Popular Science Monthly/Volume 22/December 1882/Mr Goldwin Smith on the Data of Ethics
By W. D. LE SUEUR, B. A.
"Because we must not dream, we need not then despair."
—Matthew Arnold, in Empedocles on Etna.
MUCH instruction has been drawn from the story of Naaman, the Syrian, who, when he went to the prophet Elisha, to be healed of his disease, expected that the man of God would "do some great thing," and was greatly discouraged and offended when he merely recommended him to so through a strenuous course of ablution in the most convenient stream. There is one application, however, of the narrative which we do not remember to have seen made, and yet which is undoubtedly important. The prophet of olden times is represented to-day by the philosopher, who also leads a life of retirement and severe contemplation. And just as the contemporaries of the prophet insisted on investing him with magical powers, while they undervalued his real gifts of practical sagacity and spiritual insight, so do the men of to-day demand of the philosopher to "do some great thing," while they scorn the demonstration he offers that the truth has neither to be brought down from heaven nor up from hell, but is very nigh them—in their hearts and on their lips. Such errors are to be expected on the part of the multitude; but there are men who, from their general breadth of view and clearness of perception, might be expected to do justice to a scheme of philosophy just in proportion to its avoidance of extravagant pretensions, just in proportion as its author had visibly aimed at learning from nature rather than imposing upon nature his own preconceptions. Of the class of men to whom we refer, no higher example could be found than Mr. Goldwin Smith: of the kind of philosophy to which we refer, no better type could be found than that of Mr. Herbert Spencer.
And yet, unless our own judgment is fatally at fault, Mr. Smith, one of the very best-furnished critics of modern times, has signally failed to do justice to Mr. Spencer's philosophy, or at least to the portion of it embodied in his last volume but one, "The Data of Ethics." The article contributed by Mr. Smith to the "Contemporary Review" for February of this year constitutes the most serious attack, by far, that has been made upon the volume in question. To mention Mr. Smith as its author is to vouch for the force, perspicuity, and felicity of the style, and for a large infusion of that common-sense philosophy which carries persuasion to the general reader. Many have read that article who never read "The Data of Ethics"; and we have little doubt that the opinion of these in regard to the questions at issue has been largely molded by it. In these days of rapid literary production it is a rare thing to find an article remembered three months after it is written; but Mr. Smith's article still finds echoes in many quarters of society, and particularly from the pulpit. It can not, therefore, be considered too late to submit it to a careful examination, in order to see how far Mr. Spencer's positions have really been shaken by the arguments brought against them.
Mr. Spencer's book is essentially a study of human conduct (purposive action) in its origin and development, with a view to discovering the nature and sanctions of morality. That it is of the utmost importance that men should feel strongly the distinction between right and wrong Mr. Spencer everywhere implies; and his object is to place that distinction on a basis which, if not so imposing as that heretofore furnished by theology, may at least not be subject to the vicissitudes which seem to be the portion of all theological codes. We must presume our readers to be more or less familiar with the work in question, and to have followed Mr. Spencer in his demonstration that, as purpose takes a wider range, it gathers to itself an accompaniment of moral emotion. In connection even with self-regarding actions, a certain sense of moral power accompanies every subordination of an immediate impulse to one more remote. The individual awakens to a sense of the capacity for choice, and the foundations are thus laid for moral freedom. It is, however, the life of the family, the tribe, the community, that lends the greatest enlargement to individual thought and feeling. Care for offspring comes first to break down the tyranny of exclusive regard for self. The family develops into the tribe, and men learn to practice a certain measure of justice toward one another as the essential condition of co-operation. The increasing harmony of outward relations has its inward counterpart in increased strength and breadth of sympathy. The moral quality of an action depends upon the degree in which it tends to promote or diminish happiness; but this, as Mr. Spencer repeatedly points out, is in most cases to be determined rather by the conformity or non-conformity of the action with certain general principles ascertained to be favorable to happiness than by an inquiry into the results likely to flow from it in a special case. Moral actions, in general, are those favorable to life, not only to its preservation, but to its improvement; immoral actions are those which tend to the shortening or to the impoverishing of life. In speaking of life here, we speak not only of the condition of animation, but of all that successive experiences, successive enlargements of the range of thought, action, and sympathy, have built into, or worked into, the human consciousness. To help forward this work of integration is good; to retard or counteract it is evil. In common speech the terms good and evil are upon the whole applied to actions just in accordance as they tend, or are believed to tend, in one or other of these directions.
