Popular Science Monthly/Volume 52/February 1898/Evolutionary Ethics



THE following letter, published in the Athenæum, for August 5, 1893, was drawn from me in response to certain passages in the Romanes Lecture, delivered by the late Prof. Huxley at Oxford in the Spring of 1893.[2] These passages were supposed to be directed against doctrines I hold (see Athenæum, July 22, 1893); and it seemed needful that I should defend myself against an attack coming from one whose authority was so great. My justification for including this letter among these fragments is that since the Romanes Lecture referred to exists in a permanent form, it is proper that a permanent form should be given to my reply.

If it is not too great a breach of your rules, will you allow me space for some remarks suggested by the review of Prof. Huxley's lecture on "Evolution and Ethics," contained in your issue of the 22nd inst.?

The incongruity between note 19 of the series appended to the lecture, and a leading doctrine contained in the lecture itself, is rightly pointed out by your reviewer. In the lecture Prof. Huxley says:—

"The practice of that which is ethically best—what we call goodness or virtue—involves a course of conduct which, in all respects, is opposed to that which leads to success in the cosmic struggle for existence. In place of ruthless self-assertion it demands self-restraint."—P. 33.

But in note 19 he admits that—

"strictly speaking [why not rightly speaking?], social life and the ethical process, in virtue of which it advances towards perfection, are part and parcel of the general process of evolution, just as the gregarious habit of innumerable plants and animals, which has been of immense advantage to them, is so."

I do not see how the original assertion can survive after this admission has been made. Practically the last cancels the first. If the ethical process is a part of the process of evolution or cosmic process, then how can the two be put in opposition? Prof. Huxley says:—

"The struggle for existence, which has done such admirable work in cosmic nature, must, it appears [according to the view he opposes], be equally beneficent in the ethical sphere. Yet, if that which I have insisted upon is true; if the cosmic process has no sort of relation to moral ends; if the imitation of it by man is inconsistent with the first principles of ethics; what becomes of this surprising theory?"—P. 34.

But when we find that the hypothetical statement, "if the cosmic process has no sort of relation to moral ends," is followed by the positive statement that "the cosmic process" has "a sort of relation to moral ends," we may ask, "what becomes of this surprising" criticism? Obviously, indeed, Prof. Huxley cannot avoid admitting that the ethical process, and, by implication, the ethical man, are products of the cosmic process. For if the ethical man is not a product of the cosmic process, what is he a product of?

The view of which Prof. Huxley admits the truth in note 19 is the view which I have perpetually enunciated: the difference being that instead of relegating it to an obscure note, I have made it a conspicuous component of the text. As far back as 1850, when I did not yet recognize evolution as a process co-extensive with the cosmos, but only as a process exhibited in man and in society, I contended that social progress is a result of "the ethical process," saying that—

"the ultimate man will be one whose private requirements coincide with public ones. He will be that manner of man who, in spontaneously fulfilling his own nature incidentally performs the functions of a social unit; and yet is only enabled so to fulfil his own nature, by all others doing the like."—Social Statics, "General Considerations."
And from that time onwards I have, in various ways, insisted upon this truth. In a chapter of the Principles of Ethics entitled "Altruism versus Egoism," it is contended that from the dawn of life altruism of a kind (parental altruism) has been as essential as egoism; and that in the associated state the function of altruism becomes wider, and the importance of it greater, in proportion as the civilization becomes higher. Moreover, I have said that—

"from the laws of life it must be concluded that unceasing social discipline will so mould human nature, that eventually sympathetic pleasures will be spontaneously pursued to the fullest extent advantageous to each and all."—Ethics, § 95.

"With the highest type of human life, there will come also a state in which egoism and altruism are so conciliated that the one merges in the other."—Ib., appended chapter to Part I.

