Justice and Morality

Peter Kropotkin


The lecture Justice and Morality was first given [in the Autumn of 1893] to the Ancoats Brotherhood of Manchester, in front of an audience composed mostly of workers and participants in the labour movement. That Fraternity held important lectures on Sundays in the winter. By keeping to an objective exposition, the most serious problems could be discussed by your audience.

I cannot determine the exact date on which I delivered this lecture. I only know that it was not long after the famous Darwinian Professor Huxley[1], the main propagandist for Darwinian ideas, gave a lecture at Oxford University in which he astonished all his friends because indicated to them, in contrast to Darwin, that morality cannot have a natural origin in man, that the nature of man only teaches evil.

Huxley’s lecture, published in the February issue of the journal the Nineteenth Century and which soon appeared as a pamphlet, provoked general astonishment, and the impression created had not been erased when I was preparing my talk on the natural origin of morality.

Two or three years later I repeated this lecture at the London Ethical Society, enlarging it somewhat in the part where I referred to justice.

Since I had written the concepts that I presented at that time in English, as part of the text of the first lecture, plus the additions that I inserted when I repeated it for the London Ethical Society, I have translated my work into Russian and offer it for publication.

Over the last thirty years I have increasingly devoted myself, albeit with interruptions, to the study of moral doctrines, and I have been able to give further development to some of the concepts presented here, but I have decided to keep the wording of the lecture such as I gave it to the Ancoats audience, and I have only added what I wrote for the lecture at the Ethical Society.


Dmitrov, January 1919

Friends and comrades!

By choosing as the subject of our talk justice and morality, it has not been my purpose, of course, to give you a sermon. My intention is very different. I would like to explore with you how we begin today to explain the development of the ethical concepts of humanity, their true origins, their gradual development and indicate what may be useful for their evolution.

Such an investigation is a particular necessity at present. You yourselves feel that we live in a time that demands something new in the structure of social relations. The rapid evolution, both industrial and mental, that people have experienced in recent years makes the solution of important problems urgent.

There is a need to establish life on a more just basis. And when such a need arises in society, it can be seen, as a rule, that a revision of the fundamental concepts of morality is inevitable.

And it cannot happen in any other way, for the existing social order – its institutions, its customs and its habits – supports the moral concepts of the society. Any fundamental change in the relations of the different social strata is linked to a fundamental modification of the prevailing ethical concepts.

Consider the lives of people who are in different degrees of culture. Take for example the life of contemporary nomadic peoples: the Mongols, Tungus, and those who we call “savages.” Amongst them it is a disgrace to kill a sheep and eat its meat without inviting all the inhabitants of the settlement to participate in the meal. I know this from my own experience, gathered in travels through the remote regions of Siberia, by the Sayansk mountain range. Or look at the most miserable savages in South Africa, the Hottentots.[2] Even quite recently it was a crime amongst them when someone began their meal without shouting three times: “Is there anyone here who wants to share my food with me?” Even amongst the lower savages of Patagonia, Darwin found the following trait: the smallest amount of food he gave them was immediately distributed amongst all those present. Moreover: in North and Central Africa it is customary, as a law, that if a nomad denies lodging to a traveller and as a result he succumbs to cold or hunger, the descendant of the deceased has the right to pursue as a murderer the one who had denied shelter, and demand from him some kind of atonement, as is common in cases of murder.

These and other concepts of morality have been formed in primitive peoples. Those customs have disappeared amongst us since we began to experience constituted “States.” In our cities and villages, police officers have the duty to welcome the vagrant without refuge and take him to the police station, the prison or the workhouse in case the destitute is in danger of freezing in the street. Each of us has the right, of course, to take in a traveller; the law does not forbid it, but nobody considers themselves obligated to do so. And if on a dark winter night a homeless person dies in the streets of Ancota of hunger and cold, it will not occur to his relatives to accuse you of murder. Furthermore, it is possible that the abandoned traveller had no family, which is impossible in the organisation of the tribe since all the offspring are one family.

I do not want to make any comparison here between the tribe and the State. I merely wish to point out that the moral concepts of man are modified according to the social order in which he lives. At a given time, the social order of a people is intrinsically associated with the dominant morality.

Consequently, it is always inevitable that a fierce discussion arises about the problem of the origins of morality when the necessity to modify the relations between members of a society develops. And, in fact, it would be extremely rash to speak of the transformation of a social order without simultaneously thinking about the transformation of opinions on the prevailing morality.

Strictly speaking, issues of an ethical nature are the foundation of all our discussions on political and economic matters. Take, for example, a learned economist who considers communism. “In the communist society,” he says, “no one will work because no one will feel the threat of hunger.” “Why?” replies the communist. “Will men not understand that if they stopped working there would be a widespread famine? Everything depends on the [type of] communism you want to introduce.” And indeed think of how much communism has been established in the life of the cities of Europe and the United States in the form of paved streets, lighting, municipal schools, electric trams, etc.

You see, then, how a purely economic issue leads to a consideration of the ethical condition of man. The issue is, therefore, the following: Is man capable of living in a communist society? From the domain of economics, the issue is transferred to the domain of morality.

Or look at two political thinkers who entertain any innovation of social life, for example the doctrine of the anarchists or the transition of a state from an autocracy to a democratic constitution.

“I warn you,” says the defender of absolute power, “that everyone will start stealing as soon as the strong arm that holds the reins is gone.” “Therefore,” replies the other,” would you become a thief without the fear of jail?” With this the issue of the political form of society also becomes an issue about the effect of established institutions with respect to the moral aspect of man.

In recent years quite a few works have appeared on this issue of such great importance. But I just want to dwell on one of them, on the lecture recently delivered by the famous Professor Huxley at the University of Oxford on the subject of Evolution and Ethics.[3] Much can be learned from it, for Huxley has seriously investigated the issue of the origin of ethics. Huxley’s lecture was received by the press as a sort of manifesto of the Darwinians and as a scientific summary of the foundations of morality and its origin – an issue which has occupied almost all thinkers from ancient Greece to the present day.

