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Memorial Day Address (excerpt)

By William Graham Sumner


[Sumner, William Graham. “Memorial Day Address.” In The Challenge of Facts and Other Essays. Edited by Albert Galloway Keller. New Haven: Yale University Press. 1914. Used with the permission of the Online Library of Liberty.]


The war also taught this people what a nation is. A nation is not a certain extent of territory on the earth's surface; nor is it the mere aggregate of the persons who may live within a certain territory. A nation is a community of various ages, occupations, talents, and circumstances, but all united in a common interest. It is a unit which has organic life. It is enduring in its existence, spanning over individual lives and generations. It accumulates the contributions of various individuals and of various generations and it brings them all to the service and benefit of each. It is, therefore, in the strictest sense, a common-wealth, in which each participates in the prosperity of the whole and all suffer through the misfortune of one. It brings down from generation to generation the accumulation of art, science, and literature and its store of these treasures should be a steadily increasing one. It brings down the public buildings, the machinery of government, the stores of defensive means, the galleries of painting, the museums of art and science, the libraries, as a continually increasing endowment of posterity. Moreover it cherishes traditions which, if they become petrified, form a prisonhouse which must be broken, but which, if they are fresh, living, and flexible, are the framework of society. For instance, the rights of conscience, the equality of all men before the law, the separation of church and state, religious toleration, freedom of speech and of the press, popular education, are vital traditions of the American people. They are not brought in question; they form the stock of firm and universal convictions on which our national life is based; they are ingrained into the character of our people and you can assume, in any controversy, that an American will admit their truth. But they form the sum of traditions which we obtain as our birth-right. They are never explicitly taught to us, but we assimilate them in our earliest childhood from all our surroundings, at the fireside, at school, from the press, on the highways and streets. We never hear them disputed and it is only when we observe how difficult it is for some foreign nations to learn them that we perceive that they are not implanted by nature in the human mind. They are a part and the most valuable part of our national inheritance, and the obligation of love, labor, and protection which we owe to the nation rests upon these benefits which we receive from it.

Mind As a Social Factor

By Lester F. Ward


[Ward, Lester. “Mind As a Social Factor.” Mind 9, no. 36 (October 1884): 563573. In the Public Domain.]

After many centuries of exclusive study of the soul the thinkers of the world turned their attention for some centuries more to the study of the intellect. During all this time, the true influence of mind as a social factor was left quite out of view. At last there rose up the scientific philosophy which essayed to explain the nature of mind. Its dependence upon organisa­tion in general and upon brain in particular was proved by scientific experimentation, and the domain of metaphysics be­came that of psychology. Mind was shown to be a function of body and psychology became a department of biology. Man has now taken his true position in the animal world as a product of development. Brain, which alone raises him above other animals, has been developed in the same manner as the other anatomical characters. The brain is the organ of the mind, its physical seat and cause. Mind is therefore a natural product of evolution, and its achievements are to be classed and studied along with all other natural phenomena. Such is the scientific conception of mind.

The modern scientist places all objects in the midst of an infi­nite series of antecedents and consequents. Organic forms as well as inorganic must take their places in this series—the animal no less than the plant, the man no less than the beast. Mind itself is a link of this endless chain. Its activities con­sist in the transmission of the properties of its antecedents to its consequents. The quantity of force in the universe is con­stant. No power can increase or diminish it. All attempts on the part of the creatures of this constant and unchangeable force to modify its normal effects are not less vain because such crea­tures happen to have acquired the faculty of observing the changes going on in nature.

The protracted study of nature’s processes leads to admiration of them, and the belief has become prevalent that they are not only unalterable but also in some way necessarily beneficent. 

Nature has made great progress in developing organised beings and is assumed to be still working in this direction. The natural method is always the true method, and to find it out is the aim of all scientific investigation. Out of this earnest and laudable strife to discover the true method of nature has grown, logically-enough, the assumption that when found it must be something of great worth. It is commonly supposed that the highest wisdom of man is to learn and then to follow the ways of nature. Those dissatisfied people who would improve upon the natural course of events are rebuked as meddlers with the unalterable. Their systems are declared Utopian, their laws bruta fulmina. All efforts in this direction are held to be trifling and are stigmatised as so many ignorant attempts to nullify the immutable laws of nature.

This general mode of reasoning is carried into all departments of human life.

In government every attempt to improve the condition of the state is condemned and denounced. Curiously enough, here the claim is illogically made that such measures are harmful. In fact, unfortunately for the whole theory, they have often been proved to be so. But this, of course, proves their efficacy. This glaring inconsistency is, however, overlooked, and government is implored, not to adopt wise and successful measures, but to refrain from adopting any, to let society alone, and thus allow the laws of nature to work out their beneficent results.

In commerce and trade absolute freedom is insisted upon. Free trade is the watchword of this entire school. The laws of trade, they maintain, are natural laws. As such they must be better than any human rules. And here again we find them in­sisting that regulation is injurious to trade, although it is at the same time declared to be nugatory.

In social affairs these doctrines are carried to their extreme logical outcome. The laws of nature as they manifest them­selves in society must be left wholly untouched. The passions of men will neutralise and regulate themselves. Competition can be depended upon to correct abuses. The seller must be allowed to exaggerate and misstate the nature of his wares. This has the effect to sharpen the wits of the buyer, and this develops the brain. To dilute, adulterate, or even poison food and medicine for personal gain is not objectionable, since the destruc­tion thereby of a few unwary consumers only proves their unfit­ness to survive in society. As in general commerce, so in private business, competition must be free. If a dealer, by selling at a loss, can hold out until all his competitors have been driven from the field, in order then to recover more than his losses by the monopoly he will enjoy, his right to do this must not be ques­tioned. It is under such conditions and by the aid of such dis­cipline that man and society have developed.

Education must be that of experience. Knowledge must be gained by efforts to avoid the consequences of ignorance already felt. The intellectual development of the child must be an epitome of that of the race. It is thus only that nature operates, and surely nature is greater and wiser than man.

All schemes of social reform are unscientific. Public charities tend to bolster up unworthy elements in society that nature has declared unfit to survive. Temperance reforms tend only to abridge individual liberty—for even the liberty to destroy one’s self should be respected. Philanthropy is zeal without know­ledge, while humanitarianism is fanaticism. 

This general class of views antedated by many years the publi­cation by Spencer and Darwin of their formulated doctrines of the “survival of the fittest” and “natural selection”. But it cannot be denied that these doctrines, supported as they were by facts fresh from nature, have greatly strengthened this habit of thought. Nature’s method is now much better known than for­merly, and it is now well understood that an utterly soulless competition constitutes its fundamental characteristic. Surely man cannot go astray in following in the footsteps of nature. Let him learn from the animal world. He has descended from some of the humble stocks which he is now studying. Nature’s plan has raised him from the condition of a beast to that of a rational being. It has created and developed society and civilisa­tion. Unless tampered with by “reformers” all the operations of society would be competitive. Competition is the law of nature out of which progress results. Sociology, as its founder insisted, must be based on biology, and the true sociologist must understand this biologic law. Those who propose to apply methods to society which are opposed to the methods of nature are supposed to be ignorant of these fundamental truths and are called empiricists, “meddlers,” and “tinkers.”

Such, I say, is the tenor and tendency of modern scientific thought. I do not say that all scientific men hold these views. I merely maintain that leading ones have formulated and incul­cated them as natural deductions from the established facts of science, and that the public mind is rapidly assimilating them, while scarcely any attempts are being made to check their advance.[1]

Is there any way of answering these arguments? Can the laissez faire doctrine be successfully met? That all attempts to do this have been timidly made cannot be denied. That these have been few and feeble is equally certain. While there has existed in the minds of many rational persons a vague sense of some hidden fallacy in all this reasoning, none have felt com­petent to formulate their objections with sufficient clearness and force to warrant pitting them against the resistless stream of con­current science and philosophy of the nineteenth century. There has, however, been developing of late a more or less marked ap­prehension with regard to the possible consequences of this mode of thought. The feeling is distinct in the best minds, and to a large extent in the public mind, that the tendency of modern ideas is nihilistic. It is clear that if they become universally accepted they must work stagnation in society. The laissez faire doctrine is a gospel of inaction, the scientific creed is struck with sterility, the policy of resigning all into the hands of Nature is a surrender. 

But this recognition is by no means proof that the prevalent opinions are false. At best it can only suggest this on the ground that true doctrines should be progressive. But this would be a petitio principii. Nature is not optimistic, still less anthropo-centric. For aught we know, the laws of nature are such as make a recognition of strict scientific truth a positive barrier to social advancement. The argument we have been considering must be refuted, if at all, by legitimate counter-argument.

The present attempt to meet some parts of this argument is made in full consciousness of its strength as a factor in modern thought and with due deference to the great names that stand committed to it. The scientific facts which its defenders have brought to its support are, in the main, incontestable. To answer by denying these would be to abjure science and deserve con­tempt. The method of nature has been correctly interpreted. The doctrines of the survival of the fittest and natural selection are perfectly true doctrines. The law of competition is the fundamental law. It is unquestionably true that progress, not only in primary organic development, but also in society, has resulted from the action of this law.

After conceding all this, the attempt, notwithstanding, to stem the tide of modern scientific thought must, indeed, seem a hope­less one. At the outset it must be frankly acknowledged that if the current views are unsound the fault is not chargeable to science. If there is any defect it must lie in the inferences drawn from the facts and not in the facts themselves. To what extent, then, is the laissez faire doctrine, as defined and popularly accepted, an inference? If the method of nature is correctly formulated by that doctrine, wherein lies the fallacy when it is applied to man and to society?

In order to grapple at once with the whole problem let me answer these questions by the open charge that the modern scientific philosophers fail to recognise the true value of the psychic factor. Just as the metaphysicians lost their bearings by an empty worship of mind and made philosophy a plaything, so the modern evolutionists have missed their mark by degrading mind to a level with mechanical force. They seem thus about to fling away the grand results that the doctrine of evolution can­not otherwise fail to achieve. Far be it from me to appeal to the prejudices of the enemies of science by casting opprobrium upon scientific deductions, but when I consider the tendencies which are now so unmistakable, and which are so certainly the conse­quence of the protracted study, on the part of leading scientists, of the unquestionable methods of nature, I think I can, though holding precisely opposite opinions, fully sympathise with Carlyle in characterising the philosophy of evolution as a “gospel of dirt “.

But I need not longer dwell upon the blighting influence of this construction of the known laws of nature. Let us approach the kernel of the problem.

The laissez faire doctrine fails to recognise that, in the develop­ment of mind, a virtually new power was introduced into the world. To say that this has been done is no startling announcement. It is no more than has taken place many times in the course of the evolution of living and feeling beings out of the tenuous, nebulae of space. For, while it is true that nature makes no leaps, while, so long as we consider their beginning, all the great steps in evolution are due to minute increments repeated through vast periods, still, when we survey the whole field, as we must do to comprehend the scheme, and contrast the extremes, we find that nature has been making a series of enormous strides, and reaching from one plane of development to another. It is these independent achievements of evolution that the true philosopher must study.

Not to mention the great steps in the cosmical history of the solar system and of the earth, we must regard the evolution of protoplasm, the “physical basis of life,” as one of those gigantic strides which thenceforth completely revolutionised the surface of our planet. The development of the cell as the unit of organisa­tion was another such stride. The origin of vertebrate life intro­duced a new element, and the birth of man wrought still another transformation. These are only a few of nature’s revolutions. Many more will suggest themselves. And although, in no single one of these cases can it be said at what exact point the new essence commenced to exist, although the development of all these several expressions of Nature’s method of concentrating her hitherto diffused forces was accomplished through an un­broken series of minute transitional increments continued through eons of time, still, it is not a whit less true that each of these grand products of evolution, when at length fully formed, consti­tuted a new cosmic energy, and proceeded to stamp all future products and processes with a character hitherto wholly unknown upon the globe. 

It is in this sense, and in this only, that I claim the develop­ment of mind—of the thinking, reasoning, inventing faculty of the human brain—as another, and one of the best marked, of the great cosmic strides that have characterised the course of evolu­tion and belong to the legitimate methods of nature. 

It is, for example, only to a limited extent and in the most general way that we can apply the same canons to the organic as to the inorganic world. It is usually, but falsely, supposed that the student of biology need know nothing of physics, the assump­tion being that they have nothing in common. While this error is fatal to all fundamental acquaintance with the laws of life, it well illustrates the immensity of the advance from one realm to the other. The same could be said, in varying degrees of obvious­ness, of every one of the ascending steps to which reference has been made. I freely admit that the theologians and meta­physicians commit the most fatal error in treating the soul, or mind, as independent of the body, but this enormous fallacy is scarcely greater than that of the modern evolutionist, who, finding out their dependence, ignores the magnitude of the step by which mind was made a property of body, and proceeds as though no new factor had entered into the world.

But all this may be regarded as mere generality, Let us come to something more specific.

It has always been a marvel to my comprehension that wise men and philosophers, when smitten with the specious logic of the laissez faire school, can close their eyes to the most obtrusive fact that civilisation presents. In spite of the influence of philo­sophy, all forms of which have thus far been negative and nihi­listic, the human animal, with his growing intellect, has still ever realised the power that is vouchsafed through mind, and has ever exercised that power. Philosophy would have long since robbed him of it and caused his early extermination from the earth but for the persistence, through heredity, of the impulse to exercise in self-preservation every power in his possession; by which practice alone he first gained his ascendancy ages before philosophy began.

The great fact, then, to which I allude is that, in spite of all philosophy, whether mythologic, metaphysical, or naturalistic, declaring that man must and can do nothing, he has, from the very dawn of his intelligence, been transforming the entire sur­face of the planet he inhabits. No other animal performs any­thing comparable to what man performs. This is solely because no other possesses the developed psychic faculty.

If we analyse mind into its two departments, sense and in­tellect, we shall see that it is through this latter faculty that these results are accomplished. If we inquire more closely into the mode by which intellect operates, we shall find that it serves as a guiding power to those natural forces with which it is ac­quainted (and no others), directing them into channels of human advantage. If we seek for a single term by which to characterise with precision the nature of this process, we find this in Inven­tion. The essential characteristic of all intellectual action is invention.

Glancing now at the ensemble of human achievement, which may be collectively called civilisation, we readily see that it is all the result of this inventive process. All practical art is merely the product of successful invention, and it requires no undue expansion of the term, nor extraordinary power of gene­ralisation, to see in all human institutions only modified forms of arts, and true products of the intellectual, or inventive, faculty.

