RECENT TENDENCIES IN ETHICS
Three Lectures to Clergy Given at Cambridge
W. R. SORLEY, M.A. HON. LL.D. EDIN.
Knightbridge Professor of Moral Philosophy
These lectures were given to a summer meeting of clergy, held at Cambridge in the month of July last. Some passages have been added as they were written out for the press, and the crudities of the spoken word have, I hope, been pruned away; but, in other respects, the original plan of the lectures has been retained. They are now published in the hope that they may prove of interest to those who heard them, and to others who may desire an account, in short compass and in popular form, of some leading features of the ethical thought of the present day.
It is inevitable for such an account to be controversial: otherwise it could not give a true picture of contemporary opinion. Intellectual and social causes have conspired to accentuate traditional differences in ethics, and to make the questions in dispute penetrate to the very heart of morality. It has been my aim to trace the new influences which are at work, and to estimate the value of the ethical doctrines to which they have seemed to lead. The estimate has taken the form of a criticism, but the criticism is in the interests of construction.
CAMBRIDGE, 7th March, 1904.
I. CHARACTERISTICS II. ETHICS AND EVOLUTION III. ETHICS AND IDEALISM
A survey of ethical thought, especially English ethical thought, during the last century would have to lay stress upon one characteristic feature. It was limited in range,—limited, one may say, by its regard for the importance of the facts with which it had to deal. The thought of the period was certainly not without controversy; it was indeed controversial almost to a fault. But the controversies of the time centred almost exclusively round two questions: the question of the origin of moral ideas, and the question of the criterion of moral value. These questions were of course traditional in the schools of philosophy; and for more than a century English moralists were mainly occupied with inherited topics of debate. They gave precision to the questions under discussion; and their controversies defined the traditional opposition of ethical opinion, and separated moralists into two hostile schools known as Utilitarian and Intuitionist.
As regards the former question—that of the origin of moral ideas—the Utilitarian School held that they could be traced to experience; and by 'experience' they meant in the last resort sense-perceptions and the feelings of pleasure and of pain which accompany or follow sense-perception. All the facts of our moral consciousness, therefore,—the knowledge of right and wrong, the judgments of conscience, the recognition of duty and responsibility, the feelings of reverence, remorse, and moral indignation,—all these could be traced, they thought, to an origin in experience, to an origin which in the last resort was sensuous, that is, due to the perceptions of the senses and the feelings of pleasure and pain which accompany or follow them.
With regard to the criterion or standard of morality,—the second question to which I have to call attention,—they held that the distinction between right and wrong depended upon the consequences of an action in the way of pleasure and pain. That action was right which on the whole and in the long run would bring pleasure or happiness to those whom it affected: that action was wrong which on the whole and in the long run would bring pain rather than pleasure to those whom it affected.
From their view as to the origin of moral ideas, the school might more properly be called the Empirical School. It is from their views on the question of the standard of value, or the criterion of morality, that it claimed, and that it received, the name Utilitarian. On both these points the Utilitarian School was opposed by an energetic but less compact body of writers, known as Intuitionists.
[Footnote 1: It seems to have been through J.S. Mill's influence that the term obtained currency. It was used by him as the name of a "little society to be composed of young men agreeing in fundamental principles" which he formed in the winter of 1822-23. He "did not invent the word, but found in one of Galt's novels, the 'Annals of the Parish.'" "With a boy's fondness for a name and a banner I seized on the word, and for some years called myself and others by it as a sectarian appellation" ('Autobiography,' pp. 79, 80; cf. 'Utilitarianism,' p. 9 n.) A couple of sentences from Galt may be quoted: "As there was at the time a bruit and a sound about universal benevolence, philanthropy, utility, and all the other disguises with which an infidel philosophy appropriated to itself the charity, brotherly love, and well-doing inculcated by our holy religion, I set myself to task upon these heads.... With well-doing, however, I went more roundly to work. I told my people that I thought they had more sense than to secede from Christianity to become Utilitarians, for that it would be a confession of ignorance of the faith they deserted, seeing that it was the main duty inculcated by our religion to do all in morals and manners to which the new-fangled doctrine of utility pretended." Mill is wrong in supposing that his use of the term "was the first time that any one had taken the title of Utilitarian"; and Galt, who represents his annalist as writing of the year 1794, is historically justified. Writing in 1781 Bentham uses the word 'utilitarian,' and again in 1802 he definitely asserts that it is the only name of his creed ('Works,' x. 92, 392). M. Halevy ('L'evolution de la doctrine utilitaire,' p. 300) draws attention to the presence of the word in Jane Austen's 'Sense and Sensibility,' published in 1811.]
The Intuitionists maintained—to put the matter briefly—that the moral consciousness of man could not be entirely accounted for by experiences of the kind laid stress on by the Utilitarians. They maintained that moral ideas were in their origin spiritual, although they might be called into definite consciousness by the experience of the facts to which they could be applied. Experience might call them forth into the light of day; but it was held that they belonged, in nature and origin, to the constitution of man's mind. On this ground, therefore, the school was properly called Intuitional: they held that moral ideas were received by direct vision or intuition, as it were, not by a process of induction from particular facts.
And, in the second place, with regard to the criterion of morality, that also (they held) was not dependent on the consequences in the way of happiness and misery which the Utilitarians emphasised. On the contrary, moral ideas themselves had an independent validity; they had a worth and authority for conduct which could not be accounted for by any consequences in which action resulted: belonging as they did to the essence of the human spirit, they also had authority over the conduct of man's life.
Now the ethical controversies of last century were almost entirely about these two points and between these two opposed schools. No doubt the two questions thus discussed did go very near to the root of the whole matter. They pointed to the consideration of the question of man's place in the universe and his spiritual nature as determining the part which it was his to play in the world. They suggested, if they did not always raise, the question whether man is entirely a product of nature or whether he has a spiritual essence to which nature may be subdued. But the larger issues suggested were not followed out. Common consent seemed to limit the discussion to the two questions described; and this limitation of the controversy tended to a precision and clearness in method, which is often wanting in the ethical thought of the present day, disturbed as it is by new and more far-reaching problems.
This limitation of scope, which I venture to select as the leading characteristic of last century's ethical enquiries, may be further seen in the large amount of agreement between the two schools regarding the content of morality. The Utilitarians no more than the Intuitionists were opponents of the traditional—as we may call it—the Christian morality of modern civilisation. They both adopted and defended the well-recognised virtues of truth and justice, of temperance and benevolence, which have been accepted by the common tradition of ages as the expression of man's moral consciousness. The Intuitionists no doubt were sometimes regarded—they may indeed have sometimes regarded themselves—as in a peculiar way the guardians of the traditional morality, and as interested more than their opponents in defending a view in harmony with man's spiritual essence and inheritance. But we do not find any attack upon the main content of morality by the Utilitarian writers. On the contrary, they were interested in vindicating their own full acceptance of the traditional morality. This is, in particular, the case with John Stuart Mill, the high-minded representative of the Utilitarian philosophy in the middle of last century. "In the golden rule of Jesus of Nazareth," he says, "we read the complete spirit of the ethics of utility. To do as one would be done by, and to love one's neighbour as oneself, constitute the ideal perfection of utilitarian morality."
[Footnote 1: Utilitarianism, 9th ed., pp. 24, 25.]
No doubt Mill was a practical reformer as well as a philosophical thinker, and he wished on certain special points to revise the accepted code. He says that "the received code of ethics is by no means of divine right, that mankind has still much to learn as to the effects of actions on the general happiness." He would even take this point—the modifiability of the ordinary moral code—as a sort of test question distinguishing his own system from that of the intuitional moralists; and in one place he says that "the contest between the morality which appeals to an external standard, and that which grounds itself on internal conviction, is the contest of progressive morality against stationary—of reason and argument against the deification of mere opinion and habit. The doctrine that the existing order of things is the natural order, and that, being natural, all innovation upon it is criminal, is as vicious in morals as it is now at last admitted to be in physics and in society and government."
[Footnote 1: Ibid., p. 35.]
[Footnote 2: Dissertations, ii. 472.]