The lecture had a special resonance, not because in it the famous scholar expressed his opinion as the most important exponent of the Darwinian theory of evolution, nor because it was advanced in a perfect literary manner, which can be designated as one of the most beautiful pieces of English prose; the particular importance of this lecture was that, regrettably, it expressed the most widespread thoughts amongst the educated classes of the epoch in such a way that it can be considered as the profession of faith of the majority of these classes.

Huxley’s fundamental thought, which he constantly refers to in his paper, is as follows: There are two kinds of phenomena in the world, two processes occur: the cosmic process of nature and the ethical process, that is to say, morality, which occurs only in man and only in a certain state of his development.

The “cosmic process,” that is to say, the whole life of Nature, of the dead and the living, including plants, animals and man. This process – claims Huxley – is nothing more than a “bloody fight with tooth and claw.” It is the desperate struggle for existence, which rejects all ethical considerations. “Suffering is the badge of all the tribe of sentient things” – “an essential constituent of the cosmic process.”[4] The methods of the tiger and the ape in the struggle for existence are the pure characteristic signs of that process. Even for humanity they have been established “as the most appropriate means of struggle, the self-assertion, the unscrupulous seizing upon all that can be grasped, the tenacious holding of all that can be kept, which constitute the essence of the struggle for existence.”[5]

The lesson we receive from nature is then “the lesson of inherent evil.”[6] Nature cannot be described as amoral, that is to say, it cannot be maintained that it does not take any moral position nor answer the moral question. It is clearly immoral. “Cosmic nature is no school of virtue” (page 27 of the first edition of the lecture as a pamphlet). Therefore, it is absolutely impossible to find signs of “what we call good is preferable to what we call evil” (page 31). “The practice of that which is ethically best – what we call goodness or virtue – involves a course of conduct which, in all respects, is opposed to that which leads to success in the cosmic struggle for existence.” (page 33) This is, according to Huxley, the only lesson that man can deduce from the life of nature.

But then, as soon as human beings have joined together in organised communities, there appears within them, in an unknown manner, an “ethical process” that, without any doubt, is opposed to everything that nature has taught them. The object of this process is not the preservation of all those who have adapted better to the given conditions, but the preservation of those “who are ethically the best” (page 33) This new process of unknown origin, but which in any event does not arise from nature, begins to act through laws and customs (page 35). It is protected by our civilisation and through it our morality develops.

But, what is the origin of this process? There would be no answer to this question, even if you wanted to maintain with Hobbes[7] that the moral concepts of man have been provided by the lawmakers, since Huxley specifically affirms that the lawmakers could not draw observations from nature: an ethical process exists neither in pre-human animal life nor amongst savages. What follows – if Huxley is right – is that the ethical process in man cannot be in any way of natural origin. The only possible explanation of its appearance, then, is a supernatural origin. If moral practices – benevolence, friendship, mutual support, self-control over expressing passions and self-denial – could not be developed under any circumstances in the pre-human period or in the primitive forms of human herds, their origin can be none other than supernatural, by divine inspiration.

This conclusion of a Darwinist, the naturalist Huxley surprised everyone who knew him as an agnostic, that is to say, an unbeliever. But the ultimate conclusion was inevitable. When Huxley affirmed that man could not under any circumstances create moral teachings from life in nature, there was no other solution than to recognise the supernatural origin of morality. That is why George Mivart[8], a respected Catholic known as a naturalist, published an article in the Nineteenth Century [which should have been] entitled “The Conversion of Huxley” shortly after the publication of Huxley’s lecture, in which he congratulated the author for his return to the doctrines of the Church.[9]

Mivart reasons with perfect logic. There are two possibilities: Huxley is right in arguing that there is no ethical process in nature or, on the contrary, Darwin is, who in his second seminal work, The Descent of Man, affirms with Bacon[10] and Auguste Comte[11] that in herds of animals, as a result of that herd life, the instinct of community develops so strongly and becomes so powerful and decisive that it triumphs even over the instinct for self-preservation.[12] And since Darwin demonstrated along with Shaftesbury[13] that this instinct is so strong in primitive man and that tradition developed it more and more, it is clear that, if this conception is right, the origin of morality in man cannot be other than the evolution of the instinct of sociability, a characteristic of all livings and which is observed in all of living nature.

That instinct has been constantly heightened in men thanks to the development of reason, experience and corresponding customs. The aptitude for language, the achievement of writing greatly helped man to gather life experiences and constantly develop the habit of mutual aid and solidarity, that is to say, the habit of reciprocal reliance between all members of society. In this way it is comprehensible how duty is born before human consciousness; the sense of duty to which Kant dedicated such magnificent lines, but which he could not provide any moral explanation during many years of enquiry.[14]

Thus declared Darwin, a man so well versed in natural laws, the sentiment of duty. But certainly, when the life of animals is judged by what is observed in the Zoo; when you avert your eyes from the actual life of nature and want to portray it according to your darkest conceptions, then there is only one way out: an investigation of moral sentiments supposing them to be rooted in some mysterious power.

Huxley is placed into the same situation. But – how strange is this too – a few weeks after giving his lecture, when he produced it as a pamphlet, he supplemented it with a series of notes in which he completely contradicted one of the principle ideas of his lecture: that of “processes.”

How did Huxley arrive at such a reversal, which completely contradicts the essential ideas of what he had preached shortly before? We do not know. It can only be assumed that he did so under the influence of his friend, Professor Romanes of Oxford[15], who, as is well known, was preparing at that time material for his work on morality in animals, and under whose guidance Huxley delivered his lecture at the University. It may be that another of his friends also exercised that influence upon him. But I do not want to investigate the reasons for such an event change. Perhaps Professor Huxley’s biographers will.

We only care about the following: for anyone who deals seriously with the problem of the origins of morality in nature, it must be clear that animals that live in groups feel compelled by nature to adopt certain instincts, that is, hereditary habits of a moral character.

Without such habits life would not be possible in communities. That is why find in the communities of birds and of higher warm-blooded animals – and especially ants, wasps, bees, which are at the head of the class of insects – the initial elements of morality. We find in them the habit of living in societies, which is for them a necessity and a custom: do not do to others that which you do not want to be done to you. We often see self-sacrifice there in the interests of society.

