The Human Origin of Morals/Chapter I

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There are few subjects on which so much solemn nonsense has been written as on the nature of conscience and moral law; and there is no other phenomenon of the human mind of which it is possible to give so simple and natural an explanation.

There are few facts of human life which have been so deeply woven into the web of religious thought as what are called a man's moral and immoral actions; and there are none which have so little real connection with religion.

There is no other element of our decaying religions which has been so reverently clothed by modern philosophers with a mantle of mysticism; and there is none which evolutionary science explains more clearly.

There is nothing which so readily brings together our modern oracles, inside and outside of the Churches, our preachers and essayists and editorial writers, as zeal for the august and eternal authority of moral sentiment; and there is nothing that has been more persistently assailed and more caustically ridiculed by a large number of the most brilliant literary men of our time.

There is no institution of the past that so universally commands the lip-homage of our skeptical and rebellious generation as well as of believers; and there is nothing in human history which has caused, and causes today, as much hypocrisy.

Clearly, we need a discussion of the nature of morality. We have seen what religion is, and how it evolved. We have examined the fundamental doctrines of God and immortality. Let us now, in the same plain and candid way, examine what seems to be the common ground of all idealism, the moral sentiment.

I begin, as usual, with facts. No one will question the universal, never-ending concern about morals in our press and literature as well as our churches; and few are likely to question the enormously widespread hypocrisy in practice. No one will question that a number of brilliant writers are anti-moralists, while most writers represent moral law as the supreme reality, the foundation of social life; the starry heavens above our head, as Kant said, the granite substratum under the soil of our cities, as Emerson said. And if any do not know the mysticism with which philosophers veil the moral law, or the ease with which science explains it, he will soon be informed.

This extraordinary confusion of thought is not so surprising as the reader may be inclined to imagine. It will, in fact, be most useful to understand the confusion itself before we go further.

Think of the evolution of man's ideas in regard to thunder and lightning. To the blurred mind of primitive man, as in the blurred mind of a dog, these are simply facts. They occur. When man began to see that events have causes, and to believe that the causes in nature were spirits, he very promptly made a god of thunder and lightning. And it was a very great god: the sky-god, mountain-god, thunder-god of the nature-religions.

When the higher religions made God spiritual, they still maintained that thunder was his voice, in a special way, and lightning his weapon. Even the simple explanation given by Franklin did not destroy the belief. In the law of civilized nations today it is an "act of God" when lightning shatters a building: even if it kills innocent children.

Moral law was another kind of thunder, and, being "spiritual," it remained a sort of supernatural phenomenon even when man became fully civilized. Until modern times it was quite unintelligible. There was the law, no one knew why, no one knew whence. It was written in every man's conscience. A strange thing, this, and philosophers set to work on it.

Philosophers never believe in revelation, and they do not love science. They were quite pleased when science began to explain the order of the heavens, the beauty of the rose or of the sunset, and the adaptations of organs. But science must not touch "spiritual" things, they said. That was their business. So the confusion goes on; and the way in which theology is still allowed to dominate our education, our law-courts, our press, and a large part of our lives, maintains the confusion in the general mind.

You will see this clearly if I very briefly sketch the history of speculation on the nature of morality.

We have so little literature of the older civilizations that we cannot say much about, the ideas of their thinkers, as far as they have had any thinkers, but we have found a little Egyptian moral treatise (The Maxims of Ptah-Hotep), of more than four thousand years ago, which seems to show that even then educated men who were not priests understood that moral law was, simply a human and social law of conduct. I explain in The Myth of Immortality (Little Blue Book No. 1059) that that was the conviction of the two great moralists, Buddha and Confucius.

However, real speculation began with the Greeks. Most of the people who talk about "brilliant Greece" and "meteoric Athens" know very little about the subject. Earnest thinking about nature and man began amongst the Greeks, not of Athens or the homeland, but of Asia Minor.

We understand this today. The refugees of the splendid old civilization of Crete, which was destroyed by the early barbaric Greeks about 1450 B. C., went in part to Palestine, where they helped to civilize the Hebrews (who came later), and in large part to Asia Minor, where they civilized the, Greek immigrants. As these Greeks of Asia Minor were independent of the religious bigotry of the home-land, they speculated with great freedom and wonderful success. They were really scientists, not philosophers. They guessed the vastness of the universe, believed in atoms and evolution, and made very little pretense of believing in gods.

