Page:Popular Science Monthly Volume 38.djvu/423

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409
EDITOR'S TABLE.
EDITOR'S TABLE.


THE EVOLUTIONARY VIEW OF MORALITY.

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

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

This, however, we maintain, is not the right point of view. The business of a moral system is to define morality, not to enforce it; to trace the consequences and relations of actions, not to supplement deficiencies in the general scheme of things. If the decay of arbitrary sanctions leaves certain individuals unprotected against their own lawless tendencies, we can not be altogether surprised, and should not be unduly discouraged. No change, political, social, or intellectual, finds all persons equally prepared to meet it. The wise are those whose lamps are trimmed and fed, and who can light themselves to a place of light: the foolish are those