If a young parrot takes a twig from the nest of another, the others in the flock throw themselves on it. If in the spring a swallow occupies, after its return from Africa, a nest in our countries that did not belong to it the previous years, it is ejected from that nest by the other swallows that congregate in that spot. When a flock of pelicans enters the vicinity of another flock, it is expelled, etc. Identical facts, which were already studied in the past century by the founders of zoology and later confirmed by many modern observers, are countless. They are only unknown to those zoologists who have never worked in free nature.[16]

Therefore, it can be accurately stated that customs of morality and reciprocal aid were already developed in animal life and that primitive man was fully aware of those traits in the life of animals, as is clear from the traditions and religions of primitive men.[17]

The same is evident from the study of existing primitive peoples, although the customs of these communities are developing more and more. We discover in them a series of customs and traditions that tame the arbitrariness of individuals and define the foundations of equal rights.

Indeed, equal rights form the basis of the economy of the tribe. When someone, for example, has spilled the blood of a member of another family in a quarrel, they must lose their blood in equal measure. When someone has injured one of their family or an unknown family, one of the relatives of the injured person has the right or, better, duty to inflict a wound of equal size on the aggressor. The biblical law – an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, a life for a life, and nothing more – forms the rule solemnly maintained by all peoples living in family communities. An eye for a tooth or a mortal wound for a superficial one would contradict the customary concept of equal rights and justice. It also illustrates the following: this concept is so deeply rooted in the consciousness of primitive peoples that when a hunter spills the blood of an animal close to the human species according to his perception, such as a bear, relatives spill a few drops of the hunter’s blood, albeit only a few, in the name of justice for the bear family. Many customs have also remained in civilised peoples as survivals of previous epochs, together with highly developed moral rules, up to the present day.[18] In the same tribal communities, other concepts gradually begin to develop. A man who has slandered someone is obliged to seek reconciliation and his relatives have a duty to intervene as peaceful mediators.

When the manifestations of primitive peoples concerning justice are carefully examined, it is found that they contain solely and ultimately nothing more than the duty not to treat another member of the tribe differently than they wish to be treated by them, that is to say, the same thing that constitutes the foundation of all morals and the entire science of morality: ethics.

But what is more: we also find lofty concepts amongst the most rudimentary representatives of the human race. Consider, for example, the moral rules of the Aleutians, who form a branch of the most primitive peoples, the Eskimos. They are well known to us, thanks to the works of an extraordinary man, the missionary Veniaminov,[19] and we can present them as models for the ethical concepts of ice-age man, all the more so since we find identical rules in other savage peoples. And, yet, those rules have something that exceeds the framework of primitive justice.

Amongst the Aleutians there are two kinds of rules: mandatory obligations and simple advice. The first, including the rules that I mentioned at the beginning of this lecture, are based on the principle of equal treatment for all, that is, on the principle of equal rights. To this belong the exigencies: not to kill nor to wound a member of the tribe under any pretext; to give any kind of aid to the members of the tribe and share with them the last morsel, protect them against attacks, respect the gods of the tribe, etc. So naturally these norms constitute the rules of the tribal economy that cannot be ignored.

However alongside these strict laws, there are, amongst the Aleutians and the Eskimos, certain moral demands that are not required but only recommended. It is not expressed by the formula “you must do this or that”; nor is the Greek expression “this must be done” appropriate; the Aleutoan says in this case: “It is a disgrace not to do this or that.”

It is, for example, a disgrace not to be strong and falter in an expedition whilst others suffer from hunger.

It is a disgrace not to go to sea when the wind rages; in other words, it is a disgrace to be a coward and not want to face the storm.

It is a disgrace after a hunt to not offer the best hunk of your companions; in other words, be greedy.

It is a disgrace to fawn over your wife in the presence of a strange, and it is a great disgrace, in the exchange of goods, to put a price on one’s own possessions. The honest seller accepts the price that the buyer offers him; this was at least the general rule not only amongst the Aleutians of Alaska, amongst the Chukchi in northwest Siberia, but also amongst the majority of the islanders of the Atlantic Ocean.

What the Aleutians mean by the following words is clear: “it is a disgrace not to be as strong, nor as skilled, nor as generous as the others.” They mean “that it is a disgrace to be weak, that is, not to be equal to others, physically and morally.” With these words they condemn those that do not correspond to the desired equal value between all men of the tribe. “Do not show any weakness that inspires compassion.”

The same desires are expressed in the songs that the women of the Eskimos sing during the long northern nights and in which men who have not reached the right heights in the aforementioned circumstances or who got angry without sufficient reason or who behaved foolishly are ridiculed.[20]

So we see that together with the simple principles of justice, which are nothing else but the evidence of equality and equal rights, the Aleutians still have certain “ideal” desires. They express the wish that all members of the tribe aspire to be equal to the strongest, the wisest, the sturdiest, the most generous. These behavioural tendencies, which have been raised to a rule, already mean something more than simply equal rights. They are the expression of an effort towards ethical perfection. And this trait is undoubtedly found in all primitive peoples. They know that amongst animals that live in society the strongest males rush to the defence of the females and children, often sacrificing their life; in their legends and songs, primitive peoples glorify those of their circle who lost their lives in the struggle against nature or with enemies, defending their own. They created veritable song cycles about those who did something extraordinary in daring, love, skill, or insight for the good of others, without asking what they would receive in return.

According to these indications, it is clear that the “ethical” process of which Huxley speaks, already beginning in the animal kingdom, had passed to man, and in this it has been developed more and more by tradition, by poetry and by art. Its highest degree was achieved in the “heroes” of humanity and in some of its teachers. The willingness to give their lives for brothers was glorified in the poetry of all peoples and then transferred to the religions of antiquity with the addition of forgiveness for enemies, instead of vengeance as a duty as before; it became the foundation of Buddhism and of Christianity before it became a state religion and renounced the underlying concepts that differentiate it from other religions.

