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Lecture 4: Ethics and Theism


I TURN now from contemplation to action; from Æsthetics to Ethics. And in so doing I must ask permission to stretch the ordinary meaning of the term which I use to describe the subject-matter of the present lecture, as I have already stretched the meaning of the term which described the subject-matter of the last. “Æsthetics” there included much besides beauty; “Ethics” here will include much besides morality. As, under the first head, were ranged contemplative interests far lower in the scale than (for example) those of art, so I shall extend the use of the word “Ethics” till it embraces the whole range of what used to be called the “springs of action,” from the loftiest love down to impulses which in themselves are non-moral, instinctive, even automatic.

The grounds for this procedure are similar in both cases. I am mainly, almost exclusively, concerned with beliefs and emotions touching beauty and goodness. Yet it is important to remember that, considered as natural products, these shade off by insensible gradations into manifestations of life to which the words “belief” and “emotion” are quite inapplicable, where “beauty” and “goodness” have little meaning or none. And as this larger class, when concerned with action, has at present no better name, I may be permitted to describe it as ethical.

I am mainly concerned, however, with that higher part of the ethical scale which all would agree to call Moral, and with the debatable region immediately below it. Of purposive action, or what seems to be such, of a still lower type, I need say little—but we must never forget that it is there.

Morals, as I conceive them, are concerned with ends of action: and principally with ultimate ends of action. An end of action, in so far as it is ultimate, is one which is pursued for itself alone, and not as a means to some other end. Of course an end may be, and constantly is, both ultimate and contributory. It is sought for on its own account, and also as an instrument for procuring something else. It is mainly in the first of these capacities, however, that it concerns morality.

For the purposes of this lecture I shall classify ultimate ends as either egoistic or altruistic—egoistic ends being those that are immediately connected with, or centred in, the agent; altruistic ends being those that are not. But I beg you to remember that this distinction does not correspond to that between right and wrong. Egoism is not necessarily vicious, nor is altruism necessarily virtuous. Indeed, as I shall have occasion to point out later, the blackest vices, such as cruelty and hatred, are often altruistic.

This is an unusual, though not, I think, an unreasonable, use of language. “Egoism” and “altruism” are terms historically associated with the moral theories which regard happiness as the only end of action, but are under the necessity of distinguishing between actions designed to secure the happiness of the agent and actions designed to secure the happiness of other people. I do not accept these theories, though I borrow their phraseology. Happiness may, or may not, be the highest of all ultimate ends, the one to which all others should give way. But it seems to me quite misleading to call it the only one. To describe the sensual man, the vain man, the merely selfish man, the miser, the ascetic, the man moved by rational self-love, the man absorbed in the task of “self-realisation,” the man consumed by the passion for posthumous fame, as all pursuing the same egoistic end by different means, is surely to confuse distinctions of great moral importance without any gain of scientific clarity. In like manner, to suppose that the man who spends himself in the service (say) of his family, his country, or his church, is only striving for the “happiness” of the human race, or of certain selected members of the human race, is (it seems to me) to ignore the plain teaching of daily experience. As there are many egoistic ends besides our own happiness, so there are many altruistic ends besides the happiness of others. The extended sense, therefore, in which I employ these terms seems justified by facts.


I shall not attempt to determine the point at which we can first clearly discriminate between the “egoistic” and “altruistic” elements in animal instinct. Evidently, however, it is anterior to and independent of any conceptual recognition either of an ego or an alter. It might be argued that there is an altruistic element in the most egoistic instincts. Eating, multiplying, fighting, and running away—acts plainly directed towards preserving and satisfying the individual—also conduce to the preservation of the race. But, however this may be, the converse is certainly untrue. There are altruistic instincts into which no element of egoism enters. Of these the most important is parental, especially maternal, love: the most amazing are the impulses which regulate the complex polity of (for example) a Live of bees. In these cases one organism will work or fight or endure for others: it will sacrifice its life for its offspring, or for the commonwealth of which it is a member. Egoism is wholly lost in altruism.

