Ernest Belfort Bax

Problems of Mind
and Morals

Chapter I
The Problem of Ethical Evolution

The root of all Ethic is to be found in the feeling or alogical side of our consciousness. The moral Trieb is an ultimate and irreducible factor in the psychic system into which it enters. This Trieb, this impulse, consists in the determination of the individual mind to motives of action outside the sphere of its own circle of interests quâ individual, and, it may be, even incompatible with that circle of interests. But this irreducible potentiality of the “moral sense,” regarded per se, is, for the thinker whose business it is to analyse the moral consciousness, no more than an abstraction. In order for it to become realised, it must acquire a determinate content, and it is almost needless to add that on the nature of this content the whole problem of Ethic, in the concrete, hinges. The original irreducible Trieb indicates indeed that the meaning and implications of individual life are not exhausted in the range of interests of the individual as such, i.e. of the individual regarded as an automatic entity abstracted from the conditions of some larger whole of which he, the individual, forms part and parcel. But again, this alone, though as far as it goes a consideration of first importance, and a distinct recognition of which is essential to all clear thinking on the fundamental ethical problem, does not of itself carry us very far. The nature of that larger whole into the organic system of which the individual enters as subordinate element merely, requires to be determined, if we are to analyse his ethical consciousness, no less than does the ultimate end which this ethical consciousness of the individual presupposes.

Now in all its manifestations and throughout all its phases of development, morality is concerned directly or indirectly with the relation of the individual to society, although in certain phases, to be referred to presently, this relation has become so indirect and attenuated as to be in appearance little more than rudimentary. Briefly stated, the following represent, I think, the chief and most salient phases under which the ethical consciousness has manifested itself:

1. In the earliest dawn of the moral consciousness, the larger whole in which the individual instinctively feels himself as a subordinate element and which he instinctively regards as his truer and larger self, is the society or kinship group – the horde, the tribe, the clan, the “people” – out of which he has arisen, and in which his whole being centres. At this stage the individual has not yet become conscious of himself as such; he merely represents, in his person, the kinship society. He is not conscious of himself as a personality in our sense of the word. Hence for him, for the tribesman or clansman of early humanity, all conduct has for its end the welfare and glory of the kinship society. For this he fights, for this he lives, and for this he dies. In this stage, therefore, conscience or the moral consciousness realises itself in an instinctive, although narrow and crude, social ethic.

2. As civilisation supervenes on the conditions of early society, more and more undermining its institutions and sapping the old ethical sentiment which corresponded to them, the centre of gravity, so to say, of the moral consciousness, becomes shifted. The larger whole which furnishes the ultimate object and sanction of the individual conscience gradually changes. The issue of this change is, that from being the social body, out of which the individual arose and in which in early society he very literally lived and moved and had his being, it becomes the divine essence or spiritual principle of the universe with which the soul of the individual human being is conceived as standing in a more or less mystic relation. The welfare and glory of this mystic relation becomes for the new religio-ethical consciousness the primary consideration – just as the welfare and glory of the kinship society had been previously – the ethical relation of the individual to his fellow-men and to society becoming indirect and subordinate. The view just expressed represents at least the theory and ideal of the phase in question. The differentiation and ultimate separation of ethics from religion belongs to the stage we are considering. The ultimate appeal is now directly from the individual soul to God, as representing the order of the universe, and conceived of as in direct relation to the individual soul, and no longer to tradition and custom as representing the continuity of social and tribal life. In so far, therefore, as the theory of this form of the ethical consciousness obtains, the basis of morality has ceased to be social and has become individualistic on the one side and mystical on the other. Where, however, as is often the case, the religio-mystical side has fallen into the background or is absent, so far as practical relations are concerned, the sanction and goal of conduct are alike frankly individualistic. The individual is now conscious of himself as a self-centred personality. The ethical value of conduct is no longer gauged by a crude and half-unconscious feeling for social utility, but by a more or less conscious theory of personal happiness, either in this life or one after death. The individual thus becomes the centre of ethical conduct. Of course all morality, however conceived, is concerned either directly or indirectly with social obligations. Such is the case, therefore, even in the stage of ethical consciousness in question. But here the moral relation of the individual to society becomes indirect, and is conceived of from a totally different point of view from that of the ethics of primitive kinship or tribal society. For this mystical introspective stage of ethical consciousness, the salient antithetic categories are those of Sin and Holiness.

