William Kingdon Clifford.

Lectures and essays by William Kingdon Clifford (Volume 2) online

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five and two . . .7



15. 2 pair obv., six and one .... 3

five and two .... 8
four and three . . .8



16. 3 pair obv 4

55 55

Total of less-than-eightfold statements . . 159
Complementary more-than-eightfold statements . 159

17. 8-fold, pure

18. 1 pair obv., four and four . . .4

five and three . . .10

14 14

19. 2 pair obv., four and four . . .22

five and three . .10
six and two . .9

41 41

20. 8-fold, 3 pair obv., all evenly dist. . . . 4

two evenly dist. . . .8

12 12

4 pair obv 4

78 78

Grand Total . . 396



The crude essay which here follows is allowed to see the light rather as a text
for the remarks to which it has given rise than for its own sake. It was
written as a means of seeking for more light, and in that respect has suc-
ceeded. Some remarks of Mr. Danvin's (' Descent of Man,' part t. ch. 3)
appeared to me to constitute a method of dealing with ethical problems
bearing a close analogy to the methods ivhich have been successful in all
other practical questions, but differing somewhat in principle from the
theories which are at present in vogue, while in its results it coincides ivith
the highest and healthiest practical instincts of this and of all times. All
that is attempted here is to shoiv roughly luhat account is given by this
method of some of the fundamental conceptions right and wrong, conscience,
responsibility and to indicate the nature of the standard which must guide
their application. Exact definitions are not to be looked for ; they come as
the last product of a completed theory, and are sure to be wrong at an
early stage of science. But though we may be unable to define fully ivhat
right is, we do, I think, arrive at principles which show us very clearly
many things which it is not ; and these conclusions are not only of great
practical importance, but theoretically bear close analogy to the steps by ivhich
complete definition has been attained in the exact sciences.

BY Morals or Ethic I mean the doctrine of a special
kind of pleasure or displeasure which is felt by the
human mind in contemplating certain courses of conduct,
whereby they are felt to be right or wrong, and of a
special desire to do the right things and avoid the wrong
ones. The pleasure or displeasure is commonly called
the moral sense ; the corresponding desire might be
called the moral appetite. These are facts, existing in
the consciousness of every man who need ( considered
in this discussion, and sufficiently marked out by these
names ; they need no further definition. In the same

1 ' Contemporary Review/ September, 1875.


way the sense of taste is a feeling of pleasure or displea-
sure in things savoury or unsavoury, and is associated
with a desire for the one and a repulsion from the other.
We must assume that everybody knows what these
words mean ; the feelings they describe may be analysed
or accounted for, but they cannot be more exactly de-
fined as feelings.

The maxims of ethic are recommendations or com- '
mands of the form, ' Do this particular thing because it
is right,' or ' Avoid this particular thing because it is
wrong.' They express the immediate desire to do the
right thing for itself, not for the sake of anything else :
on this account the mood of them is called the catego-
rical imperative. The particular things commanded or
forbidden by such maxims depend upon the character
of the individual in whose mind they arise. There is
a certain general agreement in the ethical code of per-
sons belonging to the same race at a given time, but
considerable variations in different races and times. To
the question ' What is right ? ' can therefore only be
answered in the first instance, ' That which pleases your
moral sense.' But it may be further asked ' What is
generally thought right ? ' and the reply will specify the ;
ethic of a particular race and period. But the ethical
code of an individual, like the standard of taste, may be
modified by habit and education ; and accordingly the
question may be asked, ' How shall I order my moral
desires so as to be able to satisfy them most completely
and continuously ? What ought I to feel to be right ? '
The answer to this question must be sought in the study
of the conditions under which the moral sense was pro-
duced and is preserved ; in other words, in the study of


its functions as a property of the human organism. The
maxims derived from this study may be called maxims

"* of abstract or a]2spjute_jighf ; they are not absolutely
universal, ' eternal and immutable,' but they are inde-
pendent of the individual, and practically universal for
the present condition of the human species.

I mean by Science the application of experience to new

> circumstances, by the aid of an order of nature which has
been observed in the past, and on the assumption that
such order will continue in the future. The simplest use
of experience as a guide to action is probably not even
conscious ; it is the association by continually-repeated
selection of certain actions with certain circumstances,
as in the unconsciously-acquired craft of the maker of
flint implements. I still call this science, although it
is only a beginning ; because the physiological process
is a type of what takes place in all later stages. The
next step may be expressed in the form of a hypothetical
maxim, ' If you want to make brass, melt your copper
along with this blue stone.' To a maxim of this sort
it may always be replied, ' I do not want to make brass,
and so I shall not do as you tell me.' This reply is
anticipated in the final form of science, when it is
expressed as a statement or proposition : brass is an
alloy of copper and zinc, and calamine is zinc carbonate.

