The Pamphlet Collection of Sir Robert Stout: Volume 39
The True Basis of Morality
The True Basis of Morality.
In these stirring times of inquiry, when everything is put to the test, and is required to show its raison d'être, when the existence of the supernatural is challenged, or denied, when the authority of the Bible is criticised, and by many rejected, when the old landmarks are being torn up, and there has not yet been time to root the new ones firmly in their places, there is a serious, and a very real, danger, that morality itself will for a time go down in the struggle, and will be trampled under foot by the combatants. It therefore becomes the duty of everyone who fights in the ranks of Freethought, and who ventures to attack the dogmas of the Churches, and to strike down the superstitions which enslave men's intellect, to beware how he uproots sanctions of morality which he is too weak to replace, or how, before he is prepared with better ones, he removes the barriers which do yet, however poorly, to some extent check vice and repress crime. In every revolution, be it political or religious, a grave responsibility rests on the leaders of the movement; if they venture to break the fetters which restrain the violent, and thus help to protect the weak, they must be prepared to afford safeguards which will continue to preserve society from anarchy, while they shall be free from the disadvantages of the restraints that have been destroyed. The leaders who strike down, but cannot build up, who can lead their followers to victory in the field, but cannot preserve order after the conquest, show that they are too weak for the task they have ventured to begin, and the weakness which results in misery to others is no longer a pardonable frailty—it is a crime. That which touches morality touches the heart of society; a high and pure morality is the life-blood of humanity; mistakes in belief are inevitable, and are of little moment; mistakes in life destroy happiness, and their destructive consequences spread far and wide. It is then a very important question whether we, who are endeavoring to take away from the world the authority on which has hitherto been based all its morality, can offer a new and page 3 firm ground whereupon may safely be built up the fair edifice of a noble life.
We ought, however, to start with a clearly-defined idea of what we mean by the word morality. Morality, in the usual acceptation of the term, is nothing more than obedience to certain arbitrary and conventional rules, rules which do not lie in the nature of things, and which do not appeal to the surrounding system of law for their authority: they are supernatural, not natural. But morality, in the deeper and truer meaning of the word, means harmony with natural order; physical morality is harmony with all those laws obedience to which results in physical vigor; and moral morality is harmony with all those laws obedience to which results in moral vigor. This definition really carries in it the whole gist of this essay, for, if morality be harmony with law, the true basis of morality must necessarily be sought for in the study of law, as manifested in phænomena. But we will examine first the grounds of morality generally offered, before proceeding to test the new basis. These grounds are, authority and intuition.
During the past ages of the world morality has been based wholly on authority; it has drawn its sanctions from the supposed will of the gods or god; it has been rendered alluring by bribes of heaven and enforced by threats of hell. It is the favorite argument of the upholders of a supernatural revelation, that we deprive them of all sure resting-place if we do not base morality on the revealed will of god, and they assert that those who reject the Bible have not, and cannot have, any "settled standard of morality." It is just as if it had been said at the beginning of the present century to the students of the newly-born science of geology: "You must take care whither you are drifting; certain truths about the formation of the world are revealed to you in the Bible, and on this sure ground you must build your geological theories; if you desert it, you may indeed discover a few isolated facts, but you will be wandering about in a labyrinth without a clue; you will have no 'settled standard' of geological truth." If geologians had deferred to this reasoning, geology would have been stifled at its birth; yet there was truth in what was urged. If they cast their boat off from its Bible moorings they would go sailing off into the ocean of the unknown; they would have no "settled standard" by which to try their conclusions; they would have to be content to collect facts patiently, to collate them carefully, to reason from them, to reach con- page 4 clusions slowly: only, when the conclusions were reached, they were sure, they were positive, they were true. The fact is, that while our opponents are perfectly right in saying that we shall have no "settled standard" to appeal to if we give up the Bible, they are perfectly wrong in thinking that a "settled standard" is a valuable thing to have. We merely lose a thing which is not only useless to us, but which is positively injurious, because it acts as a barrier to inquiry and discussion. There is no such thing as a settled standard of knowledge allowed in science; our utmost scientific achievements are not the measure of future attainments. Every newly-discovered fact, every assured advance, is not an approach to a "settled standard," but is only a vantage ground from which to scale new heights. Science is progressive; it knows no limits save the limits of human thought; it owns no bounds, save the iron boundary of the unknowable. If morality, like geology, and like every other department of human thought, is to have the gyves of revelation struck from off its limbs, it must be removed from the basis of authority, and be transferred wholly to the basis of science. But science takes nothing for granted; it permits no assumptions to be reasoned from as though they were facts; it studies phænomena only, from phænomena it reasons up to laws. If moralists desire to construct a morality which will bear all assaults unshaken, and which can maintain its ground against hostile criticism, they must be content to give up their heaven-born theories, and to walk humbly in the path of the study of earth-born phænomena; they must follow the scientific method, and must be able to demonstrate the solidity of every position they take up. Hitherto morality has floated in the air, and has been supposed to be sustained there by cords let down from heaven; henceforth it must descend and tread firmly on the ground, so that it may grow into the ruler, the king, of men.
