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Darwin Correspondence Project

From Hensleigh Wedgwood   [3–9 March 1871]1

It appears to me very instructive that the shame which we feel on the thoughts of a past breach (say an ignorant one) of etiquette so closely agrees with shame at a secret breach of the moral law.

It shews us the line of research we ought to follow. There can be no doubt that the shame which the pointer so clearly shews when he slinks back to his master arises from consciousness of his masters reprobation.2 He has a distinct sense of sin towards him. What have we to take the place of the master in the case of moral duty?

Well, I entirely agree with you in supposing that the beginning of moral feeling is the love of our fellows or the social instinct whichever you call it. You misunderstand me in supposing me to think that the monkey or the baboon or the man jumping into the river are actuated by any thoughts of the approbation of their fellows; they are directly prompted by the instinct of love.3 But acts of such a nature excite emotions of love and admiration in the spectator and conversely the exhibition of cruelty and malice excites emotions of aversion and hatred and when the agent comes to reflect on his past conduct he is affected by the thoughts of it much the same as if he was contemplating the action of another person. The consciousness of being the object of admiration and love is a lively gratification to the agent, while the consciousness of the spectators disgust and indignation at his conduct affects him with the emotion of shame.

On the other hand the witness of action under the influence of bodily appetite excites no emotion in the spectator, it excites neither admiration nor displeasure, whence the entire indifference of the savage to intemperance. Thus the moral feelings in themselves do not spring out of any balance of gratifications and uneasinesses but are immediately directed to what is good   With the cultivated judgement it is a different thing. It makes excuses for the temptations and necessities of the case and often has to decide between inconsistent goods

From your point of view it seems to me that nothing but prudence could be evolved “When he looks back” as you say at p. 73 “he sees it would have been better for him to have followed the permanent instinct” (quoting from memory).4 Neither do I see how the notion of a moral God would arise out of your premises.

As to the education of the conscience we should differ but little. It seems to me that man is endowed with a susceptibility to beauty in the moral world as well as in the physical and that he would gradually find that the true object of moral approbation is unselfish love.

CD annotations

2.1 There can … him. 2.4] ‘[fear is cause of some doubt]’ added pencil
3.7 when the agent … person. 3.9] double scored pencil
Top of letter] ‘2d Letter’ pencil5


The date is established by the relationship between this letter and the letters to Hensleigh Wedgwood, 3 March [1871] and 9 March 1871.
Wedgwood may refer to a passage in Descent 1: 73–4 where CD writes, For each individual would have an inward sense of possessing certain stronger or more enduring instincts, and other less strong or enduring; so that there would often be a struggle which impulse should be followed; and satisfaction or dissatisfaction would be felt, as past impressions were compared during their incessant passage through the mind. In this case an inward monitor would tell the animal that it would have been better to have followed the one impulse rather than the other. The one course ought to have been followed: the one would have been right and the other wrong.
CD had annotated Wedgwood’s letter of [before 3 March 1871] as the ‘First letter’.


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


Agrees that social instinct or love for fellows is the beginning of moral feeling. Responds to CD’s letter [7537].

Letter details

Letter no.
Hensleigh Wedgwood
Charles Robert Darwin
Sent from
Source of text
DAR 88: 56–9
Physical description

Please cite as

Darwin Correspondence Project, “Letter no. 7542,” accessed on 25 September 2021,

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