This is how moral concepts have developed within nature in general and later in humanity.

I would like to give a brief summary of its subsequent development in the writings of thinkers from antiquity to the present day. But I cannot do this today, because it would be too much for one lecture. I just want to emphasise that the naturalist explanation of morality in man was not possible until the XIX century, although Spinoza[21] came close to it and Bacon also spoke on this issue with some success. We have verified data to convince us that moral concepts are intimately linked to the existence of living creatures, that the struggle for existence would not have been achievable without them, that the evolution of such concepts was unstoppable, the same as the entire progressive movement from the simplest organisms to men, and that this evolution would not have been possible if the majority of animals were not endowed with the gregarious qualities for common life and even under certain circumstances for the sacrifice of themselves.

We now have a lot of material to prove this claim. Darwin provided in his book The Descent of Man, in the chapter on the development of morality, the description of a fight between two caravan dogs with a troop of baboons taken from Brehm’s Thierleben.[22] As the caravan approached, the monkeys climbed a steep mountain. When the oldest monkeys saw the dogs, they descended through the rocks in spite of the great danger and threw themselves with such fury upon the latter that they were frightened and made to retreat towards their masters. It was not easy to set the dogs back onto the monkeys. Then they surprised a little female monkey, barely half-a-year old, who had lagged behind and sat on a rock. An old monkey came back alone, walked slowly to the dogs, chased them away, carried the girl monkey on his shoulders and returned with her to the troop.[23]

When they acted in such a manner at that moment, the old monkeys did not ask themselves in the name of which principle, nor which command they were responding to. They hastened to save their people out of sympathy, because of the sense of community that had developed in them over the course of millennia; and finally, by the strength of the feeling they had of their power and their audacity.

Another case has been described by a naturalist who merits equal credit, Stansbury.[24] He once found an old blind pelican that was fed by other pelicans who brought it fish; Darwin confirmed this fact.[25] There are now so many findings of the self-sacrifice of animals for others of their species, in ants, in alpine goats, in horses of the steppes, in birds, etc., they have been described so often by our best naturalists, that we have a firm ground for our views on the development and evolution of moral concepts and sentiments in the study of nature.

In this we can easily distinguish three fundamental elements, three integral parts of morality: initially, the “gregarious instinct,” in which customs and habits later develop; then, the concept of “justice”; on both develops the feeling not quite accurately called “abnegation or self-sacrifice, altruism, magnanimity,” a sentiment endorsed by reason and that should be called, properly speaking, the moral sentiment.

Morality is made up of these three elements, which are formed in all human communities in a natural way. If ants help each other to save their young from a nest destroyed by a man, if birds fly together to defend themselves against birds of prey; if migrant birds, several days before departing, meet every afternoon at a certain place to carry out practice flights; if thousands of goats or rams come together to protect themselves; in a word, if animals manifest in their community customs and practices that help them to facilitate the struggle for existence, against the wilderness, or to fight against unfavourable conditions, this demonstrates the necessary appearance of an instinct without which they would undoubtedly have perished. Community was and still is the basic form of the struggle for existence, and it is precisely that law of nature that most Darwinians have overlooked, even though Darwin himself, who had not appreciated this fact enough in his first work The Origin of the Species, began to speak of it in his second essential book, The Descent of Man. Yet it is precisely in that instinct we find the initial origins of morality, the root from which all higher sentiments and ideals derive over time.

Thanks to his life in a community, the sentiment of solidarity develops more and more in man. Primitive savages could observe in nature that animals that lived in strong communities succeeded in the struggle for existence, and they understood how much life in society facilitated the struggle against hostile nature. They left their observations to their descendants in the form of traditions, proverbs, legends, songs, religions and even the deification of certain animals that lived in society. In this way the social instinct was transmitted from generation to generation and was affirmed by customs.

But the social instinct, by itself, would not be enough to develop the rules of the tribal community that I spoke about at the start. In reality, a more conscious and higher concept, the concept of justice, gradually developed in primitive men, and that concept was fundamental to the evolution of morality.

When we say: “You must not do to others what you do not want them to do to you,” we demand justice, whose essence is the recognition of the equal value of all members of human society, consequently the right to self-respect that the members of the society must reciprocally recognise. At the same time it means the rejection of the pretension of certain individuals to control overs.

Without that equalitarian concept, morality could not be born. In the French and English languages, the words “justice” and “equality” arise from the same origin: équité and égalité, equity and equality. But where and when did that concept emerge?

In embryo it is already found in gregarious animals. In some the predominance of males is also observed, but not in all. In many animals, juvenile play is very widespread – as we now know in detail, thanks to Karl Groos’s book [Die] Spiele der Tieren[26] – and in these games the strictest equality of position of all the participants is taken into account, as we observe in the play of young goats and other animals. You can also see that in new-born animals, which do not allow one to avail itself of more than another of the maternal nutrition. As we have already said, we can observe the feeling of justice in migrating birds when they return to their old nests. Countless similar examples could be provided.

The more the feeling of justice is present in men, even in the wildest peoples, the less they suffer from local rulers. I have already mention some examples; I just want to add that since scholars have begun to study the tribe, and we should not confuse it with primitive monarchies – like those that we find now in Africa – whole volumes could be filled with examples of equality of rights amongst primitive people.

I will be answered that in most primitive peoples there already are military leaders, soothsayers, etc. who enjoy special rights. Certainly, the aspiration to conquer special rights already expresses itself in the most rudimentary human communities and academic history is concerned – from fear of the rulers – to dwell on these facts, so that we could consider academic history as a narrative on human inequality. But at the same time, men have tenaciously fought the emerging inequality of rights everywhere, and history could also be considered as a narrative that shows how some antisocial people strive to form a state of affairs that allows them to control the others, and how these others resisted them and defended equal rights. All the institutions of the tribe were shaped to achieve equal rights. But unfortunately historians know very little about that because very little attention had been paid to these primitive forms until two new sciences appeared in the second half of the nineteenth century, that of man and that of the primitive forms of human life – anthropology and ethnology.