Now, I suppose that, in the order of causation, all these animal instincts, be they egoistic or altruistic, must be treated as contrivances for aiding a species in the struggle for existence. If anything be due to selection, surely these must be. This is plainly true of the egoistic appetites and impulses on which depend the maintenance of life and its propagation. It must also be true of the altruistic instincts. Take, for instance, the case of parental devotion. Its survival value is clearly immense. The higher animals, as at present constituted, could not exist without it; and though, for all we can say to the contrary, development might have followed a different course, and a race not less effectively endowed than man might flourish though parental care played no greater part in the life-history of its members than it does in the life-history of a herring, yet this is not what has actually happened. Altruistic effort, in the world as we know it, is as essential to the higher organisms as the self-regarding instincts and appetites are to organic life in general; and there seems no reason for attributing to it a different origin.

Can this be said with a like confidence about the higher portions of the ethical scale? Are these also due to selection?

Evidently the difference between primitive instincts and developed morality is immense; and it is as great in the egoistic as in the non-egoistic region of ethics. Ideals of conduct, the formulation of ends, judgments of their relative worth, actions based on principles, deliberate choice between alternative policies, the realised distinction between the self and other personalities or other centres of feeling—all these are involved in developed morality, while in animal ethics they exist not at all, or only in the most rudimentary forms.

Compare, for instance, a society of bees and a society of men. In both there is division of labour; in both there is organised effort towards an end which is other and greater than the individual good of any single member of the community. But though there are these deep-lying resemblances between the two cases, how important are the differences which divide them! In the beehive altruism is obeyed, but not chosen. Alternative ends are not contrasted. No member of the community thinks that it could do something different from, and more agreeable than, the inherited task. Nor in truth could it. General interest and individual interest are never opposed, for they are never distinguished. The agent never compares, and therefore never selects.

Far different are the ethical conditions requiring consideration when we turn from bees to men. Here egoism and altruism are not only distinguished in reflection; they may be, and often are, incompatible in practice. Nor does this conflict of ends only show itself between these two great ethical divisions; it is not less apparent within them. Here, then, we find ourselves in a world of moral conflict very faintly foreshadowed in animal ethics. For us, ultimate ends are many. They may reinforce each other, or they may weaken each other. They may harmonise, or they may clash. Personal ends may prove incompatible with group ends: one group end may prove incompatible with another. Loyalty may be ranged against loyalty, altruism against altruism; nor is there any court of appeal which can decide between them.

But there are yet other differences between the ethics of instinct and the ethics of reflection. Instincts are (relatively) definite and stable; they move in narrow channels; they cannot easily be enlarged in scope, or changed in character. The animal mother, for example, cares for its young children, but never for its young grandchildren. The lifelong fidelity of the parent birds in certain species (a fidelity seemingly independent of the pairing season, or the care of particular broods) never becomes the nucleus of a wider association. Altruistic instincts may lead to actions which equal, or surpass, man's highest efforts of abnegation; but the actions are matters of routine, and the instincts never vary. They emerge in the same form at the same stage of individual growth, like any other attribute of the species—its colour, for instance, or its claws. And if they be, like colour and claws, the products of selection, this is exactly what we should expect. But then, if the loyalties of man be also the product of selection, why do they not show a similar fixity?

Plainly they do not. Man inherits the capacity for loyalty, but not the use to which he shall put it. The persons and causes (if any) to which he shall devote himself are suggested to him, often, indeed, imposed upon him, by education and environment. Nevertheless, they are his by choice, not by hereditary compulsion. And his choice may be bad. He may unselfishly devote himself to what is petty or vile, as he may to what is generous and noble. But on the possibility of error depends the possibility of progress; and if (to borrow a phrase from physics) our loyalty possessed as few “degrees of freedom” as that of ants or bees, our social organisation would be as rigid.