The first of the above two organic phases of the ethical consciousness to which we have referred is realised, in its purity, in that prehistoric human world which is the special domain of the modern science of anthropology. The gradual transition from the tribal or communal ethics of the early world of barbarism to the individual and introspective ethics of the later world of civilisation and history, may be seen in the institutions and intellectual progress of all the historic races and is traceable even in the barbaric civilisations surviving in the present day. The point alluded to is brought out (to cite the most recent and certainly one of the most masterly products of modern English classical scholarship) in Dr Farnell’s Cults of the Greek States, notably in the case of the Delphian Apollo cultus (cf. vol.ii, pp.210-213, also vol.iii, ch.2. on the Eleusinia). [1] The Orphic movement was also undoubtedly to a large extent one of mystical introspection. But to the historical and anthropological student it is unnecessary for the purpose of this essay to dilate at length on the historical instances of the transition from the ethics of the tribe, the clan, the people, to that of the individual soul and the higher supernatural power to whom it owes allegiance, or to indicate in detail the steps and accompanying changes by which this transition was signalised. It suffices to remind the reader that, at a certain stage in social progress, the old religio-ethical system which in various forms dominated the prehistoric world and the earlier periods of history and civilisation themselves, loses its savour and becomes meaningless and even morally repellent to the new religio-ethical consciousness. The typical historic expression of the transition spoken of would probably be regarded as embodied in the Hebrew race and enshrined in the books of the Old Testament, with the change there indicated from the Jahveh of ritual and burnt-offerings, the symbol of the intertribal unity of the Israelite people, whose care is for the political and social whole – Israel – to the Jahveh who rejoiceth not in burnt-offerings and sacrifices but who is the searcher of hearts, the symbol of the new ethical aspirations of the individualised Israelite of the later time.

3. But there appears yet another stage of the ethical consciousness, emphatically modern but as yet inchoate and difficult to define in precise terms. It differs alike from the old tribal or communal ethic of the elder world and from the individual-spiritual ethic which succeeded it. This new phase, one might term a Humanist Ethic, or the Ethic of Human Solidarity. The sanctions of this latter are utilitarian – in the highest and widest sense, indeed – but they are utilitarian, and they are so with a full and definite consciousness of the implications of that word. Their ultimate appeal is to social progress, as interpreted in the light of what is, at basis, the old revolutionary principle of liberty, equality, fraternity, in its modern applications. Hence, as I have just said, the new ethic in question is emphatically utilitarian, but its utilitarianism is definite and conscious. In this respect it differs from the early communal ethic of group-society which was also social as regards its object, but was more instinctive than consciously definite, and operated through naive and animistic conceptions without a recognition of its own implications. In addition to this, its object is no longer confined to a kinship-community, as was the ethic of the early world, but is coextensive, mututis mutandis, with the human race and even, in certain respects, with all sentient beings. It differs, needless to say, from the individualist-introspective ethic in that it is social, not individual, in its immediate object, and that it is not through the short cut of mysticism that it seeks the pathway to its end, but in the creation or in the furtherance of the evolution of a free and equal human society. In this object and in the high utility which this object implies it finds its ultimate sanctions. Its minor and everyday manifestations take the form of the prominence of the notions of comradeship, loyalty to principle, integrity (apart from supernatural sanctions); keenness of sympathy, sensitiveness to injustice in all its forms; and finally, of the continual application of the touchstone of social-utility to test the goodness or badness of any given line of action or mode of conduct, this being its only ethical standard.

The foregoing seems to the present writer to represent the three chief phases exhibited by the ethical consciousness in the course of its evolution up to date. Absolute precision, of course, is not to be expected in dealing with these matters. There is much overlapping, and the precise boundary lines between one phase and another are not always clear. There are also subordinate cross-divisions. But, broadly speaking, I think the outline given will be found to correspond, even more than roughly, with the facts of human evolution in the sphere of ethics. Now the last-mentioned and most recent of the phases of ethical consciousness I take to represent the ethical standpoint of Modern Socialism. At present it is, of course, by no means confined to conscious and avowed Socialists. But none the less does it represent the ethical attitude of the vast majority of Socialists throughout the world, and the only possible standpoint on which a Socialist code of morals can be based.

