Popular Science Monthly/Volume 27/July 1885/Ethics and the Development Theory

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THE question of the bearing of the theory of evolution upon morals deserves a serious examination. The doctrine of development breaks at many points with cherished traditional notions, and its opponents have predicted that it would result in a spiritual revolution which would convulse society to its foundations by destroying the sanctions of conscience and paralyzing the religious sense.

The science of ethics has a theoretical and a practical part; the former, founded on the study of the nature of volition and the moral feelings, the latter having for its object to determine what ought to be. The latter, the establishment of rules of conduct, is the real object of ethics, while the purely theoretical researches have only the value of means.

Ethics can, it appears to us, learn much out of the theory of development, or can at least find a confirmation of single principles hitherto recognized by only a part of the students of morals. This theory teaches that the feelings and inclinations, as well as the bodily forms, are results of the adaptation of the living being to the conditions of his existence, and are therefore to be recognized as life-maintaining functions; that, the more complicated are the conditions of life, the less perfect is this adaptation: therefore, in the human world, spontaneous feelings and impulses are not safe guides. We may learn from it, also, to regard the moral feelings and conceptions as the most important part of the adapting of man to the conditions of social existence. It teaches us to bring into special consideration the moral conceptions of the most successful nations in the struggle for existence; for, if their views of right and wrong had diverged greatly from what is really beneficial to society, they would not have reached their dominant position. But the recognition that, in consequence of the complicated conditions of life, the adaptation is never complete, must restrain us from ever regarding the "positive morals" of a people—that is, the sum of their actual moral ideas—as being absolutely perfect.

The development theory, which has made us acquainted, as perhaps no former generation has been, with the idea of progress, has also accustomed us to regard the moral as one of the fields in which progress takes place; and, furthermore, to look forward to perfection in the moral nature. Moral progress consists, not in men coming nearer to their ideals, but in their ideals reaching a higher plane.

This theory shows us how dependent man is upon his race, and how erroneous it is to separate him from that connection. That the faculty of conscience is a result of the adaptation of man to the conditions of social existence appears to he doubted by no adherent of the theory of development; but the exponents of the doctrine vary greatly in their views of the manner in which the moral conceptions arise in individual life. Some regard them as to a greater or less extent instinctive, or transmitted by inheritance from the accumulated experience of ancestors; while others are inclined to accord a more prominent agency in the matter to training. We may apparently, however, presume that that which is practically the most wholesome will endure in the character, provided the teacher does not trust too much to the innate moral instincts, but recognizes that, while his child has the qualities requisite to his becoming a moral man under favorable conditions, this is not sure to be the case if those conditions are wanting, and therefore exercises extreme care in moral instruction.

We turn next to the answer to the question, What is the bearing of the development theory on the practical part of ethics? Man's place in Nature, as determined by that theory, is very different from that indicated in the older ideas of men; just as the Nature in which man finds himself set is not the Nature that existed in the conceptions of the past. The new conception of man and his morals again approaches, in many respects, that which was implied in the ethics of classical antiquity. Man no longer stands outside of Nature, but within it, as one of its integral parts. He is subject to the same laws of life as the animals. All in him, like all around him, is a product of natural, regular development. Even his moral part is not something laid upon him from outside of Nature, but something which has been shaped out of his own nature, molding itself according to the conditions of his existence. To an ethicist who accepts this view, morals will appear an affair of humanity and for humanity—for humanity on earth; and will give the most comprehensive construction of the saying of Christ, that man is not made for the Sabbath, but the Sabbath for man. We can not perceive that this view involves any practically destructive tendencies; and there are not a few distinguished men who avow the belief that there is no irreconcilable variance between evolution and religion.

With this view of the place of man in Nature, the ethicist can not easily oppose the doctrine that the same legality rules in the human will as in all the other processes of Nature. Even in the matter of the appearance of new individuals, the development theory admits no void in the endless chain of causation; for the dispositions which man brings into the world are, in consequence of it, nothing else than a product of the energies of his predecessors. The recognition of the fact of the transmissibility of mental as well as of physical characteristics, if not to the children to the children's children—a transmissibility whose sphere of influence in individual cases is not susceptible of definition—can not but heighten the feeling of responsibility, because we are thereby made aware that the consequences of good as well as of bad conduct extend further than we had supposed.

