Darwin and Evolutionary Ethics

James Hayden Tufts
The University of Chicago

It is opportune that while we are honoring Darwin for his far-reaching influence in almost every field of modern thought we should consider his relation to ethics. The power of his name is being used in support of policies and doctrines which he certainly did not favor in his writings, and which there is no good reason to think he would approve to-day. Speaking of the general reaction against humanitarianism which shows itself in so many forms to-day Mr. Hobhouse says that " the doctrine that human progress depends upon the forces which condition biological evolution has in fact been the primary cause of the reaction. Darwin himself, indeed, was conscious of the limitations of his own hypothesis . . . " but " what has filtered through into the social and political thought of the time has been the belief that the time-honored doctrine 'might is right' has a scientific foundation in the laws of biology. Progress comes about through a conflict in which the fittest survives. It must, therefore, be unwise in the long run . . . to interfere with the struggle. We must not sympathize with the beaten and the weak, lest we be tempted to preserve them. The best thing that can happen is that they should be utterly cut off, for they are the inferior stock and their blood must not mix with ours. "Darwin himself certainly held a very different doctrine.

As has often been pointed out there are two distinct aspects of the relation between ethical theory and evolution, which have been termed respectively the ' evolution of ethics' and the ' ethics of evolution.' But historically, origin and validity have been persistently and almost inseparably connected. To show that a law is not binding, prove that it is a recent, or 'artificial' construction. To give a strong force to custom, say that ' it is not of yesterday or to-day but lives forever, and none knows whence it sprang.' In both ancient and modern times the

( 196) question as to the origin of law or justice or current moral valuations has been forced to the front in times of conflict over the authority Of institutions and customs. Such a situation called out the varying theories of the Greek enlightenment and the serious efforts of Spinoza and Hobbes, Locke and Rousseau. But whereas interest in the ancient world confined itself for the most part to the more objective questions as to the origin of institutions which likewise formed the initial question for modern reflection, the growing importance of the individual has brought increasingly to the front the more subjective problem : How does the moral consciousness arise? Is it an ' intuition' or ' sense' implanted once for all in human nature and incapable of further analysis? Or is it a product of gradual formation which can either be analyzed into simpler elements bound together by association or traced back historically to social forces? These are questions quite analogous to the general alternative between special creation of separate species or that continuity which Darwin maintained as his first premise.

The early evolutionary theories of morals were on their face primarily designed to condemn or approve the existing standards and institutions, and only incidentally as scientific accounts. Polus in the well-known passage argues that Might is Right by nature's law, and that all existing judgments to the contrary are a Sklavenmoral, set up by the weak, and gradually accepted by members of other classes who are 'charmed' from early youth by the suggestions emanating from dominant influence. Or again, what is ' stronger, freer, and more masterful,' is admired when it does not infringe too strongly on the interests of others ; hence the interest of the stronger is really the basis of all law and ' justice.' Democrats and aristocrats make laws and shape institutions each for their own interest. Our calocagaQoi are 'honorable' and ' excellent' from the standpoint of their own class ; but this is because " Nomos is lord of all."

On the other hand, if it is desired to strengthen respect for existing codes, reverence and a sense of justice are attributed to a primeval gift of the gods, designed to make associated life possible and thereby afford man protection against wild beasts—aid in the struggle for existence. Or by Aristotle with a preg-

(197) -nant reversal of standpoint, nature is to be sought not in the beginning, but in the perfected realization of powers. The process of social and moral evolution begins with impulse (ormg) to the life in common, but the increasing organization of society gives increasing opportunity for human powers. For though in complete development man is the noblest, yet without the conceptions and the practice of justice and the excellence for which organized society is necessary " no animal is so unscrupulous or savage, none so sensual, none so gluttonous." This doctrine, then, equally with the opposing theories sought a standard in ' reality,' in evolution. But in its intent it looked forward, not backward, to a social intelligence and not to a physical force. Nevertheless, it is obvious that the conception of a law of nature as universal in human institutions and innate in the human soul could easily become in legal doctrine a ground for justifying institutions as they now are.

