Page:Popular Science Monthly Volume 76.djvu/151

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By Professor IRVING KING


ACCORDING to the earlier explorers and missionaries and the careless travelers of even recent years, the morality of the Australian aborigines was of a very low grade. Almost all such observers agreed in placing them in the very lowest stages of culture. They were described as bestial in habits, naked, lacking all sense of virtue; the men cruel to their children and wives. They were said to be addicted to infanticide and cannibalism, were cruel in their tastes, shiftless, lazy, stupid, deceitful, in fact were possessed of all conceivable evil qualities; they were deaf to the lessons of religion and civilization, ready at theft, and had almost no regard for the value of human life. They were naturally, moreover, given up almost constantly to destructive inter-tribal wars.

The investigations of more recent students of the natural races have thrown a somewhat different light upon the matter. It is now recognized that morality is not to be judged by relationship to some fixed and absolute standard, but rather that it is fundamentally related to the system of social control which holds within the group. It is consequently unjust to apply civilized standards of morality to such peoples. The goodness or badness of an act must be adjudged according to its place within some social context. It must, moreover, be borne in mind that the "higher race," in its first contact with the lower, seldom sees it at its best. Without doubt the ignorance and brutality of many of the first white settlers and explorers of Australia was constantly provocative of retaliation on the part of the natives. The so-called treachery of the latter, their cunning and their dishonesty were merely reflexes of their treatment by the whites. Hence it is impossible to judge of the morals of a race by the acts produced by its contact with another race. It may be admitted that a savage will do many things that a civilized man would not do, but mere difference does not render either one or the other immoral. The morality of an act can be determined only when it is known whether it conforms to the standard recognized by the group. This does not, of course, preclude the further inquiry as to whether some social standards are relatively higher than others, but such an inquiry lies beyond the scope of the present article.