Karl Kautsky

Ethics and the Materialist Conception Of History

Chapter IV
The Ethic of Darwinism

I. The Struggle for Existence

Kant, like Plato, had divided mankind into two parts, a natural and a supernatural, an animal and an angelic. But the strong desire to bring the entire world, including our intellectual functions, under a unitary conception, and to exclude all factors besides the natural from it, or in other words the materialist method of thought, was too deeply grounded in the circumstances for Kant to be able to paralyze it for any length of time. And the splendid progress made by the natural sciences, which began just at the very time of Kant’s death to make a spurt forwards, brought a series of new discoveries, which more and more filled up the gap between man and the rest of nature, and among other things revealed the fact that the apparently angelic in man was also to be seen in the animal world, and thus was of animal nature.

All the same the Materialist Ethics of the nineteenth century, so far as it was dominated by the conceptions of natural science, equally in the bold and outspoken form which it took in Germany, as well as in the more retiring and modest English, and even now French version, did not get beyond that which the eighteenth century had taught. Thus Feuerbach founded morality on the desire for happiness, Auguste Comte, the founder of Positivism, took on the other hand from the English the distinction between moral or altruistic feelings, and the egoistical, both of which are equally rooted in human nature.

A great and decided advance over this position was first made by Darwin, who proved in his book on the Descent of Man, that the altruistic feelings formed no peculiarity of man, that they are also to be found in the animal world, and that there, as here, they spring from similar causes, which are in essence identical and which have called forth and developed all the faculties of beings endowed with the power of moving themselves. With that almost the last barrier between man and animal was torn down. Darwin did not follow up his discoveries any further, and yet they belong to the greatest and most fruitful of the human intellect, and enable us to develop a new critique of knowledge.

When we study the organic world, it shows to us, in contrast to the inorganic, one very striking peculiarity: We find in it adaptation to end. All organized beings are constructed and endowed more or less with a view to an end. The end which they serve is nevertheless not one which lies outside of them. The world as a whole has no aim. The aim lies in the individuals themselves, its parts are so arranged and fitted out, that they serve the individual, the whole. Purpose and division of labor arise together. The essence of the organism is the division of labor just as much as adaptation to end. One is the condition of the other.

The division of labor distinguishes the organism from inorganic individuals, for example, crystals. Even crystals are distinct individuals with a distinct form. They grow, when they find the necessary material for their formation under the requisite conditions, but they are through and through symmetrical. On the other hand the lowest organism is a vesicle much less visible and less complicated than a crystal, but a vesicle whose external side is different, and has different functions to the inner.

That the division of labor is one which is suitable for the purpose, that is, one which is useful to the individual, renders his existence possible, or even ameliorates it, seems wonderful. But it would be still more wonderful if individuals maintained themselves and procreated with a division of labor which was not suitable for the purpose, which rendered their existence difficult or even impossible.

But what is the work which the organs of the organism have to accomplish? This work is the struggle for life, that is, not the struggle with other organisms of the same kind, as the word is occasionally used, but the fight with the whole of nature. Nature is in continual movement and is always changing her forms, hence only such individuals will he able to maintain their form for any period of time in this eternal change who are in a position to develop particular organs against those external influences which threaten the existence of the individual as well as to supply the place of those parts which it is obliged to give up continually to the external world. Quickest and best will those individuals and groups assert themselves, whose weapons of defence and instruments for obtaining food are the best adapted to their end, that is best adapted to the external world, to avoid its dangers and to capture the sources of food. The uninterrupted process of adaptation, and the selection of the fittest, by means of the struggle for existence produce, under such circumstances as usually form themselves on the earth since it has bourne organized beings, an increasing division of labor. In fact the more developed the division of labor is in a society, the more advanced does that society appear to us. The continual process of rendering the organic world more perfect is thus the result of the struggle for existence in it – and that probably for a long time to come will be its future result, that is as long as the conditions of our planet do not essentially alter. Certainly we have no right to look on this process as a necessary law for all time. That would amount to imputing to the world an end which is not to be found in it.

