Ernest Belfort Bax

The Ethics of Socialism

The New Ethic

From The Ethics of Socialism, pp.1-30. [1*]

PROBABLY few subjects have been more written about and discussed, both by the philosopher proper and the ordinary man of letters, than the meaning and basis of Ethic. But in all that has been talked on the subject of Ethic, it has been for the most part tacitly assumed, that moral obligation or duty was capable of being treated as a fact more or less isolated from the rest of human nature. Again, the sanctions of conscience have either been regarded by moral philosophy as something supernatural and absolute, or else they have been confounded with the mere phenomena of the moral consciousness. The first of these standpoints is that of the old metaphysical schools, and of those modern semi-theological writers who found more or less upon them; the second is that of the modern Empiricists, who in this as in other departments, think they have exhausted the essence of a thing after they have merely traced the series of its phenomenal expressions. With these latter, as with the former, morality is a matter centring in the individual character; the individual living in society that is in combination with other individuals, finding it necessary to his own enjoyment, or even existence, to recognise certain obligations towards those other individuals on condition of their recognising the same towards himself. This position, which is the ethical side of the social contract theory, has been handed down from Bacon, Hobbes, and Locke, to Bentham, Mill, and the rest of the English School, and treats society as an aggregate of individuals. It resolves all morality into a question of personal utility – for this, despite all protestations to the contrary, is the necessary outcome of the theory. The former, metaphysical, theological, or mystical, (as we like to term it) theory, is not less individualistic than the one just referred to. According to this theory, moral sanctions are absolute and eternal, inasmuch as they constitute part of the relations of the individual soul to its divine source; and their connection with society is thus purely accidental.

It will be seen, therefore, that both the recognised theories, the ordinary spiritualistic theory, and the ordinary materialistic theory, alike regard morality as having for its end – the individual. The theological Ethic finds its criterion and aim in the “purity,” “humility,” “likeness to God,” &c. of the individual; the empirical Ethic finds it in the fulfilment by the individual of the pledges towards other individuals which his existence in community with them implies – his non-interference with their equal rights as individuals. Self interest is the key note of both moral systems. The theological or spiritualistic system apotheosises the “soul;” its method being a continuous introspection or communing of the individual with this apotheosised self or soul. The empirical or utilitarian system apotheosises “self interest,” which for it is the ultimate fact in human nature. Its problem is, therefore, to deduce morality from self interest, and its method to seek to identify the necessary requirements of social existence with self interest-by self interest being understood, the interest of the individual qua individual.

Now, it will be observed, as before remarked, that both these theories treat Ethic as a fact to be explained apart from the concrete synthesis of human nature to which it belongs. Such an abstract treatment as this necessarily result, when we neglect to take into account the entire evolution of society in which human nature is shown in the making, so to speak; and the several elements constituting it are displayed in their interconnection. This has not been altogether unrecognised. Auguste Comte and Herbert Spencer, although taking their stand on empirical Ethics, have both endeavoured to deduce morality from general social evolution; but the empirical method whirl they adopted hindered them from attaining any real insight into the matter. The mere collation of the phenomena of the moral consciousness, and the forcing of them into accordance with the fundamental assumption that the antagonism of self interest and social interest is ultimate, and that morality must always imply a conscious effort to reconcile the two – can never afford any but a one-sided and fallacious view of things. Auguste Comte labours under the additional disadvantage of feeling it incumbent upon him to unite the current utilitarian Ethic with the relics of the older theological or introspective Ethic. As a result, neither of the writers in question can be said to have added anything new to the discussion. Before we can hope to attain a real insight, we must, I think, get rid of the notion that society is in the last resort, merely an aggregate of individuals, with its necessary corollary. that there must always exist a latent or overt opposition between individual and community; in short, that the category individual has any meaning per se and separated from the category community or society. The recognition of the fallacy of this conception is only the obverse side of the recognition of the dependence of morality, that is, of the view taken of duty or of the nexus between individual and individual, or between individual and community, on material conditions, social and economical. As soon as society can be said to exist at all, ethical sentiment must exist, implicitly if not explicitly. The ethical sentiment is the correlate in the ideal sphere, of the fact of social existence itself in the material sphere. The one is as necessarily implied in the other, as the man is implied in his shadow; and just as the shadow bears the impress of the particular man whose shadow it is, so the Ethic bears the impress of the particular society whose Ethic it is. The above, of course, merely states a fact – we do not profess to deal with the metaphysical question of the basis or ultimate significance of the fact, a point which lies outside the scope of the present paper.

