The Descent Of Man

Chapter IV



The moral sense–Fundamental proposition–The qualities of social animals–
Origin of sociability–Struggle between opposed instincts–Man a social
animal–The more enduring social instincts conquer other less persistent
instincts–The social virtues alone regarded by savages–The self-regarding
virtues acquired at a later stage of development–The importance of the
judgment of the members of the same community on conduct–Transmission of
moral tendencies–Summary.

I fully subscribe to the judgment of those writers (1. See, for instance,
on this subject, Quatrefages, ‘Unite de l’Espece Humaine,’ 1861, p. 21,
etc.) who maintain that of all the differences between man and the lower
animals, the moral sense or conscience is by far the most important. This
sense, as Mackintosh (2. ‘Dissertation an Ethical Philosophy,’ 1837, p.
231, etc.) remarks, “has a rightful supremacy over every other principle of
human action”; it is summed up in that short but imperious word “ought,” so
full of high significance. It is the most noble of all the attributes of
man, leading him without a moment’s hesitation to risk his life for that of
a fellow-creature; or after due deliberation, impelled simply by the deep
feeling of right or duty, to sacrifice it in some great cause. Immanuel
Kant exclaims, “Duty! Wondrous thought, that workest neither by fond
insinuation, flattery, nor by any threat, but merely by holding up thy
naked law in the soul, and so extorting for thyself always reverence, if
not always obedience; before whom all appetites are dumb, however secretly
they rebel; whence thy original?” (3. ‘Metaphysics of Ethics,’ translated
by J.W. Semple, Edinburgh, 1836, p. 136.)

This great question has been discussed by many writers (4. Mr. Bain gives
a list (‘Mental and Moral Science,’ 1868, pp. 543-725) of twenty-six
British authors who have written on this subject, and whose names are
familiar to every reader; to these, Mr. Bain’s own name, and those of Mr.
Lecky, Mr. Shadworth Hodgson, Sir J. Lubbock, and others, might be added.)
of consummate ability; and my sole excuse for touching on it, is the
impossibility of here passing it over; and because, as far as I know, no
one has approached it exclusively from the side of natural history. The
investigation possesses, also, some independent interest, as an attempt to
see how far the study of the lower animals throws light on one of the
highest psychical faculties of man.

The following proposition seems to me in a high degree probable–namely,
that any animal whatever, endowed with well-marked social instincts (5.
Sir B. Brodie, after observing that man is a social animal (‘Psychological
Enquiries,’ 1854, p. 192), asks the pregnant question, “ought not this to
settle the disputed question as to the existence of a moral sense?”
Similar ideas have probably occurred to many persons, as they did long ago
to Marcus Aurelius. Mr. J.S. Mill speaks, in his celebrated work,
‘Utilitarianism,’ (1864, pp. 45, 46), of the social feelings as a “powerful
natural sentiment,” and as “the natural basis of sentiment for utilitarian
morality.” Again he says, “Like the other acquired capacities above
referred to, the moral faculty, if not a part of our nature, is a natural
out-growth from it; capable, like them, in a certain small degree of
springing up spontaneously.” But in opposition to all this, he also
remarks, “if, as in my own belief, the moral feelings are not innate, but
acquired, they are not for that reason less natural.” It is with
hesitation that I venture to differ at all from so profound a thinker, but
it can hardly be disputed that the social feelings are instinctive or
innate in the lower animals; and why should they not be so in man? Mr.
Bain (see, for instance, ‘The Emotions and the Will,’ 1865, p. 481) and
others believe that the moral sense is acquired by each individual during
his lifetime. On the general theory of evolution this is at least
extremely improbable. The ignoring of all transmitted mental qualities
will, as it seems to me, be hereafter judged as a most serious blemish in
the works of Mr. Mill.), the parental and filial affections being here
included, would inevitably acquire a moral sense or conscience, as soon as
its intellectual powers had become as well, or nearly as well developed, as
in man. For, FIRSTLY, the social instincts lead an animal to take pleasure
in the society of its fellows, to feel a certain amount of sympathy with
them, and to perform various services for them. The services may be of a
definite and evidently instinctive nature; or there may be only a wish and
readiness, as with most of the higher social animals, to aid their fellows
in certain general ways. But these feelings and services are by no means
extended to all the individuals of the same species, only to those of the
same association. SECONDLY, as soon as the mental faculties had become
highly developed, images of all past actions and motives would be
incessantly passing through the brain of each individual: and that feeling
of dissatisfaction, or even misery, which invariably results, as we shall
hereafter see, from any unsatisfied instinct, would arise, as often as it
was perceived that the enduring and always present social instinct had
yielded to some other instinct, at the time stronger, but neither enduring
in its nature, nor leaving behind it a very vivid impression. It is clear
that many instinctive desires, such as that of hunger, are in their nature
of short duration; and after being satisfied, are not readily or vividly
recalled. THIRDLY, after the power of language had been acquired, and the
wishes of the community could be expressed, the common opinion how each
member ought to act for the public good, would naturally become in a
paramount degree the guide to action. But it should be borne in mind that
however great weight we may attribute to public opinion, our regard for the
approbation and disapprobation of our fellows depends on sympathy, which,
as we shall see, forms an essential part of the social instinct, and is
indeed its foundation-stone. LASTLY, habit in the individual would
ultimately play a very important part in guiding the conduct of each
member; for the social instinct, together with sympathy, is, like any other
instinct, greatly strengthened by habit, and so consequently would be
obedience to the wishes and judgment of the community. These several
subordinate propositions must now be discussed, and some of them at
considerable length.