It is necessary, before going further, to discuss the bearing upon ethics of the theory agitating the thinkers of the Socialist party throughout the Continent known as the “Materialist Doctrine of History.” This doctrine has for its originators the late Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels. The best short exposition of its general principle is given by Marx himself in the introduction to his work, Zur Kritik der Politischen Oekonomie. This is so important for an understanding of the Socialist position generally that I give it in full. It is as follows:–

“In the social production of the environment of their life, human beings enter into certain necessary relations of production that are independent of their will, and that correspond to a determinate stage of development of their material productive forces. The totality of these relations of production form the economic structure of the society, the real basis upon which a juridical and political superstructure raises itself, and to which determinate forms of social consciousness correspond. The mode of production of the material life of society conditions the socio-political and intellectual life-process generally. It is not the consciousness of men that determines their existence, but, on the contrary, their social existence that determines their consciousness. At a certain stage of their development the material productive forces of society come into contradiction with the existing relations of production, or, to speak in juridical language, with the conditions of property-holding, under which they have hitherto worked. When this is the case, the forms of development proper to the productive forces become suddenly transformed into fetters for these forces. An epoch of social revolution is then entered upon. With the transformation of the economic basis, the whole immense superstructure sooner or later undergoes a complete bouleversement. In considering such revolutions as these, one must always distinguish between the material revolution in the economic conditions of production, and the juridical, political, religious, artistic or philosophical, in short, the ideological, form, in which mankind becomes aware of the conflict and under which it is fought out. Just as little as one can judge an individual by what he thinks of himself can we judge such a period of revolution from its own consciousness alone. On the contrary, we must rather explain this consciousness by the contradictions obtaining in the material life of the time, in the conflict existing between the social forces of production and the social relations of production. A social formation never passes away before all the productive forces immanent within it have had time to develop themselves, and new and higher relations of production never establish themselves before the material conditions of their existence have already been formed within the womb of the old society. Hence mankind only sets itself tasks that it can accomplish, for if we consider the matter carefully we shall find that the problem to be solved never arises except where the material conditions of its solution are already present, or at least where they are already in process of realising themselves. In their broader outlines, oriental, classical, feudal, and modern, modes of production may be designated as progressive epochs in the economic formation of society. The bourgeois relations of production are the last of the antagonistic forms of the social process of production, antagonistic, not in the sense of individual antagonism, but of an antagonism arising out of the social conditions underlying the life of individuals. These are created by the productive forces developing themselves within the womb of bourgeois society, which forces create at the same time the material conditions for the resolution of the antagonism thus created. With the present social formation, therefore, the introductory period of the history of human society is closed.”

The above is the classical formulation of what may be termed the orthodox Socialist doctrine of the philosophy of history, as accepted in its main features by the bulk of the Socialist party throughout the world. It is scarcely necessary to say that ethics, as pertaining to the ideological side of human affairs, is, as regards its evolution, explained by the doctrine in question with reference to the economic phases of the various epochs of social progress, and, more directly, as the outcome of the class antagonisms which are the immediate product of these economic forces and relations.

Now of the enormous amount of truth contained in the above doctrine no impartial student of history can be in doubt. The fact of the change which takes place in all the relations of human life, be they intellectual, aesthetic, or moral, concurrent with, or following close upon, any great change in the mode of the production and distribution of the wealth of a given society, is undeniable. Marx was the first thinker to recognise this crucial truth of social progress. It is now taken account of by all historians of importance. The only question that may be raised is as to the universal applicability of the category of cause and effect to relations between the material-economic basis and the “higher” aspects of human life – a universal applicability, which is apparently assumed by Marx himself, and certainly by many of the present-day exponents of the doctrine in question. That a direct causal connection is legitimately traceable in a large number of cases where it is least suspected not only by the ordinary man but also by many who lay claim to the appellation of thinkers and scholars, is undoubtedly true. Yet without in any way denying or minimising this truth, it is also, I think, arguable that the totality of social progress cannot be interpreted by any theory of economic fact as the sole determining cause, in the sphere of intellectual and moral relations. This position has been maintained on more than one occasion by the present writer, both in this country and on the Continent, as against the partisans of the more strictly orthodox Marxian doctrine. The position I have contended for finds throughout human development ab initio a double line of causation, that of material, chiefly economic, condition, and that of human intelligence per se, or psychological condition. Progress has two roots, not one. Each of these constitutes a causal series of its own, but it is in the reciprocal action (Wechselwirkung) of both these elementary series on each other that the reality we call human evolution, or social progress, is constituted. This modification of the Marxian doctrine as originally formulated is, I think, necessitated by a more thorough-going analysis of the whole conditions. To enter more fully upon the larger question in all its ramifications would, however, carry us outside the scope of the present essay. Let us consider the bearing of the foregoing considerations on the problem of ethics, properly so-called, in its relation to the general theory of modern Socialism!