A passage such as this leads us to ask, What exactly is the extent of the modifications which Mill seeks to make in the ordinary scale of values? Does he, for instance, wish to invert any ordinary moral rules? Would he do away with, or in any important respect modify, the duties of truth or justice, temperance or benevolence? Far from it He only suggests, as many moralists of both parties have suggested, that in the application of moral law to the details of experience certain modifications are required. How far he goes in this direction may be seen from his own instance, that of truth. He would admit certain exceptions to the law of truth; he would give the less rigorous answers to the time-honoured questions as to whether one should tell the truth to an invalid in a dangerous illness or to a would-be criminal. But Mill always asserts the sanctity of the general principle; and, on this account, he holds that "in order that the exception may not extend itself beyond the need, and may have the least possible effect in weakening reliance on veracity, it ought to be recognised and, if possible, its limits defined; and if the principle of utility is good for anything, it must be good for weighing these conflicting utilities against one another, and marking out the region within which one or the other preponderates." He holds that there are such limits to veracity. He even thinks—though here he is not quite correct—that such limits have been acknowledged by all moralists. He would have been correct if he had said that they had been acknowledged by moralists of all schools: the admission of these limits is not peculiar to Utilitarians. But he vigorously defends the validity of the general rule, and maintains that, in considering any possible exception, we have to take account not merely of the present utility of the falsehood, but of its effect upon the sanctity of the general principle in the minds of men. The Utilitarian doctrine is expressly used by him to confirm the ordinary general laws of the moral consciousness. Nay, these rules—such as the duties of being temperate and just and benevolent—were, according to Mill, themselves the result of experiences of utility on the part of our predecessors, and from them handed down to us by the tradition of the race. No doubt in this Mill is applying a theoretical view too easily to a question of history. It is one thing to maintain, as he does, that utility is the correct test of morality; it is another thing altogether to say that our ordinary moral rules are the records or expressions of earlier judgments of utility. The former statement is made as a controversial statement which is admitted to be so far doubtful that most men need to be convinced of it. The latter statement could only be true if nobody had ever doubted the former—if everybody in past ages had accepted utility as the standard of morality. But, for our present purpose, his attitude to this question is of interest only as bringing out the point that the different schools of ethical thought during last century had a large basis of common agreement, and that this basis of common agreement was their acknowledgment of the validity of the moral rules recognised by the ordinary conscience.
[Footnote 1: Utilitarianism, p. 34.]
[Footnote 2: Ibid., p. 33.]
The Utilitarians no more than the Intuitionists sought to make any fundamental change in the content of right and of wrong as acknowledged by modern society. Their controversies were almost entirely of what may be called an academic kind, and, however decided, would have little effect upon a man's practical attitude. But it would not be possible to make any such confident assertion regarding the ethical controversies of the present day. We have no longer the same common basis of agreement to rely upon that our predecessors had a generation ago. There are many indications in recent literature that the suggestion is now made more readily than it was twenty or thirty years ago that the scale of moral values may have to be revised; and it seems to me that the ethical controversies of the coming generation will not be restricted to academic opponents whose disputes concern nothing more than the origin of moral ideas and their ultimate criterion. Modern controversy will involve these questions, but it will go deeper and it will spread its results wider: it appears as if it would not hesitate to call in question the received code of morality, and to revise our standard of right and wrong. One school at any rate has already made a claim of this sort, and the extravagance of its teaching has not prevented it from attracting adherents.
It is on this ground, therefore,—because I believe that the ethical question is no longer so purely an academic question as it was some years ago, because it affects not only the philosophic thinker but the practical man who is concerned with the problems of his day,—that I have selected the topic for these lectures. It is not merely that many modern writers assert some general doctrine as to the relativity of right and wrong. So much was implied, though it was not much laid stress upon, in the utilitarian doctrine. For the utilitarian conduct is right according to the amount of happiness it produces: goodness is relative to its tendency to produce happiness. But a much greater importance may attach to the assertion of the relativity of morals when one couples that doctrine with the idea now prevalent of the indefinitely great changes which the progress of the race brings about, not only in the social order but also in the structure and faculties of man himself.
Hence it is not surprising to find that there are at the present day some writers who ask for nothing less than a revision of the whole traditional morality, and in whose minds that demand is connected with the dominant doctrine of progress as it is expressed in the theory of evolution.
Perhaps we might trace the beginnings of this controversy as to the content of what is right and what is wrong to an older opposition in ethical thought, an opposition which especially affects the utilitarian doctrine—the controversy of Egoism and Altruism. If we look at these two conceptions of egoism and altruism as the Utilitarians did, if we regard the conception of egoism as having to do with one's own personal happiness, and that of altruism as describing the general happiness, the happiness of others rather than of oneself, then obviously the questions arise whether the conduct which produces the greatest happiness of others will or will not also produce the greatest happiness of the individual agent, and which should be chosen in the event of their disagreement. Is my happiness and that which will tend to it always to be got on the same lines of conduct as those which will bring about the greatest happiness of the greatest number?
The Utilitarian writers of last century were of course conscious of this problem, conscious that there was a possible discrepancy between egoistic conduct and altruistic conduct; but they agreed to lay stress upon altruistic results as determining moral quality. Their tendency was to minimise the difference between the egoistic and the altruistic effects of action, and in so far as a difference had to be allowed to emphasise the importance of the claims of the community at large, that is, roughly speaking, to take the altruistic standpoint. Recent and more careful investigators have brought out more exactly the extent and significance of the divergence. In particular this was done with perfect clearness and precision by the late Professor Sidgwick. He showed that the difference—although it might be easily exaggerated—was yet real and important, that the two systems did not mean the same thing, that we could not rely upon altruistic conduct always being for individual benefit, that there was no 'natural identity' between egoism and altruism. He held that morality, to save it from an unsolved dualism, required a principle capable of reconciling the discrepancy between the conduct in accordance with the axiom of Benevolence and the conduct in accordance with the equally rational axiom of Self-love.
[Footnote 1: Professor Sidgwick's last words on the question are as follows: "If then the reconciliation of duty and self-interest is to be regarded as a hypothesis logically necessary to avoid a fundamental contradiction in one chief department of our thought, it remains to ask how far this necessity constitutes a sufficient reason for accepting this hypothesis.... Those who hold that the edifice of physical science is really constructed of conclusions logically inferred from self-evident premises, may reasonably demand that any practical judgments claiming philosophic certainty should be based on an equally firm foundation. If, on the other hand, we find that in our supposed knowledge of the world of nature propositions are commonly taken to be universally true, which yet seem to rest on no other grounds than that we have a strong disposition to accept them, and that they are indispensable to the systematic coherence of our beliefs,—it will be more difficult to reject a similarly supported assumption in ethics, without opening the door to universal scepticism" ('Methods of Ethics,' 6th ed., pp. 506, 507).]
But while this question of egoism and altruism has thus been recognised as a possible source of perplexity, affecting the ethical standard itself, both egoists and orthodox utilitarians have commonly agreed—though for different reasons—to insist that morality means the same for them both, and to hold with Epicurus that "we cannot lead a life of pleasure which is not also a life of prudence, honour, and justice." It is only in quite recent days that a thoroughgoing attempt has been made to revalue all the old standards of morality. And the attempt is made from a point of view which is certainly not altruistic. The Utilitarian writers of last generation, if they admitted the conflict of egoism and altruism, weighted every consideration on the side of altruism. They emphasised therefore the agreement between their own utilitarian doctrine and the Christian morality in which altruism is fundamental. On the other hand, the more recent tendency to which I refer emphasises and exalts the egoistic side, and thus accentuates the difference between the new moral code—if we may call it moral—and the Christian morality.
The boldest and most brilliant exponent of this tendency is Friedrich Nietzsche, already the object of a cult in Germany, and an author to be reckoned with as one of the new forces in European thought. It is true that some of the most characteristic products of his genius are closely akin to the insanity which clouded his later years. Yet it is impossible to read his writings without recognising his penetrating insight as well as his abundance of virile passion. Besides, in spite of all his extravagances—or, perhaps, because of them—he is symptomatic of certain tendencies of the age. Nietzsche's demand is for nothing less than a revision of the whole moral code and a reversal of its most characteristic provisions. And he has the rare distinction of being a writer on morality who disclaims the title of 'moralist.'
