Popular Science Monthly/Volume 14/March 1879/Is Conscience Primitive?

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MR. DUGDALE, in his recent monograph, "The Jukes," has endeavored to show by rather startling statistics how crime and pauperism become hereditary. In this vicious and depraved family, there is a conspicuous absence of moral sensibility—a lack of what we call conscience—that strikes the social scientist as something abnormal. Is not this lack rather a return to normal conditions by the removal of that favorable environment which holds in check the lower instincts, and helps to develop the higher capabilities, of man's nature? Is not that juvenile monstrosity Pomeroy a sort of moral atavism? In short, did the primitive man have a conscience?

And, lest the mere question should shock some good people, let it be premised that the foundations of the Christian religion do not rest upon a belief or disbelief in an innate conscience any more than the popular fallacy of an innate and universal idea of God is a necessary tenet of orthodox faith. These theories form no essential part of religion. They are simply some of the outposts which theologians and schoolmen have erected to strengthen, as they imagine, the citadel of Biblical truth, but forming no part of the citadel itself. These needless defenses have been multiplied in the course of centuries till the thing defended has sometimes been lost sight of. The Fathers have usurped the authority of the Apostles; ancient interpretation ranks revelation. Milton has come to substitute Moses to that degree that so learned a man as Professor Huxley has considered it worth his while to apply the tests of a scientist to the visions of a poet. It must be confessed that time and tradition have lent a sanctity to many articles of popular creed that have little authority in Holy Writ, and the so called conflict between Science and Religion will have served no ill purpose if in its heat the rubbish of ages is burned away. In this conflict man's fictions may suffer—God's truth, never.

In the language of theology the conscience is a separate and distinct faculty of the mind—a sort of Supreme Court to which all cases involving the principles of right and wrong are immediately referred for adjudication and intuitively settled. It is generally asserted that this faculty is congenital—chief justice by birth and divine right. I believe, on the contrary, that this mind faculty is not innate, but, if it exists at all, it is born of the other faculties, is educated to its functions, and, like the late Electoral Commission, reflects its training in all its decisions.

A conscience to justify the popular notions of its origin and authority ought to be infallible, and must be universal. If this faculty is an innate and essential part of man's being, it should be in every man, and exercise its functions everywhere. It is admitted that isolated and sporadic cases of deficient moral sensibility do not authorize the logical conclusion that there is no such thing as conscience, any more than the inmates of a blind-school prove that there is no such thing as sight; but if there are found whole tribes of people who not only lack all evidence of a conscience, but whose language has no words to express moral distinctions or ideas of right and wrong; if, in addition, we find that where higher races give evidence in language and life that they have certain moral perceptions, yet that the decisions of conscience always follow local tradition and custom—it seems a fair inference that the faculty itself is not an essential of man's mental constitution, but is a product of culture; the resultant perhaps originally of observation and experience, which in time, and under the influences of civilization, may become an hereditary aptitude, though the facts of deaf-mutism, to which reference is made hereafter, militate against the theory of transmission.

Cœlum noil animum mutant qui trans mare currunt[1] is perhaps true of those who are old enough to travel, and who find national habitudes of thought and culture following them everywhere, but morals certainly change with almost every clime and age. In a broad survey of the history of morals one comes to doubt whether there is such a thing as abstract right and wrong. Every article of the religious code in which we have been educated, and which we revere, has been or is violated without remorse among the peoples who sit in darkness, but who are supposed to have that intuitive faculty which makes the pagan a law unto himself. The vice of to-day is the virtue of yesterday: a disgrace in England is a dignity in Ashantee. The crowning glory and triumph of Christian grace is the shame of the red-man's creed. Crimes against life, crimes against liberty, crimes against personal rights, crimes against chastity, crimes against nature, have all been sanctioned and justified by this infallible judge. The bitterest wars have been religious wars, where the contending hosts were stimulated and led on by conscience. The fiercest persecutions have been religious persecutions, where conscience stretched the rack and tightened the thumb-screws. The blood of martyrs stains the skirts of every sect: Catholics have persecuted Protestants, Protestants have persecuted Papists, and both have set their heel upon the Jew. The atrocities of Alva were equaled by the cruelties of Louvois. The victims of St. Bartholomew find a parallel in the sufferings of the Scotch Covenanters. Saul thought he was doing God service in haling men and women to prison and to death. Blood for blood is Hebrew as well as Indian law. The sin of stealing among the Spartans was in being caught at it. The severe Cato thought it right to yield his wife to his friend. Socrates sanctioned the prostitution of Aspasia by his daily intercourse and friendship. In the Balearic Isles a bride was the common property of all the wedding-guests before she could be the wife of one. Among the Naudowossies the woman who could take to her bosom forty stalwart warriors of a night was regarded almost with veneration, and had her pick of the tribe for a husband. Galbraith says that among the Sioux theft, arson, rape, and murder, are regarded as means of distinction. In Tahiti, while idolatry prevailed, the common animal instinct of maternal affection seemed lacking, so much so that Mr. Ellis, long resident there, says he never met a Tahitian mother who had not imbrued her hands in the blood of her offspring. It is not necessary to show that these crimes were ever considered right. It suffices that they were committed without remorse, without a feeling of wrong-doing. They are not instances of perverted conscience, but of no conscience, and the concurrent testimony of travelers is that the lower races have no moral sense. Mr. Dove says that the Tasmanians "are entirely without moral views" or impressions. Governor Eyre says the Australians have no moral sense of what is just and equitable in the abstract, their only test of propriety being whether they are numerically or physically strong enough to brave the vengeance of those whom they may have provoked or injured. "Conscience," says Burton, "does not exist in eastern Africa, and 'repentance' means regret for missed opportunities of mortal crime." Mr. Campbell observes that the Soors, an aboriginal tribe of India, are without moral sense. Language is a pretty good measure of mental development, yet the dialects of inferior tribes are generally deficient in terms expressive of moral quality. Remorse is absolutely unknown, and Lubbock says the only instance of a man belonging to one of the lower races trying to account for an act is the case of a young Feejeean, who, when asked why he had killed his mother (in law?), answered, "Because it was right."