As the aim of all voluntary action is the furtherance of happiness, the test of perfection in an action will be its fully accomplishing that object. A man who procures a momentary gratification by some unwholesome indulgence has not performed, even from a selfish point of view, a perfect action, seeing that its effects are partly, at least, destructive of the end he has in view. The man who, losing his temper, quarrels with a neighbor, does not, even from a selfish point of view, perform a perfect action; for, whatever satisfaction he may derive at the moment from the utterance of angry words, he can derive no benefit, but only the reverse, from the subsequent alienation of his neighbor's feelings. From a social point of view, no action is perfect which benefits only the actor, or which benefits some one else at the actor's expense. Self-sacrifice may be ethically noble; but that any necessity for it should arise implies some defect in the conditions of existence, and therefore of action. If it enables us, on the one hand, to estimate the moral resources of humanity, it points, on the other, to evils which it behooves us to remedy; for why, we ask, should the gain of one be purchased by the loss of another? To find a perfect action, therefore, we must look for one all the effects of which, so far as they can be traced, are good, which not only involves no sacrifice of happiness, either to the actor or to the person who is the object of the action, but which is equally beneficial to both. Social evolution being a manifestly unfinished process, the region of the social activities can not be expected to furnish the best examples of perfect adjustment. In searching for such an example, Mr. Spencer therefore falls back, in the first place, on the physical region, and cites—to Mr. Smith's great amusement and scorn—the case of a mother suckling her child. We quote his words:
Consider the relation of a healthy mother to a healthy infant. Between the two there exists a mutual dependence which is a source of pleasure to both. In yielding its natural food to the child, the mother receives gratification; and to the child there comes the satisfaction of appetite—a satisfaction which accompanies furtherance of life, growth, and enjoyment. Let the relation be suspended, and on both sides there is suffering. The mother experiences both bodily pain and mental pain; and the painful sensation borne by the child brings, as its results, physical mischief and some damage to the emotional nature. Thus the act is one that is to both exclusively pleasurable, while abstention entails pain on both; and it is consequently of the kind we here call absolutely right.
Here we are asked to recognize the reductio ad absurdum of Mr. Spencer's whole system of ethics. For our own part, we wholly fail to see where the absurdity comes in. If what we are in search of is a type to which all actions might advantageously conform, where, we ask, shall a better be found than this? What would the condition of society be if all the actions of men conformed to this type, blessing alike the doers and those toward whom the actions were directed? There is but one answer: it would be perfect. The end of all ethical self-discipline, the end of all social adjustments, is precisely to bring things as nearly as possible to this consummation. The good man, in the highest sense of the word, is he who loves his neighbor as himself; in other words, who desires that his action shall benefit his neighbor equally with himself, and not one neighbor only, but all neighbors, and who, therefore, regulates his actions with a view to universal utility. And in all social reforms what is it that we desire to bring about but this—that one man's gain shall not be another man's loss, but that the gain of one shall be the gain of all?
Mr. Smith places in contrast with the typical action chosen by Mr. Spencer the case of an Italian physician who courted the infection of a deadly plague in order that he might, for the benefit of his stricken fellow-citizens, the better understand and describe its symptoms and development. But is that the type to which we should wish all human actions to conform? That there should be such actions, we must, in the first place, have plagues; and in order that we may have plagues we must have ignorance and filth. Would it really be worth while to order these things, to the end that one Italian physician might, by an act of sublime self-sacrifice, shed one ray of light athwart the general gloom?
Mr. Smith says that, according to Mr. Spencer, "the action of the Italian physician. . . is ethically inferior to that of a Caffre woman suckling her child." This, however, is misleading. Though Mr. Smith speaks of actions, the contrast which his words suggest is between motives. When we want to estimate the quality of an action in relation solely to the doer, motive is everything; but, when we desire to estimate its intrinsic value as a link in the net-work of human activity, motive must be left out of sight. The motives of the Inquisitors were, we may presume, good, but their deeds were diabolical. The motive in this case was of the highest possible order; but, when the act was completed, a noble life had been sacrificed. How can an act which inwraps so much of irreparable loss be classed as perfect?