But what is the general result of all this? An entirely new dispensation has been given to the world. All the materials and forces of nature have been thus placed completely under the control of one of the otherwise least powerful of the creatures inhabiting the earth. He has only to know them in order to become their master. Nature has thus been made the servant of man. Thus only has man succeeded in peopling the entire globe while all other animals are restricted to narrow faunal areas. He has also peopled certain portions far more densely than any other species could have done, and he seems destined to continue multiplying his numbers for a long time yet in the future. But this quantitative proof is even less telling than the qualitative. When we confine our attention to the elite of man­kind we do not need to have the ways specified in detail by which the powers of mind have exalted the intellectual being above all other products of creation. At the present moment the most dense and the most enlightened populations of the globe occupy what are termed temperate latitudes, which means latitudes in which for from three to five months each year vegetation ceases entirely, the waters are locked in ice, and the temperature frequently sinks far below the zero of the Fahrenheit thermo­meter. Imagine the thin-skinned, furless animal man subsisting in such a climate. Extinguish his fires, banish his clothing, blot out the habitations that deck the civilised landscape. How long would the puny race survive? But these are not products of nature, they are products of art, the wages of thought—fruits of the intellect.

When a well-clothed philosopher on a bitter winter’s night sits in a warm room well lighted for his purpose and writes on paper with pen and ink in the arbitrary characters of a highly developed language the statement that civilisation is the result of natural laws, and that man’s duty is to let nature alone so that untrammeled it may work out a higher civilisation, he simply ignores every circumstance of his existence and deliberately closes his eyes to every fact within the range of his faculties. If man had acted upon his theory there would have been no civilisation, and our philosopher would have remained a troglodyte.

But how shall we distinguish this human, or anthropic, method from the method of nature? Simply by reversing all the defini­tions.  Art is the antithesis of nature.  If we call one the natural method we must call the other the artificial method. If nature’s process is rightly named natural selection, man’s process is artifi­cial selection. The survival of the fittest is simply the survival of the strong, which implies, and might as well be called, the destruction of the weak. And if nature progresses through the destruction of the weak, man progresses through the protection of the weak. This is the essential distinction.

In human society the psychic power has operated to secure the protection of the weak in two distinct ways: first, by increas­ing the supply of the necessities of life, and, secondly, by pre­venting the destruction of life through the enemies of man. The immediate instrumentality through which the first of these pro­cesses is carried on is art, the product of invention. The second process takes place through the establishment of positive institu­tions.

It is difficult to say which of these agencies has been most effective. Both were always indispensable, and therefore all comparison is unprofitable.

Art operates to protect the weak against adverse surroundings. It is directed against natural forces, chiefly physical. By thus defeating the destructive influences of the elements and hostile forms of life, and by forcing nature to yield an unnatural supply of man’s necessities, many who would have succumbed from ina­bility to resist these adverse agencies—the feebler members of society—were able to survive, and population increased and ex­panded. While no one openly denies this, there is a tendency either to ignore it in politico-economic discussions, or to deny its application to them as an answer to naturalistic arguments.

If, on the other hand, we inquire into the nature of human institutions, we shall perceive that they are of three kinds, tend­ing to protect the weak in three ways, or ascending degrees. These three successively higher means through which this end is attained are, first, Justice, second, Morality, and third, Charity. These forms of action have been reached through the develop­ment, respectively, of the three corresponding sentiments: Equity, Beneficence, and Benevolence.

All of these altruistic sentiments are wholly unknown, or known only in the merest embryo, to all animals below man, and there­fore no such means of protection exist among them. They are strictly human, or anthropic. Many evolutionists fail to recog­nise this. Some sociologists refuse to admit it. They look about and see so much injustice, immorality and rapacity that they are led to suppose that only natural methods are in operation in society. This is a great mistake. In point of fact, the keener the sense of justice the more conspicuous the diminishing num­ber of violations of it come to appear, and conversely, the ob­viousness of injustice proves the general prevalence of justice. It is the same with morality and philanthropy. 

If we consider the effect of these three codes of human con­duct in the direction of enabling the weaker ones to survive we shall see that it has been immense. Out of the first has arisen government, the chief value and function of which has always been and still is such protection. Great systems of jurisprudence have been elaborated, engrossing the attention of a large portion of the population of enlightened as well as of barbaric states. To say that these have been failures because often weighted with grave defects is to misinterpret history and misunderstand society. No one could probably be found to gainsay that the moral law of society has exerted a salutary influence, yet its aim is strictly altruistic, opposed to the law of the survival of the fittest, and wholly in the direction of enabling those to survive who would not survive without its protection. Finally, the last sentiment to be developed, and doubtless the highest, is so universally re­cognised as peculiar to man that his very name has been given to it—the sentiment of humanity. Yet the mode of protecting the weak arising out of this sentiment is the one that has been most seriously called in question by the naturalistic school. It must be admitted that humanitarian institutions have done far less good than either juridical or ethical institutions. The sentiment itself is of recent origin, the product only of highly developed and greatly refined mental organisation. It exists to an appreciable degree only in a minute fraction of the most enlightened populations. It is rarely directed with judgment; no fixed, self-enforcing code of conduct, as in the other cases, having had time to take shape. The institutions established to enforce it are for the most part poorly supported, badly managed, and often founded on a total misconception of human nature and of the true mode of attaining the end in view. Hence they are specially open to attack. But if ever humanitarian sentiments become diffused throughout the body politic, become the object of deep study, as have those of justice and right, it may be con­fidently predicted that society will prove itself capable of caring for the most unfortunate of its members in a manner that shall not work demoralisation.

In all these ways man, through his intelligence, has laboured successfully to resist the law of nature. His success is con­clusively demonstrated by a comparison of his condition with that of other species of animals. No other cause can be as­signed for his superiority. How can the naturalistic philosophers shut their eyes to such obvious facts? Yet, what is their attitude? They condemn all attempts to protect the weak, whether by private or public methods. They claim that it deteriorates the race by enabling the unfit to survive and transmit their inferiority. This is true only in certain cases of hereditary diseases or mental deficiencies, which should be taken account of by man because they are not by nature. Nothing is easier than to show that the unrestricted competition of nature does not secure the sur­vival of the fittest possible, but only of the actually fittest, and in every attempt man makes to obtain something fitter than this actual fittest he succeeds, as witness improved breeds of animals and grafts of fruits. Now, the human method of protecting the weak deals in some such way with men. It not only increases the number but improves the quality.

But “government,” at least, must laisser faire. It must not “meddle” with natural laws. The laws of trade, business, social intercourse, are natural laws, immutable and indestructible. All interference with them is vain. The fallacy here is a non sequitur. It may be readily granted that these laws are im­mutable and indestructible. Were this not the case it would certainly be hopeless to interfere with their action. But every mechanical invention proves that nothing is easier than to inter­fere successfully with the operation of these uniform natural forces. They have only to be first thoroughly understood and then they are easily controlled. To destroy a force is one thing, to control its action is quite another. Those who talk in this way involve themselves in the most palpable inconsistency. They must not be allowed to stop where they do. They must go on and carry their strictures to a logical conclusion. They must deny to government the right to protect its citizens from injustice. This is a clear interference with the natural laws of society. They must deny to society the right to enforce its code of morals. Nothing is more unnatural. They must suppress the healing art which keeps the sick from dying as they do among animals. Nor is this all. They must condemn all interference with physical laws and natural forces. To dam a stream must be characterised as a “vain” attempt to overcome a natural law. The wind must be left free to blow where it will, and not be forced against the fan of a wind-mill. The vapour of heated water must be allowed to float off naturally into the air and not be pent up in a steam-boiler and thence conducted into the cylinder of a steam-engine. All these things and every other device of inventive man are so many attempts to “violate” the laws of nature, which is de­clared impossible.

What then remains of the laissez faire doctrine? Nothing but this: That it is useless, and may be dangerous, to attempt to control natural forces until their character is first well understood. This is a proposition which is true for every department of force, and does not involve the surrender of the whole domain of socio­logy after it has been demonstrated that society is a theatre of forces. 

The truth thus comes forth from a rational study of nature and human society that social progress has been due only in very slight degree to natural evolution as accomplished through the survival of the fittest, and its chief success has resulted from the reduction of competition in the struggle for existence and the protection of the weaker members. Such competition, in so far as it has been permitted to operate, has tended to lower the standard of the fittest and to check advancement. It is not, of course, claimed that the natural method has ever been fully over­come. It has always operated, and still operates, powerfully in many ways. It has been chiefly in the simpler departments of physical and mechanical phenomena that the psychic, or an­thropic, method has superseded it. The inventive arts have been the result. Vital forces have yielded to some extent to the in­fluence of mind in bringing about improved stocks of animals and vegetables, and even certain social laws have come under rational control through the establishment of institutions. Still, every step in this progress has been contested. It was not enough that the intellect was feeble and ill-fitted to grapple with such problems. It was not enough that ignorance of nature’s laws should cause unnumbered failures. A still stronger barrier was presented by the intellect itself in the form of positive error embodied in philosophy. As already remarked, philo­sophy has always been negative and nihilistic, and has steadily antagonised the common sense of mankind. It is only quite recently that there has come into existence anything like a truly positive philosophy, i.e., a philosophy of action. The intellectual power of enlightened man has at length become sufficient to grasp the problems of social life. A large body of truth has been accumulated by which to be guided in their solu­tion. Positive error in the drawing of false conclusions from established facts is now the chief obstacle. Rational interpreta­tion has come to prevail in all the lower departments of pheno­mena. It is chiefly in the complex departments of psychic and social action that error still holds sway. Nothing remains to be done but to apply the established canons of science to these higher fields of activity. Here there is still competition. Here the weaker still go to the wall. Here the strong are still the fittest to survive. Here Nature still practises her costly selection which always involves the destruction of the defenceless. The demand is for still further reduction of competition, still greater interference with the operations of natural forces, still more com­plete control of the laws of nature, and still more absolute supre­macy of the psychic over the natural method of evolution.

These ends will be secured in proportion as the true nature of mind is understood. When nature comes to be regarded as passive and man as active, instead of the reverse as now, when human action is recognised as the most important of all forms of action, and when the power of the human intellect over vital, psychic and social phenomena is practically conceded, then, and then only, can man justly claim to have risen out of the animal and fully to have entered the human stage of development. 

[1] The social philosophy of Mr. Herbert Spencer possesses this tone throughout, and his disciples, particularly in America, delight in going even farther than their master. The most extreme statement of the laissez faire doctrine known to me is that of Prof. W. G. Sumner, in his recent work Social Glasses. 

“The Absurd Effort to Make the World Over”

By William Graham Sumner


[Sumner, William Graham. “The Absurd Effort to Make the World Over.” Forum 17 (March 1894): 92–102. Reprinted in William Graham Sumner. War and Other Essays. Edited by Albert Galloway Keller. New Haven: Yale University Press. 1919. 195–210. In the Public Domain.]


It will not probably be denied that the burden of proof is on those who affirm that our social condition is utterly diseased and in need of radical regeneration. My task at present, therefore, is entirely negative and crit­ical: to examine the allegations of fact and the doctrines which are put forward to prove the correctness of the diagnosis and to warrant the use of the remedies proposed.

The propositions put forward by social reformers now­adays are chiefly of two kinds. There are assertions in historical form, chiefly in regard to the comparison of existing with earlier social states, which are plainly based on defective historical knowledge, or at most on current stock historical dicta which are uncritical and incorrect. Writers very often assert that something never existed before because they do not know that it ever existed before, or that something is worse than ever before be­cause they are not possessed of detailed information about what has existed before. The other class of propositions consists of dogmatic statements which, whether true or not, are unverifiable. This class of propositions is the pest and bane of current economic and social discussion. Upon a more or less superficial view of some phenomenon a suggestion arises which is embodied in a philosophical proposition and promulgated as a truth. From the form and nature of such propositions they can always be brought under the head of “ethics.” This word at least gives them an air of elevated sentiment and purpose, which is the only warrant they possess. It is impossible to test or verify them by any investigation or logical process whatsoever. It is therefore very difficult for any­one who feels a high responsibility for historical state­ments, and who absolutely rejects any statement which is unverifiable, to find a common platform for discussion or to join issue satisfactorily in taking the negative.

When anyone asserts that the class of skilled and unskilled manual laborers of the United States is worse off now in respect to diet, clothing, lodgings, furniture, fuel, and lights; in respect to the age at which they can marry; the number of children they can provide for; the start in life which they can give to their children, and their chances of accumulating capital, than they ever have been at any former time, he makes a reckless assertion for which no facts have been offered in proof. Upon an appeal to facts, the contrary of this assertion would be clearly established. It suffices, therefore, to challenge those who are responsible for the assertion to make it good.

If it is said that the employed class are under much more stringent discipline than they were thirty years ago or earlier, it is true. It is not true that there has been any qualitative change in this respect within thirty years, but it is true that a movement which began at the first settlement of the country has been advancing with con­stant acceleration and has become a noticeable feature within our time. This movement is the advance in the industrial organization. The first settlement was made by agriculturists, and for a long time there was scarcely any organization. There were scattered farmers, each working for himself, and some small towns with only rudimentary commerce and handicrafts. As the country has filled up, the arts and professions have been differen­tiated and the industrial organization has been advancing. This fact and its significance has hardly been noticed at all; but the stage of the industrial organization existing at any time, and the rate of advance in its development, are the absolutely controlling social facts. Nine-tenths of the socialistic and semi-socialistic, and sentimental or ethical, suggestions by which we are overwhelmed come from failure to understand the phenomena of the indus­trial organization and its expansion. It controls us all because we are all in it. It creates the conditions of our existence, sets the limits of our social activity, regu­lates the bonds of our social relations, determines our conceptions of good and evil, suggests our life-philosophy, molds our inherited political institutions, and reforms the oldest and toughest customs, like marriage and prop­erty. I repeat that the turmoil of heterogeneous and antagonistic social whims and speculations in which we live is due to the failure to understand what the indus­trial organization is and its all-pervading control over human life, while the traditions of our school of philosophy lead us always to approach the industrial organization, not from the side of objective study, but from that of philosophical doctrine. Hence it is that we find that the method of measuring what we see happening by what are called ethical standards, and of proposing to attack the phenomena by methods thence deduced, is so popular.

The advance of a new country from the very simplest social coordination up to the highest organization is a most interesting and instructive chance to study the development of the organization. It has of course been attended all the way along by stricter subordination and higher discipline.  All organization implies restriction of liberty. The gain of power is won by narrowing indi­vidual range. The methods of business in colonial days were loose and slack to an inconceivable degree. The movement of industry has been all the time toward promptitude, punctuality, and reliability. It has been attended all the way by lamentations about the good old times; about the decline of small industries; about the lost spirit of comradeship between employer and em­ployee; about the narrowing of the interests of the work­man; about his conversion into a machine or into a “ware,” and about industrial war. These lamentations have all had reference to unquestionable phenomena attendant on advancing organization. In all occupations the same movement is discernible —in the learned pro­fessions, in schools, in trade, commerce, and transporta­tion. It is to go on faster than ever, now that the continent is filled up by the first superficial layer of population over its whole extent and the intensification of industry has begun. The great inventions both make the intension of the organization possible and make it inevitable, with all its consequences, whatever they may be. I must expect to be told here, according to the current fashions of thinking, that we ought to control the development of the organization. The first instinct of the modern man is to get a law passed to forbid or prevent what, in his wisdom, he disapproves. A thing which is inevitable, however, is one which we cannot control. We have to make up our minds to it, adjust ourselves to it, and sit down to live with it. Its inevitableness may be disputed, in which case we must re­examine it; but if our analysis is correct, when we reach what is inevitable we reach the end, and our regulations must apply to ourselves, not to the social facts. Now the intensification of the social organization is what gives us greater social power. It is to it that we owe our increased comfort and abundance. We are none of us ready to sacrifice this. On the contrary, we want more of it. We would not return to the colonial sim­plicity and the colonial exiguity if we could. If not, then we must pay the price. Our life is bounded on every side by conditions. We can have this if we will agree to submit to that. In the case of industrial power and product the great condition is combination of force under discipline and strict coordination. Hence the wild language about wage-slavery and capitalistic tyranny.