Ethics, i.e. the principle of moral relation, is, we have said, always concerned, directly or indirectly, with the social relations of men. This is so even under the second phase of the ethical consciousness alluded to in the earlier part of the present chapter. The concern with human relations it is which, in the first place, has come in the course of evolution to mark off the sphere of ethics from that of religion. Even where most under the domination of mystical-religious influences of an introspective character, the ethical consciousness does not cease to concern itself, indirectly at least, with the relations and conduct of men with each other and toward society as a whole. It therefore behoves us to consider the essential element in all morality, i.e. in any theory of the duty of the individual toward the society of which he is a member, or, it may be, toward all other sentient beings outside himself. This theory need not be explicitly present as such to the ordinary mind; it may be rather instinctive than explicitly conscious. But it is there none the less as the background of conduct.

Now there are certain lines of conduct which are essential in all societies whatever, however rudimentary their organisation may be, while others vary from age to age and from one form of social organisation to another. The first represent the root-principles of ethics, while the second are, as we may term them, the phenomenal applications of those principles as determined by the conditions of the society in question. The problem here is to find out the most general conception, so to say the common denominator, in regard to which all other ethical notions are derivative, together with the principle which that conception presupposes. Can we arrive at such a ground-principle? I think we can, and that, in accordance with the hints of Aristotle and the Greeks, we may track down all ethical notions to being ultimately applications, direct or indirect, of the conception of justice or equity. [2]

If it be asked from what the concept of justice or equity itself is derived, the answer is: It has its root in the principle of sympathy. But sympathy is, au fond, an alogical principle. It cannot, any more than any other emotion as such, be reduced to logical terms. It is not translatable into thought except in a symbolical manner. Justice, or equity, on the other hand, is essentially a principle of relation, in other words, a logical principle. Basing itself on the primal unreasoned emotional factor of sympathy as its postulate, this being the principle of all association in community whatever, justice formulates equality in some sense as the basis of social relations. (Aristotle speaks of justice as being “a sort of equality.” The Golden Rule itself is but a statement of the principle in the form of a categorical imperative.) The principle of equality which is identifiable with that of justice applies in the first instance solely, or mainly, to the kinship group, be it larger or smaller, constituting the early tribal community. From this cause the notion of equality becomes obscured and often lost in the subsequent evolution of society, barbaric and civilised. The primal communal group of which equality was the essential condition gets broken up; individualism enters; distinctions of rank, of wealth, arise, largely owing to the introduction of the institution of slavery in the shape of captives, the members of alien communities taken in war, and other causes. Hence, as just said, the notion of Justice, of equitable equality, though always remaining as the groundwork of the ethical consciousness, becomes obscured and distorted in various ways, lapsing for the most part into the position of a “pious opinion,” an ideal which it is not even attempted to realise. Or again, it may be conceived as realised under forms altogether foreign to its original conception. With the enlargement and development in complexity of the economic basis of social life, the notion of Justice, as above defined, undergoes strange metamorphoses, in accordance with the conditions based on class distinction. With the modification of the idea of Justice, the keystone of the whole, all ethical conceptions become changed.

Still more important, perhaps, is the fact that what I have termed in the early part of this chapter the “larger whole,” to which the individual looks up as at once his completion and the supreme end of his conduct, is no longer a natural society with which his whole existence is interwoven, but the supernatural divinity with whom his personality is supposed to stand in direct relation. Hence the ultimate ideal, the final test of all conduct, from being the maintenance and prosperity of a kinship-society, has become the will and glory of a super-natural being. The religious sanction of ethics, in other words, from being social and human, has become personal and theological. It is no longer social custom that decides questions of right and wrong, but sacred oracles, written or otherwise. This is so nominally, at least. But even if in the earlier stages of this phase of the ethical consciousness it is also largely so in reality, it is an obvious fact that during the period of civilisation (as distinguished from that of the tribal society which preceded civilisation) it is the exigencies of the dominant classes of a given society which mainly determine the whole detail of its rules of conduct. It is the morality which is most conducive to the maintenance of the prevailing form of class-society which is covered by the theological sanction and enforced by law and public opinion. That included in this class-morality of the civilised world we should find principles of Justice common to all forms of society, goes without saying. But even these are interpreted or explained away in a sense favourable to the needs of the dominant class-society, whenever they come into conflict with the latter. This is one of the important derivative truths emphasised in the doctrine of history proclaimed by Marx and Engels.

