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 The Development of Morals (1907)*

By Bertrand Russell

Review of Morals in Evolution: A Study in Comparative Ethics. By L. T. Hobhouse. 2 vols. London: Chapman and Hall, 1906. Pp. xvii, 375; vii, 294

IN THIS WORK, Mr. Hobhouse traces the development of moral ideas from the rudest savages to the present day, or perhaps rather further. His first volume tells what men have thought it right to do, while his second tells why they have thought so; that is to say, his first volume tells what standard of conduct has, at various times and places, been expected of men, while his second deals with the ethical, religious or magical beliefs which have made men consider such conduct desirable. The first volume is divided into chapters dealing with different subjects, such as property and marriage, each of which separately is traced through its whole development. The second volume is divided according to the various ethical systems dealt with, and is therefore more or less progressive, putting the most developed systems last.

The parts of the book which deal with savages and early civilizations are, to my mind, the more interesting, if only on account of the curious facts which always make anthropology pleasing. Thus we learn that Babylonian sorcerers used to invoke the coal-scuttle under the title “child of Ea,” and that there are tribes which do not know that human beings have fathers. It is curious, too, to see how far the European’s idea of the savage has travelled since the time when he was the “noble savage” and had all the virtues that civilized man is apt to lack. Thus we read of a Red Indian, telling of his ideas of hospitality, who said: “If a white man … enters one of our cabins we all treat him as I do you. We dry him if he is wet, we warm him if he is cold, and give him meat and drink that he may allay his hunger and thirst; and we spread soft furs for him to rest and sleep on. We demand nothing in return. But if I go into a white man's house at Albany and ask for victuals and drink, they say, ‘Where is your money?’ And if I have none, they say, ‘Get out, you Indian dog!’” But this Indian, as was to be expected, lived in the eighteenth century. What one learns further about American aborigines is less idyllic. Thus among the Creek Indians, “the women were wont to make payment in tobacco for the privilege of whipping prisoners as they passed.” Elsewhere: “prisoners are tortured in sufficient numbers to atone for those similarly dealt with by their enemies; and it is stated that children are encouraged to take part in the process in order to instill hardness and vindictive feelings into their minds” – a view of education which suggests the usual defence of public schools. By some savages, we find, “prisoners are not merely killed and eaten on the spot, but are taken home, well treated and fattened for the slaughter, possibly provided with a wife and encouraged to breed a family for the same purpose.” “What? Shall I starve as long as my sister has children whom she can sell?” was the reply of a negro to Burton. Such facts are encouraging when one feels inclined to doubt the reality of progress.

Many interesting facts about early civilizations are told by Mr. Hobhouse, notably extracts from the code of Hammurabi, which gives an astonishing insight into Babylonian society 2000 years before Christ. Many of the anticipations of Christianity mentioned in the book are very remarkable. The following is not Christian or Jewish, but is Nebuchadnezzar’s hymn to Marduk on ascending the throne:

O Eternal ruler! Lord of the Universe!
It is Thou who hast created me,
And Thou hast entrusted to me sovereignty over mankind.
According to Thy mercy, O Lord, which Thou bestowest upon all,
Cause me to love Thy supreme rule.
Implant the fear of Thy divinity in my heart.
Among the most interesting of sages are those of China. It is hard to grow very enthusiastic about Confucius, although he invented the Golden Rule; but his disciple Mencius is refreshing, if only for his remark on Generals: “There are men who say, ‘I am skilful at marshalling troops; I am skilful at conducting a battle.’ They are great criminals.”1 The following story of Mencius is also interesting:
When Mencius saw King Seuen much touched by the frightened appearance of an ox being led to the sacrifice, and ordering that a sheep should be substituted for it, he told him very justly that it was because “you saw the oxen and had not seen the sheep.” A superior man, he went on, cannot eat the animals whose dying cries he has heard, and so he keeps away from his cook-room.
When we come to the Greeks and the moderns, the book becomes less satisfactory, since it is impossible, within Mr. Hobhouse’s limits, to give anything like an adequate discussion, and we therefore get mainly either an outline of what everyone knows, or an account so compressed that it can hardly be followed unless one has read fuller accounts elsewhere.

The main result of the inquiries into forms of social organization, marriage, property, class-relations and relations between communities, which constitute Mr. Hobhouse’s first volume, is that there is a tendency to emphasize society at one pole, and the individual at the other, as against minor groups such as the clan or the commune. This conclusion carries internationalism with it as the natural goal of development, since all aggregations short of humanity as a whole tend to lose their force. But although this view of development results in the main, there are, as Mr. Hobhouse admits, great difficulties the moment we come to special questions. In regard to marriage, for example, shall we regard the Catholic indissolubility of marriage or the American freedom of divorce as representing a more advanced stage? Both exist at the same date and in equally civilized countries. It might be argued that the American system is a reversion, not an advance, for great freedom of divorce existed before the rise of Catholicism. But this question will be answered by everyone according to his opinion on divorce, and it seems that the history of the subject can afford no guidance. Indeed it may be urged that the function of history in forming moral opinion is rather more limited than Mr. Hobhouse appears to think. The fact that things have developed in a certain direction is no evidence that it would not have been better if they had developed otherwise, nor that it would be good they should develop further in the same direction. Thus there is a tendency for civilized societies in early stages to move towards absolute monarchy; but few people now-a-days think absolute monarchy a good form of government for the most civilized communities. The study of past moral systems is useful as showing that society can survive under institutions which to us seem monstrous, and as illustrating the part played by custom and irrational prejudice in almost all beliefs. In this way, it instills wholesome doubts and promotes a careful examination of our views, and thus may suggest grounds against many cherished ethical dogmas; but it is quite incapable of giving grounds for any opinion as to what is desirable. Such an opinion can only validly come from our own perception of what is good, not from the distilled essence of the views of previous ages.

