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the individual, though founded on the experience of the
tribe, is purely intuitive ; conscience gives no reasons.
Notwithstanding this, the ethical maxims are presented
to us as conditional ; if you want to live together in
this complicated way, your ways must be straight and
not crooked, you must seek the truth and love no he.
Suppose we answer, ' 1 don't want to live together with
other men in this complicated way ; and so I shall not
do as you^ell me.' That is not the end of the matter,



120 ON THE SCIENTIFIC BASIS OF MORALS.

as it might be with other scientific precepts. For
obvious reasons it is right in this case to reply, ' Then
in the name of my people I do not like you,' and to
express this dislike by appropriate methods. And the
offender, being descended from a social race, is unable
to escape his conscience, the voice of his tribal self
which says, ' In the name of the tribe, I hate myself for
this treason that I have done.'

There are two reasons, then, why ethical maxims
appear to be unconditional. First, they are acquired
from experience not directly but by tribal selection, and
therefore in the mind of the individual they do not rest
upon the true reasons for them. Secondly, although
they are conditional, the absence of the condition in
one born of a social race is rightly visited by moral re-
probation.

Ethics are based on Uniformity.

I have already observed that to deal with men as a
means of influencing their actions implies that these
actions are a product of character and circumstances ;
and that moral reprobation and responsibility cannot
exist unless we assume the efficacy of certain special
means of influencing character. It is not necessary
to point out that such considerations involve that
uniformity of nature which underlies the possibility
of even unconscious adaptations to experience, of lan-
guage, and of general conceptions and statements.^ It
may be asked ' Are you quite sure that these observed
uniformities between motive and action, between cha-
racter and motive, between social influence and change
of character, are absolutely exact in the form in which



OX THE SCIENTIFIC BASIS OF MORALS. 121

you state them, or indeed that they are exact laws of any
form ? May there not be very slight divergences from
exact laws, which will allow of the action of an " uncaused
will," or of the interference of some " extramundane
force " ? ' I am sure I do not know. But this I do
know : that our sense of right and wrong is derived
from such order as we can observe, and not from such
caprice of disorder as we may fancifully conjecture ;
and that to whatever extent a divergence from exact-
ness became sensible, to that extent it would destroy
the most widespread and worthy of the acquisitions of
mankind.

The Final Standard.

By these views we are led to conclusions partly ne-
gative, partly positive ; of which, as might be expected,
the negative are the most definite.

First, then, Ethic is a matter of the tribe or commu-
nity, and therefore there are no 6 self-regarding virtues/
The qualities of courage, prudence, &c., can only be
rightly encouraged in so far as they are shown to con-
duce to the efficiency of a citizen ; that is, in so far as
they cease to be self-regarding. The duty of private
judgment, of searching after truth, the sacredness of
belief which ought not to be misused on unproved
statements, follow only on showing of the enormous
importance to society of a true knowledge of things.
And any diversion of conscience from its sole allegiance
to the community is condemned a priori in the very
nature of right and wrong.

Next, the end of Ethic is not the greatest happiness
of the greatest number. Your happiness is of no use to



122 ON THE SCIENTIFIC BASIS OF MORALS.

the community, except in so far as it tends to make you
a more efficient citizen that is to say, happiness is not
to be desired for its own sake, but for the sake of some-
thing else. If any end is pointed to, it is the end of in-
creased efficiency in each man's special work, as well as
in the social functions which are common to all. A
man must strive to be a better citizen, a better work-
man, a better son, husband, or father. Farm migliori;
questo ha da essere lo scopo della vostra vita. 1

Again, Piety is not Altruism. It is not the doing
good to others as others, but the service of the com-
munity by a member of it, who loses in that service
the consciousness that he is anything different from the
community.

