by extra-human authority, or enjoined by law, or perceived intuitively, are open neither to inquiry nor objection. Clearly if this were so, morality would not be a fitting subject for the scientific method. Its rules would be determinable apart from the discussion of evidence based on experience, whether observational or experimental. I do not here inquire whether this view is right or wrong. Later on it will fall into my plan to do so. At present I only note that we are considering our subject from the stand-point of those who desire to view morality in its scientific aspect. For them it is essential that, as conduct in general includes conduct depending on duty, the discussion of questions of duty can not be complete or satisfactory unless it is conducted with due reference to the whole of which this subject forms a part.

If any doubt could exist in the mind of the student on this point, it should be removed when he notes that it is impossible to draw any sharply defined line between duty and the rest of conduct not depending on considerations of duty. Not only are those actions which under particular circumstances seem absolutely indifferent found under other circumstances to be right or wrong and not indifferent, not only do different persons form different ideas as to what part of conduct is indifferent or otherwise, but one and the same person in different parts of his life finds that he draws different distinctions between conduct in general and conduct to be guided by moral considerations. In the evolution of conduct in a nation, in a town, in a family, or in the individual man, the line separating conduct regarded as indifferent from conduct regarded as right or wrong is ever varying in position sometimes tending to include among actions indifferent those which had been judged bad or good, oftener tending to show right or wrong in conduct which had been judged indifferent.

If moral laws, then, are to be established on a scientific basis, it is essential that conduct at large should be carefully considered; and not conduct only as it is seen in man, but as it is seen in animals of every grade. Thus and thus only can the evolution of conduct be rightly studied; by the study of the evolution of conduct only can the scientific distinction between right and wrong be recognized; from and out of this distinction only can moral laws be established for those with whom the authoritative enunciation of such laws has no longer the weight it once had, those who find no other inherent force in moral statutes than they derive as resulting from experience, and who reject as unreasonable all belief in the intuitive recognition of laws of morality.

We proceed, then, to consider the evolution of conduct in the various types of animal life, from the lowest upward to man.—Knowledge.

  1. I say "so-called," referring rather to the word "religious" than to any question concerning the divine origin of current creeds. Strictly speaking, the word religious may be as correctly applied to moral rules based on scientific considerations as to those formulated in company with any of the diverse creeds prevailing among men.
  2. I remind the reader that in these papers, as stated in the introductory one, I am following the lines along which Mr. Herbert Spencer has already traced the general doctrine of the morality of happiness. Where his reasoning seems open to objection or too recondite to be quite readily followed, I shall indicate such objections, and my own opinion respecting them, or endeavor to remove such difficulties; but the moral doctrine I am here dealing with is that of which he has been the chief teacher, if he may not be regarded as its only founder. Even if the scientific study of ethics, on principles analogous to those which have made astronomy, geology, and more recently biology, true sciences, has been taken up by others and pursued till new truths have been recognized and perhaps some errors pointed out in his treatment of it, it remains still true that he was the first to indicate the true scientific method, and to show where hitherto it had been departed from even by the founders of the school of philosophy to which he belongs.