This is illustrated towards the end of Mr. Hobhouse’s book, when he comes to giving his own views on ethics. These views are recommended partly by some rather summary philosophical argumentation, partly as the natural outcome of previous systems. Mr. Hobhouse’s ethics is not that of Mill, although his Theory of Knowledge is an able defence of Mill against idealist critics; in fact, his ethics is rather that of the critics than that of Mill. He rejects the view that happiness is the good, and also criticizes the utilitarians for regarding the good of society as merely the aggregate of the goods enjoyed by separate people. The end, he says, is not happiness but “the spiritual growth in which happiness is found” (II, 246). “We need a standard of value which must prove its genuineness by the same test which we apply to speculative principles. It must give harmony, order, coherence to our efforts and our judgments, while its negation must leave them disordered and discordant” (II, 249). “In modern thought the principle of human development under whatever name becomes in a new sense the pivot upon which ethical conceptions turn” (II, 251). “For rationalism the moral basis lies in the unfolding of the full meaning of the moral order, as that through which the human spirit grows” (II, 274). There is a difficulty in understanding what Mr. Hobhouse means by these views, because development and growth presumably consist in travelling towards the good, or from good to better, and are therefore not themselves capable of being used to explain what the good is.

Another difficulty in Mr. Hobhouse’s views is to discover what part in religion he would assign to beliefs as to the nature of the universe or of God. “Instead of religion being the basis of ethics,” he says, “ethics becomes the test to which religion must submit” (II,252) If this means merely that we ought not to worship anything which is not good, there is nothing to be said against it; but if it means that our beliefs on religious subjects are to be influenced by our beliefs as to what is good, then it presupposes that we already know for certain that the universe is good – a paradoxical view for which no evidence is offered by Mr. Hobhouse. That this view is held by him appears also from his remark (II, 48) that the Greek philosophers first taught the world, what it has too often forgotten, that goodness and God are identical. This presumably means that power and goodness are united, for “God,” in the sense in which it was used before the Greeks, seems to mean merely a person of extraordinary power. Mr. Hobhouse, therefore, must suppose that the controlling forces of the world are good. The question whether this is so is not without importance, and it is a pity he has not indicated his reasons for his view. “There is,” he says, “no real Ahriman that strives with Ormuzd. Evil is merely the automatic result of the inorganic” (II, 281). But is there not equally no real Ormuzd? And is not good equally the automatic result of the inorganic? This is the view which science prima facie suggests, and Mr. Hobhouse alleges no reason against it.

Owing to the plan of Mr. Hobhouse's book, there is much material about early customs, out of which one expects his conclusions to grow; but the conclusions, when we reach them, seem unconnected with this material, and therefore have to be given so shortly as to seem obscure and arbitrary. Yet one cannot doubt that he regards his anthropological data as merely means to an end, namely to his conclusions as to ethics and politics; and the book is rendered unsatisfactory by the very insufficient connection between his data and his conclusions. The only possible connection – and this is not made out – would be that, given the opinions of the Australians, the Red Indians, the Babylonians, etc., the opinions of Mr. Hobhouse are those which would naturally come next in order of development. But it is also given that the opinions of the Australians, the Red Indians, the Babylonians, etc., are palpable nonsense. What use, one wonders, may posterity make of this datum?

It is true that Mr. Hobhouse does lip-service to these sceptical suggestions. Thus he says: “Nothing is more certain, if the rationalist doctrine is true, than that the doctrine itself will grow, and as growth implies, will change” (II, 257). But he feels sure that the truth is to be got by a growth from the present doctrine. This, indeed, is implied in the word evolution, which, where no reason has been shown why growth rather than radical change is the road to truth, is really a question-begging term. For aught that appears to the contrary, the wheat and the tares may be a more appropriate analogy; here, though the wheat is to grow, the tares are to be destroyed. Nor can one be sure, at any stage, that the wheat is already sown; it may be that all that is now growing is tares. I do not mean that complete scepticism is the only rational attitude in ethics, but I do mean that knowledge in ethics cannot be attained by merely studying changes of opinion. And to call these changes “evolution” or “growth” or “development” is to assume that we know that the changes constitute a progress, i.e. that we know which stages are better and which worse. But if we already know this, it is merely an unnecessary detóur to deduce it from the course of events. None of us believe human sacrifice to be bad because it is by savages that it is practised; on the contrary, being already convinced that human sacrifice is bad, we infer progress from the fact that the practice has died out. The whole subject of evolution is full of opportunities for question-begging arguments, and to such arguments, I believe, its apparent power of giving guidance for the future is almost wholly due.


* Bertrand Russell, “The Development of Morals,” The Independent Review 12 (Feb 1907), 204-10  Review of Hobhouse, Morals in Evolution (Chapman and Hall, 1906)

1 It is notable that Chinese anti-militarism goes too far even for Mr. Hobhouse, who suggests that it is largely due to cowardice