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Why Live a Moral Life? (S506: 1894)

Editor Charles H. Smith's Note: Published as part of a feature for The Agnostic Annual 1895. Original pagination indicated within double brackets. To link directly to this page connect with: http://people.wku.edu/charles.smith/wallace/S506.htm

     [[p. 6]] Taking morality in its ordinary meaning, as including all actions for personal ends which are knowingly injurious or painful to others, the question asked is, What are the sanctions of morality to the pure Rationalist--to the person who does not actively believe in a future state of existence? Can such a person give clear and logical reasons of sufficient cogency to induce him, even under the stress of temptation, and when any detection or evil results to himself appear out of the question, yet to act with strict conformity to moral principles?

     In existing society the abstention from immoral actions by individuals is usually due to one or more of the following causes:--(1) A natural upright and sympathetic disposition, to which any act hurtful or [[p. 7]] disagreeable to others is repugnant, and is, therefore, avoided. (2) The fear of punishment, or of the condemnation of public opinion, leading to ostracism by the society in which they live. (3) The influence of religious belief, which declares certain acts to be offensive to the Deity, and to lead to punishment in a future life. (4) The belief expressed in the saying, "Honesty is the best policy," and expanded into the general principle that the moral life is, emphatically, the happiest life.

     With the first cause, on which, probably, the largest proportion of moral action depends, we have here nothing to do, since it does not involve any process of reason--of why we should act in one way rather than in another--but rests entirely on feeling, due to natural disposition. It is, however, the greater or less proportion of such persons in any community that determines the action of the next most powerful incentive to morality--public opinion; since dread of the criminal law is not so much dread of punishment itself as of the disgrace attending it. To the great majority of educated people this is undoubtedly the most powerful incentive to abstain from immoral conduct; while the correlative approval of society has a large share in producing actively moral conduct, especially under conditions when such conduct is more or less open to public notice.

     The other two causes enumerated above have, comparatively, very little influence on conduct. Innumerable examples show that the firmest belief in the doctrine of future rewards and punishments has hardly any influence on conduct in cases where it is not enforced by the approval or disapproval of public opinion. It is now generally admitted that the believer in religious dogma is, on the average, neither more honest nor more moral than the Agnostic or the Atheist. No doubt, in exceptional cases, religious enthusiasm acts upon character and conduct in a very powerful degree. We are, however, concerned here, not with exceptional cases, but with the average individual, and it has not been shown by any statistical inquiry that belief in the system of future rewards and punishments leads to exceptionally moral conduct. The same may be said of the believers in the essential reasonableness of a moral life as the best guarantee of permanent happiness. It is doubtful whether such a belief, however firmly held, really influences anyone in time of temptation, or leads to any change of conduct which society does not condemn, but which is yet fundamentally immoral. It was held by great numbers of persons, both religious and sceptical, that slavery was absolutely immoral; yet, probably, not one in a thousand followed the Quakers in refusing to purchase slave-grown sugar. Neither will it be maintained that any belief in the abstract principle of the beneficial results of morality would restrain a poor, selfish, and naturally unsympathetic man from pressing the electric button which would at once destroy an unknown millionaire and [[p. 8]] make the agent of his destruction the honoured inheritor of his wealth.

     It is under circumstances analogous to the last-mentioned case that we can alone have a real test of the efficiency of any alleged sanction for morality. When a man can greatly benefit himself by an act which he believes can never be known, and which will, perhaps, only slightly injure others--as by destroying a will of whose existence no other person is aware--no belief in the general principle that honesty is the best policy can be depended on to secure a strictly moral line of conduct. Why, in fact, should a man give up what he knows will ensure freedom from anxiety, and from a constant and laborious struggle for bare existence, and afford him the means of living a pleasurable and luxurious life--the only life in which he has any belief--and all for the sake of a general principle which the society around him does not, as a rule, act upon? Why should he thus injure himself and his own family in order to benefit strangers of whom he knows nothing, and who, he may perhaps believe, have no more moral right to inherit the property than he has? Of course, there are many men, without either religion or any formulated ethical principles, who would not hesitate a moment in such a case, because their natural sentiments of right and justice, enforced by constant association with men of honour and morality, would render the strict line of moral action natural and easy to them; but with such men we have, so far as the present discussion is concerned, nothing to do.

     For these reasons, it seems to me that the Rationalist or Agnostic has no adequate motive for living a moral life, except so far as he is influenced by public opinion and by a belief that, generally, it pays best to do so. But neither of these influences is of the least value, either in exceptional cases of temptation, or in those very common circumstances when the usual actions of the society in which a man lives are not justified by morality; as in the innumerable adulterations, falsehoods, and deceptions so common in trade that it has been even asserted that no thoroughly honest manufacturer or tradesman can make a living.