The most careless glance at the pages of history, or the world of our own experience, will show how varied are the forms in which this capacity for loyalty is displayed. The Spartans at Thermopylae, the “Blues” and the “Greens” at Byzantium, rival politicians in a hard-fought election, players and spectators at an Eton and Harrow Match, supply familiar illustrations of its variety and vigour. And do not suppose that in thus bringing together the sublime, the familiar, and the trivial, I am paradoxically associating matters essentially disparate. This is not so. I am not putting on a moral level the patriot and the partisan, the martyr to some great cause and the shouting spectator at a school match. What I am insisting on is that they all have loyalty in common; a loyalty which often is, and always may be, pure from egoistic alloy.

Loyalties, then, which are characteristically human differ profoundly from those which are characteristically animal. The latter are due to instincts which include both the end to be sought for and the means by which it is to be attained. The former are rooted in a general capacity for, or inclination to, loyalty, with little inherited guidance either as to ends or means. Yet, if we accept selection as the source of the first, we can hardly reject it as the source of the second. For the survival value of loyalty is manifest. It lies at the root of all effective co-operation. Without it the family and tribe would be impossible; and without the family and the tribe, or some yet higher organisation, men, if they could exist at all, would be more helpless than cattle, weak against the alien forces of nature, at the mercy of human foes more capable of loyalty than themselves. A more powerful aid in the struggle for existence cannot easily be imagined.

We are indeed apt to forget how important are its consequences, even when it supplies no more than a faint qualification of other and more obvious motives. It acts like those alloys which, in doses relatively minute, add strength and elasticity even to steel. The relation (for example) between a commercial company and its officials is essentially a business one. The employer pays the market price for honesty and competence, and has no claim to more. Yet that company is surely either unfortunate or undeserving whose servants are wholly indifferent to its fortunes, feeling no faintest flicker of pride when it succeeds, no tinge of regret when it fails. Honourable is the tie between those who exchange honest wage and honest work; yet loyalty can easily better it. And a like truth is manifest in spheres of action less reputable than those of commerce. Mercenaries, to be worth hiring, must be partly moved by forces higher than punishment or pay. Even pirates could not plunder with profit were their selfishness unredeemed by some slight tincture of reciprocal loyalty.

There are, however, many who would admit the occasional importance of loyalty while strenuously denying that social life was wholly based upon it. For them society is an invention; of all inventions the most useful, but still only an invention. It was (they think) originally devised by individuals in their individual interest; and, though common action was the machinery employed, personal advantage was the end desired. By enlightened egoism social organisation was created; by enlightened egoism it is maintained and improved. Contrivance, therefore, not loyalty, is the master faculty required.

This is a great delusion—quite unsupported by anything we know or can plausibly conjecture about the history of mankind. No one, indeed, doubts that deliberate adaptation of means to ends has helped to create, and is constantly modifying, human societies; nor yet that egoism has constantly perverted political and social institutions to merely private uses. But there is something more fundamental to be borne in mind, namely, that without loyalty there would be no societies to modify, and no institutions to pervert. If these were merely well-designed instruments like steam-engines and telegraphs, they would be worthless. They would perish at the first shock, did they not at once fall into ruin by their own weight. If they are to be useful as means, they must first impose themselves as ends; they must possess a quality beyond the reach of contrivance: the quality of commanding disinterested service and uncalculating devotion.


I should therefore be ready to admit, as a plausible conjecture, that the capacity for altruistic emotions and beliefs is a direct product of organic evolution; an attribute preserved and encouraged, because it is useful to the race, and transmitted from parents to offspring by physiological inheritance. On this theory loyalty in some shape or other is as natural to man as maternal affection is natural to mammals. Doubtless it is more variable in strength, more flexible in direction, more easily smothered by competing egoisms; but the capacity for it is not less innate, and not less necessary in the struggle for existence. But when we ask how far selection has been responsible for the development of high altruistic ideals out of primitive forms of loyalty, we touch on problems of much greater complexity. Evidently there has been a profound moral transformation in the course of ages. None suppose that ethical values are appraised in the twentieth century as they were in the first stone age. But what has caused the change is not so clear.

