Popular Science Monthly/Volume 16/January 1880/Editor's Table
THE science of morals is as legitimate as the science of rocks, and far more important. When, therefore, a new step has been taken in its development and exposition, we are interested in all the indications of its recognition. The reception of Spencer's "Data of Ethics" shows on the whole a very marked progress of religious liberality. There is much protest but large concession, while the expressions of intelligent appreciation and cordial sympathy are many and emphatic. We give some illustrations, with comments, of the manner in which his position is now regarded.
We certainly never expected to live long enough to see the name of Herbert Spencer received with applause in a great religious convention of orthodox people; but, if the report of the London "Times" can be trusted, this extraordinary phenomenon has actually occurred. That paper of October 10th contains a report of the Church Congress held this year at Swansea, and presided over by the Bishop of St. Davids, in which the question of "Internal Church Unity" came up for discussion. The Reverend Professor Pritchard gave an eloquent and powerful address on the "Religious Benefits from Recent Science and Research," in which the doctrine of evolution was assumed as true, and as in entire harmony with all essential religious truth. He was followed by the Reverend Professor Watkins, of St. Augustine College, Canterbury, who spoke on the same subject. He said: "The currents of higher religious thought in England were being influenced by two main forces; one was the theory of evolution, the other comparative theology, or the so-called science of religion itself. The theory of evolution came to them with much of the charm of novelty, and commended itself as emphatically of British growth. It was probable, indeed, that this induction of inductions was but a step to higher inductions. Still he felt sure that, when the history of this century came to be written from the standpoint of the future, the name of Herbert Spencer would be found in the very first rank among English thinkers. [Cheers.] In ultimate principles he differed from Spencer toto cœlo, but he was therefore the more anxious to acknowledge the greatness of his work, and the philosophical spirit in which it had been conducted. [Hear, hear!]"
It is a common remark that all transitions of belief are painful, and none know better than intelligent missionaries how painful are transitions of religious belief. It matters little that the change is from a lower to a higher faith; violence is done to long-cherished ideas, and there is a sense of bereavement whatever the superiority of the new creed. Those, therefore, who are in the habit of having their morality garnished with theology and are accustomed to mix these conceptions and their terminology, will naturally shrink from the attempt to separate the ethics and treat it merely as an independent system of scientific principles. Such devout people will naturally look upon the "Data of Ethics" as a cheerless book. They yearn for the blessed words that have become polarized by long and sacred association. The reviewer in "Harper's Monthly," after giving a very fair account of the work, closes by expressing this idea as follows: "The treatise is a model of condensed and lucid statement, and of subtile reasoning, but the reader will be struck by the inexpressible dreariness of its tone, as if its author had verified in his own experience the simile of one of our greatest living poets, that 'the setting of a great hope is like the setting of the sun—the brightness of our life is gone.'"
It is possible that the writer believed what he here says, but it is more probable, we must say, that he was merely writing with the delicate caution thought necessary under the circumstances. The penalty of a "hundred thousand circulation" is that writers must be solicitous to reflect public sentiment rather than to lead it, and the practical result is that they generally follow it afar off. Our whole nation is ahead of this sentimental craving to keep things mixed which ought to be separated. We have separated the Church from the state, with great distress to many, no doubt, but with the most wholesome consequences. We have secularized our public instruction, and, although there are still many who bemoan the inexpressible dreariness of our godless education, the good sense of the country has long since ceased to heed the ecclesiastical lamentations over our policy. The disentangling of ethics from theology and the treatment of it as an independent science were demanded as a logical requirement of our educational system, for morals must be taught in public schools, while religion is left to the special agencies of spiritual instruction. And, if the country has thus decreed the divorce, why mourn over a book which merely conforms to it, and which furnishes the best defense of the national wisdom in making the divorce?
