Peter Kropotkin Archive

Ethics: Origin and Development
Chapter 14

Written: 1924
Source: Published by Dial Press, 1921; English Translation, 1924
Transcription/Markup: Andy Carloff
Online Source:; 2021


We shall now attempt to summarize our brief historical survey of the various moral teachings.

We have seen that from the time of Ancient Greece up to the present day, there were two principal schools in Ethics. Some moralists maintained that ethical conceptions are inspired in man from above, and they accordingly connected ethics with religion. Other thinkers saw the source of morality in man himself and they endeavored to free ethics from the sanction of religion and to create a realistic morality. Some of these thinkers maintained that the chief motive power of all human actions is found in that which some call pleasure, others felicity  or happiness, in short, that which gives man the greatest amount of enjoyment and gladness. All action is toward this end. Man may seek the gratification of his basest or his loftiest inclinations, but he always seeks that which gives him happiness, satisfaction, or at least a hope of happiness and satisfaction in the future.

Of course, no matter how we act, whether we seek first of all pleasure and personal gratification, or whether we intentionally renounce immediate delights in the name of something better, we always act in that direction in which at the given moment we find the greatest satisfaction. A hedonist thinker is therefore justified in saying that all of morality reduces itself to the seeking by each man of that which gives him most pleasure, even if we should, like Bentham, choose as our aim the greatest happiness of the greatest number. It does not follow from this, however, that after having acted in a certain way, I shall not be seized with regret-perhaps for a lifetime,-that I have acted in this and not in some other manner.

This, if I am not mistaken, leads us to the conclusion that those writers who assert that "each one seeks that which gives him greatest satisfaction" have not attained a solution, so that the fundamental question of determining the bases of morality, which constitutes the principal problem of all research in this field, remains open.

Neither is this question answered by those who, like the modern utilitarians Bentham, Mill, and many others, say: "In abstaining from replying to an injury with injury, you have simply avoided an unnecessary unpleasantness, a self-reproach for lack of selfcontrol and for rudeness, which you would not approve with respect to yourself. You followed the path which gave you the greatest satisfaction, and now you, perhaps, even think: 'How rational, how good was my conduct.' " To which some "realist" might add: "Please do not talk to me of your altruism and your love for your neighbor. You have acted like a clever egoist,-that is all." And yet the problem of morality has not been carried a step farther, even with all these arguments. We have learned nothing about the origin of morality and have not discovered whether a benevolent attitude toward our fellow-men is desirable, and if desirable, to what an extent it is so. The thinker is as before faced with the question: "is it possible that morality is but an accidental phenomenon in the life of men, and to a certain extent also in the life of the social animals? Is it possible that it has no deeper foundation than my casual benevolent mood followed by the conclusion of my reason that such benevolence is profitable to me, because it saves me from further unpleasantness? Moreover, since men hold that not every injury is to be met with benevolence, and that there are injuries which no one should tolerate, no matter upon whom they are inflicted, is it really possible that there is no criterion by means of which we can make distinctions among various kinds of injuries, and that it all depends on calculation of personal interest, or even simply on a momentary disposition, an accident?"

There is no doubt that "the greatest happiness of society," advocated as the basis of morality from the earliest period of the life of the human race, and particularly put forward in recent time by the rationalist thinkers, is actually the primary basis of all ethics. But this conception, taken by itself, is too abstract, too remote, and would not be able to create moral habits and a moral mode of thought. That is why, from the most remote antiquity, thinkers have always sought a more stable basis of morality.

Among primitive peoples the secret alliances of the sorcerers, shamans, soothsayers (i.e., the alliances of the scientists of that time) resorted to intimidation , especially of women and children, by various weird rites, and this led to the gradual development of religions.1 And religions confirmed the usages and the customs which were recognized as useful for the life of the whole tribe, for they served to restrain the egoistic instincts and impulses of individuals. Later, in Ancient Greece, various philosophical schools, and still later in Asia, Europe, and America, more spiritual religions worked toward the same end. But beginning with the seventeenth century, when in Europe the authority of religious principles began to decline, a need arose for the discovery of different grounds for the moral conceptions. Then, following , some began to advance the principle of personal gain, pleasure, and happiness under the name of hedonism or eudemonism,-while others, following chiefly Plato and the Stoics, continued more or less to seek support in religion, or turned to commiseration, sympathy, which unquestionably exists in all the social animals, and which is so much more developed in man, as a counterbalance to egoistic tendencies.

