You are here

Chapter XX | Science and Ethics

§ 1. ‘Is’ and ‘ought’

According to some modern thinkers it is the business of science to supply us with moral guidance.

This view is directly opposed to my contention that if man is regarded merely as one of many objects for scientific study, it will be impossible to understand him either as a moral agent or even as a person who knows his world and knows himself. So direct a challenge can hardly be ignored, especially as some among those who make it are apt to speak as if professional philosophers who disagree with them can be dismissed as incompetent at their own job. Any discussion here must be elementary and over-simple; but after the heavy going of the last chapters we are perhaps entitled to a little light relief.

A scientific judgement is always about what is, was, will be, or would be. A moral judgement is about what I ought to be—or, perhaps better, about what I ought to do. To identify scientific and moral judgements is sheer confusion, and to infer the second from the first is a patent fallacy. If we admit—and who can deny it?—that men often do what they ought not to do, we cannot infer from what they do to what they ought to do.

If this be granted, then a fortiori we cannot infer what men ought to do from what animals do or what stars do or what atoms do. In short, we cannot infer what men ought to do from what nature does. Hence however much science tells us about what nature does, or even about what men do, by itself this teaches us nothing about what we ought to do. If we are determined to confine ourselves to scientific thinking, then the only logical course is to say, with the Logical Positivists, that when we make moral judgements so-called, we are not thinking. We are certainly not thinking scientifically.

Popular morality—or perhaps we should say nursery morality—does not always adhere to this wise restraint: it sometimes professes to find in nature the models or norms for human conduct. Are we not urged to emulate the busy bee, the industrious ant? And does not even an unconventional thinker like Mr. Gerald Heard maintain that we may have to revise our attitude to landed property because of recent discoveries about the territorial claims of robins? I was once informed by a clerical friend that a moral lesson was to be drawn from sea-gulls: just as they always face the wind and rain, so we ought always to face our difficulties. One objection to this is that gulls have other habits less worthy of moral imitation; and what are we to make of cattle who—if I may so express myself—always face the wind and rain with their rumps?

Is it not obvious that in such exhortations we already know, or think we know, what we ought to do, and then proceed to pick and choose in nature what seem to be illustrations of our moral principles? There is no harm in this if we are merely trying to make moral ideas vivid to youthful imaginations; but if we are seeking moral guidance from nature, no procedure could be less scientific. Yet it is by no means certain that some of our eminent scientific thinkers, when they turn their attention to morality and advise us to be guided by the process of evolution, do not fall into a very similar trap.

If we take a teleological view and attribute purposes to nature, the fallacy is at least not so obvious. Indeed if God has made every thing for a purpose, then it may be good for each thing to fulfil that purpose. Even so, it will be good for man to fulfil the purpose for which he himself was created, if we can discover what that purpose is. We are not entitled to assume we can discover the purpose of man by the study of ants, bees, and sea-gulls, which were presumably created for a different purpose. This is familiar to a teleologist like Dr. Watts, who can use an animal, not merely as a model of morality, but as an awful warning. Thus he can say

‘Let dogs delight to bark and bite,

For God hath made them so;

Let bears and lions growl and fight

For ‘tis their nature too!’

But he can also add, quite consistently,

‘Your little hands were never made

To tear each other's eyes.’

Doctrines of this teleological kind have been expounded with a high degree of intelligence by thinkers like St. Thomas Aquinas, and they are found in a less theological form in Plato and Aristotle. But the modern scientist, I am assuming, excludes teleology from nature, and he should be on his guard against re-introducing it surreptitiously when he reflects about morality.

For the sake of clarity this should be added. If you have already chosen, or even envisaged, an end, science may be able to tell you the most efficient means to that end. In this sense science will tell you what you ought to do. But the ‘ought’ here is technical, and the reason why you ought is merely because you want the end. Indeed even when you know the means to your end, you have still to decide whether you want the end together with this means or not—you might dislike the means more than you wanted the end. All this is below the level of moral judgement. Granted that you want to do the action which consists in using the best known means to a particular desired end or even to a moral end, you have still to ask the question whether such an action would be right. Similarly an artist, however much he may learn from science about technique, has always to decide for himself what will be a good picture. On this problem science can give him no aesthetic guidance whatever. The distinction between means and ends, between the technical on the one hand and the moral or aesthetic on the other, requires more examination, but I believe that this would confirm rather than weaken my main contention.

