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Popular Science Monthly/Volume 46/January 1895/Ethics in Natural Law


RESTING recently for a brief while, apart from the stress and turmoil of metropolitan life, close to the heart of Nature, in a tree-embowered home in a quiet New Jersey hamlet, whence the eye wandered across green fields to a distant wooded crest, inviting conquest by its promise of entrancing views—the sun flickering here and there through the overhanging boughs of the clustering maples which furnished grateful protection from its intenser heats—the earth-goddess wooed me irresistibly to optimistic contemplation of her supreme beneficence. But anon, in cyclonic rage, she hid the mountain crest in blinding mists, tossed the over-hanging branches until they swayed like ocean waves before the blast, hurled limbs and fruit to earth, and through the long vigil of the night aroused the most lively feelings of apprehension for the safety of life and property. Again, treading the wooded crest in thoughtful contemplation, beneath its peaceful summer dress I found evidences of the Titanic struggles of former ages—huge columns of basaltic rock upheaved by Plutonic forces, and here, where the stream runs so gently and falls so musically to the lower level of the plain, was once the crater of a now long-extinct volcano.

From ages dim and remote, when the earth was a molten ball, the theater of fierce Plutonic activities, to the present time, when it woos and buffets man by turns as he applies his energies to its conquest, the "struggle for existence" has gone forward, determining in partnership with Nature's other evolutionary conditions the form and structure of continents and seas, the birth and growth of animal and vegetable life upon the planet, the origin of the human race out of brute ancestral conditions, and its progress toward a higher civilization.

Taking man as he is at his best, with a high sense of ethical obligation dominant in his consciousness, and aspirations for a nobler personality and better social conditions guiding his actions, what shall we say of the rational attitude of his mind toward the cosmic process which has given him birth, and upon which he is. still dependent for the physical conditions of life? What of his moral nature as related to this process? What of the ethical attitude of the universe to man?

Upon this problem Prof. Huxley, one of the most versatile and virile writers among the modern Apostles of the doctrine of evolution, has recently exercised his trenchant pen; and the outcome of his Romanes address at Oxford has been hailed by skeptics as to the theory of evolution as a complete surrender of its claims in the higher fields of ethics and sociology. Using the nursery tale of Jack and the Beanstalk as illustration, Prof. Huxley assumes with the Hindu and Buddhist sages that the cosmic process is one of recurring cyclical changes—of alternating development and disintegration—in which no real and definite progress is discernible. And what is true in the field of physics, he says, "is true of living things in general. . . . The process of life presents the same appearance of cyclical evolution." Moreover, "where the cosmopoietic energy works through sentient beings, there arises, among its other manifestations, that which we call pain and suffering. This baleful product of evolution increases in quantity and intensity, with advancing grades of animal organization, until it attains its highest level in man. Further, the consummation is not reached in man, the mere animal; nor in man the wholly or half savage, but only in man the member of an organized polity; and it is a necessary consequence of his attempt to live in this way—that is, under those conditions which are essential to the full development of his noblest powers." Ergo, he tacitly and avowedly assumes, no moral tendency or purpose or effect are predicable of the cosmic energy; on the contrary, "the ethical progress of society depends, not on imitating the cosmic process, still less in running away from it, but in combating it." The relation of man to Nature is one of insoluble dualism and eternal antagonism. His only hope of individual salvation and social amelioration is to struggle continually against her cosmic tendencies, enduring an ever-increasing consciousness of the stress and pain involved of necessity in the age-long struggle. As a teacher in the field of ethics, she can only show him "how not to do it."

Without attempting an elaborate argument in reply to Prof. Huxley's positions, which have already run the gantlet of much favorable and adverse criticism, I may perhaps be permitted to make them the text of a brief exposition of what I conceive to be the true and logical bearing of evolutionary thought upon the great problem of man's relation to the universe, and of his moral nature to those physical and biological conditions under which he has come into existence, and upon normal relations to which his well-being admittedly depends.

