Popular Science Monthly/Volume 16/December 1879/Spencer's Data of Ethics

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IN the immense abundance of literary production a great deal of criticism is avowedly calculated to supersede the perusal of the works themselves. Such a book as the present, however, is among the rarest; and being on the most interesting of all themes, and withal lucid and short, the critic would be much mistaken in assuming that it will not be read by his own readers and many besides.

The field of ethics has been crossed and recrossed in many directions; and we are now called to follow a new and unbeaten track. Our interest and expectation are awakened, not simply on account of the general philosophic ability of the writer, which disposes us to listen to him on any topic that he may see fit to take up, but also because he regards the work before us as the end and outcome of all his labors, the object to which all the preceding parts of his systematic elaboration are preparatory. The philosophy of evolution, which he has spent his life in constructing, is here to reach its application to practice. With a view to the popularity of the work, this may seem a disadvantage, as comparatively few of those that are attracted to a book in morals have followed the author through his long precursory series of magna opera; yet the disadvantage is not so great as might be so supposed, for such is the expository clearness gained from long familiarity with the materials, that the work is self-explaining in a remarkable degree.

Although thus disclaiming the purpose of dispensing with the independent perusal of the work, yet without making a general survey of its plan and leading ideas I am unable to criticise any portion intelligibly.

The preliminary question necessarily is the definition or province of ethics. What is meant by conduct, and what by good and bad conduct? Conduct is the adjustment of acts to ends. As to good and bad, we must proceed systematically through the animal series; or trace the "Evolution of Conduct." The lowest creatures are characterized by insufficient adaptation of actions to the ends of existence; they move about at random, and live at the mercy of chance. But proceed upward from the infusorium to the rotifer, and we find the actions better accommodated to the situation, and as a consequence greater chances of preservation. Move still upward to the higher vertebrates, and look at the superiority of an elephant to a cod; go yet further, and compare the civilized with the savage man: we find the same expression to apply—the multiplication of activity in the serving of useful ends, whereby life is increased both in length and in breadth. Turn next to the conservation of the species by the treatment of the young, and we find the same progress; in the lowest creatures only one germ in ten thousand comes to maturity. Lastly, take into account the social situation, where individuals act and react on each other, whether for prey or for assistance. There is here a like progress, shown in the like results; in the lower stages, mutual destruction; in the higher stages, mutual coöperation, with greater security of life and greater amounts of enjoyment.

This survey being premised, let us ascertain the meanings of good and bad. A good action is one that subserves either individual life, or the rearing of offspring, or the interests of the society at large. The relatively good is the relatively more-evolved. The highest conduct of all is what best reconciles all the three ends. Having reached this point, the author asks. Is there any postulate involved in these judgments of conduct? and answers yes, namely, the question. Is life worth living? which question he briefly discusses, making out that both optimist and pessimist must assume that life is satisfactory or otherwise, according as it does, or does not, bring a surplus of agreeable feeling. He disposes of the ascetic theory as being the product of the inferior religious creeds; and in so far as any persons in the present day retain the ascetic view, he runs them into absurdity by asking what they mean by the virtue of administering to a sick person; is it to increase the pains of illness? He then reviews the ethical end expressed by "perfecting" one's nature, and shows that there is no other test of perfection than "complete power of all the organs to fulfill their respective functions." Then as to making "virtue" the standard, he criticises Aristotle and Plato, and finds that they are playing off juggles of language. He next argues that virtue could not be upheld as virtue unless on the supposition that it is pleasurable in its total effects. Again as to the "intuitional" theory, he shows that the holders can not, and do not, ignore the ultimate derivations of right and wrong from pleasure and pain. He admits, however, that there is still among us a survival of the devil-worship of the savage, seen in our delight in contemplating the exercise of despotic power—the worship that owns Carlyle as its prophet, disguising itself by denouncing happiness as pig-philosophy, and substituting "blessedness" as the end. So much for good and bad conduct.