To these two movements Paulsen added in our time, "Energism' the essential feature of which he considers "self-preservation and the realization of the highest goal of the will: the freedom of the rational ego, and the perfect development and exercise of all human powers." 2

But "energism" too, fails to answer the question why "the conduct of some men and their manner of thought arouse pleasurable or unpleasurable feelings in the spectator." Or why the pleasurable feelings can gain preponderance over the other variety, and then become habitual and thus regulate our future acts. If this is not a mere accident, then why? What are the causes by virtue of which moral tendencies obtain the ascendancy over the immoral? Are they in utility, in calculation, in the weighing of various pleasures and in the selection of the most intense and most permanent of them, as Bentham taught? Or are there in the very structure of man and of all social animals, causes impelling us preeminently toward that which we call morality,-even though, under the influence of greed, vanity, and thirst for power we are at the same time capable of such infamy as the oppression of one class by the other, or of such acts as were often perpetrated during the late war: poisonous gases, submarines, Zeppelins attacking sleeping cities, complete destruction of abandoned territories by the conquerors, and so on?

And indeed, does not life and the whole history of the human race teach us that if men were guided solely by considerations of personal gain, then no social life would be possible? The entire history of mankind shows that man is an unmitigated sophist, and that his mind can find, with astounding ease, every manner of justification for that which he is urged to by his desires and passions.

Even for such a crime as the war of conquest in the twentieth century, which should have horrified all the world,-even for this crime the German Emperor and millions of his subjects, not excepting the radicals and the socialists, found a justification in its usefulness to the German people; and some other still more adroit sophists even saw in it a gain for all humanity.

Paulsen includes among the representatives of "energism" in its various forms such thinkers as Hobbes, Spinoza, Shaftesbury, Leibnitz, Wolff, and the truth, says he, is apparently on the side of energism. "In recent times," continues Paulsen, "the evolutionist philosophy comes to the following point of view: a certain ideal type and its expression in activity, is the actual goal of all life and of all striving." [pp. 272-4.]

The arguments by which Paulsen confirms his idea are valuable in that they throw light on certain sides of moral life from the viewpoint of will, to the development of which the writers on ethics did not give sufficient attention. These arguments, however, fail to show wherein the expression in activity of the ideal type differs in moral questions from the seeking in life of the "greatest sum of pleasurable sensations." [p. 272]

The former is inevitably reduced to the second, and can easily reach the point of the "I-want-what-l-want" principle, if not for the existence in man of a sort of restraining reflex that acts in moments of passion,-something like aversion to deception, aversion to domination, the sense of equality, etc.

To assert and to prove, as Paulsen does, that deceit and injustice lead man to ruin is unquestionably proper and necessary. This, however, is not enough. Ethics is not satisfied with the mere knowledge of this fact; it must also explain why the deceitful and unjust life leads to ruin. Is it because such was the will of the Creator of nature, to which Christianity refers, or because lying always means self-debasement, the recognition of oneself as inferior, weaker than the one to whom the lie is told,-and consequently, by losing self- respect, making oneself still weaker? And to act unjustly means to train your brain to think unjustly, i.e., to mutilate that which is most valuable in us-the faculty of correct thinking.

These are the questions that Must be answered by the ethics that comes to replace the religious ethics. Therefore, it is not possible to solve the problem of conscience and its nature, as Paulsen did, by simply saying that conscience is in its origin nothing but a "consciousness of custom," prescribed by upbringing, by the judgment of society as to what is proper and improper, commendable or punishable; and finally, by the religious authority. [p. 363.] It is explanations of this sort that gave rise to the superficial negation of morality by Mandeville, Stirner, and others. The fact is, that while the mode of life is determined by the history of the development of a given society, conscience, on the other hand, as I shall endeavor to prove, his a much deeper origin,-namely in the consciousness of equity, which physiologically develops in man as in all social animals. . . .

           (The manuscript ends with these words)
               [N. Lebedev's Note].


1Among many tribes of North American Indians, during the performance of their rites, should a mask fall from the face of one of the men so that the women can notice it, he is immediately slain, and the others say that he was killed by a spirit. The rite has the direct purpose of intimidating women and children. [Kropotkin uses the present tense but it is probable that this pleasant custom has fallen into disuse.]-Trans. Note.

2Friedrich Paulsen, A System of Ethics, trans. by Frank Thilly, New York, 1899. [These lines are not a single quotation, but a combination of phrases from different parts of Paulsen's book. See particularly, pp. 223-224, 251, 270-271.]-Trans. Note.