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The Origin of Moral Intuitions (S153: 1869)

Editor Charles H. Smith's Note: A letter to the Editor printed in the Scientific Opinion of 15 September 1869. Original pagination indicated within double brackets. To link directly to this page, connect with: http://people.wku.edu/charles.smith/wallace/S153.htm

    [[p. 336]] Sir,--I do not think your correspondent "S. L." is justified in speaking so contemptuously of Mr. Hutton's original and well-reasoned article "A Questionable Parentage for Morals;" and I am inclined to think that Mr. Herbert Spencer himself would not claim for his views on this subject that demonstrable certainty which "S. L." seems to think attaches to them. The question really depends upon the more fundamental one, of whether man's entire mental and moral nature is the product and outcome of that material organization whose laws of growth and development Mr. Spencer has so well elucidated. If mind with all its powers is simply a function of organized matter, then Mr. Spencer's theory of the origin of morals is the only one which can be held by a student of science. If, however, there is any thing in man more than his physical organization, then it becomes a subject of strict scientific and philosophical inquiry to determine from a study of the phenomena of his mind in various stages of growth and under various conditions, what is the mental substratum required to account for the development of the faculties we actually find in him. Mr. Spencer maintains that an appreciation of utilities is all that is required to develop the moral sense; Mr. Hutton argues that this is insufficient, and that the moral sense itself, the appreciation of right and wrong, with a mental impulse towards the first and away from the second, is an essential part of the mental substratum of our nature.

    To go into the question at all fully would be quite out of place here; I will therefore only adduce one group of facts which seem to me inexplicable on the utilitarian hypothesis. The utilitarian sanction for truthfulness is by no means very powerful or universal. Few laws enforce it. No very severe reprobation follows untruthfulness. In all ages and countries falsehood has been held permissible in love, and laudable in war; while, even to the present day, it is held venial by the majority of mankind in trade and commerce. A certain amount of untruthfulness is a necessary part of politeness in the east and west alike, while even severe moralists have held a lie justifiable to elude an enemy or prevent a crime. Such being the difficulties with which this virtue has had to struggle, with so many exceptions to its practice, with so many instances in which it brought ruin or death to its too ardent devotee, how can we believe that considerations of utility could ever invest it with the mysterious sanctity of the highest virtue,--could ever induce men to value truth for its own sake and practice it regardless of consequences?

    Yet it is a fact that such a mystical sense of wrong does attach to untruthfulness, not only among the higher classes of civilized people, but among whole tribes of utter savages. Sir Walter Elliott tells us (in his paper "On the Characteristics of the Population of Central and Southern India," published in the Journal of the Ethnological Society of London, vol. I., p. 107) that the Kurubars and Santals, barbarous hill-tribes of Central India, are noted for veracity. It is a common saying that "a Kurubar always speaks the truth;" and Major Jervis says, "the Santals are the most truthful men I ever met with." As a remarkable instance of this quality the following fact is given. A number of prisoners, taken during the insurrection, were allowed to go free on parole, to work at a certain spot for wages. After some time cholera attacked them and they were obliged to leave, but every man of them returned and gave up his earnings to the guard. Two hundred savages with money in their girdles, walked thirty miles back to prison rather than break their word! My own experience among savages has furnished me with similar, although less severely tested, instances, and we cannot avoid asking, how is it that in these few cases "experiences of utility" have left such an overwhelming impression, while in so many others they have left none? The experiences of savage men as regards the utility of truth must, in the long run, be pretty nearly equal. How is it then that in some cases the result is a sanctity which overrides all considerations of personal advantage, while in others there is hardly a rudiment of such a feeling?

    The intuitional theory explains this by the supposition that there is a feeling--a sense of right and wrong--in our nature antecedent to and independent of experiences of utility. Where [[p. 337]] free play is allowed to the relations between man and man, this feeling attaches itself to those acts of universal utility or self-sacrifice which are the products of our affections and sympathies, and which we term moral, while it may be, and often is, perverted to give the same sanction to acts of narrow and conventional utility which are really immoral,--as when the Hindoo will tell a lie but will sooner starve than eat unclean food, and looks upon the marriage of adult females as gross immorality.

    The strength of the moral feeling will depend upon individual or racial constitution,--the acts to which its sanctions are applied will depend upon how far the simple feelings and affections of our nature have been modified by custom, by law, or by religion.

    The question to be considered is, first, whether such an intense and mystical feeling of right and wrong (so intense as to overcome all ideas of personal advantage or utility) could have been developed out of accumulated ancestral experiences of utility; and, in the second place, whether feelings so developed by one set of utilities, could be transferred to acts of which the utility was partial, imaginary, or altogether absent.

    Although myself an enthusiastic admirer of Mr. Spencer's writings, and a follower of his philosophy, I am decidedly of opinion that there is a limit to the sphere which that philosophy embraces, and that the limit is to be found in the doctrine of the origin of morals.

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