George Eliot, Ethicist

In response to the claim that if you deny you have an immortal soul, you have no reason not to murder and steal and so on:

We can imagine the man who “denies his soul immortal,” replying, “It is quite possible that you would be a knave, and love yourself alone, if it were not for your belief in immortality; but you are not to force upon me what would result from your own utter want of moral emotion. I am just and honest, not because I expect to live in another world, but because, having felt the pain of injustice and dishonesty toward myself, I have a fellow-feeling with other men, who would suffer the same pain if I were unjust or dishonest toward them. Why should I give my neighbor short weight in this world, because there is not another world in which I should have nothing to weigh out to him? I am honest, because I don’t like to inflict evil on others in this life, not because I’m afraid of evil to myself in another.

The fact is, I do not love myself alone, whatever logical necessity there may be for that in your mind. I have a tender love for my wife, and children, and friends, and through that love I sympathize with like affections in other men. It is a pang to me to witness the sufferings of a fellow-being, and I feel his suffering the more acutely because he is mortal-because his life is so short, and I would have it, if possible, filled with happiness and not misery. Through my union and fellowship with the men and women I have seen, I feel a like, though a fainter, sympathy with those I have not seen; and I am able so to live in imagination with the generations to come, that their good is not alien to me, and is a stimulus to me to labor for ends which may not benefit myself, but will benefit them. It is possible that you may prefer to ‘live the brute,’ to sell your country, or to slay your father, if you were not afraid of some disagreeable consequences from the criminal laws of another world; but even if I could conceive no motive but my own worldly interest or the gratification of my animal desire, I have not observed that beastliness, treachery, and parricide are the direct way to happiness and comfort on earth. And I should say, that if you feel no motive to common morality but your fear of a criminal bar in heaven, you are decidedly a man for the police on earth to keep their eye upon, since it is matter of world-old experience that fear of distant consequences is a very insufficient barrier against the rush of immediate desire.

Fear of consequences is only one form of egoism, which will hardly stand against half a dozen other forms of egoism bearing down upon it. And in opposition to your theory that a belief in immortality is the only source of virtue, I maintain that, so far as moral action is dependent on that belief, so far the emotion which prompts it is not truly moral-is still in the stage of egoism, and has not yet attained the higher development of sympathy. In proportion as a man would care less for the rights and welfare of his fellow, if he did not believe in a future life, in that proportion is he wanting in the genuine feelings of justice and benevolence; as the musician who would care less to play a sonata of Beethoven’s finely in solitude than in public, where he was to be paid for it, is wanting in genuine enthusiasm for music.”

George Eliot, from Worldliness and Other-Worldliness

This is so wonderful an example of philosophy I hardly know what to write about it. Eliot is clear: her writing has the novelist’s light touch. She arrays her arguments quickly and concisely, spending no more time than she has to. Much of it has been hashed and re-hashed by atheist writers today; still, I believe there to be two really interesting points in there that are still new.

Firstly, examine her comment:

The fact is, I do not love myself alone, whatever logical necessity there may be for that in your mind.

This is the real argument against the theist and the egoist: by ‘real’ I mean the argument we use in our own heads, not the arguments we bring up to convince others. It has a beautiful empirical simplicity. “You say I ought not to love anybody but myself; well, for whatever reason you are wrong, because I do.” Logical necessity is a poor way to account for the motivations of human beings.

Secondly, consider this line:

In proportion as a man would care less for the rights and welfare of his fellow, if he did not believe in a future life, in that proportion is he wanting in the genuine feelings of justice and benevolence; as the musician who would care less to play a sonata of Beethoven’s finely in solitude than in public, where he was to be paid for it, is wanting in genuine enthusiasm for music.

Here Eliot compares “genuine feelings of justice and benevolence” to “genuine enthusiasm for music”. The comparison is well-taken!  When Kant argues that the reluctant philanthropist is more moral than the enthusiastic philanthropist, he is simply wrong. We ought to aim for a genuine enthusiasm about caring for others; we ought to discover within ourselves a deep upwelling of empathy – Eliot calls it “sympathy” – for our fellow human beings. Any ethical theory that is uncongenial to genuine enthusiasm (utilitarianism, deontology, I’m looking at you) should be viewed with the utmost suspicion.

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