Let me ask, at the outset, by what authority as an evolutionist does Prof. Huxley revert to the old theological conception which places Nature and man in radical antithesis? Is not the human mind, including its loftiest ethical determinations, as much the product of evolution, a part of universal Nature, as the brute forces which control the struggle for existence in the lower planes of being? If that in us which is to oppose and correct the cosmic process is not itself a product of the cosmic process, whence does it come? To the consistent evolutionist there could seem to be but one answer to this question. As such, Prof. Huxley would hardly fall back upon the discredited dogma of special creation, and no other refuge is left him from the logic of that conclusion which he has so persistently ignored.

Leaving out the Oriental imaginings and metaphysical speculations which so largely tinge and illustrate the thought of Prof. Huxley, and confining ourselves to what science definitely assures us regarding the cosmic process as illustrated in our own little earth, we are surely justified in viewing it as the exponent of something more and different from a merely cyclical alternation of evolution and degeneration. Whether viewed in its purely physical or in its biological aspects, the process of evolution on this planet has been one of progressive refinement, development, and progress—from a molten ball to a solid globe; from the theater of terrific Plutonic activities to a condition where such activities are rare and exceptional; from the coarse and rank vegetation of the Carboniferous era to the more delicate and beautiful growths of our own time; from lower to higher forms of life, from moneron to ape and from ape to man; from savagery to barbarism and from barbarism to civilization: such is the story of evolution as written in rock and soil, the rude inscriptions of the earlier races, and the nature of man himself, so plainly that he who runs may read. Occasional lapse and degeneration have indeed been incidental to this progress, rendering it rhythmical rather than serial in its method; but this does not detract from the impressive reality of evolution^s majestic march through the centuries.

Not only has Prof. Huxley erred, as it appears to me, in giving a partial interpretation of the trend and meaning of the cosmic process in inanimate Nature, he seems to be still more grievously at fault in interpreting its significance when it mounts to sentiency in animal and human organisms. One is forced to wonder by what curious mental bias he was led to debit Nature with all the pain, misery, and suffering that sentiency implies, without crediting it with the conscious satisfactions, pleasure, and happiness which are equally the product of the evolutionary process. Mr. Spencer has shown by arguments which I believe to be unanswerable, and to which Mr. Huxley does not even allude in this address, that that "fullness of life," which is the final evolutionary test of genuine advancement in mental capacity; individual character, and progressive social amelioration, is directly proportionate to the relative amount of subjective satisfactions in sentient organisms, and that all progress is conditioned upon the excess of these satisfactions over the concomitant pain and suffering. The contrary assumption, he has shown, would result in a reductio ad absurdum so complete as to be logically unthinkable. The "pains innumerable and immeasurably great," which Prof. Huxley finds to be the accompaniment of the highest functional development of the sentient organism, are, on the whole, counterbalanced by pleasures still more immeasurable and complete.

Indeed, the "ape and tiger" surviving in human dispositions, the pains and griefs, the miseries and crimes, which are a part of the experience of civilized man, constituting his inheritance from a myriad generations of brute ancestors, are the sine qua non of all morality and all ethical progress. They furnish the pou sto of ethics, the underlying conditions without which there could be no such thing as a moral being. There can be no light without a concomitant shadow; all we can rationally ask is that the light shall furnish the medium for seeing the picture of life as it is. Without the shadows, no beauty of landscape or human countenance; without the darker shadows of suffering and sin, no moral beauty—no ethical advancement.

Prof. Huxley well says that "ape and tiger methods are not reconcilable with the ethical principle." This is certainly true of beings possessing a developed moral consciousness; but nothing is surer, from the evolutionist's standpoint, than that the sense of moral obligation was sired by these very "ape and tiger methods" as they have prevailed among the lower orders of sentient beings. The sense of obligation is primarily purely egoistic. The "ought" of primitive man was not a moral obligation; it was a recognition of something owed to himself. That impulse to self-preservation which is proverbially the first law of Nature, out of consciousness of obligation to self, developed, through experience, the application of this sense of obligation to that larger self, the family; through gregarious association to the still growing self, the herd or tribe; and again on to the state, the nation, and in the consciousness of a few—the perfect flower and fruitage of cosmic evolution to man as man, to all forms of sentient life, to the earth itself as the teeming mother of the human race.

