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Henri Poincaré, Morality and Science

In the last half of the nineteenth century, we often dreamed of creating a scientific morality. It was not enough to boast the educative virtue of science, the advantages which the human soul derives for its own perfecting of the commerce of truth viewed face to face. It was expected that science would place moral truths above all contestation, as it did for the mathematical theorems and laws enunciated by physicists.

Religions can have great power over believing souls, but not everyone is a believer; faith only imposes itself on a few, reason would impose itself on all. It is to reason that we must address ourselves, and I do not say to that of the metaphysician whose constructions are brilliant, but ephemeral, like soap bubbles that are amused for a moment and than burst. Science alone builds solidly; she built astronomy and physics; today she is building biology; by the same methods she will build morality tomorrow. His prescriptions will reign supreme, no one will be able to murmur against them, and one will not think any more to rebel against the moral law than one thinks today to revolt against the theorem of the three perpendiculars or the law of the gravitation .

And on the other hand, there were people who thought of science all the possible evil; who saw there a school of immorality. It is not only that it gives too much space to the subject; that it deprives us of a sense of respect, because we only respect things that we do not dare to look at. But will not his conclusions be the negation of morality? He goes, as some famous author has said, to extinguish the light of the sky or, at least, to deprive them of what they have of mystery to reduce them to the state of vulgar gaslights. He will reveal to us the things of the Creator who will lose something of his prestige; it is not good to let children look behind the scenes; that might inspire them with doubts about the existence of Bugbear. If we allow scientists to do so, there will soon be no morals.

What should we think about the hopes of some and the fears of others? I do not hesitate to answer: they are as vain as each other. There can be no scientific morality; but there can be no immoral science either. And the reason is simple; it’s a reason, how shall I say? purely grammatical.

If the premises of a syllogism are both indicative, the conclusion will also be indicative. In order for the conclusion to be made imperative, one of the premises must at least be imperative. Now, the principles of science, the postulates of geometry are and can only be indicative; it is still in this same fashion that experimental truths are, and at the base of science there is, there can be nothing else. From then on, the most subtle dialectician can juggle these principles as he likes, combine them, build them on each other; all he draws from it will be indicative. He will never get a proposition that will say: do this, or do not do that; that is to say, a proposition that confirms or contradicts the morality.

And this is a difficulty that moralists have had for a long time. They strive to demonstrate the moral law; they must be forgiven for it is their job; they want to support morality on something, as if it could rely on something other than itself. Science shows us that man can only be degraded by living in one way or another; and if I do not care to degrade myself, if what you call degradation, I call it progress? Metaphysics commits us to conform to the general law of being which it claims to have discovered; I prefer, may it be answered, to obey my particular law; I do not know what she will say, but I can assure you that she will not have the last word.

Will religious morality be happier than science or metaphysics? Obey because God ordains it, and he is a master who can break all resistance. Is it a demonstration, and can it not be maintained that it is beautiful to stand against omnipotence, and that in the duel between Jupiter and Prometheus, it is tortured Prometheus who is the true conqueror? And then it is not obeying to yield to force; the obedience of hearts can not be constrained.

And we can not base a morality on the interest of the community, on the notion of homeland, on altruism, since it remains to demonstrate that it is necessary, if necessary, to sacrifice oneself to the city of which one is a part, or else to the happiness of others; and this demonstration, no logic, no science can furnish it to us. Moreover, the morality of self-interest itself, that of selfishness, would be powerless, since, after all, it is not certain that it is proper to be selfish and that there are people who are not.

Every dogmatic morality, all demonstrative morality, is therefore destined in advance to a certain failure; it is like a machine where there would be only transmissions of movement and no motive power. The moral motor, the one that can set the entire apparatus of connecting rods and gears, can only be a feeling. We can not prove to ourselves that we must have pity on the unfortunate, but that we are confronted with unmerited miseries, a spectacle which is, alas! that all too common, and we will feel raised by a feeling of revolt; I know not what energy will rise in us, who will not listen to any reasoning and who will lead us irresistibly and as if in spite of ourselves.

We can not demonstrate that we must obey a God, even if we are shown that he is omnipotent and that he can crush us; still we would be shown that he is good and that we owe him gratitude; there are people who believe that the right to ingratitude is the most precious of all freedoms. But if we love this God, all demonstration will become useless, and obedience will seem quite natural to us; and that is why religions are powerful, while metaphysics are not.