It is obvious to every careful and intelligent student of the Bible, that the morality laid down in that collection of ancient Jewish writings is not susceptible of being formed into a code of laws, which should throughout be consistent with each other. In fact, the Bible itself offers us numerous "standards of morality," some high, some low; varying, for instance, between the gross immorality practised by the "man after God's own heart," to the ascetic life and teachings of that "Son of man" in whom the "Father was" also "well pleased." This variety is inevitable from the nature of the case, for the books were written at long intervals of time; page 5 they incorporate many of the ancient and impure traditions of the early ages of the world, and they reflect, one after another, the gradual purification and civilisation of the people of whose literature they form the most important part. There is, therefore, nothing to be surprised at in the varying morality of the Bible; rather, it is just what was to be expected. And this has been seen in another light by liberal Christian commentators, and the most thoughtful Christian students have pointed out that the revelation of god's will given in the Bible is a gradual revelation, because of the "hardness of men's hearts," and that the light had to win its way slowly through the heavy clouds of human ignorance and folly. The morality of Genesis is lower than that of Romans, and the law of Moses is far inferior to the moral code attributed to Jesus of Nazareth. The fact of the supercession of the Jewish polity, and the installation in its room of the "kingdom of heaven," whose principles are sketched out in the Sermon on the Mount, shows that the morality of the Bible is not at one with itself throughout, but is essentially progressive and ascending. It is well to notice this, although I would not for a moment be understood to mean, that personally I attach any weight to the systems of morality found in the Bible above that which is due to all honest efforts of human thought; but in order to see that, although their own book sanctions moral growth, yet Christians are inconsistent enough to check the moral development of the race at the death of the immediate followers of Jesus. Here they build up a barrier over which morality for ever may not pass; here they mould an iron casing, beyond which morality may never grow. The deeds and thoughts stamped with the signet of Jesus and his Apostles are to be, for evermore, the highest virtues of morality; those, on the other hand, on which they frowned, are to be, for evermore, reprobated and accursed. If, however, morality is to be accepted on authority at all, it seems necessary to admit the soundness of the Christian position, and to allow that the tides of human morality can never rise higher than they did in Judæa eighteen hundred years ago. To the Western nations no moral authority is so venerable as that of the Bible, and no other book has so great a prescriptive claim on our obedience. If we reject this authority, there is no other authority to which we can logically defer; we may struggle to make good our footing on some other round of the ladder, but if we are not strong enough to mount to the embattled tower of reason, we must ultimately page 6 fall backwards into the yawning gulf of absolute submission. Only those who take as their guide knowledge instead of faith, those who submit to no authority quâ authority, but bow solely to the dictates of reason, those only have a right to reject the Bible as a moral teacher; there is no logical standpoint between entire submission to authority, and entire freedom of judgment; our opponents are continually urging this on waverers as a threat, and we reiterate the assertion as a deliberate and solemn warning; we had better quietly accept whatever is presented to us for our homage with a fair show of authority, if we are not prepared to take the trouble to "prove all things," and to follow, at whatever pain, the guiding torch borne in the hand of Free Thought.