The sentiment of duty in general will be found on examination to be ultimately reducible to the following expression; viz., that the content, the meaning, of individuality is not coincident with the form of the living individual or personality. Otherwise expressed, this content is not exhausted in its form, but seeks its completion outside its form. It implies that the individual is, in other words, dependent; he is not a self-contained whole in himself, but merely an element in a larger whole. It is a trite thesis in philosophy, that the telos or end of every reality or thing, is to reach its highest expression, i.e. to perfect, complete, or realise itself. Now, as I conceive it, moral sentiment, and what is the same thing in a higher potency, religious sentiment, consists in the consciousness of the inadequacy, of the form of individuality to the content of individuality, and in the desire to adequately realise or inform, this content. If the above be admitted it follows that there can be no greater absurdity than to attempt to found morality on a calculation of profit and loss to the individual, or in other words, on the self-interest of the utilitarian empiricists. Out of pure individualism it is obviously impossible to get an Ethic at all, if morality be that side of the individual or personality considered per se, which proclaims his inadequacy to himself, since in this case Ethic is nothing but the expression of the abiding contradiction of the individual within himself.

In one respect the crudely materialistic Ethic of the British School has less plausibility even, than the old theological or mystical Ethic. The latter at least recognises that the root of the ethical problem, as has been stated, lies in the inadequacy of the content of individuality to its form; it at least sees that the individual is not a self-contained or concrete whole in himself. The solution it offers, to wit, that in God as the telos of all things, the individual finds that perfection, that realisation he has sought for in vain in himself considered per se, and the want of which is indicated in the moral and religious sentiment, is, to say the least, in one sense an intelligible explanation, which is more than can be said of the Benthamite theory. If the individual be a complete and independent totality; if his end be in himself, then any voluntary self-restraint, let alone self sacrifice on the part of the individual is unintelligible. We are aware, of course, of the attempts made to evade this difficulty – of “enlightened self-interest,” and the rest. But allowing the greatest possible latitude to the “enlightenment” displayed in the “profit and loss” calculation, we still contend that it leaves the main body of moral activity unexplained. Admitting the hypothesis, when and where was the account originally cast up, and how has it come to be modified? If the individual contains his end within himself as person, where can the obligation lie to prefer a painful course (let us say) which can never possibly redound to the ulterior interest, “enlightened” or otherwise, of his personality, to a pleasurable one which cannot (we will suppose) result in any ulterior pain to himself as individual? To talk of obligation in the case supposed is plainly absurd, if the standard of obligation be supposed to lie, so to speak, within the skin of the individual; for on the above hypothesis neither the enlightened nor unenlightened interest of the individual is concerned in the matter. To affirm merely that “enlightened” self interest always lies on the side of virtue, is simply to beg the question in the baldest manner, and to explain nothing.

Let us now first of all take the theological-metaphysical hypothesis, that the telos or end of the self individual, personality, is realisable not per se, but in the divinity between whom and the soul or personality there is a mystical connection. It is here recognised that the form of the personality is inadequate to its content. Morality, duty, religion, are the expression of this inadequacy of form to content. But the theologian, or the dogmatic metaphysician seeks to attain the adequacy per saltum. The saltus proves itself a saltus mortalis; since it removes him altogether from the sphere of the concrete or real world. He creates an ideal sphere in which the soul shall find its satisfaction; in which that element within him which proclaims himself inadequate to himself and therewith his entire personality shall reach its completion and perfection. Now let it be observed that in this theory the principle of individualism while formally surrendered is really maintained. It is felt, it is true, that there is a permanent contradiction involved in the individual when viewed abstractly, or as a thing existing by itself. So far, so good, but how is the contradiction dealt with? By the attempted suppression of one of its terms. From the speculative standpoint the natural personality is absorbed as to its end and object in a supernatural being; from the practical standpoint the natural personality, as such, is suppressed, or rather supposed to be suppressed. For, and this is the important point, it has passed unnoticed that the contradiction is not only not resolved, but that the term which was sought to be suppressed, is not suppressed, but holds its own more firmly than ever. The personality on these grounds “is as the air invulnerable, and our vain blows malicious mockery.” The attention of the individual is now more than ever before rivetted on self. The attempt of mysticism to transcend individualism at a stroke has recoiled upon itself. The individual and his God, though professedly distinct, are really one and the same. That this is so as regards the actual concrete world is obvious; since it is admitted even by the theologian, that all that goes on is in the “heart” of the individual, and relates to a spiritual world revealed to his own soul alone. The renunciation of the theologian or mystic is therefore a double-dyed egoism. His personality continues under other conditions and on another plane, the focus of attention. It is, to employ a mathematical phrase, individualism to the nth power. To the worldly selfishness of the empirical or utilitarian individualism, it opposes an other-worldly selfishness; since from the point of view of the natural or real world (that is so far as society is concerned), the divine nature in which the imperfect natural individual claims to be realising the higher perfection of his individuality, appears only as the subjective reflex of that individuality, with its natural tendencies, in some cases exaggerated, in others completely inverted.