But the characterization of Spencer's work as dreary and the suggestion about "the setting of a great hope" are untruthful, and are probably morbid subjective illusions of the writer. The "Data of Ethics," so far from being a dreary book in its spirit and tone, is, on the contrary, a book more buoyant with hope and more full of rational encouragement than any former philosophical treatise upon morals ever written. It connects the moral duty and improvement of man with pleasure and happiness more closely and profoundly than any other ethical system hitherto promulgated. It arrays the grand results of modern science against a spurious metaphysics to stem the black tide of advancing pessimism; and it appeals to the unfolding of the universe as giving trust of something brighter and better for man—yet to be realized this side of his chances of perdition. Other reviewers of "The Data of Ethics" have not failed to recognize and to declare this quality of the book.
A writer in the "Home Journal" of November 16th closes an interesting account of Spencer's work as follows: "To whatever criticism the system of ethics which is thus logically developed from the law of evolution may be subjected on the part of the opponents of the evolution theory, yet this at least is evident—that as an instrument for the acceleration of the progress of society toward the beautiful ideal which it sketches out, as a stimulus to individual exertion in furtherance of this high aim, the new system is immeasurably superior to all antecedent theories of life. While other systems have encouraged the hope, none have supplied the data of a rational faith in the ultimate realization of a lofty morality among the masses of mankind. Nay, the prevalent codes which claim for themselves a supernatural origin make it their duty to proclaim the native impotency of man, and place the realization of their ideal quite beyond this 'vale of tears.'
"Believe in the perfectibility of men, believe that society in the very conditions of its existence is impregnated with the potency that insures this perfectibility, and a great step is made toward the end desired. Faith in this preëstablished destiny—the faith that the laws of the universe are working in and through and side by side with the aspirations and endeavors of individual men, can not fail but impart a new impulse to these aspirations and a new vigor to these endeavors."
Equally to the point are the words of a critic in "The Nonconformist" of November 5th—a journal which is the leading organ of English orthodox Dissenters. After an excellent analysis of the work, the writer remarks: "The value of the discussion in this volume is the glimpses it affords into the future which its author anticipates. No loftier view, we venture to think, was ever entertained. Whatever may be the opinions we hold respecting the origin of our ideas of right and wrong, and of the sanctions by which they are enforced, we can not refrain from admiring the optimism of Mr. Herbert Spencer. It is as pure and sublime as that of the most spiritual seers of the past, and it involves as radical a change in human nature as that demanded by the New Testament. It is, in his own words, 'a rationalized version of its ethical principles.' He feels, as we feel in reading his works, that his conclusions will not meet with any considerable acceptance. The fact that they are Christian in their essence is rather a hindrance to their acceptance, since conventional Christianity practically repudiates the ideal morality of its founder."
The presidents of colleges have found themselves called upon to define their position in regard to the "Data of Ethics," and their outgivings, though somewhat discordant, are none the less instructive.
It is now nearly ten years since President Porter, of Yale, in a little book on "Man," said in relation to Herbert Spencer: "No well-read student of philosophy can hesitate to believe that, notwithstanding the zeal of his admirers, he will cease to be the wonder of the hour; that as soon as the secret of his plausibility is exposed he will suffer a more complete neglect than he will fairly deserve." These were ominous words, and coming from such a source they led many to expect that very soon some powerful hand would strip the mask from a pretender and consign him to speedy oblivion. Meantime, the lugubrious prophecy remained unfulfilled. Dr. Porter, however, continues to be of the same mind, and after this long time he comes forward and with unseemly malediction again foretells the unmasking of this pretentious writer, whom he elsewhere likens to a "dexterous juggler." Yet, instead of collapsing and vanishing in accordance with this portentous Porterian programme, Spencer emerges in a new field into which the President of Yale finds it necessary to follow him with a six-columned article in "The Independent." Some pleasant things are said of the "Data of Ethics" and its author, but Mr. Spencer is sharply indicted for not making enough of the metaphysical notion of personality. Dr. Porter declares: "Indeed, personality is a conception which is utterly foreign to any and every part of his theory, as it logically should be. This grand and damning defect will one day be discovered and confessed when the factitious glamour which now invests it is dispelled."