There exists a school of religionists who found morality on what poor Charles Lamb used to call "some awkward process of intuition." This school has something in common with the two opposing parties of submission and of freedom, but it has the strong points of neither. It claims that there is in man a certain faculty called the "moral sense," which is the god-given arbiter of right and wrong, and is the true authority in matters of morality; and it also claims freedom for the individual to follow his own moral sense, and to be judged by that. That the moral sense exists, may be admitted frankly and without dispute, and we will presently inquire what it is, and whence it arises; but we must see whether this sense is a safe guide in matters of morality, and whether intuition may be trusted. If morality be in harmony with natural order, if there be a law outside ourselves by conformity to which moral health and strength can alone be secured, it follows necessarily that a knowledge of this law cannot be arrived at by any process of intuition. All laws, if they exist at all, reveal their existence through the phænomenal effects they produce, and it is by careful observation of these phænomena that we discover the law which guides them; in fact, what we call "laws" are in reality nothing more than the observed succession of phænomena, a succession which is invariable, so far as our observation has extended. But an objective law cannot be reached by the subjective process of intuition; it is as unreasonable to hope to discover a moral law through intuition, as to hope thus to discover a physical law. No true advance was made in physics until men gave up guessing, and began to study facts; and no true advance will be made in morals until the same plan be pursued. It seems, however, a waste of time page 7 to bring proofs of this, because one fatal defect promptly disposes of the claims of intuition as a safe and reliable basis for morality. Intuition, or moral instinct, to be of any real value, must be fairly universal in its testimony; but intuitional morality is as variable as the various nations of the earth. It depends on civilisation, on custom, on habit; intuition does not speak one moral language, it speaks in many tongues; it varies its dictates according to the use of the people. That which is moral to the Thug is hideous immorality to the European; the highest virtue of the one is the worst crime of the other. It has been seriously urged that, if the Thug lived up to the light within him, he would no longer sacrifice to his terrible goddess; but it is very difficult to see why the European should lay down his intuition as the rule of morality, if he maintains that intuition is a universal gift to all from the "Father of Spirits." To say that intuition is god's voice in the soul of man, and then to exalt one set of intuitions as the rule for the world, is simply to juggle with words, and to set up a new authority on the pedestal whence the old has been taken down. It is a new "thus saith the Lord," without the venerable age of the Bible to recommend it, without the sanction of ages, or the tender memories of childhood and of home; and yet it threatens to usurp over men's souls an authority as absolute as that of the supernatural revelation, an authority which is already impatient of opposition, and arrogant in self-assertion. Who is to decide on the true morality, when so many claimants start up, all basing their right to be heard on the fact that they are the voice of intuition? If the reason and the judgment are to be called in to decide between them, a hard blow is struck at the idea that intuition is the voice of god, speaking in the soul of man. For if one intuition be pronounced to speak justly, then all other intuitions, speaking at variance with it, must be held to be false; the reason and judgment of one man will choose differently from the reason and judgment of his neighbor; and so there will be many divine voices, contradicting each other, a result not consonant either with reason or with reverence. Besides, if intuition deceives our fellow creatures on all sides, are we wise, or even safe, in trusting it in our own cases? Is there any particular reason why our intuition should be the intuition? Against this party the Christian has always ready to his hand the crushing retort, that intuitive morality varies according to the customs of various races, and, if no surer basis for morality can be found than page 8 the shifting sands of intuition, the Bible is, after all, the safer guide of the two, because the more intelligible to the mass. The real truth is, that intuition is only the result of transmitted moral tendencies; it is a conveniently vague word under which to group certain movements of the mind, which are governed by laws at present unknown to us. Instinct—and intuition is only moral instinct—is, so far as we yet know, a tendency to do certain actions without thought, and this tendency arises from our ancestors having done these actions for generation after generation, until the doing became a habit, transmitted from parent to child. Instinct is the accumulated experience of the race impressed upon the brain of the yet unborn creature, and moulding many of its habits before any personal thought or experience comes in. And so intuition, or the moral sense, is the accumulated moral experience of the race, and is transmitted to the individual with his outward frame; this experience varies with the race, and thus it happens that the moral instinct of the Thug differs so widely from that of the European; the previous experience of his ancestors is different from that of the ancestors of the European, and just as he receives a different physique, so does he receive a different morale. Instinct varies with the experience of those through whom it is transmitted, and intuition, however poetically it may be described, or however artistically it may be gilded, is nothing more than moral instinct, subject to all the laws which guide instinct throughout the world. The moral sense, as found in the European, and as cultured by the highest existing civilisation, is doubtless generally—though by no means universally—a fair guide to right and wrong. But the utmost the moral sense can do towards forming a true science of morality, is to offer a good working hypothesis round which facts may conveniently be grouped, which hypothesis must ultimately be disproved or verified, according to its disagreement or agreement with the result of the collated facts.
