The Nature of Human Brain Work. Joseph Dietzgen 1869
The understanding of the method of science, the understanding of the mind, is destined to solve all the problems of religion and philosophy, to explain thoroughly all the great and small riddles, and thus fully to restore research to its mission of empirically studying details. If we are aware that it is a law of reason to require some perceptible material, some cause, for its operation, then the question regarding the first or general cause becomes superfluous. Human understanding is then seen to be first and last cause of all concrete causes. If we understand that it is a law of reason to require for its operation some given object, some beginning at which to start, then the question of the first beginning must necessarily become inane. If we understand that reason derives abstract units out of concrete multiplicities, that it constructs truth out of phenomena, substance out of attributes, that it perceives all things as parts of a whole, as individuals of some genus, as qualities of some object, then the question regarding a “thing itself,” a something which in reality is back of all things, must needs become irrelevant. In brief, the understanding of the interdependence of reason reveals the unreasonableness of the demand for independent reason.
Now, although the main object of metaphysics, the cause of all causes, the beginning of all beginnings, the nature of things, causes little inconvenience to modern science, and even though the needs of the present have overcome the leaning for speculation, this practical downfall of speculation does not suffice for the solution of its problems. So long as the theoretical law is not understood, according to which reason requires some concrete object for its operation, there is no hope of abandoning objectless thought, this malpractice of speculative philosophy, which pretends to generate knowledge without intercourse with objective reality. Our naturalists demonstrate this very clearly as soon as they turn from their tangible specialties to abstract things. The dispute over questions of life’s wisdom, of morality, or the quarrel over the wise, good, right, or bad, reveals that here is the boundary of scientific agreement. The scientific explorers of the exact sciences abandon every day their inductive method when dealing with social problems, and stray off into the regions of speculative philosophy. Just as in physics they believe in imperceptible physical truths, in “things themselves,” so in social matters they believe in the reasonable, wise, right, or bad, in the sense of “things themselves,” of absolute phases of life, of unconditional conditions. It is here where the outcome of our studies, of the critique of pure reason, must be applied.
In recognizing that consciousness, the nature of understanding, the mental activity in its general form, consists in developing general concepts out of concrete objects, we circumscribe this insight by stating that reason develops its understanding out of contradictions. It is the nature of the mind to perceive, in given phenomena of different dimensions and different duration, the nature of things by their semblance, and their semblance by their nature; to distinguish in wants of various degrees the most essential and necessary from the less pressing; to measure within a certain circle of magnitudes the large by the small and the small by the large, or in other words to compare the contrasts of the world with one another, to harmonize them by explanation. Common parlance instinctively calls understanding judging; judging requires a certain standard. Just as surely as we cannot perceive any objects which are “in themselves” great or small, hard or soft, clear or dark, just as surely as these terms denote certain relations and require a certain standard by which their relations can be determined, even so does reason require a certain standard for the determination of that which is reasonable.
The fact that we consider certain actions, institutions, conceptions, maxims of other periods, nations, or persons unreasonable is simply due to the application of a different standard, because we ignore the premises, the conditions, which cause another’s reason to differ from our own. Men who differ in their mental estimates, in their understanding of things, may be likened to the thermometers of Reaumur and Celsius, one of which designates the boiling point by 80 and the other by 100. A different standard is the cause of this different result. On the so-called moral field there is no scientific agreement, such as we enjoy in some physical matters, because we lack the uniform standard which natural science has long since found. It is still attempted to perceive the reasonable, good, right, etc., without empirical data, by speculative reasoning without experience. Speculation seeks the cause of all causes, the immeasurable cause; truth “itself,” the unconditional and standardless truth; the unlimited good, the unboundedly reasonable, etc. The absence of a standard is the essence of speculation, and its practice is characterized by unlimited inconsistency and disagreement. If there are followers of certain positive religions who agree in the matter of morals, they owe this to the positive standard which certain dogmas, doctrines and commandments have given them. But if any one tries to perceive things by “pure” reason, the dependence of this reason on some standard will be demonstrated by its “impure,” that is to say individual, perceptions.
Sense perception is the standard of truth, or of science in general. The phenomena of the outside world are the standard of physical truths, and man with his many wants is the standard of moral truth. The actions of man are determined by his wants. Thirst teaches him to drink, need to pray. Wants are regulated in the South by southern conditions, in the North by northern conditions. Wants rule time and space, nations and individuals. They induce the savage to hunt and the gourmand to indulge. Human wants give to reason a standard for judging what is good, right, bad, reasonable, etc. Whatever satisfies our need is good, the opposite is bad. The physical feeling of man is the object of moral standards, the object of “practical reason.” The contradictory variety of human needs is the basis for the contradictory variety of moral standards. Because a member of a feudal guild prospered in a restricted competition, and a modern knight of industry in free competition, because their interests differ, therefore their views differ, and the one justly considers an institution as unreasonable which the other regards as reasonable. If the intellect of some person attempts to define by mere introspection the standard of reasonableness as a general thing, this person makes himself or herself the standard of humanity. If reason is credited with the faculty of finding within itself the source of moral truth, it commits the speculative mistake of attempting to produce understanding without perceptible objects. The same mistake is to blame for the idea that man is subordinate to the authority of reason, for the demand that man submit to the dictates of reason. This idea transforms man into an attribute of reason, while in reality reason is an attribute of man.
The question whether man depends on reason or reason on man is similar to the one whether the citizen exists for the state or the state for the citizen. In the last and highest instance, the citizen is the primary fact and the state is modified according to the requirements of the citizen. But whenever the dominant interests of the citizenship have acquired the authority in the state, then the citizen is indeed dependent on the state. This is saying in so many words that man is guided in minor matters by more important ones. He sacrifices the less important, minor, particular things to the great, essential, general things. He subordinates his desire for more individual indulgence to his fundamental social needs. It is not pure reason, but the reason of a weak body or of a limited purse which teaches man to renounce the pleasures of dissipation for the benefit of the general welfare. The wants of the senses are the material out of which reason fashions moral truths. To single out the essential need among different physical needs of various degrees of intensity or extension, to separate the true from the individual, to develop general concepts, that is the mission of reason. The difference between the apparently and the truly reasonable reduces itself to the difference between the special and the general.
