Peter Kropotkin Archive

Ethics: Origin and Development
Chapter 2
The Gradually Evolving Bases of the New Ethics

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


If the empirical. philosophers have hitherto failed to prove the progress of moral conceptions (which may be inciple of evolution), the fault lies to a great extent with the speculative, i.e., the . nonscientific philosophers. They have so strongly denied the empirical origin of man's moral feelings; they have gone to such subtle reasoning in order to assign a supernatural origin to the moral sense; and they have spoken so much about "the destination of man," the "way of his existence," and "the aim of Nature," that a reaction against the mythological and metaphysical conceptions which had risen round this question was unavoidable. Moreover, the modern evolutionists, having established the presence in the animal world of a keen struggle for life among different species, could not accept such a brutal process, which entails so much suffering upon sentient beings, as the expression of a Supreme Being; and they consequently denied that any ethical principle could be discovered in it. Only now that the evolution of species, races of men, human institutions, and of ethical ideas themselves, has been proved to be the result of natural forces, has it become possible to study all the factors of this evolution, including the ethical factor of mutual support and growing sympathy, without the risk of falling back into a supra-natural philosophy. But,this being so, we reach a point of considerable philosophical importance.

We are enabled to conclude that the lesson which man derives from the study of Nature and his own history is the permanent presence of a double tendency--towards a greater development, on the one side of sociality, and, on the other side, of a consequent increase of the intensity of life, which results in an increase of happiness for the individuals, and in progress,--physical, intellectual, and moral.

This double tendency is a distinctive characteristic of life in general. It is always present, and belongs to life, as one of its attributes, whatever apsects life may take on our planet or elsewhere. And this is not a metaphysical assertion of the "universality of the moral law," or a mere supposition. Without the continual growth of sociality, and consequently of the intensity and variety of sensations, life is impossible. Therein lies its essence. If that element is lacking life tends to ebb, to disintegrate, to cease. This may be recognized as an empirically discovered law of Nature.

It thus appears that; science, far from destroying the foundations of ethics gives, on the contrary, a concrete content to the nebulous metaphysical presumptions which are current in transcendental extra-natural ethics. As science goes deeper into the life of Nature, it gives to the evolution ethics a philosophical certitude, where the transcendental thinker had only a vague intuition to rely on.

There is still less foundation for another continually repeated reproach to empirical thought,--namely the study of Nature can only lead us to knowledge of some cold and mathematical truth, but that such truths have little effect upon our actions. The study of Nature, we are told, can at best inspire us with the love of truth; but the inspiration for higher emotions, such as that of "infinite goodness," can be given only by religion. It can be easily shown that this contention is not based on any facts and is, therefore, utterly, fallacious. To begin with, love of truth is already one half--the better half--of all ethical teaching. Intelligent religious people understand this very well. As to the conception of "good" and striving for it, the "truth" which we have just men-tioned, i. e., the recognition of mutual aid as the fundamental feature of life is certainly an inspiring truth, which surely will some day find its expression in the poetry of Nature, for it imparts to our conception of Nature an additional humanitarian touch.

Goethe, with the insight of his pantheistic genius, at once understood all the philosophical significance of this truth, upon the very first hint of it that he heard from Eckermann, the zoölogist.1 Moreover, the deeper we go into the study of primitive man, the more we realize that it was from the life of animals with whom he stood in close contact that he learned the first lessons of valorous defense of fellow-creatures, self-sacrifice for the welfare of the group, unlimited parental love, and the advantages of sociality in general. The conceptions of "virtue" and "wickedness" are zoölogical, not merely human conceptions.

As to the powers which ideas and intellectually conceived ideals exercise upon current moral conceptions, and how these conceptions influence in their turn the intellectual aspect of an epoch, this subject hardly need be insisted upon. The intellectual evolution of a given society may take at times, under the influence of all sorts of circumstances, a totally wrong turn, or it may take, on the contrary, a high flight. But in both cases the leading ideas of the time will never fail deeply to influence the ethical life. The same applies also to the individual.

Most certainly, ideas  are forces  as Fouillée puts it;2 and they are ethical forces, if the ideas are correct and wide enough to represent the real life of nature in its entirety,--not one of its sides only. The first step, therefore, towards the elaboration of a morality which should exerrcise a lasting influence upon society, is to base this morality upon firmly established truths. And indeed, one of the main obstacles to the working out of a complete ethical system, corresponding to the present needs, is the fact that the science of society is still in its infancy. Having just completed its storing of materials, sociology is only beginning to investigate them with the view to ascertaining the probable lines of a future development. But it continually meets in this field with a great number of deeply rooted prejudices.