The development need not always proceed at the same rate. From time to time periods can come, when the various organisms, each in its way, arrive at the highest possible degree of adaptation to the existing conditions, that is, are in the most complete harmony with their surroundings. So long as these conditions endure they will develop no farther, but the form which has been arrived at will develop into a fixed type, which procreates itself unchanged. A further development will only then occur when the surroundings undergo a considerable alteration, when the inorganic nature is subject to changes which disturb the balance of the organic. Such changes, however, take place from time to time, either single, sudden and violent, or numerous and unnoticed, the sum total and effect of which, however, equally brings on new situations, as for example alterations in the ocean currents, in the surface of the earth, perhaps even in the position of the planet in the universe, which bring about climatic changes, transform thick forests into deserts of sand, cover tropical landscapes with icebergs and vice versa. These alterations render new adaptations to the changed conditions necessary, they produce migrations which likewise bring the organisms into new surroundings, and produce fresh struggles for life between the old inhabitants and the new incomers, exterminate the badly adapted and the unadaptable individuals and types, and create new divisions of labor, new functions and new organs or transform the old. It is not always the highest developed organisms which best assert themselves by this new adaptation. Every division of labor implies a certain one-sidedness. Highly developed organs, which are specially adapted for a particular method of life, are for another far less useful than organs which are less developed, and in that particular method of life less effective, but more many-sided and more easily adaptable. Thus we see often higher developed kinds of animals and plants die out, and lower kinds take over the farther development of new higher organisms. Probably man is not sprung from the highest type of apes, the man apes, which are tending to die out, but from a lower species of four-handed animals.


II. Self-Movement and Intelligence

At an early period the organisms divided themselves into two great groups – those which developed the organs of self motion, and those which lacked it, animals and plants.

It is clear that the power of self movement is a mighty weapon in the struggle for life. It enables it to follow its food, to avoid danger, to bring its young into places where they will be best secured from dangers and which are best provided with food.

Self motion, however, necessarily implies an intelligence, and vice versa. The one of these factors without the other is absolutely useless. Only in combination do they become a weapon in the struggle for life. The power of self-movement is completely useless, when it is not combined with a power to recognize the world in which I have to move myself. What use would the legs be to the stag, if he had not the power to recognize his enemies and his food grounds? On the other hand, for a plant intelligence of any kind would be useless. Were the blade of grass able to see, hear or smell the approaching cow, that would not in the least help it to avoid being eaten. Self-movement and intelligence thus necessarily go together, one without the other is useless. Wherever these faculties may spring from, they invariably come up together and develop themselves jointly. There is no self-movement without intelligence, and no intelligence without self-movement. And together they serve the same ends, the securing and alleviation of the individual existence.

As a means to that they and their organs are developed and perfected by the struggle for life, but only as a means thereto. Even the most highly developed intelligence has no capacities which would not be of use as weapons in the struggle for existence. Thus is explained the one-sidedness and the peculiarity of our intelligence.

To recognize things in themselves may appear to many philosophers an important task; for our existence it is highly indifferent, whatever we have to understand by the thing in itself. On the other hand for every being endowed with power of movement it is of the greatest importance to rightly distinguish the things and to recognize their relations to one another. The sharper his intelligence in this respect the better service will it do him. For the existence of the singing bird it is quite indifferent what those things may be in themselves which appear to it as a berry, a hawk, or a thunder cloud. But indispensable is it for his existence to distinguish exactly berries, hawks, and clouds from the other things among his surroundings, since that alone puts him in a position to End his food, to escape the enemy, and to reach shelter in time. It is thus inevitable that the intelligence of the animal should be a power of distinguishing in space.

But just as indispensable is it to recognize the sequence of the things in time, and indeed their necessary sequence as cause and effect. Since the movement as cause can only bring as a universal result the maintenance of existence, if it aims at special more immediate or remoter effects which are so much the more easily to be achieved, the better the individual has got to learn these effects with their causes. To repeat the above example of a bird, it is not sufficient that it should know how to distinguish berries, hawks, and thunder clouds from the other things in space, it must also know that the enjoyment of the berries has the effect of satisfying its hunger, that the appearance of the hawk will have the effect that the first small bird which it can grasp will serve it as food, and that the rising thunder clouds produce storm, rain, and hail as results.

