A limited number of common themes are always recognizable in human moral behavior. However, just as a limited number of atoms can combine to form a vast number of different molecules, so those themes can combine to form a vast variety of different moral systems. Those systems vary not only from place to place, but in the same place over time. A striking example of the latter may be found in the novels of George Gissing, most of which were published in the last quarter of the 19th century. Gissing was a deep-dyed Victorian conservative of a type that would be virtually unrecognizable to the conservatives of today. George Orwell admired him, and wrote a brief but brilliant essay about him that appears in In Front of Your Nose, the fourth volume of his collected essays, journalism and letters. Orwell described him as one of the greatest British novelists because of the accuracy with which he portrayed the poverty, sordid social conditions, and sharp caste distinctions in late Victorian England. Orwell was generous. Gissing condemned socialism, particularly in his novel Demos, whereas Orwell was a lifelong socialist.
According to the subtitle of the novel, it is “A story of English socialism.” Socialism was becoming increasingly fashionable in those days, but Gissing wasn’t a sympathizer. He wanted to preserve everything just as it had been at some halcyon time in the past. Hubert Eldon, the “hero” of the novel, wouldn’t pass for one in our time. Today he would probably be seen as a rent-seeking parasite. He was apparently unsuited for any kind of useful work, and spent most of his time gazing at pretty pictures in European art galleries when he wasn’t in England. When he was home his favorite pastime was to admire the country scenery near the village of Wanley, where he lived with his mother.
Eldon was expecting to inherit a vast sum of money from his brother’s father-in-law, a self-made industrialist named Richard Mutimer. He could then marry the pristine Victorian heroine, Adela Waltham, who also lived in the village. However, to everyone’s dismay, the old man dies intestate, and the lion’s share of the money goes to a distant relative, also named Richard Mutimer, who happens to be a socialist workingman. The younger Mutimer uses the money to begin tearing the lovely valley apart in order to build mines and steel mills for a model socialist community. Adela’s mother, a firm believer in the ennobling influence of money, insists that she marry Mutimer. Dutiful daughter that she is, she obeys, even though she loves Eldon. In the end, Mutimer is conveniently killed off. The old man’s will is miraculously found and it turns out Eldon inherits the money after all. This “hero” doesn’t shrink from dismantling the socialist community that had been started by his rival, even though he knew it would throw the breadwinners of many families out of work. He thought it was too ugly, and wanted to return the landscape to its original beauty. Obviously, the author thought he was being perfectly reasonable even though, as he mentioned in passing, former workers in a socialist community would likely be blacklisted and unable to find work elsewhere. It goes without saying that the “hero” gets the girl in the end.
One of the reasons Orwell liked Gissing so much was the skill with which he documented the vast improvement in the material welfare of the average citizen that had taken place in England over the comparatively horrific conditions that prevailed in the author’s time. Unfortunately, that improvement could never have taken place without the sacrifice of many pleasant country villages like Wanley. Gissing was nothing if not misanthropic, and probably would have rejected such progress even if he could have imagined it. In fact old Mutimer was the first one to think of mining the valley, and the author speaks of the idea as follows:
It was of course a deplorable error to think of mining in the beautiful valley which had once been the Eldon’s estate. Richard Mutimer could not perceive that. He was a very old man, and possibly the instincts of his youth revived as his mind grew feebler; he imagined it the greatest kindness to Mrs. Eldon and her son to increase as much as possible the value of the property he would leave at his death. They, of course, could not even hint to him the pain with which they viewed so barbarous a scheme; he did not as much as suspect a possible objection.
Gissing not only accepted the rigid class distinctions of his day, but positively embraced them. In describing the elder Mutimer he writes,
Remaining the sturdiest of Conservatives, he bowed in sincere humility to those very claims which the Radical most angrily disallows: birth, hereditary station, recognised gentility – these things made the strongest demand upon his reverence. Such an attitude was a testimony to his own capacity for culture, since he knew not the meaning of vulgar adulation, and did in truth perceive the beauty of those qualities to which the uneducated Iconoclast is wholly blind.
The author leaves no doubt about his rejection of “progress” and his dim view of the coming 20th century in the following exchange between Eldon and his mother about the socialist Mutimer:
“Shall I tell you how I felt in talking with him? I seemed to be holding a dialogue with the 20th century, and you may think what that means.”
“Ah, it’s a long way off, Hubert.”