It may be well first to premise that I do not wish to maintain that any
strictly social animal, if its intellectual faculties were to become as
active and as highly developed as in man, would acquire exactly the same
moral sense as ours. In the same manner as various animals have some sense
of beauty, though they admire widely-different objects, so they might have
a sense of right and wrong, though led by it to follow widely different
lines of conduct. If, for instance, to take an extreme case, men were
reared under precisely the same conditions as hive-bees, there can hardly
be a doubt that our unmarried females would, like the worker-bees, think it
a sacred duty to kill their brothers, and mothers would strive to kill
their fertile daughters; and no one would think of interfering. (6. Mr.
H. Sidgwick remarks, in an able discussion on this subject (the ‘Academy,’
June 15, 1872, p. 231), “a superior bee, we may feel sure, would aspire to
a milder solution of the population question.” Judging, however, from the
habits of many or most savages, man solves the problem by female
infanticide, polyandry and promiscuous intercourse; therefore it may well
be doubted whether it would be by a milder method. Miss Cobbe, in
commenting (‘Darwinism in Morals,’ ‘Theological Review,’ April 1872, pp.
188-191) on the same illustration, says, the PRINCIPLES of social duty
would be thus reversed; and by this, I presume, she means that the
fulfilment of a social duty would tend to the injury of individuals; but
she overlooks the fact, which she would doubtless admit, that the instincts
of the bee have been acquired for the good of the community. She goes so
far as to say that if the theory of ethics advocated in this chapter were
ever generally accepted, “I cannot but believe that in the hour of their
triumph would be sounded the knell of the virtue of mankind!” It is to be
hoped that the belief in the permanence of virtue on this earth is not held
by many persons on so weak a tenure.) Nevertheless, the bee, or any other
social animal, would gain in our supposed case, as it appears to me, some
feeling of right or wrong, or a conscience. For each individual would have
an inward sense of possessing certain stronger or more enduring instincts,
and others less strong or enduring; so that there would often be a struggle
as to which impulse should be followed; and satisfaction, dissatisfaction,
or even misery would be felt, as past impressions were compared during
their incessant passage through the mind. In this case an inward monitor
would tell the animal that it would have been better to have followed the
one impulse rather than the other. The one course ought to have been
followed, and the other ought not; the one would have been right and the
other wrong; but to these terms I shall recur.


Animals of many kinds are social; we find even distinct species living
together; for example, some American monkeys; and united flocks of rooks,
jackdaws, and starlings. Man shews the same feeling in his strong love for
the dog, which the dog returns with interest. Every one must have noticed
how miserable horses, dogs, sheep, etc., are when separated from their
companions, and what strong mutual affection the two former kinds, at
least, shew on their reunion. It is curious to speculate on the feelings
of a dog, who will rest peacefully for hours in a room with his master or
any of the family, without the least notice being taken of him; but if left
for a short time by himself, barks or howls dismally. We will confine our
attention to the higher social animals; and pass over insects, although
some of these are social, and aid one another in many important ways. The
most common mutual service in the higher animals is to warn one another of
danger by means of the united senses of all. Every sportsman knows, as Dr.
Jaeger remarks (7. ‘Die Darwin’sche Theorie,’ s. 101.), how difficult it
is to approach animals in a herd or troop. Wild horses and cattle do not,
I believe, make any danger-signal; but the attitude of any one of them who
first discovers an enemy, warns the others. Rabbits stamp loudly on the
ground with their hind-feet as a signal: sheep and chamois do the same
with their forefeet, uttering likewise a whistle. Many birds, and some
mammals, post sentinels, which in the case of seals are said (8. Mr. R.
Brown in ‘Proc. Zoolog. Soc.’ 1868, p. 409.) generally to be the females.
The leader of a troop of monkeys acts as the sentinel, and utters cries
expressive both of danger and of safety. (9. Brehm, ‘Thierleben,’ B. i.
1864, s. 52, 79. For the case of the monkeys extracting thorns from each
other, see s. 54. With respect to the Hamadryas turning over stones, the
fact is given (s. 76), on the evidence of Alvarez, whose observations Brehm
thinks quite trustworthy. For the cases of the old male baboons attacking
the dogs, see s. 79; and with respect to the eagle, s. 56.) Social animals
perform many little services for each other: horses nibble, and cows lick
each other, on any spot which itches: monkeys search each other for
external parasites; and Brehm states that after a troop of the
Cercopithecus griseo-viridis has rushed through a thorny brake, each monkey
stretches itself on a branch, and another monkey sitting by,
“conscientiously” examines its fur, and extracts every thorn or burr.

Animals also render more important services to one another: thus wolves
and some other beasts of prey hunt in packs, and aid one another in
attacking their victims. Pelicans fish in concert. The Hamadryas baboons
turn over stones to find insects, etc.; and when they come to a large one,
as many as can stand round, turn it over together and share the booty.
Social animals mutually defend each other. Bull bisons in N. America, when
there is danger, drive the cows and calves into the middle of the herd,
whilst they defend the outside. I shall also in a future chapter give an
account of two young wild bulls at Chillingham attacking an old one in
concert, and of two stallions together trying to drive away a third
stallion from a troop of mares. In Abyssinia, Brehm encountered a great
troop of baboons who were crossing a valley: some had already ascended the
opposite mountain, and some were still in the valley; the latter were
attacked by the dogs, but the old males immediately hurried down from the
rocks, and with mouths widely opened, roared so fearfully, that the dogs
quickly drew back. They were again encouraged to the attack; but by this
time all the baboons had reascended the heights, excepting a young one,
about six months old, who, loudly calling for aid, climbed on a block of
rock, and was surrounded. Now one of the largest males, a true hero, came
down again from the mountain, slowly went to the young one, coaxed him, and
triumphantly led him away–the dogs being too much astonished to make an
attack. I cannot resist giving another scene which was witnessed by this
same naturalist; an eagle seized a young Cercopithecus, which, by clinging
to a branch, was not at once carried off; it cried loudly for assistance,
upon which the other members of the troop, with much uproar, rushed to the
rescue, surrounded the eagle, and pulled out so many feathers, that he no
longer thought of his prey, but only how to escape. This eagle, as Brehm
remarks, assuredly would never again attack a single monkey of a troop.
(10. Mr. Belt gives the case of a spider-monkey (Ateles) in Nicaragua,
which was heard screaming for nearly two hours in the forest, and was found
with an eagle perched close by it. The bird apparently feared to attack as
long as it remained face to face; and Mr. Belt believes, from what he has
seen of the habits of these monkeys, that they protect themselves from
eagles by keeping two or three together. ‘The Naturalist in Nicaragua,’
1874, p. 118.)