More important still is it to remark that Mr. Spencer distinctly assigns the action which he cites to a lower plane altogether than that to which the action of the Italian physician properly belongs. These are the words with which he introduces his illustration: "Among the best examples of absolutely right actions to be named are those arising where the nature and the requirements have been molded to one another before social evolution began." (The italics are ours.) The adaptation found subsisting between mother and child was established in a pre-social period; and, though social evolution has since been carried forward many stages, the relation in question retains its character as an almost wholly physical one. No doubt maternal love is to-day a much tenderer and more complex thing than in savage days; but, as the higher affection is not always guided by adequate knowledge, we must still look to the physical adaptation as the highest example of perfect adjustment. The action of the mother nourishing her child is "absolutely right," but "absolutely right" in a comparatively low sphere of conduct; the action of the Italian physician is only "relatively right," but it is "relatively right" in a much higher sphere of conduct. It is, therefore, not correct to say, without careful qualification, that, according to Mr. Spencer's philosophy, "the action of the Italian physician is ethically inferior to that of a Caffre woman suckling her child." What may be said of it is that it is typically inferior, although ethically higher; that is to say, less adapted to serve as the type of perfect action, though indicating the presence of far superior moral elements. The distinction is not difficult to seize.
The precise position from which Mr. Smith makes his attack on Mr. Spencer is not very easy to discern. He evidently does not like the evolution philosophy in its application to morals; and yet it is not very clear that he takes his stand distinctly on any other. A most critical time, he thinks, has arrived in the intellectual development of society, and what the result is going to be he does not venture to predict. Serious breaches have been made in the defenses, not only of revealed, but of natural religion; the theistic hypothesis itself is threatened. The breaches may be repaired—Mr. Smith does not feel at all certain one way or the other; but meanwhile he thinks it a safe thing to point out the deficiencies of the evolution philosophy as compared with a theistic philosophy. But supposing the breaches should not be repaired, but, on the contrary, widened; and supposing we should have in the end to fall back on the evolution philosophy or something like it, would it not then be the part of wisdom to make the most of it—to show it in the most favorable, rather than in the least favorable, light? Mr. Smith seems to us to be somewhat in the position of a man battering a house in which, according to his own admission, he may some day have to live. Supposing the evolution philosophy to be true, or to be an adumbration of the truth, any defects we may discover in it are simply defects in the constitution of things as compared with our former conceptions on the subject; and finding fault with the constitution of things is not the most profitable of employments.
Among the objections brought by Mr. Smith against a naturalistic morality, the following seem to be the principal:
1. It would not favor such acts of devotion as are now prompted by "the ideas and hopes" of religion.
2. It can not explain to us why a man surrounded with all imaginable worldly comforts, but with a murder on his conscience, is unhappy, while a man who gives his life for others is happy in the act.
