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

There are here some words, however, which require careful
definition. And first the word purpose. A thing serves a purpose
when it is adapted to some end; thus a corkscrew is adapted to the
end of extracting corks from bottles, and our lungs are adapted to
the end of respiration. We may say that the extraction of corks is
the purpose of the corkscrew, and that respiration is the purpose
of the lungs. But here we shall have used the word in two different
senses. A man made the corkscrew with a purpose in his mind, and he
knew and intended that it should be used for pulling out corks. But
nobody made our lungs with a purpose in his mind, and intended that
they should be used for breathing. The respiratory apparatus was
adapted to its purpose by natural selection - namely, by the gradual
preservation of better and better adaptations, and the killing off of
the worse and imperfect adaptations. In using the word purpose for
the result of this unconscious process of adaptation by survival of
the fittest, I know that I am somewhat extending its ordinary sense,
which implies consciousness. But it seems to me that on the score
of convenience there is a great deal to be said for this extension
of meaning. We want a word to express the adaptation of means to an
end, whether involving consciousness or not; the word purpose will do
very well, and the adjective purposive has already been used in this
sense. But if the use is admitted, we must distinguish two kinds of
purpose. There is the unconscious purpose which is attained by natural
selection, in which no consciousness need be concerned; and there
is the conscious purpose of an intelligence which designs a thing
that it may serve to do something which he desires to be done. The
distinguishing mark of this second kind, design or conscious purpose,
is that in the consciousness of the agent there is an image or symbol
of the end which he desires, and this precedes and determines the use
of the means. Thus the man who first invented a corkscrew must have
previously known that corks were in bottles, and have desired to get
them out. We may describe this if we like in terms of matter, and say
that a purpose of the second kind implies a complex nervous system,
in which there can be formed an image or symbol of the end, and that
this symbol determines the use of the means. The nervous image or
symbol of anything is that mode of working of part of my brain which
goes on simultaneously and is correlated with my thinking of the thing.

Aristotle defines an organism as that in which the part exists for the
sake of the whole. It is not that the existence of the part depends
on the existence of the whole, for every whole exists only as an
aggregate of parts related in a certain way; but that the shape and
nature of the part are determined by the wants of the whole. Thus
the shape and nature of my foot are what they are, not for the sake
of my foot itself, but for the sake of my whole body, and because it
wants to move about. That which the part has to do for the whole is
called its function. Thus the function of my foot is to support me,
and assist in locomotion. Not all the nature of the part is necessarily
for the sake of the whole: the comparative callosity of the skin of
my sole is for the protection of my foot itself.

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

Next let us endeavor to make precise the meaning of the words community
and society. It is clear that at different times men may be divided
into groups of greater or less extent - tribes, clans, families,
nations, towns. If a certain number of clans are struggling for
existence, that portion of the conscience will be developed which
tends to the preservation of the clan; so, if towns or families are
struggling, we shall get a moral sense adapted to the advantage of the
town or the family. In this way different portions of the moral sense
may be developed at different stages of progress. Now it is clear that
for the purpose of the conscience the word community at any time will
mean a group of that size and nature which is being selected or not
selected for survival as a whole. Selection may be going on at the
same time among many different kinds of groups. And ultimately the
moral sense will be composed of various portions relating to various
groups, the function or purpose of each portion being the advantage
of that group to which it relates in the struggle for existence. Thus
we have a sense of family duty, of municipal duty, of national duty,
and of duties toward all mankind.

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

Now that we have cleared up the meanings of some of our words, we
are still a great way from the definite solution of our question,
'What is the best conscience? or what ought I to think right?' For
we do not yet know what is for the advantage of the community in the
struggle for existence. If we choose to learn by the analogy of an
individual organism, we may see that no permanent or final answer can
be given, because the organism grows in consequence of the struggle,
and develops new wants while it is satisfying the old ones. But
at any given time it has quite enough to do to keep alive and to
avoid dangers and diseases. So we may expect that the wants and even
the necessities of the social organism will grow with its growth,
and that it is impossible to predict what may tend in the distant
future to its advantage in the struggle for existence. But still,
in this vague and general statement of the functions of conscience,
we shall find that we have already established a great deal.

