Imágenes de páginas
PDF
EPUB

us, was at first but a very flickering and transitory feeling as opposed to our inherited selfishness; but, for all that, it was the bridge by which men first began to cross from self-love to benevolence, and to become social beings. An interesting survival of this primeval state of things may perhaps be traced in Roman law, under which the father's control over his children seems to point back to the time when men did their duty to their children only as part of themselves, and exercised to the fullest extent the right to do what they pleased with their own. A less pleasing reminiscence of the primitive conscience is to be found in the plea of the slaveholders, that they do not ill-treat their slaves because it is for their own interests to keep them alive, healthy, and happy.

4. The Social Stage. At a certain period of his mental growth primeval man must have begun to form conceptions or ideas of the various objects that came within his experience, so as to be able to say, “ This is a flower, and this a stone, and this a man.” Now his idea of man must of necessity have been framed upon his knowledge of himself. Whatever qualities or properties he recognized as belonging to himself, these he would transfer to all other beings of whose likeness to himself in all essential conditions he had become aware. Hence it would follow that as he had a distinct and vivid inpression of his own right to existence, he would have the same impression, in a faint and dubious form, of other men as possessing the same right. It seems probable that to this rudimentary perception of mutual likeness may be traced all that part of our social feelings which owes its origin to an intellectual as opposed to physical sources. Anyhow this recognition of likeness selects for man the kind of beings with whom he is willing to enter into those social relations to which he finds himself impelled in part by inherited instincts, and in part by the necessity of living together with other creatures in the same territory, and

upon

the same means of subsistence which they must procure in common. Thus the important fact emerges that man brought (in germ) the idea of right and wrong with him to the formation of society, and did not obtain it as a result of social intercourse acting through the agency of pains and pleasures. From the moment that A, B, and C, recognizing a likeness of nature, and therefore a possibility of intercommunion, resolved upon trying the experiment of living together, they must have perceived that they could only do so by acknowledging each other's independent claims to be allowed to live. In respect of all that pertains to life and death they must, in short, have acted up to what Mr. Mill called the golden ethics” of doing to others as we would they should do unto

Let us note, in passing, that this “golden” saying, when seen in the light of evolution, becomes not merely a moral rule but also a statement of a scientific fact, for it was only by acting in accordance with it that "neighborhood” became possible. “Who is my neighbor but he to whom I assign the same right to exist that I claim for myself from him?"

us.

We are now in a position to describe how man came by that social modus vivendi which we call utility, and define as all that makes for the continued existence and progressive welfare of the community. Utility is scientifically the result of the conflict of individual rights, with survival of the fittest." The first right that passed away was the right to kill my neighbor; the first that survived was the right that my neighbor should not kill me. And to these rights conscience paid an intuitive deference (rendered perhaps all the more striking by the contrast presented by men's habitual practice) from the moment that the mind conceived the possibility of social relations. Things being as they were, it could not do otherwise. But then this right to one's self soon passes, under the fostering nurture of social life, to mean not merely bare animal existence, but all that conduces to make life happy, free, good, and useful. During the long course of advancing ages, rights are being conceded to the individual or being abandoned by him according as experience shows what is possible and best for human life and happiness. And all the while the conscience plays its part in this upward progress by transferring to any recognized reasonable rightness (alas! also to a thousand wrongs, which, yet true to its innate origin, the universal conscience persists in regarding as doomed to pass away) the same intuitive deference that it could not help but pay to the first moral inference evolved by the needs and the instincts of social life, “If you have no right to kill me, then have I no right to kill you."