The social organism, like the individual, may be
healthy or diseased. Health and disease are very diffi-
cult things to define accurately : but for practical pur-
poses, there are certain states about which no mistake
can be made. When we have even a very imperfect
catalogue and description of states that are clearly and
certainly diseases, we may form a rough preliminary
definition of health by saying that it means the absence
of all these states. Now the health of society involves
among other things, that right is done by the individuals
composing it. And certain social diseases consist in
a wrong direction of the conscience. Hence the deter-
mination of abstract right depends on the study of
healthy and diseased states of society. How much
light can be got for this end from the historical records
we possess ? A very great deal, if, as I believe, for
ethical purposes the nature of man and of society may

1 Mazzini, Dover! dell' Uomo.



ON THE SCIENTIFIC BASIS OF MORALS.



123



be taken as approximately constant during the few
thousand years of which we have distinct records.

The matters of fact on which rational ethic must be
founded are the laws of modification of character, and
the evidence of history as to those kinds of character
which have most aided the improvement of the race.
For although the moral sense is intuitive, it must for
the future be directed by our conscious discovery of
the tribal purpose which it serves.




124



RIGHT AND WRONG:
THE SCIENTIFIC GROUND OF THEIR DISTINCTION. 1

THE questions which are here to be considered are
especially and peculiarly everybody's questions. It is
not everybody's business to be an engineer, or a doctor,
or a carpenter, or a soldier ; but it is everybody's
business to be a citizen. The doctrines and precepts
which guide the practice of the good engineer are of
interest to him who uses them and to those whose busi-
ness it is to investigate them by mechanical science ; the
rest of us neither obey nor disobey them. But the
doctrines and precepts of morality, which guide the
practice of the good citizen, are of interest to all ; they
must be either obeyed or disobeyed by every human
being who is not hopelessly and for ever separated from
the rest of mankind. No one can say, therefore, that
in this inquiry we are not minding our own business,
that we are meddliiig with other men's affairs. We
are in fact studying the principles of our profession, so
far as we are able ; a necessary thing for every man
who wishes to do good work in it.

Along with the character of universal interest which
belongs to our subject there goes another. What is
everybody's practical business is also to a large extent

1 Sunday Lecture Society, November 7, 1875 ; ' Fortnightly Review,'
December, 1875.



RIGHT AND WRONG. 125

what everybody knows ; and it may be reasonably ex-
pected that a discourse about Bight and Wrong will be
full of platitudes and truisms. The expectation is a
just one. The considerations I have to offer are of the
very oldest and the very simplest commonplace and
common sense ; and no one can be more astonished than
I am that there should be any reason to speak of them
at all. But there is reason to speak of them, because
platitudes are not all of one kind. Some platitudes
have a definite meaning and a practical application, and
are established by the uniform and long-continued ex-
perience of all people. Other platitudes, having no
definite meaning and no practical application, seem not
to be worth anybody's while to test ; and these are quite
sufficiently established by mere assertion, if it is auda-
cious enough to begin with and persistent enough after-
wards. It is in order to distinguish these two kinds of
platitude from one another, and to make sure that those
which we retain form a body of doctrine consistent with
itself and with the rest of our beliefs, that we undertake
this examination of obvious and widespread principles.

First of all, then, what are the facts ?

We say that it is wrong to murder, to steal, to tell
lies, and that it is right to take care of our families.
When we say in this sense that one action is right and
another wrong, we have a certain feeling towards the
action which is peculiar and not quite like any other
feeling. It is clearly a feeling towards the action and
not towards the man who does it ; because we speak of
hating the sin and loving the sinner. We might reason-
ably dislike a man whom we knew or suspected to be a
murderer, because of the natural fear that he might



126 EIGHT AND WRONG.

murder us ; and we might like our own parents for
taking care of us. But everybody knows that these
feelings are something quite different from the feeling
which condemns murder as a wrong thing, and approves
parental care as a right thing. I say nothing here about
the possibility of analysing this feeling, or proving that
it arises by combination of other feelings ; all I want to
notice is that it is as distinct and recognizable as the
feeling of pleasure in a sweet taste or of displeasure at
a toothache. In speaking of right and wrong, we speak
of qualities of action which arouse definite feelings that
everybody knows and recognizes. It is not necessary,
then, to give a definition at the outset ; we are going to
use familiar terms which have a definite meaning in the
same sense in which everybody uses them. We may
ultimately come to something like a definition ; but
what we have to do first is to collect the facts and see
what can be made of them, just as if we were going to
talk about limestone, or parents and children, or fuel. 1
It is easy to conceive that murder and theft and
neglect of the young might be considered wrong in a
very simple state of society. But we find at present
that the condemnation of these actions does not stand
alone ; it goes with the condemnation of a great number
of other actions which seem to be included with the ob-
viously criminal action in a sort of general rule. The
wrongness of murder, for example, belongs in a less
degree to any form of bodily injury that one man may
inflict on another ; and it is even extended so as to in-
clude injuries to his reputation or his feelings. I make

