Popular Science Monthly/Volume 11/September 1877/Civilization and Morals
|←On Drops||Popular Science Monthly Volume 11 September 1877 (1877)
Civilization and Morals
By Josephus Nelson Larned
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IN bringing these two subject-matters of thought into conjunction with one another, I wish, if possible, to set them clear of all controversy at the outset. No attempt at a definition for either can escape dispute; but a merely indicative statement may be made in each case that will give form enough to the conception without touching any point of question in it. If I should say, for example, with Mr. Emerson, that civilization is "a certain degree of progress from the rudest state in which man is found," I should provoke the disputes that are rife as to what is and what is not "progress" for the human race. But I may safely say that civilization is a certain cumulative succession of modifications or changes in the state and character of men—which indicates the conception quite distinctly enough, and excludes every matter of debate. In like manner I may avoid the disputations of the ethical schools, and yet set out a notion of morals that will serve every present purpose of thinking, if I say that moral philosophy has for its subject human conduct, considered with reference to whatever absolute qualities may be found in it. It might seem, on the first thought, that this statement assumes the very thing that is in question between those who contend for the absoluteness and those who contend for the relativity of our ideas of right and wrong. But it is not so. The dispute of the moralists has reference, not to any characteristic of the qualities in conduct which we cognize as moral, but to the mode in which they are cognized. Our conception of such qualities involves the conception of absoluteness in them, and it is only by that notion of absoluteness that they are distinguished from the other qualities which appear in human conduct, such as wisdom, prudence, ingenuity, and the like. The imperative "ought" which puts its mark upon what is moral, in distinction from what is prudent or expedient, is just as autocratic in the doctrine of the utilitarian as in that of the intuitionist. The former, as Mr. Sidgwick has pointed out in his admirable analysis of "The Methods of Ethics," can only hold that the moral rules of conduct are means relative to an end (greatest happiness) by holding that the end itself is prescribed absolutely, and ought to be pursued. But absoluteness of end involves absoluteness of means, since means and end are inseparable—so far as human knowledge goes—and cannot be conceived of apart. Hence the qualities in conduct which the utilitarian finds essential to the attaining of the object that represents "duty" to him are just as absolute in his view as in the view of the intuitive moralist, who admits nothing objective in his notion of "duty." In what I have to say, therefore, of that kind of quality in human conduct which we call "moral," I shall distinguish it only by its absoluteness.
Every act in the conduct of a human being is incident to some one or more of the varied relationships by which his state of being is conditioned. Fundamentally, there are four groups of such relationships, subject to which every act of man is performed: 1. His relationships to inanimate Nature, or to the matter, the forces, and the routine processes, of his physical environment; 2. His relationships to the living creatures with which he is associated in existence, that are not of his own kind; 3. The relationships that exist within himself, between the manifold parts of his own being; between that, for example, which is animal on one side and that which is more than animal on the other; 4. The relationships that exist between himself and his human fellows.
It might be expected, perhaps, that I should add a fifth relationship—that of man to the supreme source of being and of law in the universe; but this lies at the outside of what we are now investigating. It is a relationship to which nothing in human conduct can be incident primarily, however powerful an influence upon conduct may be referred to it secondarily. The emotions of religion, induced by a conscious relationship of responsibility to some supreme, divine government in the universe, give a color of their own, it is true, to the quality of human acts, but they do not assume to impart that quality nor to change it. Primarily, they have nothing to do with it—it is determined independently of them—and Religion has to do with the quality of human actions only by adopting the colder consciousness on which Morality is founded, and suffusing it with the warmth of reverential and impassioned motives.
Of the four groups of relationships to which all conduct is incident, the one first named does not fall within the region of morals, and the second only touches upon the borders of it. Without entering into the reasons of the fact, it may be seen that the kind of quality we are looking for in human actions cannot exist where the act is entirely conditioned by purely physical laws, as in the case of a man's dealing with the inanimate world. As he stands related to brute creatures, however, one new factor is introduced, which is that of sentiency, on the opposite side of the relationship, as well as on the side of the human actor, and we find in the conduct incident to this a single quality which we recognize as of absolute existence—inhering in the very nature of the act to which it pertains. For the positive phase of this quality, which is not exactly kindness and not exactly mercifulness, no name seems to have ever been adopted. In its negative phase we call it cruelty, and it appears to be, among moral traits, the primary one.
