Recent Tendencies in Ethics
William Ritchie Sorley
Team from images provided by the Million Book Project
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.
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
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
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
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
[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
[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
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
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
[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
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
[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 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
[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
[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
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
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
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
[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
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.
ETHICS AND IDEALISM.
There has been no movement of metaphysical thought in our time which
can be compared for its widespread influence or for its general
acceptance with the theory of evolution in biological science.
Intimate as is its connexion with the progress of science, metaphysics
does not keep step with it,--any more than it simply marks time as the
former advances. It reflects the influence of each new generalisation
of science; but if and so far as it reflects this influence only, it
cannot be an adequate metaphysics. Metaphysics must re-think each new
fact brought to light, each new generalisation established by science.
It must think them in their relation to the whole, and attempt to
understand them by setting them in their place in the complete system
of knowledge and reality. This complete system is indeed an
ideal, never adequately comprehended by the human mind; but it is
nevertheless the ideal which determines all efforts of constructive
philosophy--including those efforts which take the generalisation of
some special science as their all-comprehending principle. An attempt
of this kind to make a philosophy out of a scientific generalisation
has in our own time been the obvious result of the theory of
evolution, and has given new vogue to the philosophical system called
Naturalism. That system draws its strength from the scientific
doctrine of evolution; but as a philosophy it gives an extended
application to the generalisation established by a group of sciences,
and valid for the facts within their range. It interprets the law
of development which rules the sequences of nature as the highest
attainable principle for explaining the system of things. Some of the
questions which it leaves unanswered, and some of the facts which
it overlooks, have been pointed out in last lecture. Of this theory
perhaps enough has already been said.
In spite of the increased vogue which naturalism has obtained from its
alliance with triumphant evolutionism, it cannot be said to represent
the prevailing type of thought amongst the English metaphysicians
of the last generation. That generation was remarkable for the
reappearance in this country of a reasoned Idealism; and all forms of
Idealism have at least this in common, that they refuse to look upon
the material process as the ultimate character of reality--so far as
reality is known or knowable.
It may also be said--and this is a characteristic which is not merely
negative--that all forms of Idealism agree in ascribing special
significance to the moral and religious aspects of life. This holds
true of the great idealists, different as their types of thought may
be--of Plato and Aristotle, of Spinoza and Leibniz, of Kant, Fichte,
and Hegel. It holds true also of the leading representatives of recent
English idealism. But the ethical tone of a treatise and the ethical
interest of its author are not always a guarantee that ethical
conceptions have a secure position in his system of thought. This is
the case, I think, with Spinoza; and it seems to me to hold also of
some writers of the present day. Mr Bradley, for instance, is perhaps
the most influential, as he is without doubt not the least brilliant,
of contemporary metaphysicians; he carries on the tradition of a
school of thought predominantly ethical; his first book was a defence
of the ethical positions of that school; but, if we turn to the
elaborate metaphysical treatise which has resulted from his mature
reflexion, its most impressive feature will be found to be the almost
complete bankruptcy of the system in the region of ethics.
Not only had this idealist movement in its beginnings a predominantly
ethical tone. It was really started in the interest of moral ideals as
well as of intellectual thoroughness; and its contribution of greatest
value to English thought was a work on ethics. The 'Prolegomena
to Ethics' of T.H. Green was a fitting result of his unwearied
controversies in defence of the spiritual nature of man and the
universe. No one is more worthy than he to be called by the Platonic
name a 'friend of ideas,' And he was a friend of ideas because he saw
their necessity for maintaining and realising the higher capacities
of human life. Green's 'Prolegomena' was published in 1883, the year
after his death. And, had I been speaking twenty years ago, I should
have had to emphasise the ethical character of the metaphysics of the
day. His metaphysical thinking, through all its subtleties, never
strayed far from the moral ideal. Owing to his teaching that ideal,
and the general character of the philosophy with which it was
associated, have permeated a great part of the better thought of the
present day, and have influenced its practical activities in various
directions,--social, political, and religious. But the magnetism of
his personality has been removed; and those whose business it is to
test intellectual notions have been impressed by the difficulties
involved in Green's metaphysical positions and in his connexion of
them with morality.
The single word 'self-realisation' has been taken to express the view
of the moral ideal enforced by Green. And it is as suitable as any
single word could be. But it is clear that, in every action whatever
of a conscious being, self-realisation may be said to be the end: some
capacity is being developed, satisfaction is being sought for some
desire. A man may develop his capacities, seek and to some extent
attain satisfaction--in a manner, realise himself--not only in
devotion to a scientific or artistic ideal or in labours for the
common good, but also in selfish pursuit of power or even in sensual
enjoyment. So far as the word 'self-realisation' can be made to cover
such different activities, it is void of moral content and cannot
express the nature of the moral ideal. Green is perfectly alive to the
need of a distinction--and to the difficulty of drawing it. According
to his own statement it is true not only of moral activity but of
every act of willing that in it "a self-conscious individual directs
himself to the realisation of some idea, as to an object in which for
the time he seeks self-satisfaction." And he proceeds to ask the
question, "How can there be any such intrinsic difference between the
objects willed as justifies the distinction which 'moral sense' seems
to draw between good and bad action, between virtue and vice? And if
there is such a difference, in what does it consist?" Now we may
define a good action as the sort of action which proceeds from a good
man; or we may define a good man as a man who performs good actions.
And for each method of definition something may be said. But if we
adopt both methods together and say in one breath that good is what
the good man does and that the good man is he who does good, is our
logic any better than that of the ordination-candidate who defined the
functions of an archdeacon as archdiaconal functions? And yet Green
comes very near to describing this logical circle. "The moral good,"
he says, is "that which satisfies the desire of amoral agent"; but
"the question, ... What do we mean by calling ourselves moral agents?
is one to which a final answer cannot be given without an answer to
the question, What is moral good?"
[Footnote 1: Prolegomena to Ethics, sec. 154, p. 160.]
[Footnote 2: Ibid., sec. 156, p. 163.]
[Footnote 3: Prolegomena to Ethics, secs. 171, 172, p. 179.]