[Footnote 1: Friedrich Nietzsche, the son of a clergyman, was born in Saxony in 1844. In 1869 he became Professor of Classical Philology in Basel, and held this post for ten years, though his work was interrupted by ill-health for a long period. His first book was published in 1871; the preface to the last was dated "on the 30th of September 1888, the day on which the first book of the Transvaluation of all Values was completed." He became hopelessly insane in 1889, and died in 1900. The reader will find a luminous estimate of his work in the essay on "The Life and Opinions of Friedrich Nietzsche" in Pringle-Pattison's 'Man's Place in the Cosmos,' 2nd ed., 1902.]
The ideas which Nietzsche expresses go to the root of the matter. In the first place, he drew a distinction between what he regarded as two different types of morality. One of these he called the morality of masters or nobles, and he called the other the morality of slaves. Self-reliance and courage may be cited as the qualities typical of the noble morality, for they are the qualities which tend to make the man who possesses them a master over others, to give him a prominent and powerful place in the world, and to help him to subjugate to his will both nature and his fellow-men. On the other hand, there are the qualities which form the characteristic features of Christian morality—such as benevolence or love of one's neighbour, the fundamental precept of the Gospels, and the humility and obedience which have been perhaps unduly emphasised in ecclesiastical ethics. These are the qualities which he means when he speaks of the morality of the slave.
In the second place, therefore, what is distinctive of Nietzsche is this: that he explicitly rejects the Christian morality, in particular the virtues of benevolence, of obedience, of humility: these are regarded by him as belonging to a type of morality which is to be overcome and which he calls the servile morality. He deliberately sets in antithesis to one another what he calls Christian and what he calls noble virtues: meaning by the latter the qualities allied to courage, force of will, and strength of arm, such as were manifested in certain Pagan races, but above all in the heroes of the Roman Republic. He would, therefore, deliberately prefer the older Pagan valuation of conduct to the Christian valuation.
In the third place, he attempts what he calls a transvaluation of all values. Every moral idea needs revision, every moral idea, every suggestion of value or worth in conduct, must be tried and tested afresh, and a new morality substituted for the old. And with this claim for revision is connected his idea that the egoistic principle which underlies the Pagan virtues preferred to the Christian, and the higher development of the self-capacities to which it will lead, will evolve a superior kind of men—"Over-men" or "Uebermenschen"—to whom, therefore, we may look as setting the tone and giving the rule for subsequent conduct.
Nietzsche is an unsystematic writer, though none the less powerful on that account. He is apt to be perplexing to the reader who looks for system or a definite and reasoned statement of doctrine; but his aphorisms are all the more fitted to impress readers who are not inclined to criticism, and might shirk an elaborate argument. It is difficult, accordingly, to select from him a series of propositions that would give a general idea of the complete transmutation of morality which he demands. So far as I can make out, there is only one point in which he still agrees with the old traditional morality, and that point seems to cause him no little difficulty. No thinker can afford to question the binding nature of the law of Truth, least of all a thinker so obviously in earnest about his own prophetic message as Nietzsche was. All his investigations presuppose the validity of this law for his own thought; all his utterances imply an appeal to it; and his influence depends on the confidence which others have in his veracity. And on this one point only Nietzsche has to confess himself a child of the older morality. "This book," he says in the preface to one of the least paradoxical of his works, 'Dawn of Day,' "This book ... implies a contradiction and is not afraid of it: in it we break with the faith in morals—why? In obedience to morality! Or what name shall we give to that which passes therein? We should prefer more modest names. But it is past all doubt that even to us a 'thou shalt' is still speaking, even we still obey a stern law above us—and this is the last moral precept which impresses itself even upon us, which even we obey: in this respect, if in any, we are still conscientious people—viz., we do not wish to return to that which we consider outlived and decayed, to something 'not worthy of belief,' be it called God, virtue, truth, justice, charity; we do not approve of any deceptive bridges to old ideals, we are radically hostile to all that wants to mediate and to amalgamate with us; hostile to any actual religion and Christianity; hostile to all the vague, romantic, and patriotic feelings; hostile also to the love of pleasure and want of principle of the artists who would fain persuade us to worship when we no longer believe—for we are artists; hostile, in short, to the whole European Femininism (or Idealism, if you prefer this name), which is ever 'elevating' and consequently 'degrading.' Yet, as such conscientious people, we immoralists and atheists of this day still feel subject to the German honesty and piety of thousands of years' standing, though as their most doubtful and last descendants; nay, in a certain sense, as their heirs, as executors of their inmost will, a pessimist will, as aforesaid, which is not afraid of denying itself, because it delights in taking a negative position. We ourselves are—suppose you want a formula—the consummate self-dissolution of morals." 
[Footnote 1: Nietzsche, 'Werke,' iv. pp. 8, 9 (1899). The translation is taken (with corrections) from the English version by Johanna Volz (1903). Nietzsche has so shocked and confused the English printer that when the author writes himself an 'immoralist' the compositor has made him call himself an 'immortalist.' And errors of the sort do not affect the printer only. Nietzsche's sneer at 'Femininism' is deftly turned aside by Miss Volz, by the simple device of substituting for it the word Pessimism. And Dr Tille, the translator of his best-known work, 'Thus spake Zarathustra' (1896, p. xix), has been bemused in an even more wonderful manner. He enumerates "the best known representatives" of Anarchic tendencies in political thought as "Humboldt, Dunoyer, Stirner, Bakounine, and Auberon Spencer"! The vision of Mr Auberon Herbert and Mr Herbert Spencer doubled up into a single individual is 'a thing imagination boggles at.' Perhaps it is the translator's idea of the Uebermensch.]
Perhaps it is impossible to understand Nietzsche unless one admits that his writings show traces of the disease which very soon prevented his writing at all. But at the same time, while that is true, there is much more in his work than the ravings of a distempered mind. There may have been little method, but there was a great deal of genius, in his madness. While he always overstates his case,—his colossal egoism leads him to exaggerate any doctrine,—and while I do not think that the actual doctrines of Nietzsche in the way he puts them will ever gain any general acceptance, while his system of morality may not have any chance of being the moral code of the next generation or even of being regarded as the serious alternative to Christian morality, yet it is not too much to say that he is symptomatic of a new tendency in ethical thought, a tendency of which he is the greatest, if also the most extravagant exponent, but which has its roots in certain new influences which have come to this generation with the ideas and the triumphs, scientific and material, of the preceding generation.
There are two quite different kinds of influence to which the formation of an ethical doctrine may be due. In the first place, there are the moral sentiments and opinions of the community and of the moralist himself; and, in the second place, there are the scientific and philosophical doctrines accepted by the writer or inspiring what is loosely called the spirit of the time. In most ethical movements the two kinds of influence will be found co-operating, though the latter is almost entirely absent in some cases. The incoherence of popular opinions about morality is a potent stimulus to reflexion, and may of itself give rise to systematic ethical enquiry. This is more particularly the case when a change of social conditions, or contact with alien modes of life, force into light the inadequacy of the conventional morality. In such a case the new ethical reflexion may have a disintegrating effect upon the traditional code, and give to the movement the character and importance of a revolution. The reflective activity of the Sophists in ancient Greece—a movement of the deepest ethical significance—was in the main of this nature. It consisted in a radical sifting and criticism of current moral standards, and was due almost entirely to the first class of influences, being affected only in the slightest degree by scientific or philosophical ideas.
Influences of the same kind combine with science and philosophy in moulding the ethical thought of the present day. Contemporary ethical speculation is by no means exclusively due to the thinkers who attempt to arrive at a consistent interpretation of the nature of reality; and it has features which constantly remind us how closely moral reflexion is connected with the order and changes of social conditions.
Every age is no doubt apt to exaggerate its own claims to mark an epoch. But, after a century of achievements in applied science, there seems little risk of error in asserting that the world is now becoming conscious as it never was before of the vast power given by material resources when under the control of a cool intelligence. And in the competition of nations it is not surprising that there should be an imperious demand for the most alert and well-trained minds to utilise these resources in war and in industry. It is not surprising; nor would it be a fit subject for regret, did not the concentration of the outlook upon material success tend to the neglect of 'things which are more excellent.' Writing many years ago J.S. Mill remarked that "hitherto it is questionable if all the mechanical inventions yet made have lightened the day's toil of any human being." 
[Footnote 1: Political Economy, Book iv. chap. vi. sec. 2.]
