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Darwin Correspondence Project

To John Morley   14 April [1871]1


April 14

Dear Sir

As this note requires no answer I do not scruple to write a few lines to say how faithful and full a resumé you have given of my notions on the Moral Sense in the Pall Mall, and to make a few extenuating or explanatory remarks.2 How the mistake which I have made in speaking of greatest happiness as the foundation of morals arose, is utterly unintelligible to me: Any time during the last several years I should have laughed such an idea to scorn.3 Mr. Lecky never made a greater blunder, and your kindness has made you let me off too easily.4 With respect to Mr. Mill, nothing would have pleased me more than to have relied on his great authority with respect to the social instincts, but the sentence which I quote at p. 71 (“if, as is my own belief, the moral feelings are not innate, but acquired, they are not for that reason less natural”.) seem to me somewhat contradictory with the other words which I quote, so that I did not know what to think; more especially as he says so very little about the social instincts.5 When I speak of intellectual activity as the secondary basis of conscience, I meant in my own mind secondary in period of development; but no one could be expected to understand so great an ellipse.6 With reference to your last sentence, do you not think that man might have retrograded in his parental, marriage, and other instincts, without having retrograded in his social instincts; and I do not think that there is any evidence that man ever existed as a non-social animal.7 I must add that I have been very glad to read your remarks on the supposed case of the hive bee: it affords an amusing contrast with what Miss Cobbe has written in the Theolog. Rev. Undoubtedly the great principle of acting for the good of all the members of the same community, and therefore for the good of the species, would still have held sovereign sway.8

With my best thanks, believe me, My dear Sir, yours sincerely | Ch. Darwin.


The year is established by the reference to [Morley] 1871b (see n. 2, below).
CD refers to the article ‘Mr. Darwin on conscience’ in the Pall Mall Gazette of 12 April 1871 ([Morley] 1871b).
Morley criticised CD’s remarks about the ‘greatest happiness principle’ (Descent 1: 97) in [Morley] 1871b, p. 10.
William Edward Hartpole Lecky’s History of European morals from Augustus to Charlemagne (Lecky 1869) was cited frequently in Descent.
CD refers to John Stuart Mill and Mill 1864, as well as Descent 1: 71. Morley discussed CD’s use of Mill 1864 in [Morley] 1871b, p. 10.
See Descent 2: 393. Morley criticised this passage in [Morley] 1871b, p. 10.
The final paragraph of [Morley] 1871b discussed a connection between the development of the moral sense and the benefits of a developing social instinct in early humanity (p. 11).
In [Morley] 1871b, pp. 10–11, Morley refers to CD’s description in Descent 1: 73 and Origin, p. 249, of queen bees killing their female offspring for the good of the community; Morley describes it as a clear example of the thesis that ‘the foundations of morality … are deeply laid in the very conditions of social existence’, an observation he uses to conclude that ‘it will always be necessary to lay the basis of conscience in the social feelings’. Frances Power Cobbe, however, in her review of Descent in the Theological Review, refused to acknowledge that conscience was the result of contingencies in human development, and argued for the existence of an innate moral consciousness (Cobbe 1871, pp. 189–92).


Cobbe, Frances Power. 1871. Darwinism in morals. Theological Review 8: 167–92.

Descent: The descent of man, and selection in relation to sex. By Charles Darwin. 2 vols. London: John Murray. 1871.

Lecky, William Edward Hartpole. 1869. History of European morals: from Augustus to Charlemagne. 2 vols. London: Longmans, Green, and Co.

Mill, John Stuart. 1864. Utilitarianism. 2d edition. London: Longman, Green, Longman, Roberts, and Green.

Origin: On the origin of species by means of natural selection, or the preservation of favoured races in the struggle for life. By Charles Darwin. London: John Murray. 1859.


Comments on JM’s review of Descent, vol. 2 [Pall Mall Gaz. 13 (1871): 1358–9].

Mistake CD made "in speaking of greatest happiness as the foundation of morals" is unintelligible to CD. Discusses J. S. Mill’s view of moral feelings as natural. Discusses basis of conscience.

Glad to read remarks on hive-bees.

Letter details

Letter no.
Charles Robert Darwin
John Morley, Viscount Morley of Blackburn
Sent from
Source of text
DAR 146: 410
Physical description

Please cite as

Darwin Correspondence Project, “Letter no. 7685,” accessed on 23 October 2020,

Also published in The Correspondence of Charles Darwin, vol. 19