The reason why ' nature' appealed so strongly to the Greek was not biological. He did not trouble himself particularly as to the future of the race. Professor Dewey has recently stated forcibly why nature was such a word to conjure with : [1]

"What, finally, is this Nature to which the philosophy of society and the individual so bound itself? It is the nature which figures in Greek custom and myth; the nature resplendent and adorned which confronts u§ in Greek poetry and art : The animism of savage man purged of grossness and generalized by unerring aesthetic taste into beauty and system. The myths had told of the loves and hates, the caprices and desertions of the gods, and, behind them all, inevitable fate. Philosophy translated these tales into formulae of the brute fluctuation of rapacious change held in bounds by the final and supreme end : the rational good. The animism of the popular mind died to reap-pear as cosmology."

We find the evolution of morality and the law of nature the center of discussion once more at the opening of modern thought. A Falstaff might flippantly appeal to biology to justify his predatory designs upon Justice Shallow : " If the young dace be a bait for the old pike, I see no reason in the law of

( 198) nature but I may snap at him." But Hobbes wished to establish a firm basis for government by showing the brutishness of a 'state of nature,' Spinoza to point the way of escape from ' human bondage.' The striking thing about these attempts is the discredit which has now fallen upon the natural. One school of writers, indeed, maintains the rational and social nature of man, and the rational laws of cosmic nature, but the most striking evolutionary theories, those of Hobbes and Spinoza, conceive nature as the realm where force, and the instinct for self-preservation hold sway. This was doubtless due largely to the theological dualism between the ' natural man,' born in sin, totally depraved, with no good instincts, and the spiritual man who must needs be ' born again,' regenerated by special divine grace, before he could be just or good.

In the case of such a writer as Hobbes, very likely a re-enforcement to the dualistic attitude came from the horrors of war which seemed to disclose the primitive passions of man when unchecked by the barriers built by law and government against them. In Spinoza's case there was a metaphysical reënforcement. For although it is the very essence of substance (or God) that involves existence and persistence and becomes in man the ' endeavor' for self-preservation, yet as ' the force whereby a man persists in existing is limited,'and as he is thus necessarily ' a part of nature ' and ' passive,'" it follows that man is necessarily always a prey to his passions."

The forces adduced by the writers who sought to bridge the chasm without appealing to supernatural agency were various. The view of the world and life sub specie æternitatis in which Spinoza saw the only relief from human bondage made the saved as few as the elect of Calvinism. Nevertheless, the measure of reason which men in general have is sufficient to lead them to seek greater power and advantage through union in the civil order. Man perceives his need of his fellow men and in this sense may be called sociable. Hobbes dwelt upon the fear which drove men to political life and legal morality. Mandeville introduced pride and susceptibility to flattery as affording the agencies on which superior classes could work in fastening the ' slave morality' (to borrow Nietzsche's phrase),

(199) upon the inferior class — thus " savage man was broke." It was avowedly against the supposedly evil effects of such a nominalistic and selfish theory of morals as that of Hobbes that the evolutionary theories arose which claimed a continuity in moral development.

The ' herding instinct,' the seed of a boniform nature, 'the instinctive disgust or recoil from what is ' nasty,' the ' moral sense,' of Shaftesbury and his school all reflect this standpoint. The optimism of ' natural religion' (the term itself was an abomination from the previous standpoint as to the wickedness of the natural), the era of comparative peace, the increase of commerce and general intelligence, all favored the spread of the conception of historical and psychological continuity in the moral process. Hume was able to effect a synthesis of the claims of reason and instinct in the rise of society and justice. Sex instinct starts the process and brings pairs together. The advantage of society when once experienced is then consciously appreciated. A civil order which included justice is ' artificial.'