In the third group of relationships, embracing those which are intrinsic in man (as between his ruling faculties and the organs which they rule, or between his reason and his will, on the one hand, and his affections, appetites, and senses, on the other), the field of moral investigation enlarges, but is still limited. There seem to be two forms in which the absoluteness of quality that we are searching after in human conduct is found appertaining to these intrinsic relationships. We have it, I think, in the qualities that we call truthfulness and courage, and I do not perceive it in any others within this category, except such as are no more than modifications and combinations of these, with their opposites. I cannot now go beyond this mere statement of a conclusion, unless it be to suggest that such distinguishable moral qualities as patience, fortitude, resignation, and so on, are modifications of the radical quality of courage; while another order of qualities, like temperance, chastity, and sincerity, have their root in truthfulness, or integrity, which may be the better name. Out of these two radicals there may be derived, I think, by combination and modification, all the qualities which I should classify as the moral qualities of the personal order.
The final set of relationships to be investigated is that which exists between the individual man and his fellow-men; and here the field of moral study opens to its widest dimensions. These social relationships are varied, numerous, and highly complicated by intermixture. It might be supposed that we should have to divide them into two principal groups, embracing—1. Such relations as exist between man and man individually; and, 2. Such relations as exist between the individual man and his fellows at large, in the united body which we call society; but it will be found that a man's relations to society are only the sum of his relations to the several members of it, and that society, in fact, is nothing more to him than a congregation of the persons between whom and himself he comes to recognize that there are relations of human fellowship existing. Nothing new, as a true factor in morals, is introduced by social organization—not even by the institution of government; because that is a mere arrangement for defining (sometimes arbitrarily and incorrectly) the relations between individuals. These relations between individuals, then, are what we have to examine, and they seem to divide themselves as follows:
1. The relationship in which one man stands toward another simply as a living creature. This is identical with the relation existing between man and brute animals, in the conduct incident to which we discovered no moral quality except that of cruelty and its unnamed opposite; and we need not go far in human history to find social states and circumstances in which no other relationship than this is often recognizable between men, and under which no other moral quality can often exist in the conduct that is incident to it.
2. The relationships which one man sustains to another as a human fellow. These latter are partly direct and partly indirect or secondary relations.
The direct relationships in this case are those of a man to the concrete person of his human fellow. These direct relationships are simple and not very numerous, in fact, although they assume countless variations of circumstance and form. Some of them are special, like the relations that exist between parent and child and between husband and wife; some of them are limited, like the relations that exist between the sexes; and some of them are common and universal. In the conduct which is incident to these relationships there has seemed to be a great variety of distinguishable qualities of the absolute sort, and we have a lengthy catalogue of names in the nomenclature of morals to represent them; but I am disposed to believe that, after all, there are only two radical qualities (with their opposites) to be found in this sphere of human conduct. These are benevolence and justice. All the rest, which appear upon the surface as distinguishable moral qualities, I conclude to be either variations of these in degree and by circumstance, or else the resultant of some blending of them with the moral qualities of the other order. Such blending is necessarily incessant, because the relationships under which man is acting are always mixed. Mr. Lecky has given the name of the "amiable virtues" to a considerable group of these moral qualities, such as charity, generosity, magnanimity, mercifulness or clemency, kindness, and so on, every one of which would seem to have its root in benevolence, or in benevolence and justice combined, and to be merely circumstantial modifications of the same essential quality. Then we have, appertaining to this relationship, such qualities as fidelity and honor—if the two are really distinguishable—and both of these are clearly produced by an intermixture of the absolute personal quality of truthfulness with the absolute social quality of justice. Whatever else there may be of distinguishable moral qualities appearing to be incident to the direct relations of human fellowship, I am sure that they will be found reducible to the two radicals of benevolence and justice, or to their combination with those other radicals—courage and truthfulness—which we found to have an intrinsic source in the constitution of man, as qualitative factors in human conduct.