It is convenient to notice here a slight mental confusion sometimes arising as to the province of the moral faculty, commonly called Conscience. It is often said that Conscience directs man to hate evil, and to love good. There is considerable confusion of thought in this idea. Conscience does not enable a man to discern between good and evil: the decision as to the morality or immorality of an action is made by the reason, whether that reason be page 9 enlightened or unenlightened. All that conscience does is to urge the man to follow that which the reason declares to be right. When the brain has declared "such and such a thing is good," then the conscience says, "do it." If the reason judge falsely, the conscience will then point to the wrong action as a duty, and thus it has happened that some of the worst actions in the world have been done at the command of conscience. The most cruel persecutions have been carried out with perfect conscientiousness, and priests, with streaming eyes and bleeding hearts, have burned heretics to the "greater glory of God." Conscience is not a safe guide—in fact, it is no guide at all; it is not the eye which chooses the path, but the foot which blindly carries us wherever the brain directs.
If authority and intuition both fail us, to what are we to turn? There is only one ground left to us—a humble ground, but a very sure one; a ground called cold by some, but found by those who build thereon to be warm with the sunshine of Truth; a ground called hard and dry by some, but found by those who toil thereon to be covered with the fragrant violet flowers of rewarded labor, to be softened by gentle showers from heaven, on whose falling drops glisten the rays of the rising sun, making them glow with the fairy hues of the rainbow-arch of Hope. The true basis of morality is utility; that is, the adaptation of our actions to the promotion of the general welfare and happiness, the endeavor so to rule our lives that we may serve and bless mankind. Through the scientific method only can the true rules of morality be discovered, and an irrefragable answer returned to all questionings concerning right and wrong. The first step towards building up a science of morality is to collect facts, and as in other sciences facts are collected by the observation of surrounding phænomena, so must moral facts be collected by the observation of moral phænomena, facts in sociology, recorded in history. We must find out, by careful analysis, what courses have tended most to the advancement and ennoblement of society; we must trace out the results of various lines of conduct, and see which have best promoted the general welfare of the race. That which promotes the general happiness is right; that which lessens or undermines the general happiness is wrong. These are the axioms on which a scientific morality must be grounded.
The selection of the production of happiness as the ultimate test of right and wrong, is a theory of morals which is page 10 objected to by many, who desire to cling to a transcendental philosophy, and who cry out that to aim at happiness only is a low and despicable rule of life. Miss Francos Power Cobbe, one of the best-known leaders of the Theistic and intuitional school, especially combats the idea that men should so direct their conduct as to make the securing of happiness their ultimate end : virtue, she protests, is the end for which moral and intelligent beings should live. We will not follow her through the somewhat strange logic by which she proves that moral and finite beings must necessarily be imperfect, or ask how it comes to pass that, although two infinites are " mathematically impossible," it is yet possible that infinite and finite can exist together; these questions, however interesting, do not involve the point to which we wish to draw attention. She urges that virtue and not happiness is the true aim of life, and we challenge her to show that by aiming at what she calls virtue she is not really aiming at happiness. For what is virtue but the highest good, and the keenest gratification attainable by man? When she urges that men should be ready to undergo suffering, and to encounter trial and pain, in order to be true to themselves, and to do good to others, she is in reality only bidding us to resign lower pleasures for higher ones, selfish pleasures for unselfish, physical pleasures for moral. Opponents of utilitarianism generally fall into the error of speaking of the happiness which is set