Popular Science Monthly/Volume 50/November 1896/The Moral Standard

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IN the present paper I purpose to discuss briefly the nature of the moral standard, strictly so called. The simplest way of approaching the subject will perhaps be to pass in rapid review the other principal criteria of conduct, by contrast with which the essential character of the moral criterion itself will be brought into conspicuous relief.

From the study of the world's culture history it becomes clear that the extra-moral, or what we shall here call the pre-ethical standards of conduct, have arisen from three different roots. As we shall presently see, these roots ultimately run into one, as looking at the matter from the evolutionary standpoint we should of course expect; but inasmuch as the criteria developed by them are in their later forms sharply marked off from one another, it will be desirable for the sake of clearness to treat them separately. The three principal roots, then, out of which, apart from the true moral root, the influences governing and directing men's lives have arisen, are: (1) The theological or religious root; (2) the social or ceremonial root; and (3) the legal or political root. We will examine these one by one:

1. All religions as they pass out of the primitive cult stage of ancestor-worship originate certain specific rules of conduct, which, as they consolidate, grow up into a more or less definite code. For the source and power of such a code we have not far to seek. Arising at the outset from the personal mandates of the deified ancestor or chief, the directions concerning action emanating from this quarter gradually assume a more emphatic, mysterious, and impressive character, as with the merging of many tribal deities into a national god, and of various national gods into a single supreme power, they come to be regarded as the supernaturally given utterances of the invisible, omniscient, omnipresent, but still manlike governor of the universe. The precept or direction, therefore, takes the form of a command, and right and wrong in action are made synonymous with obedience or disobedience to such command. Along with development in definiteness and consistency of a code thus made up goes increasing stress upon the pleasures and pains by enunciation of which the commands are accompanied. Right action, or obedience to the will of the divine ruler, is attended by divine approval, and is fostered by promises of heavenly reward; wrong action, as disobedience to his will, calls down divine anger and the threat of penalties in the future life.

Whatever may be the particular differences separating the various theological codes of conduct from one another, they thus reveal striking similarities in sundry important respects. With greater or less distinctness they all claim supernatural origin; establish their behests and their interdicts upon the basis of external, ultra-human yet still manlike authority; and find support for their declarations in the presentation of consequences lying outside the natural order. The theological system of conduct of the low savage tribe and that developed among the nations of the civilized world of course differ in the character of the acts distinguished as good and bad, in the quality of the rewards and penalties offered, in the attitude of mind encouraged, and in other equally significant ways. Yet they have these points in common: the commands are supernatural, the sanctions are supernatural, the code is based upon ultra-rational considerations and backed by the presentation of ultra-rational results.

That it is the theological code of conduct which, throughout the Christian ages and down even to our own day, has been almost universally accepted as the one possible foundation of morality, we need not here pause to insist. If the tables of the law given to Moses on Mount Sinai are not still regarded as the original source of our knowledge of the distinctions of conduct, there is still a tacit belief that such knowledge depends upon supernatural revelation. As by one course or another, therefore, our commonly held ideas of morality lead us back to the theological root, it will be well to note the bearings of theological principles upon the questions with which morality is concerned. The following points are, I think, specially worthy of attention:

Since the theological code of conduct regards virtue simply as obedience to divine command, and measures morality by the correspondence of action with the divine will, we are bound to infer that right and wrong have in themselves no inherent quality, but are made so simply by the enactment of an external power. The quality of a line of conduct thus resides not in essentials—the intrinsic tendency of an action and its bearings upon life, but in non-essentials—the accidental fact that it is forbidden or enjoined by God. For example, Jehovah lays certain restrictions upon the man and woman in the Garden of Eden; and disregard of these restrictions is sin. He commands Abraham to commit a horrible crime, and because of his readiness to do so he is paraded before us as the father of the faithful and a model for our own imitation. For a direct statement of the position here indicated, reference may be made to No. XIII of the thirty-nine articles of the English Episcopal Church. The unmistakable meaning of this article is that a good deed, such as the gift of a cup of cold water to a thirsty wayfarer, has in itself no inherent quality of goodness. Performed in a state of grace and from faith in Jesus Christ, it is well-pleasing to God, but only on that account. Let the blessing be offered, not out of faith in Christ, but from spontaneous sympathy with suffering humanity, and what has official theology to say to the matter? "We doubt not that it has the nature of sin."