We recall that reason requires sense perceptions for its existence and operation, that it needs some object which it can perceive. Existence is the condition or premise of all understanding. Just as the understanding of true existence is the function of natural science, so the understanding of reasonable existence is the function of wisdom. Reason in general has the mission of understanding things as they are. As physical science it has to understand what is true, as wisdom, what is reasonable. And just as true may be translated by general, so reasonable may be translated by generally appropriate to need. We saw a while ago that a sense perception is not true “in itself,” but only relatively true, that it is called true or general only in relation to other perceptions of lesser importance. In the same way, no human action can be reasonable or appropriate “in itself,” it can be reasonable only in comparison with some other action which attempts to accomplish the same purpose in a less practicable, that is an impracticable, form. Just as the true, the general, is conditioned on the relation to some other object, on a definite quantity of phenomena, on definite limits, so the reasonable or practicable is based on definite conditions which make it reasonable or unreasonable. The end in view is the measure of the practicable. The practicable can be determined only by some definite object that is wanted. Once this object is known, then that action is called reasonable which accomplishes it in the fullest, most general way, and all other actions appear unreasonable compared to it.
In view of the law which we evolved by our analysis of pure reason and which showed that all understanding, all thought, is based on some perceptible object, on some quantity of sense perceptions, it is evident that everything distinguished by our faculty of distinction is a certain quantity and that, therefore, all distinctions are only quantitative, not absolute, only graduated, not irreconcilable. Even the difference between the reasonable and the unreasonable, or in other words between that which is momentarily or individually reasonable and that which is generally reasonable, is merely a quantitative distinction, like all others, so that the unreasonable may be conditionally reasonable, and nothing is unreasonable but that which is supposed to be unconditionally reasonable.
If we understand that reason requires some perceptible object, some perceptible standard, then we shall no longer try to understand the absolutely reasonable, the purely reasonable. We shall then limit ourselves to look for the reasonable, as for all other things, in concrete objects. The definite, accurate, certain, uniform result of some understanding depends on the definite formulation of the task, on the accurate limitation of the perceptible quantity which is to be understood. If a certain moment, a certain person, a certain class, a certain nation are given and at the same time an essential need, a general and predominating purpose, then the question regarding the reasonable or suitable is easily answered. It is true that we may also know something of things which are generally reasonable for mankind in the aggregate, but in that case our standard must be abstract mankind instead of some concrete part of it. Science may study the anatomical structure of some concrete body as well as the general type of the human body, but this again it can do only when it supplies the faculty of understanding with general instead of individual material. If science divides the whole human race into four or five races, by establishing a certain standard of physiognomy, and later on discovers some individuals or tribes whose characters are so peculiar and rare that they cannot be classed under any of the established races, the existence of such exceptions is not a crime against the physical order of the world, but merely a proof of the inadequacy of our scientific classification. If, on the other hand, some conventional mode of thought considers a certain action as universally reasonable or unreasonable and then encounters opposition in actual life, convention fancies itself exempt from the work of understanding and assumes to deny civic rights in the moral order of the world to its opponents. Instead of realizing the limited applicability of its rules by the existence of opposing practices, convention seeks to establish an absolute applicability of its rules by simply ignoring the cause of the opposition. This is a dogmatic procedure, a negative practice, which ignores facts on the pretense that they are irrational, but it is not a positive understanding, not an intelligent knowledge, such as manifests itself by the conciliation of contradictions.
If our study aims to ascertain what is universally human and reasonable, and if these predicates are given only to actions which are reasonable and practicable for all men, at all times, and under all conditions, then such concepts are absolute, indeterminate, and to that extent meaningless, indefinite generalities. We are stating such universal and indeterminate, and therefore unimportant and unpractical concepts, when we say that physically the whole is greater than a part, or that morally the good is preferable to the bad. The object of reason is that which is general, but it is the generality of some concrete object. The practice of reason deals with individual and concrete objects, with the things which are the opposite of the general, with special and concrete knowledge. In order to perceive in physics whether we are dealing with a part or with the whole object, we must handle definite and concrete objects or phenomena. If we desire to ascertain what is morally preferable as good or bad, we must start out with a definite quantity of human needs. Abstract and general reason, with its socalled eternal and absolute truths, is a phantasmagoria of ignorance which binds the rights of the individual with crushing chains. Real and true reason is individual, it cannot produce any other but individual perceptions, and these perceptions cannot be generalized to any greater extent than the general material with which they operate. Only that is universally reasonable which is acknowledged to be so by all reasons. If the reason of some time, class, or person is referred to as rational, and if some other time, class or person considers it irrational; if, for instance, the Russian noble considers serfdom a rational institution and the English bourgeois the so-called liberty of his wage worker, both of these institutions are not absolutely rational, but only relatively, only in a more or less limited circle.
It is not necessary to state that I do not mean to question the great importance of our reason by the foregoing remarks. Even though reason cannot independently, or absolutely, discern the objects of the speculative introspection, such as the objects of the moral world, the true, the beautiful, the right, the bad, the reasonable, etc., it nevertheless is well fitted to distinguish relatively, by means of concrete sense perceptions, between general and concrete things, between the object and its manifestation, between fundamental needs and fanciful appetites. Although we may dispense with the belief in absolute reason and consequently realize that there can be no absolute peace, still we may call war an unmitigated evil when comparing it with the peaceful interests of our time or of our class. Not until we abandon our fruitless exploring trip after absolute truth, shall we learn to find that which is true in space and time. It is precisely the consciousness of the relative applicability of our knowledge which is the strongest lever of progress. The believers in absolute truth have adopted the monotonous diagram of “good” men and “rational” institutions as a basis for their views of life. For this reason they oppose all human and historical institutions which do not fit into their pattern, but which reality nevertheless produces without regard to their brains. Absolute truth is the arch foundation of intolerance. On the other hand tolerance proceeds from the consciousness of the relative applicability of “eternal truths.” The understanding of pure reason leads to the realization that the consciousness of the universal interdependence of reason is the true road toward practical reason.