When we are asked to justify by reasoning our love for the country, we can be very embarrassed; but that we think of our vanquished armies, France invaded, all our heart will rise, tears will come to our eyes, and we will listen no more. And if some people accumulate so many sophisms today, it is without doubt that they do not have enough imagination, they can not represent all these evils, and if the misfortune or some punishment of the sky wanted that they see them with their eyes, their soul revolts like ours.

Science alone can not create a morality; nor can it alone, directly, shake or destroy traditional morality. But can not she exercise an indirect action? What I just said indicates by what mechanism it could intervene. It can give rise to new feelings, not that feelings can be objects of demonstration; but because every form of human activity reacts upon man himself and makes him a new soul. There is a professional psychology for each profession; the feelings of the laborer are not those of the financier, the scholar therefore also has his peculiar psychology, I mean his affective psychology, and he reflects something on him who touches science only by chance.

On the other hand, science can implement the feelings that exist naturally in man; to resume our comparison of earlier, it will be nice to build complicated assemblies of rods and cranks, the machine will not work if there is no steam in the boiler; but if the steam is there, the work it will do will not always be the same as itself; it will depend on the mechanism to which it will be applied. In the same way it can be said that feeling furnishes us only a general motive of action; he will give us most of our syllogism, which, as it should be, will be imperative; for its part science will provide us with the minor that will be indicative, and it will draw the conclusion that can be the imperative. We will examine successively these two points of view.

And first, science can become creative or inspiring of feelings; What science can not do, can the love of science do?

Science puts us in constant touch with something greater than ourselves; it offers us a spectacle always renewed and ever wider; behind what it shows us of great, it makes us guess something greater still; this spectacle is for us a joy, but it is a joy in which we forget ourselves and that is where it is morally sound.

Whoever has tasted it, who has seen, if only at a distance, the splendid harmony of natural laws, will be better disposed than another to disregard his little selfish interests; he will have an ideal that he will love better than himself, and this is the only ground on which one can build a moral. For this ideal, he will work without haggling with his pain and without waiting for any of those gross rewards which are all for certain men; and when he has become so accustomed to disinterestedness, this habit will follow him everywhere; his entire life will remain as perfumed.

Especially since the passion that inspires him is the love of truth, and is not such love a whole morality? Is there anything more important to fight than against lies, because it is one of the most common vices in primitive man and one of the most degrading? Well, when we have become accustomed to scientific methods, to their scrupulous exactness, the horror of every inch given to experience, when we have become accustomed to dread as the height of dishonor, the reproach of to have even innocently faked our results, when it will become for us an indelible professional fold, a second nature, will we not carry in all our actions this concern for the absolute sincerity, to the point of not understanding any more for what causes other men to lie; and is it not the best means of acquiring the rarest, the most difficult of all sincerities, that which consists in not deceiving oneself?

In our failures, the greatness of our ideal will support us; one may prefer another, but, after all, is not the scientist’s God so much the greater as he moves away from us more and more? It is true that he is inflexible, and many souls will regret it; but at least he does not share our mean littleness and grudges, as the God of theologians so often does. This idea of ​​a rule stronger than we, to which we can not escape and we must accommodate with any cost, may also have a salutary effect; we can at least support it; Would it not be better for our peasants to believe that the law can never bend, instead of believing that the government will make it bend in their favor, provided they invoke the intercession of a sufficiently powerful deputy?

Science, as Aristotle said, has for its object the general; in the presence of a particular fact, it will want to know the general law, will aspire to a generalization more and more extended. At first sight there seems to be only an intellectual habit; but intellectual habits also have their moral repercussions. If you have become accustomed to neglecting the particular, the accidental, because your intelligence will no longer be interested in it, you will naturally be inclined to attach little value to it, not to see a desirable object, and to sacrifice it without difficulty. By dint of looking from a distance, one becomes presbyopic so to speak, one does not see what is small anymore, and, not seeing it any more, one is not exposed to make it the goal of his life. Thus one will naturally be inclined to subordinate private interests to general interests, and this is again a morality.

And then science gives us another service; it is a collective work, and it can not be anything else; it is like a monument whose construction takes centuries and where everyone must bring their own stone; and this stone sometimes costs him all his life. It gives us the feeling of the necessary cooperation, the solidarity of our efforts and those of our contemporaries, and even of those of our predecessors and successors. We understand that we are only a soldier, a small fragment of a whole. It is this same feeling of discipline which shapes military consciences, and which transforms to such an extent the crude soul of a peasant or the unscrupulous soul of an adventurer, that it renders them capable of all heroism and all the dedication. Under very different conditions he may exercise a beneficent action in a similar manner. We feel that we are working for humanity, and humanity is becoming dearer to us.