In the first place, right is an affair of the community, and must not
be referred to anything else. To go back to our analogy of taste: if
I tried to persuade you that the best palate was that which preferred
things pretty to look at, you might condemn me à priori without any
experience, by merely knowing that taste is an affair of stomach and
digestion - that its function is to select wholesome food. And so,
if any one tries to persuade us that the best conscience is that
which thinks it right to obey the will of some individual, as a deity
or a monarch, he is condemned à priori in the very nature of right
and wrong. In order that the worship of a deity may be consistent
with natural ethics, he must be regarded as the friend and helper of
humanity, and his character must be judged from his actions by a moral
standard which is independent of him. And this, it must be admitted,
is the position which has been taken by most English divines, as long
as they were Englishmen first and divines afterward. The worship of
a deity who is represented as unfair or unfriendly to any portion of
the community is a wrong thing, however great may be the threats and
promises by which it is commended. And still worse, the reference of
right and wrong to his arbitrary will as a standard, the diversion
of the allegiance of the moral sense from the community to him, is
the most insidious and fatal of social diseases. It was against this
that the Teutonic conscience protested in the Reformation. Again, in
monarchical countries, in order that allegiance to the sovereign may
be consistent with natural ethics, he must be regarded as the servant
and symbol of the national unity, capable of rebellion and punishable
for it. And this has been the theory of the English constitution from
time immemorial.

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

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

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

In conclusion, I would add some words on the relation of Veracity to
the first principle of Piety. It is clear that veracity is founded on
faith in man; you tell a man the truth when you can trust him with it
and are not afraid. This perhaps is made more evident by considering
the case of exception allowed by all moralists - namely, that if a man
asks you the way with a view to committing a murder, it is right to
tell a lie and misdirect him. The reason why he must not have the truth
told him is that he would make a bad use of it; he cannot be trusted
with it. About these cases of exception an important remark must be
made in passing. When we hear that a man has told a lie under such
circumstances, we are indeed ready to admit that for once it was right,
mensonge admirable; but we always have a sort of feeling that it must
not occur again. And the same thing applies to cases of conflicting
obligations, when for example the family conscience and the national
conscience disagree. In such cases no general rule can be laid down; we
have to choose the less of two evils; but this is not right altogether
in the same sense as it is right to speak the truth. There is something
wrong in the circumstances, that we should have to choose an evil at
all. The actual course to be pursued will vary with the progress of
society; that evil which at first was greater will become less, and
in a perfect society the conflict will be resolved into harmony. But
meanwhile these cases of exception must be carefully kept distinct
from the straightforward cases of right and wrong, and they always
imply an obligation to mend the circumstances if we can.

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

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

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

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


I. The Duty of Inquiry. - A shipowner was about to send to sea an
emigrant-ship. He knew that she was old, and not over-well built at the
first; that she had seen many seas and climes, and often had needed
repairs. Doubts had been suggested to him that possibly she was not
seaworthy. These doubts preyed upon his mind, and made him unhappy;
he thought that perhaps he ought to have her thoroughly overhauled
and refitted, even though this should put him to great expense. Before
the ship sailed, however, he succeeded in overcoming these melancholy
reflections. He said to himself that she had gone safely through
so many voyages and weathered so many storms that it was idle to
suppose she would not come safely home from this trip also. He would
put his trust in Providence, which could hardly fail to protect all
these unhappy families that were leaving their fatherland to seek for
better times elsewhere. He would dismiss from his mind all ungenerous
suspicions about the honesty of builders and contractors. In such ways
he acquired a sincere and comfortable conviction that his vessel was
thoroughly safe and seaworthy; he watched her departure with a light
heart, and benevolent wishes for the success of the exiles in their
strange new home that was to be; and he got his insurance-money when
she went down in mid-ocean and told no tales.

What shall we say of him? Surely this, that he was verily guilty of
the death of those men. It is admitted that he did sincerely believe in
the soundness of his ship; but the sincerity of his conviction can in
no wise help him, because he had no right to believe on such evidence
as was before him. He had acquired his belief not by honestly earning
it in patient investigation, but by stifling his doubts. And although
in the end he may have felt so sure about it that he could not think
otherwise, yet inasmuch as he had knowingly and willingly worked
himself into that frame of mind, he must be held responsible for it.

Let us alter the case a little, and suppose that the ship was not
unsound after all; that she made her voyage safely, and many others
after it. Will that diminish the guilt of her owner? Not one jot. When
an action is once done, it is right or wrong forever; no accidental
failure of its good or evil fruits can possibly alter that. The
man would not have been innocent, he would only have been not found
out. The question of right or wrong has to do with the origin of his
belief, not the matter of it; not what it was, but how he got it;
not whether it turned out to be true or false, but whether he had a
right to believe on such evidence as was before him.