^Belief in a general statement is an artifice of our mental
constitution, whereby infinitely various sensations and
groups of sensations are brought into connexion with
infinitely various actions and groups of actions. On
the phenomenal side there corresponds a certain cerebral
structure by which various combinations of disturbances
in the sensor tract are made to lead to the appropriate


combinations of disturbances in the motor tract. The
important point is that science, though apparently
transformed into pure knowledge, has yet never lost
its character of being a craft ; and that it is not the
knowledge itself which can rightly be called science, but -*
a special way of getting and of using knowledge. Namely,

is the getting of knowledge from experience 1 ^

on the assumption of uniformity in nature, and the use
of such knowledge to guide the actions of men. And
the most abstract statements or propositions in science
are to be regarded as bundles of hypothetical maxims
packed into a portable shape and size. Every scientific
fact is a shorthand expression for a vast number of
practical directions : if you want so-and-so, do so-and-

If with this meaning of the word ' Science,' there is
such a thing as a scientific basis of Morals, it must be
true that,

1, The maxims of Ethic are hypothetical maxims

2, Derived from experience

3, On the assumption of uniformity in nature.
These propositions I shall now endeavour to prove ;
and in conclusion, I shall indicate the direction in which
we may look for those general statements of fact whose
organization will complete the likeness of ethical and
physical science.

The Tribal Self. 1

In the metaphysical sense, the word 'self is taken
to mean the conscious subject, das Ich, the whole

1 This conception of an Extended Self I found many years ago that I had
in common with my friend Mr. Macinillan. Since then I have heard and
read in many places expressions of it more or less distinct.


stream of feelings which make up a consciousness re-
garded as bound together by association and memory.
But, in the more common and more restricted ethical
sense, what we call self is a selected aggregate of
feelings and of objects related to them which hangs
together as a conception by virtue of long and repeated
association. My self does not include all my feelings,
because I habitually separate off some of them, say
they do not properly belong to me, and treat them as
my enemies. On the other hand, it does in general
include my body regarded as an object, because of the
feelings which occur simultaneously with events which
affect it. My foot is certainly part of myself, because
I get hurt when anybody treads on it. When we
desire anything for its somewhat remote consequences,
it is not common for these to be represented to the
mind in the form of the actual feelings of pleasure
which are ultimately to flow from the satisfaction of
the desire; instead of this, they are replaced by a
symbolic conception which represents the thing desired
as doing good to the complex abstraction self. This
abstraction serves thus to support and hold together
those complex and remote motives which make up by
far the greater part of the life of the intelligent races.
When a thing is desired for no immediate pleasure that
it can bring, it is generally desired on account of a
certain symbolic substitute for pleasure, the feeling that
this thing is suitable to the self. And, as in many like
cases, this feeling, which at first derived its pleasurable
nature from the faintly represented simple pleasures
of which it was a symbol, ceases after a time to recall
them and becomes a simple pleasure itself. In this


way the self becomes a sort of centre about which our
remoter motives revolve, and to which they always
have regard ; in virtue of which, moreover, they
become immediate and simple, from having been com-
plex and remote.

If we consider now the simpler races of mankind,
we shall find not only that immediate desires pi-ay a far
larger part in their lives, and so that the conception of
self is less used and less developed, but also that it is
less definite and more wide. The savage is not only
hurt when anybody treads on his foot, but when any-
body treads on his tribe. He may lose his hut, and
his wife, and his opportunities of getting food. In this
way the tribe becomes naturally included in that con-
ception of self which renders remote desires possible by
making them immediate. The actual pains or pleasures
which come from the woe or weal of the tribe, and
which were the source of this conception, drop out
of consciousness and are remembered no more ; the
symbol which has replaced them becomes a centre and
goal of immediate desires, powerful enough in many
cases to override the strongest suggestions of individual
pleasure or pain.

Here a helping cause comes in. The tribe, qud
tribe, has to exist, and it can only exist by aid of such
an organic artifice as the conception of the tribal self in
the minds of its members. Hence the natural selection^-
of those races in which this conception is the most
powerful and most habitually predominant as a motive
over immediate desires. To such an extent has this
proceeded that we may fairly doubt whether the self-
hood of the tribe is not earlier in point of development


than that of the individual. In the process of time it
becomes a matter of hereditary transmission, and is thus
fixed as a specific character in the constitution of social
man. With the settlement of countries, and the aggre-
gation of tribes into nations, it takes a wider and more
abstract form ; and in the highest natures the tribal
self is incarnate in nothing less than humanity. Short
of these heights, it places itself in the family and in the
city. I shall call that quality or disposition of man
which consists in the supremacy of the family or tribal
self as a mark of reference for motives by its old name
Piety. And I have now to consider certain feelings and
conceptions to which the existence of piety must neces
sarily give rise.