The nature of our task limits us to the demonstration that pure reason is a nonentity, that reason is the sum of all acts of individual understanding, that it deals only seemingly with pure and general, but in reality with practical, or concrete, perceptions. We have been discussing that philosophy which pretends to be the science of pure or absolute understanding. We found its aim to be idle, inasmuch as the development of speculative philosophy represents a succession of disappointments, because its unconditional or absolute systems proved to be limited in space and time. Our presentation of the matter has revealed the relative character of so-called eternal truths. We perceived that reason was dependent on sense perceptions, we found that any truth required definite limits for its determination. As regards more especially life’s wisdom, we saw that the acquired knowledge of “pure” reason manifested itself in practice by the dependence of the wise or the rational upon concrete sense perceptions. If we now apply this theory to morality as such, we must be able to establish harmony also in this field, where there is some doubt as to what is right and wrong, by means of the scientific method.
Pagan morality is different from Christian morality. Feudal morality differs from modern bourgeois morality as does bravery from solvency. In brief, we need no detailed illustration to show that different times and nations have different moralities. We have but to understand that this change is necessary, a special characteristic of the human race and of its historical development, and we shall then exchange the belief in “eternal truths,” which every ruling class claims to be identical with its own selfish laws, for the scientific knowledge that absolute right is purely a concept which we derive by means of the faculty of thought from the various successive rights. Right as an absolute concept means no more and no less than any other general concept, for instance, the head in general. Every real head is a concrete one and belongs either to man or to some other animal, it is either long or broad, narrow or wide, in other words it has special peculiarities. But at the same time, every concrete head has certain general qualities which are universal in all heads, for instance the quality of being the superintendent of the body. Moreover, every head has as many general as individual traits, it is no more personal than it is common. The faculty of thought abstracts the general traits from the actual concrete heads and in this way creates the concept of the absolute head. Just as the absolute head, or the head, is composed of the general qualities of all heads, so the absolute right stands merely for the general characters of all rights. Both of these concepts exist merely as ideas, not as objects.
Every real right is a concrete right, it is right only under certain conditions, at definite periods, for this or that nation. “Thou shalt not kill,” is right in peace, but wrong in war; it is right for the majority of bourgeois society that wishes to see the outbursts of passion controlled in the interest of its own predominant needs, but wrong for the savage who has not arrived at the period where a peaceful and social life is appreciated, and who therefore would consider the above commandment as an immoral restriction of his liberty. For the love of life, murder is a detestable abomination, for revenge it is a sweet satisfaction. In the same way robbery seems right to the robber, wrong to the robbed. There can be no question of any absolute wrong in such cases, only of wrong in a relative sense. An action is wrong in a general sense only in so far as it is generally disliked. Plain robbery is wrong in the opinion of the great majority today because our generation takes more interest in bourgeois affairs of commerce and industry than in the adventures of the knights of the road.
If there were such a thing as an absolutely right law, dogma, or action, it would have to serve the welfare of all mankind under all conditions and at all times. But human welfare is as different as men, circumstances, and time. What is good for me is bad for another, and the thing which may be beneficial as a rule may be injurious as an exception. What promotes some interests in one period may interfere with them in another. A law which would presume to be absolutely right would have to be right for every one and at all times. No absolute morality, no duty, no categorical imperative, no idea of the good, can teach man what is good, bad, right, or wrong. That is good which corresponds to our needs, that is bad which is contrary to them. But is there anything which is absolutely good? Everything and nothing. It is not the straight timber which is good, nor the crooked. Neither is good, or either is good, according to whether I need it or not. And since we need all things, we can see some good in all of them. We are not limited to any one thing. We are unlimited, universal, and need everything. Our interests are therefore innumerable, inexpressibly great, and therefore every law is inadequate, because it always considers only some special welfare, some special interest. And for this reason no right is right, or all of them are right, and it is as right to say “Thou shalt not kill” as it is to say “Thou shalt kill.”
The difference between good needs and bad needs, right wants and wrong wants, like that between truth and error, reasonable and unreasonable, finds its conciliation in the difference between the concrete and the general. Reason cannot discover within itself any positive rights or absolutely moral codes any more than any other speculative truth. It cannot estimate how essential or unessential a thing is, or classify the quantity of concrete and general characters, until it has some perceptible material to work upon. The understanding of the right, or of the moral, like all understanding, strives to single out the general characteristics of its object. But the general is only possible within certain defined limits, it exists only as the general qualities of some concrete and determined perceptible object. And if any one tries to represent some maxim, some law, some right in the light of an absolute maxim, law or right, he forgets this necessary limitation. Absolute right is merely a meaningless concept, and it does not assume even a vague meaning until it is understood to stand for the right of mankind in general. But morality, or the determination of that which is right, has a practical purpose. Yet, if we accept the general and unconditional right of mankind as a moral right, we necessarily miss our practical aim. An act or a line of action which is universally or everywhere right requires no law for its enforcement, for it will recommend itself. It is only the determined and limited law, adapted to certain persons, classes, nations, times, or circumstances, which has any practical value, and it is so much more practical the more defined, exact, precise and the less general it is.
The most universal and most widely recognized right or need is in its quality no more rightful, better, or valuable than the most insignificant right of the moment, than the momentary need of some individual. Although we know that the sun is hundreds of thousands of miles in diameter, we are nevertheless free to see it no larger than a plate. And though we may acknowledge that some moral law is theoretically or universally good or holy, we are free in practice to reject it momentarily, in parts, or individually, as bad and useless. Even the most sacred right of the most universal extent is valid only within certain definite limits, and within particular limits an otherwise very great wrong may be a valid right. It is true that there is an eternal difference between assumed and true interests, between passion and reason, between essential, predominating, general, well-founded needs and inclinations, and accidental, subordinate, special appetites. But this difference is not one of two separated worlds, a world of the good and a world of the bad. It is not a positive, general, continuous, absolute difference, but merely a relative one. Like the difference between beautiful and homely, it depends on the individuality of the person who distinguishes. That which is a true and fundamental need in one case, is a secondary, subordinate, and wrong desire in another.