We have as yet dealt with the two fundamental ethical theories hitherto current, so to speak, statically. It now remains to show their origin, meaning, and connection, in the dynamics of human evolution. The particular view of the moral relation which obtains, is, as we said before, conditioned by the social forms of which it is the outcome. The empirical utilitarian theory of the British school, is, it is quite clear, no more than the speculative formulation or expression of the principle obtaining under that competitive capitalism, which reached its earliest development in the Anglo-Saxon race of modern times, but the basis of which (viz. property) and consequently the tendency towards which, has been more or less present since the dawn of civilisation. The other and equally individualistic theory, that of the theologians, though not so obviously the outcome of social conditions having this same basis, is none the less really so, as we shall hope to show directly. But to understand this clearly, we must consider the original nature, object, and meaning of the ethical consciousness; its meaning, that is, in those earliest forms of society wherein its manifestations were so different from what they are in the world of to-clay. We have first of all to remember then, that in the ancient world and in earlier phases of society, morality affirmed itself as the solidarity of the individual with his kin, his “gens,” his “tribe”, his “people.” [1] There was then no opposing interest between individual and community; the interest of the individual was absolutely identified with that of the race. He had not as yet drawn the distinction between himself and the society to which he belonged. The Greek of the pre-Homeric age, the Hebrew in the period echoes of which are discernible in the Pentateuch, the Teuton as described by Tacitus and many later writers, did not exist for himself or others as an independent individuality; his significance consisted in the particular clan of which he was a member, or in the particular tribe or group of tribes he represented. His personal telos was identified with the social whole into which he entered. But at the same time that he had no interest independent of his race, he had likewise no duties outside that race. Society, and therefore Ethics, existed on the basis of Kinship and of kinship alone. Within the charmed circle all was sacred, without it all was profane. The primitive society

It would be unnecessary here to offer detailed illustrations of a fact admitted in principle by every anthropological or historical authority of the present day. For an exposition of the principles on which early society is based, it will since to refer the reader to the well-known works of Sir Henry Maine, of the late Lewis Morgan, &c., to the celebrated treatise of Fustel de Coulanges La Cité Antique; and in German to the works of Von Maurer, of Bachofen and others. The “primitive” or “natural” communism of ancient society is at present a recognised scientific fact; and the ethic which accompanied it, and which survived into the stages of society shortly removed from it, is obvious to every student of the early annals of mankind and the traditions they contain of kinship then, was a self-centred organism, apart from which the constituent units, the individuals composing it, lad no significance. The individual, the personality, unconsciously recognised his telos in the society. The incompatibility of the form of the individual to the content of individuality had not as yet become explicit, since the individual had not as yet been thrown back upon himself. His life was an objective one; objectivised in the society. But now mark the gradual change which took place, a change of the process of which the great historical type is to be found in the annals of Greece and Rome. The society by the very fact of its own development merged into the state. With the growth of the state, property tended more and more to supplant kinship as the basis of things social. For a long while the two principles continued to exist side by side. It took time for the principle of property to gain the upper land, and it was long before the personal nature of property was fully realised. No sooner was this the case; no sooner had personal property become definitively the basis of social order, than the naive ethical sentiment of early society was at an end, and an individualistic Ethic had taken its place. This individualistic Ethic was of a twofold-nature; on the one side it was an attempt to realise happiness or the end of individuality within the limits of the natural individual, on the other it was an attempt to realise the end of individuality on a supernatural plane. With the one as with the other, the individual became the centre of attention. Man as individual awoke to a consciousness of himself as formally distinct from man as society. It was not long before the formal distinction became converted into a real separation of sympathy and interest; consequent on which the society came to be regarded as a mere appendage, as merely organic to the individual life or soul. The problem of morality became henceforward as a necessary consequence – how to reconcile individual interest with the exigencies of social existence. In the later classical period, we find the Stoics, Epicureans, and Sceptics, all attempting to solve this problem of the greatest possible happiness for the individual, on an empirical basis; that is, within the limits of the life of the individual. Duty was by these sought to be explained, it might be by some abstract formula, or by the classical prototype of the “enlightened self-interest” doctrine of our modern utilitarians – i.e., by the somewhat daring assumption, that morality in the long run coincides with self-interest as such. These schools assumed that the individual was self-sufficient, that he was an independent entity having only casual relations with the community; in other words, that the meaning of personality and therewith of morality, exhausted itself within the bounds of the individual epidermis. The other school spoken of, of which were the later Stoics, the Neo-Platonists, the Gnostics, and the numberless theosophic cults which sprang up and flourished throughout the Roman world during the first three centuries of the Christian era, recognised the fact that the empirical self implied more than it expressed; that its content was not exhausted in its form. The old feeling of duty, of the ought, still survived, but without its old object, and without its old basis. Metaphorically speaking, it “wandered through dry places, seeking rest and finding none.” It was already long since man lad begun to reflect, and through reflection to distinguish not merely his own personality from society and the universe at large, but also to distinguish his thinking self from his corporeal self; and the sense of the importance of these distinctions was growing on him year by year. It was out of the depths of his introspection, coupled with his dissatisfaction at the then orthodox official morality which had now lost its meaning for him, that a solution of the enigma and an object for his moral consciousness seemed to offer itself. Was not the material universe like his body, the outward manifestation of a soul or self? Nothing could be more obvious, as it seemed to him. Further, was not this personality enshrined in the body of the universe the immeasurably higher counterpart of the personality enshrined in his body? and was not this higher personality at once his source and end? [2] No less assuredly as he thought. He, the feeble reflection of the divinity, had as his chief end the fulfilment of the divine will preparatory to his ultimate union with the divinity. Morality, duty towards his fellow man, might be, it is true, a part of the divine system of things, and conscience even a spark of the divine flame; yet nevertheless the only ultimate sanction of morality was the will of God. This chief end was not to be found in any relation between his individual self and society, which was only incidental and by the way, but in the relation between this self and the divinity. It was by careful searching of his own heart, by lengthened self-introspection, that the divine will might be discovered. The first and chief end of all morality was to purify his highest self from the gross taint of material desires. [3] He must negate and subdue his inferior part, his body, which was the greatest hindrance to his higher perfection and of which his soul was independent, just as the Deity was essentially independent of the physical universe. The result was that the aim of moral action became diverted into the negation of bodily desire-asceticism. [4]