Everywhere it is asserted that the process of adaptation (which, in its direct and indirect forms, is a part of the cosmic process) must continuously tend (under peaceful conditions) to produce a type of society and a type of individual in which "the instincts of savagery in civilized men" will be not only "curbed," but repressed. And I believe that in few, if any, writings will be found as unceasing a denunciation of that brute form of the struggle for existence which has been going on between societies, and which, though in early times a cause of progress, is now becoming a cause of retrogression. No one has so often insisted that "the ethical process" is hindered by the cowardly conquests of bullet and shell over arrow and assegai, which demoralize the one side while slaughtering the other.

And here, while referring to the rebarbarizing effects of the struggle for existence carried on by brute force, let me say that I am glad to have Prof. Huxley's endorsement of the proposition that the survival of the fittest is not always the survival of the best. Twenty years ago, in an essay entitled "Mr. Martineau on Evolution," I pointed out that "the fittest" throughout a wide range of cases—perhaps the widest range—are not the "best"; and said that I had chosen the expression "survival of the fittest" rather than survival of the best because the latter phrase did not cover the facts.

Chiefly, however, I wish to point out the radical misconceptions which are current concerning that form of evolutionary ethics with which I am identified. In the preface to The Data of Ethics, when first published separately, I remarked that by treating the whole subject in parts, which would by many be read as though they were wholes, I had "given abundant opportunity for misrepresentation." The opportunity has not been lost. The division treating of "Justice" has been habitually spoken of as though nothing more was intended to be said; and this notwithstanding warnings which the division itself contains, as in § 257, and again in § 270; where it is said that "other injunctions which ethics has to utter do not here concern us . . . there are the demands and restraints included under Negative Beneficence and Positive Beneficence, to be hereafter treated of." Even if considered apart, however, the doctrine set forth in this division has no such interpretation as that perversely put upon it. It is represented as nothing but an assertion of the claims of the individual to what benefits he can gain in the struggle for existence; whereas it is in far larger measure a specification of the equitable limits to his activities, and of the restraints which must be imposed on him. I am not aware that any one has more emphatically asserted that society in its corporate capacity must exercise a rigorous control over its individual members, to the extent needful for preventing trespasses one upon another. No one has more frequently or strongly denounced governments for the laxity with which they fulfil this duty. So far from being, as some have alleged, an advocacy of the claims of the strong against the weak, it is much more an insistence that the weak shall be guarded against the strong, so that they may suffer no greater evils than their relative weakness itself involves. And no one has more vehemently condemned that "miserable laissez-faire which calmly looks on while men ruin themselves in trying to enforce by law their equitable claims"(Ethics, § 271).

Now that the remaining parts, treating of Beneficence, have been added to the rest, the perverse misinterpretation continues in face of direct disproofs. At the very outset of the Ethics it is said:—

"There remains a further advance not yet even hinted. For beyond so behaving that each achieves his ends without preventing others from achieving their ends, the members of a society may give mutual help in the achievement of ends."—§ 6.

And in a subsequent chapter it is said that

"the limit of evolution of conduct is consequently not reached until, beyond avoidance of direct and indirect injuries to others, there are spontaneous efforts to further the welfare of others." "It may be shown that the form of nature which thus to justice adds beneficence, is one which adaptation to the social state produces."—§ 54.

These are texts which in Parts V. and VI., dealing with Beneficence, Negative and Positive, are fully expanded. Having first distinguished between "kinds of altruism," and contended that the kind we call justice has to be enforced by the incorporated society, the State, while the kind we call beneficence must be left to individuals, and after pointing out the grave evils which result if this distinction is not maintained, I have described in detail the limits to men's actions which negative beneficence enjoins. Then come two chapters, entitled "Restraints on Free Competition" and "Restraints on Free Contract," respectively indicating various cases in which the restraints imposed by law must be supplemented by self-restraints, and instancing one of the excesses committed under free competition as amounting to "commercial murder." Chapters enjoining further self-restraints for the benefit of others are followed, in the division on Positive Beneficence, by chapters enjoining efforts on their behalf, and the duty which falls on the superior of mitigating the evils which the inferior have to bear. After dealing, in a chapter on "Relief of the Poor," with the evils often caused by attempts to diminish distress, it is contended that philanthropic duty should be performed not by proxy, but directly; and that each person of means ought to see to the welfare of the particular cluster of inferiors with whom his circumstances put him in relation. The general nature of the doctrine set forth may be inferred from two sentences in the closing chapter:—

"The highest beneficence is that which is not only prepared, if need be, to sacrifice egoistic pleasures, but is also prepared, if need be, to sacrifice altruistic pleasures."—§ 474.