But now, after a great number of facts have been gathered, we see that the basic concept of justice is already in primitive man and that it becomes the norm within the original form of community: the tribe.

There is more. We can continue to reason, and I encourage you to do so, on the level of science and raise the following question: “Does not justice have its foundation in human nature? And if so is it perhaps the basic physiological trait of our thinking?”

To speak in the language of metaphysics, we can ask: does not the concept of justice form the basic “category,” that is, the fundamental capacity of our thought? Or to speak in the language of the natural sciences: is not the inclination of our thought to the investigation of “equality of right” a consequence of our thinking apparatus? In this case, is it perhaps the consequence of the structure of our brain? I think I must say yes.

The fact that our thought always operates in one way, that in mathematics is known as an equation and that the physical laws we discover are expressed in that form, gives a certain justification to the explanation I propose. It is also known that before anyone makes a decision a kind of conversation involving the pros and the cons takes place in our mind, and some physiologists see in that phenomenon, if not a consequence of double symmetry of the brain’s structure, at least its complex stability.[27] In any case, it is a minor issue whether my hypothesis about the physiological concept of justice is true or not. The important thing is that justice is the core concept of morality, since there can be no morality without equal rights, that is, without justice. And if the opinions of the scholars who dealt with the issue of ethics until now were contradictory, the reason is that most of these scholars did not want to recognise that justice is the origin of morality. This recognition was also tantamount to the recognition of equal political and social rights for men and, consequently, should lead to the rejection of class differences. But that is precisely what most of those who have dealt with issues of morality did not want to accept.

Beginning with Plato,[28] who maintained slavery in his plan of an ideal form of society, continuing with Paul the Apostle[29] and ending with the writers of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, all – if they have not directly defended – have at any rate not rejected inequality; not even the French Revolution, which inscribed on its banners equality and fraternity alongside liberty. Godwin in England[30] and Proudhon in France,[31] who recognised justice as the starting point of every moral form of society, thus far occupy an exceptional position.

But justice does not represent the entirety of morality. Since it only means an equality in the exchange of reciprocal treatment, from this standpoint it is not much distinguished from a trade. There is no doubt that it has a decisive importance in shaping morality. That is why it would mean the most profound transformation of human existence if the concept of equal rights formed the basis of social life. It was not in vain that all popular movements, starting with that in Judea at the time of Julius Caesar and Christianity, and which continued later in the Reformation and eventually in the Great French Revolution, aspired to equality and the levelling of rights.

However, the proclamation of the equality of all members of society before the law had no effect until the end of the eighteenth century, with the French Revolution. But even today we are very far from the realisation of equality in social life. Civilised peoples so far have been divided into classes that lie one on top of each other like geological strata. Recall the slavery that dominated Russia until 1861 and in North American until 1864. Recall the servitude that lasted in England until 1797 for miners, and the children of the poor who were called in England workhouse apprentices, torn from parents by special officers, who until the end of the eighteenth century travelled all over the country, and taken to Lancashire to make them toil in the cotton factories. Think, finally, about the infamous treatment that the so-called civilised peoples inflict upon the people they call “inferior races.”

The first step that humanity should take in its moral evolution would be, then, the recognition of justice, that is, the equality of all human creatures.

Without justice, morality is what it has been up to now, that is, a hypocrisy, and that hypocrisy protects the ambiguity which has permeated current individualistic morality.

But sociability and justice do not form the entire content of morality either. It is also composed of a third part, which for lack of a better name can be described as a disposition for sacrifice, as magnanimity.

The positivists call that altruism,[32] that is, the ability to act for the benefit of others and in opposition to selfishness. With this adjective they avoid the Christian concept of love of neighbour, and they avoid it because the phase “love thy neighbour” does not exactly reflect the feeling that moves men when they sacrifice their immediate advantages for the benefit of others. And actually, the man who acts so does not in most cases consider it a sacrifice and does not feel any kind of love for the “neighbour.” Most of the time he does not know him at all. But neither the word “altruism” nor “self-sacrifice” exactly reflect the character of this attitude, for such actions must be qualified, along with “good,” if they are of course, and whether they are carried out without any coercion and without expecting a reward in life or after death; not for considerations of personal or social utility, but because of an invincible internal need these acts receive the characteristic of good, and only then do they belong to the domain of morality and in such cases they deserve the classification of “ethical.”

From the earliest times, society strove to arouse the inclination towards such kinds of actions. Education, popular songs, legends, poetry, art, religion, had that tendency. In human society there has always been the effort to make such actions an obligation, a “duty of honour,” and to encourage them in all forms. But, unfortunately, men became demoralised because of the promise of a reward for moral acts. And until the present time, the ideal had not started to emerge that a society that is established on justice and the equal rights of all does not need to compensate the self-negation of individuals with any kind of reward. The word “abnegation” begins, little by little, to take on a new meaning, for in most cases the man who puts his energy at the service of all does not ask what is to be given in return. He acts like this and not in any other way because he cannot act differently than the monkey which went to defend the young monkey against the dogs and who had never heard the religious nor the Kantian imperative, nor acted for any utilitarian consideration.[33]

The “feeling of duty” is surely a moral energy. But it only decides when the two modalities of temperament clash within us and make us hesitant in behaviour. The men of whom we say that they are endowed with the capacity of self-sacrifice do not wait, in most cases, for the prompting of that feeling.

A French thinker, likeable to a fault and early dead, Marc Guyau, was the first, I believe, to state the true characteristic of what I call the third element of morality.[34] He understood that its essence is nothing more than the force of human consciousness: an excess of force, which drives him to express it in deeds.

We have, Guyau wrote, more ideas than we need for ourselves and that is why we are driven to communicate them to others. We cannot act otherwise.

We have more tears and more joys than we need, and we gladly give the surplus.

And some of us possess more willpower and energy than is necessary for the life of an individual. Sometimes, when that superabundant will is directed by a petty spirit, it produces a conqueror, but when it is directed and developed by a great spirit and a great socially orientated feeling, the founder of a new religion or a new humane movement arises that causes the renewal of society.

But in all these cases we are first driven by an awareness of our own strength and the need to use it.