There was once an island in which some of the inhabitants professed
a religion teaching neither the doctrine of original sin nor that of
eternal punishment. A suspicion got abroad that the professors of this
religion had made use of unfair means to get their doctrines taught
to children. They were accused of wresting the laws of their country
in such a way as to remove children from the care of their natural
and legal guardians; and even of stealing them away and keeping them
concealed from their friends and relations. A certain number of men
formed themselves into a society for the purpose of agitating the
public about this matter. They published grave accusations against
individual citizens of the highest position and character, and did
all in their power to injure these citizens in the exercise of their
professions. So great was the noise they made, that a Commission
was appointed to investigate the facts; but after the Commission
had carefully inquired into all the evidence that could be got,
it appeared that the accused were innocent. Not only had they been
accused on insufficient evidence, but the evidence of their innocence
was such as the agitators might easily have obtained, if they had
attempted a fair inquiry. After these disclosures the inhabitants
of that country looked upon the members of the agitating society,
not only as persons whose judgment was to be distrusted, but also as
no longer to be counted honorable men. For although they had sincerely
and conscientiously believed in the charges they had made, yet they had
no right to believe on such evidence as was before them. Their sincere
convictions, instead of being honestly earned by patient inquiring,
were stolen by listening to the voice of prejudice and passion.

Let us vary this case also, and suppose, other things remaining as
before, that a still more accurate investigation proved the accused
to have been really guilty. Would this make any difference in the
guilt of the accusers? Clearly not; the question is not whether their
belief was true or false, but whether they entertained it on wrong
grounds. They would no doubt say, 'Now you see that we were right
after all; next time perhaps you will believe us.' And they might be
believed, but they would not thereby become honorable men. They would
not be innocent, they would only be not found out. Every one of them,
if he chose to examine himself in foro conscientiæ, would know that he
had acquired and nourished a belief, when he had no right to believe
on such evidence as was before him; and therein he would know that
he had done a wrong thing.

It may be said, however, that in both of these supposed cases it is
not the belief which is judged to be wrong, but the action following
upon it. The shipowner might say, 'I am perfectly certain that my
ship is sound, but still I feel it my duty to have her examined,
before trusting the lives of so many people to her.' And it might be
said to the agitator, 'However convinced you were of the justice of
your cause and the truth of your convictions, you ought not to have
made a public attack upon any man's character until you had examined
the evidence on both sides with the utmost patience and care.'

In the first place, let us admit that, so far as it goes, this
view of the case is right and necessary; right, because even when
a man's belief is so fixed that he cannot think otherwise, he still
has a choice in regard to the action suggested by it, and so cannot
escape the duty of investigating on the ground of the strength of his
convictions; and necessary, because those who are not yet capable
of controlling their feelings and thoughts must have a plain rule
dealing with overt acts.

But this being premised as necessary, it becomes clear that it is not
sufficient, and that our previous judgment is required to supplement
it. For it is not possible so to sever the belief from the action it
suggests as to condemn the one without condemning the other. No man
holding a strong belief on one side of a question, or even wishing
to hold a belief on one side, can investigate it with such fairness
and completeness as if he were really in doubt and unbiased; so that
the existence of a belief not founded on fair inquiry unfits a man
for the performance of this necessary duty.

Nor is that truly a belief at all which has not some influence upon
the actions of him who holds it. He who truly believes that which
prompts him to an action has looked upon the action to lust after it,
he has committed it already in his heart. If a belief is not realized
immediately in open deeds, it is stored up for the guidance of the
future. It goes to make a part of that aggregate of beliefs which
is the link between sensation and action at every moment of all our
lives, and which is so organized and compacted together that no part
of it can be isolated from the rest, but every new addition modifies
the structure of the whole. No real belief, however trifling and
fragmentary it may seem, is ever truly insignificant; it prepares
us to receive more of its like, confirms those which resembled it
before, and weakens others; and so gradually it lays a stealthy train
in our inmost thoughts, which may some day explode into overt action,
and leave its stamp upon our character forever.

And no one man's belief is in any case a private matter which concerns
himself alone. Our lives are guided by that general conception of

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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 5 of 10)