Chapter II: Naturalistic Ethics.

§ 34.

It remains only to state clearly what is definitely fallacious in prevalent views as to the relation of Evolution to Ethics—in those views with regard to which it seems so uncertain how far Mr Spencer intends to encourage them. I propose to confine the term Evolutionistic Ethics to the view that we need only to consider the tendency of evolution in order to discover the direction in which we ought to go. This view must be carefully distinguished from certain others, which may be commonly confused with it. (1) It might, for instance, be held that the direction in which living things have hitherto developed is, as a matter of fact, the direction of progress. It might be held that the more evolved is, as a matter of fact, also better. And in such a view no fallacy is involved. But, if it is to give us any guidance as to how we ought to act in the future, it does involve a long and painful investigation of the exact points in which the superiority of the more evolved consists. We cannot assume that, because evolution is progress on the whole, therefore every point in which the more evolved differs from the less is a point in which it is better than the less. A simple consideration of the course of evolution will therefore, on this view, by no means suffice to inform us of the course we ought to pursue. We shall have to employ all the resources of a strictly ethical discussion in order to arrive at a correct valuation of the different results of evolution—to distinguish the more valuable from the less valuable, and both from those which are no better than their causes, or perhaps even worse. In fact it is difficult to see how, on this view—if all that be meant is that evolution has on the whole been a progress—the theory of evolution can give any assistance to Ethics at all. The judgment that evolution has been a progress is itself an independent ethical judgment; and even if we take it to be more certain and obvious than any of the detailed judgments upon which it must logically depend for confirmation, we certainly cannot use it as a datum from which to infer details. It is, at all events, certain that, if this had been the only relation held to exist between Evolution and Ethics, no such importance would have been attached to the bearing of Evolution on Ethics as we actually find claimed for it. (2) The view, which, as I have said, seems to be Mr Spencer’s main view, may also be held without fallacy. It may be held that the more evolved, though not itself the better, is a criterion, because a concomitant, of the better. But this view also obviously involves an exhaustive preliminary discussion of the fundamental ethical question what, after all, is better. That Mr Spencer entirely dispenses with such a discussion in support of his contention that pleasure is the sole good, I have pointed out; and that, if we attempt such a discussion, we shall arrive at no such simple result, I shall presently try to shew. If however the good is not simple, it is by no means likely that we shall be able to discover Evolution to be a criterion of it. We shall have to establish a relation between two highly complicated sets of data; and, moreover, if we had once settled what were goods, and what their comparative values, it is extremely unlikely that we should need to call in the aid of Evolution as a criterion of how to get the most. It is plain, then, again, that if this were the only relation imagined to exist between Evolution and Ethics, it could hardly have been thought to justify the assignment of any importance in Ethics to the theory of Evolution. Finally, (3) it may be held that, though Evolution gives us no help in discovering what results of our efforts will be best, it does give some help in discovering what it is possible to attain and what are the means to its attainment. That the theory really may be of service to Ethics in this way cannot be denied. But it is certainly not common to find this humble, ancillary bearing clearly and exclusively assigned to it. In the mere fact, then, that these non-fallacious views of the relation of Evolution to Ethics would give so very little importance to that relation, we have evidence that what is typical in the coupling of the two names is the fallacious view to which I propose to restrict the name Evolutionistic Ethics. This is the view that we ought to move in the direction of evolution simply because it is the direction of evolution. That the forces of Nature are working on that side is taken as a presumption that it is the right side. That such a view, apart from metaphysical presuppositions, with which I shall presently deal, is simply fallacious, I have tried to shew. It can only rest on a confused belief that somehow the good simply means the side on which Nature is working. And it thus involves another confused belief which is very marked in Mr Spencer’s whole treatment of Evolution. For, after all, is Evolution the side on which Nature is working? In the sense, which Mr Spencer gives to the term, and in any sense in which it can be regarded as a fact that the more evolved is higher, Evolution denotes only a temporary historical process. That things will permanently continue to evolve in the future, or that they have always evolved in the past, we have not the smallest reason to believe. For Evolution does not, in this sense, denote a natural law, like the law of gravity. Darwin’s theory of natural selection does indeed state a natural law: it states that, given certain conditions, certain results will always happen. But Evolution, as Mr Spencer understands it and as it is commonly understood, denotes something very different. It denotes only a process which has actually occurred at a given time, because the conditions at the beginning of that time happened to be of a certain nature. That such conditions will always be given, or have always been given, cannot be assumed; and it is only the process which, according to natural law, must follow from these conditions and no others, that appears to be also on the whole a progress. Precisely the same natural laws—Darwin’s, for instance—would under other conditions render inevitable not Evolution—not a development from lower to higher—but the converse process, which has been called Involution. Yet Mr Spencer constantly speaks of the process which is exemplified by the development of man as if it had all the augustness of a universal Law of Nature: whereas we have no reason to believe it other than a temporary accident, requiring not only certain universal natural laws, but also the existence of a certain state of things at a certain time. The only laws concerned in the matter are certainly such as, under other circumstances, would allow us to infer, not the development, but the extinction of man. And that circumstances will always be favourable to further development, that Nature will always work on the side of Evolution, we have no reason whatever to believe. Thus the idea that Evolution throws important light on Ethics seems to be due to a double confusion. Our respect for the process is enlisted by the representation of it as the Law of Nature. But, on the other hand, our respect for Laws of Nature would be speedily diminished, did we not imagine that this desirable process was one of them. To suppose that a Law of Nature is therefore respectable, is to commit the naturalistic fallacy; but no one, probably, would be tempted to commit it, unless something which is respectable, were represented as a Law of Nature. If it were clearly recognised that there is no evidence for supposing Nature to be on the side of the Good, there would probably be less tendency to hold the opinion, which on other grounds is demonstrably false, that no such evidence is required. And if both false opinions were clearly seen to be false, it would be plain that Evolution has very little indeed to say to Ethics. (§ 34 ¶ 1)