A few adherents of the development theory, including Darwin himself, have held that not the good of mankind, but the maintenance of his existence, is the moral principle resulting from it; and that feelings of pleasure and of pain are only the means which Nature uses to promote the exercise of life-favoring and restraint from life-injuring conduct; that the real end of all action is not pleasure and the avoidance of pain, not the greatest possible excess of pleasure over pain for as many as possible, not the greatest good of the greatest number, but only the most prolonged existence of the greatest number. The greatest possible endurance of species, or the mere maintenance of species, not their welfare, would be according to this view the chief moral principle. This position appears to us to be a difficult one.

The chief moral principle expresses that from which all of the rules of right may be derived, and accordingly means the highest rule of conduct, the highest moral aim of life, or the ethical highest good, and serves as the highest standard of estimation and judgment. Those evolutionists of whom we have just spoken start from a teleological view of the world—from the view that the course of Nature is governed by some purpose. But the majority of the Darwinians are opponents of teleology, or try to be. Rolph has shown that, in following the history of organic development on the earth, we can really perceive no tendency to an adaptation showing design, to the production of forms that may be represented to human conception as higher. Its result has been only to produce forms better adapted to what is around them; and the change just as often consists in a deterioration, even though some advantage is always gained for the creature. As not final causes, but efficient causes, working causes, have worn out the river-bed and determined the course of the stream, as it has formed its channel not with reference to its final outlet, but to the local conditions, so, as Darwin and his followers have shown, it is with all organic phenomena. The investigator has to break with teleology in all its forms; and, even in ethics, the question of the object, of the destiny of man, will have to be given up. This idea of a purpose or design in Nature, when we come to analyze it, of a preconceived and voluntary operation working to produce determined effects, presumes by necessary implication the agency of a will behind the causes which are leading up to those effects. It follows, hence, that there is purpose in Nature in the domain of man and the higher animals, because men, and in a certain but very much less degree the animals, form conceptions of processes which they strive to carry through; but that aside from these one can speak of Nature's purposes, of purposes which general Nature is pursuing, only if he regards Nature as a thinking and volitional being, or as the creature of such a being. A teleological view of the world thus of necessity always includes some kind of a theological view; and it seems to be decidedly a non-sequitur to entertain the one without holding to the other.

We men actually make our continued existence an object of fundamental importance, because, without realizing it, no other object is attainable. We are thus justified in calling all our properties that contribute to the maintenance of life adapted to that purpose. And, as we refer this same relation to the animal and the whole organic world, we are accustomed also to designate all their life-maintaining properties as likewise adapted. But life is never a purpose to animals. The idea of preserving life does not arise in their consciousness, and can not therefore be the object of a volition; while the lower animals have no ideas, but only sensations and perceptions. They have, therefore, no purposes. Still less can we speak of the purposes of plants, for plants have no consciousness. It is thus clear that, so far as the sub-human world is concerned, the designation of the life-preserving attributes of existence as designed, unless we are speaking in a theological sense, is only metaphorical. For this designation implies the premise that life is an object; and this, in a proper, untheological sense, is true only as respects human consciousness. Thus, a speaker who would avoid transcendental implications and metaphorical modes of speech should always avoid the word "designed," and this can be done without leaving any fact undetermined.

But, if we, regarding our belief in God as a justification for the introduction of the divine idea into science, and not heeding the many difficulties which ethics has hitherto encountered in basing its precepts on the presumed will of God, endeavor to determine what his will is, we shall have very little, if any, success in convincing the faithful that it is for the most prolonged existence of the greatest number.

Even as relating to men, these persons will not believe that self-preservation as such is the highest good. Bare existence is no good, much less the highest good; but it may be, if it is a bad existence, the highest evil, and this according to the perfectionist doctrine as well as according to the utilitarian theory of happiness. There is said to be existence, yes, eternal existence, even in hell; and, according to the ancient fathers of the Church, "the most prolonged existence for the greatest number."

Evolutionists, who recognize that life is valuable only as it is good, have occasionally fallen into the mistake of considering among the consequences of conduct only the effects on the condition of soundness, and of disregarding the pain that may be immediately produced by it; and they have not always been mindful that, according to their own definitions, fullness of life can be valuable only if we include in it fullness of happiness or some cause thereof.