3. It can not attach any meaning to such words as "the sacredness of human life."
4. It furnishes no basis for moral approval or condemnation.
Let us attempt to deal with these objections in the order in which they stand:
1. In regard to acts of devotion, it will be observed that Mr. Smith speaks somewhat hesitatingly. Referring to the manning of a life-boat for some perilous enterprise, he asks if we are "sure" that the men would not be less ready to take an oar were they told that death would make "an end for ever of them and of their connections with those whom they loved." Well, we are not sure what the effect would be of a sudden and most untimely announcement of that character; but that does not really seem to us to be the question. The question, if we mistake not, is, whether, if the ideas contained in "The Data of Ethics" prevailed in the world, it would be possible to maintain a life-boat service at all; and we should like to ask Mr. Smith whether he is sure that it would not. If he is uncertain upon this point, his uncertainty may perhaps balance ours upon the other. Our own opinion, which must pass for what it is worth, is, that it would be quite possible. The foundations of devotion lie very deep in human nature. That poor Caffre mother we were speaking of a moment ago would illustrate it if the need arose. Every nation and every tribe has had its heroes who cheerfully faced death for the common cause; and that without a thought of future reward, or, in a multitude of cases, any definite expectation of continued existence. Describing one of the very worst periods of Roman history, Tacitus is yet able to say, "Contumax etiam adversus tormenta servorum fides" (slaves were found who braved even torture for the sake of their masters). Yet these unhappy bondmen had no "village church" to serve as the center of ideas and hopes relating to another sphere of existence. If we may attempt an explanation of the matter in terms of the evolution philosophy, we should say that the course of physical evolution creates in us a strong attachment to life, but that the course of what Mr. Spencer has called super-organic evolution gradually creates for us objects of thought and affection which may become dearer than life itself. Our hope, therefore, is that, in the society of the future, not only will "the milkman go his rounds"—a point upon which Mr. Smith kindly reassures us, and, after all, one of no little significance—but volunteers for the life-boat, the fire-brigade, and all necessary heroic undertakings, will still be forthcoming. If, when the time arrives, men have ceased to risk their lives, as they now so frequently do, in foolish enterprises, without, so far as one can judge, being particularly incited thereto by ideas or hopes connected with the village church, it will be all the better.
2. Evolutionary ethics can not explain conscience, can not tell us why the bad man is miserable in prosperity, and the good man happy in adversity. Is it really so? What is human character but a complex of mental and moral habits, every habit incorporated into it becoming a more or less imperative voice vibrating through the man's whole nature? To know that you have not dotted an i or crossed a t will sometimes give you an uncomfortable feeling. Make a rule of anything, and you will not depart from it without uneasiness. How powerful are the habits of the body every one knows, and those of the mind are not less so. The murderer referred to by Mr. Smith is ill at ease because he has allowed a momentary impulse connected with the least authoritative part of his nature, the mere desire for personal advantage, to carry him into an act of rebellion against a principle of conduct woven into his nature long before he was born, and for which in his subsequent life he has constantly been compelled, not only to profess, but to demand, respect. If it be said that it is impossible to account on this theory for the tone of absolute authority with which conscience urges its decrees, we would ask for a very careful consideration of the passages quoted below from the "Data of Ethics." Mr. Spencer has well shown that, just in proportion as the reasons for doing, or refraining from, a particular act are dissociated from what we may call the ultimate material inducements or deterrents, will the authority they possess be greater. When a man eats because he is hungry, he feels the power, but not the authority, of appetite. When, on the other hand, he refrains from a vicious indulgence because its later effects will be bad, or when he takes a walk before breakfast because he believes it will conduce to his health, though its good effects may not be immediately apparent, he recognizes and feels the authority of sanitary rules. In these cases the degree of dissociation between the rule or principle recognized by the mind and the actual facts on which it rests is but slight; yet the rise of authority is plainly visible.
A rule of conduct once established, the mind, working quite independently of the will of the individual, resents any attempt to impugn its authority. Naturally enough, seeing that, to impugn its authority means an unsettlement of all that the rule had settled. Take the case now in question. We can not conceive the existence of any social order, unless the principle is recognized that no man should, for selfish purposes of his own, take the life of another. But, let a man be so overmastered by his cupidity as to commit this crime, he can not by that one act of rebellion undo the work already accomplished in his mind, by virtue of which he had learned to condemn murder on principle. It is to his interest now to deny the principle, but he can not do it without tearing his own mind to pieces; for not more truly have certain elements been compounded in his body, to form its various organic substances, than have elementary experiences combined in his mind to form those principles of thought which sustain its functional activity and make it a living organism. And just as the true unit of the body is not any elementary atom, but a cell, so the true unit of the mind is not an isolated experience, or any cluster of unorganized experiences, but a combination of experiences, a generalization from experiences.
The murderer in the case supposed by Mr. Smith has eluded the law, and not only paid no material penalty whatever, but actually reaped vast benefits from his crime. Could any case be possibly imagined in which—making, of course, allowance for the inferiority of nature of a man who could commit murder at all—the violated authority of perhaps the most fundamental of all social principles should make itself more keenly felt? Had the man been caught red handed, and come promptly under the sentence of justice, his remorse would have been slight in all probability; possibly he might not have felt any. But, escaping as he did, and prospering by his crime, his mind would remain continually open to the upbraidings of that part of his nature which he had outraged by his deed, to all the reasons which the experiences of every day as well as his involuntary thoughts would suggest why the deed should not have been done. Is not this enough? Must we still call in the Eumenides before
we can understand why the murderer should he wretched amid his wealth?