1 These subjects were treated in the Lectures which immediately preceded
and followed the present one.



RIGHT AND WRONG. 127

these more refined precepts follow in the train of the
more obvious and rough ones, because this appears to
have been the traditional order of their establishment.
4 He that makes his neighbour blush in public,' says the
Mishna, ' is as if he had shed his blood.' In the same
way the rough condemnation of stealing carries with it
a condemnation of more refined forms of dishonesty : we
do not hesitate to say that it is wrong for a tradesman
to adulterate his goods, or for a labourer to scamp his
work. We not only say that it is wrong to tell lies, but
that it is wrong to deceive in other more ingenious ways ;
wrong to use words so that they shall have one sense to
some people and another sense to other people ; wrong
to suppress the truth when that suppression leads to
false belief in others. And again, the duty of parents
towards their children is seen to be a special case of a
very large and varied class of duties towards that great
family to which we belong to the fatherland and them
that dwell therein. The word duty which I have here
used, has as definite a sense to the general mind as the
words right and wrong ; we say that it is right to do our
duty, and wrong to neglect it. These duties to the
community serve in our minds to explain and define our
duties to individuals. It is wrong to kill anyone ; un-
less we are an executioner, when it may be our duty to
kill a criminal ; or a soldier, when it may be our duty
to kill the enemy of our country ; and in general it is
wrong to injure any man in any way in our private
capacity and for our own sakes. Thus if a man injures
us, it is only right to retaliate on behalf of other men.
Of two men in a desert island, if one takes away the
other's cloak, it may or may not be right for the other



128 RIGHT AND WRONG.

to let him have his coat also ; but if a man takes away
my cloak while we both live in society, it is my duty to
use such means as I can to prevent him from taking
away other people's cloaks. Observe that I am endea-
vouring to describe the facts of the moral feelings of
Englishmen, such as they are now.

The last remark leads us to another platitude of ex-
ceedingly ancient date. We said that it was wrong to
injure any man in our private capacity and for our own
sakes. A rule like this differs from all the others that
we have considered, because it not only deals with phy-
sical acts, words and deeds which can be observed and
known by others, but also with thoughts which are
known only to the man himself. Who can tell whether
a given act of punishment was done from a private or
from a public motive ? Only the agent himself. And
yet if the punishment was just and within the law, we
should condemn the man in the one case and approve
him in the other. This pursuit of the actions of men
to their very sources, in the feelings which they only
can know, is as ancient as any morality we know of,
and extends to the whole range of it. Injury to
another man arises from anger, malice, hatred, revenge ;
these feelings are condemned as wrong. But feelings
are not immediately under our control, in the same way
that overt actions are : I can shake anybody by the
hand if I like, but I cannot always feel friendly to him.
Nevertheless we can pay attention to such aspects of the
circumstances, and we can put ourselves into such condi-
tions, that our feelings get gradually modified in one way
or the other ; we form a habit of checking our anger by
calling up certain images and considerations, whereby



RIGHT AND WRONG. 129

in time the offending passion is brought into subjection
and control. Accordingly we say that it is right to
acquire and to exercise this control ; and the control is
supposed to exist whenever we say that one feeling or
disposition of mind is right and another wrong. Thus,
in connexion with the precept against stealing, we con-
demn envy and covetousness ; we applaud a sensitive
honesty which shudders at anything underhand or dis-
honourable. In connexion with the rough precept
against lying, we have built up and are still building a
great fabric of intellectual morality, whereby a man is
forbidden to tell lies to himself, and is commanded to
practise candour and fairness and open-mindedness in
his judgments, and to labour zealously in pursuit of the
truth. And in connexion with the duty to our families,
we say that it is right to cultivate public spirit, a quick
sense of sympathy, and all that belongs to a social
disposition.