Those evolutionists who appeal to the ancient principle of a Nature fitted life have apparently not sufficiently considered one thing. Science teaches what has been, but not what will be. If the "tendencies" of Nature which they think they have determined were simply laws of Nature, conditions of the inevitable occurrence of events, there would be no reason in seeking to make a moral imperative of them; for that can not be a matter of injunction which will without fail happen of itself. But if those "tendencies" are not a fate to be fulfilled with irresistible necessity, but can be antagonized, then the question arises, Why should we act according to them, and not try to counteract them? If we were once agreed that the complete working out of those tendencies would cross all our desires and hopes, would we recognize the ethic imperative of promoting them? On the contrary, we should recognize the obligation of so far as possible preventing their realization. And we should obey the moral command to make those tendencies ours, and advance them according to our strength so far as they appear good to us; as we also should hold a corresponding conduct to be right without this, without regarding it as advancing natural tendencies. What we should regard as good or evil, as worth striving for or to be avoided, must present a corresponding character to our own perception; and what that is arises out of our own nature, not out of something different from what that might be. Thus, the final decision as to what is to be striven for and what to be avoided lies in us, in our mind and will.

We observe, also, that the aspiration for what is according to Nature is so far from being an obvious ethical object, that the ancient Christians regarded the natural as something leading to evil. The ancient Greeks, on the other hand, premised an agreement of the two; and so it came to pass that the former held a pessimistic and the latter an optimistic view of the world. But the Greeks did not believe in the natural because it was natural, but because they thought it good; as the Christians disbelieved in it because it appeared bad to them, and seemed to contradict their moral convictions.

We are glad to learn from the evolutionist all he can tell us of the nature of things, and of the means of reaching the object sought after by us. Of this object, however, we do not learn from a natural history of the objective world, but from the study of our own hearts. It is, therefore, self-evident that the utilitarian or the ethicist, who regards the highest general good as the chief moral standard, will make use of all knowledge that can cast light on the way to his end. Consequently, he will certainly avail himself of all the facts of biology and sociology that are of importance in regard to it.

Existence is the condition of happiness. If the happiness of millions of present and future living men is to be assured, then their existence must be assured first of all things. Everything, therefore, that is important for the most prolonged existence of the greatest number is also important for the greatest happiness of the greatest number. The utilitarian will utilize all that the evolutionist can tell him—and one thing more.

The evolutionist will tell him that there is a correlation, on one side, between disagreeable and destructive, and on the other side between pleasurable and advantageous action; that the "useful," in the sense of the pleasurable, nearly agrees with the useful in the sense of the life-maintaining; and that there is a close connection between health and happiness and between disease and unhappiness. While this correlation is far from being perfect, it is, nevertheless, true that a more certain road to happiness lies through maintaining or improving the health than through a direct striving after a maximum of pleasure. The same rule prevails in society. The sound health of society must be the practical end through reaching which alone the real prosperity of society can be attained.

The truth that health is a fundamental condition of happiness has, indeed, not been unknown to any ethicist; that pattern of ancient cheerfulness, the philosopher Epicurus, is an emphatic reminder of this fact. And that the care of one's own health is enjoined also through regard for others, and that the so-called duties toward one's self are really duties toward others, and for that reason only duties, is likewise a doctrine that did not have first to be learned from Darwin and Spencer. But we have to thank Spencer for having adduced, in his exposition of the facts of transmission, so potent evidence of this truth, that no such dictum upon it as Schopenhauer has uttered will ever again be possible. While, however, he has performed the service of defining the physical conditions of happiness with greater emphasis than any of his predecessors, it does not follow that the utilitarian method founded by Bentham will have to be given up. Evolutionist writers have reminded us that too little attention has been paid to health in discipline and in public instruction. This is too true, but it is not in consequence of the application of utilitarian but of non-utilitarian precepts. And if it has been declared to be one of the results of the doctrine of a correlation between species-maintaining and pleasure-bringing action that family happiness is the highest human happiness, that is only a confirmation of a view expressed long ago by utilitarian ethicists, as appeared most plainly a hundred years ago (1785) in Paley's "Principles of Moral and Political Philosophy."