The sense of duty, as we now understand it, was not developed until the remote and indirect motive of race-maintenance and altruistic service was consciously and voluntarily substituted for the primary, egoistic motive of self-preservation. Yet, as I have elsewhere shown, "here has been no new creation, but merely a process of transformation, of evolution. The 'raw material' of morality is found in the simplest orderly manifestations of volitional activities in organic Nature; yes, back even in those steadfast laws and tendencies which are manifest in the action of the inorganic universe. . . In the last analysis, it is not two things that fill the mind with awe, as in the familiar phrase of Kant, but one thing, whether it be manifested in the order of the galaxies or in the orderly impulse to right action which we term conscience or duty."[2] That principle of gravitation which secures order among whirling atoms and orbs throughout the interstellar spaces finds its complete analogue in human societies in the sense of moral obligation. Here is no mere transcendental speculation, but a logical deduction from scientifically demonstrated facts. What is that very inviolability of law which is the stumbling-block of crude, sentimental thinkers on the problems of man's relation to the universe but an expression of steadfastness and honesty in Nature's dealings with us? How much better is it than the capricious Providence of the theologian!

Undoubtedly there was a distinct progress in morals, as Prof. Huxley declares, when action from right motive came to be regarded as the true moral test, in the place of acts conventionally estimated as right, when judged by their results, according to standards established by the dictum of political or ecclesiastical authority. But the reaction has been too great; ethical teachers have come to place the entire stress on the motive, ignoring the actual objective results of individual activities. The new science of ethics, which is dominated by the doctrine of evolution, finds an objective law of right, inherent in the nature of things, dominating all human associations, and makes conformity to this law, both in motive and in action, the highest moral ultimatum. The Quaker doctrine of the "inner light" and the transcendental theory of intuitional ethics need to be supplemented and corrected by the lessons of science and experience. Mr. Spencer has ably shown that individual intuition is born out of race experience, and that ethical theories hitherto regarded as irreconcilably antagonistic are harmonized by the solvent method of evolution. So, also, his much-misunderstood doctrine of the Unknowable supplements the Berkeleian idealism and Buddhistic nihilism which Prof. Huxley seems to regard as the highest logical resultants of human speculation; and by showing the absurdity and unthinkableness of the conception of a sequence of phenomena, either mental or material, without a nexus of reality, and scientifically demonstrating the symbolical character of our sense-perceptions, he has dealt a deathblow to the old-fashioned materialism and substituted for the metaphysical conception of a substance apart from phenomena—at best a fruitless abstraction—the strictly logical, affirmative, and scientific conception of a reality immanent in all phenomena, inconceivable, indeed, in its essential nature, because of the limitations of our knowing faculties, but the existence and potency of which constitute the most certain of all our knowledge.

Not Nirvana, therefore, but effort; not death, but life, the development of moral power, and an ever-deepening moral consciousness through conflict with evil, is the lesson of evolutionary-ethics. Nor are we left to despair at the duration and impotency of the struggle. Its final subjective outcome is foreseen to be—like that of all other conscious endeavor, become habitual—a natural spontaneity of right action wherein men shall serve the right neither for ho]3e of reward nor fear of penalty, but from a divine inner necessity, which at once compels the volition and brings the unsought compensation of the highest intellectual satisfactions.