Before going further, however, it will be advisable
to fix as precisely as may be the sense of the words just
used. Self, then, in the ethical sense, is a conception in
the mind of the individual which serves as a peg on
which remote desires are hung and by which they are
rendered immediate. The individual self is such a peg
for the hanging of remote desires which affect the indi-
vidual only. The tribal self is a conception in the mind
of the individual which serves as a peg on which those
remote desires are hung which were implanted in him
by the need of the tribe as a tribe. We must carefully
distinguish the tribal self from society, or the ' common
consciousness ; ' it is something in the mind of each in-
dividual man which binds together his gregarious in-

The word tribe is here used to mean a group of that

>/ size which in the circumstances considered is selected

for survival or destruction as a group. Self-regarding


excellences are brought out by the natural selection of
individuals ; the tribal self is developed by the natural
selection of groups. The size of the groups must vary
at different times ; and the extent of the tribal self must
vary accordingly.

Approbation and Conscience.

The tribe has to exist. Such tribes as saw no
necessity for it have ceased to live. To exist, it must
encourage piety ; and there is a method which lies ready
to hand.

We do not like a man whose character is such that
we may reasonably expect injuries from him. This dis-
like of a man on account of his character is a more
complex feeling than the mere dislike of separate
injuries. A cat likes your hand, and your lap, and the
food you give her ; but I do not think she has any con-
ception of you. 1 A dog, however, may like you even
when you thrash him, though he does not like the
thrashing. Now such likes and dislikes may be felt by
the tribal self. If a man does anything generally re-
garded as good for the tribe, my tribal self may say, in
the first place, ' I like that thing that you have done/
By such common approbation of individual acts the
influence of piety as a motive becomes defined ; and
natural selection will in the long run preserve those
tribes which have approved the right things ; namely,
those things which at that time gave the tribe an
advantage in the struggle for existence. But in the
second place, a man may as a rule and constantly,
being actuated by piety, do good things for the tribe ;

1 Present company always excepted : I fully believe in the personal and
disinterested affection of my cat.



and in that case the tribal self will say, I like you.
The feeling expressed by this statement on the part of
any individual, ' In the name of the tribe, I like you,' is
what I call approbation. It is the feeling produced in
pious individuals by that sort of character which seems
to them beneficial to the community.

Now suppose that a man has done something
obviously harmful to the community. Either some
immediate desire, or his individual self, has for once
proved stronger than the tribal self. When the tribal
self wakes up, the man says, ' In the name of the tribe,
I do not like this thing that I, as an individual, have
done.' This_SeJf -judgment in the name of the tribe is
called Conscience. If the man goes further and draws
from this act and others an inference about his own
character, he may say, ' In the name of the tribe,
V I do not like my individual self.' This is remorse.
Mr. Darwin has well pointed out that immediate desires
are in general strong but of short duration, and cannot
be adequately represented to the mind after they have
passed ; while the social forces, though less violent,
have a steady and continuous action.

In a mind sufficiently developed to distinguish the
individual from the tribal self, conscience is thus a ne-
cessary result of the existence of piety ; it is ready to
hand as a means for its increase. But to account for
the existence of piety and conscience in the elemental
form which we have hitherto considered is by no means
to account for the present moral nature of man. We
shall be led many steps in that direction if we consider
the way in which society has used these feelings of the
individual as a means for its own preservation.


Eight and Responsibility.

A like or a dislike is one thing ; the expression of
it is another. It is attached to the feeling by links of
association ; and when this association has been selec-
tively modified by experience, whether consciously or
unconsciously, the expression serves a purpose of retain-
ing or repeating the thing liked, and of removing the
thing disliked. Such a purpose is served by the ex-
pression of tribal approbation or disapprobation, how-
ever little it may be the conscious end of such expression
to any individual. It is necessary to the tribe that the
pious character should be encouraged and preserved,
the impious character discouraged and removed. The
process is of two kinds ; direct and reflex. In the
direct process the tribal dislike of the offender is
precisely similar to the dislike of a noxious beast ; and
it expresses itself in his speedy removal. But in the
reflex process we find the first trace of that singular and
wonderful judgment by analogy which ascribes to other
men a consciousness similar to our own. If the process
were a conscious one, it might perhaps be described in
this way : the tribal self says, ' Put yourself in this
man's place ; he also is pious, but he has offended, and
that proves that he is not pious enough. Still, he has
some conscience, and the expression of your tribal dis-
like to his character, awakening his conscience, will
tend to change him and make him more pious.' But
the process is not a conscious one : the social craft or
art of living together is learned by the tribe and not by
the individual, and the purpose of improving men's
characters is provided for by complex social arrange-

i 2


ments long before it has been conceived by any
conscious mind. The tribal self learns to approve
certain expressions of tribal liking or disliking ; the
actions whose open approval is liked by the tribal self
are called right actions, and those whose open dis-
approval is liked are called wrong actions. The corre-
sponding characters are called good or bad, virtuous
or vicious.