The indirect or secondary relations that exist between man and man as human fellows are those which extend to something additional to the person—to things, that is, which have become recognizably identified with the person. In these relationships the whole notion of "property" is involved. The idea of "property" is the idea of a special relation existing between a certain man and certain things, in recognizing which we necessarily recognize—1. That our own relations to those things are modified by it; and, 2. That it introduces a new set of relations between ourselves and the man, which are indirect, because the things in question are intermediate in them. Not only tangible but intangible things become thus associated with the personality of our fellow-man, and give rise to these indirect relationships. His opinions and beliefs, his friendships and his reputation, the objects of his affections, the franchises that he acquires under the artificial institutions of society, are all examples of the intangible things which become intervening subjects and objects in many of the relationships that a man sustains toward his fellow-men. The indirectness of the relationships thus created is productive of great complexity in them, and gives rise to much confusion of moral notions with reference to the conduct that is incident to them. Out of all the complications that arise, however, there is not one distinctly new quality evolved. We distinguish in this region of conduct such absolute characteristics as those of honesty (under many names) and tolerance, but they are all of the composite class, and have their root, for the most part, in justice and truthfulness intermingled, with benevolence sometimes imparting its amiable tone to them.
As the result of our survey, then, we have discovered but four absolute qualities in human conduct that are simple and radical, while we have traced a very few of the numerous qualities that are composite, or derived, to the relationships out of which they arise. We have:
Of radical qualities of the personal order—courage and truthfulness.
Of radical qualities of the social order—benevolence and justice.
Of derived and composite qualities of the personal order—temperance, chastity, fortitude, patience, etc., with their opposites.
Of derived and composite qualities of the social order—two classes, viz.:
1. Incident to direct social relationships: charity, generosity, magnanimity, mercifulness, kindness, fidelity, patriotism, etc., with their many-named opposites.
2. Incident to indirect social relationships: honesty in all its forms, and with all its opposites, which are numerous in the nomenclature of morals.
Having acquired, so far as this, a partly definite notion of morals, we may now return to take up the conception of civilization, and bring the two sets of ideas into conjunction.
I did not venture to say of civilization that it is "a certain degree of progress" in the state of man, because there are those who deny that the cumulative succession of changes, in man and society, which appear in the process called civilization, are, on the whole, progressive chances. Their denial, moreover, has reference entirely to the moral features of the process. They do not question the fact that human history, in the civilized communities, is a history of intellectual development and advancement. They concede the largest claims that can be made as to the growth of knowledge among men; as to the growth of capacity in them for the knowledge of knowable things; and as to the growth of power in them to control the material conditions of their existence, within such limits as are set by physical law. They do not belittle the modern triumphs of the race in commerce, science, art, invention, and organization. But they look upon all this as an evil, delusive, vainglorious show—a devil's work of tinsel and veneer—a bubble-blown fabric, quite empty of the substance of eternal things. They insist that there has been no moral growth in human nature, as a whole, to accompany the evolution of rational faculties and powers; and that, while human conduct has been gathering its potent gains of prudence, ingenuity, skillfulness, and the like—which are qualities relative to means and ends—it has gained, on the whole, in the absolute qualities of rightness and goodness, either nothing at all or less.
This denial of moral progress, as a general fact, is made, however, with some necessary qualifications. There are certain moral fruits so conspicuous in the history of civilization, that no pessimist can dispute them. That the long, slow movements in society, which have been tending, with steady purpose and sure result, to establish order and the reign of equal laws; to extinguish slavery; to break oppression of every form; to mitigate the barbarities of war, and to put restraints upon it; to diminish human suffering; to help the unfortunate, and to lift the debased; to cultivate the cosmopolitan sentiment and the spirit of coöperation among men—that the movements which bear this ripening fruitage are moral movements, it is impossible to deny. However the sullen pessimist may disparage them, as sentimental and superficial, the moral quality in them is unmistakable. He yields, therefore, to the evidence of a moral growth of human character in these amiable directions, but he contends that it is all awry, and more deforming than otherwise in the result. He points to the other sides of the historical exhibition of humanity, and asks us what we can find to please us in the total showing. Is there less hypocrisy among men, he demands to know, than there was twenty centuries ago? Is there less chicanery, less duplicity, less grasping greed and selfish meanness? Is there less rapacity, in fact, after all the rude violence that you have subdued by softer manners is taken out? Is there less ruthlessness in the pursuit of ambitious or avaricious ends? Has any nobler type of character been fashioned by all your schools and institutions than the type of Socrates and Plato? Is your democratic Yankee, with his newspaper, his caucus, his party "platform," and his patent ballot-box, a more admirable patriot than the grim republican of old Rome? Is your modern mechanic, with his cunning tools and his marvelous engines, a more honest workman than the patient cathedral-builders of the middle ages? Is your modern merchant, with his steam carriers, his electric messengers, and his bills of credit, a more scrupulous speculator than the camel-driving trader of old, who fetched and carried between Babylon and Tyre? Such questions as these are not easy to answer, and very few persons will be willing to meet them with affirmations, in any positive and unqualified way.
