10 NOVEMBER 1883, Page 9


MR. ALLANSON PICTON'S very graceful and eloquent reply to one particular point of Miss Cobbe's June paper on " Agnostic Morality," in the new number of the Contemporary Review, is delightful reading ; but none the less, it seems to us to miss the main point of Miss Cobbe's powerful argument. Mr. Picton favours the doctrine of "hereditary conscience," and protests against Miss Cobbe's fears of its tend- ency and significance. But then, he does not notice that while the only drift of his argument is to establish one view, Miss Cobbe's fears and warnings were directed against a quite different view, which really derives no support at all from Mr. Picton's paper. Miss Cobbe denounced the theory of "hereditary conscience" in one sense ; Mr. Picton, if we understand him rightly, maintains it in a quite different sense, to which we conceive that no reasonable moralist should feel the least a priori objection. The theory which degrades the conscience, the theory evidently supported and avowed by Vernon Lee's " Baldwin," in the striking dialogue on "The Responsibilities of Unbelief," published in the Contemporary for May, is the theory that the accumulated experience of the race and the individual as to the salutary or prejudicial effects of conduct, con- stitutes the whole of the moral light of which any particular mind can avail itself. Miss Cobbe expressly defined it as "the theory that our sense of right and wrong is nothing more than the inherited set of our brains in favour of the class of actions which have been found by our ancestors conducive to the welfare of the tribe, and against those of an opposite tendency." Well, that theory Miss Cobbe described, with only the touch of exaggeration needful for an effective illustration, as turning the conscience into nothing better than " the kitchen middens of generations of savages." And she remarked, with no exaggeration at all, that if the conscience were this, and nothing more, the authority which we accord to it would be the authority of "a crowned and sceptred impostor." And so, of course, it would be. Suppose all we had to say for a course of action was that it was the course of action to which inherited bias points, just as inherited bias pointed to the scalping of their enemies by the North-American Indians, or the shooting of their enemies by European duellists,—or, to take examples from actions of a better kind, just as inherited bias points to the public glorification of personal courage or great imaginative power,—then, to declare that such a course of action had the authority of "conscience," would be to assert for that course of action the sanction of nothing better than " a crowned and sceptred impostor," for the crown and the sceptre would be borrowed from one class of ideas, and transferred to another totally different. It is perfectly clear that there is no more dignity in the authority of an inherited bias than in the feature —if feature there be—which expresses that inherited bias in the countenance,—the hawk's eye, or deep-lined mouth, or heavy jaw, which betrays which way the bias goes. After all, bias is nature, and no more. Conscience is either more than nature, something which modifies and alters nature this way or that ; or it is, as Miss Cobbe says, "a crowned and sceptred impostor." It is conscience, if we have any conception of its meaning, which, given the inherited set of our nature, asserts what ought to be the momentary action of the individual will which is either to raise or to degrade that nature. It is not conscience which makes a conventional man conform to con- ventional morality ; there is no need of anything but the inherited set of his nature, for that. It is conscience which sometimes makes a conventional man challenge and offend the dictates of conventional morality, whenever a ray of higher light has entered his mind. Nor can we conceive of any answer to the alle- gation that, so far as a useful and salutary custom has effectually embodied itself in our habits and nature, there is little need of conscience to support it, though there might have been much need of conscience in past generations to start that useful and

salutary custom, at a time when it was a strange and alarming innovation.

Well, but what is it that Mr. Pictou has to bring against Miss Cobbe's objection to the doctrine of hereditary conscience ?