§ 2. The super-ego

The question before us is whether we can get moral guidance from the study of nature—that is, of nature, not in any metaphysical sense, but as it is known by modern science. Can we substitute a scientific moral philosophy for the dim gropings and emotive utterances and metaphysical speculations of the past? Some distinguished scientific thinkers tell us that we can do this by studying the direction of the evolutionary process; and the prestige of modern science is so great that we are bound to listen to them. So far as I know, the doctrine has never been worked out systematically in this country since the time of Herbert Spencer—a philosopher no longer in high repute; but it has been expounded briefly by Dr. Julian Huxley in a rather sophisticated and eclectic way and by Professor Waddington much more bluntly. Both these thinkers believe that their doctrines are confirmed, if not established, by a study of psycho-analysis; and although I am at a loss to understand why they should think this, we must at least pause to note that psycho-analysis is supposed by some to be one of the pillars of the new scientific moral philosophy.

It is perhaps doubtful whether Freud himself would support such a claim: his philosophical interests seem limited mainly to a rather amateurish concern with his own presuppositions. The theories of the ego, the super-ego, and the id are based on a vast clinical experience which the layman cannot have, and it is hard to say whether they offer us more than a useful mythology. But even if they give us a correct account of infantile conflicts and of a proto-ethical mechanism which results from them, this establishes nothing about the nature and validity of our moral judgements. We might indeed argue that if moral judgements arise from this mechanism, they cannot have any validity whatsoever—this, as I have maintained throughout, is always a possible result of treating man merely as one object among others; but at present we are supposing on the contrary—in deference to certain scientific thinkers—that we can get correct moral guidance from our scientific studies. Freud regards morality as the control and restriction of instinct; and he tells us that from the point of view of morality ‘it may be said of the id that it is totally non-moral, of the ego that it strives to be moral, and of the super-ego that it can be hyper-moral and then becomes as ruthless as only the id can be’. From this it appears that Freud himself has a point of view—the point of view of morality—from which he is able to pass moral judgements on the ego, the super-ego, and the id, as these are portrayed by his science. If this is so, there is no reason why we should not be able to do the same.

One thing is abundantly clear—we can get no assurance that our moral judgements will be sound if we take them over from the super-ego, who appears to be a thoroughly unpleasant and unreasonable sort of person. Nor is there any evidence—if I may revert to our main line of enquiry—that the super-ego bases his judgements on the general direction of the evolutionary process, which is what we are being recommended to do. He is himself no doubt one of the infinitely varied outcomes of the evolutionary process, but this does not guarantee that he knows anything about it; nor does it afford any ground for listening to his moral exhortations. So far as I can see, he could be properly used only to discredit moral judgements—he is sometimes used to discredit the categorical imperative by people who have not even begun to grasp what the categorical imperative is. If the super-ego, with all his savagery and cruelty, is part of the psychological mechanism which is supposed to be produced by evolution, then the sooner we get him under rational control the better. Freud may give us valuable information about what we have to control and the kinds of treatment likely to be effective; but this is something wholly different from determining the principles and purpose of rational control itself.

§ 3. The ethics of evolution

We must now turn back to consider, without the aid of psychoanalysis, the naked contention that good moral action consists in following the general direction of the evolutionary process. This raises two questions: (1) What is the direction of the evolutionary process? And (2) Why ought we to follow it?

On the first point it is already possible to be entirely sceptical. I quote Professor A. D. Ritchie, who can speak as a scientist, and not merely as a philosopher. ‘The direction of the evolutionary process’, he says, ‘may have been revealed to Spencer or Dr. Waddington, but not by science’. On this point I think he is right, but it is hard to discuss it without passing on to our second question.

All arguments of the type we are considering are trying to argue from what is to what ought to be. I have suggested on an elementary level that those who imagine themselves to be doing this are really picking out from nature certain phenomena which seem to them to illustrate moral principles already accepted on quite different grounds. With the utmost respect for our distinguished scientists, they appear to be doing very much the same thing on a more magnificent scale.

