Conscience

There is a certain kind of modern book which must, if possible, be destroyed.  It ought to be blown to pieces with the dynamite of some great satirist like Swift or Dickens.  As it is, it must be patiently hacked into pieces by some plodding person like myself.  I will do it, as George Washington said, with my little hatchet; though it might take a long time to do it properly.  The kind of book I mean is the pseudo-scientific book.  And by this I do not mean that the man who writes it is a conscious quack or that he knows nothing;  I mean that he proves nothing; he simply gives you all his cocksure, and yet shaky, modern opinions and calls it science.  Books are coming out with so-called scientific conclusions — books in which there is actually no scientific arguments at all.  They simply affirm all those notions that happen to be fashionable in loose “intellectual” clubs, and call them the conclusions of research.  But I am no more awed by the flying fashions among prigs than I am by the flying fashions among snobs.  Snobs say they have the right kind of hat; prigs say they have the right kind of head.  But in both cases I should like some evidence beyond their own habit of staring at themselves in glass.  Suppose I were to write about the current fashions in dress something like this: “Our ignorant and superstitious ancestors had straight hat-brims; but the advance of reason and equality has taught us to have curly hat-brims; in early times shirt-fronts are triangular, but science has shown that they ought to be round; barbaric people have loose trousers, but enlightened and humane people have tight trousers,” and so on, and so on.  You would naturally rebel at this simple style of argument.  You would say — “But, hang it all, give us some facts. Prove that the new fashions are more enlightened.  Prove that men think better in the new hats.  Prove that men run faster in the new trousers.”

I have just read a book which has been widely recommended, which is introduced to the public by Dr. Saleeby, and which is, I understand, written by a Swiss scientist of great distinction.  It is called “Sexual Ethics”, by Professor Forel.  I began to read the book, therefore, with respect.  I finished reading it with stupefaction.  The Swiss Professor is obviously an honest man, though too Puritanical to my taste, and I am told that he does really know an enormous lot about insects.  But as for the conception of proving a case, as for any notion that a “new” opinion needs proof, and that it is not enough, when you knock down great institutions, to say that you don’t like them — it is clear that no such conceptions have ever crossed his mind.  Science says that man has no conscience.  Science says that man and woman must have the same political powers.  Science says that sterile unions are morally free and without rule.  Science says that it is wrong to drink fermented liquor.  And all this with a splendid indifference to the two facts — first, that “Science” does not say these things at all, for numbers of great scientists say exactly the opposite; and second, that if Science did say these things, a person reading a book of rationalistic ethics might be permitted to ask why.  Professor Forel may have mountains of evidence which he has no space to exhibit.  We will give him the benefit of that doubt, and pass on to points where any thinking man is capable of judging him.

Where this sort of scientific writer is seen in all his glory is in his first abstract arguments about the nature of morality.  He is immense; he is at once simple and monstrous, like a whale.  He always has one dim principle or prejudice: to prove that there is nothing separate or sacred about the moral sense.  Professor Forel holds his prejudice with all possible decorum and propriety.  He always trots out three arguments to prove it; like three old broken-kneed elephants.  Professor Forel duly trots them out.  They are supposed to show that there is no such thing positively existing as the conscience; and they might just as easily be used to show that there are no such things as wings or whiskers, or toes or teeth, or boots or books, or Swiss Professors.

The first argument is that man has no conscience because some men are quite mad, and therefore not particularly conscientious.  The second argument is that man has no conscience because some men are more conscientious than others.  And the third is that man has no conscience because conscientious men in different countries and quite different circumstances often do very different things.  Professor Forel applies these arguments eloquently to the question of human consciences; and I really cannot see why I should not apply them to the question of human noses.  Man has no nose because now and then a man has no nose — I believe that Sir William Davenant, the poet, had none.  Man has no nose because some noses are longer than others or can smell better than others.  Man has no nose because not only are noses of different shapes, but (oh, piercing sword of scepticism!) some men use their noses and find the smell of incense nice, while some use their noses and find it nasty.  Science therefore declares that man is normally noseless; and will take this for granted for the next four or five hundred pages, and will treat all the alleged noses of history as the quaint legends of a credulous age.

I do not mention these views because they are original, but exactly because they are not.  They are only dangerous in Professor Forel’s book because they can be found in a thousand books of our epoch.  This writer solemnly asserts that Kant’s idea of an ultimate conscience is a fable because Mahomedans think it wrong to drink wine, while English officers think it right.  Really he might just as well say that the instinct of self-preservation is a fable because some people avoid brandy in order to live long, and some people drink brandy in order to save their lives.  Does Professor Forel believe that Kant, or anybody else, thought that our conscience gave us direct commands about the details of diet or social etiquette?  Did Kant maintain that, when we had reached a certain stage of dinner, a supernatural voice whispered in our ear “Asparagus”; or that the marriage between almonds and raisins was a marriage that was made in heaven?  Surely it is plain enough that all these social duties are deduced from primary moral duties — and may be deduced wrong.  Conscience does not suggest “asparagus”, but it does suggest amiability, and it is thought by some to be an amiable act to accept asparagus when it is offered to you.  Conscience does not respect fish and sherry; but it does respect any innocent ritual that will make men feel alike.  Conscience does not tell you not to drink your hock after your port.  But it does tell you not to commit suicide; and your mere naturalistic reason tells you that the first act may easily approximate to the second.

Christians encourage wine as something which will benefit men.  Teetotallers discourage wine as something that will destroy men.  Their conscientious conclusions are different, but their consciences are just the same.  Teetotallers say that wine is bad because they think it moral to say what they think.  Christians will not say that wine is bad because they think it is immoral to say what they don’t think.  And a triangle is a three-sided figure.  And a dog is a four-legged creature.  And Queen Anne is dead.  We have, indeed, come back to alphabetical truths.  But Professor Forel has not yet even come to them.  He goes on laboriously repeating that there cannot be a fixed moral sense, because some people drink wine and some people don’t.  I cannot imagine how it was that he forgot to mention that France and England cannot have the same moral sense, because Frenchman drive cabs on the right side of the road and Englishmen on the left.

The Illustrated London News, 12 December 1908.

Published in: on September 9, 2009 at 7:16 am  Leave a Comment  

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