If, however, by the phrase, "health of society," something else is understood than a society consisting of healthy individuals, then the word "health" is only a metaphor, and one the sense of which is not clear; and to put this metaphor in the place of the principle of the happiness of the whole can not be regarded as an improvement. If Bentham should return now, he would have to censure the evolutionist ethics in no slight measure for its vague generalities and empty declamations, and its playing with phrases, and to combat its lack of circumspection. The evolutionists have joined generally with the utilitarians, but they are not practical ethicists. They could hardly succeed in actually working with their principle in such a compass as Bentham worked with his.

We come now to consider what is the bearing of the Darwinian doctrine of the struggle for existence upon morals. The objection has been brought against this doctrine, in divers phrases and with a variety of statement, that it leads to extreme demoralization. It can not be denied that Darwin's designation of the principle discovered by him as the "struggle for existence" is not fortunate, and is a metaphor, indicating a conscious hostile contention between living beings, each seeking the other's destruction, that has no real existence as such. And it will not be disputed that Darwin has been led into errors similar to those embodied in the theory of Malthus; or that great mischief has been done by the use of the phrase "struggle for existence" by persons who have never learned the A B C of ethics, but have still believed themselves called to offer their crudities to the public. But those mistakes are not to be alleged against the principle as such.

The principle of the natural selection of those beings whose modifications best adapt them to the conditions of their life is in the first place only an expression of that which has been, not of that which is to be. It is a law of Nature, not of morals. We are subject to this natural law of organic life, just as we are subject to the law of gravitation, or of the persistence of force, wholly without regard to our will. Natural selection is an agent which has operated as the general regulator of life upon the actual constitution of what is now existing in the organic world. It is the universal natural force that also regulates human life. And what do we see in human life? A fearful amount of moral and physical evil which is not prevented, but rather in part begotten by that regulator. We make it our task to contend incessantly by our premeditated action against that evil, while we regard the world, which is here without our assistance, not as the best possible, but as something which we must labor to improve and make more rational. What happens through the operation of the universal forces of Nature can not be a moral rule for us; for those forces produce also everything that is bad. This regulating principle implies that the being which possesses the most advantageous constitution, that is, which is best adapted to the conditions of its existence, has the best chances to maintain itself and to increase; and it applies to human beings as to all others. The fittest, or best adapted, survive. We have to distinguish among the life-conditions of man, or in his environment, between the physical and the social factors; the former regulating in general his physical, the latter his moral constitution.

What, now, is the moral constitution which enables the individual endowed with it to maintain himself? The principle of natural selection is not contradicted by any fact in the history of mankind. The determination of what of its members shall survive is an affair of the particular constitution of a society. There are, as Everett[1] has remarked, different kinds and degrees of immorality which are always important to the result. A certain degree of honor, according to the proverb, is required for a man to preserve his social standing in a society of thieves. But, besides the avoidance of flagrant violations of the social contract, there is nothing which is universally and always debarred by the demands of the social environment. The man who was fitted to succeed in the early days of the Roman Republic would have failed in the later age of the empire; and one whom the social elements of the empire lifted up would have fared badly in the time of the republic. Indeed, societies in which the highest and noblest moral attributes are a passport to success are very rare. The "fittest" in the moral sense, and the "fittest" in the sense of Darwinism, are not often the same.

And is this the last word that is to be said for Darwinism in its relation to morals? Is the judgment that the moral best and the fittest in the Darwinian sense are often not the same, of unconditioned effect? We believe not.

The principle of natural selection regulates not only the life of individuals; it rules also over the lives of generations and of peoples. It may, indeed, happen to be the means of success in some one commonwealth to practice the religion of £ s. d. It may be that in a particular society selfishness, cunning, trickery, overbearing violence or fawning subserviency, and moral cowardice, or high living and ostentation, will give good chances for getting on; men of such characters may have, in some states, the best opportunity to raise themselves and their families, while one who despises injustice, lying, and hypocrisy, will have to go to the wall. But there is, nevertheless, as Matthew Arnold says, "an eternal power, not ourselves, that makes for righteousness." Characteristics, it is true, are transmitted; but not in the same combinations as they existed in the father or the mother; immoral characteristics, like those we have named, never in that which is adapted to insure success in a certain constitution of society. If we allow, by transmission or by training, some other peculiar quality to enter into the composition of the character, or if we let a certain quality be lost, then that "lucky balance" that brought success will be destroyed. The chances that the posterity of men possessing such traits of character as we have sketched will maintain themselves long, that they will not, sooner or later, fail, in consequence of collisions with the "physical, legal, or social sanction," with the laws of health or of the state, or with the demands of society, are not very great.