When Green really grapples with the difficulty of distinguishing the
moral from the immoral in character or in conduct, it is possible
to distinguish different ways in which he attempts to draw the
distinction--these different ways being, however, not independent but
complementary to one another in his thought. The first suggestion is
that good is distinguished from evil, or the true good from a good
which is merely apparent, by its permanence. It gives a lasting
satisfaction instead of a merely transient satisfaction: "the true
good ... is an end in which the effort of a moral agent can really
find rest." In this statement two points seem to be involved which
the use of the rather metaphorical term 'finding rest' tends to
confuse. If we are looking for the distinction simply of a good action
or motive from a bad one we may point to the approval of conscience in
the former case: this has a permanence--or rather an independence of
time--which distinguishes it from the satisfaction of some temporary
desire. But I do not think that this is what Green means. He wished
to avoid falling back upon mere disconnected judgments of conscience
after the manner of the intuitional moralists. The 'true good' for him
seems to mean the attainment, the complete realisation, of the moral
ideal. Were this reached we should indeed 'find rest,' for moral
activity as we know it would be at an end. But the moral ideal
is never thus attained; its realisation, as Green holds, is only
progressive and never completed. Consequently 'rest' is never 'found.'
It is of the nature of the moral life to press onward constantly
towards a goal which it cannot attain; each achievement leads to a
further effort and a higher reach.
[Footnote 1: Ibid., sec. 171, p. 179.]
By itself, therefore, the assertion that the moral agent 'finds rest'
in the 'true good' does not enable us to distinguish the moral agent
or the moral action from the immoral. For we are unable to define the
'true good.' It is not a part of experience; it is an ideal: and Green
allows that we can give no complete account of it; he even says
that we can give no positive account of it. At the same time this
consideration leads to another and connected method for distinguishing
good from evil.
"Of a life of completed development," Green holds, "of activity with
the end attained, we can only speak or think in negatives, and thus
only can we speak or think of that state of being in which, according
to our theory, the ultimate moral good must consist." But the
development is a real process which manifests itself in habits and
social institutions; and from these its actual achievements we can to
a certain extent see what the moral capability of man "has in it to
become," and thus "know enough of ultimate moral good to guide our
conduct." One of the most valuable portions of Green's own work is his
description of the gradual widening and purifying of human conceptions
regarding goodness in character and conduct. But all this implies some
standard of discrimination and selection between what is good and
what is evil in human achievement. Which developments are truly
realisations of "the moral capability of man," and so tend to the
attainment of ultimate good, and which developments are expressions
of those capacities which seek an apparent good only and are to be
classed as evil, as impediments to the realisation of the good,--these
have to be discriminated; and is it so clear that from the mere record
of human deeds we are able to draw the distinction? Do we not need
some criterion of goodness to guide our judgment? and does not Green
himself use such a criterion when he appeals to the tendency of
certain institutions and habits to "make the welfare of all the
welfare of each," and of certain arts to make nature "the friend of
man"? Common welfare and the utilisation of nature in the service
of man seem to be taken as tests of the true development of moral
capabilities. The criteria themselves may be excellent; but they
are not got out of the mere record: they are brought by us to its
contemplation. To this special question I can find no answer in Green.
He is indeed aware that there is a difficulty; or rather he admits
that something has been "taken for granted." He has assumed that
there is "some best state of being for man"; that this best state is
eternally present to a divine consciousness; and further, that this
"eternal mind" is reproducing itself as the self of man. On this
supposition only, he says, can our moral activity be explained; and
he holds that the supposition can be justified metaphysically and has
been so justified by himself in the earlier part of his treatise.
[Footnote 1: Prolegomena to Ethics, sec. 172, p. 180.]
[Footnote 2: Prolegomena, sec. 172, p. 180.]
[Footnote 3: Ibid., secs. 173, 174, p. 181.]
Now I am willing to admit that Green showed a correct instinct in
examining the nature of man before entering upon his properly ethical
enquiry. One must know what man is before one can say what his
'good' or his duty is; and it is only because man's nature cannot be
accounted for as a merely natural or animal product that the way is
open for an idealist ethics such as Green's. But perhaps Green laid
too much stress on the problem of historical causation. What matters
it how we came by our knowledge, provided it is the case that we can
know ourselves and the world? If we can now distinguish right and
wrong, can ally ourselves with the good, and follow a moral ideal, of
what great importance are the steps by which the moral consciousness
was attained? And the question here is whether the special results
reached by Green in his metaphysical enquiry into human nature have
brought us any nearer to a solution of the present ethical difficulty.
As we have seen, the metaphysical view which Green arrives at is that
the consciousness which is in man and which raises him above nature
is the manifestation of--the "reproduction" of itself by--an eternal
self-consciousness. Man's own self-consciousness in knowledge and
volition is simply God's self--consciousness "reproduced" (to use
Green's term) in man's animal nature: so that the animal body and
its temporal activities become in some unexplained (and no doubt
inexplicable) way "organic" (to use Green's terminology once more,
where no terminology seems adequate) to a spiritual reality which is
eternal and infinite.
I am far from denying the greatness of this conception or its
practical value. There is no stronger support to moral endeavour than
the conviction that the moral life is a realisation of the divine
purpose, that in all goodness the spirit of God is manifest, that the
good man is the servant of God or even His fellow-worker. By whatever
metaphor this may be expressed--and Green's statement that the divine
self--consciousness 'reproduces' itself in human morality is also
a metaphor--it betrays the assurance that moral achievement is
permanent, and that (in spite of all apparent failures) goodness will
prevail. He who fights for the good may be confident of victory.
This is the practical value of the conception; but in order that it
may have this practical value, the distinction of good from evil
must be first of all made clear. Green's appeal to an eternal
self-consciousness does nothing of itself to elucidate this
distinction. Tendencies to exalt selfish interest over common welfare,
and to prefer sensual to what are called higher gratifications, enter
into the nature of man, and have fashioned his history. Green does
not even ask the question whether these also are not to be considered
manifestations or 'reproductions' of the eternal self-consciousness.
