Ethics And Evolution
( Originally Published Early 1900's )
"Ethics, taken in its proper signification, includes two things. On the one hand, it consists of an investigation into the nature and constitution of human character ; and, on the other hand, it is concerned with the formulating and enunciating of rules for human conduct." The subject-matter of Ethics differs from that of the other sciences in that it is concerned with only one principle after its true basis is known. This principle is that of right and wrong conduct.
The greatest difficulty is in comprehending the basis of all Ethics. This basis is necessarily the nature of man and his true normal development. When this is understood, the problem of right and wrong is simple, as far as the principle involved is concerned. The details are necessarily complicated by the very nature of the evolutionary process in the innumerable phases and various stages which are present at the saine time.
Ethics is distinctly a science which pertains to human beings. Ethics does not exist in the atmosphere ; nor has it any identity in interplanetary space. Ethics depends upon people for existence. Furthermore, Ethics depends upon human beings who have developed to a comparatively high degree.
Animals are not interested in moral problems; neither are human beings in their earlier stages of development. There exist in every age people in whom the moral sense is lacking or dormant. It might seem as though general intelligence would atone for this missing faculty, but it does not. The most notable examples of depravity from an ethical standpoint are not found among the people who do not possess opportunities and advantages. People who have unethically seized the greatest opportunities and ad-vantages are frequently the most indisposed or unable to improve them. People who have inherited great opportunities are prone to neglect them.
As people develop along true normal lines, their Ethics develops. In fact, the ethical standards of an individual indicate his stage of progress. Furthermore, they indicate his relation to a normal development. For example, sensational murder trials frequently reveal standards of morals which are shocking to everyone as soon as they are publicly discussed. These same trials bring to light many abnormally developed individuals, some of whom had ample opportunities and "social advantages" for what is ordinarily considered "education."
Thus it becomes evident that so-called "education" does not impart knowledge which is real and valuable until it makes for ethical considerations and conduct. Unethical conduct betrays the lack of true discernment. Further-more, that person is crippled for living a normal life who is ethically . ignorant and morally undeveloped. The most important knowledge for every individual is what constitutes right and wrong personal conduct.
That thought, wish, desire, or act is right which benefits one or more persons. That thought, wish, desire, or act is wrong which injures one or more persons. These simple rules are very helpful, though it is freely admitted that life is not so simple. Good and evil are everywhere mixed and it is very difficult to make clean separations. The principle is one thing, the application is another. There is here no attempt to decide what is right or what is wrong, except in principle.
The test of Ethics is welfare. Whatever does not con-serve human welfare is not ethical; it is not right; it is not desirable. If we desire our own genuine welfare we will choose to be governed by ethical considerations. If we desire the welfare of others, we will pursue the ethical course. It is doubtful if one person can ever gain real benefits for himself at the expense of others.
Ethical rules of conduct are synonymous with scientific rules for the progress and welfare of an individual. No person has a right to injure himself. Every endowment of capacity or power confers a personal responsibility for its right use upon the person possessing it. This responsibility cannot be abrogated. The law of personal responsibility cannot be successfully denied or evaded. The possession of life is a responsibility. It is axiomatic that no person has a right to do wrong. It is equally axiomatic to say that no person has a right to injure himself. Then he must do right or he is doing wrong. There is no way to escape the application of these simple principles. Ethical conduct is required from every intelligent individual because he has the capacity for it. This is as much a natural law as gravitation. It is inherent in the capacity.
No human being decides that every astronomical body has an effect upon every other body. It is the nature of bodies. The law of gravitation is not intermittent. It always works. It is uniform in its action. Violation brings disaster. Obedience ensures harmony and continuance.
In like manner, no human being decides that capacity entails personal responsibility. Capacity is a power which affects not only the individual in his physical, mental and moral life, but it affects other individuals. Therefore capacity confers personal responsibility. Personal responsibility is not intermittent. It always works. It is uniform in its action. Violation brings disaster. Obedience ensures harmony and continuance.
Personal capacity confers a responsibility for self-improvement. Some kind of growth or development is unavoidable in the very nature of things. No person can escape changing with the course of life. Responsibility for the nature of the change is inherent in this capacity for development. No person can escape it or avoid it. Life is like an irresistible current, but the character of the results is largely a matter of individual choice.
The power of an individual to affect his own development cannot be fully estimated. The ordinary individual recognizes his power over the environment much more clearly than he does his power over himself. Agriculture and horticulture reveal multitudinous effects of man's intelligence. The improvements of every species of animals under man's care are very apparent. When an equal degree of intelligence is acquired concerning the real nature of the human entity, the soul, then a corresponding ratio of improvement may be witnessed.
The connection between Sociology and Ethics is very apparent. The welfare of society depends upon the ethical conduct of its individual members. Individual desires, and social forces based upon them, must be intelligent and ethical in order to secure the welfare of people. Selfishness is a recognized evil. People do not like a selfish person. Friendship is one of the best things in life. Therefore, selfishness always fails to secure the best which life affords. An adequate knowledge of the nature and possibilities of human life always destroys selfishness.
There is a vast difference between selfishness and self-interest. Selfishness is blind, narrow, ignorant. Selfishness is the piggish nature, it is not a worthy human quality. Self-interest seeks the true end of human life. Every individual should seek true self-development. The inherent capacities for good are the proper concern of the individual. His nature, his capacities, his potentialities, are his own peculiar business and responsibility.
The conditions which are essential and best for one person's true development are approximately the same for all men. Each man needs free opportunities. No man is secure in the possession of these opportunities until all men are secure. Therefore, enlightened self-interest will endeavor to secure the best conditions for all men.