5. The Political Stage. The earliest and (in a certain sense) most authentic records of the human race represent the murder of a brother as the first crime, the murderer's fear of vengeance as the first idea of punishment, and “ Whoso sheddeth man's blood by man shall his blood be shed” as the first effort of criminal law to curb the murderous instincts. We have in this a very impressive representation of the next stage in the history of conscience. At first the faint and shadowy idea of my neighbor's right to existence must have been a poor and frail defense indeed against the storms of innate passion, the cruel, selfish lusts, the reckless and savage assaults of men just emerged from the animals and beginning a social life, which, unlike theirs, involved a conscious sacrifice of the individual's will to the community. But no society could have lasted for long without there growing up a distinct and profound conviction that the indiscriminate taking of life cut at the root of its own existence. There are many interesting (in a scientific sense) survivals (blood-feuds, for instance, or the cheapness of human life, which invariably accompanies the dissolution of society at revolutionary epochs) of this primeval state of man, during which some of the strongest sentiments we possess were engraved upon our mental and moral constitution by the external action of laws and customs. now that the voice of the community began to proclaiın in no hesitating tones to the individual conscience “Thou shalt not kill,” and to take

It was

man,

very decisive steps indeed to make its decrees heard and obeyed. And so the word duty began to be in the air.

Now, I hold it to be quite impossible that any such external command could create in the mind the sense that it is a matter of duty to obey it ; nay, all law must have presented itself to the individual merely as part of that very external force which was originally, and is still liable at any moment to become, the natural enemy of his personal rights. And if I (that is to say, my ancestor of thousands of years ago) am merely forced by laws acting upon my fear of punishment to surrender my desire to slay another Ι

may of course yield to superior force, but I cannot possibly thereby acquire the sense of duty, which may be defined as the pleasure resulting from intelligent acquiescence in self-sacrifice that makes self-sacrifice possible. But when the law appeals to a sense of right and wrong already existing, when the command “Thou shalt not kill” is met by a response in the conscience, “I know that this is true, for I had the thought before, or rather at the moment when, I became a social being," then there results the joyful sense of duty which makes obedience pleasant. “Wherefore," the conscience cries, "the law is holy, and the commandment holy, and just, and good.” It is welcomed as the interpreter of conscience, as that which explains a man to himself. And so through countless avenues of utility, and through as many sanctions of social opinion embodied in law, custom, or tradition, the conscience advances toward the perception of the rights of men and of a corresponding internal sense of duty toward them. And thus, as I think, we get an explanation of the pleasurable element in duty. For while the law is becoming more and more imperative, and sacrifice of self more and more exacting, and our personal rights more and more circumscribed, there goes along with us the sense that we are but finding our true selves and expressing our own convictions and obeying our own highest wills, and are thus enabled to experience the greatest possible delight in doing our duty. For what is this, after all, but the satisfaction of finding our life when we were willing to lose it ?

6. The Ideal or Moral Stage. The next step in the history of conscience carries us a long way forward in the course of man's mental evolution, because it brings us to the time when he became capable of forming abstract notions. But it must be borne in mind that long before these notions were formed, the tendencies and impressions in which they culminated were busiiy, if silently, at work; hence it is possible to trace the line of advance along which the conscience passed from the primitive sense of rightness to the complete ideal state.

It is natural for men, under the pressure of social obligations, to fall back upon their personal rights and innate egoism, and to question the authority to which they have submitted more from a gregarious irstinct than from any exercise of their reasoning powers. Questions like the following lie deep down in the nature and necessity of things, and ex

ercise powerful effect upon the mental and moral modes of thought long before they become articulate in language: “Why am I restricted from doing what I please? Why does law or custom pronounce it wrong to kill one man, right to kill another? Why would my fellowmen think it right to kill me under certain circumstances? Why is the law on this and other points so unfair, so irregular, so incomplete, that were I to fashion my conduct by it alone, I should be always doing something of which I did not approve ? Above all, am not I, the unit of which society is composed and for whose benefit it exists, in danger of losing my right to myself and becoming merged in a mere aggregate mass of my fellow-units ? Is right and wrong to be determined for me without effort or remonstrance, or even coöperation of my own?”