There are obvious, and, I think, insurmountable difficulties in attributing it to organic selection. Selection is of the fittest—of the fittest to survive. But in what consists this particular kind of fitness? The answer from the biological point of view is quite simple: almost a matter of definition. That race is “fit” which maintains its numbers; and that race is fittest which most increases them. The judge of such “fitness” is not the moralist or the statesman. It is the Registrar-General. So little is “fitness” inseparably attached to excellence, that it would be rash to say that there is any quality, however unattractive, which might not in conceivable circumstances assist survival. High authorities, I believe, hold that at this moment in Britain we have so managed matters that congenital idiots increase faster than any other class of the population. If so, they must be deemed the “fittest” of our countrymen. No doubt this fact, if it be a fact, is an accident of our social system. Legislation has produced this happy adaptation of environment to organism, and legislation might destroy it. The fittest to-day might become the unfittest to-morrow. But this is nothing to the purpose. That part of man's environment which is due to man does no doubt usually vary more quickly than the part which is due to nature; none the less is it environment in the strictest sense of the word. The theory of selection draws no essential distinction between (say) the secular congelation of a continent in the ice age, and the workings of the English Poor Law in the twentieth century. It is enough that each, while it lasts, favours or discourages particular heritable variations, and modifies the qualities that make for “survival.”

What is more important, however, than the fact that heritable “fitness” may be completely divorced from mental and moral excellence, is the fact that so large a part of man's mental and moral characteristics are not heritable at all, and cannot therefore be directly due to organic selection. Races may accumulate accomplishments, yet remain organically unchanged. They may learn and they may forget, they may rise from barbarism to culture, and sink back from culture to barbarism, while through all these revolutions the raw material of their humanity varies never a bit. In such cases there can be no question of Natural Selection in the sense in which biologists use the term.

And there are other considerations which suggest that, as development proceeds, the forces of organic selection diminish. While man was in the making we may easily believe that those possessing no congenital instinct for loyalty failed, and that failure involved elimination. In such circumstances, the hereditary instinct would become an inbred characteristic of the race. But in a civilised, or even in a semi-civilised, world, the success of one competitor has rarely involved the extinction of the other—at least by mere slaughter. When extinction has followed defeat, it has been due rather to the gradual effects of disease and hardship, or to other causes more obscure, but not less deadly. The endless struggles between tribes, cities, nations, and races, have in the main been struggles for domination, not for existence. Slavery, not death, has been the penalty of failure; and if domination has produced a change in the inherited type, it is not because the conquered has perished before the conqueror, but because, conquest having brought them together, the two have intermarried. There is thus no close or necessary connection between biological “fitness” and military or political success. The beaten race, whose institutions or culture perish, may be the race which in fact survives; while victors who firmly establish their language, religion, and polity may, after a few centuries, leave scarce a trace behind them of any heritable characteristics which the anthropologist is able to detect.

This observation, however, suggests a new point. Is there not, you may ask, a “struggle for existence” between non-heritable acquirements which faintly resembles the biological struggle between individuals or species? Religious systems, political organisations, speculative creeds, industrial inventions, national policies, scientific generalisations, and (what specially concerns us now) ethical ideals, are in perpetual competition and conflict. Some maintain themselves or expand. These are, by definition, the “fit.” Some wane or perish. These are, by definition, the unfit. Here we find selection, survival, elimination; and, though we see them at work in quite other regions of reality than those explored by the student of organic evolution, the analogy between the two cases is obvious.

