Popular Science Monthly/Volume 25/May 1884/The Morality of Happiness V

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A MAN'S power of increasing happiness depends both directly and indirectly on his fitness for the occupations of his life. Directly, because if unfit, whether through ill health or inaptitude, he works with pain instead of pleasure, and because he gives less satisfaction or causes actual annoyance to those for whom his occupations, whatsoever they may be, are pursued. Indirectly, because as a result of work pursued under such conditions he suffers in temper and quality as a member of the body social. Hence all such care of self as is shown by attention to bodily health, by the careful culture of personal good qualities, by just apportionment of time to personal requirements, and so forth, may be regarded as of the nature of duty. In such degree as pleasure, recreation, change of scene, quiet, and the like, are necessary for the maintenance or improvement of the health, the care to secure these, so far from being held to be a concession to self, should be esteemed a most important point in "the whole duty of man."

A narrow view of duty to others may direct attention to what lies near at hand. Just as the savage consumes, to satisfy the hunger of a day, seed which should have been devoted to provide for many days in the future which lies beyond his ken, so the man who has no thought but of what lies near at hand, is apt to sacrifice health, strength, and fitness for work, from which great and long-lasting benefits might have been reaped, to obtain painfully and uncomfortably much smaller results. By overwork and self-sacrifice—self-devotion if you will—a man may in a few years effect much material good to those around him—perhaps more than in the time he could have effected by a wiser apportionment of his work and strength. But at the end of a much shorter period of work than he could have accomplished with ease and pleasantness, ere a tithe perhaps of the good he was really competent to do has been effected, his health breaks down, his strength fails him, he can no longer do the good he wanted so much to do. Nay, worse, life not only becomes a burden to him, but he becomes a burden to others. A wise and thoughtful care of self would have avoided this. Such care of self, then, even if regarded from the point of view which should be taken by the rest, is simply far-sighted regard for others.

Perhaps the simplest way of testing the matter is by considering what would happen if all or many of the members of a community followed a course which is commonly spoken of as if it were meritorious. It is manifest that a community chiefly composed of persons who neglecting self broke down their health and strength in exhausting efforts to advance the well-being of others would be a community constantly burdened by fresh accessions of worn-out and used-up members—including eventually most of those who had been most anxious to serve their fellows.

But the question becomes still more serious when the known facts of heredity are taken into account. The evil effects of self-neglect, whether in the form of overwork, or asceticism, or avoidance of all such pleasurable emotions as lighten the toils and worries of life, or in other ways, affect posterity as well as the individual life. Ill-health and weakness are transmitted to children and to children's children through many generations. It is not going too far to say that on the average more misery is wrought and to a much greater number by neglect of self than can be matched by any amount of benefit conferred during life, still less by such benefit as directly arises from self-sacrifice. A man shall work day after day beyond his strength for ten years, and by such excess of activity shall perhaps accumulate at the expense of a ruined constitution what may confer a certain amount of happiness on several persons, or keep discomfort from them. Probably with better-advised efforts during that time more real good might have been conferred on those same persons, for man does not live by bread alone; and certainly in the long run even of a single ordinary life much more good may be done by combining zeal for others with due regard for the welfare of self. But when we consider the multiplied misery inherited by the offspring of weak, sickly, and gloomy parents, we see that even though, on the whole, there had been during life a balance in favor of happiness conferred, this—more than out-weighed even in the first generation—would be many hundred times outweighed in the long run.


The thought seems strange to many that in conduct which appears to them mere care of self there may be further-seeing regard for others than in simple self-sacrifice. Yet the matter is so obvious when pointed out as to suggest later a different sort of retort—namely, that it was scarce worth pointing out. Only, as it happens that this truly obvious matter has been grievously overlooked, as the teacher of this essentially true and therefore demonstrable lesson has been rebuked for inculcating mere self-seeking, it is tolerably clear that the lesson was very much needed.