But his metaphysical view does not exclude them; and if they are
included, morality disappears for lack of any criterion between good
and evil. If good is to be discriminated from evil, it must be by some
other means than by describing the whole conscious activity of man as
a reproduction of the divine. Instead of doing anything to solve the
problem of the meaning of goodness, Green simply brings forward a new
difficulty--that of understanding how the temporal process in which
human morality is developed can be related to a reality which is
defined as out of time or eternal. This difficulty cannot be avoided
in a metaphysical theory of morality. And it does not stand alone.
Green's own dialectics were directed against the Sensationalist and
Hedonist theories which used to be regarded as typical of English
thought; and on them they acted as a powerful solvent. His own views
of the spiritual nature of man and its relation to the eternal
self-consciousness were worked out with the confidence and enthusiasm
of a reformer rather than with the caution of a critic. But criticism
has followed, and not only from the representatives of opposed
schools. Writers whose intellectual affinities are on the whole the
same as his have let their dialectic play around his fundamental
conceptions with a result very different from that which he
contemplated. Mr Bradley, like Green, has faith in an eternal Reality,
which might be called spiritual, inasmuch as it is not material; like
Green, he looks upon man's moral activity as an appearance--what Green
calls a reproduction--of this eternal reality. But under this general
agreement there lies a world of difference. He refuses, by the use of
the term self-consciousness, to liken his Absolute to the personality
of man, and he brings out the consequence, which in Green is more or
less concealed, that the evil equally with the good in man and in the
world are appearances of the Absolute.
Mr Bradley's whole work is ruled by the distinction between
"Appearance" and "Reality," which gives his book a title. On the
one hand there is the Absolute Reality, spoken of as perfect, and
described as all--comprehensive and harmonious throughout. Neither
change nor time nor any relation can belong to it. But intelligence
works by discrimination and comparison; knowledge implies relations;
it is, therefore, excluded from reality. Truth is mere appearance. The
same judgment must be passed on our moral activity. We strive after
and perhaps reach an ideal, or, as Mr Bradley says, we aim at
satisfying a desire; and this, too, is a process far removed from
reality. Goodness, like truth, is mere appearance.
[Footnote 1: Appearance and Reality, pp. 402, 410.]
This needs no elaboration. If all predication involves relation, and
relation is excluded from reality, then no predicate--not even
truth or goodness--can be asserted of the real. Nay more, to be
consistent, we ought not even to say that reality or the Absolute
(for the two terms are here interchangeable) is perfect, or one, or
all-comprehensive, or harmonious: for all these are predicates. _Ens
realissimum_ is the only _ens reale_; all else is mere appearance.
[Footnote 1: Ibid., pp. 32-34.]
Just here, however, lies an indication of another line of thought. For
what is an appearance, and what is it that appears? It can only be
reality that thus appears; the 'mere' appearance is yet an 'appearance
of reality.' It might seem that this is to catch, not at a straw, but
at the shadow of a straw. For if we say that 'reality appears,' are
we not thereby predicating something of reality, making it enter into
relation? But let that pass. Among these appearances we may be able to
distinguish degrees of significance or of adequacy, nay--strange as
it may seem to the reader who has followed Mr Bradley's first line of
thought--"degrees of reality." Relations are excluded from reality;
and degree is a relation; but reality has degrees. The logic is
unsatisfactory, but the conclusion may perhaps have a value of its
Here, then, is another view of the universe--not an unchanging,
relationless, eternal reality, but varying degrees of reality
manifested in that complex process which we call sometimes the world
and sometimes 'experience,' But the two views are connected. For it is
assumed that the Absolute Reality is harmonious and all-comprehensive;
and it is further asserted that these two characteristics of harmony
and comprehensiveness may be taken as criteria of the "degree of
reality" possessed by any "appearance." The more harmonious anything
is--the fewer its internal discrepancies or contradictions--the higher
is its degree of reality; and the greater its comprehensiveness--the
fewer predicates left outside it--the higher also is its degree of
reality. No attempt is made at a measured scale of degrees of reality,
such, for example, as is offered by the Hegelian dialectic; but a sort
of rough classification of various 'appearances' is offered. In this
classification a place is given to goodness which is comparatively
high, and yet "subordinate" and "self-contradictory." 
[Footnote 1: Appearance and Reality, p. 420.]
Mr Bradley's Absolute, we may say, has two faces, one of which is
described as good, while the other is inscrutable. "Obviously," he says,
"the good is not the Whole, and the Whole, as such, is not good. And,
viewed thus in relation to the Absolute, there is nothing either bad or
good, there is not anything better or worse. For the Absolute is _not_
its appearances." This is the inscrutable side. But yet "the Absolute
appears in its phenomena and is real nowhere outside them;... it is all
of them in unity. And so, regarded from this other side, the Absolute
_is_ good, and it manifests itself throughout in various degrees of
goodness and badness." What would be contradiction in another writer
is only two-sidedness in Mr Bradley. And it is this second side which
interests us, for here "the Absolute _is_ good," and yet, good as it is,
manifests itself in badness as well as goodness, and that in various
degrees. If we are to follow another statement of the doctrine, however,
we shall have to allow that the "badness" is also good, and that the
"various degrees" are all equal. For "the Absolute is perfect in all its
detail, it is equally true and good throughout." Whether or not the
good is contradictory, as Mr Bradley maintains, we must allow that he
succeeds in making his account of it contradictory.
[Footnote 1: Appearance and Reality, p. 411.]
[Footnote 2: Ibid., p. 401.]
[Footnote 3: Ibid., p. 409.]
I will try to put the gist of the matter in my own words. Mr Bradley's
Absolute is eternal, relationless, ineffable. To it goodness cannot be
ascribed; indeed no predicate can be properly applied to it, for any
predication implies relation: in earlier language than Mr Bradley's it
involves determination and therefore negation. Even to say that the
Absolute appears or manifests itself is to predicate something, to
imply relation, and thus is an offence against the absoluteness of the
Absolute. But nevertheless there _is_ a world of phenomena, which the
most mystical of philosophers must recognise, if only as a world
of illusion. The sum-total of these phenomena may be called the
appearances of the Absolute; and the Absolute, according to Mr
Bradley, "is real nowhere outside them." In this sense of reality we
may make predicates about it. Indeed all our predicates, Mr Bradley
teaches in his 'Logic,' have reality--the universe of reality--for
their ultimate subject.