Theologians have ever been free in the application of damnatory expletives to scientific ideas which do not conform to their standards, and the President is here merely conforming to the long prevalent custom of his party. But, so long as these execrable defects of Spencer's theories are yet spoken of as things to be "one day discovered," would it not be well to pretermit this little game of sinister augury, and be content to curse defects already discovered?
The President of the College of New Jersey has also paid his respects to the "Data of Ethics" in the "Princeton Review," but he is at wide disagreement with his brother of Yale. In fact, they are squarely antagonistic in their estimates of Spencer, past, present, and future. Dr. McCosh does, not think that he is either a sham to be exposed, or a thinker to be soon forgotten. He opens his article by saying: "Herbert Spencer commands our respect by his terrible earnestness. He has an end to live for, and he lives for it. For it he has given up professional pursuits and profits (he was an engineer), and for many years immediate fame and popularity. For at least thirty years a grand system of speculative physics founded on the recent discoveries in biology has been developing in his brain, and he must unfold it and give it forth in spite of obstacles, with or without encouragement from surroundings in the world. He is to a large extent the author, and is certainly the organizer and the very embodiment, personification, and expression of development." Again Dr. McCosh says: "What may be the estimate of his philosophy at the end of this century I will not take upon myself to predict. As embracing so many established facts, I believe there is much in his system which will abide; and I adhere to the opinion that 'his bold generalizations are always instructive, and that some of them may in the end be established as the profoundest laws of the knowable universe.'"
That eminent logician and mathematician, Professor J. Stanley Jevons, has been recently reviewing the philosophy of J. S. Mill in a series of articles in the "Contemporary Review." In the November number he takes up Ann 'a "Utilitarianism," and considers his contributions to the subject of morality in relation to the present state of knowledge. He recognizes that Mill belonged to a past dispensation, and was incompetent to deal scientifically with those great moral problems by the handling of which Herbert Spencer has made a new epoch in philosophic thought. We give some of the closing passages of his article:
The publication of the first part of his principles of morality, under the title "The Data of Ethics," gives us, in a definite form, and in his form, what we could previously only infer from the general course of his philosophy and from his brief letter on utilitarianism addressed to Mill. Although but fragments, these writings enable us to see that a definite step has been made in a matter debated since the dawn of intellect. The moral sense doctrine, so rudely treated by Bentham, is no longer incapable of reconciliation with the greatest happiness principle, only it now becomes a moving and developable moral sense. An absolute and unalterable moral standard was opposed to the palpable fact that customs and feelings differ widely, and Paley, on this ground, was induced to reject it. Now, we perceive that we all have a moral sense; but the moral sense of one individual, and still more of one race, may differ from that of another individual or race. Each is more or less fitted to its circumstances, and the best is ascertained by eventual success.
At the tail end of an article it is, of course, impossible to discuss the grounds or results of the Spencerian philosophy. To me it presents itself, in its main features, as unquestionably true; indeed, it is already difficult to look back and imagine how philosophers could have denied of the human mind and actions what is so obviously true of the animal races generally. As a reaction from the old views about innate ideas, the philosophers of the eighteenth century wished to believe that the human mind was a kind of tabula rasa, or carte blanche, upon which education could impress any character. But, if so, why not harness the lion, and teach the sheep to drive away the wolf? If the moral, not to speak of the physical characteristics of the lower animals, are so distinct, why should there not be moral and mental differences among ourselves, descending, as we obviously do, from different stocks with different physical characteristics?. . . . Many persons may be inclined to like the philosophy of Spencer no better than that of Mill. But, if the one be true and the other false, liking and disliking have no place in the matter. There may be many things which we can not possibly like; but, if they are, they are. It is possible that the principles of evolution, as expounded by Mr. Herbert Spencer, may seem as wanting in "geniality" as the formulas of Bentham. . . . Nevertheless, I fully believe that all which is sinister and ungenial in the philosophy of evolution is either the expression of unquestionable facts, or else it is the outcome of misinterpretation. It is impossible to see how Mr. Spencer, any more than other people, can explain away the existence of pain and evil. Nobody has done this; perhaps nobody ever shall do it; certainly systems of theology will not do it. A true philosopher will not expect to solve everything. But, if we admit the potent fact that pain exists, let us observe also the tendency which Spencer and Darwin establish toward its minimization. Evolution is a striving ever toward the better and the happier. There may be also infinite powers against us, but at least there is a deep-built scheme working toward goodness and happiness. So profound and widespread is this confederacy of the powers of good, that no failure, and no series of failures, can disconcert it. Let mankind be thrown back a hundred times, and a hundred times the better tendencies of evolution will reassert themselves. Paley pointed out how many beautiful contrivances there are in the human form tending to our benefit. Spencer has pointed out that the universe is one deep-laid framework for the production of such beneficent contrivances. Paley called upon us to admire such exquisite inventions as a hand or an eye; Spencer calls upon us to admire a machine which is the most comprehensive of all machines, because it is ever engaged in inventing beneficial inventions ad infinitum. Such, at least, is my way of regarding his philosophy.