     Religious belief would, on the other hand, furnish an adequate incentive to morality, if it were so firmly held and fully realised as to be constantly present to the mind in all its dread reality. But, as a matter of fact, it produces little effect of the kind, and we must impute this, not to any shadow of doubt as to the reality of future rewards and punishments, but rather to the undue importance attached to belief, to prayer, to church-going, and to repentance, which are often held to be sufficient to ensure salvation, notwithstanding repeated lapses from morality during an otherwise religious life. The existence of such a possible escape from the consequences of immoral acts is quite sufficient to explain why the most sincere religious belief of the ordinary kind is [[p. 9]] no adequate guarantee against vice or crime under the stress of temptation.

     There is, however, one form of religious belief which, if it were to become general, would, I believe, afford a better sanction for a moral life than can now be found either in Rationalism or in religion. It is to be found in the teachings of Modern Spiritualism, which, though they were to some extent anticipated by a few spiritual and poetical natures, have never been so fully and authoritatively set forth as through those exceptionally gifted individuals termed mediums. We have here nothing to do with the evidence for the truth of Spiritualistic phenomena, which the present writer has discussed elsewhere,1 but only with the question whether its teachings do really afford the required sanction for a moral life. Let us then see what these teachings are.

     The uniform and consistent statements, obtained through various forms of alleged spiritual communications during the last forty years, declare that we are, all of us, in every act and thought of our lives, helping to build up a mental fabric which will be and constitute ourselves in the future life, even more completely than now. Just in proportion as we have developed our higher intellectual and moral nature, or starved it by disuse, shall we be well or ill fitted for the new life we shall enter on. The Spiritualist, who, by repeated experiences, becomes convinced of the absolute reality and the complete reasonableness of these facts regarding the future state--who knows that, just in proportion as he indulges in passion, or selfishness, or the reckless pursuit of wealth, and neglects to cultivate his moral and intellectual nature, so does he inevitably prepare for himself misery in a world in which there are no physical wants to be provided for, no struggle to maintain mere existence, no sensual enjoyments except those directly associated with sympathy and affection, no occupations but those having for their object social, moral, and intellectual progress--is impelled towards a pure and moral life by motives far stronger than any which either philosophy or religion can supply. He dreads to give way to passion or to falsehood, to selfishness, or to a life of mere luxurious physical enjoyment, because he knows that the natural and inevitable consequences of such a life are future misery. He will be deterred from crime by the knowledge that its unforeseen consequences may cause him ages of remorse; while the bad passions which it encourages will be a perpetual torment to himself in a state of being in which mental emotions cannot be put aside and forgotten amid the fierce struggles and sensual excitements of a physical existence.

     Again, the Spiritualist not only believes, but often obtains direct [[p. 10]] evidence of the fact, that his dearest friends and relations, who have gone to the higher life, are anxiously watching his career, and themselves suffer whenever he gives way to temptation. An American Spiritualist writes: "To the son or daughter that has been deprived of parents' care, and perhaps has strayed from the paths of rectitude and purity, will not the knowledge that loving hearts are cognisant of every departure from the right way be an incentive for them to retrace their steps, to strive to so live as to deserve the approval of the angelic ministers? . . . The knowledge that the loving eyes of a mother or father, a beloved child or companion, are watching us with tender solicitude will be a restraining influence from evil courses, and an incentive to a higher and purer life, when all other influences fail."

     The highest teachings of Modern Spiritualism have been given through the automatic writings of the late Mr. Stainton Moses, and are to be found in his work entitled "Spirit Teachings." His perfect integrity is guaranteed by Mr. F. W. H. Myers, and there is the very strongest evidence that the substance of the writings emanated from some intelligence other than his own. But, however this may be, these teachings are perfectly consistent with those of Spiritualism generally, and the following short extracts will illustrate their bearing on the question we are here discussing:--

     "As the soul lives in the earth-life, so it goes to the spirit-life . . . The soul's character has been a daily, hourly growth. It has not been an overlaying of the soul with that which can be thrown off; rather it has been a weaving into the nature of the spirit that which becomes part of itself, identified with its nature, inseparable from its character."

     And again: "We know of no hell save that within the soul--a hell which is fed by the flame of unpurified and untamed lust and passion, which is kept alive by remorse and agony of sorrow, which is fraught with the pangs that spring unbidden from the results of past misdeeds, and from which the only escape lies in retracing the steps and cultivating the qualities which bear fruit in love and knowledge of God."