But is the analogy more than superficial? Is it relevant to our present argument? Can it explain either the spread of higher moral ideals or their development? Let us consider for a moment some examples of this psychological “struggle for existence.” Take, as a simple case, the competition between rival inventions—between the spinning-jenny and the hand-loom, the breech-loader and the muzzle-loader, pre-Listerian and post-Listerian methods of surgery. Unless the environment be strongly charged with prejudice, ignorance, or sinister interests, the “fittest” in such cases is that which best serves its purpose. Measurable efficiency is the quality which wins. But this supplies us with no useful analogy when we are dealing with ethics. Morality, as I have already insisted, is not an invention designed to serve an external purpose. The “struggle for existence” between higher and lower ethical ideals has no resemblance to the struggle between the spinning-jenny and the hand-loom. It is a struggle between ends, not between means. Efficiency is not in question.

A like observation applies to that quality of our beliefs which might be described as “argumentative plausibility.” This is to abstract theorising what efficiency is to practical invention. It has survival value. Both, of course, are relative terms, whose application varies with circumstances. An invention is only efficient while the commodity it produces is in demand. A theory is only plausible while it hits off the intellectual temper of the day. But if efficiency and plausibility be thus understood, the more efficient invention and the more plausible doctrine will oust their less favoured rivals. They are the “fittest.” But as morality is not a means, so neither is it a conclusion. Whatever be its relation to Reason, reasoning can never determine the essential nature of its contents. Plausibility, therefore, is no more in question than efficiency.

I do not, of course, deny that ethics are always under discussion, or that the basis of moral rules and their application are themes of unending controversy. This is plainly true. But it is also true that there is no argumentative method of shaking any man's allegiance to an end which he deems intrinsically worthy, except by showing it to be inconsistent with some other end which he (not you) deems more worthy still. Dialectic can bring into clear consciousness the implicit beliefs which underlie action, but it cannot either prove them or refute them. It is as untrue to say that there is no disputing about morals as to say that there is no disputing about tastes. But also it is as true; and the truth, properly understood, is fundamental.

What pass for opposing arguments are really rival appeals; and it is interesting to observe that the appeal which, to the unreflecting, seems the most rational is the appeal to selfishness. I am told1 that on any fine Sunday afternoon in some of our big towns you may find an orator asking why any man should love his country. “What,” he inquires, “does a man get by it? Will national success bring either to himself or to any of his hearers more food, more drink, more amusements? If not, why make personal sacrifices for what will never confer personal advantage?” To this particular question it might be replied (though not always with truth) that the antithesis is a false one, and that on the whole the selfish ideal and the patriotic ideal are both promoted by the same policy of public service. But there is another question of the same type to which no such answer is possible. We have all heard it, either in jest or in earnest. “Why” (it is asked) “should we do anything for posterity, seeing that posterity will do nothing for us?” The implication is infamous, but the statement is true. We cannot extract from posterity an equivalent for the sacrifices we make on its behalf. These are debts that will never be recovered. The unborn cannot be sued; the dead cannot be repaid. But what then? Altruism is not based on egoism; it is not egoism in disguise. The ends to which it points are ends in themselves; and their value is quite independent of argument, neither capable of proof nor requiring it.

In what, then, consists the psychological (as distinguished from the organic) “fitness” of the higher moral ideals? If it cannot be found in their practical efficiency, nor yet in their argumentative plausibility, where shall we seek it?

Sometimes, no doubt, the explanation is to be found in their association with a culture, other elements of which do possess both these kinds of “fitness.” Thus Western morality—or (to be accurate) Western notions of morality—find favour with backward races, because they are associated with Western armaments and Western arts. Again, they may be diffused, perhaps as part of some militant religion, by the power of the sword or by its prestige. They reach new regions in the train of a conqueror, and willingly or unwillingly the conquered accept them.

But these associations are seemingly quite casual. The prestige of Western arts and science may assist the diffusion of Western morals, as it assists the diffusion of Western languages, or Western clothes. Conquests by Mahommedan or Christian States may substitute a higher for a lower ethical creed in this or that region of the world. Such cases, however, leave us still in the realm of accident. The causes thus assigned for the spread of a particular type of ethical ideal have nothing to do with the quality of that type. They would promote bad morals not less effectively than good; as a hose will, with equal ease, scatter dirty water or clean. Moreover, the growth of the higher type in its place of origin is left wholly unexplained. Its “fitness” seems a mere matter of luck due neither to design nor to any natural imitation of design.