The chief demand which is now addressed to ethics is to do its best to find through the philosophical study of the subject the common element in the two sets of diametrically opposed feelings which exist in man, and thus to help mankind find a synthesis, and not a compromise between the two. ln one set are the feelings which induce man to subdue other men in order to utilize them for his individual ends, while those in the other set induce human beings to unite for attaining common ends by common effort: the first answering to that fundamental need of human nature -- struggle, and the second representing another equally fundamental tendency -- the desire of unity and mutual sympathy. These two sets of feelings must, of course, struggle between themselves, but it is absolutely essential to discover their synthesis whatever form it takes. Such a synthesis is so much more necessary because the civilized man of to-day, having no settled conviction on this point, is paralyzed in his powers of action. He cannot admit that a struggle to the knife for supremacy, carried on between individuals and nations, should be the last word of science; he does not believe, at the same time, in solving the problem through the gospel of brotherhood and self-abnegation which Christianity has been preaching for so many centuries without ever being able to attain the brotherhood of men and nations nor even tolerance among the various Christian sects. As regards the teaching of the Communists, the vast majority of men, for the same reason, have no faith in communism.

Thus the principal problem of ethics at present is to help mankind to find the solution for this fundamental contradiction. For this purpose we must earnestly study what were the means resorted to by men at different periods of their evolution, in order so to direct the individual forces as to get from them the greatest benefit for the welfare of all, without at the same time paralyzing personal en-ergies. And we have to study the tendencies in this direction which exist at the present moment--in the form of the timid attempts which are being made, as well as in the form of the potentialities concealed in modern society, which may be utilized for finding that synthesis. And then, as no new move in civilization has ever been made without a certain enthusiasm being evoked in order to overcome the first difficulties of inertia and opposition, it is the duty of the new ethics to infuse in men those ideals  which would provoke their enthusiasm, and give them the necessary forces for building a form of life which would combine individual energy with work for the good of all.

The need of a realistic ideal brings us to the chief reproach which has always been made to all non-religious systems of ethics. Their conclusions, we are told, will never have the necessary authority for influencing the actions of men, because they cannot be invested with the sense of duty, of obligation. It is perfectly true that empirical ethics has never claimed to possess the imperative character, such as belongs, for example, to the Mosaic Decalogue. True, that when Kant advanced as the"categorical imperative" of all morality the rule: "So act that the maxim of thy will may serve at the same time as a principle of universal legislation,"3 it required no sanction whatever, for being universally recognized as obligatory. It was, he maintained, a necessary  form of reasoning, a "category" of our intellect, and it was deduced from no utilitarian considerations.

However, modern criticism, beginning with Schopenhauer, has shown that Kant was mistaken. He has certainly failed to prove why it should be a duty to act according to his "imperative." And, strange to say, it follows from Kant's own reasoning that the only ground upon which his "imperative" might recommend itself to general acceptance is its social utility, although some of the best pages which Kant wrote were precisely those in which he strongly objected to any considerations of utility being taken as the foundation of morality. After all, he produced a beautiful panegyric on the sense of duty, but he failed to give to this sense any other foundation than the inner conscience of man and his desire of retaining a harmony between his intellectual conceptions and his actions.4

Empirical morality does not in the least pretend to find a substitute for the religious imperative expressed in the words, "I am the Lord," but the painful discrepancy which exists between the ethical prescriptions of the Christian religion and the life of societies calling themselves Christian, deprives the above reproach of its value. However, even empirical morality is not entirely devoid of a sense of conditional obligation. l he different feelings and actions which are usually described since the times of Auguste Comte as "altruistic" can easily be classed under two different headings. There are actions which may be considered as absolutely necessary, once we choose to live in society, and to which, therefore, the name of "altruistic" ought never to be applied: they bear the character of reciprocity, and they are as much in the interest of the individual as any act of self-preservation. And there are, on the other hand, those actions which bear no character of reciprocity. One who performs such acts gives his powers, his energy, his enthusiasm, expecting no compensation in return, and although such acts are the real mainsprings of moral progress, they certainly can have no character of obligation  attached to them. And yet, these two classes of acts are continually confused by writers on morality, and as a result many contradictions arise in dealing with ethical questions.