We are brought, then, face to face with the fact that there are certain directions in which the process of civilization appears to be much more certainly a process of moral development, as evinced in human conduct and character, than it does in others; certain particulars of conduct, that is, in which the fact of moral progress is undeniable, and certain others in which, at least, it is open to doubt. Now, this is assuredly a fact of great significance. For the inference is plain that, if the progress of the race in intellectual culture and in social organization is attended with a certain moral development in some particulars of conduct more distinctly than in others, there must be reasons for this difference, and most likely they will be found in some bearing which the one process of culture has upon the other. It is to pursue this suggestion a little that I have taken the subject up.
The moment we pause to reflect upon the difference in question, one fact concerning it arrests attention. It is this: that the particulars of conduct in which the moral advancement of the human race is most obvious and indisputable are exactly and entirely those which we have seen to be incident to the direct relations of human fellowship, and that the qualities developed are entirely those which appertain to that relationship, having their root in benevolence and justice alone. On the one hand, charities, friendships, institutions of kindly helpfulness, and all generous, gentle amenities of social intercourse; on the other hand, charters, ordinances, constitutions—defined equities and broad determinations of personal rights: these are plainly the greater moral fruits of civilization which show signs of approach to ripening, as yet, and they all lie within the domain of those direct relationships which exist between man and man as human fellows, and which connect themselves with nothing else.
This fact leads us quickly to the recognition of a second one, which becomes just as plain on examination—namely, that the particulars of conduct in which the moral advancement of mankind appears most questionable are exactly and entirely those which we have seen to be incident to the indirect relations of human fellowship; to the relations, that is, which involve some intermediate thing, through which the line of relationship to our fellow is drawn. These take in, as has been said, all the relationships in which "property" is concerned, embracing the whole organization of trade and of labor under hire: and they also take in a great part of the political relationships that arise out of the institutions of government. Now, it is undeniably in these spheres of conduct that the moral effects of civilization present the most discouraging appearance. Are men as honest in work and trade as they were in more primitive times? Is there not more trickishness, more cheating, more fraud, more overreaching, more adulteration, more sham, more outside pretension and inside falsity? Are they as true in political action to the state in which they have united and incorporated themselves? Is there as much genuine patriotism? Is there not more political corruption and neglect of political duty? These are certainly the questions which stagger the optimist most.
Here, then, we discover that the particulars of conduct between which the widest difference of progress in moral culture appears are precisely those that we have already separated by one of the broad differences that were found when we classified the relations to which human conduct is incident. It is natural to conjecture that the one difference may connect itself with the other. It becomes still more natural when we perceive that the characteristic difference which distinguishes the two sets of relationships in question has been widened by the process of civilization. On one side, the direct primary relations that exist between men, in their purely personal attitude toward one another, have been steadily pressed into greater intimacy and closeness, at every step of advance which has been made in the diffusion of knowledge and in the social organization of the race, while they have been more and more generalized in the same operation. On the other side, as the industrial, commercial, and political mechanism of society has acquired more complexity and greater extension, the indirect or secondary relations, which involve the fact of property, etc., have been all the time undergoing variation and multiplication, and have been shaped into forms of greater remoteness, as between the persons and the things that are concerned together in them. The effect in the one case has been to set out the relationships in question more clearly, to define them more distinctly, and to render them more easily recognizable as they widen; and it is within the sphere of this effect that we have the progress of moral culture most marked. In the other case the effect has been to obscure most of the relationships in question, and to render the clear perception of them more difficult as they lengthen out; and it is within the range of this effect that we find most doubtful evidences of moral growth in the process of civilization.
