Popular Science Monthly/Volume 38/January 1891/Editor's Table



OUR correspondent "K.," whose letter we publish on another page, is in serious trouble over the difficulty he finds in reconciling the view of morality given by Mr. Spencer, in his Data of Ethics, with the facts of real life. Mr. Spencer, as "K." understands him, teaches that "the object to be gained by pursuing morality is happiness"; while facts teach that morality sometimes calls for the sacrifice of happiness. Mr. Spencer strives to base morality on a foundation of reason, whereas experience seems to prove that it must to a large extent be based on sentiment—that, unless there is a heart impulse toward morality, there will be a lack of power to do the right, except in so far as it may also be the convenient. Therefore, as philosophy does not deal with or control the heart, it fails to furnish any adequate reason for the pursuit of morality.

Our correspondent has done well to express in plain language the thoughts that trouble him, and that such thoughts should trouble him is a sign that his own moral nature is in a state of healthy activity. We hope, however, to be able to show that the evolutionary system of ethics is not in conflict with experience, and that it renders important help to the cause of morality by giving a clear and consistent idea of what morality is. It is a mistake to suppose that it does much more than this. It does not claim to supply any incentives to right action, or any dissuasions from wrong action, other than may be found in a consideration of the consequences which such actions entail. We do not ask the physician or the hygienist to provide people with motives, beyond what the facts they state may furnish, for seeking health or avoiding sickness; yet no one, we think, will question that the diffusion of sound medical and hygienic information has an important effect in promoting the health of the community. The probability is that "K.," like many others who are feeling their way to the scientific standpoint, is still more or less under the influence of moral systems which bring the sanctions of conduct into far greater prominence than the essential nature of conduct. Systems that do this, and that place their sanctions mainly in another world, do much to retard the proper definition of morality. While men's minds are strongly occupied with the thought of rewards and punishments beyond all human measurement, the only question that seems to have any pertinence is, How am I to secure this infinite reward? How can I hope to escape that terrible penalty? The overwhelming character of the sanctions compels unquestioning submission to whatever code of morals may be promulgated in connection with them; and future systems of morality come to be judged, not so much by the nature of their ethical teaching, as by the motives they bring to bear in support of it.

This, however, we maintain, is not the right point of view. The business of a moral system is to define morality, not to enforce it; to trace the consequences and relations of actions, not to supplement deficiencies in the general scheme of things. If the decay of arbitrary sanctions leaves certain individuals unprotected against their own lawless tendencies, we can not be altogether surprised, and should not be unduly discouraged. No change, political, social, or intellectual, finds all persons equally prepared to meet it. The wise are those whose lamps are trimmed and fed, and who can light themselves to a place of light: the foolish are those whose lamps are empty and untrimmed, and who, on a sudden call, can only stumble about in darkness. Evolutionary ethics are not discredited because there are those whose imperfect moral development craves inducements and restraints of. a more imperative nature than any system which appeals merely to reason and good feeling can supply. "But why," our correspondent may ask, "do you bring in good feeling? My complaint is precisely that, while the evolutionary system professes to dispense with feeling, it does not and can not really do so." We know this is a common idea, but it is not a correct one. Feeling arises when habits have become so consolidated that their origin and justification, if not forgotten, are at least overlooked, so that they seem to be, as it were, self-justified. Feelings and prejudices are of kindred nature: where there is feeling there is, generally speaking, prejudice; where there is prejudice there is always feeling. In feeling we have the stored-up energy of repeated perceptions, and it acts as a fly-wheel to carry us past many a dead point of balanced calculations. The evolutionist shows that moral actions are those which specifically tend to produce happiness—to make life as a whole not only worth living but capable of being lived, if we may be allowed the expression. We all want life, and we want it more abundantly. Evolutionary ethics show how life in general is promoted and enlarged by certain acts, how it is impeded and straitened and undermined by others; nor can there be any reasonable doubt as to the validity of the classification thus established. Mr. Spencer does not say to each individual, "You will in every case find your personal happiness promoted by every moral act you may perform, and the more moral you are the happier you will surely be." He might, however, say: "In performing any moral act from a moral motive you will be sure to reap a certain satisfaction—the satisfaction that comes from having placed yourself in harmony with a law that you feel to be universal in its application; but whether," he might add, "your happiness as a whole will be promoted will depend upon how far in your particular case such satisfaction outweighs any loss or suffering which the performance of the act may entail. That is not a question that can be settled on general grounds; it depends on an equation in which your own moral nature as at present developed is the most important element." In order to determine whether an act is a moral act, what we have to do is to fix its relation to life as a whole, its specific tendency to promote or diminish happiness. To trace its thousand possible incidences in individual cases would be beyond human wisdom, and would be of little value if accomplished. To appeal to right feeling—to come back to a point that ought to be made very clear—is to appeal to a force that we know to have been accumulated through the performance of right acts—acts which, each in their own hour, have yielded up to the moral nature the satisfaction that comes from right conduct, and thus furnished a fund of virtuous impulse for future use. Far, therefore, from there being any incompatibility between the sanction of reason and the sanction of feeling, the two are but one sanction; the only difference being that one is special to the act at the moment under consideration, while the other is the great closed register of past moral judgments. Of course, it is open to any man to say: "There is no morality in my composition, no feeling or prejudice in favor of what you call right courses of action, no perception of anything as desirable that does not make for my personal gratification; and therefore to me your scientific morality is equally without meaning and without authority." A man who spoke in that way would probably libel himself; but, in so far as we assume that he speaks the truth, we have to admit that he is a more suitable subject for a severely authoritative regime than for any system of intellectual and moral liberty. Such a man doubtless needs the most alluring inducements on the one hand, and the direst threatenings on the other, to keep him from frequent transgressions. Not that the transgressions themselves would not in many cases entail punishments which, had they been foreseen, would have deterred him from misconduct, but simply because when a man is so constituted that, without any prepossession in favor of right-doing, he calculates over again on each occasion the probable consequences of a given act, the voice of present passion or desire is very apt to dominate all other pleas. Such a man is a mere moral pauper, starving himself on "beggarly elements," instead of nourishing himself and building himself up on well-developed moral principles. Long before Mr. Spencer, the English philosopher Hobbes dealt very well with this point. "The fool hath said in his heart there is no such thing as justice; and sometimes also with his tongue; seriously alleging that, every man's conservation and contentment being committed to his own care, there could be no reason why every man might not do what he thought conduced thereunto; and therefore also to make or not make, keep or not keep, covenants was not against reason when it conduced to one's own benefit." After thus stating the case of "the fool," Hobbes goes on to point out that such a man takes up a position of hostility to society, and therefore "can in reason expect no other means of safety than what can be had from his own single power," and "can not be received in any society that unite themselves for peace and defense, but by the error of them that receive him." His conclusion is that "justice is a rule of reason by which we are forbidden to do anything destructive to our life, and consequently a law of Nature."

