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to be pedantic, the matter is after all very simple.
Suppose that I am made to run by feeling a chill.
When I begin to move my leg, I may observe if I like a
double series of facts. I have the feeling of effort, the
sensation of motion in my leg ; I feel the pressure
of my foot on the ground. Along with this I may see



RIGHT AND WRONG. lv -"'* - 1 "

with my eyes, or feel with my hands, the motion of my
leg as a material object. The first series of facts
belongs to me alone ; the second may be equally
observed by anybody else. The mental series began
first ; I willed to move my leg before I saw it move.
But when I know more about the matter, I can trace
the material series further back, and find nerve-mes-
sages going to the muscles of my leg to make it move.
But I had a feeling of chill before I chose to move my
leg. Accordingly, I can find nerve-messages, excited
by the contraction due to the low temperature, going
to my brain from the chilled skin. Assuming the uni-
formky of nature, I carry forward and backward both
the mental and the material series. A uniformity is
observed in each, and a parallelism is observed between
them, whenever observations can be made. But some-
times one series is known better, and sometimes the
other ; so that in telling a story we quite naturally
speak sometimes of mental facts and sometimes of
material facts. A feeling of chill made a man run ;
strictly speaking, the nervous disturbance which co-
existed with that feeling of chill made him run, if we
want to talk about material facts ; or the feeling of chill
produced the form of sub-consciousness which coexists
with the motion of legs, if we want to talk about mental
facts. But we know nothing about the special nervous
disturbance which coexists with a feeling of chill,
because it has not yet been localized in the brain ; and
we know nothing about the form of sub-consciousness
which coexists with the motion of legs ; although there
is very good reason for believing in the existence of
both. So we talk about the feeling of chill and the

M 2






164 RIGHT AND WRONG.

running, because in one case we know the mental side,
and in the other the material side. A man might show
me a picture of the battle of Gravelotte, and say, ' You
can't see the battle, because it's all over, but there is a
picture of it.' And then he might put a chassepot into
my hand, and say, ' We could not represent the whole
construction of a chassepot in the picture, but you can
examine this one, and find it out.' If I now insisted on
mixing up the two modes of communication of know-
ledge, if I expected that the chassepots in the picture
would go off, and said that the one in my hand was
painted on heavy canvas, I should be acting exactly in
the spirit of the new materialism. For the material
facts are a representation or symbol of the mental facts,
just as a picture is a representation or symbol of a
battle. And my own mind is a reality from which I
can judge by analogy of the realities represented by
other men's brains, just as the chassepot in my hand is
a reality from which I can judge by analogy of the
chassepots represented in the picture. When, there-
fore, we ask, ' What is the physical link between the
ingoing message from chilled skin and the outgoing
message which moves the leg ? ' and the answer is, ' A
man's Will,' we have as much right to be amused as if
we had asked our friend with the picture what pigment
was used in painting the cannon in the foreground, and
received the answer, ' Wrought iron.' It will be found
excellent practice in the mental operations required by
this doctrine to imagine a train, the fore part of which is
an engine and three carriages linked with iron couplings,
and the hind part three other carriages linked with iron
couplings ; the bond between the two parts being made



RIGHT AND WRONG. 165

out of the sentiments of amity subsisting between the
stoker and the guard.

To sum up : the uniformity of nature in human **
actions has been denied on the ground that it takes
away responsibility, that it is contradicted by the testi-
mony of consciousness, and that there is a physical cor-
relation between mind and matter. We have replied
that the uniformity of nature is necessary to responsi-
bility, that it is affirmed by the testimony of conscious-
ness whenever consciousness is competent to testify, and
that matter is the phenomenon or symbol of which mind
or quasi-mind is the symbolized and represented thing.
We are now free to continue our inquiries on the suppo- j
sition that nature is uniform.