It is very difficult to get at the original man, for the reason that wherever found he is the heir of all the ages, and the training of circumstance and condition begins away beyond the reach of mind and memory. No man can remember the time when he could not talk or walk. He can not remember when sad experience first taught him that the candle-flame was not just the thing to cut his teeth upon. No more does his memory go back to the time when his first lessons in ethics were enforced by the gentle spat of the mother's hand or the warning "No! no!" of her reproving voice. Humanity forbids repeating the cruel experiment of Psammeticus, who secluded a child from all intercourse with his kind in order to get at the original speech of man. But nature has done what civilization would have no right to do, and offers in the phenomena of deaf-mutism a psychological study of curious interest. Considered from an intellectual and moral standpoint, the deaf-mute is an anachronism—a prehistoric man standing bewildered in the blaze of the nineteenth century. By simple severance of a nerve connection an invisible barrier is thrown around the child, and in this seclusion the mind develops to a certain extent free from the influences of accumulated culture, and is in respect to ethical notions absolutely primitive. The animal instincts are strong, and their gratification sought after the manner of an animal. He appreciates kindness and resents injury. He will steal and hide the thing stolen, but I have seen a dog do the same. He acquires certain ideas concerning the rights of possession, and will commit murder in defense of such right without remorse. In a recorded case near Rodez, France, officers were sent to seize property for debt. They were driving off the peasant's cow, when the farmer's son, an uneducated deaf-mute, seized a club and brained the officer, and when brought into court could hardly be restrained from inflicting the same punishment upon the constable's assistants whom he recognized there. He was acquitted, on the ground that, being entirely ignorant of the legal rights of the case, he had only obeyed one of the first laws of nature in defending his father and his property.

The uneducated deaf-mute never rises to the conception of a God or Great First Cause. If he reasons at all on the subject, he concludes things have always been as they are, or as one expressed it, "it was natural to be so." He has no idea of a life beyond the grave, nor of future rewards and punishments. The more intelligent will work out philosophies not of creation but of physical phenomena, sometimes strangely like the mythologies of the ancients, and the similarity of these myths indicates how naturally the primitive mind materializes and seeks explanation of phenomena by the generalizations of personal experience. The association of causes is sometimes ludicrous.

An English deaf-mute boy observing that he could raise quite a strong wind with his mother's bellows, naturally concluded that the wind which sometimes took his hat off in the street came from the mouth of a gigantic bellows. He never stopped to inquire who blew the bellows. A little girl imagined that the plants which spring up from year to year in the fields and woods were like those in her mother's garden, planted and watered by "some woman"—an infantile conception, in which, however, may be traced a kindred germ to the old Greek notions respecting nymphs and dryads. One lad, struck by the similarity between flour falling from a mill and snow falling from the clouds, concluded that snow was ground out of a mill in the sky. A more poetical notion was that of a little fellow who thought the soft, feathery snow-flakes in the winter were the falling blossoms of unknown orchards in the sky, of which hailstones in summer were the icy fruit. Some suppose thunder and lightning to be the discharge of firearms in the sky, a notion the converse of that of the Aztecs, who believed the Spaniards were gods armed with thunder and lightning.