This introduces a further complication into the con-
science. Self-judgment in the name of the tribe be-
comes associated with very definite and material judg-
ment by the tribe itself. On the one hand, this
undoubtedly strengthens the motive-power of conscience
in an enormous d'egree. On the other hand, it tends to
guide the decisions of conscience ; and since the ex-
pression of public approval or disapproval is made in
general by means of some organized machinery of
government, it becomes possible for conscience to be
knowingly directed by the wise or misdirected by the
wicked, instead of being driven along the right path
by the slow selective process of experience. Now right
actions are not those which are publicly approved, but
those whose public approbation a well-instructed tribal
self would like. Still, it is impossible to avoid the
guiding influence of expressed approbation on the great
mass of the people ; and in those cases where the
machinery of government is approximately a means of
expressing the true public conscience, that influence
becomes a most powerful help to improvement.

Let us note now the very important difference
between the direct and the reflex process. To clear a
man away as a noxious beast, and to punish him for


loing wrong, these are two very different things. The
purpose in the first case is merely to get rid of a
nuisance ; the purpose in the second case is to improve
the character either of the man himself or of those who
will observe this public expression of disapprobation.
The offence of which the man has been guilty leads to
an inference about his character, and it is supposed
that the community may contain other persons whose
characters are similar to his, or tend to become so. It
has been found that the expression of public disappro-
bation tends to awake the conscience of such people
and to improve their characters. If the improvement
of the man himself is aimed at, it is assumed that he
has a conscience which can be worked upon and made
to deter him from similar offences in future.

The word purpose has here been used in a sense
to which it is perhaps worth while to call attention.
Adaptation of means to an end may be produced in two
ways that we at present know of; by processes of
natural selection, and by the agency of an intelligence
in which an image or idea of the end preceded the use
of the means. In both cases the existence of the adap-
tation is accounted for by the necessity or utility of
the end. It seems to me convenient to use the word
purpose as meaning generally the end to which certain
means are adapted, both in these two cases, and in any
other that may hereafter become known, provided only
that the adaptation is accounted for by the necessity or
utility of the end. And there seems no objection to the
use of the phrase ' final cause ' in this wider sense, if it
is to be kept at all. The word design ' might then be
kept for the special case of adaptation by an intelligence.


And we may then say that since the process of natural
selection has been understood, purpose has ceased
to suggest design to instructed people, except in cases
where the agency of man is independently probable.

When a man can be punished for doing wrong with
approval of the tribal self, he is said to be responsible.
Eesponsibility implies two things : (1), The act was a
product of the man's character and of the circumstances,
and his character may to a certain extent be inferred
from the act ; (2), The man had a conscience which
might h ave been so worked upon as to prevent his do-
ing the act. Unless the first condition be fulfilled, we
cannot reasonably take any action at all in regard to
the man, but only in regard to the offence. In the
case of crimes of violence, for example, we might carry
a six-shooter to protect ourselves against similar possi-
bilities, but unless the fact of a man's having once com-
mitted a murder made it probable that he would do
the like again, it would clearly be absurd and unreason-
able to lynch the man. That is to say, we assume an
uniformity of connexion between character and actions,
infer a man's character from his past actions, and
endeavour to provide against his future actions either
by destroying him or by changing his character. I
think it will be found that in all those cases where we
not only deal with the offence but treat it with moral
reprobation, we imply the existence of a conscience
which might have been worked upon to improve the
character. Why, for example, do we not regard
a lunatic as responsible ? Because we are in possession
of information about his character derived not only
from his one offence but from other facts, whereby we


know that even if he had a conscience left, his mind is
so diseased that it is impossible by moral reprobation
alone to change his character so that it may be subse-
quently relied upon. With his cure from disease and
the restored validity of this condition, responsibility re-
turns. There are, of course, cases in which an irre-
sponsible person is punished as if he were responsible,
pour encourager les autres who are responsible. The
question of the right or wrong of this procedure is the
question of its average effect on the character of men at
any particular time.

The Categorical Imperative.

May we now say that the maxims of Ethic are
hypothetical maxims? I think we may, and that in
showing why we shall explain the apparent difference
between them and other maxims belonging to an early
stage of science. In the first place, ethical maxims are
learned by the tribe and not by the individual. Those
tribes have on the whole survived in which conscience
approved such actions as tended to the improvement of
men's characters as citizens and therefore to the sur-
vival of the tribe. Hence it is that the moral sense of

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Online LibraryWilliam Kingdon CliffordLectures and essays by William Kingdon Clifford (Volume 2) → online text (page 8 of 22)