Topics Worth Investigating

  1. When viewing ethics as part of social science, Ellwood writes, "[W]e may consider the moral to be the ideal aspect of the social." Explain what is meant by this statement. Since Ellwood sees competition essential to moral progress in a society, do you think he would disagree with George Trumbull Ladd who writes:

    Selfhood, must seek to promote the same good in others, must seek to serve the social ideal of moral goodness; but, on the other hand, he who seeks the highest service to the ethico-social Ideal must realize that service primarily in conforming his own life to his own moral ideal.[1]

    Is the ideal good of society realized by each individual seeking his or her own ideal good?

  2. Somewhat puzzlingly, Ellwood states, "[I]t is the business of ethics as a science to take the norms and standards furnished by the social sciences, to develop them, and to criticize them." Does Ellwood mean the descriptive laws of science need be critically employed as standards for society to follow? Is he implying for ethics, "what is" is "what ought to be"? How can Ellwood to close the gap described here:

    Theoretically, descriptive evolved ethics tells us what ethical dispositions may have evolved in any evolved beings. It tells us what is. Prescriptive evolved ethics, on the other hand, tell us what ought to be, that is, what beings ought, ethically to do. It is generally considered to be the case that there is a logical gap between "is" and "ought," such that one cannot have a valid argument with only "is" standing in the premises, yet "ought" emerging in the conclusion.[2]

    Does Ellwood make the mistake of concluding how we should behave from how behavior evolved?

  3. Contrast Ellwood's account of the origins or war necessitated by human socialization, whereas Thomas Hobbes concludes war is necessitated prior to socialization:

    For before constitution of sovereign power (as has already been shown) all men had right to all things, which necessarily causeth war, and therefore, this propriety, being necessary to peace, and depending on sovereign power, is the act of that power, in order to the public peace.[3]

    How do these authors differ in their discussion of a state of nature? Assuming the proximate cause of war is economic, which of the accounts for the origin of war in human history would be better confirmed? Assuming the proximate cause of war is the innate aggressiveness of human beings, which of the accounts would be better confirmed?

  4. Ellwood notes that the "twin principles in the evolution of social groups" to greater efficiency and better organization are competition and cooperation. Is this statement tautologous? Isn't non-cooperation competition and non-competition cooperation? Does the question, "Is cooperation more socially efficient when there is competition or is competition more socially efficient when there is cooperation?" make sense?

  5. Ellwood defines morality from the standpoint of sociology as the kinds of conduct which lead to efficiency and survivability of the group by cooperation and conflict. He states in our reading, "Morality, therefore, is not anything arbitrarily designed by the group, but is a standard of conduct which necessities of social survival require."The right is that which is conducive to survival. At the same time, he believes competition should be regulated in the interest of fairness to society. Implicitly, doesn't Ellwood's conception of morality entail the inconsistency of not only what is done within a specific group but also what should be done within that group? What could possibly be the criterion to determine what is right when these two sources of the moral code conflict?[4] Specifically, wouldn't society utilize the laws which govern universal evolution by not interfering with the natural processes of nature.

  6. If competition and conflict between individuals is now regulated by modern societies, does it follow on Ellwood's premisses that societies cannot progress morally since moral progression is guided by natural selection? Or would it follow the invention of ethical ideals for society are themselves a result of natural evolutionary processes rather than a creative process disengaged from natural causes? For example, Ortega distinguishes between the innate or biological nature of human beings and the invented or extra-natural life of human beings:

    Because man is a being forced, if he wants to exist, to exist immersed in nature; he is an animal. Zoologically, life means everything that must be done in order to exist in nature. But man arranges things in order to reduce to a minimum such a life, in order not to have to do all that the animal does. In the void left by advancement beyond the animal state, man vacillates in a series of non-biological duties which are imposed upon him not by nature, but which are invented by himself. And it is precisely this invented life, invented just as one invents a novel or a play, that man calls human life, well-being.[5]

    In a word, is Ellwood's conception of moral progress similar to Ortega's in arguing that human beings, unlike other living things, are not limited by natural circumstance because they can, so to speak, reform nature through technical invention and accomplishment? Or is it closer to August Comte's positivism which Ellwood describes this way:

    [W]hat Comte really stands for in the history of social though is the mechanical or physical theory of society. With Comte "social physics" and "sociology" wer interchangeable terms, since in his vie the phenomena of the physical world and of society are of one sort.[6]

  7. Does the existence of cultural relativity, as defined in the context of the evolution of societies by Ellwood, provide the basis for proving the legitimacy of ethical relativity? It may be of interest to note that anthropologists have rethought this question in light of the rise of Nazism. As Ted R. Vaughan, et al., notes, "The rise of Nazism and the resultant Holocaust undermined faith in ethical relativism."[7]

  8. Does Ellwood's explanation of the progress of society preclude the possibility of establishing a stable society based on noncompetitive Utopian ideals? For this to occur, would the nature of man have to change or would not it be possible through social education and the judicious application of social norms?

  9. Ellwood seems to assume that morality improves with social development, yet the results of each of his five chief effects of conflict on social evolution are negative: (1) Higher forms of social organization lead to more persons involved in conflict. (2) Despotic forms of government supercede the democratic and republican. (3) The inequality of social classes lead to class struggles. (4) Morality becomes a question of efficiently organizing against other groups. (5) The destruction of weaker groups result. On what basis does Ellwood extrapolate from these data to conclude first that there is moral progress and second to assume wars between nations represents an advance over wars among tribes? Would it be a reasonable inference from his account of the evolution to larger and more efficient organizations of government that world wars might result?

  10. Ellwood presupposes that as groups consolidate through intergroup struggle, they give "rise to higher forms of social organization," and "[a]fter a certain stage was reached groups tries not so much to exterminate one another as to conquer and absorb one another" which favored "the evolution of morality." Are not the historical developments of the twentieth century a decisive counterexample to Ellwood's argument?

    It is a century which witnessed the Nazi Holocaust and Stalin's Gulags, two world wars, well over 100 million killed in global and local conflicts, widespread unemployment and poverty, famines and epidemics, drug addiction and crime, ecological destruction and depletion of resources, tyrannies and dictatorships of all brands from fascism to communism, and, last but not least, the ever present possibility of nuclear annihilation and global environmental catastrophe.[8]

    Is it not arguable that the development of the identification of the group that is "most efficiently organized" and "with the most loyal and most self-sacrificing membership" is not at all what Ellwood asserts is "the evolution of morality" but, instead, quite the reverse?

Permission is granted to copy, distribute and/or modify this document under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License, Version 1.2 or any later version published by the Free Software Foundation. Please send corrections, comments, or inquiries to "Editors" at



George Trumbull Ladd, Philosophy of Conduct (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1902), 640.


Patricia A. Williams, "Can Beings Whose Ethics Evolved Be Ethical Beings" in Evolutionary Ethics, ed. Matthew H. and Doris V. Nitecki (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1993), 235.


Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan, ed. Edwin M. Curley (Indianapolis, Ind.: Hackett Publishing Company, 1994), 114.


Ellwood clarifies elsewhere: "When we study thoroughly, for example, the use of narcotics in human society, we are in position to see what a reasonable social standard regarding their use should be, despite the fact that the actual social standard may be very different. This illustration is sufficient to show that our value-judgments are, and should be, closely correlated with our fact-judgments. The social education of the future will recognize this and build upon the social sciences a social ethics; or rather the approach of education to social ethics will be through the social sciences." Charles A. Ellwood, Man's Social Destiny (Nashville: Cokesbury Press, 1929), 172.


José Ortega y Gasset, "Yo soy yo y mi circumstancia" in Ensimismamiento y alteractión (Buenos Aires: Espasa-Calpe, 1939). Passage translated by Samuel P. Moody.


Charles A. Ellwood, "Aristotle as Sociologist" in Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 19, No. 2 (March, 1902): 63-74.


Ted R. Vaughan, et al., A Critique of Contemporary American Sociology (Dix Hills, N.Y.: General Hall, 1993), 118. See also the extended argument given in Elvin Hatch, Culture and Morality (New York: Columbia University Press, 1983).


Piotr Sztompka, The Sociology of Social Change (Oxford: Blackwell Publishers, 1993), 33.