The later aspects of this second phase of the ethical consciousness – Individualism – which is largely coterminous with the history of civilisation up to its latest development in the “Manchester school” doctrine of nineteenth-century capitalism, exhibits various and some even apparently contradictory aspects. The ethic of primitive society was, as yet, undifferentiated from its religion. Both were alike social and this-worldly, rather than personal and other-worldly. The transition from early social conditions to those of civilisation is everywhere characterised in proportion to the completeness of the change, by the separation of aspects of human life into distinct and often opposing interests. This appears in the material as well as in the intellectual and moral worlds. In the last-named, upon the demarcation of the natural from the supernatural order and of the human from the divine, the subordination of the former to the latter logically followed. To early man the gods were one with nature, and their relations similar to those of human society, or, at least, there was no clear line of cleavage between the two. In the same way every member of the tribal community was at once master and servant, the equal of other members of the tribal whole, having a share in the communal possessions and a voice in the ordering of affairs, but at the same time owing allegiance and duties to the tribe itself. With the full disruption of the tribal idea by civilisation, a form of religion, as already remarked, obtains, which claims the individual soul for its own province and human morality for a mere department of that province. At the same time, with the division of society into classes, in the main into a possessing class and a non-possessing class, religion itself becomes a mere servant of dominant class – interest and fashions morality accordingly, though without, of course, entirely suppressing the notion of Equity as its basis, the latter always remaining as a background, however obscured in practice.

In accordance with the foregoing, every social formation, every economic change, implies a modification of ethical no less than of religious conceptions. Thus what was ethically defensible to a feudal baron of the fifteenth century was not so to a nonconformist manufacturer of the nineteenth century. What represented Equity to the latter may be viewed with abhorrence by the Socialist conscience of the twentieth century. The striking illustration of the interdependence of ethical ideas with the whole social and intellectual life is afforded by the results of missionary efforts to impose a bourgeois-Christian standard upon savage races. The savage taken out of tribal conditions, even though they may be of a more or less debased sort, does not really appreciate the introspective and personal morality proper to Christian civilisation, the net result being that having shed, at the instance of the missionary, his tribal ethics and not assimilating the mixture provided for him by his new father-in-God, he ceases to have any moral principles at all. The converted Kaffir is proverbially to be shunned so far as intimate personal or business relations are concerned. A corresponding phenomenon may be observed in certain anarchists who, while having broken with the morality of the bourgeois world and being unable to act up to a Socialist ethic, partly owing to the conditions of the existing bourgeois society not admitting it, and partly owing to their not having themselves grasped the real distinctions between the two, considers himself justified in committing deeds oftentimes of the most undoubtedly criminal character. (This remark, I may observe, is made without prejudice to any view we may hold as to the justifiability of a “terrorist policy” under certain circumstances, which is another question.)

One of the characteristics of the ethical theory proper to the period of civilisation is the double character of its individualism. In its original form, as based on mystical religion, it was introspective and mystical in its character. And this character it has continued to retain nominally up to the present day. But with the growth of the world of modern industry and commerce, another individualist morality has grown up beside it, based on the Manchester-school formula, of “every man for himself and the devil take the hindmost.” The original notion of Justice which the so-called “ethical” or “universal” religions had taken under their aegis in their own way is here almost completely cast to the winds in favour of the principle of frank self-seeking. This principle is only modified by the sheer necessities of even a commercial community, for no society whatever can hold together without a recognition of the ethical principle of Equity in some shape. This Manchester-school conception of individualist ethic, although only formulated first in the early nineteenth century, has been present tacitly, though not avowedly, in different guises throughout the whole period of civilisation. For the mystical-introspective ethic was too indirect in its relation to everyday social life to influence the conduct of the mass of men continuously. Hence the attitude of these so-called “spiritual “ religions, of which Christianity is the typical expression, though equally individualistic in its own way, was, more often than not, in practical life a dead letter, and its place taken by this other individualist attitude of mere personal self-seeking.