Morality is the aggregate of the most contradictory ethical laws which serve the common purpose of regulating the conduct of man toward himself and others in such a way that the future is considered as well as the present, the one as well as the other, the individual as well as the genus. The individual man finds himself lacking, inadequate, limited in many ways. He requires for his complement other people, society, and must therefore live and let live. The mutual concessions which arise out of these relative needs are called morality.
The inadequacy of the single individual, the need of association, is the basis and cause of man’s consideration for his neighbor, of morality. Now since the one who feels this need, man, is necessarily an individual, it follows that his need must likewise be individual and more or less intensive. And since my neighbors are necessarily different from me, it requires different considerations to meet their needs. Concrete man needs a concrete morality. Just as abstract and meaningless as the concept of mankind in general is that of absolute morality, and the ethical laws derived from this vague idea are quite as unpractical and unsuccessful. Man is a living personality, whose welfare and purpose is embodied within himself, who has between himself and the world nothing but his needs as a mediator, who owes no allegiance to any law whatever from the moment that it contravenes his needs. The moral duty of an individual never exceeds his interests. The only thing which exceeds those interests is the material power of the generality over the individuality.
If we regard it as the function of reason to ascertain that which is morally right, a uniform scientific result may be produced if we agree at the outset on the persons, conditions, or limits within which the universal moral right is to be determined; in other words, we may accomplish something practical if we drop the idea of absolute right and search for definite rights applicable to well-defined purposes by clearly stating our problem. The contradiction in the various standards of morality, and the many opposing solutions of this contradiction, are due to a misunderstanding of the problem. To look for right without a given quantity of sense perceptions, without some definite working material, is an act of speculative reason which pretends to explore nature without the use of senses. The attempt to arrive at a positive determination of morality by pure perception and pure reason is a manifestation of the philosophical faith in understanding a priori.
“It is true,” said Macaulay in his History of England, in speaking of the rebellion against the lawless and cruel government of James II., “that to trace the exact boundary between rightful and wrongful resistance is impossible: but this impossibility arises from the nature of right and wrong, and is found in every part of ethical science. A good action is not distinguished from a bad action by marks so plain as those which distinguish a hexagon from a square. There is a frontier where virtue and vice fade into each other. Who has ever been able to define the exact boundary between courage and rashness, between prudence and cowardice, between frugality and avarice, between liberality and prodigality? Who has ever been able to say how far mercy to offenders ought to be carried, and where it ceases to deserve the name of mercy and becomes a pernicious weakness?”
It is not the impossibility of accurately determining this limit to which the nature of the difference between right and wrong, in the sense of Macaulay, is due. It is rather due to the vague thought which believes in an unlimited right, in absolute virtues and faults, which has not risen to the understanding that the terms good, brave, right, and bad are valid always and everywhere only in relation to some concrete individual who reasons, and that they have no validity in themselves. Courage is foolhardiness in the eyes of the cautious, and caution is cowardice in the opinion of the daring. The revolt against existing governments is always right in the eyes of the rebels, always wrong in the opinion of the attacked. No action can be absolutely right or wrong.
The same qualities of man are good or bad, according to his needs and their uses, according to time and place. Here trickery, slyness, and bad faith prevail, there loyally, frankness and straightforwardness. Here compassion and charity serve their purpose and promote welfare, there ruthless and bloody severity. The quantity, the more or less beneficial effect of a human quality, determines the difference between virtue and vice.
Reason can distinguish between right and wrong, virtue and vice, only to the extent that it can measure the relative quantity of right in any faculty, rule, or action. No categorical imperative, no ethical code, can serve as a basis for the real practical right. On the contrary, ethics finds its justification in the actual righteousness of perceptible objects. For general reason, frankness is not a better quality than slyness. Frankness is preferable to slyness only inasmuch as it is quantitatively, that is to say, more frequently, better, and more generally appreciated than slyness. It follows that a science of right can serve as a guide in practice only to the extent that practice has served as a basis for science. Reason cannot determine the action of man beforehand, because it can only experience, but not anticipate reality, because every man, every situation, is new, original, exists for the first time, and because the possibilities of reason are confined to understanding a posteriori.
Absolute right, or right in itself, is an imagined right, is a speculative desire. A scientifically universal right requires certain definite and perceptible premises which form the basis of the determination of the general. Science is not a dogmatic infallibility which may say: This or that is right, because it is so understood. Science requires for its perceptions some external object. It can perceive right only if it rightly exists. The universal existence is the material, premise, condition, and cause of science.
From the foregoing follows the postulate that morality must be studied inductively or scientifically, not speculatively by the method of traditional philosophy. We must not attempt to study absolute, but only relative rights, only rights based on certain premises, and only this can be the moral problem of reason. Thus the belief in a moral order of the world is dissolved in the consciousness of human freedom. The understanding of reason, of knowledge, of science, includes the understanding of the limited validity of all ethical maxims.
Whatever impressed man as salutary, valuable, divine, was exhibited by him in the tabernacle of faith as the most venerable thing. The Egyptian worshipped the cat, the Christian venerates the divine providence. So, when his needs led him to live a well-regulated life, the benefits of the law inspired him with such a high opinion of its noble origin that he adopted his own handiwork as a gift of heaven. The invention of the mouse-trap or other useful appliances pushed the cat out of its exalted position. Whenever man becomes his own master, takes care of himself, and provides for himself, then all other providences become useless, and his own mastership makes all superior tutelage unbearable. Man is a jealous creature. Ruthlessly he subordinates everything to his own interests, even God and His commandments. No matter how great or venerable an authority any code may have acquired by long and faithful service, as soon as new needs oppose it, they degrade the divine authority to the ranks of human law and transform ancient right into modern wrong. The Christian frivolity refused to respect the threat of physical retribution which the Hebrew had anointed as an authority in moral questions and revered under the maxim: Eye for eye, tooth for tooth. The Christian had learned to cherish the blessings of peacefulness; he carried submissive tolerance into the holy land, and decorated the vacant tabernacle with the gentle injunction to offer the left cheek when the right was tired of cuffs. In our times which are Christian in name, but very anti-Christian in deeds, the long venerated tolerance has long gone out of use.
