decorated initial 'I'mmanuel Kant was famously awed by both the starry heavens above and the moral law he found within. Over the ages, he has not been alone in believing that, in some form or another, whether through the voice of reason or of God or perhaps that mysterious faculty, intuition, we have access to ready-formed judgments concerning right and wrong. Darwin himself believed that "the moral sense or conscience is by far the most important" distinction between humankind and other species (1871: 120). In the nineteenth century, as enthusiasm for theories (particularly Darwinian and Lamarckian) of evolution grew, people began debating whether or not evolution might also explain our moral faculty. Evolution, it seemed, was a means of explaining, without recourse to superstition or mythology, theology or recondite metaphysics, the manner by which human-beings came to possess the capacity for moral judgment, a means which relied solely on the firm foundations of scientific methodology.

One of the strongest advocates of this position was the man Darwin honored as "our great philosopher", Herbert Spencer (1871: 148). Spencer argued that it was clear that we are possessed of an intuitive capacity for making moral judgments and, further, that this capacity must be the product of the evolutionary process. As he stated, "Strange indeed would it be if, in the midst of this universal mutation, man alone were constant, unchangeable" (1851: 32). Nearly half a century later, he added that "if one and all conform to the laws of evolution; then the necessary implication is that those phenomena of conduct in these highest creatures with which Morality is concerned, also conform" (1892: 63). Spencer was not alone. Darwin himself observed that "any animal whatever, endowed with well-marked social instincts, 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" (1871: 120-11).

Like the Utilitarians, Spencer believed that the basis of our moral faculty lay in our desire for pleasure and dislike of pain. Unlike the Utilitarians, however, Spencer, followed the Scottish Emotionalist School of moral philosophy, which includes Adam Smith, Dugald Stewart, and Thomas Reid, who asserted that the imagination gave us intuitive moral guidance. In contrast, the Benthamites thought moral decision was entirely a matter of rational deduction. (Spencer, like the Scottish philosophers, allowed that the rational faculty later aids the intuition in making judgments or formulating moral rules). There is, according to Spencer, a "primordial connexion between pleasure-giving acts and continuance or increase of life, and, by implication, between pain-giving acts and decrease or loss of life" (1892: 82). We recognize as morally right those actions which bring us pleasure, and they bring us pleasure because they sustain us, the ultimate goal of existence. Our moral sense initially develops out of the instinctive care parents have for their offspring. This sympathetic impulse then leads us to care for others within our immediate sphere of existence as we come to appreciate the benefits to be gained through mutual help and support. Over time, the moral sense has then expanded, allowing us to recognize our membership in different groups such as extended families, tribes and even nations. This impulse, which forms the core of the moral sense, promotes the general welfare which in turn is necessary for the survival of individuals, a point Darwin made in Descent of Man (1871: 133).

Spencer, at least in his early writings (he later tempered the position somewhat), takes a strongly teleological position in relation to human evolution. He firmly believed that the trajectory of evolution would lead to a state of being in which each and every individual would be as concerned for the welfare of other individuals as for their own welfare. In effect, what we might characterize (and what many of his contemporaries did characterize with coruscating disparagement) as a utopian society would develop in which there would be no requirement for government as the interests of all individuals would be utterly inseparable from those of the community:

Progress, therefore, is not an accident, but a necessity. Instead of civilization being artificial, it is a part of nature; all of a piece with the development of the embryo or the unfolding of a flower. The modifications mankind have undergone and are still undergoing result from a law underlying the whole organic creation; and provided the human race continues and the constitutions of things remains the same, those modifications must end in completeness . . . . as surely as a disregarded conscience becomes inert and one that is obeyed active; as surely as there is any efficacy in educational culture or any meaning in such terms as habit, custom, practice; so surely must the human faculties be moulded into complete fitness for the social state; so surely must the things we call evil and immorality disappear; so surely must man become perfect. [1851: 60]

Even Darwin, who was much less inclined than Spencer to offer visions of the future, much less those with a utopian flavor, observed in The Origin of Species, that "as natural selection works solely by and for the good of each being, all corporeal and mental endowments will tend to progress towards perfection" (1859: 760). This was certainly an appealing vision to many people, and no doubt served to ease the concern which the rise of science was stoking in Victorian society. Still, it remained true that the claim that our moral faculty is merely the outcome of the evolutionary process was a radical one. For a society in which the Evangelical faith was strong (at least among the upper strata, those most engaged with scientific developments), the suggestion appeared as merely another attempt by the scientific heretics to undermine further the foundations of faith. As an anonymous reviewer in the Church Quarterly Review opined, "Nor if we give up the religious method of promoting morality do we find any other whatever presented for our use" (1883: 348). But such opposition would not hold back the enthusiasm of the scientifically-minded. In 1869, the Rev. Charles Kingsley wrote to John Stuart Mill that "the reconstruction of society on a scientific basis is not only possible, but the only object much worth striving for" (Houghton, 1957: 35). The claim for the evolution of the moral faculty inevitably thus became yet another Victorian battleground.

Related Material


Anon. The Church Quarterly Review. 16 (1883): 346-375.

Darwin, Charles. On the Origin of Species. [1859]. Ed. E. O. Wilson. New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 2006.

Darwin, Charles. The Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex. [1871]. London: Penguin Books, 2004.

Houghton, Walter E. The Victorian Frame of Mind, 1830-1870. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1957.

Spencer, Herbert. Social Statics. [1851]. New York: Robert Schalkenbach Foundation, 1954.

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

Last modified 14 February 2008