Even the lowest animal, so soon as it possesses a trace of ability to distinguish and self movement, develops a suspicion of causality. If the earth shakes, that is a sign for the worm that danger threatens and an incentive to flight.

Thus if the intelligence is to be of use to the animal in its movements it must be organized so that it is in a position to show him the distinctions in time and space as well as the causal connections.

But it must do even more. All the parts of the body serve only one individual, only one end, the maintenance of the individual. The division of labor must never go so far that the individual parts become independent, because that would lead to the dismemberment of the individual. They will work so much the more efficiently, the tighter the parts are held together, and the more uniform the word of command. From this follows the necessary unity of the consciousness. If every part of the body had its own intellectual organs, or did each of the senses which conveys to us a knowledge of the outer world produce its own consciousness, then would all knowledge of the world in such a case and the cooperation of the various members of the body be much impeded, the advantages of the division of labor would be abolished, or changed into disadvantages, the support which the senses or the organs of movement mutually give to each other would cease and there would come instead mutual hindrance.

Finally, however, the intelligence must possess in addition the power to gather experiences and to compare. To return once more to our singing bird, he has two ways open to him to find out what food is the best for him and where it is easiest to be found; what enemies are dangerous for him and how to escape them. One, his own experience, the other the observation of other and older birds, who have already made experience. No master is, as is well known, born. Every individual can so much the easier maintain himself in the struggle for life, the greater his experience and the better arranged they are; to that, however, belongs the gift of memory and the capacity to compare former impression with later, and to extract from the common and universal element, to separate the essential from the unessential, that is: to think. Does observation communicate to us the differences, the particular factor through the senses, so does thinking tell us the common factor, the universal element in the things.

“The universal,” says Dietzgen, “is the content of all concepts, of all knowledge, of all science, of all acts of thought. Therewith the analysis of the organ of thought exhibits the latter, as the power to investigate the universal in the particular.”

All these dualities of the intellectual powers, we find developed in the animal world, even if not in so high a degree as in men, and they are often for us difficult to recognize, since it is not always easy to distinguish conscious actions springing from intelligence, from the involuntary and unconscious actions, simple reflex actions and instinctive movements which even in men play a great role.

If we find all these qualities of the intellectual faculties to be a necessary concomitant of the power of self movement already in the animal world, so do we, on the other hand, find in the same qualities also the same limitations which even the most embracing and most penetrating understanding of the highly developed civilized man cannot surmount.

Forces and capacities which were acquired as weapons in the battle for existence can naturally be made available for other purposes as well, besides those of rendering existence secure, when the organism has brought its power of self movement and its intelligence, as well as its instincts of which we will soon speak, to a high enough degree of development. The individual can employ the muscles, which were developed in it for the purpose of snatching its booty, or warding off the foe, as well for dancing and playing. But their particular character is obtained by these powers and capacities all the same, only from the struggle for life which developed them. Play and dance develop no particular muscles.

That holds good also of the intellectual powers and faculties. Each was developed as a necessary supplement to the power of self-movement in the struggle for life, in order to render possible to the organism the most suitable movement in the surrounding world for its own preservation, yet it could all the same be made to serve other purposes. To these belong also pure knowing without any practical thoughts in the background, without regard for the practical consequences which it can bring about. But our intellectual powers have not been developed by the struggle for existence, to become an organ of pure knowledge, but only to be an organ which regulates our movements in conformity with their purpose. The more completely it functions in respect of the latter, the more incomplete is it in the first. From the very beginning most intimately connected with the power of self movement, it develops itself completely only in mutual dependence on the power of self movement and can only be brought to perfection in this connection. Also the power of the human faculties of cognition and human knowledge is most intimately bound up with human practice, as we shall see.

It is the practice, however, which guarantees to us the certainty of our knowledge.

So soon as my knowledge enables me to bring about distinct effects, the production of which lies in my power, the relation of cause and effect ceases for me to be simply chance or simple appearance, or simple forms of knowledge, as the pure contemplation and thought might well describe them. The knowledge of this relation becomes, through the practice, a knowledge of something real and is raised to certain knowledge.