In this sense it may be possible to speak of reality as good (though
it is a misapplication of the term "Absolute" to call it good). But
the question remains what we mean by "good" in this connexion, and
what justification we have for using the predicate. And the answer
must be that Mr Bradley means very little, since the goodness is
manifested "in various degrees of goodness and badness," and that the
justification for using the term is not made clear. It seems to
be used of reality in a somewhat vague sense, as it were _jure
dignitatis_ and to have as little ethical significance as "right
honourable" when applied to a politician or "reverend" to a clergyman:
cases in which it might be consistent to say that right honourable
gentlemen manifest various degrees of honour and dishonour, or that
reverend gentlemen are worthy of various degrees of reverence and the
opposite. All the details of the phenomenal world are bound together
by chains of necessity; each is an essential part of the sum-total.
How can the distinction of good and evil apply as between these parts?
[Footnote 1: Appearance and Reality-Appearance and Reality, p. 401.]
We may speak of parts as higher or lower; and Mr Bradley defines the
"lower" as "that which, to be made complete, would have to undergo a
more total transformation of its nature." The meaning of this is
not clear. The reference may be to the complete state which a thing
may reach in process of growth. Thus an early stage of a rose-bud
may be said to be "lower" than its later stage because it requires a
greater transformation before it produces the bloom. But here 'lower'
does not mean ethically lower, unless immaturity be confused with
evil. Or the complete state may be regarded as the type of some order
or class, from which different individuals differ in greater or less
degree. This meaning is not suggested by the author; and it could have
ethical implication only if the type had been first of all shown to
have an ethical value. Or again, the completeness referred to may be
that which is alone complete in the strict sense of the word, namely,
the universe. And we might say that a rose-leaf would require greater
transformation in order to become complete in this sense than a
rose-bush, or that the act of giving a cup of cold water was less
complete than the far-reaching activity say of the first Napoleon.
But this difference in completeness would not entail a corresponding
difference in moral worth or goodness.
[Footnote 1: Appearance and Reality, p. 401.]
Where all stages are essential, it is not possible to say that one
is good and another evil. Is not the good something that ought to be
striven for, attained, and preserved? and is not evil something that
ought not to be at all? And how can we say that any part ought not to
be when every part is essential?
From the monistic view of reality, as set forth by Mr Bradley, there
is no direct route to the distinction between good and evil. If the
distinction is reached at all, it will be found to be psychological
rather than cosmical, to be relative to the attitude of the human mind
which contemplates the facts, and in this strict sense to be, what Mr
Bradley calls it, appearance.
And this is the view which Mr Bradley takes when he proceeds to describe
what he means by the 'good.' It is, he says, "that which satisfies
desire. It is that which we approve of, and in which we can rest with a
feeling of contentment." "Desire"--"approval"--"feeling"--to these
mental attitudes the good is relative: they are expressed in its
definition. Mr Bradley, it will be seen, re-states Green's doctrine with
a difference which makes it at once more logical and less ethical. Green
had said that "the moral good is that which satisfies the desire of a
moral agent"; and in so saying had simply walked round the difficulty,
for he was unable to say wherein consisted the peculiarity of the moral
agent without reference to the conception of moral good which he had
started out to define. But Mr Bradley dispenses with the qualification,
and says simply that the good "satisfies desire." And in so far his
definition is more logical. The question is whether it distinguishes
good from evil. Both the practical importance and the theoretical
difficulty of the problem arise from the fact that evil is sometimes
desired, and that the evil desire may be satisfied. The desire of a
malevolent man may be satisfied by another's downfall, and his mind may
even "rest with a feeling of contentment" in that result, much in the
same way as the benevolent man is satisfied and content with another's
happiness. Fortunately, the case is not so common: the dominant leanings
of most men are in sympathy with good rather than with evil: but it is
common enough to make the emotional characteristics of the individual an
uncertain basis on which to rest the distinction of good from evil.
[Footnote 1: Appearance and Reality, p. 402.]
There is also another way of putting the matter: "the good is
coextensive with approbation." If by 'approbation' we mean simply
'holding for good,' then the sentence will mean that the good is what
we hold for good--that is to say, that our judgments about good
are always true judgments,--a proposition which either ignores the
divergence between different individual judgments about good, or else
implies a complete relativity such that that is good to each man at
any time which he at that time approves or holds to be good; and this
latter view would make all discussion impossible. But this is not what
Mr Bradley means. "Approbation is to be taken in its widest sense";
in which sense "to approve is to have an idea in which we feel
satisfaction, and to have or imagine the presence of this idea in
existence." And here the criterion is the same as before, and
equally subjective. In desire idea and existence are separated; they
are united in the satisfaction of desire; and approbation is said to
be just the feeling of satisfaction in an idea which is also present
(or imagined as present) in existence. Not only actual satisfaction of
the desire but also imagined satisfaction is covered by "approbation";
but this approval is still simply a feeling of some individual person.
[Footnote 1: Appearance and Reality, p. 407]
[Footnote 2: Appearance and Reality, p. 418.]
We need not concern ourselves at present with the adequacy of this
statement as an account of the way in which we come to 'approve' or
hold something as good. The point is, that it does not advance us at
all towards determining the validity of this approval, or towards an
objective criterion for distinguishing 'good' from evil.
Mr Bradley draws a distinction between a general and a more special
or restricted meaning of goodness. For the former it is enough that
existence be "_found_ to be in accordance with the idea"; for the
latter, it is necessary that the idea itself produce the fact.
In the former sense "beauty, truth, pleasure, and sensation are all
things that are good," quite irrespective of their origin; in the
latter sense, only that is good which the idea has produced, or in
which it has realised itself, which is the work, therefore, of some
finite soul. In this narrower meaning goodness is the result of will:
"the good, in short, will become the realised end or completed will.