This confusion, however, can be easily avoided. (First of all it is evident that it is preferable to keep ethical problems distinct from the problems of law. Moral science does not even settle the question whether legislation is necessary or not. ) It stands above that. We know, indeed, ethical writers-and these were not the least influential in the early beginnings of the Reformation-who denied the necessity of any legislation and appealed directly to human conscience. The function of ethics is not even so much to insist upon the defects of man, and to reproach him with his "sins,'' as to act in the positive direction, by appealing to man's best instincts. It determines, and explains, the few fundamental principles without which neither animals nor men could live in societies: but then it appeals to something superior to that to love, courage, fraternity, self-respect, accord with one's ideal. It tells man that if he desires to have a life in which all his forces, physical, inter lectual,, and emotional, may find a full exercise, he must once and for ever abandon the idea that such a life is attainable on the path of disregard for others.

It is only through establishing a certain harmony between the individual and all others that an approach to such complete life will be possible, says Ethics, and then adds: "Look at Nature itself! Study the past of mankind! They will prove to you that so it is in reality." And when the individual, for this or that reason, hesitates in some special case as to the best course to follow, ethics comes to his aid and indicates how he would like others to act with respect to him, in a similar case.5 But even then true ethics does not trace a stiff line of conduct, because it is the individual himself who must weigh the relative value of the different motives affecting him. There is no use to recommend risk to one who can stand no reverse, or to speak of an old man's prudence to the young man full of energy. He would give the reply-the profoundly true and beautiful reply which Egmont gives to old Count Oliva's advice in Goethe's drama-and he would be quite right: "As if spurred by unseen spirits, the sun-horses of time run with the light cart of our fate; and there remains to us only boldly to hold the reins and lead the wheels away-here, from a stone on our left, there from upsetting the cart on our right. Whereto does it run? Who knows? Can we only remember wherefrom we came?" "The flower must bloom," as Guyau says,6 even though its blooming meant death.

And yet the main purpose of ethics is not to advise men separately. It is rather to set before them, as a whole, a higher purpose, an ideal which, better than any advice, would make them act instinctively in the proper direction. Just as the aim of mental training is to accustom us to perform an enormous number of mental operations almost unconsciously, so is the aim of ethics to create such an atmosphere in society as would produce in the great number, entirely by impulse, those actions which best lead to the welfare of all and the fullest happiness of every separate being.

Such is the final aim of morality; but to reach it we must free our moral teachings from the self-contradictions which they contain. A morality, for example, which preaches "charity," out of compassion and pity, necessarily contains a deadly contradiction. It starts with the assertion of full equity and justice, or of full brotherhood, but then it hastens to add that we need not worry our minds with either. The one is unattainable. As to the brotherhood of men, which is the fundamental principle of all religions, it must not be taken literally; that was a mere poetical phrase of enthusiastic preachers. "Inequality is the rule of Nature," we are told by religious preachers, who in this can call Nature to their aid; in this respect, they teach us, we should take lessons from Nature, not from religion, which has always quarreled with Nature. But when the inequalities in the modes of living of men become too striking, and the sum total of produced wealth is so divided as to result in the most abject misery for a very great number, then sharing with the poor "what can be shared" without parting with one's privileged position, becomes a holy duty.

Such a morality may certainly be prevalent in a society for a time, or even for a long time, if it has the sanction of religion interpreted by the reigning Church. But the moment man begins to consider the prescriptions of religion with a critical eye, and requires a reasoned conviction instead of mere obedience and fear, an inner contradiction of this sort cannot be retained much longer. It must be abandoned-the sooner the better. Inner contradiction is the death-sentence of all ethics and a worm undermining human energy.

A most important condition which a modern ethical system is bound to satisfy is that it must not fetter individual initiative, be it for so high a purpose as the welfare of the commonwealth or the species. Wundt, in his excellent review of the ethical systems. makes the remark that beginning with the eighteenth-century period of enlightenment, nearly all of them became individualistic. I his, however, is only partly true, because the rights of the individual were asserted with great energy in one domain only-in economics. And even here individual freedom remained, both in theory and in practice, more illusory than real. As to the other domains-political, intellectual, artistic-it may be said that in proportion as economic individualism was asserted with more emphasis, the subjection of the individual-to the war machinery of the State, the system of education, the mental discipline required for the support of the existing institutions, and so on-was steadily growing. Even most of the advanced reformers of the present clay in their forecasts of the future, reason under the presumption of a still greater absorption of the individual by society.

