Popular Science Monthly/Volume 27/September 1885/The Science of Morality


BY morals, or the science of morality, is meant that body of principles and laws, relating to conduct, which are conducive to the well-being of humanity. Morality, or, more accurately, the art of morality, is the carrying out in practice the laws which the science has established.

To understand clearly the definition of the science, it is necessary to ascertain what the well-being of humanity is. This can be done only by tracing all motives and feelings to their ultimate cause. This ultimate cause is the most powerful instinct implanted in human nature—the preservation of life, which includes our own life and that of our offspring. We live and we want to live. Unconsciously we will flee from danger. We will fight frantically against death. In the presence of great danger we lose our reason, and yet, though volition is powerless, reflex action makes us struggle for safety. Why we want to live, why we were ever endowed with life, is more than man can know; but of this he is certain, that he does not want to die. The fact that a mother will sacrifice herself for her child; that the man who suffers the tortures of the rack, or of incurable disease, or of great mental affliction, will prefer oblivion to existence, does not alter the truth that the love of life is the most powerful instinct implanted in animals and in man. These exceptions, like many apparent exceptions to the law of gravitation, can be satisfactorily explained away.

By the phrase "conducive to the well-being of humanity" is meant not merely the bare preservation of life, but includes all that which makes life itself more pleasant and happy, which will insure a more complete and rounded existence.

All those actions which are conducive to the well-being of humanity, we call good or right; all those actions which are not so conducive, we call bad or wrong. Thus there is an absolute standard of right and wrong.

Already, long, ages ago, it was discovered by experience that a tribe or nation, and every member thereof, would better serve his own prosperity and success by generally telling the truth than by telling falsehoods; so nine times out of ten he would tell the truth. The confusion that would arise were every one to tell nine falsehoods to one truth is inconceivable. The man who had been placed on sentinel duty, when asked whether he had seen the enemy, would answer no, although he knew the enemy to be within the hearing of his voice. The mother would tell her child that certain herbs, which she knew to be poisonous, were good to eat; the child would eat, and die. The father would deny his ability to provide food for his family, although but an hour before he had slain a buffalo or a deer. Telling the truth sometimes, and most of the time, is an absolute necessity, depending not on theological injunctions, but on the very existence of life. Our rude forefathers of the prehistoric age were aware of this fact, and they enunciated the general principle that it is wrong to lie. This is a scientific generalization. It is a law deduced by experience and observation from a great number of facts, and it is as justly entitled to be considered a generalization as Newton's law of gravitation or Pascal's principle of hydrostatics. The experience of nations and of ages has firmly established this principle; it is incorporated into all codes of morals.

In the physical sciences we explain any particular phenomenon by laws already established. We explain the reason why any particular candle burns and gives off light, by laws already discovered of oxidation and incandescence. So in the science of morality we determine whether any particular action is right or wrong, by referring the action under consideration to laws that have eebn already established.

Certain laws conduce more to the well-being of humanity than others. Thus, the law, It is wrong to murder, is of vastly more importance than the law, It is wrong to lie. Because, if we all committed murder, the world would be depopulated; while, if we all told lies, there would be a sad confusion, yet some of us would manage to exist. Hence, to commit murder is a greater wrong than to tell a lie, and a man would be perfectly justified in telling a lie in order to escape either becoming a murderer or being himself murdered. In this manner we can test the relative importance of moral laws.

As the attraction of gravitation differs under different circumstances, although the law of gravitation always remains the same, so can a falsehood, according to circumstances, be a greater or lesser wrong—be a so-called white lie of society, be the business lie of the dishonest tradesman, or the criminal lie of the perjurer—and still the law, It is wrong to lie, would remain unassailed. We determine by deduction whether any particular action is right or wrong: If the act is in conflict with a law of morality, it is wrong; if not in conflict, it is right.

The laws of morality are not all of the same relative importance. Those laws which are more vital to the well-being of humanity are more important than those laws which are less vital. Hence, occasions can arise when we are justified in breaking one law, in order that we may escape breaking another of greater importance.

The thinking mind of to-day asks, Is there a scientific basis for morality? I think there is. The modified doctrine of utility, or, as I have expressed it, conducive to the well-being of humanity, is the basis which science seeks. We deduce, from the experience of races and nations for centuries and for ages, the laws in regard to conduct which are for man's best welfare. These laws, systematically arranged, would constitute the science of morality or morals. As yet such a science does not exist. The material is all at hand; it but awaits the master workman to fashion it into shape.

An incidental question here arises. Had we a most complete science of morality, would it affect, either for better or for worse, the morality of the masses? At present the dictates of morality are enforced in three ways: By the so-called criminal or penal laws of the land; by public opinion, or the opinion of society; by the teachings of punishment after death. These three sanctions must always exist. The science of morality might not have any effect in compelling its laws to be observed, hut it undoubtedly would explain to many minds which now are groping in darkness and disbelief the why and where-fore of moral codes.