Emancipated from unquestioning acceptance of the authority of the Church and the Leviathan, the individual was moved to examine the nature and origin of the inward authority which was replacing external control. If conscience has the right to govern the world how is such a right derived? The rationalist account of the ' moral faculty' did not lend itself easily to evolutionary treatment. Reason tended to be conceived mathematically or logically. It was ' timeless," universal and necessary.' Kant, indeed, in his essay on political evolution for once seems on the verge of a very different conception. Men's passions and conflicting impulses call out a civil order and evoke a reason to recognize its values. And the later German idealism foreshadowed, at least, if it did not clearly grasp, the conception of an evolution of reason. But it was the ' moral sentiment' which lent itself most easily to genetic treatment whether by the associationist analysis of Hartley or by the brilliant beginnings of social psychology in Adam Smith.

The 'validity' of a moral sentiment was not necessarily threatened by considering it genetically. But when the process was conceived hedonistically, as an association of pleasurable

( 200) elements, it was difficult to ascribe to the product any greater authority than that of any other pleasurable feeling. If my moral sentiment gives me pleasure in a generous act, well ; if I find more pleasure in an egoistic act, who can say me nay? If it is a matter of individual association, why is my liberty judged by another man's conscience? J. S. Mill, as he tells us, felt in his own experience the artificial character of the theory, and in the 'Utilitarianism' took two important steps toward a more adequate conception. On the one hand, the 'social feelings' took on the form of an active ' natural want' rather than of an association of pleasures. On the other hand, he considered that first the social state, so natural, so necessary and habitual, and then the necessity of coöperation with others and of proposing ' a collective, not an individual interest' were agencies in bringing about the social feelings. It wanted but an additional step to disclose the individual as a ' social out-come' rather than as a ' social unit,' but this was a revolution for which the time was not ripe.

The social explanation through Sympathy, begun by Hume in hedonistic terms and developed along broader lines by Adam Smith, cast no discredit upon the product for a generation which valued the social. Not until race collisions, class contrasts, and the clashing of ideals of a new era had set up as morally desirable a sharp antagonism between the ' higher' and ' lower' races, between the ' fit' and the ' masses,' between the 'solitary' and the 'herd,' did sympathy become a synonym for weakness, and come to be regarded as fatally infecting the moral sentiment it had aided in producing.

The great contribution of Spencer was that he placed moral evolution — both moral progress and the formation of moral sentiments — in the sweep of his universal process. We may easily criticize his hedonistic analysis of the ' moral sense,' or, from another point of view, his belief that he has reconciled the empirical and a priori schools of thought by his doctrine of the experiences of the race. We may smile at his derivation of the consciousness of duty, and from our present standpoint of social psychology detect the fallacies of his atomistic conception of the individual in group life. We may think that his appeal to evo-

( 201) -lution in the Social Statics is rather to confirm a doctrine of political ethics already established on other grounds. The fact remains that he had conceived a world-wide movement. Mental and moral and social evolution gained immensely in their significance and definiteness when placed under a law asserted also of all the inorganic and organic world. And as compared with the great evolutionary conceptions of German idealism, the great advance in the natural sciences and the relative simplicity and clarity of their concepts gave Spencer a great advantage in power of appeal, even if this very simplicity inevitably brought it its own limitations for the explanatory principles so derived. Applied to morality the principle of adaptation makes " moral progress not an accident but a necessity. Instead of civilization being artificial it is a part of nature, all of a piece with the development of an embryo or the unfolding of a flower." For " all evil results from the non-adaptation of constitution to conditions "; but it is an essential principle of life that non-adaptation is ever being rectified until the adaptation is complete. Man's primitive predatory life required sacrifice of the welfare of other beings to his own, and his unfitness for present society is due to a survival of these traits formerly necessary.

The wide-reaching influence of Darwin upon ethical theory was not so much by his own discussion of the moral sentiments in the Descent of Man, as by the general biological and logical principles of his Origin of Species. The question was soon raised as to the operation of natural selection in the social and moral sphere. No evolutionary theories had brought home so vividly the continuity of the whole organic world. None, therefore, had seemed to immerse man so deeply in nature, and make him merely one link in a chain all forged of one metal and in one fire. Before Darwin's own discussion of morality in the Descent of Man numerous important contributions appeared. Among those which Darwin cites as most directly in the line of his problem were those of Wallace, Galton, Bagehot and Greg.