It is certain that associated animals have a feeling of love for each
other, which is not felt by non-social adult animals. How far in most
cases they actually sympathise in the pains and pleasures of others, is
more doubtful, especially with respect to pleasures. Mr. Buxton, however,
who had excellent means of observation (11. ‘Annals and Magazine of
Natural History,’ November 1868, p. 382.), states that his macaws, which
lived free in Norfolk, took “an extravagant interest” in a pair with a
nest; and whenever the female left it, she was surrounded by a troop
“screaming horrible acclamations in her honour.” It is often difficult to
judge whether animals have any feeling for the sufferings of others of
their kind. Who can say what cows feel, when they surround and stare
intently on a dying or dead companion; apparently, however, as Houzeau
remarks, they feel no pity. That animals sometimes are far from feeling
any sympathy is too certain; for they will expel a wounded animal from the
herd, or gore or worry it to death. This is almost the blackest fact in
natural history, unless, indeed, the explanation which has been suggested
is true, that their instinct or reason leads them to expel an injured
companion, lest beasts of prey, including man, should be tempted to follow
the troop. In this case their conduct is not much worse than that of the
North American Indians, who leave their feeble comrades to perish on the
plains; or the Fijians, who, when their parents get old, or fall ill, bury
them alive. (12. Sir J. Lubbock, ‘Prehistoric Times,’ 2nd ed., p. 446.)

Many animals, however, certainly sympathise with each other’s distress or
danger. This is the case even with birds. Captain Stansbury (13. As
quoted by Mr. L.H. Morgan, ‘The American Beaver,’ 1868, p. 272. Capt.
Stansbury also gives an interesting account of the manner in which a very
young pelican, carried away by a strong stream, was guided and encouraged
in its attempts to reach the shore by half a dozen old birds.) found on a
salt lake in Utah an old and completely blind pelican, which was very fat,
and must have been well fed for a long time by his companions. Mr. Blyth,
as he informs me, saw Indian crows feeding two or three of their companions
which were blind; and I have heard of an analogous case with the domestic
cock. We may, if we choose, call these actions instinctive; but such cases
are much too rare for the development of any special instinct. (14. As
Mr. Bain states, “effective aid to a sufferer springs from sympathy
proper:” ‘Mental and Moral Science,’ 1868, p. 245.) I have myself seen a
dog, who never passed a cat who lay sick in a basket, and was a great
friend of his, without giving her a few licks with his tongue, the surest
sign of kind feeling in a dog.

It must be called sympathy that leads a courageous dog to fly at any one
who strikes his master, as he certainly will. I saw a person pretending to
beat a lady, who had a very timid little dog on her lap, and the trial had
never been made before; the little creature instantly jumped away, but
after the pretended beating was over, it was really pathetic to see how
perseveringly he tried to lick his mistress’s face, and comfort her. Brehm
(15. ‘Thierleben,’ B. i. s. 85.) states that when a baboon in confinement
was pursued to be punished, the others tried to protect him. It must have
been sympathy in the cases above given which led the baboons and
Cercopitheci to defend their young comrades from the dogs and the eagle. I
will give only one other instance of sympathetic and heroic conduct, in the
case of a little American monkey. Several years ago a keeper at the
Zoological Gardens shewed me some deep and scarcely healed wounds on the
nape of his own neck, inflicted on him, whilst kneeling on the floor, by a
fierce baboon. The little American monkey, who was a warm friend of this
keeper, lived in the same large compartment, and was dreadfully afraid of
the great baboon. Nevertheless, as soon as he saw his friend in peril, he
rushed to the rescue, and by screams and bites so distracted the baboon
that the man was able to escape, after, as the surgeon thought, running
great risk of his life.

Besides love and sympathy, animals exhibit other qualities connected with
the social instincts, which in us would be called moral; and I agree with
Agassiz (16. ‘De l’Espece et de la Classe,’ 1869, p. 97.) that dogs
possess something very like a conscience.

Dogs possess some power of self-command, and this does not appear to be
wholly the result of fear. As Braubach (17. ‘Die Darwin’sche Art-Lehre,’
1869, s. 54.) remarks, they will refrain from stealing food in the absence
of their master. They have long been accepted as the very type of fidelity
and obedience. But the elephant is likewise very faithful to his driver or
keeper, and probably considers him as the leader of the herd. Dr. Hooker
informs me that an elephant, which he was riding in India, became so deeply
bogged that he remained stuck fast until the next day, when he was
extricated by men with ropes. Under such circumstances elephants will
seize with their trunks any object, dead or alive, to place under their
knees, to prevent their sinking deeper in the mud; and the driver was
dreadfully afraid lest the animal should have seized Dr. Hooker and crushed
him to death. But the driver himself, as Dr. Hooker was assured, ran no
risk. This forbearance under an emergency so dreadful for a heavy animal,
is a wonderful proof of noble fidelity. (18. See also Hooker’s ‘Himalayan
Journals,’ vol. ii. 1854, p. 333.)

All animals living in a body, which defend themselves or attack their
enemies in concert, must indeed be in some degree faithful to one another;
and those that follow a leader must be in some degree obedient. When the
baboons in Abyssinia (19. Brehm, ‘Thierleben,’ B. i. s. 76.) plunder a
garden, they silently follow their leader; and if an imprudent young animal
makes a noise, he receives a slap from the others to teach him silence and
obedience. Mr. Galton, who has had excellent opportunities for observing
the half-wild cattle in S. Africa, says (20. See his extremely interesting
paper on ‘Gregariousness in Cattle, and in Man,’ ‘Macmillan’s Magazine,’
Feb. 1871, p. 353.), that they cannot endure even a momentary separation
from the herd. They are essentially slavish, and accept the common
determination, seeking no better lot than to be led by any one ox who has
enough self-reliance to accept the position. The men who break in these
animals for harness, watch assiduously for those who, by grazing apart,
shew a self-reliant disposition, and these they train as fore-oxen. Mr.
Galton adds that such animals are rare and valuable; and if many were born
they would soon be eliminated, as lions are always on the look-out for the
individuals which wander from the herd.