We began by describing the moral sense of an
Englishman. No doubt the description would serve
very well for the more civilized nations of Europe ;
most closely for Germans and Dutch. But the fact that
we can speak in this way discloses that there is more
than one moral sense, and that what I feel to be right
another man may feel to be wrong. Thus we cannot
help asking whether there is any reason for preferring
one moral sense to another ; whether the question,
4 What is right to do ? ' has in any one set of circum-
stances a single answer which can be definitely known.

Clearly, in the first rough sense of the word, this
is not true. What is right for me to do now, seeing
that I am here with a certain character, and a certain
moral sense as part of it, is just what I feel to be right.
The individual conscience is, in the moment of volition,
the only possible judge of what is right ; there is no
conflicting claim. But if we are deliberating about



166 RIGHT AND WRONG.

the future, we know that we can modify our con-
science gradually by associating with people, reading
certain books, and paying attention to certain ideas
and feelings ; and we may ask ourselves, * How shall
we modify our conscience, if at all ? what kind of
conscience shall we try to get ? what is the best
conscience ? ' We may ask similar questions about our
sense of taste. There is no doubt at present that the
nicest things to me are the things I like ; but I know
that I can train myself to like some things and dislike
others, and that things which are very nasty at one time
may come to be great delicacies at another. I may ask,
' How shall I train myself ? What is the best taste ? '
And this leads very naturally to putting the question in
another form, namely, ' What is taste good for ? What
is the purpose or function of taste ? ' We should probably
find as the answer to that question that the purpose
or function of taste is to discriminate wholesome food
from unwholesome ; that it is a matter of stomach and
digestion. It will follow from this that the best taste is
that which prefers wholesome food, and that by culti-
vating a preference for wholesome and nutritious things
I shall be training my palate in the way it should
go. In just the same way our question about the best
conscience will resolve itself into a question about the
purpose or function of the conscience why we have
got it, and what it is good for.

Now to my mind the simplest and clearest and most
profound philosophy that was ever written upon this
subject is to be found in the 2nd and 3rd chapters of
Mr. Darwin's ' Descent of Man.' In these chapters it
appears that just as most physical characteristics of



RIGHT AND WRONG. 167

organisms have been evolved and preserved because
they were useful to the individual in the struggle for
existence against other individuals and other species, so
this particular feeling has been evolved and preserved
because it is useful to the tribe or community in the
struggle for existence against other tribes, and against
the environment as a whole. The function of conscience
is the preservation of the tribe as a tribe. And we
shall rightly train our consciences if we learn to approve
those actions which tend to the advantage of the com-
munity in the struggle for existence.

There are here some words, however, which require
careful definition. And first the word purpose. A
thing serves a purpose when it is adapted to some end ;
thus a corkscrew is adapted to the end of extracting
corks from bottles, and our lungs are adapted to the
end of respiration. We may say that the extraction of
corks is the purpose of the corkscrew, and that respira-
tion is the purpose of the lungs. But here we shall have
used the word in two different senses. A man made
the corkscrew with a purpose in his mind, and he knew
and intended that it should be used for pulling out
corks. But nobody made our lungs with a purpose in
his mind, and intended that they should be used for
breathing. The respiratory apparatus was adapted to
its purpose by natural selection namely, by the gradual
preservation of better and better adaptations, and the
killing off of the worse and imperfect adaptations. In
using the word purpose for the result of this uncon-
scious process of adaptation by survival of the fittest, I
know that I am somewhat extending its ordinary sense,
which implies consciousness. But it seems to me that



168 RIGHT AND WRONG.

on the score of convenience there is a great deal to be
said for this extension of meaning. We want a word
to express the adaptation of means to an end, whether
involving consciousness or not ; the word purpose will
do very well, and the adjective purposive has already
been used in this sense. But if the use is admitted, we
must distinguish two kinds of purpose. There is the
unconscious purpose which is attained by natural selec-
tion, in which no consciousness need be concerned ; and
there is the conscious purpose of an intelligence which
designs a thing that it may serve to do something which
he desires to be done. The distinguishing mark of this
second kind, design or conscious purpose, is that in the
consciousness of the agent there is an image or symbol
of the end which he desires, and this precedes and
determines the use of the means. Thus the man who
first invented a corkscrew must have previously known
that corks were in bottles, and have desired to get them
out. We may describe this if we like in terms of matter,
and say that a purpose of the second kind implies a
complex nervous system, in which there can be formed
an image or symbol of the end, and that this symbol
determines the use of the means. The nervous image
or symbol of anything is that mode of working of part
of my brain which goes on simultaneously and is corre-
lated with my thinking of the thing.

