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Darwin Correspondence Project

To F. E. Abbot   30 March 1874

Down Beckenham Kent

Mar 30 1874

My dear Sir

I have recd your kind letter of the 3rd & the copies of the Index.1

You have put with remarkable clearness & correctness my views on the moral sense; & you must allow me to say that your eulogium on what I have tried to do in science is the most magnificent one ever passed on me; & I heartily wish that I deserved the half of what you say.2 I have read your article with much interest & with all the attention of which I am capable. But it is the truth that from having had no practice in following abstract & abstruse reasoning, I put no trust in my own judgment in such cases. To make any point clear to myself I must put it under a concrete form. Therefore my opinion on your Essay is worth very little; & I must say that I cannot see how morality is “objective & universal”;3 yet I have approached the subject with a wish to be convinced. It wd be of no use to give my doubts in detail; perhaps I shall best shew where my difficulty chiefly lies by the following remarks. The lower social animals may be said to be under an obligation not habitually to kill each other, & the mothers to protect their offspring. I think this mutual bond may be called an obligation, as the species cd not exist in society without it. No one wd call it a moral obligation, & most persons wd call it instinctive. Would you consider this an “objective & universal fact”? I suppose certainly not, as instinct is subjective & the obligation wd differ to a certain extent for different species. Now as soon as a social animal became in some slight, incipient degree a moral creature,—that is—was capable of approving or disapproving of its own conduct,—does it follow that its obligation wd at once become moral? Would not the obligation remain, to a large extent, of the same so-called instinctive nature as before? And if so, its obligation could be only to a small extent objective & universal. Even if the obligation of a moral being must be of necessity moral, I cannot see why it shd be an objective & universal fact, any more than with the instinctive obligation or bond between the lower social animals. I have expressed myself obscurely, & I shd not be in the least surprized if my ideas were shewn to be quite confused; but I have thought myself bound to tell you my impression. I need not say that this letter is private, & it is obviously of no value.4 I much wish that I was better able to follow out abstract reasoning & that I could agree with you.

Allow me again to thank you cordially for your very kind feelings towards me; & believe me my dear Sir | yours very sincerely | Charles Darwin


See letter from F. E. Abbot, 3 March 1874; the copies of the Index contained Abbot’s essay ‘Darwin’s theory of conscience: its relation to scientific ethics’ (Abbot 1874).
Abbot, in addition to the generally laudatory tone in which he discussed CD’s work, had referred to CD as ‘England’s greatest living thinker’ (Abbot 1874, p. 123).
Abbot argued that CD’s theory could not be the basis of a natural science of morals because it was not based on objective and universal principles. Moral obligation, in Abbot’s view, was not produced by the formation of society as CD suggested, but was ‘simply a part of the ultimate Nature of Things’ that made society possible. See Abbot 1874, p. 123. CD scored these passages in his annotated copy of Abbot 1874 (DAR 139.12.3).
Abbot had hoped that CD would review Abbot 1874 in the form of a letter that could be published in the Index (see letter from F. E. Abbot, 3 March 1874).


Abbot, Francis Ellingwood. 1874. Darwin’s theory of conscience: its relation to scientific ethics. Index, 12 March 1874, 122–5.


FEA has expressed CD’s views on the moral sense with remarkable clearness and correctness; his eulogy is magnificent ["Darwin’s theory of conscience and its relation to scientific ethics", Index 12 Mar 1874]. Cannot give a judgment on the essay because he has had "no practice in following abstract and abstruse reasoning".

CD does not see how morality can be "objective and universal". No one would call the maternal bond in lower animals a "moral obligation". When a social animal "becomes in some slight incipient degree" a moral creature "capable of approving or disapproving of its own conduct" do not such obligations remain of a so-called instinctive nature rather than becoming at once moral obligations?

Letter details

Letter no.
Charles Robert Darwin
Francis Ellingwood Abbot
Sent from
Source of text
Harvard University Archives (Papers of F. E. Abbot, 1841–1904. Named Correspondence, 1857–1903. Folder: Darwin, Charles and W. E. Darwin (son), 1871–1883, box 44. HUG 1101)
Physical description
LS(A) 4pp and ADraftS 4pp

Please cite as

Darwin Correspondence Project, “Letter no. 9377,” accessed on 7 February 2023,

Also published in The Correspondence of Charles Darwin, vol. 22