     And, as a final epitome of this spiritual teaching, we have the following:--"We may sum up man's highest duty as a spiritual entity in the word 'Progress'--in knowledge of himself, and of all that makes for spiritual development. The duty of man, considered as an intellectual being, possessed of mind and intelligence, is summed up in the word 'Culture' in all its infinite ramifications, not in one direction only, but in all; not for earthly aims alone, but for the grand purpose of developing the faculties which are to be perpetuated in endless development. Man's duty to himself, as a spirit incarnated in a body of flesh, is purity in thought, word, and act. In these three words, 'Progress,' 'Culture,' 'Purity,' we roughly sum up man's duty to himself as a spiritual, an intellectual, and a corporeal being."

     [[p. 11]] The general answer I would now give to the question, "Why live a moral life?" from the purely Rationalistic point of view, is--first, that we shall thereby generally secure the good opinion of the world at large, and more especially of the society among which we live; and that this good opinion counts for much, both as a factor in our happiness and in our material success. Secondly, that, in the long run, morality pays best; that it conduces to health, to peace of mind, to social advancement; and, at the same time, avoids all those risks to which immoral conduct, especially if it goes so far as criminality, renders us liable.

     It must be conceded that both these reasons, which are really but one, are of a somewhat low character; yet it seems to me they are all which the Agnostic can, logically, rely upon. It will also be evident that they will be of little value in cases of great temptation, or in those more frequent cases in every-day life where the standard of morality is already low. To raise this standard, and thus increase the force of public opinion as an incentive to morality, we require to increase the proportionate number of the naturally moral, and we have at present no way of doing that.

     There remains only one other reason, which, at present, acts only among that section of the community which has obtained conviction of the reality of a future life through Modern Spiritualism, and is, therefore, influenced by the teachings as to the nature of that life of which I have sketched the barest outlines. Some of my readers may object that Modern Spiritualism is not Rationalism, and is, therefore, outside this discussion; to which I reply--Why not? It is founded on a personal and critical observation of facts. Is not that rational? Is it more rational to refuse to investigate these facts, or to deny them without investigation? I myself had been for nearly thirty years an Agnostic when I investigated these phenomena, and found them, against all my prepossessions, to be realities. Is it rational to ignore or deny phenomena which have been demonstrated to the satisfaction of such men as Robert Chambers, Professor De Morgan, Dr. Lockhart Robertson, William Crookes, and scores of other eminent men, and has drawn from the ranks of English Secularists Robert Owen, George Sexton, and Annie Besant? But, it may be said, admitting the facts, the theory is irrational. Here, again, I ask, who can judge better of the correctness of the theory--those who have personally investigated the facts, or those who have not? But really, it is not a question of theory, since, when the whole facts are known to be realities, no other conclusion is possible or rational than that of the Spiritualists.

     It has been shown, and will, I am sure, be admitted by all unprejudiced readers, that we have derived from Spiritualism a conception of a future state and of its connection with our life here very different from, [[p. 12]] and far superior to, the ordinary religious teaching which formerly prevailed. That teaching has now been partly modified through the influence of Spiritualistic ideas; but by the religious preacher it is taught dogmatically, not as it comes to the Spiritualist with all the force of personal communication with those called dead, but who, again and again, tell us they are far more alive than ever they were here. This Spiritualistic teaching as to another life enforces upon us that our condition and happiness in the future life depends, by the action of strictly natural law, on our life and conduct here. There is no reward or punishment meted out to us by superior beings; but, just as surely as cleanliness and exercise and wholesome food produce health of body, so surely does a moral life here produce health and happiness in the spirit-world. Every well-informed Spiritualist realises that, by every thought and word and deed of his daily earth-life, he is actually and inevitably determining his own happiness or misery in a future life which is continuous with this--that he has the power of creating for himself his own heaven or hell. The Spiritualists alone, therefore, or those who accept with equal confidence the Spiritualistic teachings in this respect, can give fully adequate reasons why they should live a moral life. These reasons are in no way dependent on public opinion, or on any relation to success or happiness here, and are, therefore, calculated to influence conduct under the most extreme conditions of temptation or secresy. Hence the only Rationalistic and adequate incentive to morality--the only full and complete affirmative answer to the question, "Why live a moral life?"--is that which is based upon the conception of a future state of existence, systematically taught by Modern Spiritualism.

Note Appearing in the Original Work

1. See "Miracles and Modern Spiritualism" (Trübner & Co.); and the article, "Spiritualism," in the new edition of "Chambers's Encyclopædia." [[on p. 9]]

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