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To all these systems of ethics which may be collectively
designated as Idealistic, are opposed the so-called Rational-
istic systems, which seek to evolve standards of right and
wrong from reason and experience rather than from reve-
lation or intuition.

The earliest of such schools is the Hedonistic or Epi-
curean, which considers individual happiness as the end of
life and all conduct conducive to that end as good and
right. This theory is not grossly materialistic, since it
recognizes the intellectual and aesthetic pleasures as the
ones conducive to greater and more lasting happiness.
Like the school of Intuitionalism the school of Hedonism
dates back to Greek antiquity. The philosophers Aris-
tippus and Epicurus were among its first exponents.
The theory was revived by Hobbes and considerably
modified and extended by him and his followers. The
more recent writers of this school frequently substitute the
more definite standard of pleasure and pain for the old
hedonistic test of happiness and unhappiness, and several
of them see the true application of the principle of hedonism
not in the happiness of the individual, but in universal or
social happiness. Hedonism in one form or another was
the favorite doctrine of the rationalistic philosophers of pre-
Revolutionary France — Lamettrie, Helvetius and others.


The notion of the "social contract," which appeared
together with the victory of the European industrials and
the establishment of constitutional government, logically
led to the formation of the Utilitarian school of ethics.
The adherents of the "social contract" theory, as stated in
a previous chapter, assume that organized society was
formed by its individual members for their mutual benefit
and protection, and that it is deliberately maintained by
them for that purpose. Since, however, the rules or acts of
organized society cannot always benefit all of its members
alike, each individual member must occasionally sacri-
fice some right to his fellow-men, upon the theory that in
the long run the advantages derived by him from society
would outweigh the disadvantages suffered. This is the
"rational" sanction for the majority rule in all popular
government, and Bentham only translated the political
doctrine into ethical terms, when he asserted that "right"
conduct is such as results in the greatest good to the great-
est number.

The Utilitarian school, in the language of Sidgwick,
"holds that all rules of conduct which men prescribe to one
another as moral rules, are really — though in part un-
consciously — prescribed as means to the general happi-
ness of mankind." ^ The chief exponents of this school are
Paley, Bentham and the Mills, father and son, although
Kant's ethical injunction, "Act only on such a maxim
as may also be a universal law," may also be considered
essentially utilitarian, inconsistent as it is with the in-
tuitional theory of the famous philosopher.

Finally, the school of social thought which goes to

' Henry Sidgwick, "The Methods of Ethics," 5th Edition, London,
1893, p. 8.


biology for the discovery of rules of human conduct, has
introduced another and more realistic standard of right
and wrong in human conduct. According to Darwinian
conceptions the strongest motives in all organic life are the
instincts of self-preservation and preservation of the
species. Applied to men in a social state that theory
means that the main concern of human beings is the pres-
ervation of life, and that such conduct of the individual
will be regarded as good or right as tends to preserve and
enhance the life of his fellow-men, while conduct which
tends to curtail or impair such life will be considered bad
or wrong.

"Goodness," says Herbert Spencer, "standing by itself,
suggests, above all other things, the conduct of one who
aids the sick in re-acquiring normal vitality, assists the
unfortunate to recover the means of maintaining them-
selves, defends those who are threatened with harm in
person, property, or reputation, and aids whatever promises
to improve the living of all his fellows. Contrariwise,
badness brings to mind, as its leading correlative, the con-
duct of the one who, in caring for his own life, damages
the lives of others by injuring their bodies, destroying
their possessions, defrauding them, calumniating them." ^
And Lester F. Ward tersely expresses the same thought
in the following language: "'Duty' is simply conduct
favorable to race safety. Virtue is an attribute of life and
character consistent with the preservation and continuance
of man on earth. Vice is the reverse of this, and is felt
as an attack upon the race." ^

These, then, are the main theories of right and wrong,
as conceived by the contending systems of ethical thought.

* "Data of Ethics," pp. 24, 25. ' "Pure Sociology," p. 420.


But this branch of the subject does not by any means
exhaust the field of ethical inquiry. For assuming that a
true standard of right conduct is discovered, there still
remains the more important question as to the motives
which impel or ought to impel human beings to conform
to that standard. The mere fact that we recognize a
certain mode of action as right and another as wrong does
not imply that we will in all cases follow the one and shun
the other. What, then, is the factor that makes or ought to
make us choose good conduct in preference to bad conduct ?

To that question the different schools make different
replies according to their conceptions of the nature of the
moral obligation. The theological school holds out the
promise of reward in a life beyond the grave. The in-
tuitional school declares that no reward is required, since
the individual is impelled to obey the moral impulse innate
in him, the irresistible command of nature, or, as Kant
terms it, the Categorical Imperative. "Thou must always
fulfill thy destiny," decrees the celebrated German philoso-
pher Fichte, and the biological school of ethics practically
makes the same reply except that it substitutes the instinct
of preservation of the species for the intuitive moral sense.