It is to this moment in the evolution of the moral consciousness which we have briefly sketched as exhibited in its typical historical instance, that the conceptions of holiness and sin, with their derivatives, belong. The highest and most complete expression of this phase is to be found in Christianity, though it is also embodied in its essential features, in all the great ethical religions (so-called) as well as those later philosophies and theosophies of the Pagan world which Christianity superseded. The way of the ancient social morality was broad and clear, a knowledge of duty had not to be consciously evolved from a creed, it was not embodied in abstract propositions, neither had it to be sought out in the mysterious depths of the individual conscience. But this broad highway to moral justification did not satisfy the new individualist Ethic. The broad way was declared to lead to destruction. Now it was the task of every man to search out by the narrow, tortuous and labyrinthine paths of casuistry and personal introspection, his moral goal. As a pendant to the narrow way of the Christ, we have the “eight-fold path of duty” of the Buddha. The great negative characteristic of this movement was the definitive abolition of racial morality. The moral relation being a personal one between the individual soul and the divinity revealing himself thereto, it is quite clear that the old limited tribal notions of “Greek, barbarian, bond or free” had lost all meaning. The Roman Empire had broken down the old importance of these distinctions, and it now became evident that the barbarian or even the slave, must, as a personality, be equal before God with the man of noble race, or with the free citizen; provided he attained to that holiness which was within the power of every human personality as such. All men were equal from the highest point of view since in this connection every case rested on its individual merits alone. The test of a man was no longer one of kinship or of blood, but of personality. The supreme power of the universe could take; no account of the tribal distinctions among men, but only of the spiritual element in each individual which was above all such distinctions. At last then in the notion of a transcendent yet immanent God, the end of man, that is of the individual man (the only aspect of man that was now considered) was found. In God this individual man saw the completion and perfection he lacked when considered as an independent being. Duty in the worldly sense was in the last resort merely a condition prescribed by God for attaining individual holiness. The crucial point in this theological or mystical Ethic is, that while it recognises the incompatibility of form to content in the individual, (in other words his incompleteness per se) as the fundamental fact of the moral and religious consciousness, it seeks to obviate this incompatibility, to resolve this contradiction, as already observed, per saltum. The individual, as individual it rightly concludes, cannot be an end or telos to himself; but this end it seeks to realise by a magic key which eliminates the concrete world altogether from the calculation. This done, the rest follows “with ease” and without any “shuffling.” The ethical consciousness having disposed of the real world of concrete relations, proceeds to create an ideal world of abstract relations in which it seeks satisfaction. It must not be supposed that there is anything arbitrary in this proceeding. The social medium in which morality first arose has changed; the individual and his interest has supplanted the community and its interest economically, socially, and politically; hence the ethical consciousness can, by no possibility, find satisfaction in the real world. The most that reasoning can do for it, is to seek to explain it away by Epicurean or Benthamite theories of “enlightened self-interest” and the like. These, however, as theories, for the most part only touch the man of learned leisure, and exercise but little real influence on the world at large. So that it is what we have termed the theological or mystical morality which alone really holds the field. And the apparent satisfaction that the latter carries with it can only exliaust itself and pass away with the conditions which have given it birth. It was more or less in abeyance with the mass of mankind during the Middle Ages, when the social ethics of the German races asserted themselves concurrently with those remains of primitive communism which entered into the composition of the Feudal System. But it obtained sporadically nevertheless, and under Protestantism sprang up into rank luxuriance. With the modern middle-class man it is the only alternative to the other individualist doctrine of “enlightened self-interest.” But the Individualist Ethic, whether mystical and introspective, or empirical and practical, is to-day rapidly evolving its own contradiction as its economic base is dissolving. While the man of the middle classes can conceive of no goodness that is not centred in the individual – be it in his soul or in his pocket – the man of the working classes finds his individuality merged in the collective existence of the group of producers to which he belongs. The whole life of the working classes of to-day under the conditions of the great industry is a collective one, inasmuch as the labour of the individual is merged in the labour of the group; the group again in that of other groups, and so on throughout the entire industrial and commercial system. The workman of the great industry has never, as a rule, paid much attention to his soul, to the vrai, the beau, the bien, as embodied in his character. Personal holiness has never been his ethical aim, as it has been the professed (and in some cases, doubtless, sincerely professed) aim of the moral man, and still more of the moral woman, among the middle classes. The idea of a “holy” working man is even grotesque. The virtues which the working classes at their best have recognised, have been rather those of integrity, generosity, sincerity, good comradeship, than those of “meekness,” “purity,” “piety”, “self-abnegation,” and the like; in short, social and objective virtues – those immediately referable to the social environment – rather than those individual and subjective ones referable to the personality as such. The working man has no time, he will commonly tell you, to trouble about his “soul”; he leaves that to the man of leisure.