We have spoken of a new ethical attitude which has begun to show itself, more or less noticeably, within the last generation or thereabouts. It consists in a rehabilitation of social life as the sphere and object of ideal (or “religious,” if you will) sentiment and its resulting ethical principles of conduct. Hence it is, as already said, utilitarian, but in the broadest sense of the word. As such it opposes itself to the narrow individualistic utilitarianism – the business-morality of the Manchester school. At the same time it is equally out of sympathy with the introspective-mystical frame of mind and the ethical attitude which immediately results from it. The self-communings and aspirations toward the supersensible holiness of an Augustine, or of the pietist generally in all ages, have lost their savour, nay, have no meaning for it. Its highest ideal is political and social rather than personal and spiritual. In this, its immediate aim is the realisation here below of that notion of Justice which we have seen is the one immutable centre in ethics, as being common, in some sense, to all phases of the ethical consciousness. This we may term the negative formulation by the logical understanding of the intrinsically alogical emotion of sympathy. But there is also a positive representation in the sphere of the same logical understanding of this basic emotion. It is expressed in the notion of Brotherhood. [3] This forms the more positive ideal which it is also the aim of the new ethic to realise. Finally, both of these principles alike presuppose freedom, i.e. non-coercion from without, of the individual as of society, in the development of each.

Hence we have once more the old republican triune-principle of Liberty, Equality, and Fraternity. This principle which I have endeavoured to show forms the theoretical foundation of all ethical conduct it is which Socialism makes its own in a special sense. It does not do so merely in the sense of accepting it as an ideal to be striven for, well knowing the while that it is impossible of attainment, in short, as a mere “pious opinion.” In this sense it has been adopted by the old Republicanism. But Socialism claims for the first time in history to furnish the possibility of its realisation. Hitherto material circumstance, economic condition, in short the constitution of society, have stood in the way of this and condemned it to remain no more than a phrase.

What I have termed the New Ethic, implicitly, where not avowedly and in so many words, bases the test of conduct and the standard of moral aspiration upon social utility. That this is so is illustrated by the fact that well-meaning people from out the various Christian sects are proclaiming “true Christianity” to consist, not, as was conceived aforetime, in a mystical relation of the individual soul to the Divinity, but in working for the amelioration of the masses and for a higher social state, whatever may be the means by which they think to further this state. The change in the attitude of the religious sects in this connection is very significant. It may be readily tested by opening a modern up-to-date book by a representative man of almost any of the leading Christian bodies, and comparing it with a corresponding book of homiletic reflections of a previous age, even of half a century ago, when the new wine with which it is nowadays attempted to infuse the old bottles becomes strikingly apparent.

This new or third of the salient phases of the ethical consciousness, which is noticeable in a vague and indefinite way amongst serious-minded persons in general, acquires in Socialism its full content and a definite meaning. Its negative side is as important to grasp as its positive – that which differentiates it from the other phases of the ethical consciousness, as the positive tendencies of its new point of view. Moral notions belonging to the earlier phases must inevitably, as survivals, tend to become rudimentary in this new phase, especially when the material conditions which it implies, and for which modern Socialism as a politico-economic movement stands, shall have become realised.

This point is important in view of the accusations brought by politically interested persons against Socialism, anent “Atheism” and “Free Love.” Absurd as the statements often made by these enemies of Socialism are in themselves, yet the fact that they are sufficiently plausible to be worth making at all is due to their having a certain basis of truth. For example, on the one side, Socialism, it is alleged, involves Atheism. On the other hand, it is pointed out with perfect truth that no declaration of speculative belief or disbelief is demanded of Socialists by any party-programme. But this disclaimer, although technically correct, does not really dispose of the question. The fact remains, not merely that the whole tradition of Socialism and of the popular proletarian movement which is the material basis of Socialism, as it is understood to-day, is anti-theological, but that the whole theoretical foundation on which Socialism is built up is that of modern science, with its sole recognition of fact and law, and the supreme authority of human reason operating on the results of experience, in the affairs of human life. Hence it is necessarily altogether outside the introspective supernaturalism which has played so prominent a part in various periods of civilisation. No less is it outside the naive supernaturalism of primitive man. This attitude it shares in common with what is known as the “modern spirit” and modern thought in general. What distinguishes Socialism in this respect is that while the average cultivated bourgeois finds it necessary to give a certain outward and formal homage to creeds and cults which no longer represent his real convictions, the Socialist frankly recognises the intellectual change that has reduced these to absurdity. The hypocrisy and lip-homage of the bourgeois in this connection, largely the result of the notion that the old creeds are necessary bulwarks of existent society, is naturally repellent to a Socialist who aims at the radical transformation of existent society. The difference in this respect between the Socialist and the average educated bourgeois is not so much one of real conviction as of the import of that conviction in practical life. In a word, the Ethic of Socialism has not only no need of a personal Deity, but may well find a personal Deity in the way. Hence naturally it cannot admit religious dogma to be either necessary or desirable for “the masses.”