There is a further question which ought to be asked of every new advance in material civilisation, Does it foster, or at least does it leave unimpeded, the development of man's spiritual inheritance? Certainly, the control of nature by mind is not necessarily hostile to the ideals which give dignity to the arts and sciences and to man himself. And yet it does not always favour their presence. The weak nations of the world in arms and commerce have contributed their full share to the higher life of the race; and the triumphs of a country on the battlefield or in business give no security for the presence among its people of the ideals which illumine or of the righteousness which exalts. The history of Germany herself might point the moral. A century ago, when she lay crushed beneath the heel of Napoleon, her poets and philosophers were the prophets of ideals which helped to bind her scattered states into a powerful nation, and which enriched the mind of man. To-day we are forced to ask whether military and industrial success have changed the national bent: for poetry seems to have deserted her, and her philosophy betrays the dominance of material interests.
Material success and the struggle for it are apt to monopolise the attention; and perhaps the greatest danger of the new social order is the growing materialisation of the mental outlook. It would be needless to point to the evidence, amongst all classes in the mercantile nations, of the feverish haste to be rich and to enjoy. For to point to this has been common with the moralists of all ages. This age like others—perhaps more than most—is strewn with the victims of the struggle. But it can also boast a product largely its own—the new race of victors who have emerged triumphant, with wealth beyond the dreams of avarice of the past generation. Their interests make them cosmopolitan; they are unrestrained by the traditional obligations of ancient lineage; and the world seems to lie before them as something to be bought and sold. Neither they nor others have quite realised as yet the power which colossal wealth gives in modern conditions. And it remains to be seen whether the multimillionaire will claim to figure as Nietzsche's 'over-man,' spurning ordinary moral conventions, and will play the role, in future moral discourses, which the ethical dialogues of Plato assign to the 'tyrant,'
General literature, even in its highest forms, seems to reflect a corresponding change of view as to what is of most worth in life. Already the strong hold on duty and the spiritual world which Tennyson unfalteringly displayed, even the deeper insight into motive and the faith in goodness which are shown by Browning, are read by us as utterances of a past age. We have grown used to a presentment of human life such as Ibsen's in which the customary morality is regarded as a thin veneer of convention which hardly covers the selfishness in grain, or to the description of life as a tangled mass of animal passions,—a description which, in spite of the genius of Zola, does not fail to weary and disgust,—or perhaps as only a spectacle in which what men call good and evil are the light and shade of a picture which may serve to produce some artistic emotion. An attitude akin to these becomes an ethical point of view in Nietzsche, the enfant terrible of modern thought, who maintains that man's life must be interpreted physiologically only and not spiritually, and who would replace philanthropy by a boundless egoism.
Influences of the second kind are usually more prominent than the preceding in the case of the philosophical moralist, and they are not always avoided by the moralist who boasts his independence of philosophy. The former influences are more constantly at work: they supply the facts for all ethical reflexion. Ethical thought is not so uniformly influenced by the conceptions arrived at in science or philosophy. But there are certain periods of history in which conceptions regarding the truth of things—whether arrived at by scientific methods or not—have had a profound influence upon men's views of good and evil. At the beginning of our era, for instance, the view of God and man introduced by Christianity, resulted in a deepened and, to some extent, in a distinctive morality. Again, at the time of the Renaissance, the new knowledge and new interests combined with the weakening of the Church's and of the Empire's authority to bring about the demand for a revision of the ecclesiastical morality, and led to some not very successful attempts to find a firmer basis for conduct.
At the present day also it is the case that philosophers of different schools are for the most part agreed in claiming ethical importance for their conceptions about reality. In particular, the scientific thought of the last generation has been reformed under the, influence of the group of ideas which constitute the theory of evolution. There is hardly a department of thought which this new doctrine has not touched; and upon morality its influence may seem to be peculiarly important and direct. The theory of evolution, as put forward by Darwin, has established certain positions which have been regarded as of special significance for ethics.
In the first place, it is an assertion of the unity of life. And we must not limit the generality of this proposition. It is not merely a denial of the fixity of species, an assertion that there are no natural kinds so inseparable from one another that each must be the result of a distinct creative act. It is also an assertion that human life must be treated as a part in the larger whole of organic being, that the mind of man is continuous with animal perception, that moral activity is continuous with non-moral impulse. And the assertion of the unity of life is at the same time an assertion of the progress of life. What we call the higher forms are in all cases developments from simpler and lower forms.
Further, the method of this progress has been described. Herein indeed lay Darwin's most important achievement. He detected and demonstrated the operation of a factor hitherto unsuspected. This new factor to which he drew attention as the chief agent in organic development was called by him 'natural selection,' The name has a positive sound and suggests a process of active choice. But Darwin was fully aware that the process to which he gave this name was a negative and not a positive operation; and as such it was clearly recognised by him. The name was, no doubt, chosen simply to bring out the fact that the same kind of results as those which man produces by conscious and artificial selection may be arrived at without conscious purpose by the operation of merely natural forces. Instead of the 'fit' being directly chosen or encouraged, what happens is simply that the 'unfit' die out or are exterminated, so that room to live and means of life are left for the survivors.
What may be meant by this idea of 'fitness'—which meets us in the famous phrase that the 'survival of the fittest' in the struggle for life is the goal of evolution—is a question which brings us at once to the consideration of the ethical significance of the theory. For it seems to lay claim to give both an explanation of progress and an interpretation of what constitutes worth in conduct.
ETHICS AND EVOLUTION.
There are two things which are not always kept distinct,—what may be called the 'evolution of ethics' and the 'ethics of evolution,' The former might more correctly be called the evolution of morality,—the account of the way in which moral customs, moral institutions, and moral ideas have been developed and have come to take their place in the life of mankind. Clearly these are all features of human life; and, if the theory of evolution applies to human life, we must expect it also to have some contribution to make to this portion of man's development,—to the growth of the customs, institutions, and ideas which enter into and make up his morality.
But by the 'ethics of evolution' is meant something more than the 'evolution of ethics' or development of morality. It signifies a theory which turns the facts of evolution to account in determining the value for man of different kinds of conduct and feeling and idea. When one speaks of the ethics of evolution one must be understood to mean that the evolution theory does something more than trace the history of things, that it gives us somehow or other a standard or criterion of moral worth or value. This additional point may be expressed by the technical distinction between origin and validity. Clearly there is a very great difference between showing how something has come to be what it is and assigning to it worth or validity for the guidance of life or thought It may be that the former enquiry has some bearing upon the latter; but only confusion will result if the two problems are not clearly distinguished at the outset,—as they very seldom are distinguished by writers on the theory of evolution in its application to ethics.
It may be said that the evolutionist writers on ethics seek to base an ethics of evolution upon the evolution of ethics, but that they are not always aware of the real nature and difficulties of their task. Sometimes they seem to think that in tracing the evolution of ethics they are also and at the same time determining and establishing a theory of the ethics of evolution. We must avoid this error, and keep the two problems distinct in our minds. Yet from the nature of the case it holds true that it is only through the facts which the theory of evolution establishes or can establish as to the development of morality that it is able to make any contribution to the solution of the further question as to the criterion of morality—the question, that is to say, of moral worth or value.
We cannot, therefore, avoid dealing with the evolution of ethics. But in what follows I am not considering it for its own sake—though it is an interesting and important question. In order to simplify the argument, we may allow what is claimed for it, and give the evolutionist credit for even greater success on the field of historical investigation—which is his own field—than he would, if fair-minded, claim for himself. The problem I have in view lies beyond this historical question. It is the problem how far the known facts and probable theories regarding the development of morality can make any contribution towards determining the standard of worth for our ideas, our sentiments, and our conduct. Now if we read the accredited exponents of the doctrine of evolution we shall find amongst them a considerable variety of view regarding the bearing of the theory of evolution upon this properly ethical problem—the problem of the criterion or standard of goodness.
