Popular Science Monthly/Volume 74/March 1909/Science and Morality

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ONE of the most striking phenomena of the nineteenth century was the great rise of science and the loosening of religious ties coincident with a marked improvement in general morality. As it has for centuries been generally taught that morals depend upon religion, this phenomenon has to many appeared inexplicable. Indeed, some have closed their eyes to the great change for the better that has taken place[1] so convinced are they that an improvement of morals is impossible except through religion. To them the basis of morality has seemed to be slipping away with their religious tenets.

The decadence of theology accompanying the rise of science is no mere coincidence. The general enlightenment of the age, which has been brought about by the scientific method, has undermined the Christian theology and indeed all theology in two ways: it has, on the one hand, seriously impaired the authority of the Bible as an errorless book; and, on the other hand, in a far more important way it has revolutionized the world by exalting reason rather than faith. What may be called the scientific habit of mind is incompatible with the blind acceptance of statements unsupported by evidence. Science has been justified, moreover, by the enormous contributions it has made to human happiness in the last half century. The question is, having thus undermined religious beliefs, what has science to offer in the place of religion as basis of morals? Can it take the place of religion as an aid to morals?

The discovery of the fundamental causes of moral conduct is of the first importance if we are to answer these questions and hasten the process of improvement. For it has been generally felt that our progress in national and individual morality is not so rapid as it ought to be. A method of hastening the process is sought and many suggestions have been made, the most frequent being that of teaching morals in the schools. It is obvious that before proceeding intelligently we must understand what the causes of morality are. If morals depend upon religion it would appear sensible to give religious instruction in the schools; if, however, the deep springs of good conduct have some other source than theology or religion, then religious instruction would not be the remedy sought. Indeed, it is possible that those springs of virtue may be choked and their flow retarded by theological tenets, and the remedy proposed would not only not be beneficial but actually detrimental.

To clear the ground for a discussion of the causes of morality it is first necessary to agree on what moral conduct is. If virtue no longer consists in obeying a set of arbitrary statutes given to man by an omniscient being, what criterion shall be used in judging conduct? What makes lying, murder, adultery, covetousness, immoral, since that they are immoral we all feel instinctively? How can we tell good from bad conduct? The answer is obvious from the results which follow such conduct. All immoral acts result in communal unhappiness; all moral acts in communal happiness. The ten commandments really constitute the "common law" of morality; for, although they have been given the form of mandatory statutes, they actually represent those fundamental principles of conduct which humanity has found by experience to be necessary to human happiness. Humanity should, and does, modify and add to these basic principles as long experience shows to be desirable. We can use this criterion for distinguishing good from bad conduct and say that all acts which cause general unhappiness, or permanently diminish human happiness, are immoral; and all acts which increase it are moral. This criterion enables us to understand why different standards of morality exist among different peoples, since the immorality of any act is not generally acknowledged until the misery which comes from it is generally perceived.

Since moral conduct conduces to general comfort and immoral conduct to discomfort, one factor in the improvement of morals is obvious, for that the general happiness is influenced by the acts of individuals is perceived by all. Humanity has been driven by its own unhappiness to adopt a code of actions which produces a minimum of unhappiness. In other words, it has been driven away from immoral and toward moral conduct. This, however, is not the whole, and possibly not the most important, cause of individual morality. Such an altruistic basis of morality would probably not be a sufficiently powerful incentive to good conduct in each of us, were it not reinforced by another factor. The selfishness of the majority of men is so great that the unhappiness of others, produced by their acts, would have little effect in modifying their conduct, provided their own happiness was secured, were it not for that other factor.

There is in each one of us a fundamental instinct which actually makes the happiness of others the most powerful of all incentives to morality. Man is endowed by nature with a feeling of love for his fellow men, which makes it impossible for him to be happy and at the same time to conduct himself in an immoral manner. This instinct is the most effective incentive to civilization. It underlies all our material and moral progress; it is the source of most that is good; it is the whip driving us onward and the reward enticing us along the straight and narrow path. It is human affection, the social instinct. It is a feeling, to be sure, differently developed in different races, tribes and individuals, but it is present to some extent in all. It is a feeling which develops as one grows, extending outward from oneself. It is at first for parents, brothers and sisters, then for wife and family; for blood relatives; for tribe or nation; and finally for the race. It is the feeling of kinship. It is one of the strongest basal instincts of humanity.

The real origin of morality in the past has been this basal instinct; and it must continue to be an effective cause of morality in the future. For the love of offspring of which this instinct is part is one of the most fundamental in animals. Religious beliefs may develop or thwart this instinct, but they are powerless either to suppress it entirely or to take its place. If we should take away all religious belief, the belief in a personal God, in a future life, in rewards and punishment in such a life, we should not disturb this fundamental basis of moral conduct in the least degree. The instinct of human affection would still exist as a powerful aid to morals, one which has always existed, which always will exist and which is without any essential connection with any religious belief whatever.

Religion and science have a certain relationship to this fundamental instinct. Religion in certain ways, but unfortunately not in all, has acted as a stimulus to this instinct in each individual, and it has presented a moral code enforced by a system of rewards and punishments. The actual effect of the Christian religion on morals has been both good and bad. The rapid development of this religion at the outset was very largely owing to the fact that it appealed to and stimulated this fundamental instinct. The teachings of Jesus appear for the most part to have been directed chiefly to this end. "This is my commandment, that ye love one another." His whole life was a teaching by precept and example of the blessings of human affection. It is this element which has made the religion live; which is accountable for what good it has done in the world; which makes it unique among religions. The appeal of the religion was primarily to the feelings, but it was just as effective an appeal to the reason, if only one perceived that the real basis of all good conduct was affection.