From this I shall now venture a generalization, to see whether it will be justified by further scrutiny of the moral history of mankind, and I offer it in the following propositions:
1. That moral notions, or notions of rightness in conduct, are formed in the mind by the perception of certain relations to which human conduct is incident; that they are exactly akin in nature, therefore, to mathematical notions, and have their genesis in the operation of the same faculties; that there is no more need, in consequence, of a special "moral sense" to account for them than there is need of a distinct mathematical sense to account for the perceptions and reasoning processes of arithmetic and geometry.
2. That "rightness" in conduct is just as absolute a quality as "straightness" in mathematical lines (from which it takes its name), and can no more depend for its existence upon the "utility" that is found in it, or upon its coincidence with the experience of happiness among men, than the existence of the quality of straightness in mathematical lines can depend upon the utility with which it serves the architect and the engineer, and coincides with the necessities of mechanical art.
3. That our moral notions of right and wrong, with reference to each particular of conduct, are distinct and complete in exact proportion to the clearness and fullness of our perception of the relations which that particular of conduct appertains to; that their influence in the guiding of our conduct depends upon the distinctness with which they have thus been formed; but that our obedience to the guidance they offer depends upon something else, which we shall have to investigate hereafter.
Let me illustrate these propositions as briefly as possible:
It seems to be historically certain that man's cognition of the alter ego, or other "self," with which he finds himself associated in existence at every turn, is slowly acquired at the beginning of it, and that his conception of that other "self" (or fellow-man) is formed gradually by the projection upon it of ideas that have grown in his own self-consciousness. There are social states still existing, as I have said, in which one man's cognition of another seems to be very slightly different from his cognition of brute creatures, and we may take these to represent one of the primitive stages of human development. But progress occurred in the evolution of consciousness, until the attributes of the subjective "self," which it had cognized first, became more or less perfectly projected upon an objective "self," and one man recognized in another a repetition of the same fact of existence which he found in his own being; in other words, he arrived at the recognition, more or less perfectly, of a human fellow. At this stage moral notions and sentiments had their beginning, exactly as mathematical notions began when two external objects were distinguished from one another, and yet cognized together as two instead of one. There would follow some perception of a relation between this conscious "self" and that other cognized "self," and it would be perceived as the definition of a rule of conduct between them, just as surely as there followed in the other case a perception of the relation in position that exists between one object and another, and which conditions every act that involves the two. In both instances the fundamental idea generated by the perception must be the idea of a line—a "line of conduct" in the first, a "line of motion" or a "line of position" in the second—and the quality of "rightness" which attaches to the conception of the one is identical in kind with the quality of "straightness" that attaches to the other. The golden rule of conduct, "Do unto others as ye would that they should do unto you," is strictly analogous to a mathematical definition; or, rather, it is the translation of such a definition into the language of morals. It is not only the formula of an equation, but it is precisely equivalent to the definition that we give of a right line when we say that only one such line can be drawn between two given points, and that to attempt to project another in reverse direction is only to repeat the first. It simply states the recognition of a corresponding fact—namely, that the line of right conduct projected from ray "self" to another "self," which I have cognized, is such that no different line can be projected from that other self to me. What the line of right as projected to me from my fellow is, I am taught by my consciousness of the demands that exist in my own being.
In this way men first acquired, perhaps, the notions of right which produced a certain imperfect respect for life and liberty among them, and also a certain respect for property, according to the primitive idea of property, which was a narrow one. But, of course, these notions were restricted to the small social range within which the relations of human fellowship had become even indistinctly recognized. How limited that range was at the beginning, it is impossible to say; but our earliest knowledge of the human race finds it everywhere bounded by associations of kinship. The patriarchal family, the clan, the gens the tribe, seem to have always, at a certain stage in the development of humanity, circumscribed for each man his recognition of other men as human fellows, and his perception of the relations which he sustains to them as such. Within that close circle of recognized relationships, however, we can find in the primitive states of society almost as perfect a determination of moral rights and obligations, so far as many particulars of conduct are concerned, as we find in the civilized communities of the present day. We know that, among the Indian savages of our own time, theft and murder within the membership of a tribe are condemned as distinctly, almost, as they are among ourselves; but as between tribe and tribe, or between Indian and white man, neither killing nor stealing connects itself with any apparent sense of wrong. The fact seems to have been the same in all the earlier tribal forms of society, and when the succeeding form was reached, in the organization of the political state, the larger boundaries of that social corporation still circumscribed the moral notions of its citizens just as rigorously.
