(Review) Jean-Marie Guyau, Esquisse d’une morale sans obligation ni sanction

Esquisse d’une morale sans obligation ni sanction
Esquisse d’une Morale sans Obligation ni Sanction (Sketch of a Morality without Obligation or Sanction) is a philosophical work written by Jean-Marie Guyau in 1885. Guyau was a French philosopher and writer who is known for his contributions to the field of moral philosophy. This book is considered to be one of his most important works and is still widely read and discussed by scholars today. The central theme of Esquisse d’une Morale sans Obligation…

W. R. Sorley’s Review on Esquisse d’une Morale sans Obligation ni Sanction by Jean-Marie Guyau.

Revue Philosophique de la France et de l’Étranger, T. 19 (janvier à juin 1885), pp. 319-328.


This is an interesting and valuable essay towards the establishment of a “scientific” ethics. The author, who is already favourably known for what he has done in recording the history of ethics, has now set himself to make material for that history.[1] He does not, indeed, break absolutely new ground, for Spencer, Simcox, Stephen and Höffding are among his predecessors. Yet he has ideas of his own, both as to the details and as to the general position of his subject, which justify this independent contribution. His work is written in a lively and often forcible style, although a tendency sometimes shows itself to substitute illustration or epigram for argument. This tendency appears in a confusing way, even when he is defining the limits of his inquiry. Thus, he says: —

“Quel sera donc le but naturel des actions humaines ? Lorsqu’un tireur s’est longtemps exercé sur une cible, et que l’on considère les trous innombrables dont il a percé le morceau de carton, on voit ces trous se répartir assez uniformément autour du blanc visé. Aucune des balles, peut-être, n’aura atteint le centre géométrique du cercle de la cible, et quelques-unes en seront fort éloignées ; néanmoins, elles seront groupées autour de ce centre suivant une loi très régulière que Quételet a déterminée : la loi du binôme. . . . Cette recherche, après coup, du but visé par le tireur peut être comparée à celle qu’entreprend le moraliste quand il s’efforce de déterminer le but ordinaire de la conduite humaine. Quelle est la cible constamment visée par l’humanité?”

I quote this passage to show what a multitude of assumptions may be covered by a single metaphor. The assumptions in this case are three: — (1) that there is one permanent or constant end which human conduct always aims at; (2) that this end is either unconsciously pursued or, at least, never aimed at consciously by those whose testimony as to its nature can be trusted: so that, in order to ascertain what it is, we must simply observe the external facts of conduct, and from them infer what the mark aimed at has been; (3) that, when this has been done, we have got a theory of ethics. Of the assumptions made here implicitly, the first and third are more or less explicitly adopted and defended, the second is not referred to. As regards the third of them, the author is, of course, not ignorant that it is one thing to find out the actual conduct of men; another thing to determine how they ought to act. The former question belongs to anthropology or to psychology; the latter is commonly regarded as the properly ethical question. Yet this is the question which M. Guyau expressly dismisses. He will have nothing to do with final causes, only with efficient causes; not the desirable, but what is actually desired is to form his subject. And he seems to think this a consequence of his claim that morality should be treated from the purely scientific point of view. Every moralist should admit this claim so far as it is a claim for scientific or logical method. But in our author, and in many other writers, it amounts to a claim to treat morality from the point of view of some other science. It is thus really an endeavour to do without the fundamental conceptions of morality, and seems as little likely to lead to satisfactory results in ethics as it would be, in biology, to ignore the fact of life, or, in physics, to dispense with the conception of energy.

The assumption that there is one constant end of conduct is also frankly stated. M. Guyau even adopts the maxim of psychological hedonism: “that conscious life follows the line of least pain”, or — generalising the proposition so as to admit unconscious and automatic acts — “the line of least resistance”. And this is identified with the evolution of life; while the end of action is but motive cause become conscious. Life, or the evolution of life, is, therefore, our author holds, at once the cause and the end of all human and animal conduct; and this cause in action takes the line of least resistance, which, in the case of conscious beings, is the line of least pain. M. Guyau thus shares with most evolutionists the over-hasty generalisation which identifies the evolution of life with the increase of pleasure and diminution of pain. Yet all that the theory of evolution shows is that there is a tendency to bring together pleasurable acts and acts which preserve life and aid its development, and to make the actions hostile to this preservation and development painful. This, however, is only a tendency which has not resulted, and is not likely to result, in a complete concomitance of pleasure and development. Painful effort is called into play in order to meet the complicated adjustments which increasing function requires, while the slow diminution of spontaneous functioning implied in the process of degradation has been supposed to be highly pleasurable.

