IT is sometimes thought that morality is entirely a matter of changing custom and opinion. One person holds one thing to be right, another another, and each, it is said, has an equal right to his opinion,— both are equally near the truth, for there is no truth in this case apart from what each one thinks. It is, of course, impossible that there should be any strength or ardor of moral conviction among those who habituate themselves to such a view. Moreover, if it be correct, it is difficult to see how there can be such a thing as a science of morality. If morality is but the varying opinions and practices of man from primitive times down, we can indeed arrange and classify them, and have as the result a sort of moral sociology, — but we can no more have a science of morality than we should have a science of astronomy by gathering and arranging all the notions of men about the heavenly bodies from Homer's time to the present. Science is not an account of opinions, but of those opinions that are believed to be true; and if ethics is robbed of the notion of truth (that is, harmony with an objective standard), its scientific pretensions must be abandoned.
But it is easier to raise questions than to answer them ; and if by morality is meant only the actual conduct of men, we have plainly to negative our question, and say there is nothing absolute about morality, since the conduct of men has been after any but a fixed, unvarying type. Human beings have yielded to all the varied and contradictory passions of their nature. They have hated and loved; been cruel and kind ; false and faithful; and there is hardly a conceivable vice or virtue that has not been illustrated in their lives. If any one law has been followed, it is one opposed to morality, rather than one exemplifying it; namely, the law according to which each one seeks his own selfish interest and pleasure. Freeman tells us of the old Frankish games, in which thousands of prisoners of war were given over to the jaws of wild beasts in the amphitheatres.1 Gregory, the ecclesiastical historian, gives an account of a certain Duke Raukhing, who amused himself by plucking out the hairs of a serf, — the tears of the serf exciting transports of delight in his master.2 There may be a uniform psychological law in accordance with which men have acted; namely, that each one does what he most desires to do, or what it pleases him best to do, or, in a word, according to his greatest pleasure. But this law has no moral significance, since in equal consistency with it both moral and immoral actions are performed.3 No uniform moral law is discoverable in the actual conduct of men.
But, strictly speaking, morality is not an account of how men act, but of how they feel they ought to act.
1 Fortnightly Review, October, 1869.
2 History, v. 3.
3 Cf. some remarkably acute observations in Georg von Gizy-cki's Grundzüge der Moral, S. 33, ff.; also his just published Moralphilosophie, S. 02, ff.
We must certainly distinguish between what men do, and even delight in doing, and what they morally approve. When we think of Jengis Khan signalizing his first victory by casting seventy prisoners into caldrons of boiling water; or of Timour massacring a hundred thousand Indian prisoners, and erecting a pyramid of ninety thousand human heads on the smoking ruins of Bagdad; or of Attila totally extirpating and erasing seventy cities,1 — we are hardly to imagine that they thought it right to do these monstrous deeds, nor, on the other hand, that they were aware it was wrong; they probably simply yielded to the barbarous impulses of their natures, without conscience one way or the other. Such outbursts of cruelty are probably attended with as little moral feeling as an earthquake, or an eruption of a volcano. So when we are told of the Tonga Islanders, that theft, revenge, rape, and murder are under many circumstances not held to be crimes,2 this does not so much prove that conscience sometimes points wrong, as that sometimes it does not point at all, or rather that to this extent conscience does not exist.
Conscience is certainly a growth, and there must have been a time when there was no sense of right or wrong at all; but because a faculty says nothing when it does not exist, is surely no proof or even suggestion of its untrustworthiness when it arises. Because a man born blind has no sense of colors, is no reason for doubting that he may distinguish them when he once gains his eyesight. And as travellers tell us of savage tribes without religion, so they tell us of those without conscience. The Tasmanians are entirely without any moral views or impressions. The Australians have no sense of what is just or equitable in the abstract, — their only test of propriety in many cases being whether they are numerically or physically strong enough to brave the vengeance of those whom they may provoke or injure. Conscience, says Burton, does not exist in eastern Africa, and repentance only expresses regret for missed opportunities of mortal crime. The Tongans have no words expressive of such ideas as virtue, justice, humanity; nor, on the contrary, of such ideas as vice, injustice, cruelty. Lubbock says he does not remember a single instance in which a savage is recorded to have shown any symptoms of remorse. In the absence of moral feeling, savages simply follow their instincts, or consult their own interest or advantage. When Mr. Ellis, a missionary, tells us that during the whole period of his residence in the Tahiti Islands he does not recollect having found a female attaining to motherhood during the prevalence of idolatry, who had not imbrued her hands in the blood of her offspring, it would be foolish to imagine that any moral approval accompanied these acts ; and the motive with which the murders were committed becomes plain when we learn that girls were more often killed than boys, because they were of less use in fishing and in war. So when the ancient Spartans encouraged their young warriors to waylay and assassinate helots for practice, this is not so much evidence of a perverted conscience as it is of the absence of all conscience in their feelings toward their slaves, who were looked upon as having no more rights than animals. When the Sioux Indians in their dances and at their feasts recite their deeds of theft, pillage, and slaughter as precious things, and it becomes the highest ambition of a young brave to secure the feather (which is the sign of having murdered some one), and after having secured the first to add as many more as possible to his cap, the feeling seems to be simply that of admiration for strength and valor, — and strength and valor are admirable things as contrasted with weakness and cowardice, and this seems to have been the only contrast their savage minds were capable of making. We do not admire such strength and valor now, only because we bear in mind still higher virtues, — respect for human life, the sense of its sacredness, — and believe that they give the superior rule of action. I doubt if anything was ever admired by a savage that was not, in just the aspect that excited his admiration, admirable. I doubt if a savage ever admired pillage as such: he admired the strength and the daring that were implied in it. I doubt if he ever admired theft as such : he admired the cleverness of it. Lubbock says that he cannot believe that theft and murder have ever been virtues in themselves, though in the absence of moral feelings they were no doubt means of distinction, and were regarded with no reprobation. In a similar way it is possible to regard the piracy which is said to have been " the exercise, the trade, the glory, and the virtue of the Scandinavian youth." The earliest form of virtue was strength or valor. We may in this way even explain the reversal of moral distinctions among those savage tribes who regarded theft as a virtue, and who punished the thief only when he allowed himself to be detected. From the savage standpoint, the contrast was simply between cleverness and bungling stupidity ; and leaving other considerations aside (or rather being unconscious of them, as these savage tribes may have been), there can be no question which of the two is the higher. The same may be said of the craft of Ulysses, which was so highly admired in the early days of Greece ; if there was faint consciousness of higher virtues, and the chief contrast familiar to men's minds was between craft and the lack of it, dexterity in compassing one's ends and inability to do so, I do not see how we can refuse to allow that Ulysses' craft was really admirable.
1 Spencer, Social Statics, Introduction, lemma i. § 2.
2 Lubbock, Origin of Civilization, p. 259. From this writer most of the following instances of savage morals are taken.