If this feeling is also approved by reason, it does not demand any other sanction for subsequent conduct, no superior intervention and no exterior commitment. It becomes by itself an obligation, because at a certain moment man cannot act otherwise. The awareness of his strength and ability to do something approved by reason in favour of someone or everyone in general already contains the impulse for action. That is what I call “duty.”

It is true – continues Guyau – that a struggle is often waged within us before we decide to take action. Man is not something unified, fused into a single piece. Rather, each one of us is made up of different individualities, of different traits; if our inclinations and temperaments are in mutual opposition and contradict each other at every step, then life is unbearable. Anything, even death, is more pleasant than the constant upheaval, the incessant clashes that can lead us to madness. That is why man decides for one or the other.

It so happens that our conscience and our reason rebel against a taken decision, like something unfair, despicable, petty, and then some sophism, that is, a self-deception, is invented to justify it. In strong and honest men, a sophism has no effect; although, unconsciously, they overcome the deep, internal causes in cases of doubt. Then there is harmony between reason and what we call conscience and an accord is developed that gives the possibility of living life in its total essence, the intensive, joyful life before which sorrows fade… The one who has lived that life, the one who has known such a life, will not change it for a miserable existence full of doubt.

If someone is “sacrificed” by it, he does not feel in any way like a victim. A flower must blossom, Guyau writes, although death inevitably follows the flowering. Likewise the man who feels in himself an excess of compassion for human suffering, who has the need for spiritual fruitfulness, for creative work, freely offers his strength, without taking into account the consequences for him.

Usually, such action is called abnegation, selflessness, altruism. But all these descriptions are false, for the man who so acts, in most cases, would not change the physical and even moral hardships that he had to suffer because of that way of acting for a peaceful abstention, no less for a defective willpower.

One example, one among many:

“When I was on the south coast of England, in a small village where there is an establishment of the Society for the rescue of [victims of] shipwrecks, I spoke with the sailors of the Coast Guard. One of them told me how they saved the crew of a Spanish ship loaded with oranges the year before. During a terrible snowstorm the vessel was carried away from a calm place that was near the village. Gigantic waves leaped over it; the crew, which consisted of five men and a boy, tied themselves to the masts and called for help. However, the rescue boat could not leave, because the waves were forcing it back to the beach.

“‘We were all on the beach,’ said the man who told me the story, ‘and we could not do anything until about three when it started to grow dark; it was in February, and we heard the desperate cries of the boy tied to the mast. Then we could hold ourselves back anymore. Those who had previously said it was crazy to prepare to go out because we would never get there were the first to start shouting: “Still, we have to try!” We launched a rescue boat again, fighting for a long time against the storm before reaching the sea. The waves overturned the boat twice. Two of us drowned. Poor Daga got tangled up in the roles and drowned before our eyes in the waves… It was horrifying to see. Finally, a strong wave came and cast us all onto the beach. I was found the next day in the snow, two miles from here. Two Spaniards were saved by a big rescue boat from Dungeness…’”

And, oh!, the miners of the Rhondda! Two days were spent tunnelling to break through to a destroyed underground passage to reach their buried comrades. And they did it, fearing every moment that they would be killed by an explosion or a new collapse. “Explosions continued, but we heard the comrades knocking; they gave us a sign that they were still alive… and we continued.”

That is the content of all truly altruistic acts, big and small. A man who has been instilled with the ability to identify with his milieu, a man who is aware of the strength of his heart, of his will, freely puts his ability at the service of others, without expecting any reward either in this world or another. Above all, he has the ability to understand the feelings of others, to experience them. That is enough. Sharing pain and joy with others. It helps them endure the difficult circumstances of their life. Sense your strength and generously use your capacity to cherish others, to encourage them, to awaken their faith in a better future and to urge them to fight for that tomorrow. Whatever may be his fate, he does not take it as a sorrow, but as the fulfilment of his life, as a richness of life that he would not want to change for that of a vegetable devoid of all duty; he prefers the possible dangers to a life without struggle or meaning.

Even now when the most brutal individualism is propagated through the spoken and written word, mutual aid is the essential component part in the life of humanity. And it is up to us, not from external circumstances, to extend more and the more the radius of reciprocal aid, not in the form of charity but by the natural cultivation of the social instincts latent in all of us.

I will now consider how to present what we call duty, from the perspective [here] elaborated.

Almost everyone who writes about morality tries to relate it to some source: inspiration from above, an innate feeling or a personal or general benefit, rationally understood.

In fact, it is proven that morality is a complex system of sentiments and concepts that have developed slowly in man and are still in the process of development. At least three constituent elements must be distinguished in morality: 1) the instinct, that is, the habit inherited from sociability; 2) the conceptual representation of justice, and 3) the feeling supported by reason which can be called self-sacrifice, selflessness, detachment, or the highest satisfaction of the powerful demands of [our] nature. The very word magnanimity falsely captures the meaning of that feeling, for magnanimity supposes a high appreciation of the act itself, whereas the moral man precisely refuses that assessment. That is precisely what the real moral force consists of.

Men are inclined to attribute their propensity for ethics to supernatural revelations; that temptation is resisted by very few thinkers; the rest, the utilitarians, endeavoured to explain morality by the rendering of what is beneficial, developed within man. Thus arose two contradictory schools. But those amongst us who know human life and freed themselves from the prejudices of the Church know how important mutual aid was and still is for humanity, how important is a rational judgement concerning justice and how selfless are the actions of a man with a firm heart and a firm will.

Even in this era when the most brutal individualism is propagated, that is the rule which says “think above all about yourself,” humanity could not exist a dozen years without mutual aid and without spontaneous activities at the service of the community. Unfortunately, these thoughts on the essence of morality and evolution have not found the slightest echo amongst the representatives of modern science. Huxley, being one of the best Darwinists when he explains new ideas about “the struggle for existence” and its significance for evolution, abandons his great teacher on the issue of the evolution of man’s ethical concepts. Darwin explained them as a social instinct belonging equally to men and animals. Instead of giving morality a natural explanation, this remarkable naturalist prefers to associate lessons from nature with ecclesiastical dogmas.