It does not seem to me, therefore, that M. Guyau is more successful than his predecessors in getting a satisfactory basis for the ethics of evolution. But this is with him merely a preliminary. His aim would seem to be not so much (as the title of his book suggests) to lay the foundation of ethics without obligation or sanction, as to inquire what substitutes for these conceptions can be attained on the lines of naturalistic evolution According to the author, the admissible substitutes are five in number: (1) the consciousness of our internal power; (2) the mechanical influence exercised by ideas upon action; (3) the increasing fusion of our sensibilities, and the growingly social character of our pleasures and pains; (4) the love of risk in action; (5) the love of metaphysical hypothesis, which is a sort of risk in thought (p. 4). The first three of these are recognised elements in the springs of human activity, and as such are dealt with in M. Guyau’s first book, “Du mobile moral au point de vue scientifique”; the two last, on which the author lays great stress, are reserved for the last book, on “Derniers équivalents possibles du devoir”.

The substitutes for obligation, then, are to be found in the region of motives to action. Moral action, according to M. Guyau’s view, would seem to be that action which leads to the continuance and increase of life. But, as this is the necessary end or motive of all action, it can afford no criterion for distinguishing moral from immoral action—a criterion which seems really to be found in the social (or altruistic) as distinguished from the selfish principle of conduct.

In the first place, it is argued that increasing intensity of life involves its increased expansion. The fact of reproduction is, of course, a case in point; whilst the extra-regarding tendency of strong emotional natures is evident. “Life,” says the author, “has two aspects: that of nutrition and assimilation, and that of production and fecundity. Even in the life of the blind cellule there is a principle of expansion which makes the individual insufficient for itself. The life of richest content is most impelled to be lavish with itself, to sacrifice itself in a certain measure, to share itself with others. Hence the most perfect organism will always be the most sociable, and the ideal of the individual life is life in common”. But this conclusion goes far beyond what the premisses justify. It is true that the activity of every organism brings it into relation with other organisms. But the organism in which life is fullest and strongest often relates itself to others by sacrificing them to itself, and not itself to them. Self-aggrandisement is an outlet for superfluous vital energy as well as self-sacrifice, and to many organisms it seems a much more obvious outlet. It is true that the selfish tendency is limited by sympathetic emotions; but M. Guyau has not shown that the strength of these emotions is in proportion to the intensity of life.

In the next place, the author tries to determine the measure in which the motive power of action can produce a sort of obligation. The argument here depends on the foregoing doctrine of “moral fecundity,” and is applied to will, intelligence and sensibility successively. From the point of view of will, there is a super-abundance of vital energy demanding exercise; “every such power produces a kind of duty proportional to it. . . . From this point of view there is no mysticism in moral obligation” — nor, as the previous reasoning has shown, is there any morality. From the second point of view, intelligence is a motive power, the very conception of an action producing a tendency to act so as to realise it. “What is called obligation or moral constraint is, in the sphere of intellect, nothing but the consequence of this radical identity’ between thought and action — except that, in what is ordinarily called obligation, the moral constraint is to do good, whereas M. Guyau’s substitute for it applies equally to good and evil. The nearest approach to a distinction which the author gets is when he adopts the third point of view, that of sensibility. Now it is certainly true that the “social sanction” goes much deeper than the rewards and punishments, or good and ill report with society, relied on by individualistic ethics. “One always feels a sort of internal pressure exercised by the activity itself in these directions; the moral agent, by a propensity which is at once natural and rational, feels himself impelled in this sense, and feels that he would have to make a sort of inner coup d’état to escape this pressure: this coup d’état he calls fault or crime. And in committing it the individual wrongs himself: he voluntarily diminishes and destroys part of his physical or mental life”. This position, which resembles that adopted in Miss Simcox’s Natural Law, does not allow for the fact that the course of development has brought other than social feelings into play. In the evolution of conduct, there naturally arises a diversity of instincts, the result of previous habits of acting, which exert, partly unconsciously, partly consciously, a pressure or impulse to act upon the individual will. Certain of these impulses or instincts are (or, rather, seem to be) indestructible. These act permanently or constantly, and are not connected with the satisfaction of a transient desire, but with an expenditure of force which may work itself off in various ways; this being the explanation of the tendency such instincts have to become insatiable and continuous. It is important, however, to remember that “this sentiment of obligation is independent of the direction, moral or not moral, of the instinct”; so that it seems inconsistent to restrict this quasi-obligation to those tendencies which are in harmony with the development of the species. There may be such a pressure to act in certain ways; but it is not exclusively in the lines of sociality, for the selfish instincts have a like indestructibility and constancy with the social.