In any state of society no great achievements can be produced without great force.  Formerly great force was attainable only by slavery aggregating the power of great numbers of men. Roman civilization was built on this. Ours has been built on steam.  It is to be built on elec­tricity.  Then we are all forced into an organization around these natural forces and adapted to the methods or their application; and although we indulge in rhetoric about political liberty, nevertheless we find ourselves bound tight in a new set of conditions, which control the modes of our existence and determine the directions in which alone economic and social liberty can go.

If it is said that there are some persons in our time who have become rapidly and in a great degree rich, it is true; if it is said that large aggregations of wealth in the control of individuals is a social danger, it is not true.

The movement of the industrial organization which has just been described has brought out a great demand for men capable of managing great enterprises. Such have been called “captains of industry.” The analogy with military leaders suggested by this name is not mis­leading.  The great leaders in the development of the industrial organization need those talents of executive and administrative skill, power to command, courage, and fortitude, which were formerly called for in military affairs and scarcely anywhere else. The industrial army is also as dependent on its captains as a military body is on its generals. One of the worst features of the existing system is that the employees have a constant risk in their employer. If he is not competent to manage the business with success, they suffer with him. Capital also is dependent on the skill of the captain of industry for the certainty and magnitude of its profits. Under these circumstances there has been a great demand for men having the requisite ability for this function. As the organization has advanced, with more impersonal bonds of coherence and wider scope of operations, the value of this functionary has rapidly increased. The possession of the requisite ability is a natural monopoly. Consequently, all the conditions have concurred to give to those who possessed this monopoly excessive and constantly advancing rates of remuneration. Another social function of the first importance in an intense organization is the solution of those crises in the operation of it which are called the conjuncture of the market. It is through the market that the lines of rela­tion run which preserve the system in harmonious and rhythmical operation. The conjuncture is the momen­tary sharper misadjustment of supply and demand which indicates that a redistribution of productive effort is called for. The industrial organization needs to be insured against these conjunctures, which, if neglected, produce a crisis and catastrophe; and it needs that they shall be anticipated and guarded against as far as skill and foresight can do it. The rewards of this function for the bankers and capitalists who perform it are very great. The captains of industry and the capitalists who operate on the conjuncture, therefore, if they are successful, win, in these days, great fortunes in a short time. There are no earnings which are more legitimate or for which greater services are rendered to the whole indus­trial body. The popular notions about this matter really assume that all the wealth accumulated by these classes of persons would be here just the same if they had not existed. They are supposed to have appropriated it out of the common stock. This is so far from being true that, on the contrary, their own wealth would not be but for themselves; and besides that, millions more of wealth, many-fold greater than their own, scattered in the hands of thousands, would not exist but for them.

Within the last two years I have traveled from end to end of the German Empire several times on all kinds of trains. I reached the conviction, looking at the matter from the passenger’s standpoint, that, if the Germans could find a Vanderbilt and put their railroads in his hands for twenty-five years, letting him reorganize the system and make twenty-five million dollars out of it for himself in that period, they would make an excellent bargain.

But it is repeated until it has become a commonplace which people are afraid to question, that there is some social danger in the possession of large amounts of wealth by individuals. I ask, Why? I heard a lecture two years ago by a man who holds perhaps the first chair of political economy in the world. He said, among other things, that there was great danger in our day from great accumulations; that this danger ought to be met by taxation, and he referred to the fortune of the Roth­schilds and to the great fortunes made in America to prove his point.  He omitted, however, to state in what the danger consisted or to specify what harm has ever been done by the Rothschild fortunes or by the great fortunes accumulated in America. It seemed to me that the assertions he was making, and the measures he was recommending, ex-cathedra, were very serious to be thrown out so recklessly. It is hardly to be expected that novelists, popular magazinists, amateur economists, and politicians will be more responsible. It would be easy, however, to show what good is done by accumu­lations of capital in a few hands—that is, under close and direct management, permitting prompt and accurate application; also to tell what harm is done by loose and unfounded denunciations of any social component or any social group. In the recent debates on the income tax the assumption that great accumulations of wealth are socially harmful and ought to be broken down by taxa­tion was treated as an axiom, and we had direct proof how dangerous it is to fit out the average politician with such unverified and unverifiable dogmas as his warrant for his modes of handling the direful tool of taxation.

Great figures are set out as to the magnitude of certain fortunes and the proportionate amount of the national wealth held by a fraction of the population, and eloquent exclamation-points are set against them. If the figures were beyond criticism, what would they prove? Where is the rich man who is oppressing anybody? If there was one, the newspapers would ring with it. The facts about the accumulation of wealth do not constitute a plutocracy, as I will show below. Wealth, in itself considered, is only power, like steam, or electricity, or knowledge. The question of its good or ill turns on the question how it will be used. To prove any harm in aggregations of wealth it must be shown that great wealth is, as a rule, in the ordinary course of social affairs, put to a mischievous use. This cannot be shown beyond the very slightest degree, if at all.

Therefore, all the allegations of general mischief, social corruption, wrong, and evil in our society must be referred back to those who make them for particulars and speci­fications. As they are offered to us we cannot allow them to stand, because we discern in them faulty observation of facts, or incorrect interpretation of facts, or a con­struction of facts according to some philosophy, or mis­understanding of phenomena and their relations, or incorrect inferences, or crooked deductions.

Assuming, however, that the charges against the existing “capitalistic”—that is, industrial—order of things are established, it is proposed to remedy the ill by reconstructing the industrial system on the principles of democracy. Once more we must untangle the snarl of half ideas and muddled facts.

Democracy is, of course, a word to conjure with. We have a democratic-republican political system, and we like it so well that we are prone to take any new step which can be recommended as “democratic” or which will round out some “principle” of democracy to a fuller fulfillment. Everything connected with this domain of political thought is crusted over with false historical traditions, cheap philosophy, and undefined terms, but it is useless to try to criticize it. The whole drift of the world for five hundred years has been toward democ­racy. That drift, produced by great discoveries and inventions, and by the discovery of a new continent, has raised the middle class out of the servile class. In alliance with the crown they crushed the feudal classes. They made the crown absolute in order to do it. Then they turned against the crown and, with the aid of the handi­craftsmen and peasants, conquered it. Now the next conflict which must inevitably come is that between the middle capitalist class and the proletariat, as the word has come to be used. If a certain construction is put on this conflict, it may be called that between democracy and plutocracy, for it seems that industrialism must be developed into plutocracy by the conflict itself. That is the conflict which stands before civilized society to-day. All the signs of the times indicate its commencement, and it is big with fate to mankind and to civilization.

Although we cannot criticise democracy profitably, it may be said of it, with reference to our present subject, that up to this time democracy never has done anything, either in politics, social affairs, or industry, to prove its power to bless mankind. If we confine our attention to the United States, there are three difficulties with regard to its alleged achievements, and they all have the most serious bearing on the proposed democratization of in­dustry.

1.     The time during which democracy has been tried in the United States is too short to warrant any inferences. A century or two is a very short time in the life of polit­ical institutions, and if the circumstances change rapidly during the period the experiment is vitiated. 

2.    The greatest question of all about American democ­racy is whether it is a cause or a consequence. It is popularly assumed to be a cause, and we ascribe to its beneficent action all the political vitality, all the easiness of social relations, all the industrial activity and enter­prise which we experience and which we value and enjoy. I submit, however, that, on a more thorough examina­tion of the matter, we shall find that democracy is a consequence. There are economic and sociological causes for our political vitality and vigor, for the ease and elas­ticity of our social relations, and for our industrial power and success. Those causes have also produced democ­racy, given it success, and have made its faults and errors innocuous. Indeed, in any true philosophy, it must be held that in the economic forces which control the material prosperity of a population lie the real causes of its politi­cal institutions, its social class-adjustments, its industrial prosperity, its moral code, and its world-philosophy. If democracy and the industrial system are both products of the economic conditions which exist, it is plainly absurd to set democracy to defeat those conditions in the control of industry. If, however, it is not true that democracy is a consequence, and I am well aware that very few people believe it, then we must go back to the view that democracy is a cause. That being so, it is difficult to see how democracy, which has had a clear field here in America, is not responsible for the ills which Mr. Bellamy and his comrades in opinion see in our present social state, and it is difficult to see the grounds of asking us to intrust it also with industry. The first and chief proof of success of political measures and systems is that, under them, society advances in health and vigor and that industry develops without causing social disease. If this has not been the case in America, American democ­racy has not succeeded. Neither is it easy to see how the masses, if they have undertaken to rule, can escape the responsibilities of ruling, especially so far as the con­sequences affect themselves. If, then, they have brought all this distress upon themselves under the present sys­tem, what becomes of the argument for extending the system to a direct and complete control of industry? 

3.   It is by no means certain that democracy in the United States has not, up to this time, been living on a capital inherited from aristocracy and industrialism. We have no pure democracy.  Our democracy is limited at every turn by institutions which were developed in England in connection with industrialism and aristocracy, and these institutions are of the essence of our system. While our people are passionately democratic in temper and will not tolerate a doctrine that one man is not as good as another, they have common sense enough to know that he is not; and it seems that they love and cling to the conservative institutions quite as strongly as they do to the democratic philosophy. They are, there­fore, ruled by men who talk philosophy and govern by the institutions. Now it is open to Mr. Bellamy to say that the reason why democracy in America seems to be open to the charge made in the last paragraph, of respon­sibility for all the ill which he now finds in our society, is because it has been infected with industrialism (cap­italism); but in that case he must widen the scope of his proposition and undertake to purify democracy before turning industry over to it. The socialists generally seem to think that they make their undertakings easier when they widen their scope, and make them easiest when they propose to remake everything; but in truth social tasks increase in difficulty in an enormous ratio as they are widened in scope.

The question, therefore, arises, if it is proposed to reorganize the social system on the principles of American democracy, whether the institutions of industrialism are to be retained. If so, all the virus of capitalism will be retained. It is forgotten, in many schemes of social reformation in which it is proposed to mix what we like with what we do not like, in order to extirpate the latter, that each must undergo a reaction from the other, and that what we like may be extirpated by what we do not like. We may find that instead of democratizing cap­italism we have capitalized democracy — that is, have brought in plutocracy. Plutocracy is a political system in which the ruling force is wealth. The denunciation of capital which we hear from all the reformers is the most eloquent proof that the greatest power in the world today is capital. They know that it is, and confess it most when they deny it most strenuously. At present the power of capital is social and industrial, and only in a small degree political. So far as capital is political, it is on account of political abuses, such as tariffs and special legislation on the one hand and legislative strikes on the other. These conditions exist in the democracy to which it is proposed to transfer the industries. What does that mean except bringing all the power of capital once for all into the political arena and precipitating the conflict of democracy and plutocracy at once? Can any­one imagine that the masterfulness, the overbearing dis­position, the greed of gain, and the ruthlessness in methods, which are the faults of the master of industry at his worst, would cease when he was a functionary of the State, which had relieved him of risk and endowed him with authority? Can anyone imagine that poli­ticians would no longer be corruptly fond of money, intriguing, and crafty when they were charged, not only with patronage and government contracts, but also with factories, stores, ships, and railroads? Could we expect anything except that, when the politician and the master of industry were joined in one, we should have the vices of both unchecked by the restraints of either? In any socialistic state there will be one set of positions which will offer chances of wealth beyond the wildest dreams of avarice; viz., on the governing committees. Then there will be rich men whose wealth will indeed be a menace to social interests, and instead of industrial peace there will be such war as no one has dreamed of yet: the war between the political ins and outs—that is, between those who are on the committee and those who want to get on it.

We must not drop the subject of democracy without one word more. The Greeks already had occasion to notice a most serious distinction between two principles of democracy which lie at its roots. Plutarch says that Solon got the archonship in part by promising equality, which some understood of esteem and dignity, others of measure and number. There is one democratic prin­ciple which means that each man should be esteemed for his merit and worth, for just what he is, without regard to birth, wealth, rank, or other adventitious circum­stances. The other principle is that each one of us ought to be equal to all the others in what he gets and enjoys. The first principle is only partially realizable, but, so far as it goes, it is elevating and socially progressive and profitable. The second is not capable of an intel­ligible statement. The first is a principle of industrialism. It proceeds from and is intelligible only in a society built on the industrial virtues, free endeavor, security of prop­erty, and repression of the baser vices; that is, in a society whose industrial system is built on labor and exchange. The other is only a rule of division for robbers who have to divide plunder or monks who have to divide gifts. If, therefore, we want to democratize industry in the sense of the first principle, we need only perfect what we have now, especially on its political side. If we try to democratize it in the sense of the other principle, we cor­rupt politics at one stroke; we enter upon an industrial enterprise which will waste capital and bring us all to poverty, and we set loose greed and envy as ruling social passions.

If this poor old world is as bad as they say, one more reflection may check the zeal of the headlong reformer. It is at any rate a tough old world. It has taken its trend and curvature and all its twists and tangles from a long course of formation. All its wry and crooked gnarls and knobs are therefore stiff and stubborn. If we puny men by our arts can do anything at all to straighten them, it will only be by modifying the tendencies of some of the forces at work, so that, after a sufficient time, their action may be changed a little and slowly the lines of movement may be modified. This effort, however, can at most be only slight, and it will take a long time. In the meantime spontaneous forces will be at work, com­pared with which our efforts are like those of a man try­ing to deflect a river, and these forces will have changed the whole problem before our interferences have time to make themselves felt. The great stream of time and earthly things will sweep on just the same in spite of us. It bears with it now all the errors and follies of the past, the wreckage of all the philosophies, the fragments of all the civilizations, the wisdom of all the abandoned ethical systems, the debris of all the institutions, and the penal­ties of all the mistakes. It is only in imagination that we stand by and look at and criticize it and plan to change it. Everyone of us is a child of his age and cannot get out of it. He is in the stream and is swept along with it. All his sciences and philosophy come to him out of it. Therefore the tide will not be changed by us. It will swallow up both us and our experiments. It will absorb the efforts at change and take them into itself as new but trivial components, and the great movement of tradition and work will go on unchanged by our fads and schemes. The things which will change it are the great discoveries and inventions, the new reactions inside the social organism, and the changes in the earth itself on account of changes in the cosmical forces. These causes will make of it just what, in fidelity to them, it ought to be. The men will be carried along with it and be made by it. The utmost they can do by their clever­ness will be to note and record their course as they are carried along, which is what we do now, and is that which leads us to the vain fancy that we can make or guide the movement. That is why it is the greatest folly of which a man can be capable, to sit down with a slate and pencil to plan out a new social world.

