William Kingdon Clifford.

The scientific basis of morals : and other essays, viz. : right and wrong, the ethics of belief, the ethics of religion online

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Online LibraryWilliam Kingdon CliffordThe scientific basis of morals : and other essays, viz. : right and wrong, the ethics of belief, the ethics of religion → online text (page 1 of 10)
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Viz.: Right and Wrong; The Ethics of Belief; The Ethics of Religion.



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 be
considered in this discussion, and sufficiently marked out by these
names; they need no further definition. In the same way the sense
of taste is a feeling of pleasure or displeasure in things savory or
unsavory, 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 analyzed or accounted for,
but they cannot be more exactly defined as feelings.

The maxims of ethic are recommendations or commands 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 categorical
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
persons 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 produced 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 absolute
right; they are not absolutely universal, 'eternal and immutable,'
but they are independent 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 connection 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,
science is the getting of knowledge from experience 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-so.

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 endeavor 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. - In the metaphysical sense, the word 'self' is
taken to mean the conscious subject, das Ich, the whole stream of
feelings which make up a consciousness regarded 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 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 center 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 complex and remote.

If we consider now the simpler races of mankind, we shall find not
only that immediate desires play 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 anybody 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 conception 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 center 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, qu√Ґ 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 selfhood 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 aggregation 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 necessarily 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 individual 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 individual man which binds together
his gregarious instincts.

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 dislike 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 conception of you. 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 regarded 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; 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 Self-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, 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

In a mind sufficiently developed to distinguish the individual from the
tribal self, conscience is thus a necessary 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.

Right 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 selectively modified
by experience, whether consciously or unconsciously, the expression
serves a purpose of retaining or repeating the thing liked, and of
removing the thing disliked. Such a purpose is served by the expression
of tribal approbation or disapprobation, however 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 dislike 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 arrangements 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 disapproval is liked are called
wrong actions. The corresponding characters are called good or bad,
virtuous or vicious.

This introduces a further complication into the
conscience. Self-judgment in the name of the tribe becomes associated
with very definite and material judgment by the tribe itself. On the
one hand, this undoubtedly strengthens the motive-power of conscience
in an enormous degree. On the other hand, it tends to guide the
decisions of conscience; and since the expression 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 doing 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 offense 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 disapprobation 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 offenses 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 adaptation 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. Responsibility 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 have
been so worked upon as to prevent his doing 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 offense. In the case
of crimes of violence, for example, we might carry a six-shooter to
protect ourselves against similar possibilities, but unless the fact
of a man's having once committed a murder made it probable that he
would do the like again, it would clearly be absurd and unreasonable to
lynch the man. That is to say, we assume an uniformity of connection
between character and actions, infer a man's character from his past
actions, and endeavor 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 offense 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 offense 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
subsequently relied upon. With his cure from disease and the restored
validity of this condition, responsibility returns. There are, of
course, cases in which an irresponsible 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 survival of the tribe. Hence it is that the moral sense of 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 lie. Suppose we answer, 'I
don't want to live together with other men in this complicated way; and
so I shall not do as you tell me.' That is not the end of the matter,
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 reprobation.

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 language, and of
general conceptions and statements. It may be asked, 'Are you quite
sure that these observed uniformities between motive and action,
between character and motive, between social influence and change of
character, are absolutely exact in the form in which 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 "extra-mundane
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

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Online LibraryWilliam Kingdon CliffordThe scientific basis of morals : and other essays, viz. : right and wrong, the ethics of belief, the ethics of religion → online text (page 1 of 10)