In the first place, it is desirable to characterise briefly Darwin's own contribution to this matter. The suggestion made by him deals almost entirely with what I have called the development of morality, not with the ethics of evolution; and perhaps it may seem to us now a rather obvious suggestion. But he was the first to make this suggestion; and it comes from him as a direct application of the theory he had established with regard to animal development. His suggestion is simply this—that moral qualities are selected in the struggle for existence in much the same way as purely physical or animal excellences are selected, that is, by their contributing to the continued and more efficient life of the organism. But Darwin saw very clearly that the qualities which are recognised as moral are not by any means in all cases contributory to individual success and efficiency. They are not all of them qualities that contribute to the success of one individual in his struggle with other individuals for the means of subsistence. We may say that courage, prudence, self-reliance, will have that effect, and that consequently in the struggle for life the individuals who show such qualities will have a better chance of survival than those without them. But what about qualities such as sympathy, willingness to help another, obedience, and faithfulness to a community or to a cause? Clearly, these are not qualities which are of special assistance to the individual. But they are qualities which are or may be of very great importance to the tribe or community of individuals. Supposing such qualities of mutual help, of willingness even to sacrifice oneself for others—the qualities which are commonly grouped as expressions of the social instinct,—supposing these to have been somehow developed in the members of a tribe, that tribe would, other things being equal, have an advantage in a struggle with another tribe whose members did not possess these qualities. Now the advantage thus gained in the struggle would be a case of the operation of natural selection: it would exterminate or weaken the tribe without these social qualities, and it would thus give opportunity for the growing efficiency of the tribe that possessed them.
Put in the briefest way, this is the explanation which Darwin gave of the growth of the social qualities in mankind; and the social qualities make up, to a large extent at any rate, what we call moral qualities. Darwin, however, saw further than this: he saw that, while this might account for the development of what we may call savage and barbarian virtues, there was in civilised mankind a development of sympathy which went far beyond this, and which one could not with good reason account for by asserting that it rendered assistance to the community in its struggle for existence with other communities.
Thus, with regard to the former question, he says: "A tribe including many members who, from possessing in a high degree the spirit of patriotism, fidelity, obedience, courage, and sympathy, were always ready to aid one another, and to sacrifice themselves for the common good, would be victorious over most other tribes; and this would be natural selection."
[Footnote 1: Descent of Man, Part I. chap. v. p. 203 (new ed., 1901).]
But when he comes to the case of civilised men he finds a difficulty. "With savages," he says, "the weak in body or mind are soon eliminated; and those that survive commonly exhibit a vigorous state of health. We civilised men, on the other hand, do our utmost to check the process of elimination; we build asylums for the imbecile, the maimed, and the sick; we institute poor-laws; and our medical men exert their utmost skill to save the life of every one to the last moment.... The aid which we feel impelled to give to the helpless is mainly an incidental result of the instinct of sympathy, which was originally acquired as part of the social instincts.... Nor could we check our sympathy, even at the urging of hard reason, without deterioration in the noblest part of our nature." This sympathy, which natural selection cannot preserve or vindicate even in the struggle of communities, is nevertheless recognised by Darwin as having a moral value outside of and above natural selection and the struggle for existence,—a value of which these have no right to judge. He thinks that if we followed hard reason—and by 'hard reason' he obviously means an imitation on our part of the action of natural selection—we should be led to sweep away all those institutions by which civilised mankind guards its weaker members. But this, he says, would be only to deteriorate the "noblest part of our nature." What is noblest in our nature, then, is not that which natural selection has favoured or maintained. There is, therefore, implied in his view a limitation of the ethical significance of the principle of natural selection. For, when we come to this crucial question of conduct, it is not allowed to give any criterion of moral validity. More comprehensive attempts on the same lines as Darwin's have been made subsequently; and various writers have tried to show how the moral criterion may be resolved into social efficiency, or how it may be derived from a problematic future state of the human race on this earth when the need for struggle has disappeared and all things go smoothly. The former view may be found in Sir Leslie Stephen's 'Science of Ethics'; the latter is the peculiar property of Mr Herbert Spencer. Somewhat unwillingly I must for the present leave these special views without consideration, because I wish to bring out still more plainly the various attitudes of the evolutionists to morality, and especially to draw attention to a view very different from those just mentioned, though not altogether without support in Darwin, which, as put forward some years ago by the late Professor Huxley, produced no little flutter in scientific dovecots.
[Footnote 1: Descent of Man, pp. 205, 206.]
[Footnote 2: For a discussion of these views I may be allowed to refer to my' Ethics of Naturalism,' chap. viii. (chap. ix. in the new edition). The same volume contains a more exhaustive examination than is possible in this lecture of the whole subject of evolutionist ethics.]
[Footnote 3: The Romanes Lecture, 1893, "Evolution and Ethics." In 1894 this was republished, with prolegomena, in vol. ix. of 'Collected Essays,' with the title, "Evolution and Ethics, and other Essays."]
Professor Huxley reviewed what he called the cosmic process as it was guided by the law of evolution. He showed how at each step of that process new results were only attained by enormous waste and pain on the part of those living creatures which were thrust aside as unfit for their surroundings, and he held consequently that the whole cosmic process is of an entirely different character from what we must mean when we use the term 'moral.' According to him morality is opposed to the method of evolution, and cannot be based upon the theory of evolution. It is of independent worth; but Professor Huxley, perhaps wisely, refrained from investigating its justification, while enforcing "the apparent paradox that ethical nature, while born of cosmic nature, is necessarily at enmity with its parent"
"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; in place of thrusting aside, or treading down, all competitors, it requires that the individual shall not merely respect, but shall help, his fellows; its influence is directed, not so much to the survival of the fittest, as to the fitting of as many as possible to survive. It repudiates the gladiatorial theory of existence.... Let us understand once for all that the ethical progress of society depends, not on imitating the cosmic process, still less in running away from it, but in combating it."
[Footnote 1: Evolution and Ethics, pp. 81-83.]
Here, then, is a view very different from the easy optimism of Mr Herbert Spencer. The cosmic order has nothing to say to the moral order, except that, somehow or other, it has given it birth; the moral order has nothing to say to the cosmic order, except that it is certainly bad. Morality is occupied in opposing the methods of evolution.
Still another view is possible. It may be held that the morality of self-restraint and self-sacrifice are opposed—as Huxley says they are opposed—to the methods of cosmic evolution; and yet the "gladiatorial theory of existence" may not be repudiated; but morality may be modified to suit the claims of evolution. This is the position adopted by the philosopher Nietzsche, whose whole thought is permeated by the idea of evolution. Like Professor Huxley, Nietzsche might say that morality is opposed to the cosmic process. But by morality he would mean something that is not to be encouraged, but that is to be shed from human life, or at least fundamentally transformed, just because it is in opposition to the laws of cosmic progress. On the other hand, the morality—if we may use the term—which the cosmic process teaches us will be a development of the conceptions of self-assertion and self-reliance, qualities which, according to ordinary morality—the morality, for instance, of Professor Huxley—require to be permeated and even superseded by self-restraint and possibly self-sacrifice in order that the moral law may be satisfied. Not obedience, not mutual help, not benevolence, but the will to rule or desire of power, is with Nietzsche fundamental, the primary impulse in the history of the whole progress of the world, and still of first importance for the further development of mankind.
This view is at the opposite extreme from Huxley's, for it overlooks the advantages mankind has gained by means of the social instinct and the social solidarity which it secures. But there is a further point in Nietzsche's reflexions which is suggested by the theory of development. Natural selection is not the sole agent in the development of organic life: it cannot be too often enforced that natural selection produces nothing, that its operation is purely negative. It does not properly select at all, it only excludes. What it does is to cut off the unfit specimens of living beings which nature supplies. It would have no field of operation were it not for the variety of nature. While individuals tend to repeat the characteristics of their parents, they do not repeat them without change: the principle of heredity is counterbalanced by a principle of variety equally hard to explain. All organic life exhibits this tendency to variation; and one variation proves better adapted than another to the environment. It is this which makes possible the operation of 'natural selection.' Unfit varieties are exterminated by natural selection, and room is thus left for varieties which are fit to perpetuate themselves and to increase in efficiency.
Now, if we apply this conception to human conduct, should we not encourage all varieties to carry on their experiments in living and in morality so that we may see whether success will justify them? An affirmative answer to this question is sometimes vaguely hinted at; by Nietzsche it is proclaimed from the housetops.
"There is no monopoly of morals, and every morality which exclusively asserts itself destroys too much good strength, and is too dearly bought by mankind. The straying ones, who so often are the inventive and productive ones, shall no longer be sacrificed; it shall not even be deemed a disgrace to stray from morals either in deeds or thoughts; numerous new experiments shall be made in matters of life and society; an enormous incubus of bad conscience shall be removed from the world—these are the general aims which ought to be recognised and furthered by all honest and truth-seeking people."
[Footnote 1: Nietzsche, Werke, iv. 161, 162; Dawn of Day, sec. 164.]
