Knowledge doesn’t improve morals

A DISTINGUISHED Conservative statesman tells us from the town-hall of Tamworth that “in becoming wiser a man will become better; meaning by wiser more conversant with the facts and theories of physical science; and that such a man will “rise at once in the scale of intellectual and moral existence.” “That,” he adds, “is my belief.” He avows, also, that the fortunate individual whom he is describing, by being “accustomed to such contemplations, will feel the moral dignity of his nature exalted.” He speaks also of physical knowledge as “being the means of useful occupation and rational recreation;” of “the pleasures of knowledge” superseding “the indulgence of sensual appetite,” and of its “contributing to the intellectual and moral improvement of the community.” Accordingly, he very consistently wishes it to be set before “the female as well as the male portion of the population;” otherwise, as he truly observes, “great injustice would be done to the well-educated and virtuous women” of the place. They are to “have equal power and equal influence with others.” It will be difficult to exhaust the reflections which rise in the mind on reading avowals of this nature.

The first question which obviously suggests itself is how these wonderful moral effects are to be wrought under the instrumentality of the physical sciences. Can the process be analyzed and drawn out, or does it act like a dose or a charm which comes into general use empirically? Does Sir Robert Peel mean to say, that whatever be the occult reasons for the result, so it is; you have but to drench the popular mind with physics, and moral and religious advancement follows on the whole, in spite of individual failures? Yet where has the experiment been tried on so large a scale as to justify such anticipations? Or rather, does he mean, that, from the nature of the case, he who is imbued with science and literature, unless adverse influences interfere, cannot but be a better man? It is natural and becoming to seek for some clear idea of the meaning of so dark an oracle. To know is one thing, to do is another; the two things are altogether distinct. A man knows he should get up in the morning,—he lies a-bed; he knows he should not lose his temper, yet he cannot keep it. A labouring man knows he should not go to the ale-house, and his wife knows she should not filch when she goes out charing; but, nevertheless, in these cases, the consciousness of a duty is not all one with the performance of it. There are, then, large families of instances, to say the least, in which men may become wiser, without becoming better; what, then, is the meaning of this great maxim in the mouth of its promulgators?