Implied in all this of course lies the further fact that morality looks Godward and not manward. Sin is sin because it is unpleasing to God, not because it is injurious to man. How disastrous the effects of such a conception as this may be, the history and literature of Christendom are at hand to show us. If such an astute thinker as Duns Scotus, insisting on the perfect freedom of the divine will, could declare that if God had prescribed murder and theft, murder and theft would not have been sins; if a high-minded moralist like Sir Thomas Browne could write, "I give no alms to satisfy the hunger of my brother, but to fulfill and accomplish the will and command of my God," it may be taken for granted that, in the average of cases, such a view of conduct could not but be degrading to those entertaining it. Out of this view sprang the belief, widespread throughout the middle ages and continuing down to our own day, that a man may clear his conscience of the burden of wrong acts by making his peace with God. Given the point of view, and this conception is strictly logical; since God is the person offended, and his pardon will make all right again. Formerly, people endeavored to compound for the sins of a lifetime by building churches, endowing monasteries, or leaving their ill-gotten wealth to the priests. In our own epoch the old belief lingers on in the orthodox doctrine of penitence and the forgiveness of sin.

Beyond all this, it is of the nature of a theological code of conduct to get the important and unimportant in action sadly mixed up together, and even to cause them occasionally to change their places. Thus, in our own régime, undue emphasis is habitually laid upon the ceremonial side of life. Examination of the Ten Commandments reveals six that are roughly describable as utilitarian, the remaining four (a large proportion) referring to religious observance. In common conversation, attendance at church, and careful regard for other so-called religious duties are habitually placed on a level with, or even higher than, the careful fulfillment of secular requirements. Popular ideas concerning the Sabbath furnish a striking illustration of the point to which we now refer.

2. We pass now to the pre-ethical code of conduct arising from what we here term the social, or, better, the ceremonial root.

Casual consideration might lead one to suppose that ceremonial factors have played a relatively unimportant part in the history of civilization. Such a supposition, however, as further investigation could soon prove, would involve an entire misapprehension of the facts of human development. Indeed, strictly speaking, it is with the ceremonial code that such a discussion as this ought to begin, since out of it, in the consolidation of social life, both the regulations that we call religious and the regulations that we call political have been gradually evolved. Ceremonial government, as Mr. Spencer has shown, is not only the earliest and most general kind of government, but is also a government which "is ever spontaneously recommencing." Moreover, it has ever had and continues to have, as the facts of daily existence show us, the largest share in regulating men's lives.

It thus happens that distinctions of right and wrong constantly refer to a standard of convention, all questions of the tendencies of actions and of their wider relations to life being consciously or unconsciously left out of account. Like the theological code, therefore, the ceremonial code habitually passes over the inherent qualities of actions. Its sanctions are generally extraneous, not essential, and its inevitable trend is to confuse the really important with the relatively unimportant in conduct, often with the most unfortunate results. How far the ceremonial code demands respect, to what point it is mainly useful, and under what conditions it passes into a tyranny, crushing individuality and repressing the vital forces of life, are questions which, though to the last degree important, can not here be considered. What we have now to do is to notice the wide area over which the social code operates; the imperative character of its enactments; and the confusion to which it frequently gives rise—a confusion resulting from the fact that in the conflict of influences by which we are daily met, the morally right is again and again sacrificed to the socially correct. The "proper and therefore wrong" of one of our writers is indeed a piece of merely rhetorical exaggeration, but the distinction between rectitude and propriety—between the criterion of the moral and the criterion of the social code—has none the less to be emphasized.

3. In the early stages of social evolution custom tends to harden into definite precept; hence the third pre-ethical standard of conduct—the legal or political standard. Guidance by custom is, as I have above implied, the primordial form of guidance in the low tribal group; but out of this arise gradually both the sacred law, or the command of the deified ancestor or chief, and the secular law, or the command of the living ruler. At the outset, indeed, no distinction between sacred and secular is to be made, the enactment of the chieftain, while he is still alive, passing insensibly into a religious enactment when, dying, he takes his place among the tribal gods. But differentiation presently begins, and it is with the secular side of the matter after such differentiation that we are now concerned. Law, then, emerges when the spontaneously evolved customs of a social group are gathered up and crystallized in the dictates of the strong man or chieftain, and when vaguely diffused social sentiment thus receives distinct formulation and powerful personal support.