Reflecting for a moment on what precedes, we may observe that, from the mouths of the evolutionists themselves, we have encountered three different views regarding the ethical significance of evolution. In the first place, there is the view of Darwin that natural selection is a criterion of moral fitness only up to a certain stage, and that the noblest part of man's morality is independent of this test; in the second place, there is the view of Huxley that morality is entirely opposed to the cosmic process as ruled by natural selection; and, in the third place, there is the view of Nietzsche that the principles of biological development (variation, that is to say, and natural selection) should be allowed free play so that, in the future as in the past, successful variations may be struck out by triumphant egoism. Neither these views, nor the still more elaborate treatment of Spencer, do I propose to examine in detail. But I wish to offer some reflexions upon the fundamental conception underlying them all, accounting in this way, perhaps, for the differences of opinion between Darwin and Spencer, Huxley and Nietzsche. The conception of natural selection and of evolution by natural selection is applied by men of science and by philosophers in three very different spheres, to three very different kinds of struggle or competition. There may be many different kinds of competition: it will be sufficient here to consider the three following:—
First, there is the competition between individuals for individual life and success. Now, so far as we are dealing with this competition, the only qualities which natural selection will favour are of course the qualities which lead to the continuance and efficiency of the individual organism. The qualities 'selected' in this process are therefore only the self-assertive qualities,—the qualities of strength, of courage, of prudence, and also of temperance.
But in the second place there is also, as I have already indicated and as was seen by Darwin (though he did not draw this distinction), a second kind of competition, the competition between groups. Now the group competition has as its end the continuance and efficiency of the group, be it horde or tribe or nation, or be it one of those subsidiary groups which enter into national life. In this competition between groups it is clear that those qualities will be favoured by natural selection which contribute to the efficiency of the group; and the qualities which contribute to the efficiency of the group are not those only which contribute to the efficiency of the individual, but also qualities implying self-restraint and even self-sacrifice on the part of one member of the group for the sake of other members of the group or of the group as a whole. The habit of obedience, for example, obedience to the authority of the group or its representative, may be of fundamental importance in maintaining the existence of the group as a group, although that habit of obedience has no place at all in promoting the interests of the individual when he is competing with other individuals.
Thirdly, there is still another kind of competition which is a little more difficult to make quite clear, because it is not on the plane of individual life and it is not to be identified with the life of the community. It is a competition on the intellectual level, the competition between ideas, and with this one may also couple (so far as it does not directly concern the struggle for social existence and thus belong to the second class) the competition between institutions, including therein also habits and customs. The various institutions in our national life, and the various habits of our life, may be said to be forms which have to maintain themselves often in competition with other and antagonistic forms of institution. The same holds of our various ideas or general conceptions, whether about morality, which we have now specially in view, or about matters more purely intellectual. For instance, forty or fifty years ago, there was a fierce controversy amongst biologists between the group of ideas represented by Darwin's theory and the group of ideas represented by the traditional view of the fixity of species. There was a long conflict between these two groups of ideas, and we may now say that the Darwinian group of ideas has emerged from the conflict victorious.
Now, when the phrase 'natural selection in morals' is used, the reference is commonly to a conflict of this last kind. The suggestion is that different ideas and also different standards of action are manifested at the same time within the same community, that they compete with one another for existence, and that gradually those which are better adapted to the life of the community survive, while the others grow weaker and in the end disappear. In this way the law of natural selection is made to apply to moral ideas and moral standards, and also to intellectual standards and to the institutions and customs in which our ideas are expressed.
These, then, are the three ways in which the competition in man's life and the selection between the competing factors is carried out. And sometimes I think one sees a tendency to suggest that this needs only to be stated, and that the whole question of the application of evolution to ethics is then settled. You may say that such and such moral qualities, as for instance the quality of sympathy, do not aid the individual in competition with other individuals. The reply might be No, but they aid the group in competition with other groups. Or you may say, as Darwin said, that even this competition will not account for the civilised development of sympathy. But even so we are not at the end of our tether; and we can fall back on the conflict of ideas. The idea of sympathy or of altruism, for instance, may conflict with some other idea, such as that of egoism. At first the competition is a group-competition, in which the group with altruistic members succeeds at the expense of the egoistic group. By the victory of the former our society becomes more and more a society whose basis is sympathy and all that sympathy implies, while conflicting ideas lose the lead. So in general with the competition of ideas: the idea which fails to adapt itself to its conditions will disappear, and the idea which is thus adapted will persist; and this also (it is said) is just natural selection. Now I venture to ask the question, Is it? I will put the question whether all these three processes are really forms of the same process, or, in other words and to put the matter more simply, Is it simply natural selection that is operative in all these different forms of competition?
For the sake of clearness I will take first this last-mentioned form of competition, the process by which one idea drives another out of the intellectual or moral currency of a community. The competition between the idea of fixity of species and Darwin's idea of the unity of life has been already cited as an instance; and it was pointed out that, gradually and after a controversy of some forty years, the former idea almost disappeared, and in the minds at any rate of those who know, the Darwinian theory became victorious. Was it natural selection that brought about the result? To test the matter let us ask once more how natural selection operates. Its mode of operation is always simply negative. And if, in the struggle of life, it selects the courageous man rather than the coward, the temperate man rather than the intemperate, the method by which this result is reached is simple: when it comes to a conflict the courageous man kills the coward or reduces him to subjection; the intemperate man has less vitality than the temperate: he too disappears, although perhaps gradually.
Take again the group-competition so far as it is influenced by natural selection. The tribe which manifests the qualities of social solidarity is selected simply in this way, that when it comes into conflict with a tribe which has not this solidarity the latter is beaten, and is thus unable to obtain the pastures or the hunting-ground which it desires, and therefore gradually or swiftly it is exterminated or left behind in the race for life. Now, I ask, Did this process take place when Darwinism supplanted the traditional theory of the fixity of species? Surely it is clear that it is only in the rarest cases that false or inadequate ideas on such subjects have any tendency to shorten life or weaken health. Bishop Wilberforce was killed by a fall from his horse, not by the triumphant dialectic of Professor Huxley. Sir Richard Owen lived to a patriarchal old age, and did not disappear from the face of the earth because he still clung to an idea which the best intellect of his time had relinquished. There is nothing in the doctrine of the fixity of species—if you hold it—which will in the least degree tend to diminish vitality. Natural selection has practically no effect at all in exterminating those who adhere to this idea. There is no means of livelihood from which it would exclude them except indeed that it might prevent them from occupying Chairs of Biology. Apart from that I do not think it will hinder them in any of the various modes of activity in which the struggle for life is manifested.
What was it then that led to the victory of the one idea over the other? The cause was intellectual. With the experts, it was logical conviction: one set of ideas was found to fit the facts somewhat better than the other set of ideas. With men in general the intellectual change came more slowly and in a different way: they adopted or imitated the ideas of those who knew. It was therefore not natural selection at all which led to the presence and power of the one idea rather than the other in the minds of thoughtful men. One idea was deliberately accepted and the other deliberately rejected. The former was accepted on grounds of which the most general account would be, if we may use the term, to call them subjective. But natural selection is a physical, external, objective process. It is carried out without the individual's volition: he is not aiming at the end. It is simply natural law which, with many varieties of living beings before it, exterminates the unfit individuals. Thus nature in its own blind way produces a result of the same kind as that which the will of man would bring about by subjective selection.
The origin of this term 'natural selection' is overlooked when people talk glibly about 'natural selection' of ideas. Darwin used the term 'natural selection' because he thought he saw an analogy between the tendency of nature and the selective purposes of intelligent beings. It was because nature, working without intelligence, produced the same kind of result as man does by intelligent selection, that he ventured to use this term 'selection' of the process of nature. Perhaps he was hardly justified in adopting the term, as nature does not select; she only passes by. At the same time, artificial selection also includes, although it is not limited to, this negative or weeding-out process. When you select a certain plant for growth in your garden you weed out the neighbouring plants which encroach upon it, so as to give it a chance to grow and thrive. By removing its competitors, you let air and light surround the plant, and it spreads its leaves to the sun. The healthy growth which results is due to the removal of obstacles by an external power; and it is in this way—by the removal of obstacles—that natural selection works.