Natural selection does not secure the survival of the fittest in the struggle for existence. It merely secures for each species its place in the competitive struggle. When man removes from plant and animal life the old competitive struggle, the real life of the species becomes free and latent qualities become manifest by which the fittest to survive may be judged. When society is organized on ethical lines, other qualifications besides shrewdness, financial skill and ability to corner markets, will decide upon the fittest. This is just as sure as the process which re-moved the great advantage of muscle, battle-ax and armor, and even repeating-rifles, and gave brain its vast power in the present business organization. Many people cannot do their best under competition. How far it should be removed or restricted is a great social problem. Nevertheless, it is certain that under present competition, the best natures do not get the rewards.
The ethics of jungle life are not worth consideration except as points of departure slowly left behind. The rules of war exhibit only slight touches of human feeling. Killing people is certainly a poor method of adjusting great questions, especially as the people killed are not the ones who originated the difference or benefit by its adjustment. The mass of soldiers are hired men. The side which could hire the most men who were willing for a consideration to run the risk of being killed, has won many of the decisive battles of history.
In the same way the ethics of competitive business are not much better than jungle ethics. The transactions every day in the stock markets are actuated by as fierce passions as ever moved a pirate crew. Very little consideration is given to those who have not the peculiar skill required for what is called "success" in the fierce competition of business. The price of the necessaries of life is raised to make a few rich without regard to the suffering caused thereby. Deftness, shrewdness, politeness, often conceal the real nature of the transactions. Some of the organizers of wheat-corners and cotton-deals deserve the praise of Byron, —"The mildest manner'd man that ever scuttled ship or cut a throat."
"The survival of the fittest in the struggle for life," which means the shrewdest, the most unscrupulous, is commonly considered good enough ethics. This low condition of discernment arises from the very superficial analogy that is made between the relative importance of animal and human life. Why should the rule of the jungle be quoted with approval by scientific men and heads of universities as it has been? Each man's life and his opportunity to make the most of it are equally important to each individual. Ethics worthy of human beings will arise when this consideration shall assume its true importance.
The beginnings of civilization depend upon external or material conditions, while humanity, brotherhood, peace, universal welfare, depend upon ethical development. Ethical development depends upon the recognition of the rights of people who cannot defend them. No person can truly gain at the expense of another. Yet in modern business, many must lose all of labor's reward but a bare subsistence, that one may have an enormous fortune which he cannot spend. Too often our courts are places "where justice is dispensed with." Genuine wealth does not consist in abundance of stuff, bank accounts or paper certificates. Genuine wealth consists in the ability and the freedom to make the most of life's opportunity. Ethics conserves every man's privilege to do this without hindrance from others.
Ethics consists of the principles of right relations between human beings. Altruism is the desire to secure these right relations for others. Enlightened egoism and altruism are therefore entirely harmonious and identical in their purposes. No man is secure until all are secure. An enlightened, developed soul cannot be happy while there is misery which he can relieve. The ability to feel for others is a simple measure of truc humanity or an indication of the stage of development. It is a law of nature that the sphere of influence shall increase with the growth of the soul.
The struggle for self-realization becomes significant in proportion to intelligence. Inherent potentialities are the most valuable possessions. Riches of this physical plane cannot be transferred to the next and are only valuable here as rightly used and expended. "A man's life consisteth not in the abundance of the things which he possesseth."
The history of intellectual and moral development is the history of self-conscious Intelligences seeking satisfactions. Motives, ambitions, aspirations, inspirations, reside in the capacities of the soul and not in physical desires and passions.
Ethics indicates the soul's recognition of nature's laws and methods for developing human life. There are no prohibitions in nature. All are free to disobey, but whether the babe or the sage violates law, the penalty is inexorable and absolute. Individuals have the power of choice whether they will obey or not, but nature knows no favorites who will be excused for violations of law.
Perhaps ethics can be best taught by exhibiting and demonstrating the natural results of conduct. These known results are then so many attractive or repellant forces. Temptations to evil lose their power in proportion to knowledge. Yet here let it be observed that what is called "head knowledge" needs to be supplemented by a love for obedience or reverence for oneself and one's possibilities or in other words, by the religious forces and instincts. Ethics as a matter of memory may fail, while Ethics in the life are triumphant. There is an actual process, known as "regeneration." Conscience must be cultivated and obeyed for the highest good of an individual.
Some of the developments of Ethics may be noted. The struggle for life is accompanied by the struggle for the life of others. Frequently the two become identical. Intelligent self-preservation dictates the establishment of conditions where all may secure the blessings of life. Thus, the principle of cooperation is early taught through necessity. Alone and unaided one man can barely sustain life. The full power of cooperative labor is not realized by the workers of the world, though the results are manifest in our civilization.
There can no more be good without possibilities of evil than there can be mountains without valleys. Heights could not exist without depths. Light could not have any distinct identity in our minds except through knowledge of darkness. Good ought to work good, and it does. Evil ought to work evil and suffering, and it does. Pain has its certain and most useful mission, namely, to reveal that there is something wrong. Intelligence grows as ignorance is conquered. Good is finally enthroned in the consciousness and sustained by all the powers of character because Evil is known and abhorred. Wisdom increases as causes and results are related by Reason. The principle of Competition becomes refined into Emulation. Ambition becomes aspiration. Ambition is a dangerous, disappointing guide, while Aspiration is a grand and glorious prophecy of the Soul's own immeasurable possessions. Only through Ethics can we enjoy that to which we are entitled, namely, the full development of inherent capacities and potentialities.