It remained for Darwin to approach the problem' exclusively from the side of natural history,' and ' as an attempt to see how far the study of the lower animals throws light on one of the highest psychical faculties of man.' The general lines of Dar-

( 202) -win's theory are indicated largely by this standpoint and by the fact that the dominating English tradition of his time sought the distinctive character of the moral in the emotional rather than in the rational factor. His proposition is " that any animal whatever, endowed with well-marked social instincts, the parental and filial affections being here included, would inevitably acquire a moral sense or conscience, as soon as its intellectual powers had become as well, or nearly as well developed, as in man."

The four steps in the development are the following : (1) The social instincts lead to pleasure in society, to sympathy, to aid. (2) With the rise of memory, pains due to unsatisfied instinct would arise when the more enduring social instincts had been overcome by some temporarily stronger desire. (3) The common opinion of a group, expressed in language, and appealing to the love of approbation due to sympathy, would become paramount as a guide. (4) These factors would be reënforced by habit.

The weak points in the scheme as worked out are due largely (i) to conceiving the moral consciousness too exclusively in instinctive and emotional terms. There is no reference to the part of choice in building up a moral agent. Thought or reason appears in it chiefly in the guise of memory and there is but a hint at an intelligent forecasting of the future, and weighing of values with reference to a purpose or end. There is thus little thought of a self, and the crux of the problem takes the form of setting ' the more enduring social instincts' over against the more transient gratifications of bodily appetite or selfish desire. To throw the whole burden of the consciousness of duty on the single precarious support of the greater I persistency' in consciousness of the social instincts would scarcely be possible for one who had read in ethics as thoroughly as Dar-win had studied in the organic field.

The second weakness is of a very different sort, and one which all psychology shared until recently. The individual is conceived to a large degree as the unit, endowed to be sure with social instincts and sympathy which make him responsive to public opinion, but not social in the deeper sense which

( 203) present psychology is working out and which, it is fair to say, carries out with far more adequate analysis the line of thought which Darwin did much to promote.

For the strong point in Darwin's method of approach was first that it gave to the whole theory of moral evolution a concrete setting in a process which was both broadly conceived and definitely evidenced, and secondly that it gave a much broader basis for the social nature of man than had usually been given by those who had considered man apart from animal life. The examples of mutual aid as well as of instinctive craving for the company of other animals of the species gave a fuller content to the term social, while his long study of animal instincts doubtless kept Darwin from becoming entangled in the hedonistic psychology by which English writers had so often been led astray. It is indeed a striking illustration of Darwin's independence and sagacity that he escaped the common fallacy on this point although, as he says, all the authors whom he had consulted, with a few exceptions, held to the hedonistic theory.

A point of greater present interest because it lies much closer to the question of moral standard is the question how far natural selection is an important factor in the growth of morality and the moral sense. On this point Darwin regards his own discussion as ' imperfect and fragmentary.' As already noted many writers in the period which had elapsed between the Origin of Species and the Descent of Man had broached this question. Wallace had pointed out that although man would be little liable to bodily modifications through natural selection his intellectual and moral faculties would be both variable and highly important, hence there would be a field for natural selection. Bagehot's Physics and Politics originally published in 1867–1869 has as its secondary title, Thoughts on the Application of the Principles of Natural Selection to Inheritance and to Political Society and is in many ways the most brilliant discussion of the subject which has appeared. This as is well known had emphasized the necessity of coherence, of obedience and law, of the 'cake of custom,' as fundamental elements of strength. ‘The frame of their morals' must be ‘set by long ages of transmitted discipline' before there can be individual

(204) liberty or general freedom of intercourse. There are also other virtues which are selected by conflict. The military virtues may be said to be the ' preliminary virtues.' On the other hand, Bagehot points out forcibly the defects of the selection which depends upon war. " Humanity, charity, a nice sense of the rights of others, it does not foster." Contempt for physical weakness and for women which mark early society are survivals. So too are the metaphors from law and war which make most of our current moral phrases and frequently vitiate what they illustrate. Military morals exaggerate action and discipline, and place too little value on meditation.