The most contradictory and, therefore, the least satis-
factory explanations of the ethical motives of men are those
offered by the schools which pride themselves with being
founded on pure reason, — those of hedonism and utili-

Recognizing that mere individual self-interest is en-
tirely inadequate to account for the acts of altruism which
chiefly constitute high moral conduct, the hedonists early
resorted to the theory of "intelligent egoism" as distinct
from that of shortsighted selfishness. The well-developed


human being, they argue, is so constituted that he ex-
periences greater pleasure in serving his fellow-men than in
gratifying his own narrow desires. In promoting the well-
being of his fellows he, therefore, primarily procures a
pleasurable emotion for himself and only incidentally rend-
ers a service to his neighbor. But this argument carries
its own destruction, for it makes the basis of right human
conduct not the self-interest of the actor, but his inner
consciousness or instinct of duty to his fellow-men, the
performance of which causes him pleasure. Neither the
hedonistic theory nor the utilitarian conception, which
represents man in organized society as engaged in constant
cold-blooded bargaining with his fellow-men for advantages,
can account for such acts as the voluntary sacrifice of one's
life in the service of society. And on the other hand the
idealistic theories of ethics do not even attempt to explain
motives of human conduct, but virtually abandon the
subject as beyond their ken.

Within this charmed circle of contradictions the philoso-
phy of ethics oscillated during almost the entire intellectual
period of the human race, and little, if any, substantial
progress was made in twenty-five centuries of the career of
that important branch of thought. It was only when the
discussion was removed from the domain of metaphysical
speculation to the field of positive science, that ethics ac-
quired a realistic basis. This great work was primarily
accomplished by Charles Darwin and his disciples.

The Evolution of the Moral Sense

The main features of the Darwinian theory of organic
evolution are, as is generally known, the doctrine of the
struggle for existence and the resulting natural selection


through the survival of the fittest, the development of
useful organs and hereditary transmission.

In a state of nature each individual is engaged in con-
stant struggle with individuals of its ov^n or different
species and with surrounding nature. In this universal
struggle the individuals least equipped for the fight and
least adapted to their surroundings, perish, while those
who happen to possess organs or features of particular
advantage in the struggle, survive, and by the frequent
application of such useful organs and features, develop
them ever more and transmit them to their offspring in a
higher degree of development. Thus results a constant pro-
cess of increasing adaptation to surroundings and a breed
of more highly and efficiently organized individuals. The
struggle for existence is a purely individual struggle in the
lowest forms of life, and the struggle between individuals
of the same species predominates in those forms. But in
the ascending scale of organic existence the struggle be-
tween individuals of the same species gradually abates and
is superseded by the collective struggles of such individuals
against hostile kinds and the adverse forces of nature
around them. Social organizations thus arise among
animals, including the progenitors of primitive men, and
these organizations prove a powerful weapon in the struggle
for existence against hostile groups or species. The more
compact and harmonious the organization, the greater its
efficiency as a weapon in the struggle for existence. Hence-
forward the process of evolution is one of growing soli-
darity and cohesion among the individuals of the same
group or species as against their common enemies, and this
instinct of solidarity and cohesion is the first germ of the
sense of social duty or moral consciousness.


"The feeling of pleasure from society," says Darwin,
"is probably an extension of the parental or filial affec-
tions, since the social instinct seems to be developed by the
young remaining for a long time with their parents; and
this extension may be attributed in part to habit, but
chiefly to natural selection. With those animals which
were benefited by living in close association, the individuals
which took the greatest pleasure in society would best
escape various dangers, whilst those that cared least for
their comrades, and lived solitary, would perish in greater
numbers. With respect to the origin of the paternal and
filial affections, which apparently lie at the base of the
social instincts, we know not the steps by which they have
been gained ; but we may infer that it has been to a large
extent through natural selection."^

And again : " When two tribes of primeval men, living in
the same country, came into competition (other circum-
stances being equal) if the one tribe included a greater
number of courageous, sympathetic and faithful members,
who were always ready to warn each other of danger, to aid
and defend each other, this tribe would succeed better
and conquer the other. . . . Selfish and contentious people
will not cohere, and without coherence nothing can be
effected. A tribe rich in the above qualities would spread
and be victorious over other tribes; but in the course of
time it would, judging from all past history, be in its turn
overcome by some other tribe still more highly endowed.
Thus the social and moral qualities would tend to slowly
advance and be diffused throughout the world." ^

' "The Descent of Man," Collier Edition, New York, 19QI, pp. 144,


2 Ibid., pp. 175, 176.


These mental and moral qualities once generated will
on the whole grow in the course of evolution. The higher a
tribe of men stands in the scale of civilization, the less will
its members depend on their purely physical powers and
the greater will be the importance of their mental and
moral qualities.