We must not, however, forget that Mr. Smith supposes the murderer to he able to natter himself that he has probably caused more happiness than unhappiness by his crime, Such a supposition might perhaps embarrass a utilitarian of the old school, but hardly an adherent of the "rational utilitarianism" taught by Mr. Spencer. Crude utilitarianism assumes that an action can only be judged by the consequences which directly and visibly flow from it; rational utilitarianism says that the criterion of an action is some rule of conduct established by experience. The crude utilitarian is like a man who would discard or ignore the multiplication-table, and insist on doing all sums involving multiplication by addition; or who should insist on working out, by tedious and uncertain arithmetical processes, problems which could be solved with the far greater ease and certainly by algebra. Experience shows what lines of conduct, what principles of action, are favorable to happiness in general, and to the satisfaction of the instinct of sympathy in particular; and human civilization can not be carried very far before the principle is established that harm must come from the shedding of human blood. Such a principle gains authority over men's minds; and, when an action is done that conflicts with it, it is in vain that the perpetrator tries, by a fresh calculation of all the supposed elements of the case, to show that his particular crime may be all right.
3. We are probably now prepared to estimate the force of the next objection urged by Mr. Smith against evolutionary ethics, that they do away with the idea of the "indefeasible sacredness of human life." They would no doubt do away with any surplusage of mere sentiment on the subject; but, seeing that the first moral principle which emerges, from the evolutionary point of view, is equity, and seeing that life is what every man holds most dear, it is very hard to understand why a system, which may be said simply to rationalize the Golden Rule, should lead men to deal less carefully with human life than the systems of the past. What light does history shed upon the question? In what estimation was human life or human suffering held in the ages of faith? It was surely in a pre-evolution period that a man could be hanged in England for stealing a sheep. Such things can not be done to-day. Why? Is it—we should like a candid answer to the question because there is a deeper impression than formerly that man is made in the image of God; or because the sentiment of justice has grown stronger, and men have learned to sympathize more with one another?
4. Finally, we are told that Mr. Spencer, being an evolutionist, must be a necessarian, and that, as such, it is not open to him to condemn any act as wrong, seeing that the doer of the act could plead that his conduct was just what the point he had reached in evolution rendered natural and necessary. Mr. Spencer is undoubtedly an evolutionist, but we do not know that there is any distinct warrant for saying he is a necessarian. We do not know that he is more embarrassed by the secular antithesis of free-will and necessity than others have been before him, or are now. Were necessarianism a corollary from evolution, it would be in order to remark that it has also been, with a not uninfluential school of Christian thinkers, a corollary of the conception of the divine nature. Mr. Smith, we observe, records his own objection to the term "free-will"; remarking that what has inappropriately passed under that name should rather be defined as "the difference given us by consciousness between moral and physical causation. He thus recognizes moral causation; and his objection to the expression "free-will" would seem to be grounded on its implied denial of such causation. Mr. Spencer, on his side, objects to the free-will theory because it denies the "cohesions" which demonstrably exist between psychical states. Is it certain that between the two views so great a gulf is fixed that Mr. Smith can afford to snap his fingers in happy security, while contemplating the speculative torments of the author of "The Data of Ethics"? Seeing, however, that this is a difficulty with which human thought has never been able to grapple successfully, it might be as well to raise no question concerning it. The evolutionist condemns a wrong action on this ground, that it conflicts with some principle of proved utility, or of proved equity—the two are really one—which, if not as potent so might be desired, still has its place in the mind of the man who has neglected or overridden it. We condemn moral inconsistency just as we do intellectual inconsistency. When a man puts forward an opinion we regard as false, our only hope of persuading him that it is false is by bringing into the strongest possible relief some truth or opinion, accepted by him, with which the opinion in question conflicts. Precisely parallel is the procedure when a man performs an act of which we disapprove: we call some ethical principle accepted by himself, and acted upon at times by himself, to bear witness against what he has done. By doing so we re-enforce the higher principle, and perhaps bring about shame and repentance for the improper act.