If we are going to argue from what is to what ought to be, we ought to argue from all that is, without any arbitrary picking and choosing. That is to say, we ought to argue from the evolutionary direction of the whole cosmos, not of any particular part. But what can we say of this alleged direction if we extend our vision beyond the spectacle of life on our own particular earth? Sometimes it is suggested that the evolutionary process of the cosmos is from the more simple to the more complex. At other times it is suggested that the universe began with an explosion and is gradually running down. But even if we suppose one or other of these views to be established, what moral guidance could they give us? To speak very crudely—there seems to be no more reason for concluding that we ought to prefer the complex to the simple, than for concluding that we ought first to explode and then let ourselves gradually run down. And if there were any reason, it would certainly not be a scientific one.

But let us suppose, though it is hard to see why we should, that a good man ought to follow the evolutionary trend only of life on this planet. The difficulty then arises that there is no one trend—there are hundreds of trends—so once more we have to pick and choose.

Many species have become extinct, and that is one trend of evolution. Why should we not follow their example and aim at our own extinction? We might even secure psycho-analytic support for doing so: there appears to be some evidence for a ‘death-instinct’. It might, however, be argued that as extinct species can no longer be evolving, we should not be following the present trend of evolution if we modelled ourselves on them. This would look very like sophistry, and the conclusion seems to rest on the non-scientific and purely ethical assumption that continuing to evolve is a good thing; but as these lost species are no longer here to plead their own cause, we may let their case go by default.

Other species, like insects, have been so successful in their evolution that they have come to a dead-end. They were here long before man arrived, and they will be here long after he is gone. Why should we not imitate them? When we are told that we ought not to do this because they have stopped evolving, it becomes as clear as day that those who argue thus are not supplying the required inference from what is to what ought to be. They have, on the contrary, some principle of preference, rational or irrational, but certainly one which has nothing to do with science. Unlike Plato they prefer to be dynamic rather than static; they prefer the changing to the stationary; and so they look round the world, they pick out the things which accord with their preferences, and they tell us that from these things alone we shall be able to get real moral guidance at last. They imagine they are distilling moral principles out of evolution, when all they are doing is to inject, or project, moral principles into evolution. No procedure could be less scientific, or less philosophic. We are back again in the nursery.

I have stated this fallacy crudely—perhaps too crudely—because I believe it to be an elementary fallacy concealed under scientific statements and moral judgements which are logically unconnected although they may have their own independent validity. When Dr. Huxley says that what we may legitimately call progress ‘consists in the capacity to attain a higher degree of organization, but without closing the door to a further advance’, he is not making a scientific, but an ethical judgement, as we can see from his use of words like ‘higher’ and ‘advance’. Only because he has done so is there any plausibility in the inference that ‘it is right to realize ever new possibilities in evolution, notably those which are valued for their own sake’. The discovery that possibilities may be ‘valued for their own sake’ is an independent ethical judgement which cannot be inferred from any scientific facts. Dr. Huxley propounds some admirable moral principles because he is a civilized man able to think and act morally; but he makes a profound mistake in supposing, as he does, that ‘the ultimate guarantees for the correctness of our labels of rightness and wrongness are to be sought for among the facts of evolutionary direction’. It cannot be too strongly insisted that science as such is absolutely neutral as between good and evil. Even if evolution had a direction, the policy of climbing on to the band wagon would have nothing to do with morality, though it might be recommended by self-interest. We cannot make our morality depend on the way the cat is going to jump.

§ 4. The ethics of communism

There is a far more formidable and more philosophic school of thought which attempts to derive morality from the scientific study of nature. The dialectical materialism of Karl Marx proposes in the name of science to root out our bourgeois morality as well as our bourgeois religion; and we cannot afford to ignore its challenge. From the Marxist point of view the liberal doctrines of Dr. Huxley are merely idealistic philosophies invented by the lackeys of capitalism in order to exploit the working proletariat. It is interesting to observe how opposing systems of ethics may be professedly derived from a study of the same scientific facts; and this by itself suggests that the whole method is grounded on an illusion.