“Purposes and Consequences”[1]

By William Graham Sumner


[Sumner, William Graham. “Purposes and Consequences.” In Earth Hunger and Other Essays. New Haven: Yale University Press. 1913. 67–75.]


The observation that motives and purposes have nothing to do with consequences is a criterion for dis­tinguishing between the science of society and the views, whims, ideals, and fads which are current in regard to social matters, but especially for distinguishing between socialism and sociology. Motives and purposes are in the brain and heart of man. Consequences are in the world of fact. The former are infected by human igno­rance, folly, self-deception, and passion; the latter are sequences of cause and effect dependent upon the nature of the forces at work. When, therefore, a man acts, he sets forces in motion, and the consequences are such as those forces produce under the conditions existing. They are entirely independent of any notion, will, wish, or intention in the mind of any man or men. Conse­quences are facts in the world of experience. If one man discharges a gun at another and kills him, he may say afterwards that he “did not know that it was loaded.” He did not mean to kill. The consequences remain; they are such as follow from the structure of a gun, the nature of explosives, and the relative adjustment of the men and the things. Of course this proposition is so simple and obvious that no demonstration can add to it. Why is there any such thing as wisdom, unless there is a distinction between a correct and an incorrect apprehen­sion of existing conditions and of the effects which certain forces will produce? How could anybody ever make a “mistake” if his purposes would determine the consequences of his acts? Why should we try to get experience of life and to know how to act under given circumstances, unless it is because the causes and effects will follow their own sequences and we, instead of controlling them by our mental operations, are sure to be affected by them in our interests and welfare? Why, in short, is there any need of education if things in this world will follow our motives and purposes—since education aims to inform us of the order of things in this world to which we are subject?

Since consequences are entirely independent of motives and purposes, ethics have no application to consequences. Ethics apply only to motives and purposes. This is why the whole fashion, which is now so popular and which most people think so noble, of mixing ethics into eco­nomics and politics, is utterly ignorant and mischievous. All policies are deliberate choices of series of acts; whether we wish good or ill, when we choose our acts, is of no importance. The only important thing is whether we know what the conditions are and what will be the effects of our acts. To act from notions, pious hopes, benevolent intentions, or ideals is sentimentalism, because the mental states and operations lack basis in truth and reality. Policies, therefore, which have not been tested by all the criteria which science provides are not to be discussed at all. Somebody’s notion that they would work well and give us a gain, or that there is great need of them, because he thinks he sees a great evil at present, are no grounds of action for sober-minded men. The protective tariff is a case, so far as it is a policy of prosperity. The silver policy which was urged in 1896 and 1900 was another example. We live in the midst of a mass of illustrations of the fact that laws do not produce the consequences which the legislator intended.  They give rise to other consequences, such, namely, as the forces which they set in operation, under the conditions which exist, necessarily produce.

Acts of the legislature work on the cupidity, envy, and ambition- of men; as soon as a law is passed each man affected by it takes his attitude to it. Mass phenomena result from the concurrent action of many. What results is what must result from the actions, acting as causes, under the conditions; if the actions are of a certain kind, institutions are undermined, men are miseducated, the public conscience is corrupted, false standards are set up; frivolity, idleness, love of pleasure, sycophancy, will become traits of the society. That the legislator intended to promote education, temperance, industry, and purity is entirely aside from the case. In 1899 the press of the United States constantly reiterated the assertion that the motives of the United States in the war with Spain were noble, humanitarian, and ethical, and that it never en­tered into expectation that the Philippine Islands were to come into our possession. All this was entirely idle; when a war is begun it will run its course and bring its consequences. What the intention was makes no difference. This, of course, is the reason why no serious statesman will enter upon a war if he can help it, or will ever engage in an adventurous policy, that is, a policy whose course and consequences are not open to his view so far as the utmost training and effort of human reason will enable him to see.

Whenever any policy is adopted, all the consequences of it must be accepted—those which are unwelcome as well as those which are welcome. This works both ways, for there are good consequences of an evil policy as well as bad consequences of a good policy. It is clear, however, that in the adoption of a policy the considerations which should be taken into account are those which are de­duced from the conditions existing and from the relations of cause and effect in the world of experience. They are not ethical at all, and the introduction of ethical notions or dogmas can never do anything but obscure the study of the facts and relations which alone should occupy attention.

The explanation of the popular confusion between motives and consequences is easy. We men are daily compelled to act. We cannot desist from activity. Therefore we have to make decisions and go forward. Hence, in our judgment of each other, if the acts turn out to have evil consequences, we have to grant excuse and indulgence to each other, if the intention was honest and the motive pure. It is no doubt necessary and right so to do, but that does not affect the reality of the conse­quences or the suffering and loss attendant upon them. Therefore we turn back to our educational operations, and to science, in order to learn more about the world of fact and the play of forces in it, for what we want is, not to judge or excuse each other, but to avoid suffering and loss.

Here, then, is the great gulf between all the sentimental, ethical, humanitarian, and benevolent views about social matters and the scientific view of the same. The former start out from some mental states or emotions produced by impressions from occurrences; the latter starts out from the desire to know the truth about facts and rela­tions in the world of experience. In all the dictionaries definitions of socialism are given which try to express the sense of socialism in terms of the pious hope or benevolent intention by which socialists claim to be animated. All these definitions appear to be colored by a desire on the part of the persons who made them to give definitions which would be satisfactory to socialists. The defini­tions are substantially alike. Not one of them contains an idea; that is to say, not one of them expresses a true definition, if by a definition is understood the expression in language of a single complete and well-rounded con­cept. An aspiration for better things is common to all philosophies and systems; it is not a definition of any one. It is a diffused sentiment and nothing more. These definitions, however, are all true to the reality of the case in one respect; they are all attempts to bring within the compass of a formula what is really a nebulous state of mind with respect to the phenomena of human society. The only positive characteristic of this state of mind is that it is one of disapproval and dislike. The suggestion of contrast with some other phenomena which would be approved and liked is, of course, a dispersion of thought to the infinite variety of subjective phantasms which might float in the imagination of an indefinite number of men. The point is, for the present purpose, that all this belongs on the side of motives, purposes, hopes, intentions, ideals, and has nothing to do with realities, forces, laws, consequences, facts, conditions, relations. The science of society finds its field in explor­ing the latter; it has nothing at all to do with the former. This is why it is true, although socialists are annoyed by the assertion, that socialism is not a subject for discussion by serious students of the science of society. An econo­mist or sociologist who discusses socialism is like a physi­cist who discusses Jules Verne’s novels. He does not prove his own breadth of mind; he proves that he does not understand the domain of his own vocation.

Poetry and other forms of the fine arts express senti­ments, states of mind, and emotional reactions on ex­perience.  As new stimuli they affect the imagination and produce new states of thought and emotion. For the greatest part their effect is dissipated and exhausted in these subjective experiences, not without residual effect on character. As motives of action, these impulses of the emotions produced by artistic devices do not stand in good repute in the experience of mankind. Why? Because they contain no knowledge or foresight, and therefore no guarantee of consequences. It belongs to education to train men and women to criticize and with­stand impulses of this class. Pictures of scenes or objects, instead of inciting to action, ought to act upon an educated person as warnings to distrust the influence to which he is exposed. It is not possible to cross-examine a picture, even if it is a photograph.

A good education would, in a similar manner, teach its pupils to resist the magnetism of a crowd and the seduc­tions of popularity. When a crowd, of which one is a member, are enthused with a common sentiment and purpose, it is impossible to resist the influence of it. Hence the well-known fact that men who act in a crowd often look back later in astonishment at their own actions; they cannot understand how they came to participate in the things which were done. Education ought to train us so that when we are in a crowd which is being swept away by a motive, we should refuse to join, and should instead go away to think over the probable conse­quences. In like manner popularity, which seems now to be the grand standard of action, is always to be dis­trusted. “Woe unto you when all men speak well of you.” That is the time to take warning that you are probably going astray. It is very smooth and easy to run with the current and it involves no responsibility for the consequences. Who then will consider the con­sequences?   They will come.   All our reason, study, science, and education are turned to scorn and ridicule if popularity is a proper and adequate motive of action.

In fact the judgment of probable consequences is the only real and sound ground of action. It is because men have been ignorant of the probable consequences, or have disregarded them, that human history presents such a picture of the devastation and waste of human energy and of the wreck of human hopes. If there is any salvation for the human race from woe and misery it is in knowl­edge and in training to use knowledge. Every investiga­tion of the world in which we live is an enlargement of our power to judge of probable consequences when cases arise in which we shall be compelled to act. The differ­ence between motives and consequences, therefore, is seen to be a gulf between the most divergent notions of human life and of the way to deal with its problems. It is most essential that all of us who believe in the scientific view of life and its problems should extricate ourselves completely from the trammels of the sentimental view, and should understand the antagonism between them, for the sentimental view has prevailed in the past and we live now in a confusion between the two.

It is a still more positive vice to act from an intention to attain ideals. Ideals are necessarily phantasms. They have no basis in fact. Generally ideals are formed under the stress of difficulty along the hard road of posi­tive endeavor. Then the imagination takes wing and, disregarding conditions and forces, revels in constructions which are not limited by anything.[2] The ideal for man­kind would be to have material supplies without limit and without labor and to reproduce without care or responsi­bility. Minor ideals are but details or fractions which are not worth attention.  If ideals have any power or value, it is as easy to use them for the whole as for any part. Dogmatic ideals like perfect liberty, justice, or equality, especially if economic and not political liberty, justice, and equality are meant, can never furnish rational or scientific motives of action or starting-points for rational effort. They never can enter into scientific thinking since they admit of no analysis and can be tested by no canons of truth. They have no footing in reality. Anybody who says that “we want to build a republic of educated labor” is not defining a rational program of action. He is only manufacturing turgid phrases. He who says that the state “ought to balance the motives of interest and benevolence’ 2 is not contributing to any sober discussion. He is talking nonsense, since an analysis of “state,” “interest,” and “benevolence” would cause the proposition to fall into contradictions and absurdities. The vice and fallacy of this way of looking at things is that it assumes that men can by thinking things call them into being; or that men can add by thinking to the existing conditions some element which is not in them.[3] All who talk about the “power of ideas” are more or less under this fallacy. It is a relic of the sympathetic magic of savage men. Serious study of human society shows us that we can never do anything but use and develop the opportunities which are offered to us by the conditions and conjunctures of the moment.Other motives of action are derived from the authorita­tive or dogmatic precepts of some sect of philosophy or religion. These are what is commonly called ethics. In the ordinary course of life it is best and is necessary that for most of us, and for all of us most of the time, these current rules of action which are traditional and accepted in our society should be adopted and obeyed. This is true, however, only because it is impossible for nearly all of us to investigate for ourselves and win per­sonal convictions, and it is impossible for any of us to do so except in a few special matters. Nevertheless, all this sets out only in so much clearer light the pre-eminent value of science, because science extends, over the whole domain of human experience, a gradually wider and wider perception of those relations of man to earth and man to man on which human welfare depends. Science is investigation of facts by sound methods, and deduction of inferences by sound processes. The further it goes the more it enlightens us as to consequences which must ensue if acts are executed by which things and men are brought into the relations which science has elucidated. At the present moment civilized society stands at a point in the development of the applications of science to human interests, at which the thing of the highest importance is the subjection of societal phenomena to scientific investi­gation, together with the elimination of metaphysics from this entire domain.


[1] [Note omitted]

[2] Gumplowics, L., Staatsidee, p. 133; Soziologie und Politik, p. 110.

[3] Ratsenhofer, G.. Die Soziologische Erkenntnis, p. 365.

“Evolution of the Race Problem”

By W.E.B. DuBois


[DuBois, W. E. B. “Evolution of the Race Problem.” In Proceedings of the National Negro Conference. New York: s.n. 1909. 142158. In the Public Domain.]


Those who complain that the Negro problem is always with us and apparently insoluble must not forget that under this vague and general designation are gathered many social problems and many phases of the same problem; that these problems and phases have passed through a great evolutionary circle and that to-day especially one may clearly see a repetition, vaster but similar, of the great cycle of the past.

That problem of the past, so far as the black American was concerned, began with caste—a definite place preordained in custom, law and religion where all men of black blood must be thrust. To be sure, this caste idea as applied to blacks was no sudden, full grown conception, for the enslavement of the workers was an idea which America inherited from Europe and was not synonymous for many years with the enslavement of the blacks, although the blacks were the chief workers. Men came to the idea of exclusive black slavery by gradually enslaving the workers, as was the world’s long custom, and then gradually conceiving certain sorts of work and certain colors of men as necessarily connected. It was, when once set up definitely in the southern slave system, a logically cohering whole which the simplest social philosopher could easily grasp and state. The difficulty was it was too simple to be either just or true. Human nature is not simple and any classification that roughly divides men into good and bad, superior and inferior, slave and free, is and must ever be ludicrously untrue and universally dangerous as a permanent exhaustive classification. So in the southern slave system the thing that from the first damned it was the free Negro—the Negro legally free, the Negro economically free and the Negro spiritually free.

How was the Negro to be treated and conceived of who was legally free? At first with perfect naturalness he was treated as a man—he voted in Massachusetts and in South Carolina, in New York and Virginia; he intermarried with black and white, he claimed and received his civil rights—all  this until the caste of color was so turned as to correspond with the caste of work and enslave not only slaves but black men who were not slaves. Even this system, however, was unable to ensure complete economic dependence on the part of all black men; there were continually artisans, foremen and skilled servants who became economically too valuable to be slaves. In vain were laws hurled at Negro intelligence and responsibility; black men continued to hire their time and to steal some smattering of knowledge, and it was this fact that became the gravest menace to the slave system. But even legal and economic freedom was not so dangerous to slavery as the free spirit which continually cropped out among men fated to be slaves: they thought, they dreamed, they aspired, they resisted. In vain were they beaten, sold south and killed, the ranks were continually filled with others and they either led revolt at home or ran away to the North, and these by showing their human qualities continually gave the lie to the slave assumption. Thus it was the free Negro in these manifold phases of his appearance who hastened the economic crisis which killed slavery and who made it impossible to make the caste of work and the caste of color correspond, and who became at once the promise and excuse of those who forced the critical revolution.

To-day in larger cycle and more intricate detail we are passing through certain phases of a similar evolution. To-day we have the caste idea—again not a sudden full grown conception but one being insidiously but consciously and persistently pressed upon the nation. The steps toward it which are being taken are: first, political disfranchisement, then vocational education with the distinct idea of narrowing to the uttermost of the vocations in view, and finally a curtailment of civil freedom of travel, association, and entertainment, in systematic effort to instill contempt and kill self-respect.

