Laws of Nature the Foundation of Morals (by David Rowland, 1863).
There certainly is a strange fascination about inquiries into morals, for new adaptations of old theories are continually being published by people who have apparently bestowed some degree of honest labour on the subject, however little they may really advance the state of our knowledge about it. Mr. Rowland's book is obviously the result of a certain quantity both of reading and of thought. He has looked over, and in a sort of way studied, the most popular writers on morality, and he has also in a sort of way thought about their systems, but it is all in a sort of way. His mind has not the grasp which is necessary in order to enable a man to speak with real authority on such a subject as the one he has chosen. The great controversy as to the foundation of morals has been so thoroughly fought out that no one is likely to write upon it instructively, unless he is a disciple, a thoroughgoing and unreserved disciple, of one or the other of the two great schools of thought on the subject. We must either believe that morals are capable of being explained by reference to their tendency to produce human happiness, or we must believe that they are not capable of being explained at all—that to act in certain ways, and to avoid acting in certain other ways, is the ultimate object and purpose of human life, beyond which nothing need, or indeed can, discovered. Either of these views admits of almost endless illustration, and may be supported by a variety of arguments, but everything else that can be said on the subject is only a more or less ingenious attempt to sit upon two stools. Mr. Rowland puts his two stools together with a considerable degree of ingenuity, and sits upon them perhaps with as much ease as people engaged in such a feat usually display. His theory is not a very clear one. With a little patience it may be understood, but he does not write with that degree of vigour which is, of all gifts, the most useful to those who wish to save trouble to their neighbours by enabling them at once to catch the leading points of the theories which are to be expounded. He considers that human nature is partly free and partly constrained by certain laws. It is free in so far as it is actuated by various appetites and passions which may be so managed as to produce a great amount of happiness, but may also be so managed as to produce, a great amount of misery. They will produce happiness if man will obey the laws by which his nature is restrained, and they will produce misery, if he disobeys them. These laws are to be discovered by induction (happily Mr. Rowland does not say “rigorous induction,” a sort of literary mark of the beast—induction, however, is bad enough in itself), and this induction, when applied to human affairs in general, shows at length that there are in all surprisingly few moral laws. Those laws are, “Thou shalt not steal,” “Thou shalt not commit adultery,” “Thou shalt do no murder,” “Thou shalt not bear false witness.” The first two laws construct society, besides protecting it. Men are pushed on by hunger and the sexual instinct to produce and store up food and to propagate their species, and being by these laws restrained from their neighbours' stores and their neighbours' wives, society in all its ramifications is gradually formed. The laws against murder and lying are protective only. When the other two laws have set human society going, they prevent it from being broken up.
This is the gist of Mr. Rowland's book. The rest of it is composed principally of argument and illustration. It is by no means easy to make out what the author supposes himself to have proved which was not known centuries ago to every human creature who ever attended to the subject. He seems to consider that he is engaged in a scientific operation, and we are continually told about induction and Lord Bacon; but, after all, the only thing that the book establishes is that human society is at present—and, so far as we know, always has been—so constituted that it would be destroyed by the prevalence of adultery, theft, and murder, whilst it is kept in a healthy condition by honesty and temperance. An inquiry which arrives at this result may be described, if there is any satisfaction in using such language, as an induction having truth for its object. It may also be described, and not without plausibility, as a mere cooking up of commonplaces. Probably no one ever supposed that theft or murder was in any way beneficial to society, and the utilitarians whom Mr. Rowland is eager to overthrow would desire no other or better foundation for their theory than is supplied by the fact that those acts are destructive of it. Indeed, a child could tell that the case must be so. After some reflection, however, we have arrived at a notion of the way in which Mr. Rowland came to write his book. He appears to have been led into it, as other people have been led into somewhat similar speculations, by an imperfect apprehension of the unfortunate ambiguity which lurks under the word “law.” Several passages of his book seem to show that he understands that a law is a command—that it is something which, from the nature of the case, must and can be addressed to rational beings only; but more frequently he seems to be influenced by the impression that the word is properly used when applied to the rules by which observers are enabled to understand and classify the motions of brute matter. If he had not this in his head, it is difficult, and indeed almost impossible, to understand how he could suppose that a law could be discovered by induction—that is, by comparing facts. Such a study can give nothing in any event but general forumulas, embracing more or less accurately the different facts which have been examined. A law, in the sense of a command, is and must be a single fact, a command issued by some one able to enforce his orders; and whether or not such a command has been issued, is an isolated question of fact, to be decided, like any other, by appropriate evidence, and not by those inquiries which ought to be intended by the word induction. We do not want induction to tell us whether there is a law against murder; we look to the statute-book, and find it there in so many words.