Herbert Spencer, who devoted his life to the elaboration of a rational philosophy based on the theory of evolution and who had worked many years in the issues of morality, has also not completely followed the Darwinian explanation of the moral instinct.[35] After the belated recognition of mutual aid in animals – in June of 1888, in the journal Nineteenth Century[36] – and after the confession that in many of them there are rudiments of moral feeling, Spencer remained, nevertheless, a disciple of Hobbes, who denies the existence of moral feelings in primitive peoples, “while there is no social pact concluded” nor while they have not been subjected to the rules of wise legislators, inspired in a mysterious manner. And if Spencer modified his perspective somewhat in the last years of his life, primitive man was always for him, as for Huxley, a quarrelsome creature, that if it could be tamed it was thanks to laws, and that at last a concept of moral relations with his fellows has been formed, in part, by selfish calculations.

But science should have left Faust’s study a long ago, in which light only penetrates through murky windows.[37]

It is time for scholars to know nature not just through dusty libraries but in the freedom of the mountains and the valleys, in the light of the sun, as the founders of scientific zoology in the deserts of America did at the beginning of the nineteenth century, just like the founders of genuine anthropology who lived with primitive peoples, not in order to teach them Christian doctrine but to know their traditions and customs.

Then they will be convinced that morality is not foreign to nature. They will see how across the whole animal world the mother endangers her life to save the child, how the gregarious animals fight collectively against enemies, how they gather in large communities to seek, together, new foods; they will see how primitive savages receive the doctrines of morality from animals; they will see, then, from whence comes that which our spiritual teachers are so proud and boast of being the representatives of God upon earth. And instead of repeating that nature is immoral, they will understand that whatever our concepts of good and evil are, they are nothing more than the expression of what nature initially gave us and thereafter the slow process of evolution.

The supreme ideal to which the best of us have risen is nothing more than what we already observe in animals and primitive races, as well as in the civilised peoples of our day, when life is given for others and for the happiness of future generations. No one so far has risen above this ideal, and no one can surpass it.

End Notes

[1] Thomas Henry Huxley (1825–1895) was an English biologist and anthropologist, known as “Darwin’s Bulldog” for his advocacy of Charles Darwin’s ideas and the theory of evolution. He played a key role in ensuring wider acceptance of Darwin's theory of evolution and was very much the public face of evolutionary theory at the time. (Translator)

[2] Hottentot was a term used to describe the Khoikhoi, the non-Bantu indigenous nomadic pastoralists of South Africa. It was also used to refer to the non-Bantu indigenous population as a whole, now collectively known as the Khoisan. It is now considered offensive, the preferred name for the non-Bantu indigenous people of the Western Cape area being Khoi, Khoikhoi, or Khoisan. (Translator)

[3] Huxley presented “Evolution and Ethics” at the University of Oxford’s Romanes Lecture on 18th May 1893. It was subsequently reprinted as a pamphlet before appearing in the book Evolution and Ethics and Other Essays (London: MacMillan and Co., 1895). (Translator)

[4] Evolution and Ethics (London: Macmillan and Co, 1893), 8. (Translator)

[5] Kropotkin slightly paraphrases Huxley: “Man, the animal, in fact, has worked his way to the headship of the sentient world, and has become the superb animal which he is, in virtue of his success in the struggle for existence. The conditions having been of a certain order, man's organization has adjusted itself to them better than that of his competitors in the cosmic strife. In the case of mankind, the self-assertion, the unscrupulous seizing upon all that can be grasped, the tenacious holding of all that can be kept, which constitute the essence of the struggle for existence” (Huxley, 5-6) (Translator)

[6] Kropotkin is summarising Huxley’s argument rather than providing an actual quote: “the cosmos is […] necessarily inherent evil […] the universal experience of mankind testified then, as now, that, whether we look within us or without us, evil stares us in the face on all sides” (Huxley, 23) (Translator)

[7] Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679) was an English philosopher, considered to be one of the founders of modern political philosophy. He is best known for his 1651 book Leviathan, which argued for a strong central authority to end the “war of all against all” (bellum omnium contra omnes) he thought existed in “the state of nature.” (Translator)

[8] St. George Jackson Mivart (1827–1900) was an English biologist. He was an ardent believer in natural selection who later became one of its fiercest critics. His attempt to reconcile Darwin's theory of evolution with the beliefs of the Catholic Church ended with him being condemned by both parties. (Translator)

[9] St. George Mivart, “Evolution in Professor Huxley,” Nineteenth Century, Vol. XXXIV (August 1893), 198-211. Mivart suggested that Huxley was “not... an entirely conscious convert to a view opposed to that he had before advocated.” (206) (Translator)

[10] Francis Bacon (1561-1626) was an English philosopher and statesman, whose works are credited with developing the scientific method and remained influential through the scientific revolution. (Translator)

[11] Isidore Marie Auguste François Xavier Comte (1798-1857) was a French philosopher and writer who founded positivism, a philosophical theory stating that certain (“positive”) knowledge is based on natural phenomena and their properties and relations. Thus, information derived from sensory experience, interpreted through reason and logic, forms the exclusive source of all certain knowledge. (Translator)

[12] For customs, so deeply rooted in the blood and flesh, are described as instincts which are inherited in men and animals. Thus chicks, as soon as they emerge from the egg, begin to dig at the earth with their feet, exactly like the adult hen, although they have only been incubated by the warmth of the hen.

[13] Anthony Ashley Cooper, 3rd Earl of Shaftesbury (1671-1713) was an English politician, philosopher and writer. Driven by a desire to refute Hobbes, he concluded that the distinction between right and wrong is part of the constitution of human nature. (Translator)

[14] Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) was an influential German philosopher and an early anthropologist. He is known for his theory that there is a single moral obligation, which he called the “Categorical Imperative” and introduced in his 1785 work Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals, and is derived from the concept of duty. (Translator)

[15] George John Romanes (1848-1894) was a Canadian-Scots evolutionary biologist and physiologist who laid the foundation of what he called comparative psychology, postulating a similarity of cognitive processes and mechanisms between humans and other animals. He founded the Romanes Lecture series, which was named after him, in 1892. (Translator)

[16] See my book Mutual Aid, in which sources are cited.