The rigour of this conclusion would he little mitigated even if we could connect psychological fitness with some quite non-moral peculiarity habitually associated with the higher morality, but not with the lower. If, for example, the former were found to lead normally to worldly success, its repute would need no further explanation. If, in private life, those endowed with Sir Charles Grandison's merits usually possessed Sir Charles Grandison's estate, if, in political or national life, victory and virtue went ever hand in hand, morality might be none the better, but certainly it would be more the fashion. Heaven would be wearied with prayers for an unselfish spirit, uttered by suppliants from purely selfish motives. Saints would become the darlings of society, and the book of Job would be still unwritten.2

I can devise no more extravagant hypothesis. But though, if it were true, the “fitness” of the higher morality might seem to have found an explanation, it is not the explanation we require. It is too external. It gives no account of the appeal which the nobler ends of action make to our judgments of intrinsic value. It suggests the way in which a higher ideal might increase the number of its possessors at the expense of a lower, but not the way in which the higher ideal might itself arise. Indeed, we must go further. Few are the moralists who would maintain that indifference to worldly triumphs was not, on the whole, a bar to their attainment. Few are the biologists who would maintain that care and kindness, lavished on the biologically unfit, Mall never tend to diminish the relative number of the biologically fit. But, if so, we must agree with Nietzsche in thinking that ethical values have become “denaturalised.” In their primitive forms the products of selection, they have, by a kind of internal momentum, overpassed their primitive purpose. Made by nature for a natural object, they have developed along lines which are certainly independent of selection, perhaps in opposition to it. And though not as remote from their first manifestations as is the æsthetic of men from the æsthetic of monkeys, no evolutionary explanation will bridge the interval. If we treat the Sermon on the Mount as a naturalistic product, it is as much an evolutionary accident as Hamlet or the Ninth Symphony.


In what setting, then, are we to place morality so that these “denaturalised” values may be retained? Can we be content to regard the highest loyalties, the most devoted love, the most limitless self-abnegation as the useless excesses of a world-system, which in its efforts to adapt organism to environment has overshot its mark?

I deem it impossible. The naturalistic setting must be expanded into one which shall give the higher ethics an origin congruous with their character. Selection must be treated as an instrument of purpose, not simply as its mimic. Theistic teleology must be substituted for Naturalism. Thus, and thus only, can moral values, as it seems to me, be successfully maintained.

This would not, I suppose, have been denied by Nietzsche and Nietzsche's predecessors in revolt. On the contrary, they would admit the interdependence of morals and religion, as these are commonly understood in Christendom, and they would condemn both. It would, however, have been vehemently denied by agnostics like Huxley; for Huxley accepted, broadly speaking, Christian ethics, while refusing to accept the Christian, or, indeed, any other form of theology.

In my opinion, this position is not permanently tenable. I do not mean that it involves a logical contradiction. I do mean that it involves an emotional and doctrinal incompatibility of a very fundamental kind. And this is a defect which may be even more fatal than logical contradiction to the stability of ethical beliefs.

For what was Huxley's position? His condemnation of evolutionary ethics was far more violent than my own. He states categorically that “What is ethically best involves conduct which in all respects is opposed to that which leads to success in the cosmic struggle for existence.” On a biological question I differ from him with misgiving; but, as I have already urged, selection may plausibly be credited with the earlier stages of the noblest virtues. I cannot think that the mother who sacrifices herself for her child, the clansman who dies for his chief, the generation which suffers for the sake of its posterity, are indulging in “conduct which is in all respects opposed to that which leads to success in the cosmic struggle for existence.” But, whether Huxley be right on this point or I, it is surely impossible for the mass of mankind to maintain, at the cost of much personal loss, an ideal of conduct which science tells us is not merely an evolutionary accident, but an evolutionary mistake; something which was, and is, contrary to the whole trend of the cosmic process which brought us into being, and made us what we are. It requires but a small knowledge of history to show how easily mankind idealises nature; witness such phrases as “the return to nature,” the “state of nature,” “natural rights,” “natural law,” and so forth. Appeals founded upon these notions have proved powerful, even when they ran counter to individualistic selfishness. When the two are in alliance, how can they be resisted? Is it possible for the ordinary man to maintain undimmed his altruistic ideals if he thinks Nature is against them?—unless, indeed, he also believes that God is on their side?