But "the eternal power, not ourselves, that makes for righteousness," asserts itself in a still more imposing manner. We have hitherto considered only the lives of individuals and of single generations, but we must also regard the lives of peoples. It is manifest in this collective life, in a vastly higher measure than in individual life, that "the wages of sin is death." As Everett has remarked, again, one society may favor the growth of righteousness and honor, another that of knavery and hypocrisy. In one, drunkenness and sensuality, and similar vices, may cause a man to sink to the lowest circles of society; in another, they may raise him till he reaches the highest. But here, at last, we have a principle, to which these social conditions are themselves responsible. The one society will develop one type of character, the other a different one; but according to the type of character which it favors will it stand or fall. In this we find in the facts of history a confirmation of the fundamental difference between right and wrong. What we call justice is the only enduring basis on which society can rest. The nations that do wrong and despise justice, which lose themselves in sensual intoxication, are at last broken up, and a purer, stronger, and less depraved race takes their place.

If the opinion comes to prevail in a society that the struggle for existence justifies or demands a reckless pursuit of one's own interests, the oppression and ruin of the weak by the strong, the destruction of misery by destroying the miserable, the extirpation of the voice of compassion, which protests within us against such a course; if physical strength and refined cunning and selfishness are carefully cherished as the highest ideal, then the days of that commonwealth are numbered, for it has worked for its own dissolution by authorizing a "strife of all against all," which, true to its precepts, may come in at any moment when a community of interests may not be present. Let periods of want and danger, or of war, ensue, and we shall see what will be the fate of a society in which patriotism, devotion, ideal standards, and regard for truth and justice have been objects of ridicule.

All positive human authorities are subject to the authority of life conditions. If they will not adapt themselves to the nature of things when they deal with the bases of social life, their enterprises will at last be shattered under the might of that authority.

Two elements, according to Everett, have contributed more than all else to the success of men in the conflict with animals, and of civilized men in contending with barbarous. One of these elements is knowledge, or the power of thought, the other is the force of the social impulse. Ideas on the one side, a self-forgetting resignation on the other, are what have given the victory to the higher races. Whatever restricts the course of either mental or moral development strikes the hardest possible blow against the stability of the social organism.

The distinction between right and wrong, to use an expression of John Fiske's, has its roots in the deepest foundations of the universe. The cosmical power of natural selection is not against, but for, morals. It sanctions the most exalted ethical ideals, such as the choicest minds have conceived. It is a judgment-power, because it permits only that which is right and perfect to endure, and lets the unjust, the base, and the evil perish.

The knowledge that this world-power supports virtue, and contributes its part in elevating the moral nature, will inspire the moralist in his efforts in behalf of the good, and in his contention against the bad. But we must be careful not to mistake the true significance of this law. There is arising in the newer evolutionist literature a kind of fatalist optimism or optimistic fatalism, the effects of which may be no less disastrous than those of an undiscriminating pessimism. If natural selection is to select the good, then the good must already be there. It does not contradict this principle, that the human race will die out as other species have died out; but it follows directly from the principle that the race must die out if it becomes bad. Not without us, but through us, through our volition, conscious of that purpose, will the continuous development go on. In our day, says Salter, in his "Religion of Morals," evolution is sometimes regarded as if it was something outside of us and above us, and we had only to wait on its motion. But evolution operates through you and me. It is only an abstract name for the course which your energy and mine and that of other beings take. It is for better or for worse, according as we are better or worse. It goes on rapidly or creeps along painfully, according as our thoughts are quick or slow and dead. It is not enough to perceive that the bad will at last perish and the good persist. We must wish it to be the good that will triumph. It is still true that the sources of history are in us. The result of these considerations must be a heightening of the feeling of responsibility.—Translated for the Popular Science Monthly from the Deutsche Rundschau.

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  1. C. C. Everett, in "Unitarian Review," October, 1878; "The New Ethics."