Here’s the pros and here’s the cons. If science no longer appears to us as impotent on our hearts, as indifferent in morality, can it not have a harmful influence as well as a useful influence? And first of all, all passion is exclusive; will not it make us lose sight of all that is not it; the love of truth is undoubtedly a great thing; but the good thing if, to pursue it, we sacrifice infinitely more precious objects such as goodness, pity, love of neighbor. At the news of some catastrophe, of an earthquake, we will forget the sufferings of the victims to think only of the direction and magnitude of the tremors; we will see almost a good fortune, if it has brought to light some unknown law of seismology.

Here it is an immediate example; physiologists practice unscrupulous vivisection, and this is a crime which, in the eyes of many old ladies, none of the past or future benefits of science can ever excuse. To believe them, biologists, being ruthless for animals, must become fierce for men. They are mistaken without a doubt; I knew them very sweet.

The question of vivisection deserves to stop us for a moment, although it brings me a little out of my subject. There is one of those conflicts of duties that practical life shows us at any moment. Man can not renounce knowing without diminishing himself; and that is why the interests of science are sacred; it is also because of the evils which it can heal or prevent, and whose mass is incalculable; and on the other hand suffering is impious (I do not say death, I say suffering). Although lower animals are probably less sensitive than humans, they deserve pity. It will be only by badly cut odds that we can get away with it; the biologist must undertake, even in anima vili, only really useful experiments; there are also very often ways to reduce the pain to a minimum; he must use it. But, in this respect, one must rely on one’s conscience; any legal intervention would be inappropriate and somewhat ridiculous; Parliament can do everything, it is said in England, except to change a man into a woman; he can do everything, I say, except to make a competent judgment in scientific matters. There is no authority that can enact rules to decide whether an experiment is useful.

But I come back to my subject; there are people who say that science is desiccating, that it attaches us to matter, that it kills poetry, the only source of all generous feelings. The soul she has touched wither and becomes refractory to all the noble impulses, all the tenderness, all the enthusiasms. I do not think so, and I said a little earlier, but there is a very widespread opinion, which must have some foundation, it proves that the same food is not suitable for everyone.

What should we conclude? Science, widely understood, taught by teachers who understand and love it, can play a very useful and important role in moral education. But it would be a mistake to want to give it an exclusive role. It can give rise to beneficent feelings, which can serve as a moral motor; but other disciplines may also, it would be foolish to deprive oneself of any auxiliary; we do not have too much of all their forces together. There are people who do not have the intelligence of scientific things; it is a fact of vulgar observation that there are in all classes pupils who are “strong” in letters, and who are not “strong” in science. What an illusion to believe that if science does not speak to their intelligence, it will be able to speak to their heart!

I come to the second point; not only science like every mode of activity, can engender new sentiments, but it can, on old sentiments, on those which are spontaneously born in the heart of man, to build a new construction. One can not conceive of a syllogism in which the two premises are to the indicative and the conclusion to the imperative; but we can conceive of them being built on the following type: Do this, and when we do not do that, we can not do this, so do that. And such reasonings are not beyond the reach of science.

The sentiments on which morality can be based are of a very diverse nature; they do not all meet to the same degree in all souls. In some, some are predominant, and there are others in which other strings are always ready to vibrate. Some will be above all sensitive to pity, they will be moved by the sufferings of others. Others will subordinate everything to social harmony, to general prosperity; or they will wish for the greatness of their country. Others may have an ideal of beauty, or they will believe that our first duty is to perfect ourselves, to seek to become stronger, to make ourselves superior to things, indifferent to fortune, not to to fail in our own eyes.

All these tendencies are laudable, but they are different; perhaps it will come out of there a conflict. If science shows us that this conflict is not to be feared, if it proves that one can not reach one of these goals without aiming at the other (and this is within its competence), it will have done a work useful, it will have brought to the moralists a precious help. These troops, who until then had fought in a dispersed order, and where each soldier was marching towards a particular objective, will now close the ranks, because they will have been shown that the victory of each is the victory of all. Their efforts will be coordinated, and the unconscious crowd will become a disciplined army.

Is it in this sense that science works? It is possible to hope for it; it tends more and more to show us the solidarity of the various parts of the universe, to reveal to us its harmony; is it because this harmony is real, or because it is a need of our intelligence, and consequently a postulate of science? it is a question that I will not undertake to decide. Still, science is moving toward unity and moving us toward unity. Just as it coordinates the particular laws and attaches them to a more general law, will it not also reduce to unity the intimate aspirations of our hearts, apparently so divergent, so capricious, so foreign to each other?