We have thus tried to deal with the chief objections formulated by Mr. Smith against the evolutionary theory of morals. To speak of that theory as a purely "physical" one (as Mr. Smith does) is hardly correct. Mind, according to Mr. Spencer, is made up of feelings and relations among feelings, and these are not properly physical. Memory and judgment may have a physical basis, but they are not themselves physical. The evolution of conduct, according to Mr. Spencer, depends wholly upon accretions of capital, so to speak, in consciousness. A dim and narrow consciousness renders possible only a most imperfect self-direction; a clear and highly developed consciousness, on the other hand, gives a correspondingly increased power of self-direction, which is used in the furtherance of life and happiness. There is a school of French philosophers to-day who, while making frank profession of atheism, speak of man as the union of an organism with an "immateriality." The language is uncouth; but it might be used, at least provisionally, to express Mr. Spencer's conception; for, while the whole direction of every human being proceeds from his consciousness, that consciousness is not itself material or physical, the very essence of materiality being objectivity to sense. From the evolutionary point of view every mite of moral effort is just as precious as from the theological point of view; but what the evolutionary theory does not do is to reconcile us to the miseries that have abounded and still abound in the world, as possibly having their explanation and justification in some supernatural scheme of government. If the sufferings borne by our fellow-creatures are any part of the Divine scheme, as Mr. Smith hints may perhaps be the case, what confidence can we feel that we are right in trying to alleviate them? With a strange inconsistency, the partisans of a supernatural view of disease are always ready to apply themselves most vigorously to abbreviating by natural means the chastisements which they say are meant for their good; while the more sensible among them manage, by a careful attention to the rules of health, to escape such chastisements altogether, or nearly so. And so we have no doubt it would be if Mr. Smith had it in his power to greatly ameliorate the general lot of mankind: he would do it, and let the moral education of the race take its chance under the happier conditions.
Evolutionary ethics tell us what is evil, and explain the why. They tell us that whatever depresses the energies of any human being, or comes between labor and its due reward, is evil. It drops no hints of mysterious compensation hereafter for ills borne in this life—so making things a trifle more comfortable still for the "man in the suburban villa, with a good business in the city," whom the voice of duty so imperiously calls to take a regular luncheon every day, instead of merely swallowing a hasty sandwich. That worthy citizen might, in the interest of his digestion, like to think that the shivering, storm-tossed mariner, the delver in the mine, the overworked and underfed farm-laborer, and all the beaten and baffled and despairing ones whose lot is so disagreeable a contrast to his own, should some day, after they had served their turn here in the production of capital, have some modicum of compensating happiness dealt out to them in a better world. If such be his soothing fancy, he can not at least profess to draw it from the doctrine of evolution, which proclaims, without reserve or qualification, that suffering is suffering, that injustice is injustice, and that, if we would remedy these, we must work while it is called day. It is the weakness not the strength of theological and ultra-mundane doctrines that they lead, and have led, men to regard with more or less of acquiescence the sufferings of "this present evil time." That there may be a Providence inwrapping the whole of human life with its environment, and that there may be, to higher faculties than ours, a significance in life that we have never grasped, it would be most adventurous and, indeed, unphilosophical to deny. Admitting such a possibility, however, or even probability, our duty is in no way changed. The whole solar system may be hurrying on through space toward some unknown goal, or in some infinite and incalculable circuit; but the motions that concern us are those that take place within the solar system, that lend themselves to observation and calculation, and that affect more or less the conditions of human life. We live in an environment to which we are adapted: absolute truth lies beyond us, but relative truth is within our grasp. The poet says that "things are not what they seem," but things are (to us) what they seem. What else can they be? And it is our duty to deal with them as we find them, with a constant view to the realizing of higher and higher harmonies in life. Some notes we have already attuned, but there are discords yet, many and harsh, to be subdued. Then let us set our faces steadfastly forward, not to "confront a void," for there is no void to confront—nothing has fallen out of the universe that ever was in it—but with a determination to conquer more and more of moral freedom, and, by our conscious efforts, to aid that unconscious labor of the ages by which better and better conditions are ever being won for the human race.