In the ancient Gentoo laws of India, which show admirable notions of honesty as between the subjects of the laws, we find prescriptions for dividing the booty of robbers who had plundered any contiguous but alien people. "If any thieves," says the ordinance, "by the command of the magistrate, and with his assistance, have committed depredations upon and brought booty from another province, the magistrate shall receive a share of one-sixth of the whole," etc.
In ancient Greece, even at the golden prime of that splendid narrow culture which exhibited itself so incomparably in art, in literature, and in civic virtue, the moral rules which concern liberty and life, and the simpler of the moral rules which concern rights of property, were defined very perfectly as between the fellow-citizens of each state, and between the kindred states, but very imperfectly beyond that strict limit of familiar association. The stranger, the alien, the enslaved captive, the barbarian of the non-Hellenic world, were not human fellows to the Greek; at the most they were only human creatures of some different variety, having that similitude and approaching somewhat to that relation, but quite excluded from his cognition of fellowship by all the habits of his feeling and his thought. According to his perception, they were clearly proper subjects of predatory warfare and piracy; he could kill them, plunder them, enslave them, with no more compunction of conscience than the modern hunter feels in capturing or killing the game-animals of the forest. And yet the same conscience was acting in the Greek that acts in men to-day; but only with more narrowness of range in the perceptions upon which it acted.
We shall have to pass far beyond the Greek in history to find much of a moral change in these respects. The Englishman of the Elizabethan age was a tolerably cultured man, as well morally as otherwise. So far as his fellow-Englishmen were concerned, he had notions of right conduct that were quite accurately formed. But he found it hard to carry many of these notions beyond the shore-bounds of his little island. The sea in that time—not only the Spanish Main, but the English Channel, and the very Thames itself—was swarming with English pirates and buccaneers, who were the contemporaries of Shakespeare, and Bacon, and Spenser, and Coke; who boasted the best names of the English gentry in their ranks; who received more than half countenance from the public sentiment and the public policy of the English nation; and who pillaged Spanish, French, and Flemish traders with serene impartiality, killing captains and crews without remorse when it suited their convenience to kill. In fact, Mr. Fronde tells us that the well-encouraged piracy of the sixteenth century was "the very source and seed-vessel" of the future naval power of England.
This insulation of moral ideas, which established one code of conduct for fellow-citizens and another for foreigners, one code for neighbors and another for strangers, characterized every people until recent times; but it has been disappearing rapidly among all the foremost races since the modern growth of universal commerce began. There is no mistaking the reason why. In the footsteps of commerce, every kind of communication and intercourse between men has closely followed, like the threads behind a weaver's shuttle. By travel, by migration, by correspondence—through the post, the newspaper, and the telegraph—men are fetched nowadays from the farthest corners of the earth into acquaintance with one another. For the civilized man of our time, most of the world has become a neighborhood. He interests himself in the life and doings of another hemisphere much as he does in the affairs of his own town. He cannot help losing the sense of strangeness and of remoteness in his cognition of other men, even though they inhabit the antipodes. He cannot resist the influence of the association into which he is thrown with all men, of all nations, races, classes, and creeds, and he necessarily extends to them, more and more in common, his recognition of human fellowship. In other words, he generalizes more and more his notions of right conduct toward men, because his clear perception of those relations of fellowship upon which such notions are based has become a general instead of a partial one. This accounts for the whole humane movement of modern times toward democracy, toward the breaking of caste and the leveling of class divisions, toward emancipations and enfranchisements, toward equity in institutions and laws, toward common education and toward public and private charities of every kind.