This tendency necessarily provoked a protest, voiced by Godwin at the beginning of the nineteenth century, and by Spencer towards its end, and it brought Nietzsche to conclude that all morality must be thrown overboard if it can find no better foundation than the sacrifice of the individual in the interests of the human race. This critique of the current ethical systems is perhaps the most characteristic feature of our epoch, the more so as its mainspring is not so much in an egoistic striving after economical independence (as was the case with the eighteenth-century individualists, with the exception of Godwin) as in a passionate desire of personal independence for working out a new, better form of society, in which the welfare of all would' become a groundwork for the fullest development of the personality.7

The want of development of the personality (leading to herd-psychology) and the lack of individual creative power and initiative are certainly one of the chief defects of our time. Economical individualism has not kept its promise: it diet not result in any striking development of individuality. As of yore, creative work in the field of sociology is extremely slow, and imitation remains the chief means for spreading progressive innovations in mankind. Modern nations repeat the history of the barbarian tribes and the medieval cities when they copied from one another the same political, religious, and economic movements, and the "charters of freedom." Whole nations have appropriated to themselves lately, with astounding rapidity, the results of the west European industrial and military civilization; and in these unrevised new editions of old types we see best how superficial is that which is called culture, how much of it is mere imitation.

It is only natural, therefore, to ask ourselves whether the current moral teachings are not instrumental in maintaining that imitative submission. Did they not aim too much at converting man into the "ideational automaton" of Herbert, who is absorbed in contemplation, and fears above all the storms of passion? Is it not time to rise in defense of the rights of the real man, full of vigor, who is capable of really loving what is worth being loved and hating what deserves hatred,-the man who is always ready to fight for an ideal which ennobles his love and justifies his antipathies? From the times of the philosophers of antiquity there was a tendency to represent "virtue" as a sort of "wisdom" which induces man to "cultivate the beauty of his soul," rather than to join "the unwise" in their struggles against the evils of the day. Later on that virtue became "nonresistance to evil," and for many centuries in succession individual personal "salvation," coupled with resignation and a passive attitude towards evil, was the essence of Christian ethics; the result being the culture of a monastic indifference to social good and evil, and the elaboration of an argumentation in defense of "virtuous individualism." Fortunately, a reaction against such egoistic virtue is already under way, and the question is asked whether a passive attitude in the presence of evil does not merely mean moral cowardice,-whether, as was taught by the Zend-Avesta, an active struggle against the evil Ahriman is not the first condition of virtue?8 We need moral progress, but without moral courage no moral progress is possible.

Such are some of the demands presented to ethics which can be discerned amid the present confusion. All of them converge towards one leading idea. What is wanted now is a new conception of morality,-in its fundamental principles, which must be bread enough to infuse new life in our civilization, and in its applications, which must be freed both from the survivals of transcendental thinking, as well as from the narrow conceptions of philistine utilitarianism.

The elements for such a new conception of morality are already at hand. The importance of sociality, of mutual aid, in the evolution of the animal world and human history may be taken, I believe, as a positively established scientific truth, free of any hypothetical assumptions. We may also take next, as granted, that in proportion as mutual aid becomes an established custom in a human community, and so to say instinctive, it leads to a parallel development of the sense of justice, with its necessary accompaniment of the sense of equity  and equalitarian self-restraint. The idea that the personal rights of every individual are as unassailable as the same rights of every other individual, grows in proportion as class distinctions facie away; and this thought becomes a current conception when the institutions of a given community have been altered permanently in this sense. A certain degree of identification of the individual with the interests of the group to which it belongs has necessarily existed since the very beginning of social life, and it manifests itself even among the lowest animals. But in proportion as relations of equity and justice are solidly established in the human community, the ground is prepared for the further and the more general development of more refined relations, under which man understands and feels so well the bearing of his action on the whole of society that he refrains from offending others, even though he may have to renounce on that account the gratification of some of his own desires, anti when he so fully identifies his feelings with those of others that he is ready to sacrifice his powers for their benefit without expecting anything in return. These unselfish feelings and habits, usually called by the somewhat inaccurate names of altruism  and self-sacrifice, alone deserve, in my opinion, the name of morality, properly speaking, although most writers confound them, under the name of altruism, with the mere sense of justice.