Similarly as regards the question of so-called “Free Love.” The theological ethic of introspection, whatever form it took, has always regarded sexual relations, as such, with repulsion and hostility. On the precise grounds and origin of this attitude much may be, and has been, written. But these do not concern us here. It suffices for our purpose to note the fact, which is incontestable, and to point out that the reasons for this attitude unquestionably flow from the general speculative position occupied by introspective mysticism. Now principles of conduct originating in a speculative position that has been abandoned naturally lose their force. But there is an additional reason, corresponding to that just mentioned as regards traditional creeds, why existing bourgeois society should cling to these principles even apart from the speculative theory which is their only logical support, and that reason is – setting aside inherited sentiment – purely economic in its nature. A distinction has never yet been drawn between the sexual relation per se and its social results in the bringing of new members into the community. It is here that the politico-economic significance of the matter comes in. In a society based on private property-holding, it is clear that the production of offspring must be taken cognisance of, or regulated, with a view to the cost of maintenance, etc. The confused state of public opinion as to the true meaning of sexual ethics is appalling. The average man mixes up sentiment derived from the introspective-theological Weltansicht with considerations having the reason of their being in the exigencies of modern capitalistic civilisation. Yet to attain a scientific view of the subject, the first necessity is to clearly distinguish the several strains which go to make up the sentiment of existing public opinion on the subject. If we do this with impartial care we shall probably be driven to the conclusion that the sexual relation per se, like any other animal function, does not really come within the province of ethics at all, understanding by ethics the new phase of the ethical consciousness for which the standard of conduct is direct social utility. As tested by this standard. I repeat that the sexual relation per se would seem to occupy neutral ground. Of course any action, however neutral in itself, may readily, owing to conditioning circumstances, be brought into the sphere of ethical judgment and thus take on a definitely moral or immoral colour, as the case may be. And so it is here. The most obvious and comprehensive of these conditioning circumstances in the domain of sexual conduct is, of course, the production of offspring. The difference between the logical attitude of the older introspective-theological ethics as regards this question, and the logical attitude of the new social ethics, lies in the fact that for the former the sexual relation was per se moral or immoral, while for the latter it only becomes so per aliud, i.e. owing to conditions external to itself as such.

The change implied in the aim of Social Democracy involves then the shifting of ethical judgment in various directions. For example, so far from, as is sometimes alleged, tending to weaken the moral responsibility of the individual, it will tend in many ways to give it backbone. As things are in the present social order, organised, as it is, on a bureaucratic basis, for the coercion of men rather than the administration of things, we find the bureaucrat or functionary separated into two moral selves. His character as man is entirely severed from his character as functionary. Now a Socialistic society organised primarily for the administration of things rather than for the coercion of men would have naught of such a severance as this, which is repellent even to the aspirant to such a society. We often hear it said, in exculpation of some act of intrinsic cruelty or injustice, as dictated, it may be, by law, policy, or expediency, such a one “was only doing his duty” (as judge, military commander, or what not). A Socialist would not recognise official “duty” as ever having the priority over human conscience or ethical duty. The judge who deprived a fellow-creature, brought up before him in the course of his functions, of liberty or life because an evil law he was supposed to administer directed him to do so, there is little doubt would be execrated by a healthy Socialist public opinion. The public opinion of the bourgeois world, by way of exception, sanctioned this ethical position on one memorable occasion. I refer to the trial and execution of Fouquier Tinville for the part he had taken in his official capacity as Procureur of the Revolutionary Tribunal, in giving effect to Robespierre’s law of Prairial during the Terror. In this case, owing to the exceptional circumstances, it suited the book of the dominant classes to act in opposition to the principle of ethical duality usually invoked by them. This they carried to the length of criminally arraigning Fouquier Tinville, refusing to accept his plea that he acted as ordered by his government in accordance with the duty imposed upon him by his office. That they should have done this is extremely significant as a precedent.

The above is only one among many instances of the manner in which the new ethic – the Socialist Ethic of human solidarity – would traverse the judgments and distinctions prevalent in the world of modern Capitalism. The latter has moulded the plastic substance of the individualistic ethic as handed down to it, for its own purposes. There are many other ways in which present-day moral notions must inevitably be modified, as the reader will see for himself. I have merely mentioned the above as indicating one direction, at least, in which increased responsibility would be placed upon the individual conscience.

