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Letter 9377

Darwin, C. R. to Abbot, F. E.

30 Mar 1874


FEA has expressed CD’s views on the moral sense with remarkable clearness and correctness; his eulogy is magnificent [“Darwin’s theory of conscience and its relation to scientific ethics”, Index 12 Mar 1874]. Cannot give a judgment on the essay because he has had “no practice in following abstract and abstruse reasoning”.

CD does not see how morality can be “objective and universal”. No one would call the maternal bond in lower animals a “moral obligation”. When a social animal “becomes in some slight incipient degree” a moral creature “capable of approving or disapproving of its own conduct” do not such obligations remain of a so-called instinctive nature rather than becoming at once moral obligations?


Down Beckenham Kent

Mar 30 1874

My dear Sir

I have recd your kind letter of the 3rd & the copies of the Index.f1

You have put with remarkable clearness & correctness my views on themoral sense; & you must allow me to say that your eulogium on whatI have tried to do in science is the most magnificent one ever passedon me; & I heartily wish that I deserved the half of what you say.f2I have read your article with much interest & with all the attentionof which I am capable. But it is the truth that from having had no practicein following abstract & abstruse reasoning, I put no trust in my ownjudgment in such cases. To make any point clear to myself I must putit under a concrete form. Therefore my opinion on your Essay isworth very little; & I must say that I cannot see how morality is “objective &universal”;f3 yet I have approached the subject with a wish to beconvinced. It wd be of no use to give my doubts in detail; perhapsI shall best shew where my difficulty chiefly lies by the following remarks.The lower social animals may be said to be under an obligation nothabitually to kill each other, & the mothers to protect their offspring.I think this mutual bond may be called an obligation, as the speciescd not exist in society without it. No one wd call it a moralobligation, & most persons wd call it instinctive. Would youconsider this an “objective & universal fact”? I suppose certainlynot, as instinct is subjective & the obligation wd differ to a certainextent for different species. Now as soon as a social animal becamein some slight, incipient degree a moral creature,—that is—wascapable of approving or disapproving of its own conduct,—does itfollow that its obligation wd at once become moral? Would not theobligation remain, to a large extent, of the same so-called instinctivenature as before? And if so, its obligation could be only to a smallextent objective & universal. Even if the obligation of a moralbeing must be of necessity moral, I cannot see why it shd be anobjective & universal fact, any more than with the instinctive obligationor bond between the lower social animals. I have expressed myself obscurely,& I shd not be in the least surprized if my ideas were shewn tobe quite confused; but I have thought myself bound to tell you myimpression. I need not say that this letter is private, & it isobviously of no value.f4 I much wish that I was better able to follow outabstract reasoning & that I could agree with you.

Allow me again to thank you cordially for your very kind feelings towards me;& believe me my dear Sir | yours very sincerely | Charles Darwin

Harvard University Archives (Papers of F. E. Abbot, 1841–1904, Named Correspondence, 1857–1903. Box 44. HUG 1101)



See letter from F. E. Abbot, 3 March 1874; the copies of theIndex contained Abbot’s essay ‘Darwin’s theory ofconscience: its relation to scientific ethics’ (Abbot 1874).
Abbot, in addition to the generally laudatory tone in which hediscussed CD’s work, had referred to CD as ‘England’s greatestliving thinker’ (Abbot 1874, p. 123).
Abbot argued that CD’s theory could not be the basis of a naturalscience of morals because it was not based onobjective and universal principles. Moral obligation, in Abbot’s view,was not produced by the formation of society as CD suggested, but was‘simply a part of the ultimate Nature of Things’ that made societypossible. See Abbot 1874, p. 123. CD scored these passages in hisannotated copy of Abbot 1874 (DAR 139.12.3).
Abbot had hoped that CD would review Abbot 1874 in the form of a letterthat could be published in the Index (see letter from F. E. Abbot, 3 March 1874).
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