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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not from such caprice of disorder as we may fancifully conjecture; and
that to whatever extent a divergence from exactness 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
negative, partly positive; of which, as might be expected, the negative
are the most definite.

First, then, Ethic is a matter of the tribe or community, and therefore
there are no 'self-regarding virtues.' The qualities of courage,
prudence, etc., can only be rightly encouraged in so far as they are
shown to conduce 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 à 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 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 something else. If any end is pointed to, it is the end of
increased 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 workman, a better son, husband, or father.

Again, Piety is not Altruism. It is not the doing good to others as
others, but the service of the community 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 difficult things to define
accurately: but for practical purposes, 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 determination
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 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.



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 business 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 forever
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 meddling
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 what everybody knows; and it
may be reasonably expected that a discourse about Right 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 experience 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 audacious enough to begin
with and persistent enough afterward. 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 toward
the action which is peculiar and not quite like any other feeling. It
is clearly a feeling toward the action and not toward the man who does
it; because we speak of hating the sin and loving the sinner. We might
reasonably dislike a man whom we knew or suspected to be a murderer,
because of the natural fear that he might 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 analyzing 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.

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 obviously 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 include
injuries to his reputation or his feelings. I make 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. 'He that makes his neighbor 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 laborer
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 toward their children is seen to be a special case of a very
large and varied class of duties toward 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 any one; unless 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 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 endeavoring to describe the
facts of the moral feelings of Englishmen, such as they are now.

The last remark leads us to another platitude of exceedingly 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 physical
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 conditions,
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 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 connection with the precept against stealing,
we condemn envy and covetousness; we applaud a sensitive honesty which
shudders at anything underhand or dishonorable. In connection 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 practice candor and
fairness and open-mindedness in his judgments, and to labor zealously
in pursuit of the truth. In connection 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 connection which it seems necessary
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 feeling about the rightness or wrongness of an action does
operate as a motive when we think of the action as being 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 tending to make us do the right actions and
avoid the wrong ones. We also say sometimes, in answer to the question,
'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
toward him is quite different from the feeling of dislike toward 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 responsible for it, and vice versâ. 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 responsible is somewhat
more complicated, but the meaning is very easily made out; namely,
that another person may reasonably regard our actions as right or
wrong, 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, conscience, responsibility; and we have
made a rapid survey 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 remaining in generalities; and it may serve to show pretty fairly
what the moral sense of an Englishman is like. We must next consider
what account we can give of these 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 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 conscience, 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 connection 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 wonderful collection of moral aphorisms
in those shrewd sayings of the Jewish fathers which 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 contained in the three
first Gospels. But the very plainness 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 Rabbis even show a 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 Rabbi Eliezer, being worsted in argument,
cried out, 'If I am right, let heaven pronounce in my favor!' there
was heard a Bath-kol or voice from the skies, saying, 'Do you venture
to dispute with Rabbi Eliezer, who is an authority on all religious
questions?' But Rabbi 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.' [2]

One of the most important expressions of the moral sense for all time
is that of the Stoic philosophy, especially after its reception among
the Romans. 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 Roman citizens may be traced in the Epistles of St. Paul. In
the Stoic emperors, 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. [3] We hear enough of the luxurious feasting of
the Roman capital, how it would almost have taxed the resources of a
modern pastry-cook; of the cruelty of gladiatorial shows, how they
were nearly as bad as autos-da-fé, except that a man had his fair
chance and was not tortured for torture's sake; of the oppression 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 complaints of Tacitus against bad and mad emperors (as Sir
Henry Maine says); and of the still more serious complaints of the
modern historian against the excessive taxation [4] 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 honorable men who carried
civilization to the ends of the known world, and administered a mighty
empire so that it was loved and worshiped to the furthest corner of
it. It is to these men and their common action that we must attribute
the morality which found its organized expression in the writings of
the Stoic philosophers. From these three cases we may gather that
Right is a thing which must be done before it can be talked about,
although after that it may only too easily be talked about without
being done. Individual effort and energy may insist upon getting that
done which was already felt to be right; and individual insight and
acumen may point out consequences of an action which bring it under
previously known moral rules. There is another dispute of the Rabbis
that may serve to show what is meant by this. It was forbidden by
the law to have any dealings with the Sabæan idolaters during the
week preceding their idolatrous feasts. But the doctors discussed the
case in which one of these idolaters owes you a bill; are you to let
him pay it during that week or not? The school of Shammai said 'No;
for he will want all his money to enjoy himself at the feast.' But
the school of Hillel said, 'Yes, let him pay it; for how can he enjoy
his feast while his bills are unpaid?' The question here is about the
consequences of an action; but there is no dispute about the moral
principle, which is that consideration and kindness are to be shown
to idolaters, even in the matter of their idolatrous rites.

It seems, then, that we are no worse off than anybody else who has
studied this subject, in finding our materials ready made for us;
sufficiently definite meanings given in the common speech to the
words right and wrong, good and bad, with which we have to deal;
a fair body of facts familiarly known, which we have to organize and
account for as best we can. But our special inquiry is, what account
can be given of these facts by the scientific method? to which end
we cannot do better than fix our ideas as well as we can upon the
character and scope of that method.

Now the scientific method is a method of getting knowledge by
inference, and that of two different kinds. One kind of inference is
that which is used in the physical and natural sciences, and it enables
us to go from known phenomena to unknown phenomena. Because a stone is
heavy in the morning, I infer that it will be heavy in the afternoon;
and I infer this by assuming a certain uniformity of nature. The sort
of uniformity that I assume depends upon the extent of my scientific
education; the rules of inference become more and more definite as we
go on. At first I might assume that all things are always alike; this
would not be true, but it has to be assumed in a vague way, in order
that a thing may have the same name at different times. Afterward I
get the more definite belief that certain particular qualities, like
weight, have nothing to do with the time of day; and subsequently
I find that weight has nothing to do with the shape of the stone,
but only with the quantity of it. The uniformity which we assume,
then, is not that vague one that we started with, but a chastened
and corrected uniformity. I might go on to suppose, for example,
that the weight of the stone had nothing to do with the place where
it was; and a great deal might be said for this supposition. It would,
however, have to be corrected when it was found that the weight varies
slightly in different latitudes. On the other hand, I should find that
this variation was just the same for my stone as for a piece of iron
or wood; that it had nothing to do with the kind of matter. And so I
might be led to the conclusion that all matter is heavy, and that the
weight of it depends only on its quantity and its position relative to
the earth. You see here that I go on arriving at conclusions always
of this form; that some one circumstance or quality has nothing
to do with some other circumstance or quality. I begin by assuming
that it is independent of everything; I end by finding that it is
independent of some definite things. That is, I begin by assuming
a vague uniformity. I always use this assumption to infer from some
one fact a great number of other facts; but as my education proceeds,
I get to know what sort of things may be inferred and what may not. An
observer of scientific mind takes note of just those things from which
inferences may be drawn, and passes by the rest. If an astronomer,

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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 2 of 10)