Page:Popular Science Monthly Volume 43.djvu/570

From Wikisource
Jump to navigation Jump to search
This page has been proofread, but needs to be validated.


The Principles of Ethics. By Herbert Spencer. Vol. II. New York: D. Appleton & Co.

Of the three portions into which Mr. Spencer's new volume is divided, the first was published separately two years ago, under the title of Justice, and dealt with those things which human beings may claim as rights. The two latter portions now appear for the first time, and deal respectively with Negative Beneficence and Positive Beneficence. Mr. Spencer recognizes the sentiment of justice no less than the sentiment of beneficence as altruistic, the first implying a voluntary concession of the claims of others to free activity and the products or results of free activity, and the second a disposition to aid others in obtaining the objects of their legitimate desires. In the preface to the present volume the author acknowledges that the new parts fall short of his expectations. He has not been able to affiliate them to the extent that he hoped to the doctrine of evolution. "Most of the conclusions," he says, "drawn empirically, are such as right feelings enlightened by cultivated intelligence have already sufficed to establish." It is in ethics very much the same as in purely scientific theory. Specially gifted individuals will, by their deeper intuitions, anticipate the results of later experience or reasoning, and will thus succeed in formulating principles in advance of their definitive establishment. That the principal conclusions of ethics should not stand in very direct relation to the theory of evolution is not, however, surprising, inasmuch as these conclusions would in all probability be the same even if the history of human development had been materially different in its earlier stages from what it has been. What the evolutionist philosopher has to show, as it seems to us, is that there is no conflict between the principles of ethics and any of the deductions from the doctrine of evolution. If that doctrine were fundamentally unsound, the proof of its unsoundness might lie in the region of ethics, but the attentive reader of Mr. Spencer's last volume will at least be convinced that this is not so.

The warrant for beneficence as distinguished from justice lies in the fact that like justice it tends, if properly regulated, to promote life and happiness; but being in excess of justice, and therefore a more or less indefinite thing, the need for its proper regulation is very obvious. Mr. Spencer, as we have seen, deals with it under the two heads of Negative and Positive. A man is negatively beneficent if he abstains from actions which might promote his private interests, because he sees that such abstinence Will promote the interests of another, his own being already sufficiently secured. Some of the examples which Mr. Spencer gives under this head may seem a little trite; but there are different ways of being familiar with a principle or rule of action, as John Stuart Mill once remarked. It is one thing to assent to a truth in a general way, and another to accept it with a full perception of all that it either presupposes or involves. Some of Mr. Spencer's counsels under the head of Negative Beneficence seem to resolve themselves into the familiar formula, "Live and let live"; but how many carry out that formula as fully as they should? It is an easy thing to repeat such a motto as "Live and let live"; but when it comes to foregoing a business advantage clearly within reach, in order that another individual may not unduly or undeservedly suffer, the motto is very apt to go to the wall, which, as every one knows, is a favorite place for mottoes. The question, therefore, is not whether the specific counsels given by Mr. Spencer have previously been given by others—Mr. Spencer admits that to a large extent they have been—but whether they are severally sound, and whether they are in harmony with his general system of philosophy. A motto or maxim floating in a kind of disengaged way in the moral atmosphere of the age does not carry at all the same authority as a rule of action forming part of a well-established system of thought; and the hope may therefore be indulged that an attentive reading of Mr. Spencer's new volume will lead many to see that maxims of conduct which heretofore they have felt themselves S free to act upon or set aside according to the humor of the moment have a sanction which can not rightly be disregarded. Under the several heads of Restraints on Free Competition, Restraints on Free Contract, Restraints on Undeserved Payments, Restraints on Dis-