Almost all moral inquiries, and Mr. Rowland's amongst them, would be reduced to a form so simple that the principal questions involved would answer themselves, if those who handled them would but set steadily before their minds the distinction between the different points which are at issue. The general problem is to invent a theory by which we may account for that distinction between right and wrong actions which, as a matter of fact, is recognised in all human societies. This divides itself into the following subordinate questions —
1. What actions are described as right, and what as wrong, in any given time and place? The time and country of the inquirer is so the one to which his attention is directed.
2. Is there any, and if so what, specific difference between all actions called right and all actions called wrong, which can enable us to know one from the other?
3. Why should A. B. do right actions and avoid wrong ones?
4. Are there any special means by which particular persons may assure themselves whether particular actions are right or wrong?
These questions are in reality entirely independent of each other, though they are generally mixed up together in such a way as to make it extremely difficult to remember this. The first is purely a question of fact, and cannot be answered in the same way in any two ages or in any two countries. The second is altogether independent of the third and fourth, though it is constantly confused with them; and the third and fourth are altogether independent of each other. A man may have the strongest reasons for doing right and no means of knowing what is right, or he may have perfect information as to what is right and no motive for acting on the information. It does not follow that, because a man wants to know the longitude, he must have a chronometer, or that, because he has a chronometer, he must want to take an observation.
The utilitarian answer to these four questions is usually somewhat as follows:—
1. The original and most proper notion of right and wrong is merely conformity to or divergence from some rule; and as rules of various kinds, proceeding upon various principles, have always been imposed upon human conduct, and as these rules prescribe and forbid for the most part the same sorts of actions, people have got into a way of classifying some actions as right and others as wrong. . There is a good deal of variation in the way in which the words are used, arising from the different habits and interests of men; but the resemblance is more extensive, and more important,
2. It will be found, generally speaking, that actions described as right have a tendency, or at any rate an apparent tendency, to promote the happiness of mankind, and that actions described as wrong have a similar tendency to promote their misery. It would greatly tend to promote the general welfare if the common use of language always attached the epithet “right” to actions generally beneficial to men, and the “wrong” to actions generally injurious.
3. The reason why A. B. should do right is that there is much reason to think that it is, on the whole, the most prudent course for him, both here and hereafter, notwithstanding apparent exceptions.
4. People can find out what is right and what is wrong, as they can find out other matters of fact, by evidence and reasoning; and every one has a conscience, which may be an original or acquired and composite faculty, and which may be well or ill-informed, but, which, whatever it may be, is worth listening to, and may under circumstances inflict the most exquisite tortures or award the most heartfelt satisfaction in respect of particular courses of conduct.
Mr. Rowland seems to think that he has given an answer to this and to other theories—we put this forward as the clearest and, on the whole, the one most generally received—by observing that the reason why theft, murder, and adultery are injurious, is that we are so constituted as to make them injurious; and that therefore “Thou shalt do no murder” may be called a law of nature. This is a surprising instance of the blind style of composition. The book, however, is exceedingly short, which is a great merit. If it is not strong, at least it is merciful.
Saturday Review, February 6, 1864.