According to the communists, traditional morality is deduced from the alleged commandments of God in order to protect the interests of the bourgeoisie as exploiters. Idealistic philosophy is merely a more sophisticated attempt to do precisely the same thing. In modern society, we are told, a professor of philosophy is, in most cases, nothing but ‘the diploma-ed lackey of clericalism’. The communist on the other hand—I take this from Lenin himself—deduces morality ‘from the facts and needs of the class struggle of the proletariat’. For him ‘morality is subordinated to the interests of the proletarian class struggle’. A statement of this kind implies that man's only duty is to adopt the most efficient means to success in the class struggle. It is easy to see what dreadful results, from a bourgeois point of view, are likely to follow from the contention that this end justifies the means; but here we are concerned with communism as a philosophy, not as a political movement. It will be noted that bourgeois morality is condemned precisely because it is alleged to recommend the means to the success of the bourgeoisie in the class struggle. Hence there is in communism a prior assumption, namely, that the success of the bourgeoisie in the class struggle is a bad thing, while the success of the proletariat is a good one. How is this assumption to be justified by science?

We may suspect that the choice of proletarian success as an overriding end springs from a passion for justice which is present in men as men and is independent of the interests of persons or classes. In his choice of end the communist, like the idealists he despises, is appealing to an absolute or objective standard, though we may think that his revolutionary ardour leads him to adopt an end that is unduly narrow. This is borne out by the authors of ‘The God that Failed’, all of whom seem to have been attracted to communism by a passion for justice together with the ingenuous belief that a scientific method of securing justice by means of violence had at last been discovered. They were soon disillusioned.

The official doctrine of communism cannot admit the idealistic view that men as men may be able to seek justice for its own sake independently of their class. Hence they have to put forward an elaborate philosophy which attempts to derive moral standards from the study of nature. It is this philosophy, the philosophy of dialectical materialism, that we have now briefly to consider.

§ 5. Dialectical materialism

Dialectical materialism sets up to be scientific. As a typical product of the nineteenth century it takes a materialistic view of nature, but it professes to study nature by a dialectical method derived originally from Hegel.

It is impossible to describe the dialectical method of Hegel in a few words. Speaking very roughly, we may say that on the Hegelian view the advance of thought consists in overcoming contradictory or opposing theories. This is done by discovering a wider point of view, a more comprehensive theory, in which they can be reconciled. This wider theory is called a higher synthesis, in which the previous contradictions find their proper place and so cease to be contradictions. This can be done most effectively, not by blurring the contradictions, but by making them as extreme as possible. Indeed Hegel holds that if you think out one of your apparently contradictory theories to its logical conclusion it will pass over into its opposite, and so prepare the way for a higher synthesis. This process he finds actually working out in the history of thought and of civilization. It is confirmed by the popular belief that extremes meet. Perhaps we may find something like it in politics in what is called the swing of the pendulum.

There is in all this at least a germ of truth, though most people hold to-day that Hegel made far too much of it. What is much more dubious is the extension of these ideas to nature, where—again speaking roughly—the opposition of forces takes the place of logical contradiction.

Dialectical materialism takes over a good deal of its method from Hegel, but its special task is to apply the doctrine to nature. For it the oppositions or contradictions in material nature are fundamental, and it is they which give rise to oppositions and contradictions in human thought and behaviour. This materialistic contention is directly opposed to the idealism of Hegel. It turns Hegel upside down and is thus itself an illustration of the Hegelian doctrine that philosophical theories tend to pass over into their precise opposite. But there is no suggestion of any higher synthesis.

The principal question before us is this. Does Marxist dialectic give a scientific account of nature and subsequently extract from this its moral and political ideals; or does it, on the contrary, pick and choose in nature precisely those phenomena which look as if they provide support for moral and political ideals independently formed? Wherever we find in a professedly scientific account the use of words like ‘important’, ‘higher’, ‘onward’ and ‘upward’, we may be sure that the author is not being scientific, but is on the contrary injecting his own moral ideals into his science. It is interesting to apply this clue to the official account of dialectical materialism as expounded by Stalin himself. It will be sufficient if we print in italics the words that give the show away.

According to the official doctrine, nature is an integral and developing whole in which every part is conditioned by every other part and in which some things are always coming to be and others are ceasing to be. The things which are coming to be are of primary importance for the dialectical method, even when they are not yet fully established. The process of development in nature is one in which a series of insignificant quantitative changes lead to rapid and abrupt qualitative changes; for example, imperceptible changes of temperature result suddenly in water changing into ice or steam. Therefore this development is an ‘onward and upward movement’ from the simple to the complex, from the lower to the higher. What a jump!