It is now an idea which not only _has_ an answering content in fact,
but, in addition also, has _made_, and has brought about, that
correspondence.... Goodness thus will be confined to the realm of
ends, or of self-realisation. It will be restricted, in other words,
to what is commonly called the sphere of morality," Even in its
more general meaning, as we have seen, Mr Bradley has not succeeded in
giving an objective account of good. For the correspondence of idea
and existence in which it is said to consist is defined in relation
to desire, and to some kind of feeling on the part of the conscious
subject. Nor was his account successful in distinguishing good from
evil: to that distinction feeling is a blind guide. When he goes on
to discuss goodness in the narrower sense, in which it belongs to the
results of finite volition, he adopts, as expressing the nature of
goodness, that conception of 'self-realisation' which, as put forward
by Green, has been found inadequate. The same conception was used by
Mr Bradley, in his first work, as "the most general expression for the
end in itself," "May we not say," he asked, "that to realise self is
always to realise a whole, and that the question in morals is to find
the true whole, realising which will practically realise the true
self?" It is easy to make the distinction between good and evil
depend upon this, that in the former the true self is realised, and
that what is realised in the latter is only a false self. But it is
equally easy to see that this is only to substitute one unexplained
distinction for another. This short and easy method is not that which
Mr Bradley adopts in his later work. He has something of much greater
interest to say regarding the nature of the self-realisation in which
goodness is made to consist; and upon it he lays stress, "solely with
a view to bring out the radical vice of all goodness." Goodness,
it is said, is self-realisation; and Reality--it was assumed at the
outset--is harmonious and all-comprehensive. These last characters are
also criteria of degrees of reality, and consequently of degrees
of self-realisation. There are, therefore, two marks of
self-realisation--harmony and extent; and these two may and do
diverge. No doubt "in the end," they will come together; but "in that
end goodness, as such, will have perished." "We must admit," says
Mr Bradley, "that two great divergent forms of moral goodness exist.
In order to realise the idea of a perfect self a man may have to
choose between two partially conflicting methods. Morality, in short,
may dictate either self--sacrifice or self--assertion," "The
conscious duplicity of the hypocrite," according to an outspoken
adherent of Mr Bradley's, is "but the natural exaggeration of the
unconscious duplicity which resides in the very heart of morality."
[Footnote 1: Appearance and Reality, p. 412.]
[Footnote 2: Ibid., p. 410.]
[Footnote 3: Appearance and Reality, pp. 412, 413.]
[Footnote 4: Ethical Studies (1876), pp. 59, 63.]
[Footnote 5: Appearance and Reality, p. 414.]
[Footnote 6: Appearance and Reality, p. 414.]
[Footnote 7: Ibid., p. 415.]
[Footnote 8: A.E. Taylor, Problem of Conduct (1901), p. 65.]
It is worth while considering this view of the contradictions inherent
in morality. To start with, goodness was defined by relation to
desire: the good was said to be what satisfies desire. Desire is
plainly a mental state in which idea and existence are separated. As
such it cannot be attributed to the Absolute Reality. It will involve
a contradiction, therefore, if we identify goodness with Absolute
Reality; for goodness implies a distinction (between idea and
existence) which cannot find place in the Absolute. But if "degrees"
of reality be asserted, we must admit stages short of the Absolute,
and goodness may belong to such a stage in which process or
development is allowed as a fact. But Mr Bradley will have it not only
that it is a contradiction to identify this process with the Absolute,
but also that the conception of goodness is itself contradictory. "A
satisfied desire," he says, "is, in short, inconsistent with itself.
For, so far as it is quite satisfied, it is not a desire; and, so far
as it is a desire, it must remain at least partly unsatisfied." Of
course, if the desire is satisfied, it ceases. It was and it is not.
But there is no more contradiction here than in any other case of
temporal succession. A satisfied desire is, it is true, no longer a
desire. But the phrase is contradictory only in appearance; for it
means that the desire has been satisfied and in its satisfaction has
ceased to exist as a desire. A much more important discrepancy is
asserted when it is said that "two great divergent forms of moral
goodness exist." The fight for moral goodness is 'under two
flags'--self-assertion and self-sacrifice. And the allies "seem
hostile to one another," "at least in some respects and with some
persons." We have here the time-honoured opposition of egoism and
altruism, with a difference. Mr Bradley's most notable adherent in the
region of ethical enquiry prefers to overlook the difference and
to return to the older opposition of conflicting ideals. But Mr
Bradley himself declines to rate the social factor in conduct so
high. It is not altruism or social activity which is the opponent of
self-assertion or egoism, but self-sacrifice; and both self-assertion
and self-sacrifice are kinds of self-realisation: in the former the
self seeks its realisation by perfecting its harmony; in the latter,
by increasing its extent. It is not in content that the two modes of
self-realisation differ: social factors, for instance, may enter into
both; it is in the diverse uses made of the contents: 'system' is
aimed at in the one; 'width' in the other. The harmony of these two
methods is attained only when both morality and the individual self
are "transcended and submerged."
[Footnote 1: Appearance and Reality, p. 410.]
[Footnote 2: Appearance and Reality, p. 415.]
[Footnote 3: Taylor, Problem of Conduct, p. 179 ff.]
[Footnote 4: Appearance and Reality, p. 416.]
[Footnote 5: Ibid., p. 414.]
[Footnote 6: Ibid., p. 419.]