With respect to the impulse which leads certain animals to associate
together, and to aid one another in many ways, we may infer that in most
cases they are impelled by the same sense of satisfaction or pleasure which
they experience in performing other instinctive actions; or by the same
sense of dissatisfaction as when other instinctive actions are checked. We
see this in innumerable instances, and it is illustrated in a striking
manner by the acquired instincts of our domesticated animals; thus a young
shepherd-dog delights in driving and running round a flock of sheep, but
not in worrying them; a young fox-hound delights in hunting a fox, whilst
some other kinds of dogs, as I have witnessed, utterly disregard foxes.
What a strong feeling of inward satisfaction must impel a bird, so full of
activity, to brood day after day over her eggs. Migratory birds are quite
miserable if stopped from migrating; perhaps they enjoy starting on their
long flight; but it is hard to believe that the poor pinioned goose,
described by Audubon, which started on foot at the proper time for its
journey of probably more than a thousand miles, could have felt any joy in
doing so. Some instincts are determined solely by painful feelings, as by
fear, which leads to self-preservation, and is in some cases directed
towards special enemies. No one, I presume, can analyse the sensations of
pleasure or pain. In many instances, however, it is probable that
instincts are persistently followed from the mere force of inheritance,
without the stimulus of either pleasure or pain. A young pointer, when it
first scents game, apparently cannot help pointing. A squirrel in a cage
who pats the nuts which it cannot eat, as if to bury them in the ground,
can hardly be thought to act thus, either from pleasure or pain. Hence the
common assumption that men must be impelled to every action by experiencing
some pleasure or pain may be erroneous. Although a habit may be blindly
and implicitly followed, independently of any pleasure or pain felt at the
moment, yet if it be forcibly and abruptly checked, a vague sense of
dissatisfaction is generally experienced.

It has often been assumed that animals were in the first place rendered
social, and that they feel as a consequence uncomfortable when separated
from each other, and comfortable whilst together; but it is a more probable
view that these sensations were first developed, in order that those
animals which would profit by living in society, should be induced to live
together, in the same manner as the sense of hunger and the pleasure of
eating were, no doubt, first acquired in order to induce animals to eat.
The feeling of pleasure from society is probably an extension of the
parental or filial affections, since the social instinct seems to be
developed by the young remaining for a long time with their parents; and
this extension may be attributed in part to habit, but chiefly to natural
selection. With those animals which were benefited by living in close
association, the individuals which took the greatest pleasure in society
would best escape various dangers, whilst those that cared least for their
comrades, and lived solitary, would perish in greater numbers. With
respect to the origin of the parental and filial affections, which
apparently lie at the base of the social instincts, we know not the steps
by which they have been gained; but we may infer that it has been to a
large extent through natural selection. So it has almost certainly been
with the unusual and opposite feeling of hatred between the nearest
relations, as with the worker-bees which kill their brother drones, and
with the queen-bees which kill their daughter-queens; the desire to destroy
their nearest relations having been in this case of service to the
community. Parental affection, or some feeling which replaces it, has been
developed in certain animals extremely low in the scale, for example, in
star-fishes and spiders. It is also occasionally present in a few members
alone in a whole group of animals, as in the genus Forficula, or earwigs.

The all-important emotion of sympathy is distinct from that of love. A
mother may passionately love her sleeping and passive infant, but she can
hardly at such times be said to feel sympathy for it. The love of a man
for his dog is distinct from sympathy, and so is that of a dog for his
master. Adam Smith formerly argued, as has Mr. Bain recently, that the
basis of sympathy lies in our strong retentiveness of former states of pain
or pleasure. Hence, “the sight of another person enduring hunger, cold,
fatigue, revives in us some recollection of these states, which are painful
even in idea.” We are thus impelled to relieve the sufferings of another,
in order that our own painful feelings may be at the same time relieved.
In like manner we are led to participate in the pleasures of others. (21.
See the first and striking chapter in Adam Smith’s ‘Theory of Moral
Sentiments.’ Also ‘Mr. Bain’s Mental and Moral Science,’ 1868, pp. 244,
and 275-282. Mr. Bain states, that, “sympathy is, indirectly, a source of
pleasure to the sympathiser”; and he accounts for this through reciprocity.
He remarks that “the person benefited, or others in his stead, may make up,
by sympathy and good offices returned, for all the sacrifice.” But if, as
appears to be the case, sympathy is strictly an instinct, its exercise
would give direct pleasure, in the same manner as the exercise, as before
remarked, of almost every other instinct.) But I cannot see how this view
explains the fact that sympathy is excited, in an immeasurably stronger
degree, by a beloved, than by an indifferent person. The mere sight of
suffering, independently of love, would suffice to call up in us vivid
recollections and associations. The explanation may lie in the fact that,
with all animals, sympathy is directed solely towards the members of the
same community, and therefore towards known, and more or less beloved
members, but not to all the individuals of the same species. This fact is
not more surprising than that the fears of many animals should be directed
against special enemies. Species which are not social, such as lions and
tigers, no doubt feel sympathy for the suffering of their own young, but
not for that of any other animal. With mankind, selfishness, experience,
and imitation, probably add, as Mr. Bain has shewn, to the power of
sympathy; for we are led by the hope of receiving good in return to perform
acts of sympathetic kindness to others; and sympathy is much strengthened
by habit. In however complex a manner this feeling may have originated, as
it is one of high importance to all those animals which aid and defend one
another, it will have been increased through natural selection; for those
communities, which included the greatest number of the most sympathetic
members, would flourish best, and rear the greatest number of offspring.

It is, however, impossible to decide in many cases whether certain social
instincts have been acquired through natural selection, or are the indirect
result of other instincts and faculties, such as sympathy, reason,
experience, and a tendency to imitation; or again, whether they are simply
the result of long-continued habit. So remarkable an instinct as the
placing sentinels to warn the community of danger, can hardly have been the
indirect result of any of these faculties; it must, therefore, have been
directly acquired. On the other hand, the habit followed by the males of
some social animals of defending the community, and of attacking their
enemies or their prey in concert, may perhaps have originated from mutual
sympathy; but courage, and in most cases strength, must have been
previously acquired, probably through natural selection.