Two other words are used in this connexion which
it seems Accessary to mention. When we regard an
action as right or wrong for ourselves, this feeling about
the action impels us to do it or not to do it, as the case
may be. "We may say that the moral sense acts in this
case as a motive ; meaning by moral sense only the
feeling in regard to an action which is considered as
right or wrong, and by motive something which impels
us to act. Of course there may be other motives at
work at the same time, and it does not at all follow that
we shall do the right action or abstain from the wrong
one. This we all know to our cost. But still our feel-
ing about the Tightness or wrongness of an action does
operate as a motive when we think of the action as being

VOL. II. K



130 RIGHT AND WRONG.

done by us ; and when so operating it is called conscience.
I have nothing to do at present with the questions about
conscience, whether it is a result of education, whether
it can be explained by self-love, and so forth ; I am only
concerned in describing well-known facts, and in getting
as clear as I can about the meaning of well-known words.
Conscience, then, is the whole aggregate of our feelings
about actions as being right or wrong, regarded as tend-
ing to make us do the right actions and avoid the wrong
ones. We also say sometimes, in answer to the ques-
tion, ' How do you know that this is right or wrong ? '
' My conscience tells me so.' And this way of speaking
is quite analogous to other expressions of the same
form ; thus if I put my hand into water, and you ask
me how I know that it is hot, I might say, ' My feeling
of warmth tells me so.'

When we consider a right or a wrong action as done
by another person, we think of that person as worthy
of moral approbation or reprobation. He may be
punished or not ; but in any case this feeling towards
him is quite different from the feeling of dislike towards
a person injurious to us, or of disappointment at a
machine which will not go.

Whenever we can morally approve or disapprove a
man for his action, we say that he is morally respon-
sible for it, and vice versd. To say that a man is not
morally responsible for his actions is the same thing as
to say that it would be unreasonable to praise or blame
him for them.

The statement that we ourselves are morally respon-
sible is somewhat more complicated, but the meaning
is very easily made out ; namely, that another person




RIGHT AND WRONG.

may reasonably regard our actions as right or
and may praise or blame us for them.

We can now, I suppose, understand one another
pretty clearly in using the words right and wrong, con-
science, responsibility ; and we have made a rapid sur-
vey of the facts of the case in our own country at the
present time. Of course I do not pretend that this
survey in any way approaches to completeness ; but it
will supply us at least with enough facts to enable us to
deal always with concrete examples instead of remain-
ing in generalities ; and it may serve to show pretty
fairly what the moral sense of an Englishman is like.

r We must next consider what account we can give of \

Uhese facts by the scientific method.

But first let us stop to note that we really have used
the scientific method in making this first step ; and also
that to the same extent the method has been used by all
serious moralists. Some would have us define virtue,
to begin with, in terms of some other thing which is
not virtue, and then work out from our definition all
the details of what we ought to do. So Plato said that
virtue was knowledge, Aristotle that it was the golden
mean, and Bentham said that the right action was that
which conduced to the greatest happiness of the greatest
number. But so also, in physical speculations, Thales
said that everything was Water, and Heraclitus said it
was All-becoming, and Empedocles said it was made out
of Four Elements, and Pythagoras said it was Number.
But we only began to know about things when people
looked straight at the facts, and made what they could
out of them ; and that is the only way in which we can
know anything about right and wrong. Moreover, it is