This discrepancy of aim, and then coming together of the hostile
factors only in the annulling and disappearance of both, is a process
quite in accordance with the general dialectic of Mr Bradley. But two
things may be noted with regard to it. In the first place the effort
after system is called self-assertion, and the effort after width or
expansion is called self-sacrifice. Perhaps the author may claim a
right to give what names he likes to the processes he describes. But
in this case the names have a recognised meaning in the literature of
morals, and no hint is given that they are used here in any meaning
other than the ordinary. And surely the term 'self-sacrifice' is an
inappropriate term for describing the conduct which seeks expansion by
multiplying the objects of desire--by the pursuit of whatever offers a
chance of widened interests, whether social or intellectual, aesthetic
or sensual,--even although "my individuality suffers loss" thereby,
and "the health and harmony of my self is injured." Loss may be the
result; but aggrandisement is what is sought, though the effort fails
through lack of organisation or system. And again 'self' is not the
only possible centre for the systematisation of conduct. System in
conduct may be realised in other ways than as self-assertion. It is
sought as truly by the man of science who gives up everything for
the pursuit of truth or by the philanthropist who forgets himself in
promoting the social welfare. Such modes of life as these--and not
merely self-assertive conduct--may become centres of a moral activity
which aims at system.
[Footnote 1: Appearance and Reality, p, 417.]
The second remark which has to be made on this final point is, that
neither on the method of system and self-assertion nor on the method
of expansion and self-sacrifice has the author given or suggested any
criterion for the distinction of good and evil. He has cast his net
so wide as to include all conduct within it without discrimination of
moral worth. His own result is that "the good is, as such, transcended
and submerged." But this result loses all significance if it is the
case, as our enquiry seems to prove, that the good as such has
never been reached at all, nor any tenable suggestion offered for
distinguishing it from evil.
[Footnote 1: Appearance and Reality, p. 419.]
This is the fundamental question for any philosophy of ethics; but it
receives no answer at all from the prevailing school of metaphysical
thought. This school offers no solution of the problem which was found
insoluble by the type of philosophy whose aim is to co-ordinate the
results of science. A comparison of the purposes and results of the
two schools may be instructive.
Mr Herbert Spencer has told us that since the time of his first essay,
"written as far back as 1842," his "ultimate purpose, lying behind all
proximate purposes, has been that of finding for the principles of right
and wrong in conduct at large a scientific basis.... Now that moral
injunctions are losing the authority given by their supposed sacred
origin, the secularisation of morals is becoming imperative. Few things
can happen more disastrous than the decay and death of a regulative
system no longer fit, before another and fitter regulative system has
grown up to replace it.... Those who believe that the vacuum can be
filled, and that it must be filled, are called on to do something in
pursuance of their belief." But more than fifty years after the
publication of this first essay, as, with the completion of the
'Principles of Ethics,' his whole system of philosophy lay unrolled
before him, he made the significant and pathetic confession that "the
doctrine of evolution has not furnished guidance to the extent I had
hoped.... Right regulation of the actions of so complex a being as man,
living under conditions so complex as those presented by a society,
evidently forms a subject-matter unlikely to admit of definite
conclusions throughout its entire range." And the lack of confidence
which the author himself felt in these parts, there is good reason to
extend to the whole structure of evolutionary ethics.
[Footnote 1: Preface to Data of Ethics, 1879.]
[Footnote 2: Preface to Principles of Ethics, vol. ii., 1893.]
Neither the purpose of their structure nor its collapse is so
explicitly proclaimed by the metaphysicians with whom this lecture has
dealt. But we hardly need to read between the lines in order to see
the prominence of the moral interest in all that Green wrote; and it
was after he had shown the inadequacy of the empirical method in the
hands of Hume to give any criterion or ideal for conduct that he made
his significant appeal to "Englishmen under five-and-twenty" to leave
"the anachronistic systems hitherto prevalent amongst us" and take up
"the study of Kant and Hegel." His call to speculation has been
widely responded to; but, if we turn to the most important product of
this speculative movement, we have to extract what enlightenment we
can from the dictum that, in the only sense in which the Absolute
is good, it "manifests itself in various degrees of goodness and
[Footnote 1: Green, Introduction to Hume's Treatise (1874), ii. 71.]
[Footnote 2: Bradley, Appearance and Reality, p. 411.]
The most notable recent systems of philosophy, idealist as well as
naturalist, are thus presented to us, almost confessedly, as void of
application to conduct. This result, and foresight of this result,
have led to a widespread suspicion of any attempt at ethical
construction which is based upon a theory of reality. In consequence,
recourse is sometimes had to a purely empirical treatment of morality
such as that indicated at the close of the second lecture. Such an
account, however, can never rise from the description of conduct to
setting up an ideal for life. And accordingly some thinkers have
remained convinced of the necessity of ideals for the moral life,
although unable to find an adequate ground for these ideals in their
system of reality.
This attitude was adopted by F.A. Lange, who, at the close of his
History of Materialism, declared that there was need for an Ideal of
Worth to supplement the deficiencies of the facts of being. "One thing
is certain," he said, "that man needs to supplement reality by an
Ideal World of his own creation, and that in such creations the
highest and noblest functions of his mind co-operate. But must this
free act of the mind bear ever and ever again the deceptive form of
demonstrative science? If it does so, materialism will always reappear
and destroy the over-bold speculations." It would thus seem that
moral life postulates an ideal which the mind is able to frame, but
for which it can establish no connexion with the world of reality.
[Footnote 1: Geschichte des Materialismus, 3rd ed., p. 545 f.]
More recently a brilliant French writer, who has attempted to
establish a system of "morality without obligation or sanction," has
suggested that the place of the categorical law of duty may be taken
by a speculative hypothesis, and that hope may serve where there is no
ground for belief. "The speculative hypothesis is a risk taken in the
sphere of thought; action in accordance with this hypothesis is a
risk taken in the sphere of will; and that being is higher who will
undertake and risk the more whether in thought or action." Thus,
"for example, if I would perform an act of charity pure and simple,
and wish to justify this act rationally, I must imagine an eternal
Charity at the ground of things and of myself, I must objectify the
sentiment which leads to my action; and here the moral agent plays
the same _role_ as the artist.... In every human action there is
an element of error, of illusion": and it is conjectured that this
element increases as the action rises above the commonplace: "the most
loving hearts are the most often deceived, in the highest geniuses the
greatest incoherences are often found."
[Footnote 1: Guyau, Esquisse d'une morale sans obligation ni sanction
(1885) p. 250.]
[Footnote 2: Ibid., pp. 226, 227.]