Of the various instincts and habits, some are much stronger than others;
that is, some either give more pleasure in their performance, and more
distress in their prevention, than others; or, which is probably quite as
important, they are, through inheritance, more persistently followed,
without exciting any special feeling of pleasure or pain. We are ourselves
conscious that some habits are much more difficult to cure or change than
others. Hence a struggle may often be observed in animals between
different instincts, or between an instinct and some habitual disposition;
as when a dog rushes after a hare, is rebuked, pauses, hesitates, pursues
again, or returns ashamed to his master; or as between the love of a female
dog for her young puppies and for her master,–for she may be seen to slink
away to them, as if half ashamed of not accompanying her master. But the
most curious instance known to me of one instinct getting the better of
another, is the migratory instinct conquering the maternal instinct. The
former is wonderfully strong; a confined bird will at the proper season
beat her breast against the wires of her cage, until it is bare and bloody.
It causes young salmon to leap out of the fresh water, in which they could
continue to exist, and thus unintentionally to commit suicide. Every one
knows how strong the maternal instinct is, leading even timid birds to face
great danger, though with hesitation, and in opposition to the instinct of
self-preservation. Nevertheless, the migratory instinct is so powerful,
that late in the autumn swallows, house-martins, and swifts frequently
desert their tender young, leaving them to perish miserably in their nests.
(22. This fact, the Rev. L. Jenyns states (see his edition of ‘White’s
Nat. Hist. of Selborne,’ 1853, p. 204) was first recorded by the
illustrious Jenner, in ‘Phil. Transact.’ 1824, and has since been confirmed
by several observers, especially by Mr. Blackwall. This latter careful
observer examined, late in the autumn, during two years, thirty-six nests;
he found that twelve contained young dead birds, five contained eggs on the
point of being hatched, and three, eggs not nearly hatched. Many birds,
not yet old enough for a prolonged flight, are likewise deserted and left
behind. See Blackwall, ‘Researches in Zoology,’ 1834, pp. 108, 118. For
some additional evidence, although this is not wanted, see Leroy, ‘Lettres
Phil.’ 1802, p. 217. For Swifts, Gould’s ‘Introduction to the Birds of
Great Britain,’ 1823, p. 5. Similar cases have been observed in Canada by
Mr. Adams; ‘Pop. Science Review,’ July 1873, p. 283.)

We can perceive that an instinctive impulse, if it be in any way more
beneficial to a species than some other or opposed instinct, would be
rendered the more potent of the two through natural selection; for the
individuals which had it most strongly developed would survive in larger
numbers. Whether this is the case with the migratory in comparison with
the maternal instinct, may be doubted. The great persistence, or steady
action of the former at certain seasons of the year during the whole day,
may give it for a time paramount force.


Every one will admit that man is a social being. We see this in his
dislike of solitude, and in his wish for society beyond that of his own
family. Solitary confinement is one of the severest punishments which can
be inflicted. Some authors suppose that man primevally lived in single
families; but at the present day, though single families, or only two or
three together, roam the solitudes of some savage lands, they always, as
far as I can discover, hold friendly relations with other families
inhabiting the same district. Such families occasionally meet in council,
and unite for their common defence. It is no argument against savage man
being a social animal, that the tribes inhabiting adjacent districts are
almost always at war with each other; for the social instincts never extend
to all the individuals of the same species. Judging from the analogy of
the majority of the Quadrumana, it is probable that the early ape-like
progenitors of man were likewise social; but this is not of much importance
for us. Although man, as he now exists, has few special instincts, having
lost any which his early progenitors may have possessed, this is no reason
why he should not have retained from an extremely remote period some degree
of instinctive love and sympathy for his fellows. We are indeed all
conscious that we do possess such sympathetic feelings (23. Hume remarks
(‘An Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals,’ edit. of 1751, p. 132),
“There seems a necessity for confessing that the happiness and misery of
others are not spectacles altogether indifferent to us, but that the view
of the former…communicates a secret joy; the appearance of the latter…
throws a melancholy damp over the imagination.”); but our consciousness
does not tell us whether they are instinctive, having originated long ago
in the same manner as with the lower animals, or whether they have been
acquired by each of us during our early years. As man is a social animal,
it is almost certain that he would inherit a tendency to be faithful to his
comrades, and obedient to the leader of his tribe; for these qualities are
common to most social animals. He would consequently possess some capacity
for self-command. He would from an inherited tendency be willing to
defend, in concert with others, his fellow-men; and would be ready to aid
them in any way, which did not too greatly interfere with his own welfare
or his own strong desires.

The social animals which stand at the bottom of the scale are guided almost
exclusively, and those which stand higher in the scale are largely guided,
by special instincts in the aid which they give to the members of the same
community; but they are likewise in part impelled by mutual love and
sympathy, assisted apparently by some amount of reason. Although man, as
just remarked, has no special instincts to tell him how to aid his fellow-
men, he still has the impulse, and with his improved intellectual faculties
would naturally be much guided in this respect by reason and experience.
Instinctive sympathy would also cause him to value highly the approbation
of his fellows; for, as Mr. Bain has clearly shewn (24. ‘Mental and Moral
Science,’ 1868, p. 254.), the love of praise and the strong feeling of
glory, and the still stronger horror of scorn and infamy, “are due to the
workings of sympathy.” Consequently man would be influenced in the highest
degree by the wishes, approbation, and blame of his fellow-men, as
expressed by their gestures and language. Thus the social instincts, which
must have been acquired by man in a very rude state, and probably even by
his early ape-like progenitors, still give the impulse to some of his best
actions; but his actions are in a higher degree determined by the expressed
wishes and judgment of his fellow-men, and unfortunately very often by his
own strong selfish desires. But as love, sympathy and self-command become
strengthened by habit, and as the power of reasoning becomes clearer, so
that man can value justly the judgments of his fellows, he will feel
himself impelled, apart from any transitory pleasure or pain, to certain
lines of conduct. He might then declare–not that any barbarian or
uncultivated man could thus think–I am the supreme judge of my own
conduct, and in the words of Kant, I will not in my own person violate the
dignity of humanity.


We have not, however, as yet considered the main point, on which, from our
present point of view, the whole question of the moral sense turns. Why
should a man feel that he ought to obey one instinctive desire rather than
another? Why is he bitterly regretful, if he has yielded to a strong sense
of self-preservation, and has not risked his life to save that of a fellow-
creature? or why does he regret having stolen food from hunger?

It is evident in the first place, that with mankind the instinctive
impulses have different degrees of strength; a savage will risk his own
life to save that of a member of the same community, but will be wholly
indifferent about a stranger: a young and timid mother urged by the
maternal instinct will, without a moment’s hesitation, run the greatest
danger for her own infant, but not for a mere fellow-creature.
Nevertheless many a civilised man, or even boy, who never before risked his
life for another, but full of courage and sympathy, has disregarded the
instinct of self-preservation, and plunged at once into a torrent to save a
drowning man, though a stranger. In this case man is impelled by the same
instinctive motive, which made the heroic little American monkey, formerly
described, save his keeper, by attacking the great and dreaded baboon.
Such actions as the above appear to be the simple result of the greater
strength of the social or maternal instincts rather than that of any other
instinct or motive; for they are performed too instantaneously for
reflection, or for pleasure or pain to be felt at the time; though, if
prevented by any cause, distress or even misery might be felt. In a timid
man, on the other hand, the instinct of self-preservation might be so
strong, that he would be unable to force himself to run any such risk,
perhaps not even for his own child.