Here then is the new slavery of black men in America—a new attempt to make degradation of social condition correspond with certain physical characteristics—not to be sure fully realized as yet, and probably unable for reasons of social development ever to become as systematized as the economic and physical slavery of the past—and yet realized to an extent almost unbelievable by those who have not taken the pains to study the facts—to an extent which makes the lives of thinking black men in this land a perpetual martyrdom.

But right here, as in the past, stands in the path of this idea the figure of this same thinking black man—this new freedman. This freedman again, as in the past, presents himself as free in varying phases: there is the free black voter of the North and border states whose power is far more tremendous than even he dare think so that he is afraid to use it; there is the black man who has accomplished economic freedom and who by working himself into the vast industrial development of the nation is to-day accumulating property at a rate that is simply astounding. And finally there is the small but growing number of black men emerging into spiritual freedom and becoming participators and freemen of the kingdom of culture around which it is so singularly difficult to set metes and bounds, and who in art, science and literature are making their modest but ineffaceable mark.

The question is what is the significance of this group of men for the future of the caste programme and for the future social development of America? In order to answer this question intelligently let us retrace our steps and follow more carefully the details of the proposed programme of renewed caste in America. This programme when one comes to define and state it is elusive. There are even those who deny its existence as a definite consciously conceived plan of action. But, certain it is, there is growing unanimity of a peculiar sort on certain matters. And this unanimity is centering about three propositions:

   1. That it was a mistake to give Negroes the ballot.
   2. That Negroes are essentially an inferior race.
   3. That the only permanent settlement of the race problem will be open and legal recognition of this inferiority.

When now a modern nation condemns ten million of its fellows to such a fate it would be supposed that this conclusion has been reluctantly forced upon them after a careful study and weighing of the facts. This, however, is not the case in the Negro problem. On the contrary there has been manifest a singular reluctance and indisposition carefully to study the Negro problem. Ask the average American: Why should the ballot have been withheld from the Negro, and he will answer: “Because he wasn’t fit for it.” But that is not a sufficient answer: first, because few newly enfranchised groups of the most successful democracies have been fit for the ballot when it was first given, and secondly, because there were Negroes in the United States fit for the ballot in 1870. Moreover the political philosophy that condemns out of hand the Fifteenth Amendment does not often stop to think that the problem before the American nation 18651870 was not a simple problem of fixing the qualifications of voters. It was, on the contrary, the immensely more complicated problem of enforcing a vast social and economic revolution on a people determined not to submit to it. Whenever a moral reform is forced on a people from without there ensue complicated and tremendous problems, whether that reform is the correction of the abuse of alcohol, the abolition of child labor or the emancipation of slaves. The enforcement of such a reform will strain every nerve of the nation and the real question is not: Is it a good thing to strain the framework of the nation but rather: Is slavery so dangerous a thing that sudden enfranchisement of the ex-slaves is too great a price to pay for its abolition?

To be sure there are those who profess to think that the white South of its own initiative after the war, with the whole of the wealth, intelligence and law-making power in its hands, would have freely emancipated its slaves in obedience to a decree from Washington, just as there are those who would entrust the regulation of the whiskey traffic to saloon keepers and the bettering of the conditions of child labor to the employers. It is no attack on the South or on saloon keepers or on employers to say that such a reform from such a source is unthinkable. It is simply human nature that men trained to a social system or condition should be the last to be entirely entrusted with its reformation. It was, then, not the Emancipation Proclamation but the Fifteenth Amendment that made slavery impossible in the United States and those that object to the Fifteenth Amendment have simply this question to answer: Which was best, slavery or ignorant Negro voters? The answer is clear as day: Negro voters never did anything as bad as slavery. If they were guilty of all the crimes charged to them by the wildest enemies, even then what they did was less dangerous, less evil and less cruel than the system of slavery whose death knell they struck. And when in addition to this we remember that the black voters of the South established the public schools, gave the poor whites the ballot, modernized the penal code and put on the statute books of the South page after page of legislation that still stands to-day—when we remember this, we have a right to conclude that the Fifteenth Amendment was a wise and far-sighted piece of statesmanship.

But to-day the men who oppose the right of Negroes to vote are no longer doing so on the ground of ignorance, and with good reason, for to-day a majority and an appreciable majority of the black men of the South twenty-one years of age and over can read and write. In other words, the bottom has been clean knocked out of their ignorance argument and yet the fact has elicited scarcely a loud remark.

Indeed we black men are continually puzzled by the easy almost unconscious way in which our detractors change their ground. Before emancipation it was stated and reiterated with bitter emphasis and absolute confidence that a free Negro would prove to be a shiftless scamp, a barbarian and a cannibal reverting to savagery and doomed to death. We forget to-day that from 1830 to 1860 there was not a statement made by the masters of slaves more often reiterated than this, and more dogmatically and absolutely stated. After emancipation, for twenty years and more, so many people looked for the fulfillment of the prophecy that many actually saw it and we heard and kept hearing and now and then still hear that the Negro to-day is worse off than in slavery days. Then, as this statement grew less and less plausible, its place came to be taken by other assumptions. When a Louisiana senator saw the first Negro school he stopped and said: “This is the climax of foolishness!” The Negro could not be educated—he could imitate like a parrot but real mental development was impossible.

Then, when Negroes did learn some things, it was said that education spoiled them; they can learn but it does them no practical good; the young educated Negroes become criminals—they neither save nor work, they are shiftless and lazy. Now to-day are coming uncomfortable facts for this theory. The generation now working and saving is post-bellum and yet no sooner does it come on the stage than accumulated property goes on at an accelerated pace so far as we have measurements. In Georgia the increase of property among Negroes in the last ten years has been 83%. But no sooner do facts like these come to the fore than again the ground of opposition subtly shifts and this last shifting has been so gradual and so insidious that the Negro and his friends are still answering arguments that are no longer being pushed. The most subtle enemies of democracy and the most persistent advocates of the color line admit almost contemptuously most that their forebears strenuously denied: the Negroes have progressed since slavery, they are accumulating some property, some of them work readily and they are susceptible of elementary training; but, they say, all thought of treating black men like white men must be abandoned. They are an inferior stock of men, limited in attainment by nature. You cannot legislate against nature, and philanthropy is powerless against deficient cerebral development.

To realize the full weight of this argument recall to mind a character like John Brown and contrast his attitude with the attitude of to-day. John Brown loved his neighbor as himself. He could not endure, therefore, to see his neighbor poor, unfortunate or oppressed. This natural sympathy was strengthened by a saturation in Hebrew religion which stressed the personal responsibility of every man’s soul to a just God. To this religion of equality and sympathy with misfortune was added the strong influence of the social doctrines of the French Revolution with its emphasis on freedom and power in political life. And on all this was built John Brown’s own inchoate but growing belief in a juster and more equal distribution of property. From all this John Brown concluded—and acted on that conclusion—that all men were created free and equal and that the cost of liberty was less than the price of repression. Up to the time of John Brown’s death this doctrine was a growing, conquering social thing. Since then there has come a change and many would rightly find reason for that change in the coincidence that the year John Brown suffered martyrdom was the year that first published the Origin of Species. Since that tremendous scientific and economic advance has been accompanied by distinct signs of moral change in social philosophy; strong arguments have been made for the fostering of war, the social utility of human degradation and disease, and the inevitable and known inferiority of certain classes and races of men. While such arguments have not stopped the efforts of the advocates of peace, the workers of social uplift and the believers in human brotherhood, they have, it must be confessed, often made their voices falter and tinged their arguments with apology.

Why is this? It is because the splendid scientific work of Darwin, Weissman, Galton and others has been widely and popularly interpreted as meaning that there is such essential and inevitable inequality among men and the races of men as no philanthropy can or ought to eliminate; that civilization is a struggle for existence whereby the weaker nations and individuals will gradually succumb and the strong will inherit the earth. With this interpretation has gone the silent assumption that the white European stock represents the strong surviving peoples and that the swarthy, yellow and black peoples are the ones rightly doomed to eventual extinction.

One can easily see what influence such a doctrine would have on the race problem in America. It meant moral revolution in the attitude of the nation. Those that stepped into the pathway marked by the early abolitionists faltered and large numbers turned back. They said: They were good men—even great, but they have no message for us to-day—John Brown was a “belated covenanter,” William Lloyd Garrison was an anachronism in the age of Darwin—men who gave their lives to lift not the unlifted but the unliftable. We have, consequently, the present reaction -- a reaction which says in effect: Keep these black people in their places, and do not attempt to treat a Negro simply as a white man with a black face; to do this would mean moral deterioration of the race and nation—a fate against which a divine racial prejudice is successfully fighting. This is the attitude of the larger portion of the thinking nation to-day.

It is not, however, an attitude that has brought mental rest or social peace. On the contrary, it is to-day involving a degree of moral strain and political and social anomaly that gives the wisest pause. The chief difficulty has been that the natural place in which, by scientific law, the black race in America should stay cannot easily be determined. To be sure, the freedmen did not, as the philanthropists of the sixties apparently expected, step in forty years from slavery to nineteenth century civilization. Neither, on the other hand, did they, as the ex-masters confidently predicted, retrograde and die. Contrary to both these views, they chose a third and apparently quite unawaited way: from the great, sluggish, almost imperceptibly moving mass they sent off larger and larger numbers of faithful workmen and artisans, some merchants and professional men, and even men of educational ability and discernment. They developed in a generation no world geniuses, no millionaires, no captains of industry, no artists of first rank; but they did in forty years get rid of the larger part of their illiteracy, accumulate a half billion of property in small homesteads and gained now and then respectful attention in the world’s ears and eyes. It has been argued that this progress of the black man in America is due to the exceptional men among them and does not measure the ability of the mass. Such admission is, however, fatal to the whole argument. If the doomed races of men are going to develop exceptions to the rule of inferiority then no law, scientific or moral, should or can proscribe the race as such.

To meet this difficulty in racial philosophy a step has been taken in America fraught with the gravest social consequences to the world and threatening not simply the political but the moral integrity of the nation: that step is to deny in the case of black men the validity of those evidences of culture, ability and decency which are accepted unquestionably in the case of other people, and by vague assertion, unprovable assumption, unjust emphasis, and now and then by deliberate untruth, to secure not only the continued proscription of these people, but by caste distinction to shut in the faces of their rising classes many of the paths to further advance.

When a social policy based on a supposed scientific sanction leads to such a moral anomaly it is time to examine rather carefully the logical foundations of the argument. And so soon as we do this many things are clear. First, assuming that there are certain stocks of human beings whose elimination the best welfare of the world demands; it is certainly questionable if these stocks include the majority of mankind and it is indefensible and monstrous to pretend that we know to-day with any reasonable certainty which these stocks are. We can point to degenerate individuals and families here and there among all races, but there is not the slightest warrant for assuming that there do not exist among the Chinese and Hindus, the African Bantus and American Indians as lofty possibilities of human culture as any European race has ever exhibited. It is, to be sure, puzzling to know why the Soudan should linger a thousand years in culture behind the valley of the Seine, but it is no more puzzling than the fact that the valley of the Thames was miserably backward as compared with the banks of the Tiber. Climate, human contact, facilities of communication, and what we call accident have played great part in the rise of culture among nations: to ignore these and to assert dogmatically that the present distribution of culture is a fair index of the distribution of human ability and desert is to make an assertion for which there is not the slightest scientific warrant.

What the age of Darwin has done is to add to the eighteenth century idea of individual worth the complementary idea of physical immortality of the human race. And this, far from annulling or contracting the idea of human freedom, rather emphasizes its necessity and eternal possibility—the boundlessness and endlessness of possible human achievement. Freedom has come to mean not individual caprice or aberration but social self-realization in an endless chain of selves, and freedom for such development is not the denial but the central assertion of the revolutionary theory. So, too, the doctrine of human equality passes through the fire of scientific inquiry not obliterated but transfigured; not equality of present attainment but equality of opportunity for unbounded future attainment is the rightful demand of mankind.

What now does the present hegemony of the white races threaten? It threatens by the means of brute force a survival of some of the worst stocks of mankind. It attempts to people the best part of the earth and put inabsolute authority over the rest not only, and indeed not mainly, the culture of Europe, but its greed and degradation—not only some representatives of the best stocks of the west end of London, upper New York and the Champs Elysées but also, and in as large, if not larger, numbers, the worst stocks of Whitechapel, the East Side and Montmartre; and it attempts to make the slums of white society in all cases and under all circumstances the superior of any colored group, no matter what its ability or culture; it attempts to put the intelligent, property holding, efficient Negroes of the South under the heels and at the absolute mercy of such constituencies as Tillman, Vardaman and Jeff Davis represent.

To be sure, this outrageous programme of wholesale human degeneration is not outspoken yet save in the backward civilizations of the southern United States, South Africa and Australia. But its enunciation is listened to with respect and tolerance in England, Germany and the northern states and nowhere with more equanimity than right here in New York by those very persons who accuse philanthropy with seeking to degenerate white blood by an infiltration of colored strains. And the average citizen is voting ships and guns to carry out this programme.

This movement gathered force and strength during the latter half of the nineteenth century and reached its culmination when France, Germany and England and Russia began the partition of China and the East. With the sudden self-assertion of Japan its wildest dreams collapsed, but it is still to-day a living, virile, potent force and motive, and the most subtle and dangerous enemy of world peace and the dream of human brotherhood. It has a whole vocabulary of its own: the strong races, superior peoples, race preservation, the struggle for survival and a peculiar use of the word “white.” And by this it means the right of white men of any kind to club blacks into submission, to make them surrender their wealth and the use of their women, and to submit to the dictation of white men without murmur, for the sake of being swept off the fairest portions of the earth or held there in perpetual serfdom or guardianship. Ignoring the fact that the era of physical struggle for survival has passed away among human beings and that there is plenty of room accessible on earth for all, this theory makes the possession of Krupp guns the main criterion of mental stamina and moral fitness.

Even armed with this morality of the club and every advantage of modern culture, the white races have been unable to possess the earth; many signs of degeneracy have appeared among them; their birthrate is falling, their average ability is not increasing, their physical stamina is impaired, their social condition is not reassuring, and their religion is a growing mass of transparent and self-confessed hypocrisy. Lacking the physical ability to take possession of the world, they are to-day fencing in America, Australia, and South Africa and declaring that no dark race shall occupy or develop the land which they themselves are unable to use. And all this on the plea that their stock is threatened with deterioration from without, when in fact its most dangerous fate is deterioration from within. We are in fact to-day repeating in our intercourse between races all the former evils of class injustice, unequal taxation and rigid caste. Individual nations outgrew these fatal things by breaking down the horizontal barriers between classes. We are bringing them back by seeking to erect vertical barriers between races. Men were told that abolition of compulsory class distinction meant leveling down, degradation, disappearance of culture and genius, and the triumph of the mob. As a matter of fact, it has been the salvation of European civilization. Some deterioration and leveling there was, but it was more than balanced by the discovery of new reservoirs of ability and strength. So to-day we are told that free racial contact -- or “social equality” as southern patois has it -- means contamination of blood and lowering of ability and culture. It need mean nothing of the sort. Abolition of class distinction does not mean universal intermarriage of stocks, but rather the survival of the fittest by peaceful personal and social selection, a selection all the more effective because free democracy and equality of opportunity allow the best to rise to their rightful place.