An important aspect of the question, which M. Guyau discusses in an interesting way, is the relation of consciousness to this, and, generally, to all instincts. He contends that the instinct, by becoming conscious, tends to rationalise itself, and thus to cease to exist as instinct. There is a constant tendency, therefore, not merely for moral impulses and sentiments to become more conscious, but also for them to pass into a different — a rational — form; and, unless they have a rational, as well as an instinctive, basis, the tendency is for them to pass away altogether. There is no danger, he thinks, of Mr. Spencer’s prophecy being fulfilled, and the altruistic instinct becoming so strong that men will compete with one another for opportunities of self-sacrifice. The danger consequent upon the disappearance of instinctive morality would seem, indeed, rather to lie in an opposite direction — in men asserting for themselves individually their ‘character as rational beings, which is,” Prof. Bain says, “to desire everything exactly according to its pleasure-value”.

It is necessary to omit consideration of M. Guyau’s criticism of the ordinary ideas of obligation and sanction, and to pass at once to his own original contribution to the subject in book iv.

With the tendency of life to expansion, the influence of ideas on action, and the increasing sociality of the sentiments, there is still much left to be done for our author’s theory. “A morality exclusively scientific cannot,” he acknowledges, “give a definite and complete solution of the problem of moral obligation”. We must pass beyond mere experience; and M. Guyau’s substitute for duty is completed by the element of risk in life and thought. Under this idea of risk, M. Guyau considers two things which he seeks to bring into close relation: the pleasure got from risk and danger, and the “metaphysical risk” in speculation and moral action. In the first chapter of this book, he gives an interesting analysis of the fascination which an element of enterprise and uncertainty lends to action. Yet the habit, which reflection encourages, of examining the ends of conduct and estimating their utility, after discounting the pain to be undergone for their attainment and the risk of failure, tends to diminish the pleasure-value of the enterprise.

A consideration similar to this applies with additional force to the chapters on “metaphysical risk” in speculation and action, in which M. Guyau seeks to supply the deficiencies of his substitute for moral obligation. It is true that metaphysical speculation may be valuable even as an intellectual gymnastic, and that there is something ennobling in following duty rather than the seductions of desire, or in subordinating private ends to the good of others. If I understand him aright, this is the element of the old “absolute morality” which M. Guyau wishes to preserve, and which he thinks can be preserved by allowing the freest scope for speculative hypotheses or poetic fancies as to the ultimate ground of things. To justify rationally an act of charity pure and simple, the moral agent must objectify the sentiment by which he acts and imagine an eternal charity at the root of things. But if an opponent were to write the word “selfishness” instead of “charity,” I do not see what good answer M. Guyau could make to him. It appears to me, moreover, that the author has overlooked the fact that, just as consciousness is fatal to instinct and makes it give place to deliberate and reasoned action, so speculative beliefs are changed in character when subjected to criticism. If they can stand the criticism, they retain their old influence on a more secure foundation; but, if reflection shows them to be baseless, they inevitably — though, perhaps, gradually — lose their power. Now, according to M, Guyau, the metaphysical basis sought for moral ideas is logically invalid; and his warm endeavour to retain them as hypotheses is really an attempt to found right action on speculative illusion. As he acknowledges, such ideas will only have the force of obligation so long as the hypothesis on which they rest is recognised as the most probable by me; and, he might have added, the force of the obligation will diminish as the probability appears to decrease. But, on his own principles, the hypotheses by which morality is to be supported are not valid hypotheses at all; for each of them could be opposed by a contrary hypothesis, equally valid and equally invalid, since he leaves no means of deciding between them. The result may be matter of regret; but if M. Guyau has killed the goose, how can he expect any more golden eggs?

It seems to me, therefore, that M. Guyau’s work cannot stand the test of self-consistency, while it shows the confusion of points of view common in so many of the attempts to build a theory of ethics on the basis of natural evolution. Yet his book possesses, in a very striking way, “les qualités de ses défauts”. Coming so soon after M. Fouillée’s quest for the foundation of morality in the limits set to thought by an over-confident agnosticism (cf. Mind XXXVI., 592), it is of peculiar interest. The author seems to acknowledge, as Lange did in concluding his Geschichte des Materialismus, that Idealism is necessary for Ethics; and, if the structure he raises is insecure, this is due to the crudity of the materials out of which he has to construct his foundation, rather than to any want of skill on the part of the builder.


[1] The second of M. Guyau’s historical volumes La Morale anglaise contemporaine, reviewed in Mind XVIII. (after the earlier one, La Morale d’Épicure, Mind XVI.), has just appeared in a second edition (Paris: F. Alcan) with a short chapter, pp. 187-94, inserted on “The later disciples of Darwin and Mr. Spencer: Clifford, Barratt, Leslie Stephen”.





Laisser un commentaire

Votre adresse e-mail ne sera pas publiée. Les champs obligatoires sont indiqués avec *

Rate this review

error: Content is protected !!
Retour en haut