Intelligent or artificial selection is not restricted to this negative method of working; and its operation, positive as well as negative, was certainly well known long before Darwin's day. Starting with the familiar facts of artificial or purposive selection, Darwin showed how results similar to those aimed at and reached in this way might be brought about by the operation of certain natural laws, working without purpose or design. Purposive selection pursues its ends more directly and in general attains them far more quickly than does natural selection. A still more striking characteristic is the fact that it does not entail the waste and pain which mark the course of natural selection. Witness the records of natural selection in the vegetable and animal kingdoms, where thousands are called into fruitless being that one alone may survive and prosper. Wastefulness is the most striking feature of its method, and its path is strewn with wreckage. In all these respects the conflict of ideas belongs to the level of purposive and not of natural selection. It involves consciousness of the end, which natural selection never does; it is comparatively rapid in reaching its goal and comparatively direct in the route it takes; and the victory of an idea does not take effect through any general extermination of the individuals who cherish ideas 'unfit' for survival.
I do not deny that there may be a certain natural selection in the case of human beings; but that process is always clumsy and slow and wasteful, and the purposive intelligent selection which takes its place is one of the greatest possible gains to living beings: its presence distinguishes men from animals; its predominance distinguishes civilised men from savages; the higher the stage of civilisation, the more marked is the development of selective intelligence. And in the conflict of ideas, whether moral or intellectual, the issue is determined by a selection which is predominantly purposive, and only in the slightest degree natural.
If we return to the conflict of groups we shall see that even there purposive selection enters. How (we may ask) do those qualities of obedience, willingness to help another, and the like, arise in a community and thus enable it to win the victory over a less organised or more savage enemy? Surely it is not a sufficient answer to say that these qualities have been somehow developed, and then have contributed to the victory of the community possessing them. All through civilised life, and probably throughout a great part of savage life, there is the keenest enquiry into and perception of the qualities which will make for success. These qualities are carefully selected and positively fostered. You drill your armies—that is, you cultivate the habit of discipline and all that discipline implies—so that the victory may be gained; in other words, the quality is not produced by natural selection at all. The issue may resemble the result of natural selection, for it leads to conflict and defeat of the unfit; but the conqueror is he who has foreseen the conditions of the struggle: has deliberately equipped his forces for the fight, and been the intelligent organiser of victory.
Even in the case of competition between individuals, at least among civilised men, it is clear that natural selection is very far from being the only factor. A man trains himself for a profession. It does not just somehow come about that a number of people accidentally develop certain varieties of occupation, and that natural selection makes play with this result, cutting off the unfit and leaving only those who are fairly well adapted to their positions. Something of this sort no doubt takes place to a limited extent; but, so far as it does take place, our methods are denounced as defective and, perhaps, as old-fashioned. 'Haphazard' is a wasteful principle, and should be superseded by intelligent initiative and deliberate preparation. And this indeed is the usual process. One adapts oneself carefully and of set purpose to the conditions of one's life, instead of simply waiting for natural selection to cut one off should one happen to be unfit.
Even among animals there are certain processes which cannot be brought under natural selection. There are the first efforts, slight as they may be, towards learning by experience. There are also all those facts which Darwin classes under sexual selection, where there is a positive choosing, due no doubt not to intelligent purpose but nevertheless to a subjective impulse. This marks the beginning of the end of the reign of natural selection, because in it for the purely objective or external factor there is substituted an internal, subjective factor; instead of the process of cutting off unsuitable individuals among chance varieties there appears the process of selecting that variety which pleases or attracts.
The result of this whole investigation is that natural selection cannot be properly applied so as to explain the conflict of moral ideas. It is not able to account for all the phenomena of the competition between groups. Even in sub-human life there are indications of the processes which supersede natural selection. From this result the ethical consequence may be drawn, that there is no good ground for taking the lower, the less developed, method of selection as our guide in preference to the higher and more developed. Surely we are not to take natural selection as the sole factor of ethical import because we see it at the crude beginnings of life on this earth, while the process of life itself in its higher ranges passes beyond natural selection. The physiological interpretation of life and conduct put forward by Nietzsche, and by a good many biological philosophers, would take natural selection, and its bearing upon the animal nature of man, as the sole test of efficiency and ethical value. But this interpretation of man's life disregards the achievements of evolution itself for the sake of pinning its faith to the humble beginnings of the organic process.
After this long enquiry into the nature and scope of natural selection, we should be better prepared to understand the degree and kind of ethical significance which can be rightly assigned to the theory of evolution. In the first place let us consider the now familiar claim that man must be taken as part of the cosmos, and that man's conduct must be regarded and studied in its place in the cosmic process. At the time when it was first made this claim may have seemed a startling one; but I think that we must admit that, keeping to their own ground and using the instruments that are theirs by right, the evolutionist writers have succeeded in showing man's connexion with the animal kingdom and with organic life generally, and thus his place in the whole cosmic process. The claim must therefore be admitted.
But if man is part of the universe, then the universe is not intelligible apart from man, and the cosmic process is not fully understood unless we also have an understanding of human activity. This, therefore, is the counter-claim that I would suggest. The course and method of evolution, or of the 'cosmic process'—to use Huxley's term—is imperfectly described if the methods and principles of human action are left out of account.
No doubt the reply may be made, as the reply has been made, that after all man occupies but a minute space in the cosmos, that he is but an insignificant speck on an unimportant planet. But, if this is at all meant to imply that we may safely leave the peculiarities of human activity out of account, then I say that the suggestion hardly deserves consideration. Surely the assumption is too gross and unwarrantable that material magnitude is the standard of importance, or that the significance of man's life can be measured by the size of his material organism. We must therefore never delude ourselves with the idea that we have a full account of the cosmos or the cosmic process unless we have taken account of the peculiarities of man's nature and man's activity.
In the second place, the discussion of the principle of natural selection suggests a further reflexion. The process of natural selection is a process which always tends to some end, because by it some organisms are selected, and they are the organisms which are fittest to live. By 'fittest' is of course meant that which is best adapted to the environment, or, as it is simply a question of survival, that which so fits the conditions of the environment that it is able to survive. The canon of the principle of natural selection is on the face of it relative. No one would say that the principle can be interpreted as an absolute law for conduct, after the fashion of the absolute laws laid down by the rationalist moralists; what is involved is simply a gelation to one's surroundings. One must keep in touch with them, one must adapt oneself to them, in order to live.
But I wish to point out that the principle is not only relative, but that its relation is limited to certain features of the environment which surrounds mankind, namely, to those features and those features only which prevent organisms unsuited to the conditions of life from surviving at all. The only way in which natural selection works is by killing off rapidly or gradually the organisms which are not fitted to obtain from the environment the means of life—that is to say, it has to do with life only, with the continuance of life as a possible material phenomenon. Given that the organisms are fit enough to survive, given that their animal vitality is not diminished, a question remains: what is the standard of worthy survival? and to that question the process and principle of natural selection can give no answer. To use the old distinction: even if it is able to account for being, it can give no standard for wellbeing.
Now the environment of civilised man is a great deal larger in range than those material phenomena which contribute to his nourishment and thus to his existence as an animal organism. No doubt his first effort is to maintain himself as an animal—that is the condition of all his subsequent activity—but he seeks also to suit himself to an environment which is wider and subtler than merely animal conditions of life; to adapt himself to society, perhaps only as a member of it, perhaps also as a leader or reformer; to adapt himself to the dominant ideas of his time, absorbing them, perhaps also modifying them; to adapt himself to a whole region of interests which may in our life be built upon an animal basis, but of which the animal basis gives no explanation—interests social, artistic, intellectual, spiritual.
It is correct, therefore, to say of man that his environment is much larger than the material universe; it is whatever he conceives the universe as being, and whatever it can be for him: whether he seeks from it merely intellectual understanding, whether he regards it as a vehicle for artistic production, or whether he may see in it an opportunity for realising his own being by fulfilling the will of God—perhaps by submerging his own individuality in deity. The objects of philosophy, art, and religion,—all these are parts of the environment of civilised man, and yet his self-adaptation to them has no direct effect whatever upon his continuance on the earth as an animal organism. In other words, the process of natural selection can give us no canon at all for putting a value upon these various activities, or upon the way in which man adapts himself to these parts of his environment.