Aristotle defines an organism as that in which the
part exists for the sake of the whole. It is not that the
existence of the part depends on the existence of the
whole, for every whole exists only as an aggregate of
parts related in a certain way ; but that the shape and
nature of the part are determined by the wants of the



RIGHT AND WRONG. 169

whole. Thus the shape and nature of my foot are
what they are, not for the sake of my foot itself, but for
the sake of my whole body, and because it wants to
move about. That which the part has to do for the
whole is called its function. Thus the function of my
foot is to support me, and assist in locomotion. Not all
the nature of the part is necessarily for the sake of the
whole : the comparative callosity of the skin of my sole
is for the protection of my foot itself.

Society is an organism, and man in society is part of j
an organism according to this definition, in so far as
some portion of the nature of man is what it is for the
sake of the whole society. Now conscience is such a
portion of the nature of man, and its function is the
preservation of society in the struggle for existence. \
We may be able to define this function more closely
when we know more about the way in which conscience
tends to preserve society.

Next let us endeavour to make precise the meaning
of the words community and society. It is clear that at
different times men may be divided into groups of
greater or less extent tribes, clans, families, nations,
towns. If a certain number of clans are struggling
for existence, that portion of the conscience will be
developed which tends to the preservation of the clan ;
so, if towns or families are struggling, we shall get a
moral sense adapted to the advantage of the town or
the family. In this way different portions of the moral
sense may be developed at different stages of progress.
Now it is clear that for the purpose of the conscience
the word community at any time will mean a group of
that size and nature which is being selected or not



170 RIGHT AND WRONG.

selected for survival as a whole. Selection may be
going on at the same time among many different kinds
of groups. And ultimately the moral sense will be
composed of various portions relating to various groups,
the function or purpose of each portion being the advan-
tage of that group to which it relates in the struggle for
existence. Thus we have a sense of family duty, of
municipal duty, of national duty, and of duties towards
all mankind.

It is to be noticed that part of the nature of a
smaller group may be what it is for the sake of a larger
group to which it belongs ; and then we may speak of
the function of the smaller group. Thus it appears
probable that the family, in the form in which it now
exists among us, is determined by the good of the nation ;
and we may say that the function of the family is to
promote the advantage of the nation or larger society
in some certain ways. But I do not think it would
be right to follow Auguste Comte in speaking of the
function of humanity ; because humanity is obviously
not a part of any larger organism for whose sake it is
what it is.

Now that we have cleared up the meanings of some
of our words, we are still a great way from the definite
solution of our question, ' What is the best conscience ?
or what ought I to think right ? ' For we do not yet
know what is for the advantage of the community in
the struggle for existence. If we choose to learn by
the analogy of an individual organism, we may see that
no permanent or final answer can be given, because
the organism grows in consequence of the struggle, and
develops new wants while it is satisfying the old ones.



RIGHT AND WRONG. 171

But at any given time it has quite enough to do to
keep alive and to avoid dangers and diseases. So we
may expect that the wants and even the necessities of
the social organism will grow with its growth, and that
it is impossible to predict what may tend in the distant
future to its advantage in the struggle for existence.
But still, in this vague and general statement of the
functions of conscience, we shall find that we have
already established a great deal.