The fool who says in his heart that there is no such thing as justice is generally enough of a knave not to say it aloud; and so far he pays homage to what he recognizes as a settled conviction of mankind. The science of ethics teaches us how conduct becomes ethical in its character, through what successively higher stages it passes, and wherein a true moral equilibrium consists. It can do no more. It is for every man to determine for himself how far he is influenced or means to be influenced by the knowledge that certain courses of action make for the elevation of his own character and the benefit of the world, while others make in an entirely opposite direction. If any man declares that such a manifestation of the truth influences him not at all, it would be well for him to seek the restraints and persuasives of some other system; or, if he means to enter upon a war against society, to take his measures with the greatest caution. It is some satisfaction to think that, among those who take the scientific view of ethics, there is rather more inclination of the heart toward what is right than among those who reject that view chiefly on the ground of its too feeble sanctions. "K." himself seems to admit this, and, if so, we do not see why he should feel discouraged. In conclusion, we may say that, if we have not fully met our correspondent's difficulties, we shall be happy to return to the subject, and deal as specifically as possible with any point he may suggest for discussion. We say this, not because there are not many other questions claiming attention, but because we are strongly convinced that there is not to-day a more important issue than this of the soundness and sufficiency of the evolutionary view of ethics.


This is a thing a good deal talked about, but which does not bear very close investigation. All work, all effort must have an object; otherwise it is not determined to any end, guided in any definite channel, or impressed with any distinct character. The culture of the mind, like the culture of a field, must have an object. We cultivate the field that we may get better crops from it; we cultivate the mind that it too may yield better fruits. Nature in its spontaneous workings gives us the starting-point in both cases. She supplies the wild varieties of grain and other vegetable food, and man by bis art improves her gifts, rendering them more adapted to his own special needs. In like manner the mind spontaneously working, without any thought of culture or training, lays hold of the facts which Nature presents to the senses and interprets them from its own standpoint. As the interpretation becomes wider through experience, new facts come into view, and knowledge and thought increase with even step. The object of all culture is, therefore, or should be, to give the power of broadly interpreting the data of sense, to place the individual in the most advantageous position possible for understanding the world in which he lives, and exerting a useful action upon some part of it. A culture that is severed from all ideas of utility is something altogether empty and nebulous; we may go further and say that it is something that tends to corruption. What does the decay of societies through luxury—that staple and by no means unreal theme of moralizing historians—mean, if not the corruption that comes of divorcing culture from service? Knowledge grows, art develops, wealth increases; and men forget that these should have a social destination and not merely be made ministers to pride and vanity and lust. For want of a healthy outlet for these forces a process of social decomposition sets in, and another page of history draws to a close.

Every man and woman, therefore, who seeks culture should seek it with reference to some definite aim in life, and not to make it serve as mere intellectual finery. The time has not yet come when we can safely intermit our efforts for the improvement of the social state; and all gifts and accomplishments can be pressed into the service of mankind, if only the motive for so employing them be present. It is when we consider our talents or our knowledge as serving only for our own glorification that they spoil on our hands. What more pitiful can be imagined than the small jealousy which is often found animating literary, artistic, and even scientific circles? It is hard to say whether the mutual admiration or the mutual depreciation of certain devotees of culture is the more ridiculous. All this comes of the "culture for its own sake" theory. Give culture an ulterior end, and it is at once ennobled and justified. The scholar, the man of science, the poet, the painter, the sculptor, the musician, will pursue their several tasks with no less devotion or success for thinking that, however little their work may be comprehended by the world at large, there is that in it in which even the world at large has a practical interest. If a man can not think this—that is to say, can not think it truly—then his work does net make for culture and might profitably be abandoned. Man lives by his faculties; culture is the enlargement or improvement of faculty in one direction or another, and makes thus for fuller life and deeper correspondence between the individual and the world. Governed by a social motive, it will seek to extend its benefits to all—as an ultimate aim—and will thus be kept fresh, vigorous, and pure. Governed by a selfish motive, it will degenerate into mere self-pleasing, affectation, and insincerity, and will never be far removed from moral corruption. The distinction is easily seized, and may profitably be taken to heart.