Thus it is that human nature repeats itself, and that deaf-mute children left, by their inability to profit by the experience of their elders, in a prolonged infancy exemplify, in their efforts to account for the phenomena of nature, many of the fancies that prevailed in the infancy of society.

But if this primitive mind fails to grasp the idea of a Great First Cause, it is equally clear that ethical distinctions are also lacking; and this belief is supported by good authority among those who have intimate acquaintance with this peculiar class. Abbé Sicard says of the deaf-mute: "As to morals, he does not suspect their existence. The moral world has no being for him, and virtues and vices are without reality." "The deaf and dumb," says Herr Eschke, of Berlin, an eminent teacher, "live only for themselves. They acknowledge no social bond, they have no notion of virtue. Whatever they may do, we can impute their conduct to them neither for good nor for evil." Herr Cæsar, of Leipsic, corroborates this testimony. "The deaf and dumb," says he, "comprehend neither law nor duty, neither justice nor injustice, neither good nor evil; virtue and vice are to them as if they were not."

The proof of this moral deficiency by deaf-mute testimony is not so easily obtained, for the reason that the deaf-mute early learns by parental discipline to attach certain consequences to certain acts, and, when he becomes educated enough to be questioned concerning moral perceptions, he has forgotten the time when he did not have what he calls conscience, but which is no more like the theological definition of conscience than is the feeling that makes a dog slink away when detected in wrong-doing. I am not prepared to say that animals have no conscience; indeed, I am quite sure they have the same kind of inward monitor that an uneducated deaf-mute has: child and pup are alike restrained by severe tones and a switch, only the pup learns the most readily. You can teach a hungry dog to watch a piece of meat quicker than a child can be brought to resist the temptation of stealing cherries. Both respond to the gentle culture of caress and kindness, though the dog is the more boisterous in his acknowledgments. Indeed, every parent who has watched the development of an infant must have noticed how like the means used in training animals is the method of child-education. There are the same warning tones, the thwarting of desires, the resort to punishment, and the smiling face, the nod of assent, the rewards of well-doing, and the petting of approbation. With the child there is much iteration of reference to right and wrong; but it is the rewards and punishments which he understands, and not the wordy appeal to the higher motives.

That this is true of the uneducated deaf-mute naturally follows from his peculiar symbols of thought. He thinks in images, and the signs he makes grow out of and represent these images. His ideas are concrete, in the sense that he seldom arrives at general conclusions, his judgment being exercised on particular cases that have fallen under his observation, and which he recognizes when they occur again. Morality is an abstraction that goes beyond the reach of his instruments of thought, and it is only as he comes within the larger capacities of the sign-language as developed and used in institution-life that he can be brought to the level of spiritual conceptions, and to do this we have continually to make stepping-stones as it were out of his own crude and imperfect mental imagery. In this respect the deaf-mute does not differ from the many lower races whose language is so wanting in expressions for spiritual truths that missionaries are obliged to use the most material words from the meager vocabularies of the savages to express their novel messages of mercy and peace.

That what we call the dictate of conscience is only another name for an act of judgment and reason, seems evident from the difficulty one has in deciding as to what is right and what is wrong. A lawyer may have pronounced upon certain common points of law so frequently that when a case is presented he does not stop to think, but gives answer immediately, yet one would not say that he acts intuitively. So in what might be called the grosser matters of morals the judgment is able to act quickly from frequent exercise, but, when it comes to the nicer distinctions of ethics, so far from acting intuitively or quickly, the mind is often in long and painful doubt. To tell the truth seems to be a plain duty, yet who would dare to condemn Sister Surplice's lie in defense of poor Jean Valjean? "Thou shalt not steal" is human and divine law, but shall a man starve rather than take a loaf of bread that does not belong to him? When does manslaughter in self-defense become justifiable? The relative duties to God, to self, and society, to family and friendship, require much weighing of motive, and evidence, and interests, which, so far from being settled intuitively, call for the most careful exercise of judgment.

The limits of time and space forbid a further discussion of this subject beyond the following summary of conclusions:

1. That examination of minds nearest to primitive conditions shows that there is an utter absence of moral feeling, and that therefore conscience is not a congenital faculty.

2. That the idea of duty is an abstraction, which comes with considerable development of mind and a power of generalization of which the lower races are not capable.

3. That what is called "conscience" is simply an act of judgment and reason.

4. That the decisions of conscience depend upon the education of die individual; and—

5. That therefore conscience, even among intellectually developed races, is not an infallible guide, but must itself be guided by a written law.

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  1. They change their sky, not their affections who cross the sea.