Just as every religion has its own peculiar God, so every time has its own peculiar right. To this extent, religion and morality are in harmony with the worship of their sanctum. But they become arrogant upstarts whenever they assume to exceed their natural boundaries, whenever they attempt to saddle upon all circumstances, under the pretense of offering something incomparable, absolute, permanent, that which is divine and right at certain times and under definite conditions; whenever they proclaim a successful remedy for their own peculiar disease as a universal patent medicine for all diseases; whenever they overbearingly forget their descent. A law is originally dictated by some individual need, and then mankind with its universal needs is supposed to balance itself on the thin rope of this one rule. Originally that which is really good is right, and thereafter only some decreed right is supposed to be really good. That is the unbearable arrogance. Ordained right is not satisfied to serve as the right of this time, this nation or country, this class or caste. It wants to dominate the whole world, wants to be absolute right, just as if a certain pill could be absolute medicine, could be good for everything. It is the mission of progress to repulse this assumption, to pluck this peacock feather out of the tail of the rooster, by leading mankind on beyond the boundaries prescribed by ordained law, by extending the world for him, by conquering for his cramped interests a wider liberty. The migration from Palestine to Europe where the consumption of pork does not cause leprosy emancipates our natural freedom from a once divine restriction by making it irrelevant. But progress does not deprive one God of his shoulder straps for the purpose of decorating some other God with them. That would merely be an exchange, not an acquirement. Evolution does not drive the saints of tradition out of the country; it simply retires them from the wrongfully occupied field of universality into their peculiar boundaries. Progress picks up the child and then pours the water out of the bath tub. Though the cat may have lost its aureole and ceased to be a God, it does not give up catching mice; and though the Jewish rules for bodily cleanliness at certain definite times have long been forgotten, a clean body is still highly respected. The present wealth of civilization is due only to the economical administration of the acquirements of the past. Evolution is as much conservative as it is revolutionary, and it finds as much wrong as right in every law.
It is true that the believers in absolute duty scent a difference between moral and legal right. But their self-interested narrowness does not permit them to realize that every law is originally moral and that every special morality is gradually reduced to the level of a mere law. Their understanding reaches into other times and other classes, but does not reach their own time and class. The laws of the Chinese and Samoyeds are understood to refer to the peculiar requirements of those people. But the rules of bourgeois society are supposed to be far more sublime. Our present day institutions and moral codes are either regarded as eternal truths of nature or reason, or as permanent oracular expressions of a pure conscience. Just as if the barbarian did not have a barbarian reason; as if the Turk did not have a Turkish conscience and the Hebrew a Hebrew one; as if man could follow the dictates of some absolute conscience, instead of the conscience being conditioned on the man.
Whoever limits the purpose of man to the love and service of God, and to eternal blessedness hereafter, may devoutly recognize the traditions of abstract morality as authoritative and guide himself accordingly. But whoever regards development, education, and blessedness on earth as man’s life purpose, will not think that the questioning of the assumed superiority of traditional morals is irrelevant. It is only the consciousness of individual freedom which creates sufficient unconcern for the rules made by others to permit a brave advance, which emancipates us from the striving for an illusory absolute ideal, for some “best world,” and which restores us to the definite practical interests of our time and personality. At the same time we are thus reconciled with the world as it really is, because we no longer regard it as the unsuccessful realization of that which ought to be, but rather as the systematization of that which cannot but be. The world is always right. Whatever exists, is right and is not fated to be otherwise until it changes. Wherever there is existence, which is power, there is also right without any further condition, because it is right in a formative stage. Weakness has no other right than that of striving for supremacy and then enforcing a recognition of its long denied needs. The study of history shows us not only the negative and ridiculous side of the religions, customs, institutions and ideas of the past, but also their positive, reasonable and necessary side. It explains to us, for instance, that the deification of animals was due to an enthusiastic recognition of their usefulness. And so the study of history shows not alone the inadequacy of the things of the present, but also demonstrates that they are the reasonable and necessary conclusions from the premises of previous stages.
In the well-known statement: The end sanctifies the means, the developed theory of morality finds its practical expression. This maxim, used in an ambiguous sense, may stand as a common reproach for us and for the Jesuits. The defenders of the society of Jesus make efforts to prove that it is a malignant attempt to discredit their clients. We shall not try to speak for either party to this dispute, but will devote ourselves to the subject matter itself, and seek to substantiate the truth and reasonableness of this maxim, to rehabilitate it in the public opinion.
It will be sufficient for the refutation of the most general opposition to understand that end and means are very relative terms, that all concrete ends are means and all means are ends. There is no more of a positive difference between great and small, right and wrong, virtue and vice, than there is between end and means. Considered as something integral by itself, every action has its own end and its means are the various moments of which even the shortest action is composed. Every concrete action is a means in relation to other actions which aim at the same common effect. But in themselves actions are neither ends nor means. Nothing is anything by itself. All being is relative. Things are what they are only within and by their interrelations. Circumstances alter cases. In so far as every action is accompanied by other actions, it is a means, and serves a common end which exceeds its own special end; but inasmuch as every action is complete in itself it is an end which includes its own means. We eat in order to live; but so far as we are living while we are eating, we are living in order to eat. As life to its functions, so the end is related to its means. Just as life is simply the sum of all life’s functions, so the end is the sum of all its means. The difference between means and end reduces itself to that between the concrete and the general. And all abstract differences reduce themselves to this difference, because the faculty of abstraction or distinction reduces itself to the faculty of distinguishing between the concrete and the general. But this distinction presupposes the existence of some material, some given objects, some circle of sense perceptions by which it manifests itself. If this circle is found in the field of actions or functions, in other words, if a previously defined number of different actions is the object of our study, then we refer to the general character of these objects as the general end and to every more or less extended part of them, or to every function, as a means. Whether any definite action is considered as an end or as a means, depends on the question whether we consider it as a whole in relation to its own parts, or as a part of some whole in which it is connected with other parts, with other actions. From a general point of view which has all human actions for the object of its study, and encompasses them all, there exists only one end, viz., the human welfare. This welfare is the end of all ends, is the final end, is the real, true, universal end compared to which all special ends are but means.