It is not the fact, however, that every man acquires entirely for himself these larger and more intelligent perceptions, which broaden and clarify his notions of right. There is the same giving and taking in this as in other matters of knowledge. Men accept from one another a great deal of what becomes the serviceable common stock of knowledge in every department. We are all of us settled now in the belief that the earth is round, that it revolves about the sun, that it rotates on its axis, that the other planets do the same, and that these motions are all controlled by the same force, under the same law, which governs the fall of a ripened apple from its stem; but how many comprehend the mathematical proofs by which such beliefs as these are sustained? The belief makes its way among men by the force of the authority of the few, whose keener faculties have verified the demonstration of it—assisted, indeed, by the general growth of what may be called a receptive intelligence, which enables men to discern the probability of the truth of things which they do not perceive clearly in fact. But such beliefs are accepted at last and acted upon and reasoned upon, exactly as though they held in each man's mind the firmest ground that his own perceptions and his own reason could give them. It has appeared to be the same with all the larger generalizations in morals. They are diffused in society by the propagation which we call a growth of public opinion, and they sometimes enforce themselves in the moral code of a community even before the major part of its members have half recognized the ground of fact upon which they rest.
If we turn now to the indirect relationships between men, which arise out of the institutions of property, politics, etc., we shall see that they have been generally rendered more remote and less recognizable, by the same operations that have produced greater intimacy and familiar closeness in the direct relations of person with person. This fact is particularly apparent in the relationships which involve property. The primitive idea of property was so associated with the fact of possession or occupation that it could not be entertained apart from that. According to the earlier Roman law, stolen property was lost to its owner, simply because he had lost possession, without which the moral intelligence of that age could not retain its conception of the right of property. If recovered from the thief, it was appropriated by the state. In the later Roman jurisprudence this inequity was corrected, but it reappeared in the legislation of the barbarian conquerors of the empire, and again became the law of Europe for several hundred years; surviving in some parts of Germany, according to Chancellor Kent, until near the middle of the last century. By the common law of England, as laid down even so lately as in the Commentaries of Blackstone, goods wrecked were adjudged to belong to the king, and the owner had no right of recovery until a curious statute of Edward II. gave him that right, upon the condition that some living creature should have escaped the wreck, to fictitiously represent him, it would seem, in the act of possession at the last moment.
This strange defect in the primitive idea of the right of property, lingering so obstinately and so long, illustrates the difficulty which men have always experienced in carrying that idea from a simpler to a more complicated set of circumstances, and the easiness with which their perception of the relations to which it attaches becomes confused by any separation, whether real or apparent, of the thing from the person. But, in the evolution of our civilized social state, more complex forms of property have been coming all the time into existence. In some of these, the person and the thing have been pushed apart to a wide remove from one another; in others, the association of ownership between them is subtilely conditioned by various circumstances and contingencies; in others, several persons are associated with the same thing, in common ownership, or with a succession of rights in it, or with rights that are various in degree; in still others, the thing which is the subject of property is a pure figment of the brain—the mere idea of a property-right which has itself become property by a convenient fiction. Again, half the wealth of the world has been acquiring of late a kind of duplicate shadow-form of existence, by paper representation, in a hundred modes—as in bonds, notes, drafts, stock certificates, bills of lading, etc.—and so plays a double part, one real and one fictitious, in the commercial transactions of the present day. That this protean mobility of form should be given to "property," and the subjects and conditions of ownership be so continually multiplied and modified, without obscuring the indirect relations which "property" creates between men, and confusing the perception of them, is quite impossible. Along with this obscuring cause there is another one to be found, which has been equally active in the whole arena of industrial and commercial intercourse. This is the constant multiplication of intervening agents—middle-men, factors, brokers, speculators, contractors, and distributors of every sort—between the producer and the consumer, or between the primary owner and the ultimate owner of almost everything which is the subject of ownership and trade. Those two, who are the actual persons brought chiefly into relationship by the thing in question, are put quite out of sight of one another in most of the transactions of modern industry and commerce; and it is easy to see how much more energy in the forming of a notion of right is required to preserve the integrity of the line of conduct between them, through indirect dealings like these.
The truth, then, seems to be that the civilizing process in society has, thus far, had two quite contrary moral effects: one, to cultivate and quicken in men the intelligence which apprehends their relations to one another, and which perceives a right line in all the conduct that is incident to those relations; the other, to complicate and obscure one prominent group of such relations, and to make the apprehension of them more difficult. If the former effect has not yet overcome the latter, in that sphere of conduct where the conflict between them is greatest, there is nothing to wonder at in the fact. It is quite according to the nature of our moral cognitions that men should sooner learn not to steal than not to cheat: because stealing is an assault direct upon that fact of possession which we have seen to be at the bottom of the idea of a right of property; whereas cheating takes most of its suggestions from the absence of that fact. It is certain that civilization has diminished downright robbery, depredation, theft, and not so much by its police, nor by the force of its penal laws, as by cultivating the notion of right conduct which condemns them. If it has not yet curtailed the devices of fraud, and if men make dishonest use of the knowledge and the skill that they have gained in every art, even more, perhaps, than their fathers used the scantier methods of fraud which they knew, the reason seems to be explained, and I can find nothing in the fact to argue against a final ripening of moral fruits in this region of human conduct, as well as in the rest.
