Jean-Marie Guyau 1885

Outline of a Morality Without Obligation or Sanction


Source: Esquisse d’une morale sans obligation ni sanction. Alcan, Paris, 1921;
Translated: for marxists.org by Mitchell Abidor;
CopyLeft: Creative Commons (Attribute & ShareAlike) marxists.org 2009.


In conclusion, it would be useful to summarize the principal ideas we developed in this work.

Our goal was to seek out what would be a morality without any absolute obligation and any absolute sanction, how far positive science can go down this road, and where metaphysical speculation begins.

Setting aside as a methodological matter any law prior to and superior to facts, and consequently a priori and categorical, we had to take facts as our starting point in order to draw out a law; from reality we drew out an ideal, and from nature we drew out a morality. It is a given that the essential and constitutive fact of our nature is that we are living, feeling, and thinking beings: it is from life, in both its physical and moral forms, that we have had to ask for the principle of conduct.

It is indispensable that this principle offer a dual characteristic, for life itself is in a way doubled in man in the form of unconscious and conscious life. Most moralists only see the conscious realm; yet it is the unconscious or subconscious which is the true basis of activity. It is true that consciousness can act in the long run and gradually destroy by the clarity of analysis what the obscure synthesis of heredity had accumulated in individuals or peoples. Consciousness has a dissolvent force which the utilitarian, and even the evolutionist, schools have not taken sufficiently into account. From this flows the need to re-establish the harmony between consciousness’ reflection and the spontaneity of the unconscious instinct.; a principle of action must be found which is common to the two spheres and which consequently, by becoming conscious of itself, arrives at strengthening rather than at destroying itself.

We believe we have found this principle in the most intensive and extensive life possible, in its physical and mental meanings. Life, in becoming conscious of itself, of its intensity and extension, tends not to destroy itself: it does nothing but increase its own strength.

Yet there are also, in the realm of life, antinomies that are produced by the struggle of individuals, by the competition between beings for happiness and, at times, for existence. In nature, the antinomy of the struggle for life [in English in the original-tr.] is nowhere resolved: morality’s dream is to resolve it or, at the very least, to reduce it as much as possible. In order to do this the moralist is tempted to invoke a law superior to life itself, an intelligible, eternal, super-natural law. We have renounced invoking this law, least as a law: we have re-placed the intelligible world in the world of hypotheses, and a law cannot descend from a hypothesis, and a law cannot descend from a hypothesis. We are thus once again forced to call upon life to regulate life. But it is then a more complete and larger life that can regulate a less complete and less large life. This, in fact, is the sole rule for an exclusively scientific morality.

The character of life that has allowed us to unite to a certain measure egoism and altruism – a union that is the philosopher’s stone of moralists – is what we have called moral fecundity. Individual life must spread to others, in others, and if need be, be given. This expansion is not against its nature; even more, it is the very condition of true life. The utilitarian school was forced to stop, more or less hesitantly, before this perpetual antithesis of me and you, of mine and yours, of my personal interest and our general interest. But living nature does not halt before this clear and logically inflexible division. Individual life is expansive to others because it is fertile, and it is fertile precisely because it is life. From a physical point of view, we have seen, engendering another individual is an individual need, so much so that this other becomes a veritable condition of ourselves. Like fire, life only preserves itself by communicating itself. And this is no less true of the intelligence than of the body: it is as impossible to imprison intelligence within itself as it is with flame: it is made to spread. Sensibility has the same expansive force: we must share our joy, we must share our pain. Our entire being is sociable. Life doesn’t know the absolute classifications and divisions of logicians and metaphysicians. It cannot be completely selfish, even if it would want to be so. We are open on all sides, and are invaders and invaded on all sides. This flows from the fundamental law that biology provided us: life is not only nutrition, it is production and fertility. Living means spending as much as it does acquiring.

After having posed this general law of physical and psychic life, we sought a way to derive from this a kind of equivalent of obligation. What, in summary, is obligation for one who does not admit an absolute imperative or a transcendent law? It’s a certain form of impulsion. In fact, analyze “moral obligation,” “duty,” “moral law;” what gives them their active character is the impulsion that is inseparable from them, is the force demanding that it be exercised. It is this impulsive force that appeared to us to be the primary natural equivalent of super-natural duty. The Utilitarians are still too absorbed by considerations of finality; they are entirely wrapped up in the end, which for them is utility, which is itself reducible to pleasure. They are hedonists, i.e., they make of pleasures, in an egoist or sympathic form, the great spring of mental life. We, on the contrary, place ourselves from the point of view of efficient causality, and not finality; we note in ourselves a cause which acts even before the attraction of pleasure as an end. This cause is life, tending by its very nature to grow and spread, thus finding pleasure as a consequence, but not taking it necessarily as an end. The living being is not a pure and simple calculator, Ó la Bentham, a financier counting up in his great account book profits and losses: living is not calculating, it is acting. In the living being there is an accumulation of strength, a reserve of activity which is spent not for the pleasure of being spent, but because it must be spent. A cause cannot not produce its effects, even without consideration of the end.