Now, our claim that the end sanctifies the means can have absolute validity only in regard to some absolute end. But all concrete ends are relative and finite. The one and sole absolute end is human welfare, and it is an end which sanctifies all rules and actions, all means, so long as they are subservient to it, but which reviles them as soon as they go their own way without serving it. The human weal is literally and historically the origin of the holy. That which is hale is holy. At the same time we must not ignore the fact that the weal, or hale, in general, the hale which sanctifies all means, is but an abstraction, the real content of which is as different as are the times, the nations, or persons which are seeking for their welfare. It must be remembered that the determination of that which is holy or for the human weal requires definite conditions, that no action, no means, is holy in itself, that each one of them is sanctified only by definite relations. It is not every end which sanctifies the means, but the holy end which sanctifies its own means. But since every real and concrete end is only relatively holy, it can sanctify its own means only relatively.
The opposition against our maxim is not so much directed against it, as against the wrong application of it. Recognition is denied and the socalled sanctified ends are accorded only limited means, because there is lurking in the background the consciousness that these ends have only a relative holiness. On the other hand our defense of the maxim does not imply that the various nominally holy means and ends are sanctified because some authority, some scriptural statement, some reason or conscience, has declared them to be so, but only in so far as they answer the common end of all ends, the human welfare. Our maxim of ends does not at all teach that we should sacrifice love and truths to sanctified faith, but neither does it demand that we should sacrifice faith for love and truth. It merely states the fact that, whenever some superior end has been determined by sense perceptions or circumstances, all means contrary to that end are unholy, and that on the other hand means which are generally unholy may become temporarily and individually sanctioned by their relation to some momentary or individual welfare. Wherever peacefulness is actually in favor as a sanctified means, war is unholy. When, on the other hand, man seeks his salvation in war, then murder and incendiarism are holy means. In other words, our reason requires for a valid determination of that which is sanctified certain definite material conditions or facts as premises; it cannot determine the holy in general, not a priori, not philosophically in the old speculative way, but only in concrete cases, a posteriori, only empirically.
If we understand that human welfare is the end of all ends, the ideal of all means; if we furthermore dispense with all special determinations of this welfare, with all personal ideas of it, and recognize that it is different under different circumstances, then we understand at the same time that no means is sanctified beyond the sanctity of its end. No means, no action, is positively sanctified or makes for human welfare under all circumstances. According to circumstances and relations one and the same means may be good or bad. A thing is good only to the extent that its results are good, only to the extent that there is good in its end. Lying and cheating are bad only because they result injuriously for ourselves, because we do not wish to be lied to or cheated. But whenever a sanctified end is in question, the deceptive means used in lying and cheating are called tricks of war. If any one is firmly rooted in the goodness of chastity because he thinks it was ordained by God, we cannot discuss the matter with him. But if one honors virtue for the sake of virtue and abhors vice for the sake of vice, in other words, for their consequences, he admits that he sacrifices the lust of the flesh to the end of good health. In short, he admits that the means are sanctified by the end.
In the Christian conception of the world, the commandments of its religion are absolutely good for all time, they are considered good because Christian revelation declares them to be so. This conception does not know that, for instance, its acme of virtue, the specifically Christian virtue of abstemiousness, received its value only by contrast with corrupt heathenish licentiousness, but that it is not a virtue when compared to reasonable and normal satisfaction of material needs. It deals with certain means which it calls indiscriminately good without any relation to their ends, and others which it calls indiscriminately bad in the same absolute way. And for this reason, it opposes the above named maxim.
But modern Christianity, modern civilization, has practically long done away with this faith. It does indeed call the soul the likeness of God and the body a putrid food for worms; but its deeds prove that it does not take its religious phrases seriously. It cares little for the better part of man and directs all its thoughts and actions toward the satisfaction of the despised body. It employs science and art, and the products of all climates, for the glorification of the body, clothing it sumptuously, feeding it luxuriously, caring for it tenderly, resting it on soft cushions. Although they speak slightingly of this earthly life in comparison to the eternal life beyond, yet in practice they cling for six days of the week to the uninterrupted pleasures of this body, while heaven is hardly considered worthy of careless attention for more than one short hour on Sundays. With the same thoughtless inconsistency the so-called Christian world also attacks our maxim with words, while in practical life it sanctifies the despised means by the end of its own welfare, going even so far as to demonstrate its inconsistency in its own life by subsidizing prostitution with state funds. The fact that the legislative bodies of our representative states keep down the enemies of their bourgeois order by courtmartials and exile, that they justify this course by the proverb, “Do unto others as you would that they should do unto you,” in the interest of “public” welfare, or that they defend their divorce codes by the plea of individual welfare, proves that the bourgeoisie also believes in the motto: The end sanctifies the means. And even though the citizens delegate rights to the state which they deny to themselves, also our opponents cannot but admit that in so doing the citizens are simply delegating their own rights to the superior authority of the state.
True, whoever employs lying and cheating in the bourgeois world for the end of gaining wealth, even though he may make it one of his ends to give to charity, or whoever steals leather, like Saint Chispinus, for the purpose of making shoes for poor people, does not sanctify his means by his end, because the end in that case is not sanctified, or only nominally so, only in general, but not in the concrete case quoted. For charity is an end of but inferior holiness which must not be more than a means compared to the main end of maintaining bourgeois society, and whenever it contravenes this main purpose, charity loses its character of a good end. And we have already seen that an end which is sanctified only under certain circumstances cannot sanctify its means beyond them. The indispensable condition of all good ends is that they must be subservient to human welfare, and whether this welfare is secured by Christian or pagan, by feudal or bourgeois means, it always demands that the things which are considered unessential and of lesser importance should be subordinated to the essential and necessary things, while in the above quoted cases the more salutary honesty and bourgeois respectability would be sacrificed to the less salutary charity."The end sanctifies the means” signifies in other words that in ethics as well as in economics, the profit must justify the investment of the capital. Again, if we call the forcible conversion of infidels a good end, and an arbitrary police measure a bad means, this does not prove anything against the truth of the maxim, but only testifies to its wrong application. The means is not sanctified in the case, because the end is not, because a forced conversion is not a good end, but rather an evil one resulting in hypocrisy, and because such a conversion does not deserve this name, or because force is a means which is unworthy of this term. If it is true that a forcible conversion or wooden iron are senseless ideas, how is it that people will persist in fighting against universally recognized truths with such inconsistencies, such inane word plays, such tricks of rhetoric and sophistry? The means of the Jesuits, sly tricks and intrigues, poison and murder, appear unholy to us only because the Jesuitic purpose, for instance that of extending the wealth and influence and glorifying power of the order, is an inferior end which may make use of the innocent language of the pulpit, but is not an absolutely sanctified end, no supreme end, to which we would grant means that would deprive us of some essential end, for instance of our personal and public safety. Murder and manslaughter are considered immoral as individual actions because they are not means to accomplish our main end, because we incline not toward revenge or blood-thirstiness, nor toward arbitrariness and the wilful dispensation of justice by some judge, but toward lawful decisions and the more or less impartial decrees of the state. But do we not explicitly declare in favor of the maxim “The end sanctifies the means,” when we constitute ourselves into juries and render dangerous criminals powerless by the rope and the ax of the executioner?