It is evident that from the legal as from the theological point of view right and wrong are primarily associated with obedience and disobedience to external authority. Conformity to the particular requirements of the established body of laws implies allegiance, and allegiance is virtue; while insubordination constitutes the very essence of evil, the element which makes crime crime. The sanctions of the legal code are, therefore, once again extraneous sanctions; its restraints and incentives, penalties and rewards, imposed from the outside.

Thus, comparing the three principal pre-ethical codes with one another, we find them characterized by certain important points of similarity. In each case fortuitous and not necessary consequences of action have been taken as the basis of restraint; in each case outside compulsion has furnished the required impulses and deterrents; in each case, therefore, the sanctions have been almost entirely accidental and extraneous, and not to any adequate extent fundamental and essential.

And now we have only to place the moral code alongside of these pre-ethical codes in order to throw its radical and differential qualities into immediate and striking relief. For what is the code of morality strictly so called? It is the code under which actions are classified in virtue of their essential natures—that is, of their necessary bearings upon life. It formally postulates as the ultimate end of conduct that which, after all, we find implied in a more or less crude and confused fashion in all ethical systems whatsoever—well-being; and it considers conduct in its direct or indirect relation to that end—that is, in the connection of actions immediately with well-being, or mediately with the conditions prerequisite to its attainment. Its fundamental assumptions are therefore at once simple, and, despite all doctrinaire theorizing to the contrary, practically though latently universal. We are alive. This is obviously for all of us the final fact, and no less obviously every proposed test of life's activities must ultimately be resolved into terms of this unresolvable first principle. Now, the facts of actual life favor neither the fatuous preconceptions of the optimist nor the equally wild asseverations of the pessimist. We can not assert, with Malebranche and Leibnitz, that this is the best of all possible worlds; or with Hartley, that "all individuals are actually and always infinitely happy"—a proposition which, as Mr. Leslie Stephen has well said, sounds like optimism run mad. But neither, on the other hand, can we accept the dogma of Chabot, that what we mistakenly call the cosmos is really the work of a crazy devil; or follow Schopenhauer in his statement that the universe is just as bad as it conceivably could be without falling to pieces altogether; or treat seriously the suggestion of Novalis, that the simultaneous suicide of all human creatures is the one way of escape from miseries that are both unbearable and irremediable. Optimism would logically negative any attempt to tamper with the facts of a world wherein it has already pertly concluded that whatever is is right; pessimism no less inevitably leads to a like passivity by treating life in its essence as radically too evil a thing to be susceptible of any improvement. But life, as I have said, fits the theories of neither pessimist nor optimist. It is not wholly bad, it is not wholly good; it is a thing of mingled yarn, good and ill together, with immeasurable capacity, in its higher forms especially, for the development of one element or the other. Moral conduct I therefore conceive to be, in a single phrase, conduct which betters existence, which adds to its sum total of happiness or decreases its sum total of pain. Action which makes life as a whole more fully worth living is as such right action; action which diminishes its value is as such wrong. The results upon which morality thus bases its incentives and restraints are therefore the actual results involved in the very constitution of things and not consequences artificially imposed by any external power. We reach in this way the ultimate conception of the immanent moral law, and for myself I see no way either of avoiding the resolution of all other possible criteria of conduct into the criterion thus established, or of getting behind such a standard in search of a final principle of a more universal, fundamental, and axiomatic character. Here, and here alone, it seems to me, we strike bed-rock.

The moral motive, therefore, arises not by contemplation of the gratification given by a certain line of conduct to God, or by recollection of superimposed pleasures, secular or supernatural, present or future; or by any reference to the social habits or conventions with which the said line of conduct may or may not accord. Such moral motive has nothing to do with obedience to the revealed will of God, or with the extraneous conceptions of heaven and hell, or with punishment or reward from earthly rulers, or with the favor or disfavor of public opinion. It arises from the vivid ideal representation of the relation between action and life. The compulsion of morality, therefore, is inner and not outer compulsion, its authority inner and not outer authority, its restraints those arising from the connection of cause and effect, its sanctions natural, not supernatural, essential and not fortuitous. The foundations of the moral code thus belong to the very nature of sentient life itself, and its dictates therefore possess a validity, a reach, a significance, a sacredness, to which no others can conceivably lay claim.

