II. The Meaning of Good and Bad.


We cannot, then, infer any results as to what is good or bad from a study of the things that exist. This conclusion needs chiefly, at the present time, to be applied against evolutionary ethics. The phrase survival of the fittest seems to have given rise to the belief that those who survive are the fittest in some ethical sense, and that the course of evolution gives evidence that the later type is better than the earlier. On this basis, a worship of force is easily set up, and the mitigation of struggle by civilization comes to be deprecated. It is thought that what fights most successfully is most admirable, and that what does not help in fighting is worthless. Such a view is wholly destitute of logical foundation. The course of nature, as we have seen, is irrelevant to deciding as to what is good or bad. A priori, it would be as probable that evolution should go from bad to worse, as that it should go from good to better. What makes the view plausible is the fact that the lower animals existed earlier than the higher, and that among men the civilized races are able to defeat and often exterminate the uncivilized. But here the ethical preference of the higher to the lower animals, and of the exterminators to the exterminated, is not based upon evolution, but exists independently, and unconsciously intrudes into our judgment of the evolutionary process. If evolutionary ethics were sound, we ought to be entirely indifferent as to what the course of evolution may be, since whatever it is is thereby proved to be the best. Yet if it should turn out that the Negro or Chinaman were able to oust the European, we should cease to have any admiration of evolution; for as a matter of fact our preference of the European to the Negro is wholly independent of the European’s greater prowess with the Maxim gun. (§ 11 ¶ 1)

Broadly, the fact that a thing is unavoidable affords no evidence that it is not an evil; and the fact that a thing is impossible affords no evidence that it is not a good. It is doubtless foolish, in practice, to fret over the inevitable; but it is false, in theory, to let the actual world dictate our standard of good and evil. It is evident that among the things that exist some are good, some bad, and that we know too little of the universe to have any right to an opinion as to whether the good or the bad preponderates, or as to whether either is likely in the future to gain on the other. Optimism and pessimism alike are general theories as to the universe which there is no reason whatever for accepting; what we know of the world tends to suggest that the good and the evil are fairly balanced, but it is of course possible that what we do not know is very much better or very much worse than what we do know. Complete suspense of judgment in this matter is therefore the only rational attitude. (§ 11 ¶ 2)