Popular Science Monthly/Volume 23/June 1883/A German View of the Data of Ethics

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PHILOSOPHICAL thought is tending more and more toward concentrating itself upon problems of physiological as distinguished from metaphysical psychology, and to the inquiry after those facts which can be ascertained. The best workers in this field are still troubled, nevertheless, lest they may lose the connection with the sciences, and particularly with that special research and exact calculation under the influence of which a happy reaction has made itself felt in the various departments of philosophy against the intuitive and undisciplined ways of thinking that have characterized many metaphysicians.

As in life all gives place to the question of the highest utility, so in science all gives place to pure theoretical interest in enriching our knowledge of facts. But, while this may find its justification in the history of culture, the problems of the work of culture are no more exhausted thereby than the problems of thought. Philosophy would surrender her most important function were she to shirk the solution of those problems which she alone can solve. To these problems belong, last not least, those of ethics.

The progress of scientific knowledge in all domains of inquiry is the mightiest instrument in aid of the progress of culture. Its influence reaches, directly or indirectly, to all human relations, not excepting moral development. Apparent contradictions diminish or disappear before the macroscopic glance, which, not fixed upon any isolated point, takes in the whole range of facts and causes in their mutual relations. We are at the same time convinced, even by the consideration of the educational influence which scientific efforts have acquired in all strata of modern society, that all is not done. The gap is visible and sensible in philosophy and in life.

The needs of a great community of thinking men neither seek nor find any satisfaction in the dogmas of a positive confession of faith, while, for the foundation of a system of practical regulative laws and ethical principles, the progress of inductive science does not furnish all that is needed. A bridge is wanted, which shall establish connection with active life; a well-spring of right, from which laws and principles can be drawn and distributed.

According to some philosophers, ethics stands or falls with metaphysics. That this is not the case has been proved by the isolated achievements in moral philosophy of the disciples of modern positivism, and is demonstrated afresh by Herbert Spencer in his "Data of Ethics." This author occupies so conspicuous a position among the philosophic writers of the century, that the summons to a study of his works may well find ample response.

We may gather, from the preface to his last work, how Herbert Spencer, like other founders of great philosophic systems, esteems the importance of ethics. "This last part of the task it is to which I regard all the preceding parts as subsidiary." From the beginning of his philosophical activity this was the "last goal," the object to which all efforts were preparatory—to find a scientific basis for. the principles of good and bad in action.

"Now that moral injunctions are losing the authority given by their supposed sacred origin, the secularization of morals is becoming imperative. Few things can happen more disastrous than the decay and death of a regulative system no longer fit, before another and better regulative system has grown up to replace it." For this reason, Herbert Spencer has sought to fill the gap caused by the disappearance of the code of supernatural ethics, by a code of natural ethics.

The vacuum is before us, while some consider the filling of it superfluous and others impossible. Herbert Spencer believes that it can and must be filled. High above all problems of cultural and scientific endeavor he places that of the foundation of scientific ethics.

It is presumed, in the conception of ethics, that it shall establish the "ought." Unlike other moral systems, scientific ethics deals with the establishment of the practicable "ought"; not with duties in abstracto, but with duties which can be performed. For, "by association with rules which can not be obeyed, rules that can be obeyed lose their authority." Here the critical point of view is established whence scientific ethics must prove the conclusions of moral philosophers upon their merits.

Throughout the "Synthetic Philosophy," which will be closed by the "Principles of Ethics," of which the "Data of Ethics" forms the first part, the fundamental principles of modern evolution are enlisted for the solution of biological, sociological, and psychological questions, to such an extent that this philosophy may be described as a distinct branch of the philosophy of evolution. No system of natural philosophy has, with equal consecutiveness and completeness, adapted the achievements and the hypotheses of modern natural science to the construction of a philosophy on a scientific foundation.

Herbert Spencer's "First Principles" serve as an introduction to this philosophy, and define the stand-point from which the author surveys the whole range of philosophical inquiry. This work undertakes the experiment of a universal application of the fundamental laws and hypotheses of natural science, at the same time generalizing the principle of evolution, and making it the one great underlying principle. It takes up the work of critical philosophy, defining the limits of the knowable and the unknowable. It attempts the only possible reconciliation between religion and science, by pointing to their common, final resting-place in the absolute. The works included in the "Synthetic Philosophy" form parts of a great system held together by the principle of evolution; displaying stupendous learning, and a rare universality of scientific culture, entitling their author to a place, mutatis mutandis, beside Aristotle himself. These comprehensive writings afford, even to those who can not accept their underlying principles, a plenitude of instruction.

As to the statement of the problem in general form, serious difference of opinion is hardly possible. For every school and from every stand-point, ethics is a regulative discipline; not laws of the actual, but laws of the "ought"; not laws of conduct in general, hut of conduct of a certain kind. As logic establishes the regulative laws and postulates of scientific knowledge, ethics establishes the regulative principles of moral life.

