Popular Science Monthly/Volume 24/January 1884/The Morality of Happiness II

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643316Popular Science Monthly Volume 24 January 1884 — The Morality of Happiness II1884Thomas Campbell Foster




AS structures are evolved, so are the functions which structures subserve. And as the functions of the body are evolved, so are those combinations of bodily actions evolved which we include under the general term conduct. We are considering the functions of the body when we are inquiring into such actions of the various structures internal and external as involve internal processes, simple or complex. But, when we begin to consider combinations of actions externally manifested, we are dealing with conduct—except only in the case of such actions as are independent of control.

But at the outset of the evolution of conduct even this distinction is scarcely to be recognized. Every external combination of actions is in the lower types of animal life a part of conduct at least of such conduct as is possible in the lowest orders of creatures. Evolution of conduct begins with the gradual development of purpose where at first actions were random and aimless. The Amœba wanders from place to place, not by the action of limbs, but by a process which may be called diffluence. In so doing it may come into the neighborhood of objects fit to form its food; these it inwraps, and absorbing what is digestible rejects the rest. Or its wanderings may lead it into the way of some creature by which it is itself absorbed and digested. There may be some higher law than chance guiding the movements of such creatures; but so far as can be judged this is not the case. In other words there is but the suspicion of something like conduct in the actions of the Amœba. Among other creatures belonging to the same kingdom, but higher in type, we find actions so much better adjusted, that, though even yet we can not recognize such evidence of purpose as enables us to describe their actions as conduct, we yet see in their adjustment to certain ends the development of something akin to conduct. The actions seem guided by what mimics purpose if it is not purpose itself.

Now, we note that with the improved adjustment of actions comes an increase in the average duration of life, or rather in the proportion of this average to the length of life possible among these several creatures.

So when we pass to higher and higher orders of animals, we find in every case among the lower types irregular and seemingly purposeless actions, while among the higher we find actions better adjusted to the surroundings. And, again, we note that, where the combination of actions, or what we may now call the conduct, is not adjusted to the environment, the creatures' chances of life are small, great numbers dying for each whose life approaches the average duration. An improved adjustment of conduct to environment increases the chances of survival, many attaining and some passing the average of longevity in their particular type or order.

Now, structural development is guided by the fitness or unfitness of particular proportions in such and such structures for the great life-struggle in which all animal life is constantly engaged; and functional development is guided by the corresponding fitness or unfitness of such and such functional activities. Just as certainly the development of conduct in all orders of living creatures is guided by the fitness or unfitness of such and such combinations of external actions for the constant life-contest.

We might find illustrations of this in every kingdom, sub-kingdom, order, and type, of animal life. Let us, however, content ourselves by noting it in man.

In the lower races of man as at present existing, and in still greater degree among the lower races when the human race as a whole was lower, we see that the adjustments of external actions to obtain food, to provide shelter against animate and inanimate enemies, and otherwise to support or to defend life, are imperfect and irregular. The savage of the lowest type is constantly exposed to the risk of losing his life either through hunger or cold, or through storm, or from attacks against which he has not made adequate provision. He neither foresees nor remembers, and his conduct is correspondingly aimless and irregular. The least provident, or rather the most improvident, perish in greatest numbers. Hence there is an evolution of conduct from irregularity and aimlessness by slow degrees toward the regularity and adaptation of aims to ends, seen in advancing civilization. The ill-adjusted conduct which diminishes the chances of life dies out in the struggle for life, to make way for the better-adjusted conduct by which the chances of life are increased. The process is as certain in its action as the process of structural evolution. In either process we see multitudinous individual exceptions. Luck plays its part in individual cases; but inexorable law claims its customary rule over averages. In the long run conduct best adapted and adjusted to environment is developed at the expense of conduct less suitable to the surroundings.

With man, as with all orders of animals, conduct which tends to increase the duration of life prevails over conduct having an opposite tendency. Wherefore, remembering the ever-varying conditions under which life is passed, the evolution of conduct means not only the development of well-adjusted actions, but the elaboration of conduct to correspond with those diverse and multitudinous conditions.

To these considerations we may add that the evolution of conduct not only tends necessarily to increased length of life (necessarily, because shortening of life means the diminution of such conduct as tends to shorten life), but it results in increased breadth of life, and (in the highest animal) in increased depth of life also. It is manifest that, in the elaboration of activities by which length of life is increased, breadth of life is increased pari passu. For these activities maybe said 'to constitute breadth of life. Passing over the numerous illustrations which might be drawn from the lower orders of animal life, we recognize in man a vast increase in the breadth of life as we pass from the limited orders of activity constituting the life of the savage to the multiplied and complex activities involved in civilized life. Increased depth of life we recognize only (but we recognize it clearly) in the most advanced races of that animal which not only thinks and reasons but reflects.

We find, then, that the evolution of conduct is not only accompanied by increased fullness of life, but is to be estimated by such increase. We do not say that that conduct is good in relation to the individual which increases and that conduct bad which diminishes the fullness of individual life in the individual. We assert, for the present, only what observation shows—that conduct of the former kind is favored (other things equal), and therefore developed, in the life-struggle, while conduct of the latter sort tends to disappear as evolution proceeds.

