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Darwin Correspondence Project

From Hensleigh Wedgwood   [after 9 March 1871]1

My dear Charles

I am very glad of an opportunity of discussing this question with you as it clears my own ideas and if anything further occurs to you you cannot please me more than by having it out.2

The foundation with both of us is I think the sympathy which man has with his fellows or his disposition to take pleasure in their joys & to be pained by their sorrows. This sympathy prompts him to act for another as he would for himself, to relieve his wants, to defend him against attack or to save him from danger. It seems to be part of the same disposition that actions performed in obedience to this sympathy excite the admiration of the spectator in proportion to the difficulties thrown in the way of the action by selfish considerations. At any rate it is a fact that the case is so; the exhibition of kindness and sympathy excites our love. If courage is shewn in addition our feelings rise to admiration, while the exhibition of fear tends to produce contempt. Direct opposition to the sympathetic feelings or the exhibition of positive malice excites aversion, indignation, hatred.

I should think that the admiration of temperance arises in a manner analogous to your cases of expression by opposition. We admire sympathetic action in proportion as it triumphs over selfish inducements to the contrary and hence excessive devotion to purely selfish gratification becomes of itself an object of contempt   Thus our sympathetic feelings build up a standard of right and wrong to which action must conform in order to meet with our approbation. When man looks back on his own past conduct he judges himself and awards approbation and blame in the same way as if he was thinking of the conduct of another person. He feels contempt at the thoughts of his own meanness or pusillanimity, horror at his cruelty. If I am contemplating a case in which I have abstained from an effort to save another I am guided in my judgement by the chance I had of effecting my purpose. If I know that I cannot swim I do not blame myself at all for not throwing myself into the water to save a man, and this I think is very much against your notion that the ruling principle is the discomfort felt at the failure to act on a permanent instinct3

It seems to me that mine is a vera causa adequate to account for the phenomena I refer to it. On the other hand I do not think that your principle is a vera causa at all.4 I have no experience of the kind   I do not see that the painful feelings of dissatisfied instinct could be made matter of actual experience by the thought of a past breach of the instinct any more than the sufferings of hunger or of bodily pain   Nor do I see that if they could they would account for the emotions of approbation or reprobation which must all be considered under one head. I hear that Henrietta5 says we go on repeating our own views without attending to the arguments of the other, so I have scored the positive objection that I have to your principle, independent of the point that there is no room for it in my view & that it would not account for the phenomenon if there was—

Ever Yours | HW.

CD annotations

Top of letter: ‘3d letter | Answer to my [interl] 2d letter’6 pencil


The date is established by the relationship between this letter and the letter to Hensleigh Wedgwood, 9 March 1871.
Vera causa: a true cause that brings about an effect as a minimum independent agency (OED). John Herschel defined it, following Isaac Newton, as a cause having a real existence in nature, and not being a mere hypothesis or figment of the mind (Herschel 1830a, p. 144).
Henrietta Emma Darwin.
CD had numbered both his own and Wedgwood’s letters on the origin of the moral sense. See letters to Hensleigh Wedgwood, 3 March [1871] and 9 March 1871, and letters from Hensleigh Wedgwood, [before 3 March 1871] and [3–9 March 1871].


OED: The Oxford English dictionary. Being a corrected re-issue with an introduction, supplement and bibliography of a new English dictionary. Edited by James A. H. Murray, et al. 12 vols. and supplement. Oxford: Clarendon Press. 1970. A supplement to the Oxford English dictionary. 4 vols. Edited by R. W. Burchfield. Oxford: Clarendon Press. 1972–86. The Oxford English dictionary. 2d edition. 20 vols. Prepared by J. A. Simpson and E. S. C. Weiner. Oxford: Clarendon Press. 1989. Oxford English dictionary additional series. 3 vols. Edited by John Simpson et al. Oxford: Clarendon Press. 1993–7.


Answers CD’s letter [7560], on points of agreement between them, the chief one being the sympathy which man has with his fellows. Disagrees however with CD’s "principle" of the painful feelings of dissatisfied instinct.

Letter details

Letter no.
Hensleigh Wedgwood
Charles Robert Darwin
Sent from
Source of text
DAR 88: 60–3
Physical description
4pp †

Please cite as

Darwin Correspondence Project, “Letter no. 7562,” accessed on 21 October 2021,

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