forward as the criterion of morality, as though it only included the lower kinds of pleasure and animal enjoyment. But the happiness which is intended by utilitarians includes every possible phase of physical, mental, and moral enjoyment. Miss Cobbe ought not to fall into this common misrepresentation, for she begins by rightly defining happiness as the gratification of all the desires of our nature: she then somewhat oddly argues that happiness cannot be the true end of life, because we must often resign some of the desires of our nature in order to do right. If utilitarians aimed at securing perfect happiness, which is impossible, her arguments would have some force, but as they only aim at securing the greatest attainable amount of happiness, this portion of her strictures falls to the ground. She then drops the true definition of happiness out of sight, and always afterwards speaks of "happiness" as though it consisted only of sensual and material gratification. She considers that virtue and happiness are antithetic, and that they clash when virtue "bids us suffer hunger and cold that we may feed page 11 and clothe others," oblivious of the truth that generous self-sacrifice affords a keener and a fuller pleasure than sensual gratification. Although a virtuous man may renounce some material enjoyment in order to do right, or to aid others, yet in that very renunciation he wins a moral happiness greater than the resigned material one. Thus it is perfectly consonant with utility to resign a physical enjoyment for a mental exertion, or to give up a personal gratification for the keener and nobler pleasure of doing a kindness to another. To do a virtuous action at the cost of material suffering, is really to aim at a purer pleasure than the pleasure resigned; it is to climb higher up on the mountain of happiness, to an elevation where the air is brighter and more exhilarating.
Carefully analysed, the aiming at virtue is the aiming at happiness; all things that cause happiness are naturally desirable to us, and we "desire" virtue. Why? Surely because virtue is an indispensable part of all true and solid happiness. Happiness cannot exist without virtue, because a virtuous action is an action that tends to the benefit of society, or to some special part of society; and to say that an action tends to the benefit of society, is the same thing as saying that it tends to the happiness of society. Miss Cobbe might retort that she desires virtue, not in order that she may be happy, but because by being virtuous she pleases god. But why does she desire to please god? Is it not because in so doing she finds her truest rest, her purest happiness? If a course of action she believed to be virtuous brought her not only material loss, but internal discomfort, if it hindered prayer, and clouded spiritual light, would she not immediately conclude that her judgment had erred, and that the inner unhappiness proved that the course was a wrong one? Unhappiness, like pain, is Nature's check to our mistakes, and her spur to our indolence. All that we desire, we desire because the gain of it will give us pleasure. Is any one so unnaturally constituted as to desire pain because it is pain? Even ascetics endure pain only in the hope of a thereby-won future bliss. We may submit to suffering willingly when it is the means to a greater good, a good which can only be attained through the suffering; but no one in the possession of their faculties selects undesirable—i.e., unpleasant—things in preference to pleasant. So that all that the teachers who make virtue the supreme end of life really tell us is, that when a lower and higher pleasure come into antagonism, we are to select page 12 the higher, and let the lower go—an opinion in which we are all perfectly agreed. But it is, after all, only reasonable that happiness should be the ultimate test of right and wrong, if we live, as we do, in a realm of law. Obedience to law must necessarily result in harmony, and disobedience in discord. But if obedience to law result in harmony, it must also result in happiness; for when our actions are in harmony with each other and with our environment, they find nothing against which they can jar, and a feeling of satisfaction arises from the consciousness of this smooth working—i.e., we feel happiness. All through nature obedience to law results in happiness, and through obedience each living thing fulfils the perfection of its being, and in that perfection finds its true happiness.