I am aware that some persons maintain that actions performed impulsively,
as in the above cases, do not come under the dominion of the moral sense,
and cannot be called moral. They confine this term to actions done
deliberately, after a victory over opposing desires, or when prompted by
some exalted motive. But it appears scarcely possible to draw any clear
line of distinction of this kind. (25. I refer here to the distinction
between what has been called MATERIAL and FORMAL morality. I am glad to
find that Professor Huxley (‘Critiques and Addresses,’ 1873, p. 287) takes
the same view on this subject as I do. Mr. Leslie Stephen remarks (‘Essays
on Freethinking and Plain Speaking,’ 1873, p. 83), “the metaphysical
distinction, between material and formal morality is as irrelevant as other
such distinctions.”) As far as exalted motives are concerned, many
instances have been recorded of savages, destitute of any feeling of
general benevolence towards mankind, and not guided by any religious
motive, who have deliberately sacrificed their lives as prisoners(26. I
have given one such case, namely of three Patagonian Indians who preferred
being shot, one after the other, to betraying the plans of their companions
in war (‘Journal of Researches,’ 1845, p. 103).), rather than betray their
comrades; and surely their conduct ought to be considered as moral. As far
as deliberation, and the victory over opposing motives are concerned,
animals may be seen doubting between opposed instincts, in rescuing their
offspring or comrades from danger; yet their actions, though done for the
good of others, are not called moral. Moreover, anything performed very
often by us, will at last be done without deliberation or hesitation, and
can then hardly be distinguished from an instinct; yet surely no one will
pretend that such an action ceases to be moral. On the contrary, we all
feel that an act cannot be considered as perfect, or as performed in the
most noble manner, unless it be done impulsively, without deliberation or
effort, in the same manner as by a man in whom the requisite qualities are
innate. He who is forced to overcome his fear or want of sympathy before
he acts, deserves, however, in one way higher credit than the man whose
innate disposition leads him to a good act without effort. As we cannot
distinguish between motives, we rank all actions of a certain class as
moral, if performed by a moral being. A moral being is one who is capable
of comparing his past and future actions or motives, and of approving or
disapproving of them. We have no reason to suppose that any of the lower
animals have this capacity; therefore, when a Newfoundland dog drags a
child out of the water, or a monkey faces danger to rescue its comrade, or
takes charge of an orphan monkey, we do not call its conduct moral. But in
the case of man, who alone can with certainty be ranked as a moral being,
actions of a certain class are called moral, whether performed
deliberately, after a struggle with opposing motives, or impulsively
through instinct, or from the effects of slowly-gained habit.

But to return to our more immediate subject. Although some instincts are
more powerful than others, and thus lead to corresponding actions, yet it
is untenable, that in man the social instincts (including the love of
praise and fear of blame) possess greater strength, or have, through long
habit, acquired greater strength than the instincts of self-preservation,
hunger, lust, vengeance, etc. Why then does man regret, even though trying
to banish such regret, that he has followed the one natural impulse rather
than the other; and why does he further feel that he ought to regret his
conduct? Man in this respect differs profoundly from the lower animals.
Nevertheless we can, I think, see with some degree of clearness the reason
of this difference.

Man, from the activity of his mental faculties, cannot avoid reflection:
past impressions and images are incessantly and clearly passing through his
mind. Now with those animals which live permanently in a body, the social
instincts are ever present and persistent. Such animals are always ready
to utter the danger-signal, to defend the community, and to give aid to
their fellows in accordance with their habits; they feel at all times,
without the stimulus of any special passion or desire, some degree of love
and sympathy for them; they are unhappy if long separated from them, and
always happy to be again in their company. So it is with ourselves. Even
when we are quite alone, how often do we think with pleasure or pain of
what others think of us,–of their imagined approbation or disapprobation;
and this all follows from sympathy, a fundamental element of the social
instincts. A man who possessed no trace of such instincts would be an
unnatural monster. On the other hand, the desire to satisfy hunger, or any
passion such as vengeance, is in its nature temporary, and can for a time
be fully satisfied. Nor is it easy, perhaps hardly possible, to call up
with complete vividness the feeling, for instance, of hunger; nor indeed,
as has often been remarked, of any suffering. The instinct of self-
preservation is not felt except in the presence of danger; and many a
coward has thought himself brave until he has met his enemy face to face.
The wish for another man’s property is perhaps as persistent a desire as
any that can be named; but even in this case the satisfaction of actual
possession is generally a weaker feeling than the desire: many a thief, if
not a habitual one, after success has wondered why he stole some article.
(27. Enmity or hatred seems also to be a highly persistent feeling, perhaps
more so than any other that can be named. Envy is defined as hatred of
another for some excellence or success; and Bacon insists (Essay ix.), “Of
all other affections envy is the most importune and continual.” Dogs are
very apt to hate both strange men and strange dogs, especially if they live
near at hand, but do not belong to the same family, tribe, or clan; this
feeling would thus seem to be innate, and is certainly a most persistent
one. It seems to be the complement and converse of the true social
instinct. From what we hear of savages, it would appear that something of
the same kind holds good with them. If this be so, it would be a small
step in any one to transfer such feelings to any member of the same tribe
if he had done him an injury and had become his enemy. Nor is it probable
that the primitive conscience would reproach a man for injuring his enemy;
rather it would reproach him, if he had not revenged himself. To do good
in return for evil, to love your enemy, is a height of morality to which it
may be doubted whether the social instincts would, by themselves, have ever
led us. It is necessary that these instincts, together with sympathy,
should have been highly cultivated and extended by the aid of reason,
instruction, and the love or fear of God, before any such golden rule would
ever be thought of and obeyed.)

A man cannot prevent past impressions often repassing through his mind; he
will thus be driven to make a comparison between the impressions of past
hunger, vengeance satisfied, or danger shunned at other men’s cost, with
the almost ever-present instinct of sympathy, and with his early knowledge
of what others consider as praiseworthy or blameable. This knowledge
cannot be banished from his mind, and from instinctive sympathy is esteemed
of great moment. He will then feel as if he had been baulked in following
a present instinct or habit, and this with all animals causes
dissatisfaction, or even misery.