In a new chapter, the author pursues the criticism of the ethical theories, under the title, "Ways of judging Conduct." As a preliminary remark, he shows us with what exceeding slowness the idea of causation has been evolved. He is struck with the fact that all the theories—theological, political, intuitional, utilitarian—are characterized either by the entire absence of the idea of causation, or by an inadequate presence of it. Thus the theory of the "will of God" originates with the savage whose only restraint besides fear of his fellow men is fear of an ancestral spirit. Now, the notion that actions are good or bad simply by divine injunction is tantamount to saying that they have not in their own nature good or bad effects. After reviewing Hobbes and the Intuitionists, he tells us that even the utility school is very far from recognizing natural causation. In other words, he enunciates his known principle, of which the present volume is the expansion, that morality is not an induction from isolated facts, but a deduction from the processes of life as carried on under established conditions of existence. The proof of this principle needs a survey of ethics under four aspects—Physical, Biological, Psychological, Sociological.

In the four chapters devoted to the survey, Mr. Spencer's ethical foundations are laid. To begin with the Physical view. This treats conduct as so much motion suited to its purposes by paying respect to the law of conservation of force; in which view the ethical progress is progress to duly-proportioned conduct; and that conduct is increasingly coherent and definite, increasingly heterogeneous or varied, and tending to balance or equilibrium. "Complete life in a complete society is but another name for complete equilibrium between the coordinated activities of each social unit and those of the aggregate of units." The author admits that there is some strangeness in thus presenting moral conduct in physical terms.

The Biological view takes account of man's nature as an organism, or an aggregate of organs, to be maintained in due condition by regulated exercise, rest, and nutrition, and as liable to disorder by excess or defect. According to this view, the moral man is he whose functions—numerous and varied though they be—are all discharged in degrees duly adjusted to the conditions of existence. It is immoral to treat the body so as in any way to diminish the fullness or vigor of its vitality. One leading test of actions is, Does the action tend to maintenance of complete life for the time being, and does it tend to prolongation of life to the full extent? This position is not simply the consequence of the necessity of living in order to be happy; it takes us up to the further doctrine that happiness is fulfillment of function in each and all of the organs. In fact, the law of pleasure and pain—connecting pleasure with vitality and pain with the opposite—is here invoked as an indispensable link in ethics, and as one of the ways of rendering the science deductive, and of superseding the laborious if not impossible calculations of empirical Hedonism. In this chapter Mr. Spencer illustrates the truth at great length as a practical and moral lesson, and one as yet very imperfectly apprehended. The dependence of the mental on the physical, so completely neglected by our forefathers in all but the most obtrusive instances, has been gradually receiving more attention, and Mr. Spencer will be hereafter distinguished for giving it an additional impetus, as well as for contributing to its more precise definition. It must necessarily enter more and more into the guidance of human conduct, and must to that extent become an ethical factor. The doctrine in his hands cuts closer than ever; he proceeds upon the assumption that pleasure points out the way to the healthy discharge of the functions, and pain to the opposite. He is not unaware of the exceptions, and regards them as an imperfection of adjustment destined to pass away as evolution reaches its term.

The Psychological view takes us to the genesis of the moral consciousness through conflict of states, and through the subordination of lower ends to higher. In order to this we must conceive pleasures and pains in the future, and by such conceptions hold in check all present urgencies incompatible with remoter interests. The yielding of the lower to the higher may, however, be carried to excess; the subordination is a conditional subordination. The pleasures of the present are not to be absolutely sacrificed to the pleasures of the future; the present is always to be counted at its own value in striking the balance. Mr. Spencer illustrates this by the practical absurdity of men living entirely for the future. The source of the feeling called moral obligation is now indicated. The essential trait being the control of some feelings by some other feelings, Mr. Spencer traces the different species of control from without, in political government, religious fear, and the general influence of society. All these have evolved with society, as means of social self-preservation. The penalties accompanying them impart the feeling of coercion; in other words, the sense of moral obligation. At the same time we are not to exclude from the aggregate the earlier and deeper element of self-regarding prudence, based on the penalties of improvidence. But now the moral motive, arising' at first from external sources, is destined to transformation when the individual mind is completely accommodated to the social situation. The higher actions required for the harmonious carrying on of life will be as much matters of course as are those lower actions prompted by the simple desires.