This solution can hardly be regarded as other than a counsel of
despair. Its ethical value is merely apparent. What is of importance
for ethics is not so much the presence of some ideal: it is the kind
of ideal that matters. It is possible to have an ideal of selfishness
as well as an ideal of love, a sensual ideal as well as a spiritual.
Nietzsche's over-man is an ideal; the Mohammedan paradise is an ideal;
and conduct can be modelled on them. But it is not enough to have
system in conduct, irrespective of the worth of the ideal which
determines the system. Some criterion is needed for deciding between
competing ideals. As long as they are looked upon as mere illusions,
as expressions of doubt, or as a hazard staked on the unknowable,
caprice takes the place of law; where all is equally uncertain there
is no security for the worth of the ideal itself.
Unsatisfactory as they are in this form, the opinions referred to are
echoes of a pregnant doctrine of Kant's--the doctrine that the moral
consciousness brings us into closer touch with reality than the merely
theoretical reason can reach. Various lines of recent thought may
be said to have been suggested by this view. Almost every idealist
metaphysician has tended to look upon thought itself as constituting
the inmost reality of the universe which it conceives or understands;
and Kant's doctrine may make us pause and ask whether this tendency is
not simply an assumption without warrant.
Again, the psychological analysis of knowledge has brought out the
fact of its constant dependence upon practical interests. It is the
need to perform or attain something, which is the motive that leads
to the understanding of things; and the understanding of things with
which alone we are satisfied is commonly that which helps us so to
describe our experience as to be able to control some practical
result. 'Knowledge is power'; and not only so, but in its early stages
and in most of its later developments, knowledge is _for_ power: it is
for purposes of his own that man becomes the 'interpreter of nature.'
It is to men of science rather than to philosophers that we owe the
'descriptive theory' of scientific concepts which, within the last
few years, has gone far to revolutionise the prevailing attitude of
philosophy to science. Concepts, such as 'mass,' 'energy,' and the
like, are no longer held to express realities the denial of which
would be treason to science; they are simply descriptive notions whose
truth consists in their utility: that is to say, in their ability to
comprehend all the relevant facts in a simple description. And, in the
same way, scientific principles are of the nature of postulates, whose
justification is no necessary law of thought, but must rather be
sought in the results of scientific investigation.
These three doctrines--the descriptive theory of science, the
practical nature of knowledge as it is brought out by psychological
analysis, and the special claims of the moral consciousness--have
combined to bring about a tendency strongly opposed to the older
idealist tradition, the tendency to regard practical results as the
sole test of truth.
This conception is put forward now in philosophical literature as
a new and independent point of view. The point of view is only in
process of being hardened into a theory; but, under the name
of Pragmatism, it has already become the subject of a vigorous
propaganda. With the value of this doctrine as a general theory of
reality we need not at present concern ourselves. In spite of the high
claims it makes for the theoretical significance of moral ideas, its
adherents have not as yet devoted much attention to the question of
the worth of these moral ideas and the criteria by which that worth
may be determined. Yet this surely is the fundamental question for
ethical theory. On the other hand, as against a merely theoretical
interpretation of the universe, into which the moral element enters
only as a sort of loosely-connected appendix, the pragmatists are
amply justified. Practical ends are prior to theoretical explanations
of what happens. But practical ends vary, and some measure of their
relative values is needed.
There is one thing which all reasoning about morality assumes and
must assume; and that is morality itself. The moral concept--whether
described as worth or as duty or as goodness--cannot be distilled out
of any knowledge about the laws of existence or of occurrence. Nor
will speculation about the real conditions of experience yield it,
unless adequate recognition be first of all given to the fact that the
experience which is the subject-matter of philosophy is not merely a
sensuous and thinking, but also a moral, experience. The approval
of the good, the disapproval of the evil, and the preference of
the better: these would seem to be basal facts for an adequate
philosophical theory: and they imply the striving for a best--however
imperfect the apprehension of that best may always remain. Only
when these facts--the characteristic facts of moral experience--are
recognised as constituents of the experience which is our
subject-matter, are we in a position profitably to enquire what is
good and what evil, and how the best is to be conceived.
The recognition of these facts would only be a beginning; but it would
be a beginning which would avoid the cardinal error fallen into not
only by the leading exponents of evolutionist morality, but also to be
found in much of the ethical work of idealist metaphysicians. It seems
to have been assumed that moral principles can be reached by the
application of scientific generalisations or of the results of a
metaphysical analysis which has started by overlooking the facts
of the moral consciousness. Even as a metaphysic this procedure is
inadequate; and the interpretations of reality to which it has led
have erred by over-intellectuality.
The systems of naturalism and of idealism, whose ethical consequences
have been passed in review, have one feature in common; and it is
a feature which from of old has been regarded as a mark of genuine
philosophy. They both seek the One in the many; but they seek it on
different roads. For the naturalist the most comprehensive description
of things may be the conception of mass-points in motion; or it may be
some more recondite conception to which physical analysis points. In
either case the unity reached will be mechanical. For the idealist,
on the other hand, reason may be said to be the central principle of
things: the unity of reality is a rational unity. I have contended in
these lectures that neither the mechanical unity of the naturalists
nor the rational unity of the idealists has succeeded in comprehending
within its unifying principle the essential nature of morality with
its deep-going dualism of good and evil. But while I have maintained
that even the conception of reality as the reproduction of itself by
an eternal self-consciousness is an inadequate conception, it is still
possible to hold that reality is a connected whole, and that its true
principle of unity is an ethical principle.
If I were asked what is meant by an ethical unity, I should answer, in
the first place, that it implies purpose. The unity of reality is not
exhibited by a description of its present or past conditions or even
by an account of its causal connexions. These modes of description are
all affected by the fragmentariness which always belongs to temporal
apprehension. But, when things are seen in the light of a purpose, a
view of them as a whole becomes possible, and the fragmentariness of
time is transcended. And, in the second place, I should say that an
ethical unity implies the presence within itself of different finite
centres of conscious activity, whose freedom is not inconsistent with
their relation to one another and to the Whole.