It is said by Mr Herbert Spencer that "we must interpret the more developed by the less developed"; and the inference would seem to be that, as animal existence is the basis of all higher activities, we must interpret these by it. But if this claim can be admitted at all, it can only be if our aim goes no further than to trace a historical process. If we desire to understand capacity or function—still more if we speak of worth or goodness—then it is much more correct to say that we must interpret the less developed by the more developed. If you wish to trace the growth of the oak-tree from its earliest beginnings to maturity, then study the acorn and the soil; but if you wish to know what the capacity and the function of the acorn are, then you must interpret the less developed by the more developed, you must see what an oak is like when it spreads its branches under the heavens.
[Footnote 1: Principles of Ethics, i. 7.]
In the third place, the way in which the action of natural selection differs according to circumstances affects its ethical significance. It operates as between individuals, and it operates as between groups,—although in the latter operation especially it is always mixed with other forces than natural selection. The competition between individuals favours egoistic qualities, the competition between groups favours qualities which may be called altruistic.
Now no principle whatever can be got out of the theory of natural selection, or out of the evolution theory in general, which will decide between these divergent operations. The question may be put, Are we to cultivate the qualities which will give us success in the battle of individual with individual, or are we to cultivate in ourselves qualities which will contribute to the success of the community? All the answer that the evolution theory can give to this question is, that when individual fights with individual, the man with stronger egoistic qualities will succeed, and that when group fights group, those groups that possess stronger altruistic qualities will tend to success. But which set of qualities we are to cultivate, or whether we are to manifest a sort of balance of the two, is a question upon which we can get no light from the theory of evolution considered by itself. And consequently we find a very prevalent, though perhaps hardly ever definitely expressed, code of conduct according to which the individual takes as the guide for his own action the egoistic qualities which give success in the struggle between different individuals, but recommends to all his fellows in the same community that they should cultivate those altruistic qualities which will lead to the advantage of society.
The theory of evolution makes no contribution at all to these questions of worth or validity or moral value which we have been discussing. All one can get out of it is certain canons for living, but none for good living. It may draw one's attention to this fact, if anybody's attention needs to be drawn to it, that existence is prior to wellbeing; but what the nature of wellbeing is—upon that it throws no light.
We have been met by the suggestion that we should interpret by means of the lower or less developed, and again that we should set up a purely physiological standard. But the suggestion overlooks two things: first of all, the difficulties in the application of natural selection itself with its divergent tendencies; and, secondly, the fact that this process of evolution has itself resulted in the development of certain higher activities and higher tendencies, and that there is no good ground for holding that their worth is to be tested by means of the lower qualities out of which they have grown.
Now a good many evolutionist moralists seem to see this, and accordingly restrict themselves almost entirely to what we may call the historical point of view. They show how moral customs and moral ideas adapted to them have arisen, and how these ideas and customs have corresponded with the institutions of the time to which they belonged. Their tendency, accordingly, is to restrict ethics to the question of origin and history and description, to deprive it altogether of what is sometimes called its normative character—that is to say, its character as a science which lays down rules or sets up ideals for conduct. They would take away from it altogether the power of determining and establishing a criterion between right and wrong. In other words, the fundamental ethical question would be entirely excluded from the scope of the science of ethics.
[Footnote 1: Cf. Green, 'Prolegomena to Ethics,' p. 7: "A philosopher who would reconstruct our ethical systems in conformity with the doctrines of evolution and descent, if he would be consistent, must deal less scrupulously with them than perhaps any one has yet been found to do. If he has the courage of his principles, having reduced the speculative part of them to a natural science, he must abolish the practical or preceptive part altogether."]
That, so far as I can see, is the tendency of a good deal of quite recent writing from the point of view of the evolution school: in the face of controversy and in the face of difficulties to give up the attempt which they started on so confidently thirty years ago,—the attempt to show that evolution affords a means of deciding between right and wrong and of establishing an ideal for human conduct. Failing in this attempt, they seem to turn round and say that ethics should content itself with describing facts instead of laying down a law or setting up an ideal.
Now, whatever truth there may be in the assertion of the difficulty of determining an ideal for conduct, there is one thing certain: that whether or not the ideal can be philosophically or scientifically defined and established, some ideal is always being set up. Human action implies choice, implies the selection of one course rather than another; and the course that is chosen is always chosen for some reason, because it seems better than the course which is passed by. Choice always follows some kind of principle. We may use different principles at different times, we may use badly established principles, we may use uncriticised principles, but principles we do use, and we cannot act voluntarily without using them, even when we are not definitely conscious of them.
It is not possible, therefore, to entertain the suggestion that these principles should be excluded from ethics. Ethics must consider them, even if it should fail in reaching a correct account of them. We are bound to ask, for instance, what principles can decide between those divergent tendencies brought to light by natural selection, between the conditions of success for the group and the conditions of success for the individual? The conflict between individual development and group development is continually pressing to the front The individual cannot reach a high stage of development except in and through a highly developed society. But the efficiency which a highly developed society requires of its members is not the same as individual development; it more commonly implies a specialisation which tends to warp or cramp individual capacity. This is a long familiar opposition. And the theory of evolution can do nothing to reconcile it All it can say is that in certain cases natural selection points one way, and that in certain cases it points the other way. If ethical significance be claimed for it, it must be said that natural selection is divided against itself, and that it is without any principle for reconciling its own divergences.
It is because biological evolution is essentially an historical doctrine that its votaries should not be too eager to apply it directly to ethics. It has accomplished much if able to tell us how things have happened in the past, without also dictating how they ought to take place now. It is specially absurd to say that earlier methods must govern later developments. That is what is done when we are asked to take as our guide in voluntary choice a principle which ignores volition. The whole progress from animal to man and from savage to civilised man shows a gradual supersession of the principle of natural selection by a principle of subjective selection which steadily grows in purposiveness and in intelligence. To say that intelligence should take nature as its guide is to ask civilised man to put off both his civilisation and his manhood.
The course of evolution may describe the working of different principles; but it cannot of itself supply a test of their value. How then is such a test to be got? Can Metaphysics help us? I have pointed out that the evolutionist ethics is relative—implying always a relation between organism and environment—but this relativity is qualified by its objective character. It does do something for morals: it brings man's conduct into relation with the world as a whole. No doubt the environment which more immediately surrounds man is a succession of changing phenomena, so that although the basis we get is objective, nevertheless it is unable to give us a permanent standard of reference. At the same time we may trace in this theory some advance on the older types of ethical thinking spoken of in last lecture. Subjectivity adhered even to the Utilitarian type of thought: for what can be more subjective than the pleasant feeling upon which morality is made by it to depend? There was also a certain subjectivity attaching to the Intuitional type of thought, because the Intuitionists simply referred their judgments to conscience, the law in man, and did not connect conscience with a wider or more objective view of the universe.
The suggestion remains that we may get a basis for morality which is both objective and permanent from that more complete view of the universe which is given or which is sought by metaphysics. Metaphysics aims at completeness. That is, indeed, its predominant characteristic as a body of knowledge. It may begin with the part, if you like, with the 'flower in the crannied wall'; but when that is seen in all its relations to the rest of the world, then you will 'know what God and man is,' If the universe is a whole, then, beginning at any point, with any detail, if you only push the enquiry far enough, you are bound to become metaphysical: for you are attempting to understand reality as a whole.
In this Metaphysics resembles Religion. Both seek the ultimate, the final, the whole. But Metaphysics is distinguished from Religion in seeking the whole only by way of knowledge. So far it is like any other science. It is a process or the result of a process of knowledge. It seeks to know reality as a whole, and in knowing a part to know it in its relations to the whole. Religion also considers everything in its relation to the whole. But in religion knowledge is not the fundamental thing: its object is to relate man to God, in his consciousness, and in his life as a whole.
The theory of evolution itself very often tends to become a metaphysical theory. It does so when it holds the course of development which it traces to be either itself the ultimate reality or the most adequate appearance of that reality. This theory is now commonly known by the name of Naturalism; according to it the facts dealt with by the natural sciences are the only reality which is knowable; man's nature is part of these and has to be adapted to them, and there is nothing further with which it can be brought into relation. This theory is not the same as the scientific theory of evolution, nor is it a necessary consequence of it; but in the minds of many the two go together. The conclusion of the preceding argument—that the ethical significance of evolution is not deep enough to give any answer to the fundamental question of morals—is not a criticism of the theory of evolution so far as restricted to the domain of science, but it is a criticism of the Naturalism which professes to be a final philosophy.