The above case of the swallow affords an illustration, though of a reversed
nature, of a temporary though for the time strongly persistent instinct
conquering another instinct, which is usually dominant over all others. At
the proper season these birds seem all day long to be impressed with the
desire to migrate; their habits change; they become restless, are noisy and
congregate in flocks. Whilst the mother-bird is feeding, or brooding over
her nestlings, the maternal instinct is probably stronger than the
migratory; but the instinct which is the more persistent gains the victory,
and at last, at a moment when her young ones are not in sight, she takes
flight and deserts them. When arrived at the end of her long journey, and
the migratory instinct has ceased to act, what an agony of remorse the bird
would feel, if, from being endowed with great mental activity, she could
not prevent the image constantly passing through her mind, of her young
ones perishing in the bleak north from cold and hunger.

At the moment of action, man will no doubt be apt to follow the stronger
impulse; and though this may occasionally prompt him to the noblest deeds,
it will more commonly lead him to gratify his own desires at the expense of
other men. But after their gratification when past and weaker impressions
are judged by the ever-enduring social instinct, and by his deep regard for
the good opinion of his fellows, retribution will surely come. He will
then feel remorse, repentance, regret, or shame; this latter feeling,
however, relates almost exclusively to the judgment of others. He will
consequently resolve more or less firmly to act differently for the future;
and this is conscience; for conscience looks backwards, and serves as a
guide for the future.

The nature and strength of the feelings which we call regret, shame,
repentance or remorse, depend apparently not only on the strength of the
violated instinct, but partly on the strength of the temptation, and often
still more on the judgment of our fellows. How far each man values the
appreciation of others, depends on the strength of his innate or acquired
feeling of sympathy; and on his own capacity for reasoning out the remote
consequences of his acts. Another element is most important, although not
necessary, the reverence or fear of the Gods, or Spirits believed in by
each man: and this applies especially in cases of remorse. Several
critics have objected that though some slight regret or repentance may be
explained by the view advocated in this chapter, it is impossible thus to
account for the soul-shaking feeling of remorse. But I can see little
force in this objection. My critics do not define what they mean by
remorse, and I can find no definition implying more than an overwhelming
sense of repentance. Remorse seems to bear the same relation to
repentance, as rage does to anger, or agony to pain. It is far from
strange that an instinct so strong and so generally admired, as maternal
love, should, if disobeyed, lead to the deepest misery, as soon as the
impression of the past cause of disobedience is weakened. Even when an
action is opposed to no special instinct, merely to know that our friends
and equals despise us for it is enough to cause great misery. Who can
doubt that the refusal to fight a duel through fear has caused many men an
agony of shame? Many a Hindoo, it is said, has been stirred to the bottom
of his soul by having partaken of unclean food. Here is another case of
what must, I think, be called remorse. Dr. Landor acted as a magistrate in
West Australia, and relates (28. ‘Insanity in Relation to Law,’ Ontario,
United States, 1871, p. 1.), that a native on his farm, after losing one of
his wives from disease, came and said that, “he was going to a distant
tribe to spear a woman, to satisfy his sense of duty to his wife. I told
him that if he did so, I would send him to prison for life. He remained
about the farm for some months, but got exceedingly thin, and complained
that he could not rest or eat, that his wife’s spirit was haunting him,
because he had not taken a life for hers. I was inexorable, and assured
him that nothing should save him if he did.” Nevertheless the man
disappeared for more than a year, and then returned in high condition; and
his other wife told Dr. Landor that her husband had taken the life of a
woman belonging to a distant tribe; but it was impossible to obtain legal
evidence of the act. The breach of a rule held sacred by the tribe, will
thus, as it seems, give rise to the deepest feelings,–and this quite apart
from the social instincts, excepting in so far as the rule is grounded on
the judgment of the community. How so many strange superstitions have
arisen throughout the world we know not; nor can we tell how some real and
great crimes, such as incest, have come to be held in an abhorrence (which
is not however quite universal) by the lowest savages. It is even doubtful
whether in some tribes incest would be looked on with greater horror, than
would the marriage of a man with a woman bearing the same name, though not
a relation. “To violate this law is a crime which the Australians hold in
the greatest abhorrence, in this agreeing exactly with certain tribes of
North America. When the question is put in either district, is it worse to
kill a girl of a foreign tribe, or to marry a girl of one’s own, an answer
just opposite to ours would be given without hesitation.” (29. E.B.
Tylor, in ‘Contemporary Review,’ April 1873, p. 707.) We may, therefore,
reject the belief, lately insisted on by some writers, that the abhorrence
of incest is due to our possessing a special God-implanted conscience. On
the whole it is intelligible, that a man urged by so powerful a sentiment
as remorse, though arising as above explained, should be led to act in a
manner, which he has been taught to believe serves as an expiation, such as
delivering himself up to justice.

Man prompted by his conscience, will through long habit acquire such
perfect self-command, that his desires and passions will at last yield
instantly and without a struggle to his social sympathies and instincts,
including his feeling for the judgment of his fellows. The still hungry,
or the still revengeful man will not think of stealing food, or of wreaking
his vengeance. It is possible, or as we shall hereafter see, even
probable, that the habit of self-command may, like other habits, be
inherited. Thus at last man comes to feel, through acquired and perhaps
inherited habit, that it is best for him to obey his more persistent
impulses. The imperious word “ought” seems merely to imply the
consciousness of the existence of a rule of conduct, however it may have
originated. Formerly it must have been often vehemently urged that an
insulted gentleman OUGHT to fight a duel. We even say that a pointer OUGHT
to point, and a retriever to retrieve game. If they fail to do so, they
fail in their duty and act wrongly.

If any desire or instinct leading to an action opposed to the good of
others still appears, when recalled to mind, as strong as, or stronger
than, the social instinct, a man will feel no keen regret at having
followed it; but he will be conscious that if his conduct were known to his
fellows, it would meet with their disapprobation; and few are so destitute
of sympathy as not to feel discomfort when this is realised. If he has no
such sympathy, and if his desires leading to bad actions are at the time
strong, and when recalled are not over-mastered by the persistent social
instincts, and the judgment of others, then he is essentially a bad man
(30. Dr. Prosper Despine, in his Psychologie Naturelle, 1868 (tom. i. p.
243; tom. ii. p. 169) gives many curious cases of the worst criminals, who
apparently have been entirely destitute of conscience.); and the sole
restraining motive left is the fear of punishment, and the conviction that
in the long run it would be best for his own selfish interests to regard
the good of others rather than his own.