Darwin emphasizes the survival value in primitive life of sympathy, fidelity and courage. He points out, however, that within a specific group natural selection would frequently work to preserve those less virtuous rather than the more faithful and courageous. The primitive instinct would be gradually reenforced by purposive aid performed at first from selfish motives. Habits of performing benevolent actions would strengthen a feeling of sympathy and " habits followed during many generations, probably tend to be inherited." A more powerful stimulus to social virtue, however, is the praise and blame of fellow men, and this also rests ultimately on sympathy. With ' an increase in number of well endowed men and an advancement in the standard of morality,' there will be an 'immense advantage' to one tribe over another. " A tribe including many members who from possessing in a high degree the spirit of patriotism, fidelity, obedience, courage and sympathy, were always ready to aid one another, and to sacrifice themselves for the common good, would he victorious over most other tribes ; and this would be natural selection." With civilized nations, on the other hand, " natural selection apparently effects but little." " The causes which lead to the advance of morality are rather the approbation of our fellow men—the strengthening of our sympathies by habit—example and imitation — reason — experience, and even self-interest — instruction during youth, and religious feelings."

Noteworthy because of its significance for the present ' reaction,' and especially in view of Nietzsche's denunciations, is

( 206) the stress which Darwin lays upon sympathy. " Nor could we check our sympathy, even at the urging of hard reason, without deterioration of the noblest part of our nature. The surgeon may harden himself whilst performing an operation, for he knows that he is acting for the good of his patient ; but if we were intentionally to neglect the weak and helpless it could only be for a contingent benefit, with an overwhelming present evil. We must therefore bear the undoubtedly bad effects of the weak surviving and propagating their kind."

As we have said, Darwin's own interpretation of the moral standard is not that currently associated with ' Darwinism.' The conception of a purely mechanical process, excluding all ' norms,' is what some find in the evolutionary process as Dar-win conceived it. The supreme value of force or might is the lesson which others read in the same process. This makes strength the only virtue and weakness, of which sympathy is a fellow, the only unpardonable sin. A third conception is de-rived from the process viewed as a series of advancing types. If each lower type finds its meaning in serving as a means for producing a higher type, then man is no longer to be viewed as ' end in himself.' His end is rather to produce the ' Uebermensch.'

We cannot, of course, discuss these theories within the limits of this paper. As to the first, it is sufficient to remark that values are, of course, not to be sought in a process conceived as ' natural' in a sense which excludes self-conscious valuation. To suppose, on the other hand, that the ' mechanism' which ' governs' in nature excludes the possibility of a consciousness that could be ' normative' would be to interpret the continuity' of nature in a way to exclude totally all variation. To appeal to a logical value in urging the truth of the doctrine of mechanical evolution, and to use this appeal to deny all ethical valuation is a thinly disguised contradiction. The fundamental points at issue in the other questions are : (I) Granted the evolution of ethical values, has the process been so uniform and continuous that in seeking guiding principles for life it makes no difference what part of the process we consult? To affirm that such must be the case would be again to give no place to variation. It

( 206) was the merit of Huxley to point out epigrammatically the difference between the 'ethical,' consciously directed process, and the ' cosmic ' process prior to conscious activity. (2) Is the valuation of every man as ' an end,' with the corresponding implication of sympathy, an inherently suicidal moral principle? Will it, if followed, inevitably destroy all moral values by destroying all the more valuable strains and races? That there may be developed a science of eugenics is certainly a con-summation devoutly to be wished, but until our civilization corrects some of the gratuitous evils which it now opposes to progress, until it plans dwellings, education, and conditions of work so as to remove the obstacles it now opposes to health and strength, it would seem that the obvious lines of effort were close at hand. For Europe and America to remove the de-generation due to poverty and disease among their own peoples would seem a more hopeful agency of progress than the exploitation of weaker races, and if the ' superior' will not continue their own stock, what will it profit to forbid the inferior to continue theirs? It would indeed be contrary to the implications of the evolutionary method to deny the possibility of new variations, of different standards. But if there is to be any standard at all it must be based on a common good. And if this is abandoned, moral values will not be endangered; they will have already disappeared.


  1. Ethics, Columbia University Lecture, 1908.

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