"But what then?" every reader will ask. "Is it enough to account in this way for our notions of right? Is it enough to satisfy ourselves that they are formed like our mathematical notions, by the same faculties, in the same way, and that they have the same intellectual genesis? Is there not something more which this doctrine leaves still unexplained?—that something which distinguishes a moral notion from every other that is formed in the human mind; that something in it which is mandatory and urgent; that something which we call conscience, sense of duty, obligation? "I say. Yes; there certainly is something involved in morals beyond the knowledge of right and wrong; some kind of a force, or some kind of a law of feeling in man, which constrains him toward the right line of conduct when he has discerned it. That it only operates in coincidence with his perception of the line of right—that men, in other words, have no conscience with respect to wrongful deeds which they have not yet recognized as wrongful—appears to be shown by all the facts of human history. If it were otherwise, the Greek should have had a conscience to protest against infanticide; the Roman should have had a conscience to protest against slavery and against the bloody games of the arena; the Jew should have had a conscience to protest against the slaughter of women and children in war; Calvin should have had a conscience to protest against the burning of Servetus, and Cotton Mather a conscience to protest against the witch-hunting deviltries at Salem. This conscience, then, must be something that is only made active by the development of a moral intelligence which reveals to men the line of right in one particular of conduct after another. Need we try to account for it any otherwise than by calling it a law of feeling analogous in kind to that law of motion which operates to constrain the obedience of matter to right lines of motion? We know that, when we throw a stone into the air, it would move forever in the straight line of its projection if other forces, more potent than the projecting one, did not interfere to overcome the proper law of its motion. If, now, we might imagine a state of consciousness in this clod of matter, by virtue of which it could feel the resistance in itself to the perturbing forces that are swerving it from the line of rectitude, we should have the perfect analogue of what I conceive to be the conscience of the human being; a persistent law of feeling, that is, in man, which resists deviation from the right lines of conduct whenever he has become conscious of them. Such an implanted law of moral feeling in human nature is no more difficult of conception, nor any less so, than the rectilinear law of material motions.
But if the moving stone were conscious of the commanding law which resists all perturbing influences, it would still be irresponsible for its deviations from the right line of motion; whereas the acting man is not, because all the forces, of projection and perturbation alike, are in himself, and within the control of his own volition. He has but to bring his will into conjunction with the resisting vis inertiæ in his moral consciousness to make the resistance always efficient.
And this brings to light the third element in morals: which is the discipline of obedience in man to the law of feeling which constrains him toward the right line of conduct when he has perceived it. This discipline is very obviously the final end and final fruit of human culture. We need not wonder that it is slowly attained, when we think of the powerful animality in man which has to be struggled with in the process. It may be that our modern civilization has accomplished little as yet beyond the older in this direction, of moral discipline. It may be that men have acquired larger perceptions of right without being trained to obey them any better, except in a few directions of conduct, where the least resistance of opposing appetites and passions is encountered. But still it must be true that all culture tends, first, to develop the moral intelligence which forms right notions of conduct, and, finally, to perfect the moral discipline which makes conduct obedient to them.
It is upon that discipline chiefly that those qualities which I have called the moral qualities of the personal order, and which have their root in truthfulness and courage, depend for their evolution. I had intended to recur to these for some discussion at tins point, but my article is already too long. Perhaps it is enough to note the fact that, being incident as they are to intrinsic relations, self-existing in man, which undergo no complication and no change, the moral notions that define them may easily have been quite as distinct at some earlier stages of human culture as they are now. If they manifest themselves no more potently in conduct than they did twenty centuries ago—which seems doubtful, upon the whole—the fact must show us how little our modern civilization has yet advanced the race in moral discipline, whatever gains in moral knowledge it may have brought.