It is obvious that every one may with an easy conscience gratify his own
desires, if they do not interfere with his social instincts, that is with
the good of others; but in order to be quite free from self-reproach, or at
least of anxiety, it is almost necessary for him to avoid the
disapprobation, whether reasonable or not, of his fellow-men. Nor must he
break through the fixed habits of his life, especially if these are
supported by reason; for if he does, he will assuredly feel
dissatisfaction. He must likewise avoid the reprobation of the one God or
gods in whom, according to his knowledge or superstition, he may believe;
but in this case the additional fear of divine punishment often supervenes.


The above view of the origin and nature of the moral sense, which tells us
what we ought to do, and of the conscience which reproves us if we disobey
it, accords well with what we see of the early and undeveloped condition of
this faculty in mankind. The virtues which must be practised, at least
generally, by rude men, so that they may associate in a body, are those
which are still recognised as the most important. But they are practised
almost exclusively in relation to the men of the same tribe; and their
opposites are not regarded as crimes in relation to the men of other
tribes. No tribe could hold together if murder, robbery, treachery, etc.,
were common; consequently such crimes within the limits of the same tribe
“are branded with everlasting infamy” (31. See an able article in the
‘North British Review,’ 1867, p. 395. See also Mr. W. Bagehot’s articles
on the Importance of Obedience and Coherence to Primitive Man, in the
‘Fortnightly Review,’ 1867, p. 529, and 1868, p. 457, etc.); but excite no
such sentiment beyond these limits. A North-American Indian is well
pleased with himself, and is honoured by others, when he scalps a man of
another tribe; and a Dyak cuts off the head of an unoffending person, and
dries it as a trophy. The murder of infants has prevailed on the largest
scale throughout the world (32. The fullest account which I have met with
is by Dr. Gerland, in his ‘Ueber den Aussterben der Naturvolker,’ 1868; but
I shall have to recur to the subject of infanticide in a future chapter.),
and has met with no reproach; but infanticide, especially of females, has
been thought to be good for the tribe, or at least not injurious. Suicide
during former times was not generally considered as a crime (33. See the
very interesting discussion on suicide in Lecky’s ‘History of European
Morals,’ vol. i. 1869, p. 223. With respect to savages, Mr. Winwood Reade
informs me that the negroes of West Africa often commit suicide. It is
well known how common it was amongst the miserable aborigines of South
America after the Spanish conquest. For New Zealand, see the voyage of the
“Novara,” and for the Aleutian Islands, Muller, as quoted by Houzeau, ‘Les
Facultes Mentales,’ etc., tom. ii. p. 136.), but rather, from the courage
displayed, as an honourable act; and it is still practised by some semi-
civilised and savage nations without reproach, for it does not obviously
concern others of the tribe. It has been recorded that an Indian Thug
conscientiously regretted that he had not robbed and strangled as many
travellers as did his father before him. In a rude state of civilisation
the robbery of strangers is, indeed, generally considered as honourable.

Slavery, although in some ways beneficial during ancient times (34. See
Mr. Bagehot, ‘Physics and Politics,’ 1872, p. 72.), is a great crime; yet
it was not so regarded until quite recently, even by the most civilised
nations. And this was especially the case, because the slaves belonged in
general to a race different from that of their masters. As barbarians do
not regard the opinion of their women, wives are commonly treated like
slaves. Most savages are utterly indifferent to the sufferings of
strangers, or even delight in witnessing them. It is well known that the
women and children of the North-American Indians aided in torturing their
enemies. Some savages take a horrid pleasure in cruelty to animals (35.
See, for instance, Mr. Hamilton’s account of the Kaffirs, ‘Anthropological
Review,’ 1870, p. xv.), and humanity is an unknown virtue. Nevertheless,
besides the family affections, kindness is common, especially during
sickness, between the members of the same tribe, and is sometimes extended
beyond these limits. Mungo Park’s touching account of the kindness of the
negro women of the interior to him is well known. Many instances could be
given of the noble fidelity of savages towards each other, but not to
strangers; common experience justifies the maxim of the Spaniard, “Never,
never trust an Indian.” There cannot be fidelity without truth; and this
fundamental virtue is not rare between the members of the same tribe: thus
Mungo Park heard the negro women teaching their young children to love the
truth. This, again, is one of the virtues which becomes so deeply rooted
in the mind, that it is sometimes practised by savages, even at a high
cost, towards strangers; but to lie to your enemy has rarely been thought a
sin, as the history of modern diplomacy too plainly shews. As soon as a
tribe has a recognised leader, disobedience becomes a crime, and even
abject submission is looked at as a sacred virtue.

As during rude times no man can be useful or faithful to his tribe without
courage, this quality has universally been placed in the highest rank; and
although in civilised countries a good yet timid man may be far more useful
to the community than a brave one, we cannot help instinctively honouring
the latter above a coward, however benevolent. Prudence, on the other
hand, which does not concern the welfare of others, though a very useful
virtue, has never been highly esteemed. As no man can practise the virtues
necessary for the welfare of his tribe without self-sacrifice, self-
command, and the power of endurance, these qualities have been at all times
highly and most justly valued. The American savage voluntarily submits to
the most horrid tortures without a groan, to prove and strengthen his
fortitude and courage; and we cannot help admiring him, or even an Indian
Fakir, who, from a foolish religious motive, swings suspended by a hook
buried in his flesh.

The other so-called self-regarding virtues, which do not obviously, though
they may really, affect the welfare of the tribe, have never been esteemed
by savages, though now highly appreciated by civilised nations. The
greatest intemperance is no reproach with savages. Utter licentiousness,
and unnatural crimes, prevail to an astounding extent. (36. Mr. M’Lennan
has given (‘Primitive Marriage,’ 1865, p. 176) a good collection of facts
on this head.) As soon, however, as marriage, whether polygamous, or
monogamous, becomes common, jealousy will lead to the inculcation of female
virtue; and this, being honoured, will tend to spread to the unmarried
females. How slowly it spreads to the male sex, we see at the present day.
Chastity eminently requires self-command; therefore it has been honoured
from a very early period in the moral history of civilised man. As a
consequence of this, the senseless practice of celibacy has been ranked
from a remote period as a virtue.

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