A third equivalent of duty is borrowed from sensibility and not, like the preceding, from intelligence and activity. It’s the growing fusion of sensibilities, and the ever increasing sociable character of elevated pleasures, from which results a kind of duty or superior necessity which pushes us naturally and rationally towards others. By virtue of evolution, our pleasures grow and become increasingly impersonal; we cannot experience enjoy within our selves as if on a deserted isle. Our milieu, to which we better adapt ourselves every day, is human society, and we can no more be happy outside of this milieu than we can breathe outside the air. The purely selfish happiness of certain Epicureans is a chimera, an abstraction, an impossibility; the true human pleasures are all more or less social. Pure egoism, rather than being an affirmation of the self, is a mutilation of the self.

So in our activity, in our intelligence, in our sensibility, there is a pressure exerted in the direction of altruism; there is an expansive force as powerful as that which acts on the stars. And it is this expansive force, become conscious of its power, which gives itself the name of duty.

This is the store of natural spontaneity that is life, and which at the same time creates moral wealth. But as we have seen, reflection can find itself in antithesis to natural spontaneity; it can work at restraining both the power and the obligation of sociability, when the expansive force towards others finds itself by chance in opposition to the force of gravitation towards the self. However the struggle for life might be diminished by the progress of evolution, it reappears in certain circumstances which are still frequent in our time. Without an imperative law, how bring the individual to a definitive disinterest, sometimes to self-sacrifice?

Aside from the motives that we previously examined and which are in constant action in normal circumstances, we found others which we called the love of physical risk and the love of moral risk. Man is a being fond of speculation, not only in theory, but in practice. Neither his thought nor his action stop where certitude ceases. A speculative hypothesis can without any danger substitute for a categorical law; in the same way, a pure hope substitutes for a dogmatic faith and action for affirmation. A speculative hypothesis is a risk of thought; the act in conformity with this hypothesis is a risk of the will: the supreme being is he who undertakes and risks the most, either in thought or act. This superiority flows from the fact that he has a greater store of internal strength, he has more power; for this reason, he has a greater obligation.

The very sacrifice of life can, in certain cases, be an expansion of life, become intense enough to prefer an Úlan of sublime exaltation to years of the ordinary. There are hours where it is possible to say both: I live, I lived. If certain physical and moral agonies last for years, and if we can so to speak die to ourselves for an entire existence, the opposite is also true, and we can concentrate a life in a moment of love and sacrifice.

Finally, just as life makes it its duty to act because of its very power to act, it also creates its own sanction by its very action, for in acting it takes joy in itself: in acting less it enjoys less, in acting more it enjoys more. Even in giving itself life finds itself, even in dying it is conscious of its plenitude; which will reappear indestructible in other forms, since in the world, nothing is lost.

In summary, it is the force of life and action that alone can resolve, if not completely, at least in part the problems posed by abstract thought. The skeptic, in morality as in metaphysics, thinks he errs, he and the others, that humanity will always err, that so-called progress is actually a marching in place: he is wrong. He doesn’t see that our fathers spared us the errors they fell into, and that we will spare our descendants ours. He doesn’t see that in all errors there is also truth, and that this small potion of truth will little by little grow and become stronger. On the other hand, he who has a dogmatic faith believes that he possesses, unlike the others, the entire, definite, and imperative truth: he is wrong. He doesn’t see that there are errors mixed in with every truth, that there is nothing yet in man’s thought that is perfect enough to be definitive. The former believes that humanity doesn’t advance, the latter that he has arrived. There is a middle ground between these two hypotheses: one must say that humanity is on the march and march oneself. The labor is, as they say, worth the prayer: it is worth more than prayer, or rather it is the true prayer, the true human providence: let us act instead of praying. Let us only have hope in ourselves and in other men, let us count on ourselves. Hope, like providence, sometimes sees what lies before it (providere). The difference between supernatural providence and natural hope is that one claims to immediately modify nature by supernatural means like itself, while the other at first only modifies ourselves. It is a force that is not superior to us, but rather internal: we are what it carries forward. It remains to be known if we go alone, if the world follows us, if thought can ever bring nature along: but let us continue forward. It is as if we were on the leviathan, from which a wave had torn the rudder and the wind its mast. It was lost in the ocean, like our earth in space. It travelled driven by chance, pushed by the storm, like a great shipwreck bearing men. And yet it arrived. Perhaps our earth, perhaps humanity will arrive at a great unknown goal that it will have created itself. No hand guides us, no eye sees for us. The rudder has long been broken. Or rather there never was one; it has to be built. It is a great task, and it is our task.