Darwin, indeed, cautions us against supposing that natural selection always leads toward the production of higher and happier types of life. Retrogression may result as well as progression. But I apprehend that retrogression can only occur where the environment of a living species is altered to its detriment. Mankind degenerates when forced, like the Esquimaux, to inhabit the Arctic regions. Still in retrograding, in a sense, the being becomes more suited to its circumstances—more capable, therefore, of happiness. The inventing machine of evolution would be working badly if it worked otherwise. But, however this may be, we must accept the philosophy if it be true, and, for my part, I do so without reluctance.According to Mill, we are little, self-dependent gods, fighting with a malignant and murderous power called Nature, sure, one would think, to be worsted in the struggle. According to Spencer, as I venture to interpret his theory, we are the latest manifestation of an all-prevailing tendency toward the good, the happy. Creation is not yet concluded, and there is no one of us who may not become conscious in his heart that he is no automaton, no mere lump of protoplasm, but the creature of a Creator.
Our half century's experience with railroads is full of various instruction. Charles Francis Adams, Jr., has occupied himself with the lessons of railroad casualties. He has investigated them officially in Massachusetts, and studied them elsewhere, and he has made a little volume which he modestly calls "Notes on Railway Accidents," but which is the first digest of information we have regarding great railway disasters, their causes, and the progress of security in this mode of travel. The book is interesting and valuable, no less for its reflections and conclusions than for its well-collated facts.
Mr. Adams begins by calling attention to the melancholy fact that there are few things of which nature or man is more lavish and careless than human life. There is really but little care about the waste of life so long as the fatality is unobtrusive. The destruction of life by war is as nothing to that by intemperance, bad sewerage, and worse ventilation; but, as it does not come by crush and shock, it attracts small attention. Railroad "horrors" make a strong impression upon the public mind; and each fresh catastrophe, by arousing public opinion, by inciting the courts to hold the companies to a more rigorous responsibility, and, above all, by the damage and detriment they work to the corporations, leads to increasing vigilance and greater security, "until it has been said, and with no inconsiderable degree of truth, too, that the very safest place into which a man can put himself is the inside of a first-class railroad-carriage, on a train in full motion."
But, on the other hand, all these appalling disasters seem to have been necessary to secure the improvement of the railway system. There can be no greater mistake than to suppose that men are guided and governed by reason. Most of them are creatures of habit, stupid, sluggish, and prejudiced, and can only learn slowly through calamitous experience. As Mr. Adams says, "To bring about any considerable reform, railroad disasters have, as it were, to be emphasized by loss of life." Indeed, the most instructive part of his volume is the profuse illustration it affords of that inveterate stolidity on the part of railroad managers and officials which nothing could overcome but slaughter, public indignation, murmurs, pecuniary losses—and all this over, and over, and over again—while it has proved impossible even yet to get rid of some of the most serious sources of danger.
The bell-cord for signaling the engineer is a simple device for an important purpose, but it has had a curious history. Nothing certainly would seem to be more essential than for a passenger in case of grave accident to be able to communicate instantaneously with the engine-driver of his train. This is perfectly accomplished by the bell-cord, which has been accordingly long in use in this country. Yet it was not used in England, and its adoption, singular to say, was actively resisted, although they had nothing else to replace it. Mr. Adams says, "An English substitute for the American bell-cord has for more than thirty years set the ingenuity of Great Britain at defiance."
