Quoted from the author's "Introductory."
"THE main object of this book will perhaps be best explained by a few words concerning its origin. Its author was once discussing with some friends the point how far a bad man ought to be treated with kindness. The opinions were divided, and, in spite of much deliberation,
unanimity could not be attained. It seemed strange that the disagreement should be so radical, and the question arose, Whence this diversity of opinion? Is it due to defective knowledge, or has it a merely sentimental origin? And the problem gradually expanded. Why do the moral ideas in general differ so greatly? And, on the other hand, why is there in many cases such a wide agreement? Nay, why are there any moral ideas at all?
Since then many years have passed, spent by the author in trying to find an answer to these questions. The present work is the result of his researches and thoughts.
The first part of it will comprise a study of the moral concepts: right, wrong, duty, justice, virtue, merit, &c. Such a study will be found to require an examination into the moral emotions, their nature and origin, as also into the relations between these emotions and the various moral concepts. There will then be a discussion of the phenomena to which such concepts are applied — the subjects of moral judgments. The general character of these phenomena will be scrutinised, and an answer sought to the question why facts of a certain type are matters of moral concern, while other facts are not. Finally, the most important of these phenomena will be classified, and the moral ideas relating to each class will be stated, and, so far as possible, explained.
An investigation of this kind cannot be confined to feelings and ideas prevalent in any particular society or at any particular stage of civilisation. Its subject matter is the moral consciousness of mankind at large. It consequently involves the survey of an unusually rich
and varied field of research — psychological, ethnographical, historical, juridical, theological In the present state of our knowledge, when monographs on most of the subjects involved are wanting, I presume that such an undertaking is, strictly speaking, too big for any man; at any rate it is so for the writer of this book. Nothing like completeness can be aimed at. Hypotheses of varying degrees of probability must only too often be resorted to. Even the certainty of the statements on which conclusions are based is not always beyond a doubt. But though fully conscious of the many defects of his attempt, the author nevertheless ventures to think himself justified in placing it before the public. It seems to him that one of the most important objects of human speculation cannot be left in its present state of obscurity; that at least a glimpse of light must be thrown upon it by researches which have extended over some fifteen years; and that the main principles underlying the various customs of mankind may be arrived at even without subjecting these customs to such a full and minute treatment as would be required of an anthropological monograph.
Possibly this essay, in spite of its theoretical character, may even be of some practical use . Though rooted in the emotional side of our nature, our moral opinions are in a large measure amenable to reason. Now in every society the traditional notions as to what is good or bad, obligatory or indifferent, are commonly accepted by the majority of people without further reflection . By tracing them to their source it will be found that not a few of these notions have their origin in sentimental likings and antipathies, to which a scrutinising and enlightened judge can attach little importance; whilst, on the other hand, he must account blameable many an act and omission which public opinion, out of thoughtlessness, treats with indifference. It will, moreover, appear that a moral estimate often survives the cause from which it sprang. And no unprejudiced person can help changing his views if he be persuaded that they have no foundation in existing facts."