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Dictionary of the History of Ideas

Studies of Selected Pivotal Ideas

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The Growth of Historical Consciousness and the
Impact of Evolutionary Theory.
Hitherto the search
had been for eternal structures, both for the good and
the right, whether based on conceptions of divinity,
reason, nature, or laws of the human constitution. The
nineteenth century is the age in which a growing
historical consciousness took philosophical shape, and
the theory of evolution gave it sweeping scientific
substance in the understanding of man.


In the first third of the century the commanding
idealist synthesis in the Hegelian philosophy saw all
reality as a dialectical development in which Reason
or the Divine Idea achieves the self-consciousness
which is its freedom. In all his specific analyses, Hegel
combined a profound sense of unity, of pattern, and
of process. All dualisms were seen as phases in the
development of a total plan, all apparently isolated
items as embodying a wider configuration in some
moment of transition, and every present configuration
as a stage in a historical unfolding in which apparent
opposites are transcended into a higher unity. Hence
Hegel's philosophy is the great solvent of traditional
and opposing ethical schools: dichotomies of abstract
reason and individual immediacy, duty and happiness,
inner spirit and outer institutions are put into place
as stages in the growth of consciousness, the unfolding
of freedom, and the development of institutions. The
full realization of ethics is in the objective domain of
society and history in which the good is articulated
in a social system of rights and duties, themselves not
abstract but expressing the organization of social life
unified in the state. If Hegel's own propositions often
seem too schematized in terms of abstract categories,
his theoretical impact was clearly to encourage the
study of morality in terms of cultural pattern and
historical determination.

The theory of evolution had even more far-reaching
consequences on concepts of the right and the good.
Few of the traditional theories were left unscathed.
Most devastating was the impact on the goal-seeking
framework in its teleological form; for its basic concept
of a permanent natural direction of striving as ethically
determinative was thoroughly undermined. Aristotle's
original criteria for the natural had combined invari-
ance or relative invariance of behavior and develop-
ment in each form of life, inherent tendency in the
sense of unlearned or instinctive, supplemented by
what was good for the form of life. These went in
separate directions once the teleological bond was
broken. Invariance now meant simply scientific laws,
not natural law. Inherence or instinctiveness meant
that the trait got built in during past evolutionary
development because of past survival value; it might,
like aggressiveness, be presently disruptive and a source
of anti-moral behavior in a new environment. The
goodness of a type of behavior would now have to be
established on its own in some fresh manner.

Utilitarianism too was affected, but in a more com-
plex way. Its hedonistic emphasis was deepened, yet
at the same time transcended. The presumed fact that
men constantly pursued pleasure would now give
pleasure no special ultimate status, for it had still to
be asked what this signified in the evolutionary process.
But a biological evolutionary understanding of this
significance was readily forthcoming. For example,
pleasure could be seen, in Herbert Spencer's account,
as a sign of activities having health and survival value,
and rules of right, such as demands for sacrifice, could
become intelligible through their long-range survival
effect on the group. Utilitarianism thus found it easier
to make the social transition that had been difficult
in purely individualistic hedonist terms. But the forms
in which pleasure was sought would now take over
importance, and evolutionary mechanisms would en-
able us to understand them and their changes, though
in social and cultural rather than biological terms. Thus
Spencer also traced the changes that took place in
men's conceptions of the good and the right and in
their patterns of virtue as they moved from a milita-
ristic to an industrial society. Evolutionary interest
turned some ethical inquiry into the sociology of ethics
and into descriptions of primitive and early moralities,
in order to discover an evolution within morality itself.

This general historical emphasis, like the older use
of the Newtonian model, sought to find what had
emerged in order to establish at the same time a basis
of critique for alternative trends and possibilities. In
such endeavors, both the underlying scientific presup-
positions and the underlying ethical commitments
often stood out clearly. Spencer saw the evolutionary
process in terms of the struggle for existence and sur-
vival of the fittest, and posited an individualistic ethics
with absolute conceptions of justice whose emergence
he anticipated as the outcome of social development.
Anarchist ethics, by contrast, best illustrated in the
work of Kropotkin, saw mutual aid as a dominant
theme, frustrated by the development of power-
wielding institutions, and eventually breaking through
to fresh forms of human relationship. Nietzsche posited
a basic psychology of a will to power whose direct
and disciplined expression constituted the obvious
human good. With deep insight into the natural history
of morals, and into its psychological roots, Nietzsche
focused on understanding the role of moral categories
as well as moral content in the psychological function-
ing of men. He saw most of traditional religious and
humanistic morality as an expression of weakness, and
the concepts of evil and sin and injustice to be rooted
in envy and resentment. As against this morality of
good and evil, he posed the aristocratic morality of
good and bad, with its direct expression of power, and
he looked to the production of a higher order of man.