At this point we are introduced to the internal contradictions in nature—the essential mark of dialectic. All phenomena have their positive and negative sides. They are positive so far as they are coming into being, and negative so far as they are going out of being. Hence we conclude that development consists in a struggle between these opposites, between the old and the new. Development from the lower to the higher is in short not a harmonious process: it is rather ‘a struggle of opposite tendencies’ based on the contradictions inherent in phenomena.

The conclusion may appear to be a trifle hurried, but it is not difficult to see where we are going.

§ 6. Historical materialism

According to the official theory, it is easy to apply these methods to the history of society and so to turn history, and even socialism itself, into a science. Indeed if social life is determined by matter, we know beforehand that we shall find in society the same principles of development already found in the material world.

If everything is conditioned by everything else, if all phenomena are interdependent, we have to evaluate systems of society, not by reference to eternal justice, but by reference to the conditions which give rise to each system. Thus under certain conditions slavery may be an advance on a primitive communal system, feudalism may be an advance on slavery, capitalism an advance on feudalism, and socialism an advance on capitalism. In determining what is an advance we base our orientation, not on the social classes which are disintegrating, but on those which are developing—in other words, at present on the proletariat. Here we have a very clear statement of the morality of the band wagon, or the jumping cat, based on a scientific knowledge of the direction of evolution. ‘In order not to err in policy, one must look forward, not backward’.

The remaining principles are, from a bourgeois point of view, more sinister, but they are interesting as specimens of Marxist inference.

If it is a law of development in nature that slow quantitative changes pass into rapid and abrupt qualitative changes, ‘then it is clear that revolutions made by oppressed classes are a quite natural and inevitable phenomenon’. Hence the liberation of the working class from the yoke of capitalism cannot be effected by slow changes, that is, by reforms, but only by a qualitative change of the capitalist system, by revolution. Similarly, if development in nature is a struggle between opposites, the class struggle of the proletariat is a quite natural and inevitable phenomenon. Hence we must not try to check the class struggle but rather carry it to its conclusion. We must pursue an uncompromising proletarian class policy. We must always be revolutionaries and not reformers.

There is much more both of logical and political interest in the development of this philosophy, which is too little studied to-day. In particular, it should be noted that although social ideas are the product of the material conditions of life, they can nevertheless, once they are formed, react upon the material conditions of life. This doctrine distinguishes dialectical materialism from vulgar materialism. In the words of Marx himself ‘Theory becomes a material force as soon as it has gripped the masses’. Such a doctrine must inevitably be held by revolutionaries whose business is to spread theories and translate them into action.

In spite of the interesting features and occasional truths of the Marxist philosophy, and in spite of the hushed awe and bated breath with which it is often mentioned by modern intellectuals, it is surely obvious that while this doctrine may be a potent instrument of revolution among the uneducated, it is in its central core nothing but a nest of fallacies. These revolutionary ideals are no more derived from the scientific study of nature than are the liberal and humanitarian ideals of Dr. Huxley: they are, on the contrary, read into nature by people who have arrived at them on quite other grounds. The whole method of equating logical contradictions with opposing forces in nature, and with the passage from the old to the new, is a piece of mythology designed to support a political theory. Furthermore, it would be possible to reverse the argument. If small quantitative changes gradually produce abrupt qualitative ones, why should we not argue that by making small and gradual quantitative changes—for example, in income tax—we shall be able to produce quite suddenly a new heaven and a new earth and that this is the method of nature we ought to follow? Such might be the reformer's argument, and it would be no less valid, and no more valid, than the revolutionary's. Neither argument has any validity at all—they are both totally irrevelant to any political decision.

The plain fact is that you cannot make any inference whatever from what nature is or does to what man ought to be or ought to do. Until this is realized, ethical discussion will be bedevilled by intellectual confusions. There is and can be no way of arriving at moral principles except by analysing the implications of moral judgements and moral actions. This passion for basing morality on some kind of external authority seems to be one of the deep-rooted mental diseases of the human race. Those who cannot base their morality on divine revelation seek to base it instead on scientific revelation. There is no scientific revelation; but if we had to choose, it is obviously more rational to believe in divine revelation. God is at least supposed to be good and intelligent, while nature—considered as the object of science and not as the creation of God—is not supposed to have any goodness or intelligence at all.