In his own life, so far as it is a moral life, each individual seeks
system or unity. And this unity is realised on three different
levels--as we may call them--which may be distinguished for clearness'
sake, though it is not possible actually to separate them. On each
level morality is realised through system, and system is brought about
by the rule of the morally higher and the submission of the morally
lower: in this goodness lies, in the opposite evil. If we isolate the
individual and consider him apart, he may be said to attain goodness
by the due ordering and control of his sensuous and passional
nature by rational or spiritual ends. The result may be described,
negatively, as the suppression of sensualism. But the positive
description remains imperfect until we can say what the rational
or spiritual principle is which is to weld all man's 'particular
impulses' into an organic whole.
And this cannot be done so long as we contemplate the mere individual
in isolation. We cannot remain at the level of bare individuality.
Personality itself is not a merely individual product: neither the
knowledge nor the activity of the individual can be explained without
reference to his position as a member of society; his inheritance is a
social inheritance. Nor can the individual establish a claim to deal
with his own personality as a merely individual end. It is a factor in
social life; and, in systematising his own life, he must have regard
to the social factor. In this respect he attains goodness only
when his individual life seeks a unity higher than that of his own
individuality, and not centred in his selfish interests. From this
point of view we may say, again negatively, that goodness consists in
the suppression of selfishness. But once again there is a difficulty
about the positive description. Many moralists, undoubtedly, are
content to rest with the social aspect: to regard the 'health' or
'vitality' of society as the final expression of morality. But a life
which is simply absorbed by society cannot be said to be a perfect
unity. Society itself is a process; and its changes are determined in
large measure by the moral ideals of its members. For its unity we
must look to an end--an ideal--of which its actual forms can offer
indications only. Both man and society are factors in a universal
order; and their perfection cannot be independent of the purpose of
this order. When the consciousness of it fills man's life, morality is
merged in religion.
Absolute, the, 101 ff.
as good, 105.
as not good, 104.
Altruism, 15 ff., 74 f., 118.
Appearance, 101 ff.
Approbation, 111 ff.
Artificial selection, 61 ff.
Austen, Jane, 4 n.
Bentham, J., 4 n.
Bradley, F.H., 88, 100 ff.
Browning, R., 31.
Characteristics of goodness, 113.
Competition between groups, 52 f., 58, 74, 79.
ideas, 53 ff.
individuals, 52, 74, 79.
Content of morality, agreement as to, 7.
Christian morality, 7, 18, 20.
Cosmic process and moral order, 46 ff.
Darwin, C., 35 ff., 39 ff., 57, 60, 62.
Degrees of reality, 103 ff.
Descriptive ethics, 76 ff.
theory of science, 129.
Desire and goodness, 90 ff., 102, 110 ff.
Distinction of good and evil, 93 ff., 113.
Egoism, 15 ff., 74 f., 118.
_Ens reale_, 102.
Environment, moral, 70 ff.
Eternal mind, the, 96 ff.
Ethical controversies at present day, 13 ff.
in nineteenth century, 1 ff.
Ethical unity of things, 133 ff.
Ethics of evolution, 36 ff.
Evolution, ethical significance of, 51, 67 ff.
Evolution of ethics, 36 ff.
Evolution, theory of, 33 ff., 36 ff.
Exceptional cases, 11.
Experiments in morality, 50.
Fichte, J.G., 87.
Fittest, survival of the, 35, 69 ff.
Galt, J., 4 n.
Good, the true, 92 ff.
Goodness as appearance, 102 ff.
Goodness as contradictory, 117.
Green, T.H., 77 n., 89 ff., 123.
Guyau, 125 f.
Halevy, E., 4 n.
Hegel, 87, 104, 123.
Higher and lower, 107 ff.
Huxley, T.H., 45 ff., 68.
Idealism, 87 ff.
Ideals, need of, 125.
Illusions as ideals, 127.
Individual and group, 40 ff.
Influences forming ethical thought:
current morality, 26 ff.
science and philosophy, 32 ff.
Intelligent selection, 61 ff., 80.
Intuitionism, 2 ff., 81.
Kant, 87, 123, 127 f.
Lange, F.A., 125.
Material and moral progress, 29 f.
Mechanical unity, 133.
Metaphysics, 82, 85 ff.
Mill, J.S., 3 n., 8 ff., 28.
Modifications of general rules, 9.
Monism and ethics, 109.
Moral consciousness and reality, 128.
environment, 70 ff.
ideas, origin of, 1 ff.
order and cosmic process, 46 ff.
value, criterion of, 1 ff., 75.
Natural selection, 35, 43 ff., 49.
in morals, 55.
Naturalism, 83 f., 86 f.
Nietzsche, F., 18 ff., 31 f.,
47 ff., 67., 127.
Nobles, morality of, 20.
Origin and validity, 37, 97.
Over-man, the, 22, 31.
Owen, Sir R., 59.
of life, 67, 76.
Plato, 31, 87.
Practical nature of knowledge, 128.
Progress of life, 34.
Progressive morality, 9.
Psychological ethics, 109 ff.
Purposive selection, 61 ff., 80.
Rational unity, 133.
Religion, 82 f., 136.
Science and metaphysics, 85.
Self-assertion, 116 ff.
Self-realisation, 90 ff., 113 ff.
Self-sacrifice, 116 ff.
Selfishness, suppression of, 136.
Sensualism, suppression of, 135.
Servile morality, 20.
Sexual selection, 66.
Sidgwick, H., 16 f.
Social qualities, 40 ff.
Sophists, the, 27.
Spencer, H., 44, 47, 51, 73, 122.
Spinoza, 87 f.
Stephen, Sir L., 44.
Subjective selection, 60, 66, 80.
Subjectivity in ethics, 81.
Taylor, A.E., 116, 118.
Tille, A., 25 n.
Truth as appearance, 101.
as moral law, 9 ff., 22 f.
Uebermensch, the, 22, 25 n.
Unity of life, 34.
Utilitarianism, the term, 3 n.
the theory, 2 ff., 81.
Volz, J., 24 n.
Wellbeing, 71, 75.
Wilberforce, S., 59.
Back to Full Books