decorated initial 'I'n the Victorian period, the question of how we make our moral judgments took on a new urgency. Religion, the bedrock upon which moral judgments had hitherto seemingly been securely founded, was being undermined by the insidious encroachment of science, and as the foundations began to crack, people feared that the very moral constitution of society itself might crumble. Sir Leslie Stephen, a lapsed evangelical Christian, a man of prodigious learning, and a mountaineer of renown, observing the great need for a new system for moral guidance, commented that it "is doubtless important to obtain one in a period of rapid decay of old systems" (444). Into this void came a possible savior, ironically enough from the realms of science — the theory that the process of evolution itself, as it was coming to be understood and explained, might rescue society from the damnation it toward which seemed to be heading, by showing the way in which society could progress to a better end. The highly skeptical observer, Alfred Benn, suggested that had "the dreams of alchemy been fulfilled they would have brought no such promise of boundless wealth and of perpetual youth" for human society as did the "doctrine of organic transmutation" (1900: 61).

When we speak of evolution acting as a guide to judgment, we must bear in mind that this can mean either one of two things. Firstly, we might mean simply that we can discern in evolution a process the ends of which are the betterment of the human species, such that if we follow this process ourselves, we will aid in bringing about the natural and inevitable outcome. By aligning our actions with the evolutionary process, we thereby further the end which nature has always "sought" for us, an end which is ultimately good. This understanding of the matter makes no judgment as to whether or not we have a moral faculty. Instead, it relies on reason, the human capacity to discern logical relations and causal links, to read into the workings of evolution a plan for the future of humanity, and on the basis of that plan to provide us with guidance for our actions one with another.

Alternatively, we may mean that given the fact of our having an evolved faculty which allows us to make moral judgments, we ought to follow the judgments of this faculty as authoritative over any other source of moral judgment, for they are essentially the judgments of evolution, and evolution is a process which necessarily tends to the improvement of the species. Unconsciously, it is a process which seeks our good. Some of the writers and thinkers of the period espoused the former view, while others took the latter, and one at least amalgamated them into a unitary theory of right action. In the previous century, Hume had warned of the sirens of the natural world when dealing with the science of morals, but in the Victorian period, for some at least, the lure was much too strong to resist.

By observing the course of moral evolution over the millennia, the Victorian evolutionists believed that they would find the path which nature was pursuing, and would then be in a position to provide for future generations guidance which would work in harmony with nature and not contrary to its dictates (Spencer 171-173, 270-271; Clifford 95; Mitchell 343). All of nature, so they held, is a unity, subject to the same fundamental physical laws of the universe. There is, so Frederick Pollock wrote, "but one reason and one rule of truth for matter and spirit, for man and the world, for the greatest and the least' (345). In his turn, William Kingdon Clifford opined that "science is the getting of knowledge from experience on the assumption of uniformity in nature, and the use of such knowledge to guide the actions of men" (78). Both are an instance of what Isaiah Berlin termed "the pursuit of the ideal', the belief that "all genuine questions must have one true answer and one only," and that once we have discovered these ideals, "we could then conceive what the perfect life must be, founded as it would be on a correct understanding of the rules that governed the universe" (5-6).

For evolution to act, in some manner, as a guide to conduct, it must be able to provide an answer to the question, what is the end I ought to be seeking? This end is the good, the yardstick by which we assess the content of our lives and determine our actions, those actions being right which tend towards the desired end (assuming a teleological rather than deontological ethics). Plato thought the good life to be one lived in contemplation of the eternal Forms, Aristotle believed it to be a rational and active life lived in accordance with virtue, while for Augustine it was a life lived in harmony with the precepts of God. Howsoever these and other disparate thinkers arrived at their conclusions, the fundamental premise was always that the "good' was something which concerned the essence of life itself, that it reflected and was in complete harmony with human nature. The evolutionists of the Victorian period similarly believed that the good must be derived from the facts of human existence. They differed only in that they believed that these facts were to be derived not by intuition or reflection or divine guidance, but by the application of the scientific method. For a number of writers in this period, the vision conjured up was intoxicating, perhaps in proportion to the anxiety they felt in propagating an idea which they knew to be considered as corrosive for the traditional foundations of society.