The stand-point assumed by the author, in dealing with evolution, serves also in ethics. It appears to him evident that, from indifferent actions to actions which are good or bad, the transition is quite gradual. In ethics, as in evolution, the higher development must be explained by the lower. The study of ethical problems presupposes the study of human action as a whole, and this again presupposes that of the actions of living beings in general. The study of the evolution of action forms the preparation for ethics.

It is shown, in the first place, that "higher organic development is accompanied by more highly developed action." The latter is "an improving adjustment of actions to ends, such as furthers the prolongation of life, such as furthers an increased amount of life." Action adapts itself more and more to self and race maintenance; and here also the general evolutionary principle is applicable. "Race maintaining conduct, like self-maintaining conduct, arises gradually out of that which can not be called conduct; adjusted actions are preceded by unadjusted ones."

In treating of good and bad conduct, Herbert Spencer, in the first place, endeavors to establish the meaning of the terms "good" and "bad." Actions properly adapted to ends are good, and actions not so adapted are evil, both these definitions being taken in a relative sense only. Good conduct is identical with the most highly developed conduct, which "simultaneously achieves the greatest totality of life in self, in offspring, and in our fellow-men."

Pessimistic verdicts upon the value of life are combated by the author with all the might of his intellect, as standing in harsh contradiction to every paragraph of the unwritten moral code of humanity. He leans toward a limited optimism. He rightly urges that pessimists and optimists agree on one point. Both "assume it to be self evident that life is good or bad according as it does, or does not, bring a surplus of agreeable feeling. . . . Each makes the kind of sentiency which accompanies life the test."

A general consideration of the conflicting views of life brings the author to the conclusion that the good, on the whole, is that which causes pleasure; that our ideas of good and evil arise from the certainty or probability that the same will call forth, somewhere or some time, pleasure or suffering.

Not man as an individual, independent of social relations, of family, people, state, society; not man or humanity in the abstract; but man in society, the social individual, the member of the social union, is the subject for whose moral action, for the adaptations of whose conduct to the highest aims of social life, it is the business of scientific ethics to establish normal principles. It was, therefore, necessary to loosen the bonds which had bound ethics to unscientific propositions and dogmas of traditional transcendentalism, and to establish its scientific character by a union with the foundations of our scientific knowledge. This, in brief, is the programme for the reform of ethics, or, rather, for its establishment on a new basis. The unscientific methods employed by ethical writers are sharply criticised; the logical propositions upon which the foundation of scientific ethics depends are clearly stated; and the false premises exposed which render all scientific procedure impossible.

In the exposition of the relativity of suffering and enjoyment, and in the sections on "Egoism versus Altruism" and "Altruism versus Egoism," the author grapples with the fundamental problems of anthropological ethics. The priority of egoism is convincingly set forth, the spontaneous origin of pure altruism, and the interdependence and complementary relations of both principles; while the one-sided assertions and demands of their respective champions are refuted. The final reconciliation of egoism and altruism is inferred from evolution, from which the author also reaches that conciliatory and compromising position which enables him to reconcile many seemingly contradictory phenomena.

Evolutionary morals are wholly hedonistic. The happiness-giving is the good; and it is owing to theological and political influences alone that mankind overlook this truth. The idea and the desire of happiness, of perfect well-being, necessarily mark the character of good conduct. Moral life is a series of compromises between egoism and altruism. All other moral principles derive their conditional justification from this first principle of human action, which is characterized by Kant as the negation of all morality. The idea of perfectibility is tried by the same standard, and we are reminded that capacity for the reception of happiness is the highest proof of the perfectibility of human nature. Aristotle, who recognized happiness as the highest aim of human endeavor, took a step out of his way when he "sought to define happiness by the aid of the word 'virtue,' instead of defining virtue by the aid of the word 'happiness.'" Hence it must be conceded that "the conception of virtue can not be separated from the conception of happiness-producing conduct; and that, as this holds of all the virtues, however otherwise unlike, it is from their conduciveness to happiness that they come to be classed as virtues."

The welfare of society as a whole is regarded as the first problem, but not as the final object, being preparatory to the furthering of individual life and welfare, which is to be compassed by the fostering of social interests. The subjection of personal to social welfare is regarded as a temporary consequence of the existence of antagonistic societies; and, when the social aggregate, arrived at a certain elevation of development, shall no longer be in danger, the welfare of individuals will be the object. Individual happiness has the last word.

In the "System of Synthetic Philosophy," evolution is the universal world-law, the law of laws, dispensing with all need of stern commandments of revealed religion and theological morality. The evolution of human nature and society brings with itself this, that human conduct becomes better and better adapted to individual and social aims; that good conduct (adapted to the preservation of the race) gradually overpowers bad conduct (unadapted to self and race maintenance) in that struggle for existence in which morality and virtue have on their side every advantage. As the fitter organism survives the less fit, so must moral conduct in the natural course of things gain the upper hand, and immoral conduct tend more and more toward extinction. Thus, according to immutable laws, higher forms of conduct must be evolved from the original conduct of man in his lower estate, as higher organisms are evolved from lower. Changes such as have taken place in the course of civilization will take place again. The want of faith in a further like development, whereby man's nature will be brought into harmony with his condition, is only one of the innumerable proofs of an inadequate knowledge of causality; and he who has learned to put aside primitive dogmas and primitive ways of looking at things, and who has appropriated those modes of thought which science produces, can not believe that the "wholesome working Force" which has hitherto so changed all forms of life according to the altered requirements of their being, will not continue to operate in the same direction.