In the first place, right is an affair of the community,
and must not be referred to anything else. To go back
to our analogy of taste : if I tried to persuade you that
the best palate was that which preferred things pretty
to look at, you might condemn me a priori without any
experience, by merely knowing that taste is an affair of
stomach and digestion that its function is to select
wholesome food. And so, if anyone tries to persuade
us that the best conscience is that which thinks it right
to obey the will of some individual, as a deity or a
monarch, he is condemned a priori in the very nature
of right and wrong. In order that the worship of a deity
may be consistent with natural ethics, he must be re-
garded as the friend and helper of humanity, and his {
character must be judged from his actions by a moral '
standard which is independent of him. And this, it
must be admitted, is the position which has been taken
by most English divines, as long as they were English-
men first and divines afterwards. The worship of a
deity who is represented as unfair or unfriendly to any
portion of the community is a wrong thing, however
great may be the threats and promises by which it is
commended. And still worse, the reference of right






172 RIGHT AND WRONG.

and wrong to his arbitrary will as a standard, the
diversion of the allegiance of the moral sense from the
community to him, is the most insidious and fatal of
social diseases. It was against this that the Teutonic
conscience protested in the Reformation. Again, in
monarchical countries, in order that allegiance to the
sovereign may be consistent with natural ethics, he
must be regarded as the servant and symbol of the
national unity, capable of rebellion and punishable for
it. And this has been the theory of the English con-
stitution from time immemorial. 1

The first principle of natural ethics, then, is the sole
and supreme allegiance of conscience to the community.
I venture to call this piety in accordance with the older
meaning . of the word. Even if it should turn out
impossible to sever it from the unfortunate associations
which have clung to its later meaning, still it seems
worth while to try.

An immediate deduction from our principle is that
there are no self-regarding virtues properly so called ;
those qualities which tend to the advantage and preser-
vation of the individual being only morally right in so
far as they make him a more useful citizen. And this
conclusion is in some cases of great practical importance.
The virtue of purity, for example, attains in this way a
fairly exact definition : purity in a man is that course
of conduct which makes him to be a good husband and
father, in a woman that which makes her to be a good
wife and mother, or which helps other people so to

1 [Rex autem habet superiorem, Deum scilicet. Item legem per quam
factus est rex. Item curiam suam . . . et ideo si rex fuerit sine fraeno,
id est sine lege, decent ei fraenum ponere. Bracton, fo. 34 a.]



RIGHT AND WRONG. 173

prepare and keep themselves. It is easy to see how
many false ideas and pernicious precepts are swept
away by even so simple a definition as that.

Xext, we may fairly define our position in regard to
that moral system which has deservedly found favour
with the great mass of our countrymen. / In the common
statement of utilitarianism the end of right action is
defined to be the greatest happiness of the greatest
number. It seems to me that the reason and the ample
justification of the success of this system is that it
explicitly sets forth the community as the object of
moral allegiance, j But our determination of the purpose
of the conscience will oblige us to make a change in the
statement of it. Happiness is not the end of right
action. My happiness is of no use to the community
except in so far as it makes me a more efficient citizen ;
that is to say, it is rightly desired as a means and not
as an end. The end may be described as the greatest
efficiency of all citizens as such. No doubt happiness
will in the long run accrue to the community as a con-
sequence of right conduct ; but the right is determined
independently of the happiness, and, as Plato says, it is
better to suffer wrong than to do wrong.

In conclusion, I would add some words on the
relation of Veracity to the first principle of Piety. It is
clear that veracity is founded on faith in man ; you tell
a man the truth when you can trust him with it and
are not afraid. This perhaps is made more evident
by considering the case of exception allowed by all
moralists namely, that if a man asks you the way with
a view to committing a murder, it is right to tell a lie
and misdirect him. The reason why he must not have



174 RIGHT AND WRONG.

the truth told him is that he would make a bad use of
it ; he cannot be trusted with it. About these cases of
exception an important remark must be made in passing.
When we hear that a man has told a lie under such
circumstances, we are indeed ready to admit that for
once it was right, mensonge admirable ; but we always
have a sort of feeling that it must not occur again.
And the same thing applies to cases of conflicting
obligations, when for example the family conscience
and the national conscience disagree. In such cases no
general rule can be laid down ; we have to choose the
less of two evils ; but this is not right altogether in the
same sense as it is right to speak the truth. There is
something wrong in the circumstances, that we should
have to choose an evil at all. The actual course to be
pursued will vary with the progress of society ; that evil
which at first was greater will become less, and in a
perfect society the conflict will be resolved into har-
mony. But meanwhile these cases of exception must
be carefully kept distinct from the straightforward cases
of right and wrong, and they always imply an obliga-
tion to mend the circumstances if we can.