Nothing in the world, as it seems to us, except the contention that man's moral progress is as gradual as his physical or mental progress. As a matter of fact, we doubt the absolute truth of this assertion. We should have said that nothing is more remarkable, so far as the lights of history serve us, than the great moral catastrophes of the world,—the enormous influ- ence which particular minds have had in altering morally the course of social evolution, and impressing unexpected tendencies upon it. But, be that as it may, it is quite one thing to say that moral change is as gradual as every other kind of change, and quite another to say that moral change is nothing but the "quintessence of accumulated experiences of the effects of con- duct,"—in other words, that it is nothing but the accumulated ex- perience of the bad effects of falsehood which makes men abandon falsehood,—that it is nothing but the accumulated experience of the bad effects of cruelty which makes men abandon cruelty. Mr. Picton refers to two evil practices,—that of Spartan infanticide and that of cannibalism,—to prove, what we do not know that any one denies, that the moral evil of these practices has not always been perceived by men. But does he really imagine that it was the " accumulated experience " of the moral evil of putting to death sickly and deformed children which cured the Greeks of a practice which, for anything we know,—if Agnostic morality should really gain the upper hand,—our posterity may resume and enforce, as the greatest of all duties towards the humanity of the future ? Does he really think, again, that it is " the accumulated experience" of the evil results of cannibalism that has cured any single savage tribe that ever existed of the practice of cannibalism ? He must be in possession of very remarkable evidence from which all the rest of the world is excluded, if he does. So far as we know, the flowing tide of sympathy and compassion and reverence fur human misery, has never been the result of any " accumulated experience " of the evil results of stamping out misery-, but has been the offspring of new religious belief, of new gratitude to God, new faith in man,—in short, of the awakening of the human con- science to the consciousness of a new claim. As to the extinc- tion of the practice of cannibalism, there is, we believe, no historical evidence of its disappearance except,—just as in the case of the disappearance of suttee,—through the moral pressure of higher races to whose genius it was intolerable. Neither in the case of Suttee nor in that of cannibalism is there the least evidence of the evil practice having disappeared through the dis- covery by any of the people who had been brought up to respect the practice, that its consequences tended to the degradation of the race. And even if such a discovery had been made, unless there were some great command spoken out by the con- science to impose on men the absolute duty of ceasing to do what tends to the degradation of the race, and of doing what tends to the improvement of the race, the change would be no nearer at hand than before. Now, if such a command of con- science did thrill through any race, that would be precisely what no accumulated experience could account for. Though an accumulated experience of evil results might possibly in time disgust men with a particular sort of practice, so that it might fall into disuse, it is quite certain that its sudden discontinu- ance solely because it was found to tend to the degradation of the race, would require a supreme effott of conscience and of will. Practices which in the opinion of the highest minds tend to the degradation of the race are religiously and accurately observed,— and would be observed, if they were believed ever so much to tend to the degradation of the race,—by savage and civilised races without number. Even in our own country, dram-drinking is not left off through any automatic result of the accumulation of experience to show that it tends to the de- gradation of the race ; it succumbs only to the vehement efforts of religious and moral zeal brought to bear early on the young, and then only by appeals to a conscience which, far from repre- senting the inherited habits of their ancestors, engages them in a fierce struggle with the cravings to which those habits have given birth.

Mr. Picton, like all the evolutionists, is very strong upon the analogy between the growth of the individual through all the stages of human development in a single lifetime, and the growth of the race through the same stages in a cycle of thous- ands or hundreds of thousands of years. But he does not see that this analogy is all against his own view, not in favour of it. He says :—

"I insist upon the manifest fact of the evolntion of conscience in the individual. ' The grown man of average moral development recognises conscience as a sacred monitor. It tells him, as Miss Cobbe rightly desires, not what is safe, but what is right. It tells him instantly, the moment moral relations are presented, and only then gets con- fused when the man begins to argue with it, and to demand the grounds of its inspirations. Is not this all that can be desired by the most ' transcendental' doctrine of conscience ? Yet if the history of that man be candidly examined, it will be found that once he had no conscience at all, and that all the distinctions it now makes dawned imperceptibly upon him in the course of his experience. In fact, as Vernon Lee makes Baldwin say : they have been enforced upon him by mankind.' The man inherited from the youth, the youth from the boy, the boy from the infant, the infant from the baby. And the imperceptible germ in the last was evolved through successive stages by experience—yes, experience whether of divine or human influences. But does it follow, therefore, that this may's conscience is' a crowned and sceptred impostor ?' Certainly not, any more than the eagle is a winged impostor, because it was once an apparently lifeless speck within an egg. That speck has come to the supreme dominion' of the air through a course of feeble pecking, and clawing, and flutter- ing. But it is not the less a perfect thing now, a miracle of swift perception and winged power ; not the less divine because God has chosen a slow method of making it. Now, why should it make so great a difference if the evolution is continued through a number of generations, instead of being completed in one ?"