Mutual Aid-Justice-Morality  are thus the consecutive steps of an ascending series, revealed to us by the study of the animal world and man. They constitute an organic necessity  which carries in itself its own justification, confirmed by the whole of the evolution of the animal kingdom, beginning with its earliest stages, (in the form of colonies of the most primitive organisms), and gradually rising to our civilized human communities. Figuratively speaking, it is a universal law of organic evolution, and this is why the sense of Mutual Aid, Justice, and Morality are rooted in man's mind with all the force of an inborn instinct-the first instinct, that of Mutual Aid, being evidently the strongest, while the third, developed later than the others, is an unstable feeling and the least imperative of the three.

Like the need of food, shelter, or sleep, these instincts are self-preservation instincts. Of course, they may sometimes be weakened under the influence of certain circumstances, and we know many cases when the power of these instincts is relaxed, for one reason or another, in some animal group, or in a human community; but shell the group necessarily begins to fail in the struggle for life: it moves towards its decay. And if this group does not revert to the necessary conditions of survival anti of progressive development Mutual Aid, Justice, and Morality-then the group, the race, or the species dies out and disappears. Since it did not fulfill the necessary condition of evolution-it must inevitably decline and disappear.

Such is the solid foundation which science gives us for the elaboration of a new system of ethics and its justification; and, therefore, instead of proclaiming "the bankruptcy of science," what we have now to do is to examine how scientific ethics can be built from the materials which modern research, stimulated by the idea of evolution, has accumulated for that purpose.


1See Eckermann, Gespräche mit Goethe, Leipzig 1848, vol. III; 219, 221. When Eckermann told Goethe that a fledging, which fell out of the nest after Eckermann had shot its mother, was picked up by a mother of another species, Goethe was deeply moved. "If," said he, "this will prove to be a widespread fact, it will explain the 'divine in nature.'" The zoöligists of the early nineteenth century, who studied animal life on the still-unpopulated parts of the American continent, and such a naturalist as Brehm, have shown that the fact noted by Eckerman is fairly common in the animal world. [There are several English translations of Eckermann's Conversations with Goethe. In his Mutual Aid Kropotkin gives a slightly different version of this "conversation."]--Trans. Note.

2[Alfred Fouillée, La psychologie des idées-forces, Paris, 1893, 2 vols.; 3d ed., enlarged, Paris, 1912.]--Trans. Note.

3[Kant's Metaphysics of Morals. See Abbot's trans, Kant's Theory of Ethics, page 39; also pp. 18, 41.]--Trans. Note.

4Later, however, he went further. It follows from his Philosophical Theory of Faith, published in 1792, that if he began by setting rational ethics over against the anti-Christian teachings of that time, he ended by recognizing the "ionconceivability of the moral faculty, pointing to its divine origin." (Kant's Works, Hartenstein's Edition, vol. VI, pp. 143-144). [Leipzig, 1867-8, 8 vols. Kropotkin refers here to Kant's Vorlesugne über die philosphesche Religionslehre, --a series of articles, the first of which appeared in a German magazine in 1792. They were edited, Leipzig, 1817, by Pölitz. See also, J. W. Semple's Kant's Theory of Religion, London 1838; 1848.]--Trans. Note.

5"Ethics will not tell him, 'This you must do,' but inquire with him, 'What is it that you will, in reality and definitively--not only in a momentary mood?'" (F. Paulsen, System der Ethik, 2 vols,. Berlin, 1896, vol. I, p. 20.)

6M. Guyau, A Sketch of Morality independent of Obligation or Sanction, trans. by Gertrude Kapeteyn, London (Watts), 1898.

7Wundt makes a very interesting remark:--"For, unless all signs fail, a revolution of opinion is at present going on, in which the extreme individualism of the enlightenment is giving place to a revival of the universalism of antiquity, supplemented by a better notion of th eliberty of human personality--an improvement that we owe to individualism." (Ethics, III, p. 34 of the English translation; p. 459 of German original.) [Eng. tr. by Titchener, Julia Gulliver, and Margaret Washburn, N.Y. & London, 1897-1901, 3 vols. German original, Ethik, Stuttgart, 1903 (3rd ed.), 2 fols.]--Trans. Note.

8 C.P. Tiele, Geschichte der Religion in Altertum, German translation by G. Gehrich. Gotha, 1903, vol. II pp. 163 sq. [Trans from the Dutch of Cornelius Petrus Tiele, Gotha, 3 vols., 1896-1903.]--Trans. Note.