The same people who boast of having dropped Aristotle, that is to say the belief in authority, for centuries, and who therefore replaced the dead traditional truth by living self-gained truth, are found to be completely at odds with their own development in the above cited cases. If we listen to the recital of some funny story, which may be told by even a reliable witness, we nevertheless remain loyal to the principles of free reason, that is to say we are free to regard as serious and regrettable any incident which the narrator may consider funny and ridiculous. People know how to distinguish between a story and the subjective impression its incidents created on the mind of the narrator, and which depends more on the personality of the witness than on the actual facts. But in the matter of good ends and bad means it is proposed to neglect the distinction between an object and its subjective end which is otherwise the point of all critique. Such ends as charity, the conversion of infidels, etc., are thoughtlessly, a priori, called good and holy, because they once were so under particular conditions, while now their effect in the cases above cited is just the opposite, and then people wonder that the unrighteous title carries with it unrighteous privileges.
Only that end is worthy of the predicate good or holy in practice which is itself a means, a servant, of the end of all purposes, of welfare. Whenever man seeks his welfare in bourgeois life, in production and commerce of commodities, and in the undisturbed enjoyment of his private property, he clips his long fingers by the commandment: “Thou shalt not steal.” But wherever, as among the Spartans, war is regarded as the supreme end and craftiness as a necessary quality of a warrior, there thieving is used as a means of acquiring craftiness and sanctioned as a means for the main end. To blame the Spartan for being a warrior instead of a sedate bourgeois would be to ignore the facts of reality, would be equivalent to overlooking that our brain is not designed to substitute imaginary pictures for the actual conditions of the world, but is organized to understand that a period, a nation, an individual is always that which it can and must be under given circumstances.
It is not from mere individual and unpraiseworthy fondness for the paradox that we subvert current views by defending the maxim “The end sanctifies the means,” but from a consistent application of the science of philosophy. Philosophy originated out of the belief in a dualist contrast between God and the world, between body and soul, between the flesh and the spirit, between brain and senses, between thinking and being, between the general and the concrete. The conciliation of this contrast represents the end, or the aggregate result, of philosophical research. Philosophy found its dissolution in the understanding that the divine is worldly and the worldly divine, that the soul is related to the body, the spirit to the flesh, thinking to being, the intellect to the senses, in the same way in which the unity is related to the multiplicity or the general to the concrete. Philosophy began with the erroneous supposition that the one, as the first thing, was the basis on which developed the two, three, four, and the entire multiplicity of things by succession. It has now arrived at the understanding that truth, or reality, turns this supposition upside down, that the reality with its multiplicity of forms, perceivable by the senses, is the first and foremost thing out of which the human brain gradually derived the conception of unity or generality.
No achievement of science can be compared with the amount of talent and intellectual energy consumed in harvesting this one little fruit from the field of speculative philosophy. But neither does any scientific novelty encounter so many deep-rooted obstacles to its recognition. All brains unfamiliar with the outcome of philosophy are dominated by the old belief in the reality of some genuine, true, absolutely universal panacea, the discovery of which would make all sham, false individual panaceas impossible. But we, on the other hand, have been taught by the understanding of the thought process that this coveted panacea is a product of the brain and that, since it is supposed to be a general and abstract panacea, it cannot be any real, perceptible, concrete panacea. In the belief in an absolute difference between true and false welfare, there is manifested an ignorance of the actual operations of brain work. Pythagoras made numbers the basis of things. If this Grecian philosopher could have realized that this basic nature was a thing of the mind, of the intellect, and that numbers were the basis of reason, the common or abstract content of all intellectual activity, then we should have been spared all the disputes which have raged around the various forms of absolute truth, about “things in themselves.”
Space and time are the general forms of reality, or reality exists in time and space. Consequently all real welfare must be attached to space and time, and every welfare which exists in these dimensions must be real. The different welfares, in so far as their beneficent qualities are concerned, are to be distinguished only by their height and breadth, by the quantity of their dimensions, by their numeral relations. Every welfare, whether true or seeming, is perceived by the senses, by practices of life, not by abstract reason. But practice assigns the most contradictory things to different people at different times as means to their welfare. What is welfare in one place, is disaster in another, and vice versa. Understanding, or reason, has nothing else to do in the matter than to number these various welfares as they are made real by sense perceptions in various persons and times, and degrees of intensity, in the order in which they appear, and thus to distinguish the small from the great, the essential from the unessential, the concrete from the general. Reason cannot dictate to us autocratically in matters of some absolutely true welfare, it can only indicate the most frequent, most essential, and most universal welfare in a certain perceived number of welfares. But it must not be forgotten that the truth of such an understanding, or enumeration, depends on certain definite premises. It is therefore a vain endeavor to search for the true and absolute welfare. This search becomes practical and successful only when it limits itself to the understanding of a definite amount of welfare of some particular objects. The general welfare can be found only within definite boundaries. But the various determinations of welfare agree in this respect, that they all consider it well to sacrifice the little for the great, the unessential for the essential, and not vice versa. In so far as this principle is right, it is also right for us to employ for the good end of a great welfare some small means in the shape of a small evil and to endure it, and thus we see once more that the end sanctifies the means.