The Sociological view, already implied, is the supplement of the physical, the biological, and the psychological views. It teaches the modes of conduct for reducing individual antagonisms, and bringing about mutual coöperation. Out of this, by necessary deduction, we obtain the reasons for fulfilling contracts, for assigning benefits in proportion to services, which is Justice; and further for the rendering of gratuitous services, in a certain degree, which is Beneficence. We see how social life is furthered, not merely by mutual abstinence from harm, but by exchange of services beyond agreement.

In a separate chapter, entitled "Criticisms and Explanations," Mr. Spencer compares his deductive theory of conduct with the utilitarian computation, as handled by Bentham, Mill, and Sidgwick. I will return to this on completing the survey of his entire scheme. His next chapter is an illustration of the dependence of pleasures and pains on the state of the organism, and is equally necessary for his purpose, as being the completion of the theory of pleasure. People have often supposed that pleasurable agents, such as sugar to the taste, are so by intrinsic and absolute quality, the same to all persons in all situations. This is soon shown to be a mistake; and the opposite truth is one of great importance in the ethical point of view. Physical pain is immensely greater in a highly developed nervous system. Exercises that give great pleasure to some creatures give none to others; the system being in the one case adapted to them, and in the others not. Emotions presuppose a suitable organization. Destructiveness will give way to amity, if the nervous arrangements for one are atrophied by disuse, and those for the other persistently exercised. The civilized man is distinguished by contracting the same delight in peaceful industry as the savage feels in war and the chase.

The next two chapters—"Egoism versus Altruism" and "Altruism versus Egoism"—are the most incisive in the whole book. The relation of altruism to egoism is subject to habitual exaggeration even to the extent of self-contradiction, and Mr. Spencer brings a rigid scrutiny to bear on the whole question. His position is—the permanent supremacy of egoism over altruism; and he elucidates this in his systematic way. He cites numerous striking examples to bring home the truth that the first condition of the performance of duty to others is the perfect vigor and competence of the agent's self. As a pertinent moral lecture, nothing could be more effective. He allows that his view is the one practically recognized among men, and only regrets that the nominally accepted beliefs should be at variance with it.

In the chapter on altruism, Mr. Spencer, by a review of the entire social situation of human beings, endeavors to assign the exact scope and value of our sympathetic regards. While avoiding all exaggeration, he proves by numerous and striking examples the value of altruistic conduct to all and to each. The dependence of egoism upon altruism tends ever toward universality, becoming greater as social evolution advances.

He next proceeds to consider the conflict of the two principles, which leads him a second time to discuss the utilitarianism of Bentham and John Mill. He inquires what guidance the principle of "the greatest happiness of the greatest number" offers (1) to public policy and (2) to private action; and pronounces it defective as undertaking an impracticable operation, viz., first to gather all the happiness of mankind into one stock, and then to apportion it properly among individuals. I doubt, however, whether either Bentham or Mill conceived the doctrine of utility as necessitating any such operation. The essence and strength of the doctrine seem to me to be brought out by Bentham's two negatives of it—asceticism and unreasoning sentiment; to both of which Mr. Spencer is as much opposed as Bentham. The positive expression—the greatest happiness of the greatest number—is not itself happy, and was ultimately reduced by Bentham to the simple expression, "greatest happiness," which in its convenient vagueness seems to defy hostile criticism. How the greatest happiness of mankind is to be arrived at remains open for discussion. There is a general agreement at the present day that the best course is for each individual to occupy a limited sphere without thinking of the universal happiness. Mr. Spencer seems to me to be arguing for several pages without an opponent. The expressions that he quotes from Bentham and Mill need to be taken along with their whole system, which is, to my mind, not so very far from Mr, Spencer's own. They would say that society should confine itself to protecting each man and woman in the pursuit of their own happiness in their own way. This is the text of Mill's "Liberty." I admit that they are not able to prove beyond dispute that the greatest happiness will be attained in this form; but, as far as the needful computation can be carried, they think it is in favor of such an arrangement.