But, says Prof. Huxley, admitting that the moral consciousness is the result of evolution, "immoral as well as moral sentiments have been evolved by evolution. . . . There is, so far, as much natural sanction for one as for the other. . . . Cosmic evolution is incompetent to furnish any better reason why what we call good is preferable to what we call evil than we had before." Let it be granted that the facts of human experience are more powerful than any theories as guides to individual action. If it were not so, the progress of the race would indeed be slow. But what is this but a recognition of the fact that morality is the result of an actual process of evolution which is independent of all mere doctrinal speculation? No rational theory of ethics, however, can fail to recognize that a true philosophy of life, a correct understanding of its facts, must furnish a tremendous incentive to right action. Just here, indeed, has been one of the chief stumbling-blocks in the path of moral progress. The race has been weighed down with disheartening theories of total depravity, moral lapse, and the inefficacy of natural effort for the improvement of character, at variance with all the known facts of human history. But evolution demonstrates that immoral and even criminal actions as we now regard them are usually survivals of customs or habits at some past time justified by the conditions of the physical and social environment. This furnishes at once hope for further progress by demonstrating the progress which has actually taken place and evolved a sense of evil in the commission of unsocial acts, and a hint as to the right method of promoting advancement in morally defective individuals. The recognition of the defect as a survival of past customary conditions is itself conclusive testimony to moral progress. The ultimate objective test of the moral character of an action is its influence in promoting fullness of life in the individual and in the race. To say that there is as much natural sanction for an immoral as for a moral action because both exist in the present stage of social evolution, is equivalent to saying that there is an equal sanction for the violation of any other natural law with that for its obedience. . The sanction of an action in either instance lies not in the mere fact of its performance, but in the improved conditions, material or social, which, are its resultant effects. That which is upbuilding, which tends to fullness of life, is right; that which tends to deterioration and retrogression is wrong.

Mr. Huxley apparently gives away bis entire case against evolutionary ethics by the assertion that the practice of goodness is directed "not so much to the survival of the fittest as to fitting as many as possible to survive." But surely it can not be doubted that those "fitted to survive" will survive; hence this confession constitutes a complete justification of evolutionary ethics. Viewed at short range by absolute standards, it may indeed be true that "survival of the fittest" is not always survival of the best. Relatively, however, it is the survival of the best possible under existing conditions; it points toward the morally perfect which can only be attained through repeated approximations of the relatively good.

It is true, indeed, that "the theory of evolution furnishes no millennial expectations" for the immediate future, and Prof. Huxley has not emphasized too strongly the importance of human intelligence and will in effecting moral regeneration. But these are powerful for good only as they are duly trained and cultivated; only as they rigidly note both cosmic and social conditions, and correctly estimate the trend and result of all the complex forces which center upon the life of the individual. It is the great virtue of the evolutionary ethic that it calls man back from the cloud-land of metaphysical speculation, and seeks to enlighten his intellect and guide his steps by appeals to the scientifically ascertained facts of human experience and the laws by which they are governed. Back to Nature, not in her statical aspects, as dreamed by Rousseau and the eighteenth-century philosophers, but in her dynamical and evolutionary aspects, must we ever go for ethical guidance, encouragement, and inspiration.

To Herbert Spencer, more than any other among the apostles of evolutionary doctrines, we owe the logical demonstration of the unity of man and the universe which eternally forbids the separation of his moral nature from those conditions out of which his whole being had its birth, and to which it is at all times vitally related. No morality in the universe? None, then, is possible in man. Existing in man, it is predicable also of his great world-mother. This is the irresistible logic of evolutionary ethics. And of him, the ripest thinker on this problem now living, it may well be affirmed, in the language of a poet of the new dispensation:

"Man's thought is like Antæus, and must be
Touched to the ground of Nature to regain
Fresh force, new impulse, else it would remain
Dead, in the grip of strong Authority.
But, once thereon reset, 'tis like a tree,
Sap-swollen in springtime; bonds may not restrain.
Nor weight repress; its rootlets rend in twain
Dead stones, and walls, and rocks, resistlessly.

"Thine then it was to touch dead thoughts to earth
Till of old dreams sprang new philosophy.
From visions, systems, and beneath thy spell
Swift they uprose, like magic palaces.
Thyself half-conscious only of thy worth.
Calm priest of a tremendous oracle!"


  1. Read before the Congress of Evolutionists, Chicago, September 30, 1893.
  2. The Evolution of Morals.