K 2



132 RIGHT AND WRONG.

the way in which the great moralists have set to work,
when they came to treat of verifiable things and not of
theories all in the air. A great many people think of
a prophet as a man who, all by himself, or from some
secret source, gets the belief that this thing is right and
that thing wrong. And then (they imagine) he gets up
and goes about persuading other people to feel as he
does about it ; and so it becomes a part of their con-
science, and a new duty is created. This may be in
some cases, but I have never met with any example of
it in history. When Socrates puzzled the Greeks by
asking them what they precisely meant by Goodness
and Justice and Virtue, the mere existence of the words
shows that the people, as a whole, possessed a moral
sense, and felt that certain things were right and others
wrong. What the moralist did was to show the con-

o

nexion between different virtues, the likeness of virtue to
certain other things, the implications which a thoughtful
man could find in the common language. Wherever
the Greek moral sense had come from, it was there in
the people before it could be enforced by a prophet or
discussed by a philosopher. Again, we find a wonder-
ful collection of moral aphorisms in those shrewd say-
ings of the Jewish fathers w;hich are preserved in the
Mishna or oral law. Some of this teaching is familiar to
us all from the popular exposition of it which is con-
tained in the three first Gospels. But the very plain-
ness and homeliness of the precepts shows that they are
just acute statements of what was already felt by the
popular common sense ; -protesting, in many cases,
against the formalism of the ceremonial law with which
they are curiously mixed up. The Eabbis even show a



RIGHT AND WRONG. 133

jealousy of prophetic interference, as if they knew well
that it takes not one man, but many men, to feel what
is right. When a certain Eabbi Eliezer, being worsted
in argument, cried out, ' If I am right, let heaven pro-
nounce in my favour ! ' there was heard a Bath-kol or
voice from the skies, saying, ' Do you venture to dispute
with Eabbi Eliezer, who is an authority on all religious
questions ? ' But Eabbi Joshua rose and said, ' Our law
is not in heaven, but in the book which dates from Sinai,
and which teaches us that in matters of discussion the
majority makes the law.' l

One of the most important expressions of the moral
sense for all time is that of the Stoic philosophy, espe-
cially after its reception among the Eomans. It is here
that we find the enthusiasm of humanity the caritas
generis humani which is so large and important a
feature in all modern conceptions of morality, and whose
widespread influence upon Eoman citizens may be
traced in the Epistles of St. Paul. In the Stoic em-
perors, also, we find probably the earliest example of
great moral principles consciously applied to legislation
on a large scale. But are we to attribute this to the
individual insight of the Stoic philosophers ? It might
seem at first sight that we must, if we .are to listen to
that vulgar vituperation of the older culture which has
descended to us from those who had everything to gain
by its destruction. 2 We hear enough of the luxurious

1 Treatise Baba Bathra, 59 b. I derive this story and reference from a
most interesting book, ' K61 Koie (Vox Clamantis), La Bible, le Talmud, et
1'Evangile ; par le R. Elie Soloweyczyk. Paris : E. Briere. 1870.'

2 Compare these passages from Merivale (' Romans under the Empire/
vi.), to whom ' it seems a duty to protest against the common tendency of
Christian moralists to dwell only on the dark side of Pagan society, in order
to heighten by contrast the blessings of the Gospel' :



134 RIGHT AND WRONG.

feasting of the Eoman capital, how it would almost have
taxed the resources of a modern pastrycook ; of the
cruelty of gladiatorial shows, how they were nearly as
bad as autos-da-fe i , except that a man had his fair chance,
and was not tortured for torture's sake ; of the oppres-
sion of provincials by people like Verres, of whom it
may even be said that if they had been the East India
Company they could not have been worse ; of the com-
plaints of Tacitus against bad and mad emperors (as Sir
Henry Maine says) ; and of the still more serious com-
plaints of the modern historian against the excessive
taxation l which was one great cause of the fall of the
empire. Of all this we are told a great deal ; but we
are not told of the many thousands of honourable men
who carried civilization to the ends of the known world,

t Much candour and discrimination are required in comparing the sins of

one age with those of another the cruelty of our inquisitions

and sectarian persecutions, of our laws against sorcery, our serfdom and our
slavery ; the petty fraudulence we tolerate in almost every class and calling
of the community ; the bold front worn by our open sensuality ; the deeper
degradation of that which is concealed ; all these leave us little room for
boasting of our modern discipline, and must deter the thoughtful inquirer


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Online LibraryWilliam Kingdon CliffordLectures and essays by William Kingdon Clifford (Volume 2) → online text (page 9 of 22)