The discussion has, at all events, been brought to the point of stating that ethics is a regulated compromise between egoism and altruism. What remains is to consider the possibility of an ultimate conciliation. The position at present being that egoism is too strong or altruism too weak, the conciliation must work by finding some means of strengthening the altruistic promptings. Mr. Spencer sees in the tendencies of evolution a progress in this direction. In an interesting dissertation on the sources of sympathy, he endeavors to point out that the faculty admits of development in two ways, viz., the natural language or expression of the feelings, and the susceptibility to that expression as witnessed. He expects such an increase in these two powers as to reverse the predominance of egoism, and to make altruism the prevalent fact of our constitution in minds generally, as it is at present in a few. There will then be as much competition in rendering services as there is at present in exacting them. Indeed, the difficulty will be to find scope for the altruistic cravings. The spheres finally remaining will be chiefly (1) family life, in which the care of children by parents and of parents by children will be better fulfilled, (2) social welfare, in the improvements of the social state, and (3) private relations, where the casualties of life will always afford occasion for help to the sufferers. "Far off as seems such a state, yet every one of the factors counted on to produce it may already be traced in operation among those of highest natures. What now in them is occasional and feeble, may be expected with further evolution to become habitual and strong; and what now characterizes the exceptionally high may be expected eventually to characterize all. For that which the best human nature is capable of is within the reach of human nature at large."

In a chapter entitled "Absolute and Relative Ethics," Mr. Spencer defines absolute ethics as formulating the normal conduct for an ideal society, such as we shall have in the future, and relative ethics as the science that interprets the phenomena of existing societies in their transitional states, laboring under the miseries of non-adaptation. The coexistence of a perfect man and imperfect society is impossible; and, could the two coexist, the resulting conduct would not furnish the ethical standard sought. Among people that are treacherous and without scruple, entire truthfulness and openness must bring ruin. "Hence it is manifest that we must consider the ideal man as existing in the ideal social state. On the evolution hypothesis, the two presuppose one another; and only when they coexist can there exist that ideal conduct which absolute ethics has to formulate, and which relative ethics has to take as the standard by which to estimate divergences from right, or degrees of wrong."

The final chapter—"The Scope of Ethics"—is the summary and outcome of the whole, and offers the easiest means of comparing the author's point of view with the prevailing theories. The ethics of personal conduct is the best defined of all, from the requirements being so largely affiliated upon physical necessities. If this ethics could be made perfectly definite, it would necessarily go a far way toward settling the social ethics, which is made up of individual interests, and has for its function the balancing of each against the rest. The first division of social ethics is Justice, which is the prime condition of cooperation. The final division is Beneficence, negative and positive, involving all those nice adjustments of egoism and altruism previously commented on.

While there are many questions of great interest propounded for debate in this highly original work, I must be content with adverting to what I gather to be the author's main position—the displacing of utilitarian calculation or empirical Hedonism by an ethics of evolution. Not that the acceptance of the evolution hypothesis is an essential preliminary; if it were so, a great many people would at once refuse a hearing to the whole speculation. The relationship of the physical and mental, taken as a matter of fact, is in reality the chief cornerstone of the whole erection.

Mr. Sidgwick, after stating the difficulties attending an empirical Hedonism, as a means of investigating right and wrong, examined the various alternative methods "of determining what conduct will be attended with the greatest excess of pleasure and pain, so as to dispense with the continual reference to empirical results, which it has been found so difficult to estimate with accuracy." In book ii., chapter vi., of his "Methods of Ethics," he took up Mr. Spencer's views as propounded in "Social Statics." To this chapter Mr. Spencer expressly replies in his "Criticisms and Explanations." The real reply, however, is the entire volume. We must peruse and assimilate the whole, before giving an opinion on the question as between evolution and empirical Hedonism. I had occasion to remark, in noticing Mr. Sidgwick's work ("Mind," vol. i., p. 185), that the Hedonic or utilitarian calculation admits of being helped out by a variety of devices such as to mitigate the apparent hopelessness of the problem. Every suggestion of this nature should be welcomed and made the most of. Now Mr. Spencer recasts the mode of propounding the problem, without altering its essential character as an inquiry into the best means of attaining happiness. But he does more than this. He provides certain new lights that were not possessed by the earliest theorists on the side of utility.