In 1857 the British Board of Trade issued a circular to the railroad companies, pointing out the dangers that arise from lack of proper signal-connection. They say: "From the beginning of the year 1854 down to the present time (December, 1857) there have been twenty-six cases in which either the accidents themselves or some of the ulterior consequences of the accidents would probably have been avoided had such a means of communication existed." But there had not been funerals enough to enforce the recommendation. To get a string attacked to a bell for the safety of travelers required a succession of shocks to thrill the country; and they came, of course, in due time. Not only did accidents continue from the setting fire of carriages and throwing them from the rails, but several dreadful instances of assault by maniacs, men with delirium tremens, and criminals, and even outright murder took place, which would undoubtedly have been avoided if there had been any means of communication to stop the train. Several examples are given by Mr. Adams of these terrible occurrences, which "indicate the tremendous nature of the pressure which has been required to even partially force the American bell cord into use in that country."
But the stolid indifference of railroad conservatism is by no means confined to England. Mr. Adams remarks: "It will not do for the American railroad manager to pride himself too much on his own greater ingenuity and more amicable disposition. The Angola disaster has been referred to, as well as that at Shipton. If the absence of the bell-cord had indeed any part in the fatality of the latter, the presence in cars crowded with passengers of iron pots full of living fire lent horrors almost unheard of to the former. The methods of accomplishing needed results which are usual to any people are never easily changed, whether in Europe or in America; but certainly the disasters which have first and last ensued from the failure to devise any safe means of heating passenger-coaches in this country are out of all proportion to those which can be attributed in England to the absence of means of communication between passengers on trains and those in charge of them. There is an American conservatism as well as an English; and when it comes to a question of running risks it would be strange indeed if the greater margin of security were found west of the Atlantic. The security afforded by the bell-cord assuredly has not as yet, in this country, offset the danger incident to red-hot stoves."
Mr. Adams gives an interesting account of the introduction of various other safety appliances on railroads, and shows that they were mostly repetitions of the bell-cord experience. Among these improvements none are more important than the brakes under the control of the engineer, for quickly stopping trains running at high speed. The American Westinghouse brake, by which an air-pump, attached to the boiler of the locomotive and controlled by the engineer, forces atmospheric air through tubes running under the cars, by which the brake-blocks are pressed against the wheels, is incontestably the most perfect contrivance for quickly stopping trains that has yet been invented, as by means of it the hand of the engine-driver is in fact upon every wheel in the train. This contrivance was of course delicate, and was at first liable to get easily out of order; but it was gradually perfected so as to become automatic and thoroughly trustworthy. "In this country, the superiority of die Westinghouse over any other description of train-brake has long been established through that long preponderance of use which in such matters constitutes the final and irreversible verdict." But in Great Britain its introduction was vigorously resisted, and, as it was energetically pushed, there grew up a war among the different contrivances, to which Mr. Adams devotes an interesting chapter under the title of "The Battle of the Brakes." A royal English commission on railroad accidents was appointed, and undertook a series of competitive trials with the different inventions. "Eight brakes competed, and a train consisting of a locomotive and thirteen cars was specially prepared for each. With these trains some seventy runs were made, and their results recorded and tabulated; the experiments were continued through six consecutive working-days. The result of the trials was a very decided victory for the Westinghouse automatic, and upon its performances the commission based its conclusion that trains ought to be so equipped that in cases of emergency they could be brought to rest when traveling on level ground at fifty miles an hour within a distance of 275 yards." The result was sufficiently decisive, and the Board of Trade urged upon the English companies the adoption of the brake which had proved to be most efficient for its purpose. But there were too many parties interested in rival devices, and the superior one came into use, but very slowly. It did make progress, however, and we are told that the issue is now narrowed down to a struggle between two American brakes, the Westinghouse and the Smith vacuum, which has been its strongest rival.