The decline of the introspective morality is of course largely connected with the dissolution by modern thought of its old ideologic basis. While the working classes have for the most part, in so far as they think about the matter, frankly renounced the old theology, the middle classes have occupied themselves with the endeavour to find out every conceivable compromise by which they might evade overtly breaking with the speculative tradition. But that it is possible for the introspective morality to survive its speculative basis is evidenced by the Positivists, who, while repudiating this basis, nevertheless retain the introspective Ethic of Christian Individualism in its most accentuated form, even to the extent of erecting into a devotional breviary the Imitatio Christi. As for the other form of the individualist Ethic, the latter-day counterpart of Epicureanism, namely, “enlightened self-interest,” that, like its forerunner in the classical world, is essentially the formulated Ethic of the full belly and the full pocket. “Self-interest,” from the workman’s point of view, might lead him, should a safe opportunity offer itself, to plunder his employer’s till, or at least husband his labour-power by giving as little work as possible for his wanes; but this, according to the advocates of the theory, would not be “enlightened.” On the other hand, “enlightenment” in the bourgeois sense, would lead the workman (cf. Professor Huxley in Lay Sermons) “to starve rather than to steal;” but this would not be “self-interest” from the workman’s point of view, however “enlightened” it might be. So that altogether the workman seems rather “out of it,” in so far as the gospel of “enlightened self-interest” is concerned.

The objective social morality, of which we see the germs even in the working classes of to-day when at their best – and when they are not, as they are to a large extent in this country, completely brutalised by the conditions of their life – becomes, when translated into a higher plane, the basis of the religion of socialism, which consists in a sense of oneness with the social body; in an identification of self-interest with social interest, the immediate form of which is an identification of self-interest with that of the oppressed class which is struggling toward emancipation. In the supreme aim and endeavour to aid the economic new birth of society, the Revolutionist has no time and cares not to be continuously looking within either to admire the beauty or to measure the imperfections of his individual character. His highest instincts are directed not within, but without; not on himself, but on the social cause he has in view – the cause which means as its final issue the abolition of classes and the brotherhood of man. Most of us are familiar with the well-known story of the National Guard who, asked during the last days of the Commune, when death at the barricade was often a matter of moments, for what he was fighting, replied: “Pour la solidarité humaine.” It is quite possible that this poor workman understood but little of scientific socialism and of the precise meaning of the solidarity for which he fought; yet his instincts and those of his fellows were true – they had the religion of socialism at heart – they knew they were fighting for the emancipation of their class, and that in this emancipation human solidarity was involved. According to Christianity and the Ethics or religion of Introspection generally, regeneration must come from within, must begin in the heart and mind of the individual. The ethic and religion of modern Socialism, on the contrary, look for regeneration from without, from material conditions and a higher social life. The ethic and religion of Socialism seek not the ideal society through the ideal individual, but conversely the ideal individual through the ideal society. It finds in an adequate, a free and harmonious social life, at once the primary condition and the end and completion of individuality.

It seems here a fitting place to analyse briefly the notion of self-sacrifice or asceticism, which plays so largo a part in the theory of the Ethics of inwardness or introspection. Its origin we take to be as follows. The introspectionist, recognising the fact that the motive-power of morality or religion breaks through the mere form of individual interest, and frequently even contradicts the latter, mistakes this merely negative element in the moral consciousness for its salient feature, and holds the highest morality to consist in a continual mortification of self. His spiritualistic theory of the universe, his contempt for nature and reality, according to which matter and all its belongings is intrinsically evil, of course confirms him in this view, and gives it a speculative groundwork. Now, as we before pointed out, the votary of introspection, while he seeks to kill off one self, does so only in the interest of another and still more exacting self. Its object is only the individual in another form. Pleasure is its great bête noir, the annihilation of pleasure its great end. The habit of mind proper to the introspective Ethic, and which is roughly expressed by the word Puritanism, has indeed the ascetic tendency so strongly developed that the possessor of it is never happy unless he is finding out that something or other, to do which pleases his fellow-men, is wrong. It is aptly illustrated by Punch’s joke of the little girl who directs her brother “to go and see what baby is doing, and tell him he mustn’t.” To refrain is the only end of the being in question. The effects of the ascetic poison, as before said, outlive their cause; the introspective Ethic of which it is part survives its theoretical basis. Thus, even where this basis is no longer present, the mind cast in this mould will endeavour to find a possible evil in everything which induces to pleasure. The taint of introspection vitiates this view of life; it must seek by sophistry to poison life for itself and others. Thus in the instance supposed where the Divine fiat or the inherent evil of matter can no longer be appealed to, and where directly evil social results cannot be proved, it will have recourse to vague and lofty phrases such as “human dignity,” “social order,” &c.