Ethical evolution affords an imposing outlook for the future of mankind. Man does not waver, like Hercules, between virtue and happiness. He is spared all pain of choice. Virtue and happiness are the one inseparable goal which he approaches with steady advance. Nature herself leads him on, and he has in his own nature the assurance of victory. Ceaselessly bent upon his own advancement, restlessly at work improving the conditions of his existence, he at the same time nourishes his moral life. No moral law opposes the impulses to this advance. No antinomy between moral and natural law needs solution, no strife between moral and sensual impulses need be decided. Always and everywhere an aspiration, a goal. No subjection of the ego to a law which commands without regard to weal or woe, no sacrifice of individual claims, no giving up of self at the bidding of an absolute moral law. Development is never interrupted. In ceaseless progress it approaches the goal—the greatest sum of well-being. The rigoristic "Thou canst, for thou oughtst," has no place here. Guidance is enough, compulsion is not needed.

This ethics is confessedly utilitarian, before all things a higher form of utilitarianism; but no raw materialist philosophy of usefulness, addressing itself to brutal egoism, to sensual enjoyment, to the worship of material wealth, to the thirst for riches and power at the expense of others. Whatever furthers development and brings its goal nearer, is useful; and the goal of development lies in a fair and distant future, whose outline the philosopher thinks he sees. The highest aim, to which all others are subsidiary, to which the strivings of the best are directed, is a moral order of life corresponding to the noblest longings of reason, of the most highly developed man in the most highly developed society. Such a system appeals to that ennobled and enlightened utilitarianism which constitutes the longing after ideal possessions—the condition of the highest welfare of man.

The rigorism of other moral systems has no place in the ethics of evolution. Its moral law is not like that of Kant, sublimely above all connection with natural impulses and inclinations, nor does it constitute moral life a continuous battle against desires which aim at the furthering of individual happiness. "Great mischief has been done by the repellent aspect habitually given to moral rule by its expositors, and immense benefits are to be anticipated from presenting moral rule under that attractive aspect which it has when undistorted by superstition and asceticism. If a father, sternly enforcing numerous commands, some needful and some needless, adds to his severe control a behavior wholly unsympathetic; if his children have to take their pleasure by stealth, or, when timidly looking up from their play, ever meet a cold glance, or more frequently a frown—his government will inevitably be disliked, if not hated; and the aim will be to evade it as much as possible. Contrariwise, a father who, equally firm in maintaining restraints needful for the well-being of his children or the well-being of other persons, not only avoids needless restraints, but, giving his sanction to all legitimate gratifications and providing the means for them, looks on at their gambols with an approving smile, can scarcely fail to gain an influence which, no less efficient for the time being, will also be permanently efficient. The controls of two such fathers symbolize the controls of morality as it is and morality as it should be."

This comparison, however, does not hold good of all forms of rigorism. Kant's moral law knows neither inclination nor disinclination. It neither attracts by rewards nor terrifies by punishments. It is neither the father who adds unsympathetic bearing to stern supervision, nor the father who helps the enjoyment of his children and watches their games. It is sublime above all traffic with the inclinations. And it may still be asked whether Kant was "so far from the track of truth" when he sought the ethical criterion in the law-abiding, duty-abiding sentiment, and maintained the supremacy of that sentiment with that enthusiasm which inspired his famous apostrophe to duty: "Duty, thou sublime, thou lofty name; which embracest within thee naught beloved bringing flattery; commanding submission, though threatening nothing to move the will, but only setting up a law which of itself finds entry into the breast, and wins for itself unwilling reverence, if not always obedience; before which all desires are dumb, even should they work against it in secret. What origin is worthy of thee, and where shall I seek the roots of thy noble descent, which proudly spurns all kinship with the desires?"

But, if we accept the system of Herbert Spencer, the rigoristic conception of Kant appears superfluous and even injurious. The doctrine of natural development affords a glimpse of the promised land, of a future wherein virtue and happiness will mean the same thing, wherein no antagonism will be conceivable between duty and inclination. No ethics can cheer us to unresting strife by a nobler goal, none can hold out a sublimer prospect. A beautiful faith is that in the upward movement of humanity. It renders easy the battles, the dangers, the countless sacrifices, which lie in the way.

But, notwithstanding the merits of the work under consideration, in certain principal utterances, and in its distinguished contributions to relative ethics, the fundamental principle of absolute ethics, the ethical criterion of action, appears to belong as yet to the number of those problems most needing solution. The last word is not yet spoken; but the results placed in our possession so far, justify the assumption that the evolutionary system of Herbert Spencer will materially assist the thorough reform of ethics, by its critical and positive preparatory work.

  1. Translated and abridged for "The Popular Science Monthly" by Thomas Cross.