The boundaries of practice witness certainly to the boundaries of our certain knowledge.

That theory and practice are dependent on one another and only through the mutual permeation of the one by the other can at any time the highest result attainable be arrived at, is only an outcome of the fact that movement and intellectual powers, from their earliest beginnings, were bound to go together. In the course of the development of human society the division of labor has brought it about that the natural unity of these two factors would be destroyed, and created classes to whom principally the movement, and others to whom principally the knowing, fell. We have already pointed out how this was reflected in philosophy, through the creation of two worlds, a higher or intellectual and a lower or bodily.

But wholly were the two functions naturally in no individual to be divided, and the proletariat movement of today is directing its energies with good effect to abolishing this distinction and with it also the dualist philosophy, the philosophy of pure knowledge. Even the deepest, most abstract knowledge, which apparently is farthest removed from the practical, influence this, and are influenced by it, anti to bring in us this influence to consciousness becomes the duty of a critique of human knowledge. As before, knowledge remains in the last resort always a weapon in the struggle for existence, a means to give to our movements, be they movements in nature or society, the most suitable forms and directions.

“Philosophers have only interpreted the world differently,” said Marx. “The great thing, however, is to change it.”


III. The Motives of Self Maintenance and Propagation

Both powers of self movement and of knowing belong inseparably together as weapons in the struggle for existence. The one developed itself along with the other, and in the degree in which these weapons win in importance in the organism, do the other more primitive ones, which are less necessary, as for example, that of fruitfulness and of vitality diminish. On the other hand, to the degree that these diminish must the importance of the first named factors for the struggle for life increase, and it must call forth their greater development.

But self movement and knowledge form by themselves by no means a sufficient weapon in the struggle. Of what use is merely the strongest muscles, the most agile joints, the sharpest senses, the greatest understanding, in this struggle, if I do not feel in me the impulse to employ them to my preservation – if the sight of food or the knowledge of danger leaves me indifferent and awakes no emotion in me? Self movement and intellectual capacity first, then, become weapons in the struggle for existence, if with them there arises a longing for the self preservation of the organism, which brings it about that all knowledge which is of importance for its existence at once produces the will to carry out the movement necessary for its existence, and therewith calls forth this movement.

Self movement and intellectual powers are without importance for the existence of the individual without his instinct of self preservation, just as this latter again is of no importance with both the former factors. All three are most intimately bound up with each other. The instinct of self preservation is the most primitive of the animal instincts and the most indispensable. Without it no animal species endowed in any degree with the power of self movement and a faculty of intelligence could maintain itself even a short time. It rules the entire life of the animal. The same social development, which ascribes the care of the intellectual faculties to particular classes, and the practical movement to others, and produces in the first an elevation of the “spirit” over the gross “matter”, goes so far in the process of isolating the intellectual faculties, that the latter, out of contempt for the “mechanical” practice which serves for the maintenance of life, comes to despise life itself. But this kind of knowledge has never as yet been able to overcome the instinct of self preservation, and to paralyze the “practise” which serves for the maintenance of life. Although many a suicide be philosophically grounded, we always, in every practical act of the denial of life, finally meet with disease or desperate social circumstances as the cause, but not a philosophical theory. Mere philosophizing cannot overcome the instinct of self preservation.

But if this is the most primitive and widely spread of all instincts it is still not the only one. It serves only for the maintenance of the individual. However long this may endure, finally it disappears without leaving any trace of its individuality behind, if it has not reproduced itself. Only those species of organisms will assert themselves in the struggle for existence, who leave a progeny behind them.

Now with the plants and the lower animals reproduction is a process which demands no power of self movement and no faculty of intelligence. That changes, however, with the animals so soon as reproduction becomes a sexual act, in which two individuals are concerned, who have to unite in order to lay either eggs and seeds (sperm) on the same spot outside of the body, or to incorporate the sperm in the body of the individual carrying the eggs. That demands a will, an impulse to find each other, to unite. Without that can the non-sexual propagation not take place, the stronger it is in the periods favorable for reproduction, so much the sooner will it take place, so much the better will be the prospects of a progeny, for the maintenance of the species. On the other hand these prospects are bad for individuals and species in whom the impulse for self reproduction is weakly developed. From a given degree of the development consequently natural selection must develop through the struggle for life an outspoken impulse to reproduction in the animal world and ever more strengthen it.

