Introduction: The Idea of a Natural Science of Morals.


A writer who seeks to gain general confidence scarcely goes the right way to work when he begins with asking whether there really is such a subject of that of which he proposes to treat; whether it is one to which enquiry can be directed with any prospect of a valuable result. Yet to a writer on Moral Philosophy such a mode of procedure is prescribed, not only by the logical impulse to begin at the beginning, but by observation of the prevalent opinions around him. He can scarcely but be aware that Moral Philosophy is a name of somewhat equivocal repute; that it commands less respect among us than was probably the case a century ago; and that any one who professes to teach or write upon a subject to which this name is in any proper or distinctive sense applicable, is looked upon with some suspicion. (§1 ¶1)

There is, indeed, no lack of utterance in regard to the greatest problems of life or the rights and wrongs of human conduct. Nor does it by any means confine itself to what are commonly counted secular or positive considerations. Glosses as to some sweet strange mystery,
Of what beyond these things may lie,
And yet remain unseen, [Peter Bell the Third, 410-412]
are announced with little reserve and meet with ready acceptance. These, we may say, are for the multitude of the educated, who have wearied of the formulas of a stereotyped theology, but still demand free indulgence for the appetite which that theology supplied with a regulation-diet. But the highest poetry of our time—that in which the most serious and select spirits find their food—depends chiefly for its interest on what has been well called the application of ideas to life; and the ideas so applied are by no means sensibly verifiable. They belong as little to the domain of natural science, strictly so called, as to that of dogmatic theology. A moral philosopher may be excused for finding much excellent philosophy, in his special sense of the word, in such poems as the In Memoriam of Lord Tennyson and Mr. Browning’s Rabbi ben Ezra, to say nothing of the more explicitly ethical poetry of Wordsworth. Presented in the rapt unreasoned form of poetic utterance, not professing to do more than represent a mood of the individual poet, it is welcomed by reflecting men as expressing deep convictions of their own. Such men seem little disturbed by the admission to a joint lodgement in their minds of inferences from popularised science, which do not admit of being reconciled with those deeper convictions in any logical system of beliefs. (§1 ¶2)

But if any one, alarmed at this dangerous juxtaposition, and unwilling that what seem to him the deepest and truest views of life should be retained merely on scientific sufferance, seeks to find for them some independent justification, in the shape of a philosophy which does not profess to be a branch either of dogmatic theology or of natural science, he must look for little thanks for his trouble. The most intelligent critics had rather, it would seem, that the ideas which poetry applies to life, together with those which form the basis of practical religion, should be left to take their chance alongside of seemingly incompatible scientific beliefs, than that anything calling itself philosophy should seek to systematise them and to ascertain the regions to which they on the one side, and the truths of science on the other, are respectively applicable. Poetry we feel, science we understand;—such will be the reflection, spoken or unspoken, of most cultivated men;—theology professes to found itself on divine revelation, and has at all events a sphere of its own in the interpretation of sacred writings which entitles it at least to respectful recognition; but this philosophy, which is neither poetry nor science nor theology, what is it but a confusion of all these in which each of them is spoilt? Poetry has a truth of its own, and so has religion—a truth which we feel, though from the scientific point of view we may admit it to be an illusion. Philosophy is from the scientific point of view equally an illusion, and has no truth that we can feel. Better to trust poetry and religion to the hold which, however illusive, they will always have on the human heart, than seek to explain and vindicate them, as against science, by help of a philosophy which is itself not only an illusion but a dull and pretentious one, with no interest for the imagination and no power over the heart. (§1 ¶5)