The same is true in racial contact. The abolition of the lines of vertical race distinction and their tearing away involves fewer chances of degradation and greater opportunities of human betterment than in the case of class lines. On the other hand, the persistence in racial distinctions spells disaster sooner or later. The earth is growing smaller and more accessible. Race contact will become in the future increasingly inevitable, not only in America, Asia and Africa, but even in Europe. The color line will mean not simply a return to the absurdities of class as exhibited in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, but even to the caste of ancient days. This, however, the Japanese, the Chinese, the East Indian and the Negroes are going to resent in just such proportion as they gain the power; and they are gaining the power, and they cannot be kept from gaining more power. The price of repression will then be hypocrisy and slavery and blood.

This is the problem of to-day, and what is its mighty answer? It is this great word: The cost of liberty is less than the price of repression. The price of repressing the world’s darker races is shown in a moral retrogression and economic waste unparalleled since the age of the African slave trade. What would be the cost of liberty? What would be the cost of giving the great stocks of mankind every reasonable help and incentive to self-development—opening the avenues of opportunity freely, spreading knowledge, suppressing war and cheating, and treating men and women as equals the world over whenever and wherever they attain equality? It would cost something. It would cost something in pride and prejudice, for eventually many a white man would be blacking black men’s boots; but this cost we may ignore—its greatest cost would be the new problems of racial intercourse and intermarriage which would come to the front. Freedom and equal opportunity in this respect would inevitably bring some intermarriage of whites and yellows and browns and blacks. If such marriages are proven inadvisable how could they be stopped? Easily. We associate with cats and cows but we do not fear intermarriage with them even though they be given all freedom of development. So, too, intelligent human beings can be trained to breed intelligently without the degradation of such of their fellows as they may not wish to breed with. In the southern United States on the contrary it is assumed that unwise marriage can only be stopped by the degradation of the blacks, the classing of their women with prostitutes, the loading the whole race with every badge of public isolation, degradation and contempt and by burning offenders at the stake.

Is this civilization? No. The civilized method of preventing ill-advised marriage lies in the training of mankind in ethics of sex and childbearing. We cannot ensure the survival of the best blood by the public murder and degradation of unworthy suitors, but we can substitute a civilized human selection of husbands and wives which shall ensure the survival of the fittest. Not the methods of the jungle, not even the careless choices of the drawing room, but the thoughtful selection of the schools and laboratory is the ideal of future marriage. This will cost something in ingenuity, self-control, and toleration but it will cost less than forcible repression.

Not only is the cost of repression to-day large—it is a continually increasing cost, because of the fact that furnished the fatal moral anomaly against which physical slavery could not stand—the free Negro—the Negro who in spite of contempt, discouragement, caste and poverty has put himself on a plane where it is simply impossible to deny that he is by every legitimate measurement the equal of his average white neighbor. The former argument was as I have mentioned that no such class existed. This assertion was persisted in until it became ludicrous. To-day the fashion is come to regard this class as exceptional so far as the logic of the Negro problem is concerned, dangerous so far as social peace is concerned, and its existence more than offset by an abnormal number of criminals, degenerates and defectives.

Right here, then, comes the center of the present problem, namely: What is the truth about this? What are the real facts? How far is Negro crime due to inherited and growing viciousness and how far to poverty, degradation and systematic oppression?

How far is Negro labor lazy and how far is it the listless victim of systematic theft?

How far is the Negro woman lewd and how far the helpless victim of social custom?

How far are Negro children being educated to-day in the public schools of the South and how far is the effort to curtail that training increasingly successful?

How far are Negroes leaving the farms and rushing to the cities to escape work and how far to escape slavery?

How far is this race designated as Negroes the descendants of African slaves and how far is it descended from the most efficient white blood of the nation?

What does actual physical and social measurement prove as to the status of these descendants of black men?

All these are fundamental questions. Not a single valid conclusion as to the future can be absolutely insisted upon without definite skillful scientific answers to these questions and yet not a single systematic effort to answer these questions on an adequate scale has been made in these United States from 1619 to 1909. Not only this but on all sides opposition ranging from indifference and reluctance to actual force is almost universal when any attempt to study the Negro problem adequately is proposed. Yet in spite of this universal and deliberate ignorance the demand is made that one line of solution, which a number of good men have assumed is safe and sane, shall be accepted by everybody and particularly by thinking black men. The penalty for not accepting this programme is to be dubbed a radical, a busy-body, an impatient dreamer and a dangerous agitator. Yet this programme involves justification of disfranchisement, the personal humiliation of Jim-Crowism, a curtailed and purposely limited system of education and a virtual acknowledgment of the inevitable and universal inferiority of black men. And then in the face of this we are asked to look pleasant and do our very best. I think it is the most cowardly dilemma that a strong people ever thrust upon the weak. And I for one have protested and do protest and shall protest that in my humble opinion the assumption is an outrageous falsehood dictated by selfishness, cowardice and greed and for the righteousness of my cause and the proof of my assertions, I appeal to one arbitrament and one alone and that is: THE TRUTH.

“The Mores of the Present and the Future”

 By William Graham Sumner


 [William Graham Sumner. “The Mores of the Present and the Future.” Yale Review 18 (1909): 233–245. Reprinted In War and Other Essays. Edited by Albert Galloway Keller. New Haven: Yale University Press. 1919. 149–164. In the Public Domain] 


THE great utility of studying the origin and history of the mores would be to form judgments about their present status and future tendency. The future tendency can never be discussed beyond the immediate future without running into predictions which would always be vague and in a high degree uncertain. For instance, there is now more or less discussion about divorce, and it will unquestionably affect the mores about marriage. Whether the discussion properly reflects any movement of popular interest is an important question with regard to the present status and tendency. Also, if we could reach results with regard to the present drift of things, we might become convinced of the probable changes in the marriage institution, but more definite or far-reaching predictions about marriage would be unwise.

It will be well to begin with a restatement of the definition of the mores. When a number of men living in neighborhood have the same needs, each one of them attempts to satisfy his need as well as he can whenever it recurs. They notice each other’s efforts and select the attempt which satisfies the need best with the least pain or exertion. A selection results by which one way becomes customary for all — a habit for each and a custom for the society. This way is a folkway. It has the power of a habit and custom, and is carried on by tradition. It has the character originally of an experi­ment. It is established by selection and approved by experience. Here then we have some reflection and some judgment: the reflection is caused by pleasure or pain, which the lowest savages experience and use for criticism; and the judgments are the most simple, consisting only in comparison of effort and satisfaction. From the reflec­tion and judgment there arises at last an opinion as to the relation of the mode of satisfying needs to welfare. This is a moral opinion; namely, an opinion that a usage is favorable to welfare. When a folkway has this moral and reflective judgment added to it, it becomes a part of the mores. The moral inferences become wider and vaguer as they go on, but they constitute, when taken together, the best thinking men can do on human life and wisdom in it. The mores are the customs in which life is held when taken together with the moral judgments. as to the bearing of the same on welfare.

The mores, in their origin, were immediately connected with ghost fear and religion, because they came down by tradition from ancestors. This gave them the sanction of a high and vague authority from the other world and created the first notion of duty. Together these ele­ments made up the mental life of men for ages, when they were laying the foundations of all our mental opera­tions and forming our first mental outfit.

I use the word “folkways” for ways of doing things which have little or no moral element. The greatest and best example is language. Language is habit and custom; its formation is made by acts of judgment, although the consideration is slight, the judgment is vague and unconscious, and the authority of tradition prevails. Uneducated people make or destroy a language, in their life, satisfying their interests and needs; expediency seems to be the highest motive. Abortion and infanticide are folkways which simply satisfy the desire to avoid care and toil. Children are a great trouble and adults try to shirk the burden; they adopt direct means to get rid of it. Religion sanctifies the acts and they become customary; then they are a law and beyond argument. In time, however, conditions change. If, for example, warriors are needed, then abortion and infanticide do not seem wise beyond question; the means of getting food may be easier, and affection has a chance to grow. Then these folkways are subjected to reflection again and a new judgment is formed, with the result that the customs are set aside by doubt and revolt. While they last they are mores, not folkways. The murder of children had a moral judgment of wisdom and right policy in it while it was practiced, and the same may be said of the custom of killing the old.

What now are some of the leading features in the mores of civilized society at the present time? Undoubtedly they are monogamy, anti-slavery, and democracy. All people now are more nervous than anybody used to be. Social ambition is great and is prevalent in all classes. The idea of class is unpopular and is not understood. There is a superstitious yearning for equality. There is a decided preference for a city life, and a stream of popu­lation from the country into big cities. These are facts of the mores of the time, and our societies are almost unanimous in their response if there is any question raised on these matters.

It is very difficult to discuss the mores; we can hardly criticise them, for they are our law of right. We are all in them, born in them, and made by them. How can we rise above them to pass judgment on them? Our mores are very different from those of the Middle Ages. Mediaeval people conceived of society under forms of status as generally as we think of it under forms of indi­vidual liberty. The mores of the Orient and the Occi­dent differ from each other now as they apparently always have differed: the Orient is a region where time, faith, tradition, and patience rule, while the Occident forms ideals and plans and spends energy and enterprise to make new things with thoughts of progress. All details of life follow the leading ways of thought of each group. We can compare and judge ours and theirs, but independent judgment of our own, without compari­son with other times or other places, is possible only within narrow limits.

Let us first take up the nervous desire and exertion which mark the men of our time in the Western civilized societies. There is a wide popular belief in what is called, progress. The masses in all civilized states strain toward success in some adopted line. Struggling and striving are passionate tendencies which take possession of groups from time to time. The newspapers, the popular litera­ture, and the popular speakers show this current and popular tendency. This is what makes the mores. A select minority may judge otherwise, and in time their judgment may be accepted and ratified and may make the mores of another age; but the mores are always the ways of the great masses at a time and place. The French were formerly thought to be mercurial, the English sober, and the Germans phlegmatic. The Ger­mans have become nervous; they struggle feverishly for success and preeminence; the war of 1871 and the foundation of the German Empire have made them nationally proud, and made them feel on a level with any other state. Such a change was sure to produce great changes in the mores within two or three generations. Germany now has ambition for the first place among nations; she is sensitive and suspicious, and often seems quarrelsome. The English, in the Boer War, went through crises of excitement of which it was supposed they were insusceptible. The French, burdened by debt and taxes, feel some sense of losing ground in the rank of nations, and the national party is a product of this feeling. It seems to believe that a truculent and fero­cious behavior will win adherents. Perhaps it is right, in view of the nervous temper of the age — certainly the old love of moderation and sobriety in politics seems to be diminishing. The United States is stimulated by its growth and prosperity to unlimited hope and ambition. Professor Giddings[1] thinks that he has proved statistic­ally that the “mental ‘mode’ of the American people as a whole is ideo-emotional to dogmatical-emotional,” and that the market for books confirms this. The market for books could prove only the mental mode of that part of the public which reads books. What fraction is that? It would be most interesting and important to know. Of the books published, Professor Giddings finds that fifty per cent. aim to please, and appeal to emotion or sentiment; forty per cent. aim to convert, and appeal to belief, ethical emotion, or self-interest; eight per cent. are critical and aim to instruct — they appeal to reason. This means that our literature is almost entirely addressed to the appetite for day-dreaming, romantic longings, and sentimentalism, to theoretical interest in crime, adventure, marital infelicity, family tragedies, and the pleasure of emotional excitement, while a large part of it turns upon ethical emotion and ignorant zeal in social matters. This literature reflects the mores and at the same time strengthens them. The people who are educated on it are trained either to Philistinism or to become the victims of suggestion. No question pro­duced by the fall of silver could possibly be a proper political question. When it was proposed, in the United States, to make the adoption of the single silver stand­ard a party issue and to take a vote on it, consequences were produced which were interesting for the mores. In the first place, there were interests at stake — those of the silver miners and the debtors. Interests dominate modern politics, but always more or less secretly, because it is not admitted in the mores to be right that they should dominate. Hence another pretext must be put forward to cover the interest. The best pretext is always an abstruse doctrine in the theory of public welfare. A protective tariff is never advocated because it will enable some citizens to win wealth by taxing others; it is always advocated as a prosperity policy for the country. Henry C. Carey elevated a protective tariff to a philosophy of society. When the New York courts held a law to be valid which forbade a saloon to be licensed within two hundred feet of a schoolhouse, the saloon-keepers attacked the schools as a nuisance detrimental to property.[2] The advocates of a single silver standard put forward their proposition as a prosperity policy, and they elaborated a philosophy to serve as a major premise to it. Their ultimate philosophy was that gold is a mischief-maker to mankind, while silver is an agent of good. Obviously this is mythology, and is not capable of discussion. The silver question as a political issue was, therefore, a recent and very striking proof of the persistence in the mores of a great modern civilized state of the methods of mythol­ogy which have come down to us from prehistoric man. Mythology is in the popular mores.

There are mores corresponding to each of the great stages of the industrial organization—hunting, herding, and agricultural. When two groups which are on differ­ent stages are neighbors, or when one part of a group advances to another stage, while the remainder still practices the old form, conflicts arise. The Indian and Iranian branches of the Aryans separated under intense enmity and mutual contempt when the Iranians became tillers. All the ways of one people which conform to its industrial pursuits are an abomination to the other. The best explanation yet suggested of the statements of Caesar and Tacitus about the Germans is that the Germans were, at that period, between nomadism and settled agriculture. There is a deep contrast of mores between town and country, agriculture on the one side and manufactures, commerce, banking, etc., on the other, and this contrast may, at any time, rise to an antagonism. The antagonism is kept down if the two classes meet often; it is developed if they become strictly separated. The town looks upon the country as rustic and unculti­vated; the country looks upon the town as vicious and corrupt. The industrial interests of the two are antag­onistic, and one may be subjected to the other, as is always the case under a protective tariff, for the pro­tective system never can do anything but make the stronger form of industry carry the weaker. It is a characteristic of our time that in all civilized countries the population is moving from the country to the towns. This movement is not due to the same forces in all countries. Wherever agriculture is burdened by taxes to favor manufacturing, the legislation causes, or in­tensifies, the movement. It is not probable that the love of luxury, excitement, social intercourse, and amuse­ment is any greater now than it always has been, but popular literature has spread the hunger for it to classes of people who never felt it formerly. The hunger enters into the mores and becomes a characteristic of the age.

The people in the slums and tenement houses will not give up the enjoyment of the streets for any amount of rural comfort. Other classes try to help them, assum­ing that, to them, crowds, noise, filth, contagious diseases, and narrow quarters, must be painful. The evidence is that they like the life, and are indifferent to what others consider its evils and discomforts. They like it because it satisfies the strongest desires in the mores of our time. The people in the slums feel the same desires as those other people who have clubs, balls, visitors, the park, opera, theater, and all the other means of excitement, gossip, and entertainment which make up fashionable city life.