As unconsciously as M. Jourdain had been speaking prose all his life, so have societies of men based their morality on utility. As men grew out of utter barbarism, and began to form a society, certain laws became necessary to keep that society together. The good of the whole had to be considered, and arrangements had to be made for its promotion. On what were these laws based except on utility? Murder and theft were forbidden. Why? Because the half-savage citizen's intuitions were against them? Not at all; but because men could not live together in security if these things were allowed. Lying became a sin, because it was found to destroy all confidence between man and man, and because confidence was necessary for the successful and convenient carrying on of work. The distinction between virtue and vice has been gradually evolved, through one course of action being proved to be beneficial, and the contrary course being proved to be hurtful to society. The very intuitions on which some modern religionists pride themselves, were primarily based on the utility they despise. By the sharp test of "the survival of the fittest," certain actions have been stamped as good, others as bad. We, "heirs of the ages" gone before, inherit those habit-views of right and wrong, which the moral experience of mankind has proved to be, roughly speaking, for the good of the community. Our task now is to correct these "rough and ready" views of morality by a just and careful revision, to sift and systematise the facts which lie ready to our hand, and to carefully collect and collate other moral phænomena. From these collected and collated facts must be deduced the laws of morality, which, based on undeniable phænomena, will have all the certainty that science, and science alone, can page 13 give. Scientific morality has this great advantage over both authoritative and intuitive, that it stands on firm, unassailable ground; new facts will alter its details, but they can never touch its method; like all other sciences it is at once positive and progressive. Of course, in regarding its bearing on happiness as the true criterion of the morality of any given course, utilitarians consider the general rather than the individual good. A course of conduct is right or wrong according as it promotes, or injures, the general happiness. No scientific law can be based on a solitary phænomenon, and a law of morality must be grounded on a wide survey of that which tends to promote the welfare of society as a whole. It may often be found that individual happiness suffers by obedience to a law which yet promotes the well-being of the community, and it is therefore necessary not to jump too hastily to a conclusion that a given course is wrong because in some special case an individual suffers by following it. Individual happiness would sometimes be promoted by a course which, if followed by all, would destroy the general happiness, and, in such a case, the individual must sacrifice himself to the good of the many.
No accusation which has been levelled at Utilitarianism shows so entire an ignorance of its teaching as does the accusation that it inculcates—or at least nourishes—selfishness of an evil kind. Utility teaches that the general happiness is to be the aim of the individual. The criterion of an action of A.B. is not whether A.B. thereby secures or increases his own happiness, but whether the tendency of the action is beneficial or detrimental to society. If A.B. secures his own happiness by a course which injures others, or which, if generally pursued, would be prejudicial to the interests of the community, he is at once condemned by the principles of utility, even although he may have thereby increased his own individual happiness. Mr. J. S. Mill justly remarks that the standard of Utilitarianism "is not the agent's own greatest happiness, but the greatest amount of happiness altogether; and if it may possibly be doubted whether a noble character is always the happier for its nobleness, there can be no doubt that it makes other people happier, and that the world in general is immensely the gainer by it." It is one of the great merits of Utilitarianism that it cultivates the social feelings, and tends to bind men into a brotherhood, wherein the good of all is the aim of each. The new morality will indeed lessen individual suffering by removing some foolish and conventional re- page 14 strictions which now exist—restrictions which sacrifice individual happiness without thereby insuring some greater social good. There is, at present, a large amount of individual suffering caused by the accepted and arbitrary system of morality, which is productive of no wider happiness; and, being unnecessary, is therefore unjust. Utility would allow to each individual every possible freedom of development, and every facility for ensuring his private happiness, which did not conflict with the welfare of society, or trench on the rights of others. But its moral laws will be the more rigid and the sterner because they will be based on facts. Law is rigid. All Nature's laws are stern; but it is utterly futile to fight against them, and to cry out that they are cruelly inexorable. When, by careful study of facts, by keen analysis of the consequences of actions, by wide surveys of the happiness and unhappiness caused by opposite courses of conduct, moralists are able to say that such and such deeds are right, and such and such are wrong, the wise will accommodate themselves to the laws which surround them, and adapt themselves to the necessary conditions of their being. Moral laws exist just as much as do physical laws; and even as inquiry into physical laws has enabled us to combat disease, and to spread health and comfort, so will inquiry into moral laws enable us to heal society of the terrible evils with which it is afflicted.
But if a law must not be based on a single fact, neither must it be drawn hastily from passing phænomena. The individual may snatch at a temporary good, which would promote his present, at the cost of his future, welfare; thus a man commits excesses in food or drink, and thereby ruins his physical powers; or he is sensual and destroys his health. No course of conduct can be more contrary to the utilitarian code of morality. The agent has actually sacrificed permanent health and strength for the gratification of passing impulses. Instead of aiming at the greatest possible happiness, he has grasped at the poorest and most fleeting.