If the early Christians had contented themselves with following Jesus's teachings in this particular, their religion must always have been a power for good in the world. But it happened that metaphysical speculation gradually wrapt around, concealed and weakened the force of those teachings. It was taught that Jesus was the son of God himself, miraculously conceived; the doctrine of the Trinity was invented and more stress came to he laid on the value of believing these doctrines than in doing the things Jesus declared to be good. The doctrine of salvation by faith became dominant and with this became associated many other conceptions, the general effect of which was to paralyze the growth of the germ of good contained in the religion. These conceptions divided man from man, race from race; they taught men to value their own salvation more than the happiness of others, and their general effect was selfish and opposed to the feeling of human brotherhood, which Jesus sought in every way to arouse, and which is the basis of morality. So completely did they modify that religion that they made of it for centuries a blight instead of a blessing, detrimental alike to moral, physical and intellectual progress. On the whole, therefore, it must be admitted that the good produced by the Christian religion has not been unmixed with evil.

Since the Christian religion was built on the same foundation as morality, not morals on that religion, and since the effect of the religion was both good and bad we can understand how it happens that the decadence of theology does not involve the decadence of morality, but may coincide with its improvement.

Morals, however, have not only not declined; they have actually improved, owing to a change in that instinct on which morality rests. The past century has seen a tremendous growth in the feelings of human brotherhood; the social instinct has been wonderfully stimulated. This is the most glorious achievement of science.

Science besides its material conquests of nature has developed human pity and compassion. It is the greatest preacher of the brotherhood of man since Jesus. Science, as a matter of fact, is developing in us just those feelings Jesus himself sought to arouse. By teaching man the causes of his own conduct, he is filled with charity and pity; by annihilating distance and time, it has broken down artificial barriers between groups of individuals; and, by the solution of the transportation problem, it has brought distant nations close together. It has shown the human race to be actually one great family, of which the misery of any part necessarily affects the happiness of the whole. The evolutionary hypothesis, the germ theory of disease, the telegraph, the telephone, the locomotive, the printing press, the daily paper, wireless telegraphy, these are the great moral apostles of the age, for they knit men together, conquer prejudice and extend our sympathies. Every discovery in science is a step forward in morality. Science is, indeed, in this way one of the greatest, if not the greatest, moral influence the world has beheld.

But science has done still more for morality than to stimulate human affection. In another and not less glorious way it has exerted a profound influence for good. It has taught the golden value of truth and candor. Beliefs, dogmas, have no place in science. More than any religion science has inculcated the love of truth for its own sake. Truth, modesty, candor! That is its creed, so far as it has any. So rare; so simple; so powerful for good! Science has patiently taught, at first to a few and now to the multitude, that the understanding of the causes of things can only come through patient and unprejudiced study. A mighty force for good has come into the world unknown to it in all its past history.

Perceiving that virtue springs from affection, it becomes possible intelligently to attack the problem of moral instruction in the schools. It would be a mistake to return to religious instruction as a basis of morality, for, as we have seen, morals do not really depend on religion and there are many tenets of the present faith which are, on the whole, distinctly detrimental or, at least, not an aid to morality. Duty, or responsibility to others, should be the key word of education. While all knowledge is a moral force, knowledge being in its nature essentially moral since it increases happiness, and while any real education is in itself a powerful aid to morality, it would be well indeed if the ideals of science could become the ideals of every one; if the love of truth and candor could permeate every individual; if the interdependence of mankind could be so clearly perceived by all that obscure crimes against the community could be recognized and detested. Above all, the whole plan of education, if it is to be efficient morally, while it stimulates the feelings of sympathy, compassion, duty and affection, must inculcate habits of logical thought, the conception of physical cause and effect, and a knowledge of the work-a-day world. For all morality has in it these three components, reason, knowledge and affection; and affection alone is instinctive and blind.

We need not worry, therefore, over the decadence of religious beliefs. All that is erroneous in such beliefs it is obviously immoral to uphold and should be got rid of as soon as possible. Unproved hypotheses, such, for example, as that of a continued, conscious existence after death, should not be taught as facts. For that man who builds his moral edifice upon such unproved beliefs is assuredly building on a doubtful foundation. What is good and worth saving in religion will be found to be working in the future side by side with science in increasing in each individual that human affection which makes man better, will he nil he, and is the really valuable thing in the characters of all of us.

Moral conduct, then, is conduct which increases human happiness. A man must be moral if he would be happy, since he has in him a fundamental instinct, the social instinct, which causes him to love his children and his fellow men, and which will not permit him to make them unhappy without making himself unhappy also. This feeling of human affection is the real basis of morals. It does not depend on religious beliefs; it will persist even though all religious belief perishes. It has been greatly stimulated by science and it is on account of the development of science that the world has grown better, while its religious beliefs have weakened. And, furthermore, anything which hinders or opposes the development in each individual and each nation of this feeling is seen to be necessarily immoral. From this point of view all obstacles to free trade, free intercourse and friendly relations between nations and individuals may be shown to have an importance in general morality.

  1. By many people the awakening of public consciousness of the immorality of certain acts is misinterpreted as an increase in immorality, instead of the distinct improvement in morals which it actually represents.