Now the New Ethic of Socialism has no part nor lot with asceticism. In the first place, it grudges the amount of energy required to be expended by the individual in his effort to acquire the “self-discipline,” so called, which is only another name for the moral tight-rope dancing which the Ethic of inwardness postulates as its end. It despises the introspectionist’s love of striking an ethical attitude. The mere discomfort or the sacrifice of the individual per se is for it no virtue, but a folly, unless it be part of the means to a clearly defined social end. We italicise the words clearly defined since, as above indicated, it is possible to smuggle in, under some vague, high-sounding phrase, such as those already given, the old theological Ethic, asceticism included. The negation of the individual only becomes a virtue for the New Ethic when it occurs, not for its own sake, but as a mere incident in the attainment of a definite social end. The highest expression of socialist morality – socialist religion – is of course the readiness to sacrifice all, including life itself, for the cause. In the case of the French National Guard, we have a type of this true moral and religious heroism, as also in the thousands of nameless martyrs who are at this moment sealing their testimony with their blood in Russian dungeons or on the road to Siberia. The New Ethic of Socialism, moreover, exhibits for the first time in the world’s history the conscious sacrifice of the individual to the social whole. Early man was ready enough to fall for his tribe or pens, but then he had not awakened to the full consciousness of himself as an independent being, any more than he had awakened to the conception of an equal humanity outside his tribe. He was so completely identified with the society in which he lived that he could not conceive of his having an independent interest, or even of life itself, apart therefrom. It is not so now. In the modern world the self-consciousness of the individual quâ individual is fully developed. The Paris workman consciously surrendered himself, the contradiction between the content of his moral personality and its form (viz., the personality as living individual) was absolute, and the form succumbed. La solidarité humaine, the social Ethic, triumphed over individualism, the personal Ethic. The Russian Nihilist or the Paris workman, in deliberately exposing himself to certain death, believing in no personal immortality, that is, in no sort of continual existence for himself as individual, for the sake of the cause of human brotherhood, we again repeat, embodies the highest expression of the new Ethic the world has yet seen. Martyrs to the introspective, individualist religions there have been without number, martyrs who believed that while their pain endured but for a moment, their joy would be everlasting; that their souls would rise to higher realms, the personality to union with the Divinity. All very fine, all very noble, doubtless, but without a gleam of aught but sublimated individualism and rarified self-seeking. How differently the workman who died for his class, and through his class, for humanity!

Having traced the self-denial of the introspectionist to its source, and found that, after all, it was only an inverted form of self-assertion, we will now turn to the self-interest of the utilitarian, and examine its grounds. The doctrine of self-interest has an extremely plausible sound. “All I do,” says the empirical philosopher, “is simply done to please myself; my apparently most disinterested actions are at bottom selfish; I should not do them if it did not please me to do them – I cannot transcend myself.” Now, this sounds like common-sense irrefutable common-sense. But in reality this root-principle of utilitarianism, like all the saws of the empirical philosophy of the eighteenth century which sound so plausible, is but one of those half-truths which, when diligently investigated, evince themselves the most insidious of fallacies. It is quite true that externally and formally every motive actuating the individual has the stamp of his individuality upon it. This is a very obvious, and, at the same time, a very harmless proposition; but it does not by a long way carry with it the implication which the empirical utilitarian would put upon it. Though the form of the motive may be individualistic, it does not follow that the content must necessarily also be so. The content may transcend the form; that is, it may have for its end something wholly apart from, and even antagonistic to, individual interest as such. A man is said to have a high moral character, precisely when the material of his motives does not predominantly coincide with their mere superficial form, or, in other words, his personal interest. He has a low moral character when this motive-material does predominantly coincide with its form, and he has no moral character at all, or, in other words, his character is criminal, when the form and the matter – i.e., individual interest and motive material – absolutely balance one another. This latter is of course the ideal criminal towards which the actual criminal approximates in varying degrees.