[17] I have devoted some pages of my article “The Morality of Nature” in the journal Nineteenth Century, March 1905, to the issue of the adoption of the ethical rules of the animal kingdom by primitive man.

[18] Certainly, customs already begin to form in the early stages of the tribe phase that undermine equal rights. The soothsayer, the sage, the warrior chief acquire such importance in the tribe that little by little (mainly by secret societies) classes form, the prophets, the priests, the warriors assuming a particularly privileged position in the tribal community. Later, when family associations begin to form within the tribes, at a time when women are appropriated first by attacking and enslaving foreign tribes and then by simple robbery, an inequality developed that from then on put certain families in a better position than the others. But tribal communities strived and still strive, where they exist, to mitigate these inequalities; and we see, for example, amongst the Normans that the war leader (king) who murdered a warrior had, like any mere warrior, to apologise to the dead man’s family and pay the usual atonement (more details are in my book Mutual Aid).

[19] Subsequently, the Metropolitan of Moscow, a Saint. [Father Veniaminov (1797-1879) was a Christian missionary of the Russian Orthodox Church who arrived in Unalaska in 1824. He was named Bishop Innokentii in 1840 before becoming in 1867 the Metropolitan of Moscow and all Russia (a Metropolitan being the spiritual head of the Russian Orthodox Church). He is now known in the Orthodox Church as Saint Innocent of Alaska – Editor]

[20] On this, see the report of the Danish expedition which arrived at the western shore of Greenland in 1886 and the work of Dr. Ranke on the Eskimos.

[21] Benedict de Spinoza (1632-1677) was a Jewish-Dutch philosopher and one of the early thinkers of the Enlightenment. His Ethica, ordine geometrico demonstrata (Ethics, Demonstrated in Geometrical Order) was published posthumously in 1677. (Translator)

[22] Alfred Edmund Brehm (1829-1884) was a German zoologist and writer. His essays and expedition reports from the animal world were well received, resulting in the large multivolume work on the animal world known as Brehms Tierleben (Brehm’s Life of Animals). (Translator)

[23] Charles Darwin, The Descent of Man and Selection in Relation to Sex (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1981), Volume 1, Part 1, Chapter III, “The Moral Sense,” 75-6. (Translator)

[24] Howard Stansbury (1806-1863) was an officer in the U.S. Army Corps of Topographical Engineers who led a two-year expedition (1849–1851) to survey the Great Salt Lake and its surroundings. The expedition report (1852) provided the first serious scientific exploration of the flora and fauna of the area. (Translator)

[25] Darwin, 77. (Translator)

[26] Karl Groos (1861-1946) was a German philosopher and psychologist who proposed an evolutionary instrumentalist theory of play. His 1896 book Die Spiele der Tiere (translated by E. L. Baldwin as The Play of Animals in 1898) suggested that play is a preparation for later life. (Translator)

[27] I add here that, as I learned later, the well-known positivist thinker [Émile] Littré came to the same hypothesis, according to the outline in an article about morality published in the journal [La Revue de] Philosophie positive.

[28] Plato (c.428-c.348 BCE) was an Athenian philosopher during the Classical period in Ancient Greece, noted for his work the Republic, which outlined an authoritarian utopia ruled by a philosopher-aristocracy. (Translator)

[29] Paul the Apostle (c.5-c.65), commonly known as Saint Paul, was an apostle (although not one of the Twelve Apostles) who taught the gospel of Christ to the first-century world. (Translator)

[30] William Godwin (1756-1836) was an English journalist, political philosopher and novelist. He is often considered as a precursor of modern anarchism, due to his 1793 book An Enquiry Concerning Political Justice which attacked both the State and private property. While influential after publication of this work, he did not directly influence the anarchist movement as it was mostly forgotten before being rediscovered by the anarchist movement in the 1890s. (Translator)

[31] Pierre-Joseph Proudhon (1809-1865) was a French libertarian socialist who was the first person to declare himself an anarchist in What is Property? (1840). His mutualist ideas – a federalist market socialism – was very influential during his lifetime and laid the foundations for all later forms of anarchism, including Kropotkin’s revolutionary communist-anarchism (Translator)

[32] Positivists are advocates of positivism. The word “altruism” was coined by the founder of positivism, Auguste Comte, as an antonym of egoism in 1830. (Translator)

[33] Utilitarianism is an ethical theory that promotes actions are calculated to maximise happiness and well-being. Its basic idea is to maximise utility (pleasure) and so the best action is that which produces the greatest happiness of the greatest numbers, the worst that causes the most misery. It was founded by Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832) and developed by John Stuart Mill (1806-1873), who popularised the term. (Translator)

[34] Jean-Marie Guyau (1854–1888) was French philosopher and poet, whose works primarily analyse and respond to modern philosophy, especially moral philosophy and moral theory. His main work was Esquisse d'une morale sans obligation ni sanction (Sketch of a Morality without obligation or punishment), written in 1884. (Translator)

[35] Herbert Spencer (1820-1903) was a prominent English classical liberal political theorist of the Victorian era. He wrote extensively on evolution, coining the phrase “survival of the fittest” which was later taken up by Darwin, although Spencer subscribed to a more Lamarckian perspective. Opposed to almost all forms of state intervention beyond defending private property. (Translator)

[36] Kropotkin is referring to a later article by Herbert Spencer: “On Justice,” Nineteenth Century (March, 1890) 27: 435–448. (Translator)

[37] A reference to the German legend Faust, who is bored and depressed with his life as a scholar and sells his soul to the Devil for further knowledge and magic powers with which to indulge all the pleasure and knowledge of the world. It has been retold many times, including a play, Faust: A Tragedy, by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749-1832) first published in 1808 in which Faust is first seen in his study, disappointed with science using natural means and who then attempts and fails to gain knowledge of nature and the universe by magical ones. (Translator)