Marxian ethics made perhaps the most systematic
attempt to combine the historical sweep of Hegelian
philosophy with the scientific materialism of an evolu-
tionary outlook, adding also elements of the growing
economic science and historical analysis of social


movements. The growth of freedom is seen as the basic
human aim, interpreted as the increase of productive
power and control of man's career and destiny. Specific
stages are delineated with reference to the historical
interplay of regulative forms in society, reflecting the
stages of economic development and their internal
conflicts. The good is defined in time and place by the
dominant goals of the society, and evaluated by the
advance in human freedom that is ensured; the right
is defined by the system of economic and social rela-
tions, reflecting the underlying economic needs and
mode of production. Thus feudal morality is a system
of ordered position, with virtues of loyalty and grati-
tude; bourgeois morality has goods of individual success
and a system of justice embodying will-assertion, prop-
erty rights, and free contract; socialist and communist
morality will have an ideal of human development and
collective organization. Evaluation is the progressive
reckoning of direction of development in the line of
basic historical aims.

While all these historically-oriented theories sought
to share or to develop the evolutionary framework,
other moral philosophies set out to build up lines of
defense against the growing naturalism. Thus the
Kantian ethical theory was revived and invoked as a
foundation for theories that would stem the scientific
tide and set off spirit from nature. Kant himself had
consciously held on to the two irreducible worlds of
noumena and phenomena, the former for morality, the
latter for science. And T. H. Green, witnessing the
evolutionary naturalization of man, warned that unless
morality somehow represented something transcend-
ent, the moral consciousness would be reduced to sim-
ply a complex form of fear. Whether the idealist out-
looks that emerged built on the Kantian contrast of
nature and spirit or on the Hegelian concept of all
reality as the march of Spirit, the net effect was to
establish the moral consciousness as a cosmic phenom-
enon. Desire itself became no isolated impulse but a
movement of the self, threading its way to a systematic
realization in relation to the whole.

The ethics of self-realization, for example, as pro-
pounded by F. H. Bradley in his Ethical Studies (1876),
had no need to counterpose the juridical and the goal-
seeking frameworks. Like the ancient Stoic ethics of
virtue, it was operating in the framework of a distinct
self-development model, and Hegel had already broken
down all the sharp dichotomies. It was, however, the
Hegelian emphasis on the comprehensive and total
system, rather than his dynamic historicism, that domi-
nated in self-realizationist theory. Goals could appear
in human consciousness, but their significance lay in
the systematic unity they gave to self-development;
and rules could govern human action, but their basic
meaning lay in the institutional structures of the time
and place that gave content to the integration of the
self. Integration in the self and organization in society
were carrying on the kind of function that went with
right or obligation; the growing concrete whole of
self-realization would merit the appellation of the

The aftermath of evolution, with its recognition of
variety of form and constant change and with its re-
moval from the scene of a determinate and definitive
plan for all time, made impossible thereafter the older
forms of both the goal-seeking and the juridical frame-
work. Looking back, we can detect precursor tenden-
cies toward the new in both Bentham and Kant.
Bentham's notion of pleasure as the goal had been so
broad and so thin as to determine no definitive goal
but to shift the emphasis to evaluation in measurement.
Kant's use of rationality as self-legislation had begun
to shift the emphasis from the set of rules to the way
of certifying them. With the change in cognitive ori-
entation brought by the century of evolution, the char-
acteristic ethical element in both frameworks could
only be the critical component which made evaluation
possible or which gave a rational character to decision.
In the twentieth century it took many forms, including
belated Platonic reifications of value or value domains,
and belated Kantian forms of extracting basic princi-
ples from the concept of rationality. It took explicit
form in outlooks that made the phenomenon of criti-
cism or of reflective decision the central focus in ethics.
It took bold experimental form in the foundation of
general value theory in which a unified concept of what
is called value took over from that of the good and
by developing a theory of value judgment compre-
hending the critical element, left little for an inde-
pendent notion of right to do except be the application
of value judgment to a particular province of value.

In turning to these predominantly twentieth-century
vicissitudes of the right and the good, the experiment
with value merits consideration in terms of its basic
intent and procedures. The other forms can be sur-
veyed under the rubric of analytic formulations, and
naturalistic and pragmatic formulations.