And here, perhaps, to prevent possibility of misconception, something should be said about the relation of the moral to the cosmic process. Briefly, then, I accept in the main the position adopted by the late Prof. Huxley in his Romanes Lecture on Evolution and Ethics. That there is a fundamental distinction between the "state of Nature" brought about by uninterrupted cosmic forces, and the "state of art," produced with partial success by the rational power of man, working sometimes with but often athwart those forces, and that reason and sympathy—the latter constituting by all odds the most important element in the social tissue—have brought entirely new dynamic factors into play upon the arena of life, are propositions from which I see no way of escape. It can not be too frequently asserted that what we call the order of Nature is not an ethical order at all—that the laws of Nature, as such, have nothing to do with morality. The ethical element begins, I think, faintly to emerge with the relation of sentiency to those laws, though the establishment of a moral order depends entirely upon the "artificial" factors introduced by the consciousness of man. It is, of course, true that these "artificial" factors are themselves products of cosmic processes, and that the order out of which they have grown itself imposes limitations of the severest, and often the narrowest, kind to man's intelligent reaction against it.

This is the art which does mend Nature, but

The art itself is Nature.

Nevertheless, for the sake of clearness, the contrast of the "natural" and the "artificial," of the workings of Nature apart from the interference of man and the workings of Nature plus such interference—in a word, of the cosmic and the ethical—has to be insisted on. Nature has achieved certain results, though by slow, blundering, and (Montesquieu notwithstanding) extravagantly wasteful methods. Her processes, however, with all their, to us, ruthless cruelty and prodigality, have, in the rough average of cases, made for what—rather metaphorically, perhaps—Mr. Spencer has called "fullness of life"; and such increasing fullness of life may therefore be described—to borrow a teleological phrase, though I do not myself accept the teleological implication—as the "end" of evolution. And here it is that reason steps in and seeks, within the limits everlastingly imposed by cosmic conditions, to find means helping to the same great "end"—now a true rational end—which, while at least as effective as the methods employed by Nature, shall be no longer characterized by what in the "acquired dialect of morals" (to use Huxley's phrase) we have learned to call Nature's indifference and brutality. Man, then, by reason of his intelligence, has great power of tampering with the cosmic order; and how far it is wise to do this and just where the proper compromises have to be made remain to-day among the most difficult of the social problems which we have to face, though in view of the foregoing discussion we may lay it down as a general principle that the ethical process should be allowed to interfere with the cosmic process only when the "end" aforesaid may be more adequately, perfectly, and economically secured thereby. At any rate, we must admit that Goethe was right when he said that it is man's privilege to "distinguish, elect, and direct,"[1] and Arnold when he wrote, "Man must begin, know this, where Nature ends."[2]

Returning from this digression, we will consider for a moment the evolution of the moral code as above defined.

When I described the earlier and outward regulative codes of conduct as pre-ethical codes I did not simply mean that in the sequence of human affairs they actually came before the moral code itself. The relationship is closer and more vital than such a statement would imply. My full meaning is that the pre-ethical codes have all along combined to establish and maintain the social conditions, in the absence of which no observations of cause and effect in conduct could have been made and registered—in the absence of which, therefore, the moral criterion strictly so called would never have arisen. As out of the primordial ceremonial code arose the codes we call religious and political, so out of these combined has gradually emerged and differentiated the moral code proper, as with that consolidation of social life to which ceremony, law, religion, morality, have all tended, men have come slowly to understand that in the recognition of conduct and consequence as everlastingly united in the category of cause and effect lies in all questions of action the one valid, authoritative, and final court of appeal.

"Might till Right is ready," said Matthew Arnold, and in the civilization of the race the might of the outward authority—supernatural, political, social—has gone before and has prepared the way for the right of the inward authority we describe as moral. Men have been trained to the self-compulsion of the moral motive by enforced obedience to the external compulsions of ceremony, religion, law. The strong hand of the earthly despot, only gradually relaxed as the education for freedom went on; the binding power of tyrannic custom, following life into the minutest recesses of its daily routine; the drastic force of supernatural pleasures and pains, meted out by a personal but omniscient deity who exacted unquestioning allegiance and punished every infraction of his commands—all these elements were required as formative factors in the moral development of man-kind. The condition of heteronomy must in the nature of things precede the condition of autonomy, and we only pass from general principle to particular illustration when we say that the outward authorities above dealt with were inevitable prerequisites to the inner authority of morality in the order of the evolution of human life.