Writers such as Spencer and Clifford, Stephen and Samuel Alexander, all believed that here was the answer to the ultimate mystery of existence. It would explain to us where we had come from and to where we were going, and would show us the smoothest and gentlest route to that end. Following its lead, the Aristotelian conception of human flourishing was reinvigorated. The end for human beings was the fullest realization of all their faculties, including the moral faculties. Where the social contract theorists and utilitarians saw only rational, calculating individuals, appraising relationships solely for the return they might bring, the evolutionary ethicists saw organic communities composed of individuals whose essence could not be understood apart from the communities to which they belonged. Individuals had evolved to be social (and political) animals. Evolution meant an ever expanding conception of the human community, and an ever deeper development of the connections between individuals.

It is little wonder that at times these men, to varying degrees lapsed evangelicals and non-conformists (and in the case of Alexander, a Jew), viewed the progress of evolution in almost eschatological terms, with a final day of reckoning to come when humanity would realize its perfection (as Tennyson put it,

One God, one law, one element
And one far-off divine event
To which the whole creation moves. [In Memoriam, 101]

Among them, Leslie Stephen perhaps kept the clearest head, and recognized the fuller implications of evolutionary ethics. In particular, he acknowledged that not only was there no guarantee that virtue would bring happiness, there could be no conclusive argument to prove to someone that they ought to be virtuous. If a person opted for happiness over virtue — a choice which we must all make at times — there could be no way of demonstrating to them that this was, ultimately and absolutely, wrong. Removing the sanction of god meant removing the arbiter standing outside the human community, the judge who would judge us all, from the lowliest to the highest, from the weakest to the most powerful. It meant placing the gavel in the fallible hands of human beings, and left only the proscriptions of society. Heaven and hell were abolished. Education and punishment were promoted, but to many these seemed awfully tenuous sources of social stability. Naturalizing ethics seemed only to open a vista to chaos and anarchy. Faced with this apparent consequence, it was not only the clergy who denounced the application of evolution to ethics. Declaring evolution to be incapable of ever fully explaining morality, and prompted to a poetic outpouring, the agnostic Alfred Benn declared that morality

is a part of that eternal synthesis by which we gather up the whole universe from all infinitudes of time and space into oneness with itself and with ourselves, the absolute reality which is more knowable than any isolated phenomenon whatever, since only through it are knowledge and action made possible to man. [1880: 512]

In many respects, the disjunction between those who believe that evolution can fully explain ourselves to ourselves, and those who divine in the universe a mystery not to be understood by science, remains very much with us today. It is a curious fear, this notion that to apply science is in some manner to dissect life as if it were an abandoned corpse, for in fact in the application of science we come to appreciate more profoundly how extraordinary life is, and the wonder we feel is only made greater. But then the persistence of the refusal to accept the scientific explanation itself tells us much about the human condition, and our deep-rooted need to believe that there is more to existence than mere existence itself.


Benn, A.W., "Another View of Mr. Spencer's Ethics." Mind 5.20 (1880): 489-512. ---. "The Relation of Ethics to Evolution." International Journal of Ethics 11.1 (1900): 60-70.

Berlin, Isaiah. "The Pursuit of the Ideal." The Crooked Timber of Humanity. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1990.

Clifford, William Kingdon. Lectures and Essays. Vol. II. 3rd Edition. London: MacMillan & Co., 1901.

Mitchell, William. "The Logic of the Ethic of Evolution." Mind 15.59 (1890): 342-356.

Pollock, Frederick. "Evolution and Ethics." Mind 1.3 (1876): 334-345.

Spencer, Herbert. Principles of Ethics. Vol. I. [1892]. Osnabr�ck: Otto Zeller, 1966.

Stephen, Leslie. The Science of Ethics. 2nd Edition. [1882]. London: Smith, Elder & Co., 1907.

Tennyson, Alfred. In Memoriam. New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 2004.

Last modified 14 December 2007