The belief that morality rests only on a divine revelation which is beyond ethical criticism has done great moral harm: in our own country we have only to think of the injunction ‘Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live’. But although the scientific revelation of dialectical materialism has had a shorter run, in the production of iniquities it seems to be rapidly overtaking, if it has not already outstripped, its predecessor.

§ 7. Science and morality

I can see no direct way of controverting the very simple considerations I have put forward, but it may be thought that there are indirect ways. Those who seek moral guidance from science tend to assume that the only alternative to their view is an obscurantist ethics which supposes that a good man, alike in his moral judgements and his moral actions, need take no account of science whatsoever. Such a contention is one more example of the same confusion of thought.

All action, including moral action, takes place in the world, must be adjusted to the world, and must vary as the world varies: no sane man wears a heavy over-coat in the height of summer. This means for intelligent agents that their practical and moral judgements must be made in the light of their knowledge of the world, and can be made best when they have the fullest and most scientific knowledge. It is even in a sense true that the world in which we act varies as our knowledge varies; for each man has to decide on his actions in the world as he knows it, not as it might be known by somebody else. Science gives us knowledge of the world, of how it is, was, and will be, of its actual and possible variations, of the causes of effects and the means to possible ends. Thus—quite apart from the physical changes effected by applied science and the vastly different situations to which these changes give rise—the mere theoretical knowledge of science may be said to give us a new world in which to act; for the world as known to modern man is utterly different from the world as known to our primitive ancestors. All this is equally true of our own nature considered as part of the world. Inadequate knowledge of our selves and of our world may lead to the misdirection of our energies and the complete frustration of our efforts. For purposes of action we cannot have too much scientific knowledge, and nothing that I have said has been opposed to this even in the slightest degree.

What I am maintaining is that when you have acquired all the knowledge (including scientific knowledge) possible for you in any given situation, you have still to make up your mind how you ought to act. This is an entirely different process: the moral judgement involved in it is different in kind from a purely theoretical or scientific judgement. You may say, if you like, that scientific knowledge gives you guidance; but the guidance it gives you is guidance as to facts—guidance as to the situation in which you are, the passions and potentialities of yourself and others, the possible alternative courses open to you and their probable results, the best means to your desired ends (including your moral ends), and so on. Such guidance is of the utmost importance to action, and to suppose we can neglect it is the extreme of folly; but to call it moral guidance is utterly misleading; for moral guidance is concerned, not with the situation which you have to meet, but with the ideal which in that situation you ought to pursue. The two kinds of guidance are fundamentally different, and there is no simple passage by way of inference from one to the other.

To accept these elementary truths does not commit you to an obscurantist ethics. It does not commit you, as Dr. Huxley appears to think, to standards ‘grounded in Authority, Absolute, or Revelation’ (all with capital letters). It does not commit you, as Professor Waddington appears to think, to the intuitions of priests, poets, and prophets. It does not even commit you, as Lenin appears to think, to the superhuman and non-class conceptions which are a swindle, a deception, a befogging of the minds of the workers and peasants in the interests of landlords and capitalists. In fact it does not commit you to any particular system of ethics at all. It merely states that there is a moral problem, and that this is quite distinct from a scientific problem. You may think that the problem admits of no rational solution and that for the purposes of action men must fall back upon arbitrary choices or emotional attitudes or self-interest, or upon the external authority of prophets and priests, of a Holy Book or an Infallible Church. You may think, as I do, that the problem is not one of theoretical insight or logical deduction, but of rational action and its implications. All these and perhaps many other views remain open. What does not remain open is the possibility that knowledge of what I do or you do, of what bees, ants, or robins do, of what water, ice, and steam do, or even of what nature does in the general direction of evolution, can be, or be a substitute for, any kind of moral judgement.

I hope I have not spoken too strongly, but this seems to me to be one of the few questions on which all philosophers ought to agree. Science is ethically neutral. It enlarges, beyond the wildest dreams of our ancestors, the scope and possibility of human action, both moral and immoral; but—except in technical questions, where the end is already given—it can never by itself tell us what we ought to do.

From the book: