Popular Science Monthly/Volume 21/May 1882/Professor Goldwin Smith as a Critic

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Popular Science Monthly Volume 21 May 1882  (1882) 
Professor Goldwin Smith as a Critic
By Herbert Spencer



IN the preface to the "Data of Ethics" there occurs the following sentence:

With a view to clearness, I have treated separately some correlative aspects of conduct, drawing conclusions either of which becomes untrue if divorced from the other, and have thus given abundant opportunity for misrepresentation.

When I wrote this sentence, I little dreamed that Professor. Goldwin Smith would be the man to verify my expectation more fully than I expected it to be verified by the bitterest bigot among those classed as orthodox.

I do not propose here to enter upon a controversy. I propose simply to warn readers that, before accepting Professor Goldwin Smith's versions of my views, it will be well to take the precaution of referring to the views as expressed by myself, to see whether the two correspond. And, by way of showing that this warning is called for, I will give them the opportunity of comparing representation with reality in a single instance.

In his article in the last number of this "Review," and on page 340, he characterizes the doctrine I have set forth in these words:

An authoritative conscience, duty, virtue, obligation, principle, and rectitude of motive, no more enter into his definitions, or form parts of his system, than does the religious sanction.

Before going further, let the reader dwell a moment on this statement, and consider the full implication of its words. Let him ask himself what kind of conclusions he would look for in a system of ethics which does not recognize "an authoritative conscience"; what ideas of right and wrong are likely to be found in a treatise on conduct which excludes "duty" and "virtue"; what he thinks must be the general traits of a moral doctrine in which "principle" has no place. Then, when he has fully impressed himself with the meaning of Professor Smith's words, and imagined the kind of teaching indicated by them, let him observe the teaching he actually finds. The following passage, from chapter ix of the "Data of Ethics," will prepare the way for more specific passages:

It is quite consistent to assert that happiness is the ultimate aim of action, and at the same time to deny that it can be reached by making it the immediate aim. I go with Mr. Sidgwick as far as the conclusion that "we must at least admit the desirability of confirming or correcting the results of such comparisons [of pleasures and pains] by any other method upon which we may find reason to rely"; and I then go further and say that, throughout a large part of conduct, guidance by such comparisons is to be entirely set aside and replaced by other guidance (pp. 155, 156). Even without going further, it will, I think, be manifest enough that, instead of putting pleasures and pains in the foreground, as alone to be considered in determining right and wrong (which Professor Goldwin Smith's account of my views will lead every reader to suppose I do), I have here distinctly asserted the need for another method of determining right and wrong. And if comparisons of pleasures and pains, or estimations of happiness, are to be "entirely set aside" in the guidance of "a large part of conduct," it will puzzle any reader to conceive what such guidance can be if there are excluded from it all ideas of principle, rectitude, duty, obligation. But now, remarking this much, I go on to point out that a large part of the chapter is devoted to the refutation of Bentham's doctrine, that happiness is to be the immediate object of pursuit. I have insisted on the authoritative character of certain "regulative principles for the conduct of associated human beings" (p. 167), which are already recognized and "established," and have urged that conformity to these must be the direct aim, and not happiness. Concerning certain moral ideas and sentiments, I have said:

Are they supernaturally-caused modes of thinking and feeling, tending to make men fulfill the conditions to happiness? If so, their authority is peremptory. Are they modes of thinking and feeling naturally caused in men by experience of these conditions? If so, their authority is no less peremptory (p. 168).

And then, having in various ways explained and enforced the need for these "regulative principles," and the peremptory authority of these "modes of thinking and feeling" known as conscience, I have closed the chapter by saying that "conflicting ethical theories ... severally embody portions of the truth, and simply require combining in proper order to embody the whole truth" (p. 171).

The theological theory contains a part. If for the divine will, supposed to be supernaturally revealed, we substitute the naturally-revealed end toward which the power manifested throughout evolution works; then, since evolution has been, and is still, working toward the highest life, it follows that conforming to those principles by which the highest life is achieved is furthering that end. The doctrine, that perfection or excellence of nature should be the object of pursuit, is in one sense true, for it tacitly recognizes that ideal form of being which the highest life implies, and to which evolution tends. There is a truth, also, in the doctrine that virtue must be the aim, for this is another form of the doctrine that, the aim must be to fulfill the conditions to achievement of the highest life. That the intuitions of a moral faculty should guide our conduct is a proposition in which a truth is contained, for these intuitions are the slowly organized results of experiences received by the race while living in presence of these conditions. And that happiness as the supreme end is beyond question true, for this is the concomitant of that highest life which every theory of moral guidance has distinctly or vaguely in view.

So understanding their relative positions, those ethical systems which make virtue, right, obligation the cardinal aims, are seen to be complementary to those ethical systems which make welfare, pleasure, happiness the cardinal aims (pp. 171, 172).

Nor is this all. Having asserted that the moral sentiments "are indispensable as incentives and deterrents," and that "the intuitions corresponding to these sentiments" have "a general authority to be reverently recognized," I have ended by saying:

Hence, recognizing in due degrees all the various ethical theories, conduct in its highest form will take as guides, innate perceptions of right, duly enlightened and made precise by an analytic intelligence, while conscious that these guides are proximately supreme solely because they lead to the ultimately supreme end happiness, special and general (pp. 172, 173).

Experience does not lead me to suppose that Professor Goldwin Smith will admit his description of my views to be unjustified. Contrariwise, many instances have proved to me that, when the statements, first made are not distinguished by great scrupulousness, no great scrupulousness is shown in the defense of them. The reader will be able, however, to decide beforehand whether any reply which may be made can be adequate. He has simply to ask himself whether, having read the sentence I have quoted from Professor Goldwin Smith, he could have expected to find in the "Data of Ethics" the passages I have quoted from it. If he says "No," as he must do, then, whatever explanation or defense may be offered, will leave outstanding the charge of grave misrepresentation.

Perhaps it will be assumed that this is simply a mistake, an inadvertence, an oversight on the part of Professor Goldwin Smith—an exceptional error he has fallen into. Well, even were this true, it could hardly be held to excuse him, considering that his statement involves a condemnatory characterization of the work as a whole. But it is not true. So far from being exceptional, the instance I have given is typical of his entire criticism. I have noted eight other statements of his concerning views of mine, which are quite at variance with the facts—most of them as widely at variance as the one I have instanced. I do not wish to occupy either my own time or the pages of the "Contemporary Review" in setting forth these at length, but I am quite prepared to do it if need be.—Contemporary Review.

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