Yet it must be remembered that in an indistinct form the moral sanction proper very early began to emerge as an influence in social growth. Natural selection was from the beginning concerned in the picking out and perpetuation of certain qualities—egoistic and altruistic—making for the welfare and expansion of society; and unconsciously at the outset such qualities naturally came to be registered and emphasized in the ceremonial, religious, and legal codes. Among moral characteristics thus nurtured in the primitive stages of political consolidation may be mentioned loyalty, courage, obedience, without which no successful tribal warfare could be carried on, together with a rudimentary form of justice, veracity, and general sympathy, without which the group could never survive in the face of antagonistic tribes whose social feelings were more highly evolved. As the struggle for existence has all along been a struggle among groups as well as among individuals, a premium was laid from the very start upon whatever qualities, altruistic no less than egoistic, would make for social strength and efficiency. These qualities were early caught up in the life and feeling of each developing group; an ideal answering in its larger aspects to the fundamental needs of the tribe was thrown up; and the vague encouragement yielded by diffused public sentiment was presently backed by the sanctions of law and religion. But, later, another element little by little comes into play. With intellectual progress men begin slowly to realize that certain lines of action make for tribal welfare, and certain other lines to tribal disadvantage; that these observed bearings and results are altogether independent of social custom, the commands of the chief, the utterances of the gods or god; and that thus there is a sanction for conduct deeper and more stable than those currently assigned. Throughout the further evolution of humanity, and down even to our own time, these observed connections between conduct and its consequences continue, it is true, to be interpreted mainly through the medium of the earlier codes—that is to say, even where the natural criterion for conduct is dimly perceived, artificial restraints and incentives are still to the fore. Yet a great gain is none the less achieved, since if the evolving moral code does not replace the earlier codes, it more and more comes to constitute a kind of final standard, by correspondence with which the precepts of such earlier codes may be tested.

We are thus forced to the inference that in the continued evolution of life and thought the ethical criterion of conduct will detach itself more and more completely from the other criteria of which we have spoken, and will be more habitually referred to as the touchstone by which right and wrong in action alone are to be decided. Especially in view of the rapid spread of scientific habits of thought does it seem likely that such a result will be brought about; since the central principle of science—the principle of natural causation—is precisely that which underlies the moral code, with its interpretation of conduct and consequence in terms of cause and effect. This does not, of course, mean that guidance and inspiration from other quarters will not constantly be sought, or that all impulses that we should here, strictly speaking, call ultra-moral impulses, will be entirely disregarded. But it does certainly mean that there will be an increase of the already manifest tendency to hold in view the ethical criterion as the ultimate test of conduct, to interpret every side of life's activities more constantly in terms of this, and to insist that in every case of discord between the criterion of morality on the one side and any other lower criterion whatsoever upon the other, we shall revise our principles and our practice without hesitation or demurrer, in such way as to bring them into fundamental harmony with the dictates of the moral law.

And here a very serious question arises. In tracing back the radical distinctions of right and wrong to purely naturalistic sources, do we detract in any way from the authority, the imperativeness, the peculiar sanctity and importance of the ethical code? What, in other words, are the remote emotional tendencies involved in the treatment of conduct from the evolutionary point of view here assumed?

I regard this matter as of especial moment on account of the recent contention of Mr. Balfour (1) that practically "no moral code can be effective which does not inspire, in those who are asked to obey it, emotions of reverence; and (2) that practically the capacity of any code to excite this or any other elevated emotion can not be wholly independent of the origin from which those who accept that code suppose it to emanate."[3] I assent to both these propositions, while I most distinctly join issue with the writer in his inference that by the precepts of the naturalistic moral code the higher emotions, which he rightly holds as fundamentally necessary, can not possibly be called forth.