The belief that in the ought of conscience there is any element that is not personal and individual (Herbert Spencer’s modification of the theory by incorporating with it the notion of heredity does not affect the case), this belief the utilitarian tells you is an illusion, and in confirmation thereof he points to the stamp of self-interest which every action on the part of the individual apparently bears upon its face. Now, what I contend is, that the illusion is on his side, and that it results from his confounding the merely superficial form of the action with its end, or, in other words, with the motive-material which is its content. Just as the introspective individualist has been deceived by the mere superficial form of the denial of self which commonly accompanies high moral action, into mistaking this subsidiary element for the whole of morality, or at least its most important part, so the utilitarian individualist has been deceived by the mere superficial form of self-interest which necessarily accompanies every action of the individual, into mistaking this barren and abstract form for the content, motive-material, or end, which is the real source of the action. His proceeding is exactly analogous to that of the metaphysician, who thinks he has made a wonderful discovery, when he has reduced everything to the category of “pure being”. No one denies the singularly vapid proposition, that every action emanating from the human personality or individual bears on it the stamp of its empirical source. What is denied is that this proposition carries with it the implication with which it is credited, or in fact that it advances the problem one step. What the ordinary person means by self-interest is not merely that the action begins with the individual, but that it ends there, that its telos is the personality. As in a great many similar cases, by a verbal juggle two distinct things are confounded in one. To say that I am actuated by self-interest when I among others place myself in front of a mitrailleuse with the dead certainty of having my natural self annihilated and without any kind of belief in a personal immortality – to say that this is self-interest, that I do it to please myself, is either the most insipid of platitudes, or else a piece of the wildest conceivable nonsense. It maybe either, according as we take it, the truth being that in this case the motive-material or the content of the action has absorbed and thereby abolished its form. The individual in that very act of will by which he apparently affirms himself, “pleases himself,” really negates himself, contradicts himself, and a fortiori the interest, pleasure, or happiness, which is identified with himself. Of course, the example chosen, that of the deliberate choice of immediate death for a cause into the realisation of which the individual as individual does not enter, is an extreme one, but the same principle holds good in the case of working for such a cause, that is, sacrificing personal pleasure, interest, or convenience, for results which we believe we shall never see. Here, though the form of self-interest is not immediately abolished, the individual does not completely negate himself as in the former instance, he yet nevertheless supersedes his interest as individual-the material of impulses and motives proclaims the inadequacy of their form. The man who sincerely, that is, without personal advantage in view, works for such a cause, by this very fact tacitly admits the inadequacy of himself as an end to himself. And this brings us back to the point from which we started, and therewith to our concluding summary of the results of this investigation.

First, then, we find that the meaning of the ought of “conscience,” of the moral impulse, moral sense, moral consciousness, or by whatever other name it may be called, is nothing more nor less than the implicit or explicit consciousness of the inadequacy of the individual and his interests as art, as an end to himself. This consciousness is pre-supposed in the existence of human society- at all. But although conscience, or the moral consciousness is ultimate, the forms of its manifestation no less than its object, are determined by the conditions of social and economic evolution.

At first the “society of kinship” is the end of all duty; the individual implicitly conscious of his own inadequacy is sunk in the society, knows and cares for no existence outside the society. This is from the Socialist point of view the highest morality which up to now has been generally prevalent in the world. But with the dissolution of early tribal society with its kinship basis, with the rise of political society with its property basis, and the leisure thence resulting, the old ethical object of the individual gradually lost its power. He now became explicitly conscious of his own inadequacy to himself; but tried to resolve this consciousness and to abolish the dissatisfaction of which it was the cause, by (1) resolutely turning his attention in upon himself and definitely with conscious purpose placing self-interest before him as his end (Cynics, Cyrenaics, earlier Stoics and Epicureans); and (2) by holding up before himself a professedly extra-individual, but also extra-natural ideal, as his end (later Stoics. Neo-Platonists, Gnostics, and Christians). Man as individual thus no longer recognised his end in the society, but rather in himself considered either as natural individual, or as spiritual individual. Hence arose the two systems of individualist Ethic which though they have passed through many variations of aspect, have remained substantially the same from that day to this. On the one hand, amongst the well-to-do you have, in the shape as it were of a light froth, the Epicurean-Benthamite Ethic of “enlightened self-interest;” on the other the Stoic-Christian Ethic of personal “holiness” and “sin. This though it reaches its classical historic expression in Christianity is fundamentally the same in Neo-Platonism, Buddhism, Parseeism, and even Islamism. It boasts a gigantic literature from the noble musings of a Marcus Aurelius Antoninus, the Sermon on the Mount, and the Imitatio Christi, down (and verily great is the fall) to the last goody-goody volume of edification, published by Messrs. Griffith & Farran or Nisbet & Co.


