skip to content

Darwin Correspondence Project

From Hensleigh Wedgwood   [before 3 March 1871]1

II. p. 392.

“The moral sense follows from the enduring and always present nature of the social instincts, in which respect man agrees with the lower animals—

After some temporary desire or passion has mastered his social instincts he will reflect and compare the now weakened impression of such past impulses with the ever present social instinct and he will then feel that sense of dissatisfaction which all unsatisfied instincts leave behind them. Consequently he resolves to act differently for the future—and this is conscience. Any instinct which is permanently stronger or more enduring than another gives rise to a feeling which we express by saying that it ought to be obeyed. A pointer dog if able to reflect on his past conduct would say to himself, I ought (as indeed we say for him) to have pointed to that hare and not have yielded to the passing temptation of hunting it.2 Why so? He would recall to mind the act of running the hare as it occurred and would compare the gratification derived from it with that which would have arisen from obedience to the more permanent instinct of pointing. But as the temptation to run was the more vivid instinct at the moment of action, why should it appear in such a different light when compared in thought with the satisfaction to be derived from obedience to the instinct of pointing. You suppose indeed that he would have to compare the memory of our kind of gratification with the dissatisfaction actually felt in disobedience to the other instinct. But the disobedience to the pointing instinct is no more present than the obedience to the running one   It is only in imagination that the two acts can be compared, and the utmost that could come out of it as it seems to me however superior the temptation to point might appear on looking back at it would be wonder what ever could have induced him to run.

But in vol 1. p. 83 you strike a different chord and bring in an element essential to the conception of duty. “When a dog rushes after a hare, is rebuked, pauses, hesitates, pursues again or returns ashamed to his master”3 Shame is the true essence of conscience, not resolutions as to one’s future conduct   The source of the dogs shame is manifest it is a consciousness of his masters disapprobation, which is painfully felt by him in what must be called the moral part of his nature. There is no weighing the satisfaction of chasing against the pleasure of his masters approbation   They are of incongruous nature. He knows that he has not done what he had to do (or ought to have done, for to owe is only to have & is identical with Gr. εχω4) in order to gain his masters approbation. The sense of the disapprobation of a mind to which we look with reverence or respect is shame.

Approbation and disapproval of the acts of another would naturally spring up in the development of the social insincts. When the baboon sprang down among the dogs to rescue his young companion we cannot doubt that there would be something in the other baboons that would sympathise with his act.5 They would admire and approve of his conduct although the fear of the dogs prevented themselves from participating in it. So when the little monkey attacked the baboon that was worrying his keeper, his sympathy with his keeper must have roused in the highest degree his resentment against the baboon, and in like manner it is probable that any act of tyranny against one of their fellows would excite the anger and hatred of the surrounding monkeys. When the baboons were plundering the garden they shewed that they felt it the duty of all to keep silent and manifested in the most sensible manner their disapproval of any breach of discipline.6 It is probable that animals even in the condition of monkeys would be affected by the approval or aversion of their fellows as it is certain that dogs are very sensible to the approbation of their masters and in man we see that the love of approbation is a very strong motive even without special regard to the persons whose approbation is in question.

When man came to look back upon his actions he would be sensible that some of them would meet the disapproval of his fellows and as he would be under the same influences with them he would himself look with displeasure upon those actions, he would regard them as wrong. Here we see the germs of conscience often a very misled one. But this is a very different thing from the feeling of dissatisfaction arising from unsatisfied instinct of which you say I. 72 the agent would be sensible on perceiving that the enduring social instinct had on some previous occasion yielded to some other instinct at the time stronger. You make the pricking of the conscience to arise in the first instance from the balance of dissatisfaction felt on calling to mind an instance in which one has neglected the permanent social instinct for the gratification of a temporary appetite, which you assume are not readily or vividly recalled, a condition to which I cannot assent, in the case of lust for instance. But putting that objection aside, the utmost you could get in this way would be the recognition of a mistake. So long as the agent is only weighing two gratifications you can get no higher and lay no foundation for the sensation of shame. And further, it seems to me an error to suppose that the agent would have the actual dissatisfaction arising from the opposition of a present instinct to weigh against the memory of a past enjoyment. Suppose one of the baboons that hadn’t saved the young one to reflect on his past conduct, he could only bring to memory the stimulus to save the young one just as he brings to memory the fear of the dogs & there is no reason why the two motives should change their comparative weight in his apprehension. The dissatisfaction arising from the failure of an instinct is not actually felt when we only think of a case when the instinct was baulked, but only in the moment of actual disobedience to the instinct.

The real reason of the superiority of the social instinct to animal appetite is that the gratification of the social instinct excites emotion (whether of love or aversion) in the mind of the spectator while the gratification of animal appetite in itself is viewed with absolute indifference. It excites neither admiration nor disapproval in the spectator or in the agent himself when contemplating this action in the past.

CD annotations7

3.11 would have … pointing 3.12] ‘but this is not only innate or inherited & has been constantly practised’ interl pencil
3.15 You suppose … instinct. 3.16] ‘I still think so—when the Hare not actually present’ added pencil
3.18 It is … to run. 3.21] ‘Then why do we say a pointer ought to point.’ added pencil
4.3 Shame] ‘or as I call it repentance or remorse’ interl pencil
4.3 Shame … conduct 4.4] ‘I grant you very important point but would you not call it moral sense which leads many to [‘tak’ del] lose his life rather than lie’ added pencil
5.1 Approbation … his act. 5.4] ‘[‘When’ del] A [over ‘a’] brave man cd regret & even feel remorse that he had not tried to save a fellow creature, when the risk was so great, that no one cd blame him’ added pencil
6.1 When man … his fellows 6.2] ‘A man who jumps into a stream to save a fellow, I believe acts impulsively’ added pencil; scored pencil; ‘blame & praise’ added pencil
6.5 But this … stronger. 6.8] ‘I have expressly said that 2 motives’ added pencil
7.1 the gratification … spectator 7.3] scored pencil
Top of letter: ‘First letter’8pencil
Verso of p. 3: ‘The instinct which is born in pointers & always present & which leads to a young dog to point not only at larks, but at any odd object seen, wd be [above del ‘be sure to feel’] stronger in the dog’s mind, than the tendency to hunt, though when he actually saw the hare he could not resist the [‘tem’ del] momentary temptation. The habitual frame of mind wd surely be stronger than the aberrent frame of mind, when no temptation was at the moment present.—’ ink
Verso of last page: ‘Perhaps it wd have been better if I had said more about shame, but it is rather dangerous, as shame is rather more appropriate to breakers of etiquette—or childrens faults’ ink


The date is established by the relationship between this letter and the letter to Hensleigh Wedgwood, 3 March [1871].
Wedgwood has omitted some parts of the sentences he quotes from Descent 2: 292.
Wedgwood quotes the last part of a sentence from Descent 1: 83, which began, ‘Hence a struggle may often be observed in animals between different instincts, or between an instinct and some habitual disposition’.
ἔχω: I have (Greek).
See Descent 1: 75–6.
See Descent 1: 78.
CD’s annotations are notes for his response to Wedgwood of 3 March [1871].
For Wedgwood’s second letter on this topic, see the letter from Hensleigh Wedgwood, [3–9 March 1871].


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


On "moral sense" in Descent.

Letter details

Letter no.
Hensleigh Wedgwood
Charles Robert Darwin
Sent from
Source of text
DAR 88: 41–53
Physical description

Please cite as

Darwin Correspondence Project, “Letter no. 7470,” accessed on 26 September 2021,

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