Thus far we have only considered conduct in relation to individual life. We have still to consider the evolution of conduct as related to the life of the species.

In considering the evolution of structures and functions we have not only to consider the influence of the struggle for inidvidual existence, but also the effects of the contest in which each race as a whole is engaged—and to do this we have to consider, first, those circumstances which affect the propagation of the race; secondly, the relation of the individuals of the race to their fellows; thirdly, the relations of the race as a whole to other races. Something akin to this must be done in considering the evolution of conduct. We have seen how modes of conduct which favor the continued existence of the individual are developed at the expense of modes of conduct having an opposite tendency. These last die out, because the individuals of the race who act in these ways die out. But it is obvious that conduct will be equally apt to die out which tends to prevent or limit the adequate renewal of the race from generation to generation. It is equally obvious that whatever conduct causes contests (whether for life or subsistence) within the race or species, tends to the elimination of members of the race, and so diminishes the chances of the race in the struggle for existence with other races. Lastly, the relations of a race to surrounding races are manifestly of importance in the evolution of conduct, seeing that conduct will equally tend to be diminished whether it is unfavorable to the existence of the race in which it is prevalent, or simply unfavorable to the separate existence of an individual member of the race.

Now, with regard to conduct affecting the propagation of a race, we find that, like conduct affecting individual life, it has been developed from what can hardly be called conduct at all in the lowest grades of life to fully developed conduct, with elaborate adaptation of means to ends in the highest. In the lowest forms of life, propagation proceeds by mere division and subdivision, not depending so far as can be judged on any power of controlling the process, which such creatures may possess. In fact, the Protozoa multiply by dividing. We have to pass over many grades of life before we reach such imperfect care for propagation of the race as we find among those orders of fish in which the male keeps watch and ward over the eggs. Still higher must we pass before we find any trace of affection for the young, and higher yet before we see care given to feed and protect and keep the young till they are able to provide for themselves.

This brings us in fact very near to the human race, which, in its lowest races, is distinguished from other animals chiefly by the length of time during which it feeds, protects, and trains its young. In the higher human races all these processes are conducted with greater care and elaboration; more varied wants are considered and attended to, more elaborately varied means are used for the purpose. It is easily seen how such conduct by aiding the development of the race aids the development of the conduct itself by which that result is favored. Among those members of a race in whom the proper race-propagating conduct is not adequately shown, propagation proceeds less effectively—which is the same as saying that, relatively, such conduct itself must be diminishing.

This conclusion is not inconsistent, as at first sight it might appear, with the fact that mere numerical increase of propagation, though it means increase in quantity of life, is not always or even generally a proof of the growth of the race in what may be called race-vitality. Here as elsewhere adaptation of means to ends has to be considered, and that kind of conduct by which such adaptation is secured has the best chances of development in the long run. Let us, for instance, take an illustration from civilized life: An early marriage between two persons, careless alike of present duties and future difficulties, seems at first to tend directly to the increase of carelessness and thoughtlessness; for from such a union there will probably come into existence more than the average number of offspring, repeating in greater or less degree the weak characters of their parents: the totality of life characterized by undesirable qualities and conduct will thus be increased, and increased in a greater ratio than the totality of prudent, steady, and thoughtful life, by a well-considered union and well-judged conduct thereafter. Yet in the long run the result proves usually otherwise. (We consider only average results.) The larger number of offspring of inferior qualities receive less care and inferior training; so that for them there is greater probability either of early death or of defective adult life. The parents suffer also in the struggle thus brought on them, for which they are ill-fitted. A diminished amount of life is likely to result, and (taking the average of many cases) probably does result; while certainly there is diminished life-quality. Hence results a correspondingly diminished amount and influence of the inferior kind of conduct shown by thoughtlessness or carelessness about life's duties. On the other hand, the well-judged and not too hasty union of two care-taking persons, though it may add a smaller number of individual lives to the life of the race, adds better and more enduring life, life more likely to maintain and sustain the qualities of the parents, giving therefore to these qualities in the race at once more stability and wider influence. In other words, the qualities best suited for the propagation of the race, and best suited for the race, will on the average be developed, while qualities having opposite tendencies will either be eliminated, or though they may remain will occupy a lower place and have diminished influence on the fortunes of the race—a circumstance tending of itself still further to their eventual elimination.

But, within a race and in the relations of the race to other races, there are causes which influence the evolution of conduct. Members of a race fight out the contest for existence not alone but more or less in the presence of their fellows and in the presence of members of other races. Each individual in providing for his own wants or for his own defense affects more or less others, either of his own race or of other races, in their efforts to defend or sustain their lives. Very often, as Mr. Herbert Spencer quaintly puts it, "a successful adjustment by one creature involves an unsuccessful adjustment made by another creature, either of the same kind or of a different kind." The lion and the lamb, for instance, already anticipate the millennium; but the lion adjusts matters so much more successfully than the lamb as to take the outside place; the lamb lies down with the lion, but—inside. Among all races, herbivorous as well as carnivorous, similar relations exist. The more vigorous get the better food, food which the weaker contend for in vain or have to resign, when obtained, to superior strength. Within one and the same race there is still the same law. The stronger monopolize, if they can, the feeding-grounds of the race. The weaker, whether originally so, or become so through age or disease, succumb in greater numbers than the stronger in the struggle for existence. Only, while the death of those weak through age does not affect the evolution of the race, the greater mortality among those originally weaker than the rest modifies the race-qualities.