But if it fails in this task, what danger, what disillusion! Can not she do as much harm as she could have done well? These affections, these frail, delicate feelings, will they bear the analysis; will not the slightest light reveal vanity to us, and will we not end in the eternal what is the good of it? What good is pity, since the more we do for men, the more demanding they become, and the more they are consequently unhappy with their fate; since pity can not only do ungrateful things, it would not matter, but it can only make bitter souls? What good is the love of the country, since its greatness is most often only a brilliant misery; what is the use of trying to perfect ourselves, since we live only one day? If, unfortunately, science would put the weight of its authority on the side of these sophisms!

And then our souls are a complex fabric where the threads formed by the associations of our ideas cross and intertwine in all directions; to cut one of these threads is to expose oneself to bringing in vast tears which no one can foresee. This fabric is not us who did it, it is a legacy of the past; often our noblest aspirations are thus attached, without our knowledge, to the most extravagant and ridiculous prejudices. Science will destroy these prejudices; it is his natural task, it is his duty; the noble tendencies, which old habits had connected with them, will they not suffer? No, no doubt, among strong souls; but it is not only strong souls, only clairvoyant minds; there are also simple souls who may not resist the test.

It is therefore claimed that science is going to be destructive; we are afraid of the ruins it is going to make and we are afraid that, where it has passed, societies can no longer live. Is there not in these fears a kind of internal contradiction? If one scientifically demonstrates that this or that custom, which was regarded as indispensable to the very existence of human societies, did not in fact have the importance attributed to it and only made us delude ourselves by its venerable seniority, if we prove this, admitting that this demonstration is possible, will the moral life of humanity be shaken? Of two things one, or this custom is useful, and then a reasonable science can not demonstrate that it is not; or it is useless and we will not regret it. From the moment that we place at the base of our syllogisms one of those generous feelings which engender morality, it is still him, and consequently, it is still morality, which we must find at the end of our whole chain of reasoning, if it has been conducted according to the rules of logic; what risks succumbing is that which is not essential, which was in our moral life only an accident; the only thing that matters, can not not be in the conclusions since it is in the premises.

One must fear only incomplete science, that which is mistaken; that which deceives us into vain appearances and thus commits us to destroy what we would like to rebuild later, when we are better informed and it is too late. There are people who are angry with an idea, not because it is right, but because it is new, because it is fashionable; these are terrible destroyers, but they are not … I was going to say that they are not scientists, but I realize that many of them have rendered great services to science; so they are scientists, only they are not because of that, but in spite of that.

True science fears hasty generalizations, theoretical deductions; if the physicist defies it, although the ones with which it deals are coherent and solid, what must the moralist, the sociologist, do when the so-called theories which he finds before him are reduced to coarse comparisons such as companies with organizations! Science, on the contrary, is and can only be experimental, and experience in sociology is the history of the past; it is the tradition that one must criticize without doubt, but of which one must not make a clean sweep.

Of a science animated by the true experimental spirit, morality has nothing to fear; such science is respectful of the past; it is opposed to that scientific snobbery so easily duped by novelties; it advances only step by step, but always in the same direction and always in the right direction; the best cure for a half-science is more science.

There is yet another way of conceiving the relations of science and morality; there is no phenomenon that can not be an object of science, since there is none that can not be observed. Moral phenomena do not escape more than others. The naturalist studies the ant and bee societies and studies them with serenity; in the same way the scientist seeks to judge men as if he were not a man; to put oneself in the place of some distant inhabitant of Sirius, for whom cities would be nothing but anthills. It’s his right, it’s his job as a scientist.

The science of manners will at first be purely descriptive; it will make us know the manners of men, and tell us what they are without telling us what they should be. It will then be comparative; it will take us in space to make us compare the manners of the different peoples, those of the savage and the civilized man, and also in time to make us compare those of yesterday and those of today. It will finally seek to become explanatory, and this is the natural evolution of all science.

Darwinists will try to explain to us why all known peoples submit to a moral law, telling us that natural selection has long since removed those who had been clumsy enough to try to escape it. Psychologists will explain to us why the prescriptions of morality do not always agree with the general interest. They will tell us that man, driven by the whirlwind of life, has no time to reflect on all the consequences of his actions; that he can obey only general precepts; that they will be even less discussed as they will be simpler, and that it is enough for their role to be useful and that, consequently, the selection may create them, that they agree the most often with the general interest. Historians will explain to us how two morals, the one which subordinates the individual to society and the one who pities the individual and proposes the goal of the happiness of others, it is the second that makes incessant progress, as societies become larger, more complex, and, on balance, less prone to disasters.