But what does this show ? It shows that a youth growing up in a society penetrated everywhere by moral laws, may imbibe the moral authority of those laws from those who already acknowledge and obey them. But how does that explain why a generation of men who have grown up under a bad set of laws, and who recognise no visible authority which condemns those laws and points out where they do injustice to human nature, should ever come to throw off the evil effect of those laws, and to adopt a newer and nobler standard of conduct ? What Mr. Pict= fails, in our opinion, to see, is that the power of conscience displays itself not chiefly in enforcing the con- ventional principles which have passed into the character of a generation,—unless, indeed (as occurs now and then), these conventional principles be challenged and overset by a sudden onset of wild passion,—but in exchanging these prin- ciples for nobler and better principles, or in applying them in some higher and more vivid fashion. The young man does

not show his mettle by merely accepting the morality of his set, but by aiming at a higher morality. The generation does not

show its morality by conforming to the standard of its fathers, but by pushing beyond it. Now, if this be so, whence does this force which, so far from being transmitted by the accumulated experience of our ancestors, definitely transcends that experience, proceed ? Where did Socrates get the guidance which so offended the Athenians that they put him to death ? Where have the great religions of the world found the impulse which inaugurated, again and again, a new era? Surely not in the "accumulated experience " of previous generations, but in some intimate, divine voice, which, like the lemon of Socrates, assured him to whom it spoke of the power to encounter the " accumu- lated experience" of the race, and to vanquish it, even though that experience seemed to have bound the human mind in bonds of iron. For our own parts, we know no analysis of conscience more hopelessly inadequate and inconsistent with the facts of the case than Mr. Darwin's. He analyses remorse into the mere recurrence of the more per- sistent, amiable emotion, so soon as the temporary, selfish emo- tion has been gratified and has passed away. But, first of all, this assumes that the more amiable emotions are the more persistent, which is not true,—envy and pride and vindictive passion, for instance, being at least as persistent as any amiable emotion that can be conceived. And next, what is much more import- ant, it implies that any emotion which can make itself felt persistently, will fill us with remorse for the gratification of a more urgent inconsistent emotion, an assumption which is simply erroneous. The child who gives away its bread to another still more destitute, and goes away hungry, has doubt- less a persistent feeling of gnawing at the stomach, after its benevolent feeling has been gratified. But does it feel remorse for not having satisfied its own hunger, directly that hunger becomes the uppermost sensation of its life ? Assuredly not. Mr. Darwin, in his eagerness to develope conscience from below, left out the consideration whioh is of the essence of conscience, —namely, the relative rank of the unsatisfied and the satisfied feeling, and the inward monitor which determines that relative rank. Miss Cobbe is quite right. As she has amply shown in

her new volume of essays," Darwinism in Morals,"* Mr. Darwin makes no distinction at all between remorse and regret. Any analysis of conscience which identifies it with the mere accumulated experience of the past as to the happiness or unhappiness-giving results of past conduct, would turn it into " a crowned and sceptred impostor." Indeed, as a matter of fact, the voice of conscience is never really recognised except as the authoritative voice in an inward struggle. And the authoritative voice in an inward struggle never can speak merely on the teaching of accumulated experience. It must either countersign the teach- ing of that experience, as having a sacred moral claim on us,—which the drift of the accumulated experience of the past need not have at all,—and then it is the conscience which gives it that claim, and not the mere experience; or it must con- test the tradition of the past, call upon our faith to defy and reverse that tradition, and to rebel against it. In either case, assuredly Conscience is " crowned and sceptred," but not an impostor, for it determines what value to assign to the bias of experience, or whether rather to ignore and to defy it.