And then, speaking of the natures which "the ethical process" is in course of producing, it is said that

"in such natures a large part of the mental life must result from participation in the mental lives of others."—§ 475.

I do not see how there could be expressed ideas more diametrically opposed to that brutal individualism which some persons ascribe to me.

It remains only to say that Prof. Huxley's attack upon the doctrines of Ravachol & Co. has my hearty approval, though I do not quite see the need for it. Evidently it is intended for the extreme anarchists; or, at least, I know of no others against whom his arguments tell. It has been absurdly supposed that his lecture was, in part, an indirect criticism upon theories held by me. But this cannot be. It is scarcely supposable that he deliberately undertook to teach me my own doctrines, enunciated some of them forty-odd years ago. Passing over the historical and metaphysical parts of his lecture, his theses are those for which I have always contended. We agree that the process of evolution must reach a limit, after which a reverse change must begin (First Principles, chaps. "Equilibration" and "Dissolution"). We agree that the survival of the fittest is often not survival of the best. We agree in denouncing the brutal form of the struggle for existence. We agree that the ethical process is a part of the process of evolution. We agree that the struggle for life needs to be qualified when the gregarious state is entered, and that among gregarious creatures lower than man a rudiment of the ethical check is visible. We agree that among men the ethical check, becoming more and more peremptory, has to be enforced by the society in its corporate capacity, the State. We agree that beyond that qualification of the struggle for life which consists in restricting the activities of each so that he may not trench upon the spheres for the like activities of others, which we call justice, there needs that further qualification which we call beneficence; and we differ only respecting the agency by which the beneficence should be exercised. We agree in emphasizing, as a duty, the effort to mitigate the evils which the struggle for existence in the social state entails; and how complete is this agreement may be seen on observing that the sentiment contained in Prof. Huxley's closing lines is identical with the sentiment contained in the last paragraph of the Principles of Ethics. Obviously, then, it is impossible that Prof. Huxley can have meant to place the ethical views he holds in opposition to the ethical views I hold; and it is the more obviously impossible because, for a fortnight before his lecture, Prof. Huxley had in his hands the volumes containing the above quotations, along with multitudinous passages of kindred meanings. But as this erroneous belief is prevalent, it seems needful for me to dissipate it. Hence this letter.

The closing lines of this last paragraph were regarded by Prof. Huxley as tacitly charging him with an unacknowledged adoption of my views. It did not occur to me when writing them that they could be so interpreted. My intention was simply to show that he had abundant opportunity for seeing at first hand what my views were, and had therefore the less reason for presenting his own similar views as though they stood in opposition to mine.

As an example of the work that may be done for scientific geography in Africa, Mr. J. Scott Keltie cited, in the British Association, the discovery made by Mr. Moore, a young biologist trained in geographical observation, on Lake Tanganyika, of a fauna held to be of a salt-water type, which seems to afford a key to the past history of the center of the continent. Mr. Moore believes that the connection of this part of Africa with the coast was not by the west, as Joseph Thomson surmised, but by the north, through the Great Rift Valley of Dr. Gregory.
  1. From Various Fragments, by Herbert Spencer, in press of D. Appleton and Company.
  2. As the Romanes Lecture was published in the Monthly (November and December, 1893), it seemed fitting that this reply to some of the more important points raised by Professor Huxley should also be given to our readers. We accordingly put the letter in type soon after it appeared in The Athenæum, but at the request of Mr. Spencer it was withdrawn. He having now given it permanent form, we feel at liberty to carry out our original intention.—The Editor,