It will doubtless be remarked that in the ground which is suggested in this essay, as the true basis of morality, no reference whatever has been made to the supposed will of "God as a Moral Governor," or to any idea of pleasing him. The omission is made deliberately and intentionally. Round the idea of god rages, at the present day, much fierce debate; the nature and existence of god are problems which are keenly investigated and hotly disputed. Most schools of thought agree that the existence of god is page 15 not demonstrable; many of our deepest thinkers reject altogether the idea of god. Men and women, who have mental and moral courage enough to face this gravest of all questions, find themselves compelled to renounce, one by one, all the notions of the deity which once they held. They see that the attributes ascribed to him by Christian and devout Theist are but magnified human attributes, the gigantic mist-shadow formed by the human figure. They are forced to allow that will, personality, intelligence, consciousness, are nothing but human imperfections and limitations, which, projected into boundless space, and dignified by the title of infinite, are bound up together into one ideal heroic figure, and baptised with the name of god. Sober thinkers acknowledge humbly that the mind cannot transcend itself, that every conception which we form, every image that we create, are necessarily limited by the capabilities of our faculties, and conditioned by our consciousness.
As, then, the grave subject of the existence of deity is a matter of dispute, it is evidently of deep importance to society that morality should not be dragged into this battlefield, to stand or totter with the various theories of the divine nature which human thought creates and destroys. If we can found morality on a basis apart from theology, we shall do humanity a service which can scarcely be overestimated. The moment we base morality on the supposed will of a being whose very existence is not demonstrable, that moment we remove it from a solid, scientific basis, and cast it on the foaming waves of theological disputation, to be tossed hither and thither with the ebb and flow of the tide. The basis of the morality suggested in this essay is purely phænomenal; it is ruled by laws whose workings can be traced; and I affirm that these laws are sufficient for our guidance, and that there is nothing to be gained by building on an unknown ground when a known and firm ground is under our feet. Our faculties do not suffice to tell us about god; they do suffice to study phænomena, and to deduce laws from correlated facts. Surely, then, we should do wisely to concentrate our strength and our energies on the discovery of the attainable, instead of on the search after the unknowable. If we are told that morality consists in obedience to the supposed will of a supposed perfectly moral being, and that we are to aim at righteousness of life, because in so doing we please god, then we are at once placed in a region where our faculties are useless page 16 to us, and where our judgment is at fault. But if we are told that we are to lead noble lives, because nobility of life is desirable for itself alone, because in so doing we are acting in harmony with the laws of Nature, because in so doing we spread happiness around our pathway, and gladden our fellow men—then indeed motives are appealed to which spring forward to meet the call, and chords are struck in our hearts which respond in music to the touch.
Christian morality has had its turn; and the present state of society, its crying shames, its cruel sufferings, tell us that authoritative morality has failed. Intuition gives us no hope for the masses, the uncultured, the despised, who have no intuitions, beyond the blind yearning for a change which will bring them some gleam of hope, or at least some lightening of despair. Surely it is time, then, that we should bestir ourselves to place morality on some firm basis before the lowering storm breaks over our heads, and sweeps us and our present feeble structure away. Amid the fervid movement of society, with its wild theories and crude social reforms, with its righteous fury against oppression, and its unconsidered notions of wider freedom and gladder life, it is of vital importance that morality should stand on a foundation unshakeable; that so through all political and religious revolutions human life may grow purer and nobler, may rise upwards into settled freedom, and not sink downwards into anarchy. Only utility can afford us a sure basis, the reasonableness of which will be accepted alike by thoughtful student and hard-headed artisan. Utility appeals to all alike, and sets in action motives which are found equally in every human heart. Well shall it be for humanity that creeds and dogmas pass away, that superstition vanishes, and the clear light of freedom and science dawns on a regenerated earth—but well only if men draw tighter and closer the links of trustworthiness, of honor, and of truth. Equality before the law is necessary and just; liberty is the birthright of every man and woman; free individual development will elevate and glorify the race. But little worth these priceless jewels, little worth liberty and equality, with all their promise for mankind, little worth even wider happiness, if that happiness be selfish, if true fraternity, true brotherhood, do not knit man to man, and heart to heart, in loyal service to the common need, and generous self-sacrifice to the common good.
London: Printed by Annie Besant and Charles Bradlaugh, 28, Stonecutter Street, E.C.