Here are questions raised to which there is no parallel in the case of æsthetics. Doubtless differences of æsthetic judgment abound; but they do not produce difficulties quite matching those due to the collision of incompatible ends; nor is their solution so important. On this subject I must say a few words before bringing this lecture to a conclusion.

Possible collisions between ends are many, for ends themselves are many. And of these ends some are in their very nature irreconcilable;—based on essential differences which reflection only makes more apparent, and moral growth more profound.

Now these collisions are not always between altruism and egoism. Often they are between different forms of altruism—call them, if you please, the positive form and the negative. Enmity, hate, cruelty, tyranny, and all that odious brood whose end and object is the pain and abasement of others are not intrinsically egoistic. Though they be the vilest of all passions, yet they do not necessarily involve any taint of selfish alloy. Often as disinterested as the most devoted love or the most single-minded loyalty, they may demand no smaller sacrifices on the part of those whom they inspire, and the demand may be not less willingly obeyed. It is, perhaps, worth observing that these altruistic ends, the positive and the negative, the benevolent and the malevolent, irreconcilably opposed as they are in moral theory, have often been associated in ethical practice. Family affection has in many half-civilised communities produced the binding custom of family vendetta. Political loyalty, which has blossomed into some of the noblest forms of positive altruism, has also bred cruelty and hatred against those who are outside the pale of the tribe, the state, the party, or the creed. The brightest light has cast the deepest shadows. To torture and enslave, not because it brings profit to the victor, but because it brings pain to the vanquished, has, through long ages, been deemed a fitting sequel to victories born of the most heroic courage and the noblest self-sacrifice; while no small part of moral progress has consisted in expelling this perverted altruism from the accepted ideals of civilised mankind.

Egoism is far more reputable. The agent's own good, considered in itself, is, what negative altruism can never be, a perfectly legitimate object of endeavour. When, therefore, there is a collision between egoism and positive altruism, problems of real difficulty may arise; the competing ends may both have value, and the need for a reconciliation, practical as well as speculative, of necessity impresses both moralists and legislators.

In practice the evils of this conflict arise largely from the fact that the end which has most worth has too often least power. This is not surprising if the account of ethical evolution, which I have provisionally adopted in this lecture, be near the truth. For the extra-regarding instincts are of later birth than the self-regarding. All animals look after themselves. Only the more developed look also after others. The germ of what, in reflection, becomes egoism is of far earlier growth than the germ of what, in reflection, becomes altruism. Being more primitive, it is more deeply rooted in our nature; and, even when recognised as morally lower, it tends, when there is conflict, to prevail over its rival. “The evil that I would not, that I do.”

Now this result has, as we all know, serious social consequences. Even the least stable society must be organised on some firm framework of custom, rule, and law; and these, in their turn, must find their main support in the willing loyalty of the general community. But, though loyalty is the great essential, it is not sufficient. Legislators, lawyers, moralists, all agree that in the collision between ends—especially between egoistic and altruistic ends—it is not always the highest end as judged by the agent himself, still less the highest end as measured by the standards of the community, which finally prevails. Therefore must law and custom have the support of sanctions: sanctions being nothing else than devices for bringing a lower motive to the aid of a higher, and so producing better conduct, if not3 better morals. Public approval and disapproval, the jailer and the hangman, heaven and hell, are familiar examples. Can they in any true sense effect a reconciliation between discordant ends, and, in particular, between altruism and egoism? I hardly think so. When they are effective they doubtless diminish ethical conflict; but it is by ignoring the intrinsic value of one set of ethical ends. In so far as we are honest because honesty is the best policy, in so far as we do not injure lest we should ourselves be injured, in so far as we benefit that we may be benefited ourselves—just in that proportion we treat altruistic actions merely as the means of attaining egoistic ends. The two competitors are not reconciled, but a working arrangement is reached under which the conduct appropriate to the higher ideal is pursued from motives characteristic of the lower.