Now the answer which man has made for himself to such questions is, by common confession, the discovery and the assertion that there is an absolute rightness belonging to society as such, with which individual rights may be harmonized, but which they can never supersede. How did he come to make this discovery and assert it with so unhesitating a conviction? Of justice in the abstract (for this is what we call the social rightness) it is true that primitive man could have no conception ; that idea has been generalized from experience. Now we have seen that the first man was dominated by the consciousness of a primitive rightness due to himself. We have seen also that, compelled by the instincts of forming a social life, he extended the same rightness to individual men like himself. We are now to see that, under the stress of questions such as the above, and strengthened by the growing power of forming general ideas, the mind transferred to society, to Nature, nay, to inanimate matter, the same idea of absolute rightness which it claimed for itself. Man perceived right everywhere and in all things just as he had done at first-then in the simple concrete form of the right to his own existence, now in the highly-abstract form of everything having its own right and wrong. At first all Nature is indebted to him, now he is indebted to all Nature. Utility prescribed in what right and wrong consisted, but did not give the idea of it; or, to speak more accurately, if we are willing to define utility as that which makes for the existence of anything, then just as utility or the needs of his own existence had suggested to man the idea of primitive rightness, so did it impress upon him the idea of rightness as inherent in the constitu

1 The relation between the power of law in enforcing rights and the power of conscience in detecting rightness is well illustrated by a sentence of Sir Henry Maine's, de. scribing the action of English law upon Indian modes of thought: “Unfortunately for us, we have created the sense of legal right before we have created a proportionate power of distinguishing good from evil in the law upon which the legal right depends ” (“Village Communities,” lect. iii.). I may add that the history of village communities presents a curious illustration of the way in which the conflicting rights of egoism and society were preserved in early times, i. e., by what would now be considered an exaggerated expression of them side by side. See his remarks on the isolation of households and the secrecy of family life, in the fourth lecture.

tion of things, and especially of society, if it were to continue to exist. Men come to think that they have no business wantonly to destroy anything, not even an insect or an inanimate object. Yet if they do it at all, they answer that it was because it was useless." It is thus by tracing ideas apparently dissimilar to the same root that we obtain the strongest possible confirmation of the truth of our contention.

It was thus, then, that men began to form to themselves moral ideas, having an absolute and universal existence as opposed to the mere passing dicta of laws and opinions. In the special case before us the inference ran thus: “If it is not right for me to kill, then all killing is naturally wrong, necessary exceptions notwithstanding." And thus the ideal was formed of the sanctity of human life, and society was regarded only as a means for this end, all its arrangements and institutions being of necessity subunitted to the moral judgment of the individual mind, and approved only so far as they came up to the ideal. It must, indeed, be confessed that there are survivals from earlier stages of moral growth which cast a strange and ironical reflection upon man's claim to wisdom and advanceinent, and cause his practice to fall lamentably short of even so early and obvious an ideal as the sanctity of life. How else are we to account for the fact that while all England will thrill at the news of some specially savage murder, or while we ourselves would be saddened to the end of our days by the result of some homicidal carelessness, we yet contrive to read morning after morning without a sigh or even a passing remark of battles in which thousands of human beings have perished for a cause in which they had no more real concern than they had for the politics of the planet Jupiter ?

It was thus, then, that men embarked upon that process of forming ideals which led them from the primitive thought, “Self-preservation is the first (and only) law in Nature,” up to the highest abstract expression of moral duty, “Fiat justitia, ruat coelum." But now observe the immensely important influence which the formation of ideals exercised upon the moral constitution. It was this which enabled men, amid the pressure and conflicts of life, to vindicate their primeval claims to themselves, and to establish an independent moral existence in the midst of society, as they had at first established an independent physical existence in the midst of the universe. The immediate effect was that they became a law unto themselves. For instance, under the influence of such an ideal as the sanctity of human life, they refuse to kill even when authority commands them; nay, they prefer themselves to die. That is to say, the original claim to bodily life reappears in the form of a claim to moral life, to which we insist that the same deference shall be paid as our forefathers claimed for their natural existence, and which, thanks to the innate law of our being, we refuse to surrender upon any conditions whatever. And thus we have come to understand what is meant by the significant phrase, “rights of conscience.” Can it be said that this has been satisfactorily explained up to the present time?

« AnteriorContinuar »