But it does not always suffice to the attainment of a numerous progeny. We have seen that in the degree in which self movement and intellectual powers grow, the number of the germs, which the individual produces, as well as its vitality, have a tendency to diminish. On the other hand the greater the division of labor, the more complicated the organism, the longer the period which is requisite for its development and its attainment to maturity. Even if a part of this period is laid in the maternal body, that has its limits. Even from considerations of space is this body not in a position to bear an organism as big as itself. It must expel the young long before that period is arrived at. From the young animals, however, the capacities for self movement and intelligence are the latest achieved, and they are mostly very weakly developed as they leave the protecting cover of the egg or the maternal body. The egg expelled by the mother is completely without motion and intelligence. Then the care for the progeny becomes an important function of the mother: the hiding and defence of the eggs anti of the young, the feeding of the latter, etc. As the impulse for reproduction, so is it with the love for the young, especially in the animal world is the maternal love developed as an indispensable means, from a certain stage of the development on, to secure the perpetuation of the species. With the impulse towards individual self preservation these impulses have nothing to do: they often come into conflict with it, and they can be so strong that they overcome it. It is clear that under otherwise equal conditions, those individuals and species have the best prospect of reproducing themselves and handing on their qualities and impulses in whom the impulse of self maintenance is not able to diminish the impulse to reproduce and protect the progeny.


IV. The Social Instinct

Besides these instincts which are peculiar to the higher animals, the struggle for life develops in particular kinds of animals still others, which are special and conditioned by the peculiarity of their method of life, for example, the migratory instinct, which we will not farther study. Here we are interested in another kind of instinct which is of very great importance for our subject: the social instinct.

The cooperation of similar organisms in larger crowds is a phenomenon which we can discover quite in their earliest stages: the microbes. It is explained alone by the simple fact of reproduction. If the organisms have no self movement, the progeny will consequently gather round the producer, if they are not by any chance borne away by the movements of the external world, water currents, winds, and phenomena of that sort. The apple falls, as is well known, not far from the stem, and when it is not eaten, and falls on fruitful soil, there grow from the pips young trees, which keep the old tree company. But even in animals with power of self-movement it is very natural that the young should remain with the old, if no external circumstances supply a ground for them to remove themselves. The living together of individuals of the same species, the most primitive form of social life, is also the most primitive forms of life itself. The division of organisms, which have a common origin, is a later act.

The separation can be brought about by the most diverse causes. The most obvious, and certainly the most effective, is the lack of sustenance. Each locality can only yield a certain quantity of food. If a certain species of animals multiplies beyond the limits of their food supply, the superfluous ones must either emigrate or starve. Above a certain number the numbers of organisms living in one place can not go.

But there are certain species of animals, for whom the isolation, the division in individual pairs, who live only for themselves, for whom such a life affords an advantage in the struggle for existence. Thus, for example, for the cat species, which lie in wait for their booty and take it with an unexpected spring. This method of acquiring their sustenance would be made more difficult, if not impossible, if they circulated in herds. The first spring on the booty would drive all the game away for all the others. For wolves which do not come unexpectedly on their prey, but worry it to death, the foregathering in herds affords an advantage; one hunts the game to the other, which blocks for it the way. The cat nevertheless hunts more successfully alone.

On the other hand again there are animals who choose isolation because in this fashion they are less conspicuous and can easiest hide themselves, soonest escape the foe. The traps set by man have, for example, had the effect that many animals which formerly lived in societies, are now only to be found isolated, such as the beavers in Europe. That is the only way for them to remain unnoticed.

On the other hand, however, there are numerous animals which draw advantage from their social life. They are seldom beasts of prey. We have mentioned the wolf above. But even they only hunt in bands when food is scarce, in winter. In summer when it is easier to get, they live in pairs. The nature of the beast of prey is always inclined to fighting and violence, and consequently does not agree well with its equals.