Veracity to an individual is not only enjoined by
piety in virtue of the obvious advantage which attends
a straightforward and mutually trusting community as
compared with others, but also because deception is in
all cases a personal injury. Still more is this true of
veracity to the community itself. The conception of the
universe or aggregate of beliefs which forms the link
between sensation and action for each individual is a
public and not a private matter ; it is formed by society
and for society. Of what enormous importance it is to



RIGHT AND WRONG. 175

the community that this should be a true conception I
need not attempt to describe. Now to the attainment
of this true conception two things are necessary.

First, if we study the history of those methods by
which true beliefs and false beliefs have been attained,
we shall see that it is our duty to guide our beliefs by in-
ference from experience on the assumption of uniformity
of nature and consciousness in other men, and by this
only. Only upon this moral basis can the foundations
of the empirical method be justified.

Secondly, veracity to the community depends upon
faith in man. Surely I ought to be talking platitudes
when I say that it is not English to tell a man a He, or
to suggest a He by your silence or your actions, because
you are afraid that he is not prepared for the truth,
because you don't quite know what he will do when he
knows it, because perhaps after all this He is a better
thing for him than the truth would be, this same man
being all the time an honest fellow-citizen whom you
have every reason to trust. Surely I have heard that
this craven crookedness is the object of our national
detestation. And yet it is constantly whispered that it
would be dangerous to divulge certain truths to the
masses. ' I know the whole thing is untrue : but then it
is so useful for the people ; you don't know what harm
you might do by shaking their faith in it.' Crooked
ways are none the less crooked because they are meant
to deceive great masses of people instead of individuals.
If a thing is true, let us all beHeve it, rich and poor,
men, women, and children. If a thing is untrue, let
us all disbeHeve it, rich and poor, men, women, and
children. Truth is a thing to be shouted from the



176 RIGHT AND WRONG.

housetops, not to be whispered over rose-water after
dinner when the ladies are gone away.

Even in those whom I would most reverence, who
would shrink with horror from such actual deception as I
have just mentioned, I find traces of a want of faith in
man. Even that noble thinker, to whom we of this
generation owe more than I can tell, seemed to say in
one of his posthumous essays that in regard to questions
of great public importance we might encourage a hope
in excess of the evidence (which would infallibly grow
into a belief and defy evidence) if we found that life was
made easier by it. \ As if we should not lose infinitely
more by nourishing a tendency to falsehood than we
could gain by the delusion of a pleasing fancy. Life
must first of all be made straight and true ; it may get
easier through the help this brings to the common-
wealth. And the great historian of materialism * says
that the amount of false belief necessary to morality in
a given society is a matter of taste. I cannot believe
that any falsehood whatever is necessary to morality.
It cannot be true of my race and yours that to keep
ourselves from becoming scoundrels we must needs
believe a lie. The sense of right grew up among healthy
men and was fixed by the practice of comradeship. It
has never had help from phantoms and falsehoods, and
it never can want any. By faith in man and piety
towards men we have taught each other the right
hitherto ; with faith in man and piety towards men we
shall never more depart from it.

1 Lange, ' Geschichte des Materialismus.'



177



THE ETHICS OF BELIEF. 1

I. The Duty of Inquiry.

A SHIPOWNER was about to send to sea an emigrant-ship.


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Online LibraryWilliam Kingdon CliffordLectures and essays by William Kingdon Clifford (Volume 2) → online text (page 12 of 22)