To sum up in a few words the leading positions of the foregoing argument: The moral impulse, as such, is irreducible to anything beyond itself. It is an alogical ultimate, indicating that the meaning of the individual human being is not exhausted within his own personality but reaches out beyond this as an element of some larger synthesis. The nature of any system of ethic is determined by that of this larger whole into which the individual conceives himself as entering, and which he feels to be his truer life, in relation to which he, as an individual, is subordinate.

There are, in the evolution of the moral consciousness, three distinct stages traceable: 1. The ethic of early tribal society, in which the object of the moral relation is the community, of which the kinship-group is the type. At this stage the individual is merged in the social group to which he belongs. 2. Concurrently with the break-up of group-society and the rise of the autonomy of the individual, the moral basis gets shifted. Ethics, instead of implying the relation of the individual to the society without him, tends to become, primarily at least, based on a relationship between the individual, conceived now as a spiritual being or soul, and a spiritual Divinity supposed to reveal himself directly to this individual soul. Ethic now separates itself from religion, while at the same time its ultimate sanction rests in religion. This stage I have termed the individualist-mystical, or the introspective. Its ethical ideal is personal holiness as opposed to the older tribal or civic “virtue.” As a consequence, in proportion as the mystical or religious sanction is absent, or fallen into the background, does all ethics in this stage tend to become dissolved into mere atomistic individualism. The latter finds its classical formulation in the doctrine underlying the Manchester-school of economics. This second phase of the ethical consciousness has obtained, in one or other of its forms, up to the present day. A change, however, is even now making itself felt. 3. The change in question consists in a view of ethics as essentially a social matter. In this respect it represents a return to the view of the early world. But it is a return on a higher plane. The present social ethics has for its object not any limited social whole, such as that of early man, but humanity as such.

We have directed attention to the Marxian doctrine, the so-called “materialist theory of history,” in its bearing on ethics. The point of view as regards the detail of conduct in each social formation, we have found to be as pointed out by Marx, dictated mainly by the interests of the dominant classes in any given society, though purely ethical conceptions may also react on the economic society itself.

We have traced the fundamental idea at the basis of conscience and of moral conduct to be that of Equality or of Justice. This again we have pointed out as the root-principle of the revolutionary trinity – Liberty, Equality, and Fraternity. But this idea of Justice itself we have traced back to its origin in that alogical somewhat, or feeling, termed Sympathy. This emotion is immediate and absolute, and hence inexpressible per se in any logical formula.

As to the new ethical attitude we have referred to as already showing itself in modern thought and feeling, and which we have forecast as indicating the dominant trend in the Ethics of Socialism, we have seen it to be the recognition of social and political life, as the object and as embodying the only sanction of conscience. Under Socialistic conditions, as we believe, this fact will be formally acknowledged, and what I have termed the third phase in the evolution of the ethical consciousness will be definitively affirmed. What the detail of the canons of action will be under the new conditions we cannot, of course, foresee with any completeness. This much, however, we may venture to predict – that some courses of conduct which are to-day regarded as coming within the purview of ethics, will cease to have any moral bearing in the society of the future, while other courses of conduct, now regarded as indifferent or even ethically commendable, will be condemned by the moral law of the time to come.




1. The criticism might perhaps be made that Dr Farnell hardly brings this crucial point into sufficient proportional relief in his treatment of the evolution of Greek religio-ethical thought, as against other subordinate changes.

2. Exception is to be made here, it should be said, of notions special to the mystical-introspective phase of the ethical consciousness and concerning, not the relation of the individual to the society outside of him, but that of the individual to the Divine Being who is assumed to be revealed within him. For the essentially individualist morality of the mystical-introspective phase referred to, while recognising and, in a manner, absorbing notions derived from the earlier social ethics of tribal humanity, often entirely changes their significance and incorporates with them, as having an equal or even higher validity, notions peculiar to itself. But to these we shall have occasion to refer later on.

3. It is necessary here to enter a word of caution against the notion that “Brotherhood” (Fraternity) necessarily implies an equally close personal affection for, or intimacy with, everybody, which is manifestly absurd, and, moreover, does not as a rule obtain even among brothers according to the flesh, who do not always embrace each other promiscuously in Box and Cox fashion. The personal equation is even here recognised. Brotherhood ethic means the practical recognition of mutual sympathy in the affairs of life and in the recognition of the same ideal aims. (See also note on p.157.)


Last updated on 15.10.2004