Thursday, February 12, 2009

Amelioration


On his fifty-second birthday, Abraham Lincoln was in Cincinnati, Ohio, en route to Washington, D.C., for his inauguration at the 16th President of the United States. In Cincinnati, he was asked to address an audience of German immigrants. In his brief remarks, Lincoln told his audience:
I hold that while man exists, it is his duty to improve not only his own condition, but to assist in ameliorating mankind; and therefore, without entering upon the details of the question, I will simply say, that I am for those means which will give the greatest good to the greatest number.
"The greatest good to the greatest number." This is the basic principle of utilitarianism, the philosophical theory associated most closely with John Stuart Mill (whose book Utilitarianism was published in 1861). Both Abraham Lincoln and Charles Darwin absorbed the utilitarian idea of maximizing the good. Both men believed in moral progress that would result in increased goodness; both men believed in the process of "amelioration."

For Darwin, amelioration was a biological process first and foremost: it was a process by which advantageous traits were selected and passed along, allowing the improved organism to survive and to thrive. Natural selection is the mechanism for "ameliorating mankind"—not only on a purely biological level, but on a moral level as well. In The Descent of Man (1871), Darwin writes:
The moral nature of man has reached its present standard, partly through the advancement of his reasoning powers and consequently of a just public opinion, but especially from his sympathies having been rendered more tender and widely diffused through the effects of habit, example, instruction, and reflection. It is not improbable that after long practice virtuous tendencies may be inherited... [T]he first foundation or origin of the moral sense lies in the social instincts, including sympathy; and these instincts no doubt were primarily gained, as in the case of the lower animals, through natural selection.
Darwin concluded that morals, like physical organisms, evolved. It's interesting to note that even one of Darwin's critics could write in a review of The Origin of Species: "We cannot help saying that piety must be fastidious indeed that objects to a theory the tendency of which is to show that all organic beings, man included, are in a perpetual progress of amelioration..." Darwin demonstrated that amelioration was more than an article of faith. It was a fact of life.

Both Darwin and Lincoln are representative nineteenth-century men in their belief in the progress of humankind toward something better: toward greater goodness, toward greater biological fitness, toward a greater adherence to our inherited ideals. Darwin was remarkable in finding a biological basis for this faith in human amelioration; Lincoln was remarkable in putting it into political practice and in giving it such enduring expression. Both men believed strongly in the ties of sympathy—the "bonds of affection," as Lincoln put it—that bind humans together. Both men believed that these bonds were inherited, and strengthened, and passed on. Both men looked back at our lowly origins, and marveled at what we had become, and what we were capable of becoming.

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Now Available: Domestication: Collected Poems 1996-2016.

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