“I wish it were farther. The man was openly exultant; He stood for Demos grasping the scepter. I am glad, mother, that you leave Wanley before the air is poisoned.”
“Mr. Mutimer does not see that side of the question?”
“Not he! Do you imagine the twentieth century will leave one green spot on the earth’s surface?”
“My dear, it will always be necessary to grow grass and corn.”
“By no means; depend upon it. Such things will be cultivated by chemical processes. There will not be one inch left to nature; the very oceans will somehow be tamed, the snow mountains will be leveled. And with nature will perish art. What has a hungry Demos to do with the beautiful?”
Mrs. Eldon sighed gently.
“I shall not see it.”
Well, the twentieth century did turn out pretty badly, especially for socialism, but not quite that badly. Of course, one can detect some of the same themes in this exchange that one finds in the ideology of 21st century “Greens.” However, I think the most interesting affinity is between the sentiments in Gissing’s novels and the moral philosophy of G. E. Moore. I touched on the subject in an earlier post . Moore was the inventor of the “naturalistic fallacy,” according to which all moral philosophers preceding him were wrong, because they insisted on defining “the Good” with reference to some natural object. Unfortunately, Moore’s own version of “the Good” turned out to be every bit as slippery as any “sophisticated Christian’s” version of God. It was neither fish nor fowl, mineral nor vegetable.
When Moore finally got around to giving us at least some hint of exactly what he was talking about in his Principia Ethica, we discovered to our surprise that “the Good” had nothing to do with the heroism of the Light Brigade, or Horatius at the Bridge. It had nothing to do with loyalty or honor. It had nothing to do with social justice or the brotherhood of man. Nor did it have anything to do with honesty, justice, or equality. In fact, Moore’s version of “the Good” turned out to be a real thigh slapper. It consisted of the “nice things” that appealed to English country gentlemen at more or less the same time that Gissing was writing his novels. It included such things as soothing country scenery, enchanting music, amusing conversations with other “good” people, and perhaps a nice cup of tea on the side. As Moore put it,
We can imagine the case of a single person, enjoying throughout eternity the contemplation of scenery as beautiful, and intercourse with persons as admirable, as can be imagined.
By far the most valuable things which we know or can imagine, are certain states of consciousness, which may be roughly described as the pleasures of human intercourse and the enjoyment of beautiful objects. No one, probably, who has asked himself the question, has ever doubted that personal affection and the appreciation of what is beautiful in Art or Nature, are good in themselves.
Well, actually, that’s not quite true. I’ve doubted it. Not only have I doubted it, but I consider the claim absurd. Those words were written in 1903. By that time a great many people were already aware of the connection between morality and evolution by natural selection. That connection was certainly familiar to Darwin himself, and a man named Edvard Westermarck spelled out the seemingly obvious implications of that connection in his The Origin and Development of the Moral Ideas a few years later, in 1906. Among those implications was the fact that the “good in itself” is pure fantasy. “Good” and “evil” are subjective artifacts that are the result of the behavioral predispositions we associate with morality filtered through the minds of creatures with large brains. Nature played the rather ill-natured trick of portraying them to us as real things because that’s the form in which they happened to maximize the odds that the genes responsible for them would survive and reproduce. (That, by the way, is why it is highly unlikely that “moral relativity” will ever be a problem for our species.) The fact that Moore was capable of writing such nonsense more than 40 years after Darwin appeared on the scene suggests that he must have lived a rather sheltered life.
In retrospect, it didn’t matter. Today Moore is revered as a great moral philosopher, and Westermarck is nearly forgotten. It turns out that the truth about morality was very inconvenient for the “experts on ethics.” It exposed them as charlatans who had devoted their careers to splitting hairs over the fine points of things that didn’t actually exist. It popped all their pretentions to superior wisdom and virtue like so many soap bubbles. The result was predictable. They embraced Moore and ignored Westermarck. In the process they didn’t neglect to spawn legions of brand new “experts on ethics” to take their places when they were gone. Thanks to their foresight we find the emperor’s new clothes are gaudier than ever in our own time.
The work of George Gissing is an amusing footnote to the story. We no longer have to scratch our heads wondering where on earth Moore came up with his singular notions about the “Good in itself.” It turns out the same ideas may be found fossilized in the works of a Victorian novelist. The “experts on ethics” have been grasping at a very flimsy straw indeed!