In these contests conduct plays an important part. Unnecessary contests involve unnecessary risks. That conduct must prevail best in the long run, and therefore that conduct must eventually be evolved and developed, by which adjustments for the advantage of one creature do not needlessly interfere with adjustments for the advantage of other creatures. If we imagine a carnivorous animal carefully limiting his search for animal food to his requirements, not killing where there was no occasion, and keeping carefully all food he had once obtained, we see that his chances in the life-struggle would be better than those of a carnivore of the same race who killed whenever he got the chance. It would be more the interest of other creatures (as for instance those who wanted the same sort of food) to eliminate the carnivore of the latter sort, than to remove the more prudent member of the race. In the long run this would tell even among the lower animals. But, as we approach the relations of men to men and men to animals, we see more obviously how conduct in which the interests or the wants of others are considered is safer in the long run, more conducive (in hundreds of ways more or less complex) to prolonged existence, than conduct in which those interests and wants are neglected. Hence there will be a tendency, acting slowly but surely, to the evolution of conduct of the former kind. More of those whose conduct is of that character, or approaches that character, will survive in each generation, than of those whose conduct is of an opposite character. The difference may be slight, and therefore the effect in a single generation, or even in several, may also be slight; but in the long run the law must tell. Conduct of the sort least advantageous will tend to die out, because those showing it will have relatively inferior life-chances.

Mr. Spencer seems to me to leave his argument a little incomplete just here. For, though he shows that conduct avoiding harm to others, in all races, must tend to make the totality of life larger, this in reality is insufficient. He is dealing with the evolution of conduct. Now, to take a concrete example, those of the hawk tribe who left little birds alone, except when they had no other way to keep themselves alive but by capturing and killing them, would help to increase the totality of life, by leaving more birds to propagate their kind than would be left if a more wholesale slaughter were carried out. But this of itself would not tend to develop that moderation of hawk character which we have imagined. The creatures helped in the life-struggle would not be the hawks (so far as this particular increase in the totality of life was concerned), but the small birds; and the only kind of moderation or considerateness encouraged would be shown in a lessening of that extreme diffidence, that desire to withdraw themselves wholly from hawk society, which we recognize among small birds. But if it be shown that the more wildly rapacious hawks stand a greater chance of being destroyed than those of a more moderate character, then we see that such moderation and steadiness of character are likely to be developed and finally established as a characteristic of the more enduring races of hawks. And similarly in other such cases.

It is, however, in the development of conduct in the higher races only, that this comparatively elaborate law of evolution is clearly recognized. Among savage races we still see apparent exceptions to the operation of the rule. Individuals and classes and races distinguished by ferocity and utter disregard of the "adjustments" of others, whether of their own race or of different races, seem to thrive well enough, better even than the more moderate and considerate. Forces really are at work tending to eliminate the more violent and greedy; but they are not obvious. As society advances, however, even this seeming success of the rapacious is found to diminish, though as yet there has been no race or society from which it has been actually eliminated. Conduct which is imperfect, conduct characterized by antagonisms between groups and antagonisms between members of the same group, tends to be more and more reduced in amount, by the failure or by the elimination of those who exhibit such conduct. What is regarded as gallant daring in one generation is scorned as ferocity in a later one, resisted as rapacious wrong-doing yet later, and later still is eliminated either by death or nearly as effectually (when indirect as well as direct consequences are considered) by imprisonment.[1]

As violence dies out, and as war diminishes—which usually is but violence manifested on a larger scale the kind of conduct toward which processes of evolution appear to tend, "that perfect adjustment of acts to ends in maintaining individual life and rearing new individuals, which is effected by each without hindering others from effecting like perfect adjustments," will be approached. How nearly it will ever be attained by any human race—quien sabe?

One further consideration, and we have done with the evolution of conduct, the right understanding of which is essential to the scientific study of conduct. The members of a society, while attending to adjustments necessary for their wants or interests, may not merely leave others free to make their adjustments also, but may help them in so doing. It is very obvious that conduct thus directed must tend to be developed. As Mr. Spencer says, such conduct facilitates the making of adjustments by each, and so increases the totality of the adjustments made, and serves to render the lives of all more complete. But besides this (as he should also have shown, since it is an essential part of the evolution argument), it tends to its own increase: for, being essentially mutual, conduct of this kind is a favorable factor in the life-struggle.

We have next to consider what, seeing thus the laws according to which conduct is evolved, we are to regard as good conduct and bad conduct.

  1. Many overlook the bearing of imprisonment on the evolution of conduct its influence (when long terms are considered) in diminishing the numerical increase of particular types of character, and therefore in diminishing the quantity of particular forms of conduct.