In Germany it is said that the country population still increases rapidly by a high birth rate.[3] When the land is all taken up this means that there is a surplus in the rural population which goes into the wages class, and a part of it seeks the towns to become unskilled laborers or handicraftsmen. It was formerly believed that great cities consume population; that there is a waste which would produce diminution if it were not for the influx from the country. City life exercises a selec­tion on this immigration from the country; a part of it is consumed by vice and misery and disappears; another part advances to greater social power in two or three generations; another part settles into the tenement houses and recruits the city proletariat. Nowhere in the world, perhaps, are the effects of this migration from the country to the city so strikingly apparent as in New England, for here we see farms abandoned, houses torn down, and land returning to a state of nature. Cities, however, now have a number of institutions of rescue and protection, which are believed to redeem the old destruction, so that cities do not, nowadays, consume population. The migration affects the mores of both the rural and the urban population. Their ideas, stand­ards, ways of looking at things, ambitions, appetites, concepts of right and wrong, and their judgments on all the policy of life are affected by the efflux and reflux between town and country.

One of the most noteworthy and far-reaching features in modern mores is the unwillingness to recognize a vow or to enforce a vow by any civil or ecclesiastical process, although vows have the full authority of Scrip­ture.[4] It is by the mores that vows have been judged wrong, and if they are made, neglect to fulfill them is regarded with indifference. In modern mores it is allowed that a man may change his mind as long as he lives. This view is produced by the doctrine of liberty. At the most he may incur liability for damages, if his vow causes damage to somebody else. The marriage vow is the only one which remains in our mores, and no doubt the leniency of divorce has been largely due to the unwillingness to enforce a vow by which it may appear later that one’s life career has been injured. It does not at all lie in the mores to give the vow prominence as the aspect of marriage which determines what it is. On the contrary, the wedding ceremony is a striking case of ritual, since people attach importance to the ceremony, not to the rational sense of what is said and done.

The mores of the latter half of the nineteenth century were marked by the decline of the dominion of the classical culture which had prevailed since the Renaissance. In art this was marked by a return to nature as the only model and an abandonment of the classical models. In architecture it was marked by a revival of Gothic and Renaissance forms, but with a wide eclecticism, the out­come of which is not yet reached. In religion two ten­dencies were developed, one to medievalism, the other to agnosticism. What was most important for the mores was the toleration of each other, with which these oppo­site tendencies in religion existed side by side. Militant infidelity, or religion, was regarded as bad form, and heresy hunting became ridiculous. The popular phi­losophy became realistic, and the tests of value which were accepted were more and more frankly commercial; “ideal good” lost esteem and “material good” controlled. This was nothing new in the history of mankind, but the opportunities of wealth, comfort, and luxury never before were offered to the whole of a society in any such manner and degree, and the utilities of wealth for all purposes of mankind never were so obvious and imme­diate. The classical culture and the religious philosophy had offered ideals which were no longer highly valued, and the way was clear for the dominion of materialistic standards and ideals. They spread everywhere, in spite of all protests and denials. The state won greatly in importance, and political institutions extended their operations over the field of the mores. Political institu­tions took the place of ecclesiastical institutions as adjuncts of the economic struggle for existence. The eighteenth century had bequeathed to the nineteenth a great mass of abstract notions about rights and about the ultimate notions of political philosophy, and in the nineteenth century many of these notions were reduced to actuality in constitutions, laws, and judicial rulings. The masses in all civilized nations were led to believe that their welfare could be obtained by dogmatic propo­sitions if such propositions were enacted into constitutions and laws. This faith has entered into the mores of all civilized men and now rules their discussion of social questions. Rights, justice, liberty, and equality are the watchwords instead of the church, faith, heaven, and hell. The amount of superstition is not much changed, but it now attaches to politics, not to religion.

The grand controlling fact in modern society is that the earth is underpopulated on the existing stage of the arts. As a consequence men are in demand. The human race is going through a period of enlargement with ease and comfort; accordingly a philosophy of optimism prevails, and the world-beatifiers reign in philosophy. Since, as a fact, the struggle for existence and com­petition of life are not severe, the philosophy prevails that so they always ought to be. An ethical ideal is carried into nature. It is a fact that the great masses of the human race get on very well with a minimum of education, for the conditions favor most, proportionately, those who are worst off—the unskilled laborers. Hence we find it preached as a doctrine that men, if in crowds, know the truth, feel virtuously, and act wisely by intui­tion, without education or training.

All modern economic developments have tended to level classes and ranks, and therefore to create democracy, and to throw political power into the hands of the most numerous class; the courtiers of power, therefore, turn to the masses with the same flattery and servility which they used to pay to kings, prelates, and nobles. At every boundary line at which the interests of individuals or groups meet in the competition of life, there is strife and friction, and at all such points there are rights which are in the mores or the laws and which have been produced by the need to solve the collisions of power and interest in peace. There is, therefore, always another resource for the party which has been defeated in the competition of life; they can appeal to rights and fight over again, on the political domain, what they have lost on the economic domain. Inasmuch as the masses cannot win on the economic domain because their oppo­nents, though few in number, have talent, knowledge, craft, and capital, and inasmuch as the masses have political power, this appeal from the field of economic effort to that of politics is characteristic of the age. It now gives form and color to both the economic and politi­cal effort, and it is dominating all the mores which have to do with either. The master of industry dare not neglect political power; the statesman cannot maintain an independent footing against capitalistic interest. Pri­marily, we see a war between plutocracy and democracy. Secondarily, we see a combination of the two loom up in the future—the apostles of socialism, state socialism, municipalization, etc., are all working for it. In the com­bination the strongest element will rule, and the strongest element is capital. The defeat and decline of the Demo­cratic political party in the United States within forty years, its incompetence as an opposition party, its chase after any captivating issue, its evolution into populism, coupled with administrative folly, the fear and distrust which it has consequently inspired in all who have any­thing, so that they turn to the ruling party for security at the sacrifice of everything else, the more and more complete surrender, at the same time, of the Republican party to the character of a conspiracy to hold power and use it for plutocratic ends, are phenomena already observable of the coming consolidation of political and monetary power. The more industrial and pecuniary functions are confided to the State or city, the more rapidly will this result be brought about. The place to watch to see whether the result will be arrested or not is in the mores. Do the people show strong political sense? Do they show real insight into their own institutions and the spirit of the same, so that they cannot be deceived by political fallacies? Do they resist the allurements of glory and cling to the genuine forces which make for national health and strength? Are they cynical about political corruption, or honestly outraged by it? Is their world-philosophy ignoble? Do they resist a steal because it is a steal or because they are not in it? Are they captivated by appeals to national vanity or do they turn aside from such appeals with contempt? These are the questions which decide the trend of institutions and the destiny of states, and the answer to them must be sought in the mores.

Parties formed on interests invent dogmas which will serve as major premises for the especial inferences which will suit their purpose. These are the “great principles” of history which are always preached as eternal and immutable. John of Salisbury, the friend of Thomas a Becket, taking part in the quarrel of the prelate with the king, which really was a quarrel of the Roman law concept of the State with the Church, developed, in his Polycraticus, notions of the sovereignty of the people and of republican self-government. Guelphs argued the sovereignty of the people to get the alliance of the middle class against the emperor, in Italy; while Ghibellines used the same argument to get the alliance of the middle class against the popes, in Germany.[5]  St. Augustine thought that the State was due to sin, while Gregory VII said that it was the work of the devil. This was in order to exalt the Church. The “two sword” doctrine[6] furnished a dogmatic basis for mediaeval society: Pope and Emperor side by side, with the Pope above. The Church was due to God, the State was a human invention. Hence arose the doctrine that the State was based on a contract between ruler and ruled, and the inference that tyrannicide was justifiable, an inference which was so frequently put into practice in the sixteenth century that its fallacy was demonstrated. Any ruler of whose acts anybody disapproved was a tyrant. Then the doctrine of con­tract was changed into the later “social compact” of the democratic republican form with natural rights, which ran from Grotius to Rousseau. This doctrine was used by Mariana and other Jesuits against the absolute kings (at first, of Spain); it was thoroughly destructive of the mediaeval doctrines of political authority and of rights.

When the Americans, in 1776, revolted against the colonial policy of England, they found a great number of principles afloat, and had great trouble to select the one which would suit their purpose without suggesting other inferences which would be unwelcome. The first para­graph of the Declaration of Independence contains a number of these great principles which were supposed to be axioms of political philosophy. In 1898, when we forced our rule on the Philippine Islands, some of these principles were very inconvenient. In time we shall have to drop others of them. There are no dogmatic propositions of political philosophy which are universally and always true; there are views which prevail, at a time, for a while, and then fade away and give place to other views.  Each set of views colors the mores of a period. The eighteenth century notions about equality, natural rights, classes, etc., produced nineteenth century states and legislation, all strongly humanitarian in faith and temper; at the present time the eighteenth century notions are disappearing, and the mores of the twentieth century will not be tinged by humanitarianism as those of the last hundred years have been, If the State should act on ideas of every man’s duty, instead of on notions of natural rights, evidently institutions and usages would undergo a great transformation.

While the views of rights are thus afloat on the tide of interest and carry with them, in the ebb and flow, a great mass of corollaries, it does not appear that the doctrine and institutions of constitutional government are being more thoroughly understood or more firmly established. Yet constitutional government is the guarantee of interests and welfare. It is a product of experience; it contains institutions by which collisions of interest can be adjusted and rights can be secured. Yet it does not offer many definitions or dogmatic state­ments about rights and interests. If men turn from the institutions and put faith in abstract propositions, evi­dently the chances of welfare will be greatly changed. At the present time constitutional institutions are the great reliance for rights and justice and the great ground of hope and confidence in the future. Nevertheless, constitutional government can never overcome the mores. We have plenty of cases of experiment to prove that constitutional institutions of the best type fall into corruption and decay unless the virtues of political self-control exist in high vigor and purity in the mores of the society.

We see, then, in the status and outlook of the present time, these facts: underpopulation of the globe and increasing control of natural forces give easier conditions for the struggle for existence. This means the most to those who have inherited the least. It is, however, obviously a temporary advantage, for the human race will, in a few generations, find itself face to face with overpopulation and harder conditions. In the mean­time philosophies and notions win general acceptance which are relatively true in the exceptional period. They are broadly stated and confidently accepted in the mores and in legislation. Rights are changed in popular opinion and in constitutions, and the location of po­litical power is shifted, especially as between classes; notions about property, marriage, family, inheritance, and so on, change to suit facts and faiths about the struggle for existence. Then groups and parties will form and war will occur between them. Great dogmas will be put forth at all stages of these movements and appropriate watchwords will never be wanting.


[1] Psychological Review, VIII, 337. 

[2] Riis, J. A.: The Battle with the Slum, 336. 

[3] Ammon, O.: Die Gesellschaftsordnung und ihre natürlichen Grundlagen, 94.

[4] Deut. xxiii, 21.

[5] Betzold, F. von: Die Lehre von der Volkssouveränetät während des Mittel-Alters, in Sybel’s Zeitschrift, XXXVI, 313.

[6] Luke 22:38.

“The Influence of Darwinism on Philosophy”[1] 

 By John Dewey


[Dewey, John. “The Influence of Darwinism on Philosophy.” In The Influence of Darwin on Philosophy and Other Essays in Contemporary Thought. New York: Henry Holt and Company. 1910. 1–19. In the Public Domain.] 


THAT the publication of the “Origin of Species” marked an epoch in the development of the natural sciences is well known to the layman. That the combination of the very words origin and species embodied an intellectual revolt and introduced a new intellectual temper is easily overlooked by the expert. The conceptions that had reigned in the philosophy of nature and knowledge for two thousand years, the conceptions that had become the familiar furniture of the mind, rested on the assumption of the superiority of the fixed and final; they rested upon treating change and origin as signs of defect and unreality. In laying hands upon the sacred ark of absolute permanency, in treating the forms that had been regarded as types of fixity and perfection as originating and passing away, the “Origin of Species” introduced a mode of thinking that in the end was bound to transform the logic of knowledge, and hence the treatment of morals, politics, and religion. 

No wonder, then, that the publication of Darwin’s book, a half century ago, precipitated a crisis. The true nature of the controversy is easily concealed from us, however, by the theological clamor that attended it. The vivid and popular features of the anti-Darwinian row tended to leave the impression that the issue was between science on one side and theology on the other. Such was not the case—the issue lay primarily within science itself, as Darwin himself early recognized. The theological outcry he discounted from the start, hardly noticing it save as it bore upon the “feelings of his female relatives.” But for two decades before final publication he contemplated the possibility of being put down by his scientific peers as a fool or as crazy; and he set, as the measure of his success, the degree in which he should affect three men of science: Lyell in geology, Hooker in botany, and Huxley in zoology. 

Religious considerations lent fervor to the controversy, but they did not provoke it. Intellectually, religious emotions are not creative but conservative. They attach themselves readily to the current view of the world and consecrate it. They steep and dye intellectual fabrics in the seething vat of emotions; they do not form their warp and woof. There is not, I think, an instance of any large idea about the world being independently generated by religion. Although the ideas that rose up like armed men against Darwinism owed their intensity to religious associations, their origin and meaning are to be sought in science and philos­ophy, not in religion.


Few words in our language foreshorten intellectual history as much as does the word species. The Greeks, in initiating the intellectual life of Europe, were impressed by characteristic traits of the life of plants and animals; so impressed indeed that they made these traits the key to defining nature and to explaining mind and society. And truly, life is so wonderful that a seemingly successful reading of its mystery might well lead men to believe that the key to the secrets of heaven and earth was in their hands. The Greek rendering of this mystery, the Greek formulation of the aim and standard of knowledge, was in the course of time embodied in the word species, and it controlled philosophy for two thousand years. To understand the intellectual face-about expressed in the phrase “Origin of Species,” we must, then, understand the long dominant idea against which it is a protest. 

Consider how men were impressed by the facts of life. Their eyes fell upon certain things slight in bulk, and frail in structure. To every appear­ance, these perceived things were inert and passive. Suddenly, under certain circumstances, these things—henceforth known as seeds or eggs or germs—begin to change, to change rapidly in size, form, and qualities. Rapid and extensive changes occur, however, in many things—as when wood is touched by fire. But the changes in the living thing are orderly; they are cumulative; they tend constantly in one direction; they do not, like other changes, destroy or consume, or pass fruitless into wandering flux; they realize and fulfill. Each suc­cessive stage, no matter how unlike its predecessor, preserves its net effect and also prepares the way for a fuller activity on the part of its successor. In living beings, changes do not happen as they seem to happen elsewhere, any which way; the earlier changes are regulated in view of later results. This progressive organization does not cease till there is achieved a true final term, a telos, a completed, perfected end. This final form exercises in turn a plenitude of functions, not the least noteworthy of which is production of germs like those from which it took its own origin, germs capable of the same cycle of self-fulfilling activity. 