The herbivora are more peaceful from the very manner in which they obtain their food. That very fact of itself renders it easier for them to herd together, or to remain together, because they are more defenceless, they win, however, through their greater numbers, new weapons in the struggle for life. The union of many weak forces in common action can produce a new and greater force. Then through union the greater strength of certain individuals is used for the good of all. When the stronger ones fight now for themselves, they fight for the good of the weaker, when the more experienced look out for their own safety, find out for themselves feeding grounds, they do it also for the inexperienced. Now it becomes possible to introduce a division of labor among the united individuals, fleeting though it he, yet it increases their strength and their safety. It is impossible to watch the neighborhood with the most complete attention and at the same time to feed peacefully. Naturally during sleep all observation of all kind comes to an end. But in society one watcher suffices to render the others safe during sleep or while eating.

Through the division of labors the union of individuals becomes a body with different organs to cooperate to a given end, and this end is the maintenance of the collective body; it becomes an organism. This is by no means to say that the new organism, society, is a body in the same way as an animal or a plant, but it is an organism of its own kind, which is far more widely distinguished from those two than the animal from the plant. Both are made up from cells without power of self motion and without consciousness of their own; society on the other hand from individuals with their own power of movement and consciousness. If, however, the animal organism has, as a whole, a power of self motion and consciousness, they are lacking nevertheless to society as well as to the plant. But the individuals which form the society can entrust individuals among their members with functions through which the social forces are submitted to a uniform will, and uniform movements in the society are produced.

On the other hand the individual and society are much looser connected than the cell and the whole organism, in both plant and animal. The individuals can separate itself from one society and join another as emigration proves. That is impossible for a cell; for it the separation from the whole is death, if we leave certain cells of a particular kind out of account, such as the sperma and eggs in the procreative processes. Again society can forthwith impose on new individuals any change of form, without any change of substance, which is impossible for an animal body. Finally the individuals who form society can. under circumstances, change the organs and organization of society, while anything of that kind is quite impossible in an animal or vegetable organism.

If, therefore, society is an organism, it is no animal organism, and to attempt to explain any phenomena peculiar to society from the laws of the animal organism is not less absurd than when the attempt is made to deduce peculiarities of the animal organism, such as self movement and consciousness, from the laws of vegetable being. Naturally this does not say there is not also something common to the various kinds of organisms.

Just as the animal, so will also the social organism survive so much the better in the struggle for existence the more unitary its movements, the stronger the binding forces, the greater the harmony of the parts. But society has no fixed skeleton, which supports the weaker parts, no skin which covers the whole, no circulation of the blood which nourishes all the parts, no heart which regulates it, no brain which makes a unity out of its knowing, its working and its movements. Its unity and harmony, as well as the coherence can only arise from the actions and will of its members. This unitary will will, however, be so much the more assured the more it springs from a strong impulse.

Among species of animals, in whom the social bond becomes a weapon in the struggle for life, this encourages consequently social impulses which in many species and many individuals grow to an extraordinary strength, so that they can overcome the impulse of self preservation and reproduction when they come in conflict with the same.

The commencement of the social impulse we can well look for in the interest which the simple fact of living together in society produces in the individuals for his fellows, to whose society he is accustomed from youth on. On the other hand reproduction and care for the progeny already render longer or shorter relations of a more intimate kind necessary between different individuals of the same species. And just as these relations have formed the starting point for the formation of societies, so could the corresponding impulses easily give the point of departure for the development of the social impulses.

These impulses themselves can vary according to the varying conditions of the various species, but a row of impulses forms the requisite conditions for the growth of any kind of society. In the first place naturally comes altruism, self sacrifice for the whole. Then bravery in the defence of the common interests; fidelity to the community; submission to the will of society; then obedience and discipline; truthfulness to society whose security is endangered or whose energies are wasted when they are misled in any way by false signals. Finally ambition, the sensibility to the praise and blame of society. These all are social impulses which we find expressed already among animal societies, many of them in a high degree.