The comparison with empirical Hedonism is best taken in the personal ethics. It is admitted that a code of personal conduct can never be made entirely definite. "But ethical requirements may here be to such extent affiliated upon physical necessities as to give them a partially scientific authority. It is clear that between the expenditure of bodily substance in vital activities, and the taking in of materials from which this substance may be renewed, there is a direct relation. It is clear, too, that there is a direct relation between the wasting of tissue by effort, and the need for those cessations of effort during which repair may overtake waste. Nor is it less clear that between the rate of mortality and the rate of multiplication in any society, there is a relation such that the last must reach a certain level before it can balance the first, and prevent disappearance of the society. And it may be inferred that pursuits of other leading ends are, in like manner, determined by certain natural necessities, and from these derive their ethical sanctions. That it will ever be practicable to lay down precise rules for private conduct in conformity with such requirements, may be doubted. But the function of absolute ethics in relation to private conduct will have been discharged, when it has produced the warrant for its requirements as generally expressed; when it has shown the imperativeness of obedience to them; and when it has thus taught the need for deliberately considering whether the conduct fulfills them as well as may be."

Mr. Spencer's great advantage, then, consists in the primary. and constant reference to the physical side of our being. For a very large part of our happiness, physical tests may be assigned; and the problem is transferred from the purely subjective estimates, which are so vague, to objective conditions which are comparatively well defined—from the inward and spiritual grace to the outward and visible symbol. The author's antagonism is not toward the utilitarians as such, but toward the almost universal disregard of physical conditions by our forefathers. He is not the first to call attention to this great desideratum; but he makes a more thorough and systematic employment of it for the ends of happiness. Lord Shaftesbury said long ago that there were among us human creatures in such vile physical conditions that even religion was not possible to them. It would not be difficult to assign the lowest pitch of worldly means compatible with the fair requirements of a human being. The settlement of this point precedes all computations of pleasures and pains; or rather it is a short cut to the goal. The utilitarian has more or less enjoyed the advantage, without being so fully aware of it as he might be; for he has not scrupled to use worldly abundance as a first rough test of well being; and. if the test were only rigorous and thorough, there would be nothing perplexing in the Hedonistic calculation; it would be as simple as common arithmetic. Personal ethics would be, Make a sufficient amount of money: social ethics. Do not defraud any one, and be ready, on suitable opportunity, to help those that are in need. The Hedonistic difficulties begin where money gained and expended is not commensurate with happiness. Moralists in all ages (Aristotle perhaps excepted) have delighted to dwell upon the occasions where the two things are incommensurable. A better consideration of the human organism, supplying a better knowledge of physical conditions, explains many of the exceptions, and helps to reinstate the problem on a definite basis.

The best way to compare the two methods would be to try them upon some of the contested questions of life and society. Mr. Spencer incidentally overhauls a good many of the commonplace usages and views, and rectifies them upon his principles, lie shows the absurdity of men living and working all for the future, and depriving themselves of nearly every present indulgence. He earnestly inculcates the necessity of counting the present loss in the estimate of the future gain. This, it might be said, is merely empirical Hedonism. So it is, with this addition, that loss of pleasure is loss of vitality; the question of pleasure and pain being now resolvable into the question, To be or not to be? Of course, such a sweeping doctrine is to be held with certain qualifications and exceptions; and the point is. Can these qualifications be rendered definite? A rule with well-defined exceptions is practically universal.

Without assuming that Mr. Spencer has propounded a new doctrine, the antithesis of the doctrine of utility, he may claim to have put forward a new point of view, in the working out of the doctrine; a point of view that does not admit of being reargued until it has been tried. Who shall say what amount of gradual transformation of ethical conceptions will follow from steadily regarding conduct under the lights that he has afforded? He will be a bold man that can treat the regard to the physical organism, its capacities and developments, as of no importance in the Hedonic computation; and, if it is of importance, Mr. Spencer shows the way to turn it to account.

The bright future of complete accommodation of man to his circumstances, brought about by evolution, is cheerful to contemplate; and, if it be a work of imagination, it is at least based on science. The socialism that Mill would work out by a long course of education is clinched, according to Mr. Spencer, by inherited modifications and material guarantees. Our fervent wishes are with both.—Mind.