Is any truer reconciliation possible? Scarcely, as I think, without religion. I do not suggest that any religious theory gets rid of ethical anomalies, or theoretically lightens by a feather-weight the heavy problem of evil. But I do suggest that in the love of God by the individual soul, the collision of ends for that soul loses all its harshness, and harmony is produced by raising, not lowering, the ethical ideal.

Kant, by a famous feat of speculative audacity, sought to extract a proof of God's existence from the moral law. In his view the moral law requires us to hold that those who are good will also in the end be happy; and, since without God this expectation cannot be fulfilled, the being of God becomes a postulate of morality. Is this (you may ask), or any variant of this, the argument suggested in the last paragraph? It is not. In Kant's argument, as I understand it, God was external to morality in the sense that He was not Himself a moral end. It was not our feeling of love and loyalty to Him that was of moment, but His guidance of the world in the interests of virtue and the virtuous. My point is different. I find in the love of God a moral end which reconciles other moral ends, because it includes them. It is not intolerant of desires for our own good. It demands their due subordination, not their complete suppression. It implies loyal service to One who by His essential nature wills the good of all. It requires, therefore, that the good of all shall be an object of our endeavour; and it promises that, in striving for this inclusive end, we shall, in Pauline phrase, be fellow-workers with Him.

I will not further pursue this theme. Its development is plainly inappropriate to these lectures, which are not directly concerned with personal religion. In any case, this portion of my argument, though important, is subsidiary. My main contention rests, not upon the difficulty of harmonising moral ends in a Godless universe, but upon the difficulty of maintaining moral values if moral origins are purely naturalistic. That they never have been so maintained on any large scale is a matter of historic fact. At no time has the mass of mankind treated morals and religion as mutually independent. They have left this to the enlightened; and the enlightened have (as I think) been wrong.

They have been wrong through their omission to face the full results of their own theories. If the most we can say for morality on the causal side is that it is the product of non-moral, and ultimately of material agents, guided up to a certain point by selection, and thereafter left the sport of chance, a sense of humour, if nothing else, should prevent us wasting fine language on the splendour of the moral law and the reverential obedience owed it by mankind. That debt will not long be paid if morality comes to be generally regarded as the causal effect of petty causes; comparable in its lowest manifestations with the appetites and terrors which rule, for their good, the animal creation; in its highest phases no more than a personal accomplishment, to be acquired or neglected at the bidding of individual caprice. More than this is needful if the noblest ideals are not to lose all power of appeal. Ethics must have its roots in the divine; and in the divine it must find its consummation.

Written in 1913.

Doubtless under such circumstances ideal virtue might also have survival value in the biological sense.

Indirectly, no doubt, sanctions may perform a most important educational work in stimulating and guiding the higher loyalties. The approval or disapproval of our fellows, the “terrors of the law,” the belief in future rewards and punishments, though their immediate appeal is only to self-interest, may powerfully aid in the creation of moral judgments sufficiently free from any “empirical elements of desire” to have satisfied Kant himself.

  • 1.

    Written in 1913.

  • 2.

    Doubtless under such circumstances ideal virtue might also have survival value in the biological sense.

  • 3.

    Indirectly, no doubt, sanctions may perform a most important educational work in stimulating and guiding the higher loyalties. The approval or disapproval of our fellows, the “terrors of the law,” the belief in future rewards and punishments, though their immediate appeal is only to self-interest, may powerfully aid in the creation of moral judgments sufficiently free from any “empirical elements of desire” to have satisfied Kant himself.

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