IT is the high and noble thing to do what is good and right of our own accord. We do not reach the heights of morality till goodness is the free choice of the soul. I believe that man, with his wonderful gift of reason, can discern a highest good, and then, unconstrained by all that is without him, can choose it. It constitutes the incomparable dignity of man that he need not be like a cloud driven before the winds, but can, as George Eliot says, "elect his deeds, and be the liege, not of his birth, but of that good alone he has discerned and chosen."1
Nevertheless, we have a curious and profound interest in the question as to the tendency of things apart from our own will. We know that we are not masters of our own life; there are conditions outside of us to which we have to conform. To take one of the simplest illustrations, — we know that if on a cold winter day we are not sufficiently protected against the weather, we shall perish. We must adjust ourselves to our environment, to use a phrase that has come into vogue; we are compelled to, if we wish to live. The tendency of things is thus to encourage and develop prudence. Nature may be said to be on the side of those who are prudent, since those who are not she does not permit to live.
1 Spanish Gypsy, book iii.
The question is, Does Nature sustain any such relation to morality, — does the force of things outside of us incline the race to be moral ? Or is it, perchance, favorable to immorality; or is it indifferent, so that good and bad men thrive equally well ? In other words, is morality a private matter, about which a person need have no more serious concern than about any other question of individual inclination and taste; or is it something having, whether we will or no, issues of life and death ? We naturally incline to take the former view. When we transgress any of the laws of morality, we like to say to ourselves that it is our own affair; that nothing outside of us takes cognizance of it, nor will any grave result follow.
It is at this point that the views of Darwin have a wonderful interest. Darwin does not write as an ethical philosopher, but as a naturalist. In his famous chapters in the " Descent of Man "1 his object is, not to give us a theory of ethics, but to show the part which morality has played in the development of the race. Any one who thinks that morality is a private matter, and that physical strength and mental capacity are the only things that Nature takes account of, should read those chapters. Everywhere, according to Darwin, among men as truly as among the lower orders of being, there is a struggle to live ; and those who are best fitted to the conditions of life succeed and leave offspring behind them, and those who are less fitted tend to extinction. Any casual variation, by which an individual has an advantage over others, is seized upon, intensified by transmission, and perhaps in time gives rise to a well-marked species.
1 Part I. chap. iii. iv. and v.
Physically a man is no match for a bear or a buffalo ; in an actual tussle he would surely be worsted. None the less is he their superior by virtue of his intelligence; he invents a spear, a bow-and-arrow, or a gun, and thereby outdoes them. So as between men and races of men, — variations in the direction of greater strength of body are of slight importance compared with variations in the direction of higher mental powers ; in war itself, it is not necessarily the most numerous nation, or the one with the hardiest soldiers, but the one with the ablest generals and in possession of the most ingenious methods of warfare that gains the victory. But Darwin shows further, that the possession of moral qualities is an advantage in the struggle for existence; that a race with strong moral feelings would, other things being equal, win in a contest with another race destitute of such feelings; in other words, that Nature is on the side of morality as truly as on the side of the strongest arm or the largest brain. Darwinism is often interpreted in a different way; it is often thought to sanction the efforts of the stronger individual to push the weaker to the wall. Let every man stand on his own feet; and those who cannot stand, let them fall, it is said. To practically apply the doctrine: if a man can provide for himself an education, well and good ; if he cannot, let him go without it, — never should he be helped. If a woman has power to get her rights, very well if not, let her go without them. If a person is smart enough to defraud another, let him do so; if he is strong enough to do violence to another with impunity, very well, — that is his right, as the stronger. This is the creed of unmeasured individualism, and was well expressed by Rob Roy in Wordsworth's poem, as the old rule, — "That they should take who have the power, And they should keep who can".
But it is very crude Darwinism, — nay, it is opposed to the teachings of Darwin; for according to him our notions of what we should and should not do are derived from the social instincts, and the social instincts contradict such heartless indifference to the welfare of others as the creed of extreme individualism allows. Doubtless such social anarchy did exist in the early ages of the world, in the " ages before conscience ; " but the significant fact is that the primitive races without conscience did not perpetuate themselves ; that they had no strength, no stamina, no cohesive power in the struggle with those superior races in whom the social instincts were developed; that so far as they do survive to-day, they survive as savages, and are on the border line between man and the brute.
Let us observe now in detail how morality helps to build man up, so that by his very love of life he is naturally deterred from those courses of conduct that conscience condemns. (1) A peaceful disposition is one element of morality. I do not mean the disposition weakly to submit to injuries, but the unwillingness to inflict injuries ; I mean the contrary of a violent and quarrelsome temper. At first sight it may seem as if violent people injure others rather than themselves, as if their violence gives them an advantage in the struggle to live. But turn the matter round, and ask, as between peaceable men and quarrelsome men, other things being equal, which are the more likely to suffer violence in turn, and themselves come to an untimely end ? I think there cannot be a doubt that peaceful men are more likely to survive and rear offspring than violent men; that violence is apt to be a boomerang, striking at last the perpetrator of it; that the ways of violence, even in uncivilized societies, are the ways of death, and the ways of peace are the ways of life. (2) Temperate habits are another element of morality. The intemperate man, who indulges his appetite for intoxicating drinks, thinks it his own affair, and that he will not greatly suffer ; but the laws of life think differently, — they cut short his days. It is a statistical fact that intemperate persons at the age of thirty, in England, are not likely to live more than thirteen or fourteen years longer, while the expectation of life of the average country laborer at that age is forty years. (3) Another element of morality is respect for woman, and the sense of the sanctity of the marriage relation. Does it make no difference if men or women lead profligate lives ? So profligate persons are apt to think ; they are rarely serious about it. But Nature is opposed to profligacy, for she will allow profligate women to have but few if any children ; it is as if she had a distaste for their breed, — wanted it stopped. In the natural course of things, profligate men, as Darwin remarks, rarely marry ; on their side, too, the breed of those with ungov-erned lusts tends to extinction. And if, in another way, men or women sin against Nature's laws, and in solitude and darkness practise the crimes that the light of day would blush to look upon, does the darkness hide them, and Nature take no cognizance ? Witness the weakness that comes on, — the weakness of body and weakness of mind, the loss of memory, the childishness, yes, the sterility; 't is as if Nature would cover them with contempt. And in regard to the persistent disuse of moral feeling generally, do we realize what one of our highest scientific authorities, Mauds-ley,1 tells us, that by it a man may succeed in manufacturing insanity in his progeny, and that insane persons, if they are allowed to propagate, become at last a race of sterile idiots ?