1. The Ethic of the early tribal world was a naively objective Ethic; this is a naively subjective Ethic. With the waning of this Ethic the consciousness of a new meaning to the term goodness is now gradually dawning on men. Even the Christian or other introspectionist (and this is one of the surest signs of a change) is driven on to the defensive, and feels himself compelled to read a social meaning into the essentially personal Ethics of his creed. The old ethical sentiment, he instinctively feels, has exhausted itself, and is passing over into its opposite although its form may still remain intact. The ethical telos is now vaguely or clearly felt to be no longer self-renunciation or self-glorification in the abstract, but the identification of self-interest with social interest. Men are now beginning to feel that any morality of which self-renunciation is an end or even an essential element is one-sided and fallacious. In what I may term a concrete Ethic, self-sacrifice can never be more than an accident; the substance of such Ethic consisting as beforesaid not in the humiliation of self before God, but in the identification of self with humanity. By this we should observe is not especially to be under stood the “living for others” of the current Christian Ethics, which at best means sacrificing oneself for other individuals, as individuals. What we here mean is, we must again repeat to avoid all possible misunderstanding, that affirmation, of self with, or identification of self in, society, which in the first instance can only be brought about by the identification of the material conditions of individual well-being with those of social well-being. At last with the dawn of a new economic era, the era of social production for social uses, we shall have also the dawn of a new Ethic, an Ethic whose ideal is neither personal holiness nor personal interest, but social happiness-for which the perfect individual will ever be subordinate to the perfect society. The test of personal character will here be not self-renunciation in the abstract, but the possession of social qualities and the zeal for positive and definite social ends. This may be termed in a sense an absolute Ethic. It is no longer naively objective like the Ethic of the primitive world, when the individual was unconscious of possible interests apart from the community; and still less is it naively subjective, the attention of the individual being no longer primarily directed towards the mortification o£ self, but rather towards the broad of social life and progress. He will recognise the call of duty to do and to forbear only in things which directly affect the society; all actions not having a direct social bearing being morally indifferent for him. In this new conception of duty, the individual consciously subordinates himself to the community, this time not a community of kinship but of principle; not limited by frontier but world-embracing.

Thus in the new Ethic the two previous ethical moments are, so to say, at once preserved and destroyed. The naiveté and limitation of the first tribal Ethic have passed away never to return. The abstract individualism of the second has also passed away never to return. The separation of Ethics from Politics and of both from Religion, is finally abolished. In Socialism, Ethics become Political, and Politics become Ethical; while Religion means but the higher and more far-reaching aspect of that ethical sense of obligation, duty, fraternity, which is the ultimate bond of every-day society. Yet nevertheless, all that was vital in the two earlier stages of the moral consciousness will be preserved in this one; the social object of the first; the conscious definiteness of the second.

In treating the subject of Ethics I might have proceeded very differently. I might have filled these pages with an account of various practises and customs drawn from every source, ancient and modern, savage, barbaric and civilised, and in this way have interested many; but this which has often been done before was not my object. My object was, by indicating the salient points in a thorough-going analysis of the moral consciousness to lead the reader to reflect on ethic in its essential character and as embodied in the historic races, rather than as many do, to content himself with the mere co-ordination of the casual manifestations which are its temporary and local expression.

Again, I have purposely refrained here from entering upon the speculative problems which lie on the confines of the subject. To treat such even in outline would require, not one, but a series of essays like the present. I will mention in conclusion one only of these problems. A very obvious question arises as to the telos of society itself, and the connection between the moral consciousness and this telos. May we regard the inadequacy of the individual as an end to himself as the indication that the final purpose of society as such is not to be merely for the consciousness of its component individuals or personalities, but that these are in the end destined to be absorbed in a corporate social consciousness: just as the separate sentiencies of the organic components of the animal or human body are absorbed in the unified sentience or intelligence of that body. I offer this as a closing suggestion for those who are of what is sometimes known as a “speculative turn of mind.”

2. What is fitting is incumbent, and obedience is founded on commands. And these being, as they are, the same as counsels-having truth for their aim, train up to the ultimate goal of aspiration, which is conceived of as the end. And the end of piety is eternal rest in God, and the beginning of eternity is our end.” Clement of Alexandria, Ante-Nicene Library, vol. 4, page 135.

3. For whenever anyone who has been brought away by the Word from external things, and from attention to the body itself to the mind, acquires a clear view of what happens according to nature in man, he will know that he is not to be earnestly occupied about external things but about what is proper and peculiar to man-to purge the eye of the soul, and to sanctify also his flesh. For that lie is clean rid of these things which constitute him still dust, what else has he more serviceable than himself for walking in the way which leads to the comprehension of God?” Clement of Alexandria, Ante Nicene Library, vol.4, page 187.

4. It may perhaps be alleged that the Cynics evolved an ascetic morality from their empirical standpoint. This is quite true; the mere egoism which delights to show superior power to the average man of course also tends to asceticism; but this does not alter the fact that an ascetic morality is, generally speaking and in the main, the offspring of a mystical attitude of mind.


Note by MIA

1*. This article, with some minor passages removed to sartisfy German censorship regulations unter the Anti-Socialist Law, was originally in German in Neue Zeit, Stuttgart, January 1888.


Last updated on 14.1.2006