As the history of thought is usually written, it is said that, fortunately, these "mere Materialists" were soon thrust aside, and the great thinkers of Athens turned away from nature and studied man.

In point of fact, it was a great misfortune; for it meant the strangling of science in its cradle. Moreover, these Greek thinkers of the homeland, while they rejected current religion, as all philosophers do, were much influenced by fear of the pious democracy; and the philosophical ideas which they gave the world instead of theology are now quite discredited.

First of them was the mystic Pythagoras. He is said to have been influenced by Buddhism. We can only say that it is a great pity that he did not introduce into Europe the Agnostic and purely humanitarian ethic of Buddha. Instead of that he discovered—I am quoting a high authority on him—that "the essence of justice is a square number." Nice motto to put up in church or a law-court! Or is that why we speak of a "square deal?"

Socrates next searched the matter, and we are told that he did not form any "theory of morals." He merely cleared up men's ideas as to what is just, and insisted that the moral sentiment depended upon knowledge.

Plato, who was the first sociologist as well as a great philosopher, lost his balance between his two interests. It is clear that, as a student of social life, he saw that moral law is "utilitarian," as we now say. It is social law, enforced for the good of society. But Plato also had a theory that a merely material world can produce nothing, and all truth, goodness, and beauty must come from a spiritual world or, as he said, a world of "ideas": not ideas in the mind of man, but self-existing realities. The "good" was one of these ideas, and conscience was its voice and interpreter.

Aristotle, the most learned and logical of the Greek thinkers, did not believe in Plato's ideas. No one does today. But, although Aristotle wrote the first treatise on Ethics (the science of morality) he did not succeed in understanding the nature of moral law, and he has left us no theory of it.

By this time all Greece was speculating—and there has never been any country like it for speculation—on moral law, and there were three main opinions. There was the Platonic theory; and Christian writers followed it later, saying that the "ideas" were in the mind of God. Then there was the theory of the Stoics, and some others. Although the Stoics talked politely about the gods, it is fairly clear that they did not believe in them. For them moral law was just "the Law of Nature." It existed. It was part of the scheme of things. A man was at discord with nature if he did not observe it.

The third theory was really our modern theory, or the correct theory. Probably the great early scientist and evolutionist Democritus first discovered the truth. At all events, there were soon several schools in Greece maintaining that the object and origin of moral law was simply concern for human welfare. Some, whom we call Hedonists, said that the test of a moral act was whether it promoted happiness (the, Greek of which is hedone). Some made happiness consist mainly in pleasure. Others, like Epicurus, the last and sanest of the Greeks, though his views are nearly always misrepresented and slandered, said that moral acts were those which promoted a passionless tranquillity of life. Epicurus built on science, not philosophy, and tried to bring the world back to science.

But Greece fell, and the whole tradition of independent thinking perished. The Romans were poor thinkers, and most of them, being Agnostics, followed the Stoics or the Epicureans. Their humanitarian ideas did magnificent work for the world.

During the next thirteen or fourteen centuries moral law was simply held to be a divine command. When at last independent thinking began again, when the great Deistic, movement attacked revelation, all the old ideas were revived. Some followed the Stoic theory, that moral law is the Law of Nature. Some connected it with the divine will, as revealed, not in a Bible but in man's conscience. But some (Hobbes and Locke) more or less brought out its human significance; and already some (like Mandeville) satirized it as a superstition.

At the end of the eighteenth century German philosophy began, and from that day to this some weird theories of morality have been formulated. A vast library of the subject exists, and there is neither space nor reason even to mention all the theories here.

There are two main views. One is the old, idea that moral law is a sort of eternal and august reality, either in "nature" or in God or in a mystic world which nobody can understand. It is "intued" (seen directly) by the mind, and so these theories are known as Intuitionalism. Against this a number of British thinkers (Hume, Bentham, Spencer, Mill, etc.) held that moral law is a human law regulating the welfare or "utility" of social life. These are called Utilitarians; and we shall now see how science stepped in amongst the philosophers, scattering them right and left, and proving that the Utilitarians were right.