These social impulses are nevertheless nothing but the highest virtues, they sum up the entire moral code. At the most they lack the love for justice, that is the impulse for equality. For its development there certainly is no place in the animal societies, because they only know natural and individual inequality, and not those called forth by social relations, the social inequalities. The lofty moral law, that the comrade ought never to be merely a means to an end, which the Kantians look on as the most wonderful achievement of Kant’s genius, and as the moral programme of the modern era, and for the entire future history of the world, that is in the animal world a commonplace. The development of human society first created a state of affairs in which the companion became a simple tool of others.

What appeared to a Kant as the creation of a higher world of spirits, is a product of the animal world. How narrowly the social impulses have grown up with the fight for existence, and to what an extent they originally were useful in the preservation of species, can be seen from the fact that their effect often limits itself to individuals whose maintenance is advantageous to the species. Quite a number of animals, which risk their lives to save younger or weaker comrades, kill without a scruple sick or aged comrades who are superfluous for the preservation of the race, and are become a burden to society. The “moral sense,” “sympathy,” does not extend to these elements. Even many savages behave like that.

An animal impulse and nothing else is the moral law. Thence comes its mysterious nature, this voice in us which has no connection with any external impulse, or any apparent interest, this demon or god, which since Socrates and Plato, those moralists found in themselves who refused to deduce morality from self love or pleasure. Certainly a mysterious impulse, but not more mysterious than sexual love, the maternal love, the instinct of self preservation, the being of the organism itself and so many other things, which only belong to the world of phenomena and which no one looks on as products of a supersensuous world.

Because the moral law is the universal instinct, of equal force to the instinct of self preservation and reproduction, thence its force, thence its power which we obey without thought, thence our rapid decisions, in particular cases, whether an action is· good or bad, virtuous or vicious; thence the energy and decision of our moral judgment, and thence the difficulty to prove it when reason begins to analyze its grounds. Then one finally finds that to comprehend all means to pardon all, that everything is necessary, that nothing is good and bad.

Not from our organs of knowing, but from our impulses comes the moral law and the moral judgment as well as the feeling of duty and the conscience.

In many kinds of animals the social impulses attain such a strength, that they become stronger than all the rest. Do the former come in conflict with the latter, they then confront the latter with overpowering strength as commands of duty. Nevertheless that does not hinder in such a case a special impulse, say of self preservation or of reproduction being temporarily stronger than the social impulse and overcoming it. But is the danger past, then the strength of the self preserving impulse or the reproductive instinct shrivels up, just as that of reproduction after the completion of the act. The social instinct remains however, existing in the old force, regains the dominion over the individual and works now in him as the voice of conscience and of repentance. Nothing is more mistaken than to see in conscience the voice of fright of his fellows, their opinion or even their power of physical compulsion. It has effect even in respect of acts, which no one has heard of, even acts which appear to the neighbors very praiseworthy, it can even work as repugnance of acts which have been undertaken from fear of his fellows and their public opinion.

Public opinion, praise and blame are certainly very influential factors. But their effect assumes in advance a certain social impulse, namely, ambition, they cannot produce the social impulses.

We have no reason to assume that conscience is confined to man. We would find it difficult to find even in men, if everyone did not feel its effect on himself. Conscience is certainly a force, which does not obviously and openly show itself, but works only in the innermost being.

But nevertheless many investigators have gone so far as to posit even in animals a kind of conscience. Thus says Darwin in his book The Descent of Man:

“Besides Love and Sympathy the animals show other qualities connected with the social instincts, which we should call moral in men; and I agree with Agassiz that dogs have something very like a conscience. Dogs certainly have a certain power of self control, and this does not appear to be altogether a consequence of fear. As Braubach remarks, a dog will restrain itself from stealing food in the absence of its master.” If conscience and feeling of duty are a consequence of the lasting predominance of the social impulses in many species of animals, if these impulses are those through which the individuals of such species are the most constantly and most enduringly determined, while the force of the other impulses is subject to great oscillations, yet the force of the social impulse is not free from all oscillations. One of the most peculiar phenomena is that social animals, when united in greater numbers, also feel stronger social impulses. It is for example a well known fact that an entirely different spirit reigns in a well filled meeting then in a weak, that the bigger crowd alone has an inspiring effect on the speaker. In a crowd the individuals are not only more brave, that could be explained through the greater support which each believes he will get from his fellows; they are also more unselfish, more self sacrificing, more enthusiastic. Certainly then only too often so much the more calculating, cowardly and selfish when they find themselves alone. And that applies not only in men but also in the social animals. Thus Espinas, in his book, Animal Societies, quotes an observation of Forel. The latter found:

“The courage of every ant, by the same form, increases in exact proportion to the number of its companions or friends, and decreases in exact proportion the more isolated it is from its companions. Every inhabitant of a very populous ant heap, is much more courageous than a similar one from a small population. The same female worker, which will allow herself to be killed ten times in the midst of her companions, will show itself extraordinarily timid, avoid the least danger, fly before even a much weaker ant so soon as she finds herself twenty steps from her own home.”

With the stronger social feeling there need not necessarily be bound up a higher faculty of intelligence. In general every instinct probably has the effect to somewhat obscure the exact observation of the external world. What we wish, that we readily believe, but what we fear that we easily exaggerate. The instincts have the effect that very easily many things appear disproportionately big or near, while others are overlooked. How blind and deaf the instinct for reproduction can render many animals at times is well known. The social instincts which do not show themselves as a rule so acutely and intensively, generally obscure much less the intellectual faculties. They can, however, influence them very considerably on occasions. Think, for instance, on the influence of faithfulness, and discipline among sheep, who follow their leading sheep blindly, wherever it may go.

The moral law in us can lead our intellect astray just as any other impulse. In itself it is neither a product of wisdom nor does it produce wisdom. What is apparently the most elevated and divine in us, is essentially the same as that which we look on as the commonest and most devilish. The moral law is of the same nature as the instinct for reproduction. Nothing is more ridiculous, than when the former is put on a pedestal and the latter is turned away with loathing and contempt. But no less false is it to infer that man can and ought to follow all his instincts without check. That is only so far true as it is impossible to condemn any one of these as such. But that by no means implies that they cannot come to cross purposes. It is simply impossible that any one should follow all his instincts without restraint, because they restrain one another. Which, however, at a given moment wins, and what consequences this victory brings for the individual and his society with it, there neither the Ethic of pleasure nor that of a moral law standing outside of space and time affords us any help.

If, however, the moral law is recognized as a social impulse, which like all the impulses is brought out in us by the struggle for life, the supersensuous world has lost a strong support in human thinking. The simple gods of Polytheism were already dethroned by natural Philosophy. If nevertheless a new Philosophy could arise which not only reawakened the belief in God and a supersensuous world but put it more firmly on a higher form, as was done in ancient times by Plato, and on the eve of the French Revolution by Kant, so did the cause lie in the unsolved problem of the moral law, to whose explanation neither its deduction from pleasure nor from the moral sense sufficed – and yet these offered the only “natural” causal explanation which seemed possible. Darwinism was the first to make an end to the division of man, which this rendered necessary, into a natural and animal on the one hand and a supernatural heavenly, on the other.

But with that was the entire ethical problem not yet solved. Were moral impulse, duty and conscience as well as the ground type of the virtues to be explained from the social impulse, yet this breaks down when it is a question of explaining the moral idea. Of that there is not the least sign in the animal world. Only man can set himself ideals and follow them. Whence come these’ Are they prescribed to the human race from the beginning of ail time as an irrevocable demand of nature or an eternal season, as commands which man does not produce but which confront man as a ruling force and show him the aims toward which he has ever more and more to strive? That was in the main the view of all thinkers of the 18th century, atheists as well as theists, materialists and idealists. This view took even in the mouth of the boldest materialism the tendency to assume a supernatural Providence, which indeed had nothing more to do in nature but still hovers over human society. The evolution idea which recognized the descent of man from the animal world made this kind of idealism absurd in a materialistic mouth.

All the same before Darwin founded his epoch-making work that theory had arisen which revealed the secret of the moral ideal. It was the theory of Marx and Engels.


Last updated on 26.12.2003