"In proportion as physical characteristics become less
important," says Alfred Russel Wallace, who shares with
Darwin the merit of the discovery of the theory of natural
selection, "mental and moral qualities will have an in-
creasing influence on the well-being of the race." *

Thus the moral sense is a product of the process of
evolution of man, gained in his early struggle for existence,
precisely in the same manner as his intellectual qualities.
It is a property of man in a state of society just as much as
any of his physical organs, or as Mr. Bax puts it, "the ethi-
cal sentiment is the correlate in the ideal sphere, of the fact
of social existence itself in the material sphere. The one is
as necessarily implied in the other as the man is implied in
his shadow." ^

This conception of the nature of morality and its origin
and development in the human being overthrows all earlier
theories of ethics, but at the same time it reconciles all
elements of truth that are contained in them.

The primitive men did not deliberately form their first
social organizations on the strength of such considerations
as are contained in Rousseau's " Social Contract." They
did not bargain for advantages or pleasures to be bestowed
on them by society. They were forced into organization
by the superior powers of struggle. They probably first

' In "Contributions to Natural Selection."

2 E. Belfort Bax, "The Ethics of Socialism," p. 4.


herded themselves together blindly, unreasoningly. But
the instinct which impelled them to form such organiza-
tions was the instinct of self-preservation, the inarticulate
and unexpressed conviction that in organization lay their
greater safety and protection, and that by their own de-
votion to the social aggregation they would help to
strengthen the weapon upon the efficiency of which their
lives largely depended. The primitive men or their pro-
genitors were in that sense unconscious hedonistic and
utilitarian philosophers.

But the moral sense once evolved, in the course of time
became a permanent trait of the human being, an innate or
intuitive feeling, and in this sense the Idealistic theories
of ethics have a certain degree of reason and justification.
"The social instinct," says Ernst Haeckel, "is always a
physical habit, which was originally acquired, but which,
becoming in the course of time hereditary, appears at last
innate." ^

The conclusion of the foremost Darwinian scholar in
Germany thus largely coincides with those of the foremost
German philosopher of Intuitionalism, Immanuel Kant.

The moral sense once acquired is, like all other properties
of the human being, subject to growth. The rudimentary
moral instinct of the primitive man must have undergone
countless phases of development before it evolved into the
lofty conceptions of the contemporary moral philosopher.

But it would be a mistake to consider that growth as a
continuous, automatic and regular process. The moral
sentiment in mankind docs not grow in the same sense as
a plant or other physical organism grows, i.e., by steadily

* Quoted by C. M. Williams, "A Review of the Systems of Ethics,"
etc., New York, 1893.


increasing in dimension with the lapse of time. Different
races, though perhaps of the same age, exhibit different
moral perceptions in kind and degree, and even within the
same society and age different individuals present the most
divergent degrees of the moral sentiment.

The growth of the moral sense, like the growth
of the intellect, depends upon a multiplicity of ex-
ternal conditions which shape its contents and further
or arrest its progress. What is the nature of these con-
ditions ? The theory of natural selection traces the origin
and reveals the quality of the moral sense in man, but it
fails to account for the mode and laws of its further de-
velopment. In fact the founders of the modern school
of biological evolution distinctly disclaim the effective-
ness of that factor as applied to a more advanced state of
human society.

"With civilized nations," declares Darwin, "as far as
an advanced standard of morality and an increased number
of fairly good men are concerned, natural selection ap-
parently effects but little; though the fundamental social
instincts were originally thus gained," ^ and Mr. Wallace
is still more emphatic in this view of the limited scope of
operation of the principle of natural selection.

What, then, are the factors determining the degree and
direction of moral development?

The answer to that momentous question will be found
in the philosophy of the school of Karl Marx, who alone
consistently introduced the spirit of Darwinism into the
study of social phenomena by substituting the economic
interpretation of history and the resulting doctrine of the
class struggle in the more modern stages of social develop-

» "The Descent of Man," p. 185.


ment for the instinct of self-preservation and the resulting
doctrine of the struggle for existence in its lower stages.

Class Ethics

The prime concern of men in a state of society is the
production of the means for the sustenance of the mem-
bers of that society, A community engaged chiefly in
hunting, pastoral, agricultural or manufacturing pursuits
and largely depending on the success of such pursuits for
its existence, will in all cases arrange its organization and
regulate its functions primarily with a view of enhancing
the efficiency of that particular mode of securing the ma-
terial life of its members. This object determines all
economic and political forms of society, and in the last
analysis it also dominates all social motives and notions.