The gradual decline of the older theology will, I am convinced, bring with it no decadence in our feelings of awe, reverence, sacredness, mystery, but simply a transference of these feelings from the so-called supernatural to the natural—from the power manifested in miracle to the power revealed in law. And thus, by a gradual but inevitable process of adjustment, will it be without possibility of question, when the naturalistic ethics of the future shall have taken the place of the supernaturalistic ethics of the past. Of the moral ideal it may thus be said that it "decomposes but to recompose" with fuller beauty and richer meaning. Rooted fast and deep in the very constitution and conditions of life, itself part of the everlasting order of cosmic growth, written on no tables of stone to be broken or crushed under foot, graven on no page of human fashioning to be torn or obliterated or otherwise destroyed, the moral law thus indeed reveals itself as the eternal law—the utterance and the declaration through the universe itself of that power of which this throbbing world of life and sense and thought is, after all, but the garment and partial expression. Over the unshaken foundations of such a faith as we can thus make our own, the tides of time and change wash and curl in vain. Creeds and speculations, precepts and philosophies, pass away and are forgotten, but such a faith indeed endureth forever.

That to affiliate ethical principles in this way upon natural law adds immeasurably to the deep and terrible responsibilities with which life is coming to confront the modern man, must be acknowledged. From no other point of view does the high seriousness of conduct, the imperiousness of duty, the strenuousness of living, become so emphatic; in no other way are we forced to so tremendous a realization of all that is meant by the fatal chain of action and consequence—a chain the links of which, fragile and delicate and silken as they may seem, are yet woven in the loom of eternity, and are never to be swept asunder. "Not heaven itself upon the past hath power." Injustice, dishonesty, impurity, wrong of every kind, will and must, in the everlasting order of the world, work out their inevitable results, all our prayers, all our remorse notwithstanding.

. . . There's not a crime

But takes its proper change still out in crime,

When rung upon the counter of the world;

and in the administration of the moral law there is no favoritism, no bribery, no loophole of escape.

While the deep realities of existence are thus made deeper and more real, and while the earnestness of conduct and the solemnity of true thought as well as of right action are thrust into almost awful relief, we are forced, moreover, to give up, one by one, the radiant visions of future progress which for thinkers of widely different schools have touched with the glory of infinite promise the hard and obstinate facts of life. The ghost of Malthus has hardly been laid even by Spencerian incantations; and the splendid dream of perfectibility, of the final evanescence of evil—in which the great evolutionary philosopher once loved to indulge—is, we must confess it, only a dream after all. The theory of evolution, as Huxley has said, "encourages no millennial anticipations." The rhythm of life means the ultimate undoing of all that can be done. "Many a planet by many a sun may roll with the dust of a vanished race"; and the time must come, in the dim and mysterious future, when our planet shall be one of these—when, in the striking words of Mr. Leslie Stephen, the earth shall "become a traveling gravestone, and men and their dreams shall have vanished forever." Hence, to quote the same thoughtful writer, "we must be content with hopes sufficient to stimulate action," and must believe "in a future harvest sufficiently to make it worth while to sow, or, in other words, that honest and unselfish work will leave the world rather better off than we found it." And when we study life at large from the point of view here adopted, it may surely be urged that a large basis of substantial hope is given in place of the fallacious and illusory hopes that have been snatched away. A universe of law is, after all, a universe that we can trust. Science teaches us to have confidence in the nature of things; and cause and effect, as Emerson put it, are indeed the "chancellors of God." How would any such confidence be possible if the world were actually governed by caprice, chance, miracle? It is because we can throw ourselves boldly back upon law, because we can interpret human progression, within the limitations by which it must everlastingly be circumscribed, not as an accident, but as part of a gradual and orderly unfolding of cosmic processes, that we can still hold fast to our faith on the one hand, in the permanent significance of duty; on the other hand, in the fundamental actuality of human aspirations. We said just now that we find inspiration to sow the seeds of action only by reason of our faith in the harvest of results. Well, science holds out no promise of the visionary harvest of a "far-off infinite bliss"; but it gives us definite assurrance of what, after all, is of vastly greater consequence to us—the steadily growing harvests of the years immediately to be. Little as each more separately can do, that little is thus seen to be well worth the doing; and the old message comes down the ages to us with ever-renewed force—"Work while it is yet day, for the night cometh when no man can work!"


  1. Das Göttliche.
  2. Sonnet: In Harmony with Nature.
  3. The Foundations of Belief, p. 13.