But the whole miraculous tale is not yet told. The same drama is enacted to the same destiny in countless myriads of individuals so sundered in time, so severed in space, that they have no opportunity for mutual consultation and no means of interaction. As an old writer quaintly said, “things of the same kind go through the same formalities”—celebrate, as it were, the same ceremonial rites. 

This formal activity which operates throughout a series of changes and holds them to a single course; which subordinates their aimless flux to its own perfect manifestation; which, leaping the boundaries of space and time, keeps individuals distant in space and remote in time to a uniform type of structure and function: this principle seemed to give insight into the very nature of reality itself. To it Aristotle gave the name, eidos. This term the scholastics translated as species. 

The force of this term was deepened by its application to everything in the universe that observes order in flux and manifests constancy through change. From the casual drift of daily weather, through the uneven recurrence of seasons and unequal return of seed time and harvest, up to the majestic sweep of the heavens—the image of eternity in time—and from this to the unchanging pure and contemplative intelligence beyond nature lies one unbroken fulfillment of ends. Nature as a whole is a progressive realization of purpose strictly comparable to the realization of purpose in any single plant or animal. 

The conception of eidos , species, a fixed form and final cause, was the central principle of knowledge as well as of nature. Upon it rested the logic of science. Change as change is mere flux and lapse; it insults intelligence. Genuinely to know is to grasp a permanent end that realizes itself through changes, holding them thereby within the metes and bounds of fixed truth. Completely to know is to relate all special forms to their one single end and good: pure contemplative intelligence. Since, however, the scene of nature which directly confronts us is in change, nature as directly and practically experienced does not satisfy the conditions of knowledge. Human experience is in flux, and hence the instrumentalities of sense perception and of inference based upon observation are condemned in advance. Science is compelled to aim at realities lying behind and beyond the processes of nature, and to carry on its search for these realities by means of rational forms transcending ordinary modes of perception and inference. 

There are, indeed, but two alternative courses. We must either find the appropriate objects and organs of knowledge in the mutual interactions of changing things; or else, to escape the infec­tion of change, we must seek them in some transcendent and supernal region. The human mind, deliberately as it were, exhausted the logic of the changeless, the final, and the transcendent, before it essayed adventure on the pathless wastes of generation and transformation. We dispose all too easily of the efforts of the schoolmen to interpret, nature and mind in terms of real essences, hidden forms, and occult faculties, forgetful of the seriousness and dignity of the ideas that lay behind. We dispose of them by laughing at the famous gentleman who accounted for the fact that opium put people to sleep on the ground it had a dormitive faculty. But the doctrine, held in our own day, that knowledge of the plant that yields the poppy consists in referring the peculiarities of an individual to a type, to a universal form, a doctrine so firmly established that any other method of knowing was conceived to be unphilosophical and unscientific, is a survival of precisely the same logic. This identity of conception in the scholastic and anti-Darwinian theory may well suggest greater sympathy for what has become unfamiliar as well as greater humility regarding the further unfamiliarities that history has in store. 

Darwin was not, of course, the first to question the classic philosophy of nature and of knowledge. The beginnings of the revolution are in the physical science of the sixteenth and seventeenth cen­turies. When Galileo said: “It is my opinion that the earth is very noble and admirable by reason of so many and so different alterations and generations which are incessantly made therein,” he expressed the changed temper that was coming over the world; the transfer of interest from the permanent to the changing. When Descartes said: “The nature of physical things is much more easily conceived when they are beheld coming gradually into existence, than when they are only considered as produced at once in a finished and perfect state,” the modern world became self-conscious of the logic that was henceforth to control it, the logic of which Darwin’s “Origin of Species” is the latest scientific achievement. Without the methods of Copernicus, Kepler, Galileo, and their successors in astronomy, physics, and chemistry, Darwin would have been helpless in the organic sciences. But prior to Darwin the impact of the new scientific method upon life, mind, and politics, had been arrested, because between these ideal or moral interests and the inorganic world intervened the kingdom of plants and animals. The gates of the garden of life were barred to the new ideas; and only through this garden was there access to mind and politics. The influence of Darwin upon philosophy resides in his having conquered the phenomena of life for the principle of transition, and thereby freed the new logic for application to mind and morals and life. When he said of species what Galileo had said of the earth, e pur se muove, he emancipated, once for all, genetic and experimental ideas as an organon of asking questions and looking for explanations.



The exact bearings upon philosophy of the new logical outlook are, of course, as yet, uncertain and inchoate. We live in the twilight of intellectual transition. One must add the rashness of the prophet to the stubbornness of the partizan to venture a systematic exposition of the influence upon philosophy of the Darwinian method. At best, we can but inquire as to its general bearing—the effect upon mental temper and complexion, upon that body of half-conscious, half-instinctive intellectual aversions and preferences which determine, after all, our more deliberate intellectual enterprises. In this vague inquiry there happens to exist as a kind of touchstone problem of long historic currency that has also been much discussed in Darwinian literature. I refer to the old problem of design versus chance, mind versus matter, as the causal explanation, first or final, of things. 

As we have already seen, the classic notion of species carried with it the idea of purpose. In all living forms, a specific type is present directing the earlier stages of growth to the realization of its own perfection. Since this purposive regulative principle is not visible to the senses, it follows that it must be an ideal or rational force. Since, however, the perfect form is gradually approximated through the sensible changes, it also follows that in and through a sensible realm a rational ideal force is working out its own ultimate manifestation. These inferences were extended to nature: (a) She does nothing in vain; but all for an ulterior purpose. (b) Within natural sensible events there is therefore contained a spiritual causal force, which as spiritual escapes perception, but is apprehended by an enlightened reason, (c) The manifestation of this principle brings about a subordination of matter and sense to its own realization, and this ultimate fulfillment is the goal of nature and of man. The design argument thus operated in two directions. Purposefulness accounted for the intelligibility of nature and the possibility of science, while the absolute or cosmic character of this purposefulness gave sanction and worth to the moral and religious endeavors of man. Science was underpinned and morals authorized by one and the same principle, and their mutual agreement was eternally guaranteed. This philosophy remained, in spite of sceptical and polemic outbursts, the official and the regnant philosophy of Europe for over two thousand years. The expulsion of fixed first and final causes from astronomy, physics, and chemistry had indeed given the doctrine something of a shock. But, on the other hand, increased acquaintance with the details of plant and animal life operated as a counterbalance and perhaps even strengthened the argument from design. The marvelous adaptations of organisms to their environment, of organs to the organism, of unlike parts of a complex organ—like the eye—to the organ itself; the foreshadowing by lower forms of the higher; the preparation in earlier stages of growth for organs that only later had their functioning—these things were increasingly recognized with the progress of botany, zoology, paleontology, and embryology. Together, they added such prestige to the design argument that by the late eighteenth century it was, as approved by the sciences of organic life, the central point of theistic and idealistic philosophy. 

The Darwinian principle of natural selection cut straight under this philosophy. If all organic adaptations are due simply to constant variation and the elimination of those variations which are harmful in the struggle for existence that is brought about by excessive reproduction, there is no call for a prior intelligent causal force to plan and preordain them. Hostile critics charged Darwin with materialism and with making chance the cause of the universe. 

Some naturalists, like Asa Gray, favored the Darwinian principle and attempted to reconcile it with design. Gray held to what may be called design on the installment plan. If we conceive the “stream of variations” to be itself intended, we may suppose that each successive variation was designed from the first to be selected. In that case, variation, struggle, and selection simply define the mechanism of “secondary causes” through which the “first cause” acts; and the doctrine of design is none the worse off because we know more of its modus operandi. 

Darwin could not accept this mediating proposal. He admits or rather he asserts that it is “impossible to conceive this immense and wonderful universe including man with his capacity of looking far backwards and far into futurity as the result of blind chance or necessity.”[2]  But nevertheless he holds that since variations are in useless as well as useful directions, and since the latter are sifted out simply by the stress of the conditions of struggle for existence, the design argument as applied to living beings is unjustifiable; and its lack of support there deprives it of scientific value as applied to nature in general. If the variations of the pigeon, which under artificial selection give the pouter pigeon, are not pre-ordained for the sake of the breeder, by what logic do we argue that variations resulting in natural species are pre-designed?[3] 




So much for some of the more obvious facts of the discussion of design versus chance, as causal principles of nature and of life as a whole. We brought up this discussion, you recall, as a crucial instance. What does our touchstone indicate as to the bearing of Darwinian ideas upon philosophy? In the first place, the new logic outlaws, flanks, dismisses—what you will—one type of problems and substitutes for it another type. Philosophy forswears inquiry after absolute origins and absolute finalities in order to explore specific values and the specific conditions that generate them.

Darwin concluded that the impossibility of assigning the world to chance as a whole and to design in its parts indicated the insolubility of the question.  Two radically different reasons, however, may be given as to why a problem is insoluble. One reason is that the problem is too high for intelligence; the other is that the question in its very asking makes assumptions that render the question meaningless. The latter alternative is unerringly pointed to in the celebrated case of design versus chance. Once admit that the sole verifiable or fruitful object of knowledge is the particular set of changes that generate the object of study together with the consequences that then flow from it, and no intelligible question can be asked about what, by assumption, lies outside. To assert—as is often asserted—that specific values of particular truth, social bonds and forms of beauty, if they can be shown to be generated by concretely knowable conditions, are meaningless and in vain; to assert that they are justified only when they and their particular causes and effects have all at once been gathered up into some inclusive first cause and some exhaustive final goal, is intellectual atavism. Such argumentation is reversion to the logic that explained the extinction of fire by water through the formal essence of aqueousness and the quenching of thirst by water through the final cause of aqueousness. Whether used in the case of the special event or that of life as a whole, such logic only abstracts some aspect of the existing course of events in order to reduplicate it as a petrified eternal principle by which to explain the very changes of which it is the formalization.

When Henry Sidgwick casually remarked in a letter that as he grew older his interest in what or who made the world was altered into interest in what kind of a world it is anyway, his voicing of a common experience of our own day illustrates also the nature of that intellectual transformation effected by the Darwinian logic. Interest shifts from the wholesale essence back of special changes to the question of how special changes serve and defeat concrete purposes; shifts from an intelligence that shaped things once for all to the particular intelligences which things are even now shaping; shifts from an ultimate goal of good to the direct increments of justice and happiness that intelligent administration of existent conditions may beget and that present carelessness or stupidity will destroy or forego.

In the second place, the classic type of logic inevitably set philosophy upon proving that life must have certain qualities and values—no matter how experience presents the matter—because of some remote cause and eventual goal. The duty of wholesale justification inevitably accompanies all thinking that makes the meaning of special occurrences depend upon something that once and for all lies behind them. The habit of derogating from present meanings and uses prevents our look­ing the facts of experience in the face; it prevents serious acknowledgment of the evils they present and serious concern with the goods they promise but do not as yet fulfill. It turns thought to the business of finding a wholesale transcendent remedy for the one and guarantee for the other. One is reminded of the way many moralists and theologians greeted Herbert Spencer’s recognition of an unknowable energy from which welled up the phenomenal physical processes without and the conscious operations within. Merely because Spencer labeled his unknowable energy “God,” this faded piece of metaphysical goods was greeted as an important and grateful concession to the reality of the spiritual realm. Were it not for the deep hold of the habit of seeking justification for ideal values in the remote and transcendent, surely this reference of them to an unknowable absolute would be despised in comparison with the demonstrations of experience that knowable energies are daily generating about us precious values.

The displacing of this wholesale type of philosophy will doubtless not arrive by sheer logical disproof, but rather by growing recognition of its futility. Were it a thousand times true that opium produces sleep because of its dormitive energy, yet the inducing of sleep in the tired, and the recovery to waking life of the poisoned, would not be thereby one least step forwarded. And were it a thousand times dialectically demonstrated that life as a whole is regulated by a transcendent principle to a final inclusive goal, none the less truth and error, health and disease, good and evil, hope and fear in the concrete, would remain just what and where they now are. To improve our education, to ameliorate our manners, to advance our politics, we must have recourse to specific conditions of generation.

Finally, the new logic introduces responsibility into the intellectual life. To idealize and rationalize the universe at large is after all a confession of inability to master the courses of things that specifically concern us. As long as mankind suffered from this impotency, it naturally shifted a burden of responsibility that it could not carry over to the more competent shoulders of the transcendent cause. But if insight into specific conditions of value and into specific consequences of ideas is possible, philosophy must in time become a method of locating and interpreting the more serious of the conflicts that occur in life, and a method of projecting ways for dealing with them: a method of moral and political diagnosis and prognosis.

The claim to formulate a priori the legislative constitution of the universe is by its nature a claim that may lead to elaborate dialectic developments. But it is also one that removes these very conclusions from subjection to experimental test, for, by definition, these results make no differences in the detailed course of events. But a philosophy that humbles its pretensions to the work of projecting hypotheses for the education and conduct of mind, individual and social, is thereby subjected to test by the way in which the ideas it propounds work out in practice. In having modesty forced upon it, philosophy also acquires responsibility.

Doubtless I seem to have violated the implied promise of my earlier remarks and to have turned both prophet and partizan. But in anticipating the direction of the transformations in philosophy to be wrought by the Darwinian genetic and experimental logic, I do not profess to speak for any save those who yield themselves consciously or unconsciously to this logic. No one can fairly deny that at present there are two effects of the Darwinian mode of thinking. On the one hand, there are making many sincere and vital efforts to revise our traditional philosophic conceptions in accordance with its demands. On the other hand, there is as definitely a recrudescence of absolutistic philosophies; an assertion of a type of philosophic knowing distinct from that of the sciences, one which opens to us another kind of reality from that to which the sciences give access; an appeal through experience to something that essentially goes beyond experience. This reaction affects popular creeds and religious movements as well as technical philosophies. The very conquest of the biological sciences by the new ideas has led many to proclaim an explicit and rigid separation of philosophy from science.

Old ideas give way slowly; for they are more than abstract logical forms and categories. They are habits, predispositions, deeply engrained attitudes of aversion and preference. Moreover, the conviction persists—though history shows it to be a hallucination—that all the questions that the human mind has asked are questions that can be answered in terms of the alternatives that the questions themselves present. But in fact intellectual progress usually occurs through sheer abandonment of questions together with both of the alternatives they assume—an abandonment that results from their decreasing vitality and a change of urgent interest. We do not solve them: we get over them. Old questions are solved by disappearing, evaporating, while new questions corresponding to the changed attitude of endeavor and preference take their place. Doubtless the greatest dissolvent in contemporary thought of old questions, the greatest precipitant of new methods, new intentions, new problems, is the one effected by the scientific revolution that found its climax in the “Origin of Species.”

[1] A lecture in a course of public lectures on “Charles Darwin and His Influence on Science,” given at Columbia University in the winter and spring of 1909. Reprinted from the Popular Science Monthly for July, 1909.

[2]Life and Letters,” Vol. I., p. 282; cf. 285.

[3]Life and Letters,” Vol. II., pp. 146, 170, 245; Vol. I., pp. 28384. See also the closing portion of his “Variations of Animals and Plants under Domestication.”