As to the comparative safety of travel on the railroads in England and in this country, it is conceded that the former have the advantage, although exactly to what extent it is impossible to say, owing to the gross incompleteness of American statistics. But the causes of accidents act very unequally in the two countries. For example, while from failure of bridges, viaducts, or culverts, there were, in six years, in England, only twenty-nine accidents, there were in this country, for the same time, one hundred and sixty-five accidents due to similar causes. The English lead in accidents from collisions of trains, and we in accidents from trains being thrown from the track. "The English collisions are distinctly traceable to constant overcrowding; the American derailments and bridge accidents to inferior construction of our road-beds."
The subject of railroad statistics, including accidents, has received more attention in Massachusetts than elsewhere in this country. The following statement by Mr, Adams will excite some surprise: "During the four years 1875-'78 it will be remembered a single passenger only was killed on the railroads of Massachusetts in consequence of an accident to which he, by his own carelessness, in no way contributed. The average number of persons annually injured, not fatally, during these years, was about five; yet during the year 1878, excluding all cases of mere injury, of which no account was made, no less than fifty-three persons came to their deaths in Boston from falling down stairs, and thirty-seven more from falling out of windows; seven were scalded to death in 1878 alone. In the year 1874, seventeen were killed by being run over by teams in the streets. During the five years, 1874-'78, there were more persons murdered in the city of Boston alone than lost their lives as passengers through the negligence of all the railroad corporations in the whole State of Massachusetts during the nine years 1871-'78; although in these nine years were included both the Revere and the Wollaston disasters, the former of which resulted in the death of twenty-nine and the latter of twenty-one persons.
The most prolific source of railroad accidents is reckless walking and sauntering upon the tracks—a practice in violation of the law, and for which the companies are not responsible. Walking upon the railroad-track is, in this country, regarded as a kind of right of the American citizen which he pays for liberally, nearly fifty per cent, of all accidents which occur being due to this cause. Under the English monarchy the people are kept off the tracks more effectually, and the accidents from this source are accordingly only about seven per cent, of the whole number.
We print a translation of the address delivered before the International Congress at Paris, by M, Charles de Fourcy, on the several projected routes of an Interoceanic Ship-Canal across the Isthmus of Darien. M. de Fourcy is a distinguished French engineer, and Inspector-General of Roads and Bridges in France, an eminent and responsible position in that country. He was a delegate to the Congress, a member of its "Technique" Committee, and President of the second Sub-Committee into which it was divided to simplify its labors. On the afternoon of the day preceding the final vote he reviewed the subject in a speech which was listened to with close attention, and, as we are informed by Mr. Nathan Appleton, who was a critical observer of the proceedings, his statement of the relative advantages and disadvantages of the different contemplated lines was undoubtedly influential in determining the vote of the Congress in favor of the Panama route.
We have had engraved, to accompany the article, two very instructive maps, one representing the location of the different routes under consideration, and the other showing the relation which this project bears to the oceanic commerce of the world.
Without venturing to decide which is the best route—a question that belongs to the engineers—we are clear as to certain of the considerations which should have weight in determining it. That the canal must come is inevitable. The Isthmus barrier is a hindrance to commerce—a kind of natural tariff that must be removed in the interest of advancing free trade. It must disappear with other old restrictions on the world's exchanges. It will be a step forward in civilization, and is in the strictest and largest sense an international affair. Commerce is pacific; war and the military spirit are its deadly foes. It is, therefore, of the first necessity that the enterprise should be "hedged about with ample international guarantees of perpetual neutrality." The opening of a water-way across the narrow strip of land that separates two oceans is a world's measure, and ought not to be complicated with any local political considerations. The talk about "patriotism" and the "Monroe doctrine" in connection with this great project is therefore impertinent. It springs from the same narrowness of national feeling that has killed our foreign commerce by prohibiting American citizens from buying ships where they please, and it is a policy which will be condemned by all liberal-minded people.
- This estimate Dr. McCosh had the sagacity to make and the courage to express many years ago in his "Intuitions of Mind."