"In the social production which men carry on," says
Marx, "they enter into definite relations that are indis-
pensable and independent of their will; these relations
of production correspond to a definite stage of development
of their material powers of production. The sum total
of these relations of production constitute the economic
structure of society — the real foundation, on which rise
legal and political superstructures and to which correspond
definite forms of social consciousness. The mode of pro-
duction in material life determines the general character
of the social, political and spiritual processes of life. It
is not the consciousness of men that determines their ex-
istence, but, on the contrary, their social existence deter-
mines their consciousness." ^

Morality, which has been defined by Professor Ward as

» Karl Marx, "A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy,"
English Translation, New York, 1904, p. 11.


conduct conducive to "race safety," and by Mr. Stephen
as conduct conducive to the "health of society,"^ and
which in the earlier stages of social evolution stands
principally for courage and loyalty in combat, in a more
advanced society comes to a large extent to signify conduct
favoring the economic efficiency and prosperity of the

The glaring differences which confront us in the codes
of ethics of different communities, or within the same com-
munities at different times, mostly reflect the differences
or changes of the economic conditions of such communi-
ties, the manner of maintaining the lives of their members.
A savage tribe suffering from a scarcity of food may have
its own rudimentary code of ethics, but such a code will not
extend its ban to the practices of devouring its captives
in war or slaying its aged and feeble members. When,
however, the same tribe develops to the point of using
tools and implements and learns to produce food in greater
abundance, the practices of man-eating and of killing its
own members become immoral. A nation like the ancient
Spartans, whose subsistence largely depends on success
in war, may have a very definite and strict code of ethics,
but the virtues recognized by that code will be principally
those of military worth, physical strength, courage and
quick-wittedness, whereas honesty will be considered a
matter of moral indifference, and the practice of killing
feeble children, even a moral duty. Conversely, peaceful,
pastoral and agricultural communities will rate honesty
and industry as the highest virtues, and show but little
regard for courage and daring.

' Leslie Stephen, "The Science of Ethics," 2d Edition, New York,


Thus each community primarily formulates in its code
of ethics the material or economic welfare of its members,
while within each community the standard of individual
morality is the degree to which each member advances
or impairs the material interests of his fellow-members.
In the earlier types of social organization in which the
material interests of all members were practically identical
and in which the individual member necessarily benefited
from every advantage accruing to the totality of members,
and vice versa, there could be no conflict between the
interests of the individual and those of society. The
material welfare of the community was easily, we may say
instinctively, ascertainable and readily conformed to.
The system of morality, such as it was, was perfect.

But in modern communities the relations of the indi-
viduals to society and to each other are by no means so
simple and harmonious. The division of labor or special-
ization of functions which has marked the social progress
of man, together with the accumulation of property made
possible by the ever growing productivity of human labor,
have split up all more modern societies into different
groups of members, with distinct economic interests.
Society or "the nation" no longer represents a homogene-
ous aggregation of individuals with uniform and harmonious
material interests, and the standard of individual morality
as conduct favoring the safety, health or economic interests
of the " nation " loses much of its force. For in the modern
class state conduct which is beneficial to certain groups or
classes of society is very often detrimental to other groups
or classes, and especially within the most vital sphere of
economic activity it is almost impossible to conceive of
any action which would be beneficial to all society alike.


The individual who invents a labor-saving device may be
said in the abstract to be benefiting mankind at large,
but as society is constituted to-day, his invention also re-
sults in depriving large numbers of vvorkingmen of a chance
to earn their living. The legislator who forces the intro-
duction of safety appliances in dangerous works benefits
a certain class of workers but at the same time he injures
the material interests of a number of employers.

What, then, is the true standard of morality applicable
to modern society?

We have mentioned that modern society consists of
various interest groups or classes. These classes are
formed by the economic relations of men and are friendly,
indifferent or hostile to each other according to the nature
of such relations. But between all these divergent social
classes we may draw one sharp line of demarcation, the
line that separates the possessing from the non-possessing,
the dominant from the dependent classes. And while
the material interests of the several possessing classes
between themselves may be conflicting at different points
of contact, they are as a rule fairly harmonious as regards
their common relations to the dependent classes. And
whenever the interests of these dominant classes come in
conflict with those of the dependent classes, the former
have always understood it to represent their special in-
terests as the interests of society. This attitude is made all
the easier for the ruling classes because their interests al-
ways coincide with the maintenance of the existing order
and relations, and are, therefore, conservative, while the
interests of the dependent classes lie in the direction of a
change of such conditions and are, therefore, revolutionary.

Moral conduct, as ordinarily interpreted, is conduct

Online LibraryMorris HillquitSocialism in theory and practice → online text (page 4 of 26)