This science of morals is not a morality; she will never be one; it can no more replace morality than a treatise on the physiology of digestion can replace a good dinner. What I have said so far dispenses me from insisting.

But that’s not what it’s about; it is not a morality, but can it be useful, can it be dangerous for morality? Some will say that explaining is always, to a certain extent, justifying, and that can easily be sustained; others will say, on the contrary, that it is not without danger to show us different morality according to race and latitude; that this can teach us to discuss what should be accepted blindly, to accustom ourselves to perceive the contingency where it would be important for us to see only necessity. And they may not be wrong either. But, frankly, is it not to exaggerate the influence on men of theories on the surface of their skin, of abstractions which will always remain external to them? When passions, some generous, others low, dispute our conscience, what weight, with such powerful adversaries, can weigh the metaphysical distinction of the contingent and the necessary?

I can not, however, overlook an important point, despite the short time I have left to treat it. Science is deterministic; it is a priori; it postulates determinism, because without it it could not be. It is also a posteriori; if it began by postulating it, as an indispensable condition of its existence, it then demonstrates it precisely by existing, and each of its conquests is a victory of determinism. Perhaps a conciliation is possible; can we admit that this march forward of determinism will continue without stop and without hindsight, without knowing impassable obstacle and that however we have no right to go to the limit, as we say we mathematicians, and to conclude to absolute determinism because at the limit determinism would vanish in a tautology or a contradiction? This is a question that has been studied for centuries without any hope of solving it, and I cannot even touch it in the few minutes I still have.

But we are in the presence of a fact; science, rightly or wrongly, is deterministic; wherever it enters, it brings in determinism. As long as it is only physics or even biology, it does not matter; the domain of consciousness remains inviolate; what will happen the day when morality becomes in turn object of science? It will necessarily become impregnated with determinism and it will undoubtedly be its ruin.

Is everything hopeless, or if one day morality had to accommodate determinism, could it adapt without dying? A metaphysical revolution so profound would doubtless have much less influence on manners than one thinks. It is understood that the penal repression is not in question; what was called crime or punishment, would be called disease or prophylaxis, but society would retain intact its right not to punish, but simply to defend itself. What is more serious is that the idea of ​​merit and demerit should disappear or be transformed. But we would continue to love the good man, as we love all that is beautiful; one would not have the right to hate the vicious man who would inspire nothing more than disgust, but is it really necessary? It is enough that one does not stop to hate the vice.

Otherwise, everything would be the same as in the past; instinct is stronger than all metaphysics, and even if we have shown it, even if we know the secret of its strength, its power would not be weakened. Is gravitation less irresistible since Newton? The moral forces that lead us would continue to lead us.

And if the idea of ​​liberty is itself a force, as Fouillée says, this force would hardly be diminished if scientists ever showed that it rests only on an illusion. This illusion is too tenacious to be dispelled by some reasoning. The most uncompromising determinist will continue for a long time, in everyday conversation, to say I want and even I must, and even to think it with the most powerful part of his soul, the one who is not conscious and who do not reason. It is just as impossible not to act as a free man when one acts, that it is not to reason as a determinist when one makes science.

The ghost, then, is not so dreadful as it is said, and there are perhaps also other reasons not to fear it; it is to be hoped that in the absolute everything would be reconciled, and that to an infinite intelligence, the two attitudes, that of the man who acts as if he were free, and that of the man who thinks as if freedom was nowhere, would both seem legitimate.

We have successively placed ourselves at the different points of view from which we can consider the relations of science and morality; we must now come to conclusions. There is no, and there will never be, scientific morality in the proper sense of the word, but science may indirectly be an auxiliary to morality; widely understood science can only serve it; half-science alone is formidable; on the other hand, science can not suffice because it sees only a part of man, or, if you prefer, it sees everything, but it sees everything in the same way; and then, because we have to think of minds that are not scientific. On the other hand, fears, like too vast hopes, seem to me equally chimerical; morality and science, as they make progress, will be able to adapt well to one another.

  1. […] In the last half of the nineteenth century, we often dreamed of creating a scientific morality. It was not enough to boast the educative virtue of science, the advantages which the human soul derives for its own perfecting of the … Read More […]

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