If people were liberal enough to permit every one to go to heaven in his or her own way, the opponents of our maxim would be easily convinced of its truth. But instead of doing this, people follow the usual course of shortsightedness and make their private standpoint a universal one. They call their own private welfare the only true welfare, and regard the welfare of other nations, times and conditions a mistake. So does every school of art declare its own subjective taste to be objective beauty, ignoring the fact that unity is but a matter of ideas, of thought, while reality is full of the most varied forms. The real welfare is manifold and the true welfare but a subjective choice which, like a funny story, may make an entirely different impression on others, and be a false welfare. Even though Kant, or Fichte, or some other particular philosopher, may discuss at length the purpose of mankind and solve the problem to his full satisfaction and to that of his audience, we nevertheless have learned enough today to know that one can define one’s own personal idea of the purpose of mankind by means of abstract speculation, but that one cannot discover any unknown and hidden object in this way. Thought, or reason, requires some object, and its work is that of measuring, of criticising. It may distinguish between true and false welfare, but will also remember that they have their limits, remember that it is itself personal and that its distinctions are likewise personal and cannot be generalized beyond the point where others receive the same impression of the same object.
Humanity is an idea, while man is always some special person who has his or her peculiar life in a definite environment and is therefore subservient to general principles only from motives of self-interest. The sacrifice of ethics, like that of religion, is only seemingly a self-denial and serves the ends of reasonable self-interest, an expenditure with a view to greater gains. A morality worthy of that name which is not better defined by the term obedience can be exercised only through the understanding of its worth, of its value for our welfare, of its usefulness. The variety of political parties is conditioned on the varieties of the interests concerned, and the difference in the means is conditioned on the difference in ends. In questions of less importance even the champions of absolute morality testify to this fact.
Thiers in his history of the French Revolution tells of a peculiar situation in the year 1796, when the patriots held the public power and the royalists carried on a revolutionary propaganda. It was then that the partisans of the revolution, who should have been the champions of unlimited liberty, demanded coercive measures, while the opposition, who secretly cared more for a monarchy than for a republic, voted for unlimited liberty. “To such an extent are parties governed by their self-interests,” comments Thiers, just as if this were an anomaly instead of being the natural, necessary and inevitable course of the world. When, on the other hand, it is a question of the fundamental laws of bourgeois order, then the moral representatives of the ruling classes are egotistic enough to deny the connection of their material interests with these laws and to claim that theirs are eternal, metaphysical world laws, that the pillars of their special class rule are the eternal pillars of humanity, and that their own means alone are holy ones and their end the final end of the universe.
It is a disastrous deception, a robbing of human liberty, an attempt to cause the stagnation of the historical development, if any age or class thus proclaims its own peculiar purposes and means to be for the absolute welfare of humanity. Morality originally reflects one’s interests just as fashion reflects one’s taste, and finally the action is moulded after the conceived pattern like the coat in dressing. In this process, force naturally is exerted for the maintenance and protection of one’s own life and those who resist are subdued. Interest and duty, though perhaps not entirely synonymous, are certainly closely related. Both of them are merged in the term welfare. Self-interest represents more nearly the concrete, immediate, tangible welfare, while duty concerns itself with the more remote and general welfare of the future also. While self-interest considers the present tangible metallic welfare of the purse, duty demands that we keep not only a part of welfare, but all welfare in mind, that we consider the future as well as the present, that we remember the spiritual welfare as well as the physical. Duty thinks also of the heart, of social needs, of the future, of the spiritual weal, in brief of interest in general and urges us to renounce the superfluous in order to secure and retain the necessary. Thus your duty is your self-interest and your self-interest your duty.
If our ideas are to adapt themselves to truth, or to reality, instead of reality or truth adapting itself to our notions or thoughts, we must understand that the mutability of that which is right, holy, moral, is a natural, necessary and true fact. And we must grant to an individual the theoretical freedom which cannot be taken from it in practice, we must admit that it is as free now as it has ever been, that laws must be adapted to the needs of the social individual and not to the vague, unreal, and impossible abstractions, such as justice or morality. What is justice? The embodiment of all that is considered right, an individual conception, which assumes different forms in different persons. In reality only individual, definite, concrete rights exist, and man simply comes along and abstracts from them the idea of justice, just as he abstracted from different kinds of wood the conception of wood in general, or from material things the conception of matter. It is just as far from the truth, to think that material things consist of, or are by virtue of, abstract matter, although this view is widely spread, as it is to believe that the moral or bourgeois laws were derived from the idea of justice.
The ethical loss caused by our realistic, or if you prefer, materialistic, conception of morality is not so great as it appears. We need not fear that through this conception social beings will become lawless cannibals or hermits. Freedom and lawfulness are closely allied by the need for association which compels us to permit others to live together with us. If a man is prevented by his conscience or by other spiritualistic or bourgeois ethics from committing unlawful actions – unlawful in the wider meaning of the term – he is either not exposed to very grave temptations, or he has a nature so tame that the natural or legal punishments fully suffice to keep him within prescribed bounds. But where these checks are ineffective, morality is likewise powerless. If it were otherwise, we should have to assume that morality exerts in secret the same influence on the faithful which is exerted by public opinion on the faithless. But we know from actual experience that there are more pious thieves than infidel robbers. That the world, which attributes so much value for social welfare to morality by word of mouth, actually shares this view of ours, is proven by the fact that bourgeois society gives more attention to the penal code and to the police than to the influence of morality.
Moreover, our fight is not directed against morality, not even against any special form of it, but only against the arrogance which assumes to stamp some concrete form of morality with the trade mark of absolute morality. We recognize that morality is eternally sacred, in so far as it refers to considerations which a man owes to himself and to his fellowmen in the interest of their common welfare. But the freedom of the individual demands that each one should be at liberty to determine the degree of consideration and the manner of giving it expression. Under these circumstances it is as inevitable that the ruling powers, classes or majorities should enforce their special needs under the form of a prescribed right, as it is that a man’s shirt should be closer to his skin than his coat. But it appears to us not merely very superfluous, but even detrimental to the energies required for the progress of the future, that some decreed right should be elevated to the position of absolute right and transformed into an insuperable barrier to the advance of humanity.
2. Which was gained by the mind’s contact with its sense-perceived multiplicity of the world. – Editor.