Let us consider how obviously true it is, however, as he presents it. Take, for instance, the matter on which I touched in my last—viz., the consideration of the known laws of heredity. "When we remember," says the clear, calm teacher of our time, "how commonly it is remarked that high health and overflowing spirits render any lot in life tolerable, while chronic ailments make gloomy a life most favorably circumstanced, it becomes amazing that both the world at large and writers who make conduct their study should ignore the terrible evils which disregard of personal well-being inflicts on the unborn, and the incalculable good laid up for the unborn by attention to personal well-being. Of all bequests of parents to children the most valuable is a sound constitution. Though a man's body is not a property that can be inherited, yet his constitution may fitly be compared to an entailed estate; and, if he rightly understands his duty to posterity, he will see that he is bound to pass on that estate uninjured if not improved. To say this is to say that he must be egoistic to the extent of satisfying all those desires associated with the due performance of functions. Nay, it is to say more. It is to say that he must seek in due amounts the various pleasures which life offers. For beyond the effect these have in raising the tide of life and maintaining constitutional vigor, there is the effect they have in preserving and increasing a capacity for receiving enjoyment. Endowed with abundant energies and various tastes, some can get gratifications of many kinds on opportunities hourly occurring; while others are so inert, and so uninterested in things around, that they can not even take the trouble to amuse themselves. And, unless heredity be denied, the inference must be that due acceptance of the miscellaneous pleasures life offers conduces to the capacity for enjoyment in posterity; and that persistence in dull, monotonous life by parents diminishes the ability of their descendants to make the best of what gratifications fall to them."

All this is clear and obvious enough when thus pointed out; though the very passage in which Mr. Spencer here so clearly shows that to be happy, so far as by due regard of personal well-being one can make one's self happy, is a duty, has been selected for abuse as though he taught simply this—seek to gratify self in every available way. The kind of rebuke justly passed on those who in the search for pleasure, in mere self -gratification, ruin their health, lose happiness, become morose, gloomy, and misanthropic, lose taste for all pleasures lower as well as higher, and hand on to their children and their children's children these and other evil effects of the grosser forms of self-indulgence, has been passed upon the teacher of that far-seing care of self by which the health is preserved, happiness obtained, the whole nature strengthened and sweetened, the enjoyment of all forms of pleasure increased, and in all these respects the lot of posterity improved to many—nay, to uncounted generations.

On the other hand, there are those who, seeing that the doctrine taught is unassailable on that side, assert that it is and always has been obvious—forgetting how many morose and gloomy people there are who show by their mere existence that in the past (of which they are the descendants) the contrary doctrine has prevailed, as it still exists in the present (which they in part represent), and will continue doubtless for many generations.

If it be agreed that Mr. Spencer's teaching in this matter is needless where it is accepted and useless where it is needed (because none who would be benefited by it will listen), I answer that the case is otherwise. There are thousands now, and their number will be largely increased in the future, who have found in this teaching the lesson which they needed to make their lives happy and their influence in their own time and in the future blessed. It has come as a new and cheering light to them (I was going to say as a revelation, but the word would be misinterpreted) to see in happiness, their own included, the answer to the doleful question. Is life worth living? If by self-mortification, overwork, wear end worry, I make myself wretched and fail to make those around me happier, I may well ask in mournful accents that foolish question. If I not only fail so to make others happier but make them less happy, and hand on gloom and misery to future ages, I may not only ask it gloomily but answer it sadly. Life is not worth living. Better, were it lawful, to cease the painful and useless, the worse than useless, contest. But if by due care and thought of self, by reasonable enjoyment of the bright and pleasant things which life brings to most, I in some degree or wholly counterpoise such pains and sorrows as life brings to all, and at the same time help to brighten the lives of those around, and those also of generations as yet unborn, how shall I doubt what answer to give to the question. Is life worth living? Not sad is the answer, but bright and cheering.

There is still not a little to be said respecting the due care of personal well-being. Just here I close by remarking that, in the attempt to simplify Mr. Herbert Spencer's nomenclature, I certainly did not improve the title of this chapter by calling it "Self versus Others" as I did till now, instead of "Egoism versus Altruism," as he called the chapter in the "Data of Ethics" bearing on the same subject. Due care of self is not a matter of "self versus others," seeing that care of personal well-being is essential to the influence of self for the good of others. I have therefore given to this section a new sub-title.

But there is another aspect of this part of our subject which requires careful attention. We have already touched on the effects which would follow if all the members of society in their zeal for the interest of others disregarded the requirements of their own health and well-being, and overlooked the effects of unwise neglect of self on the interests of their descendants, and therefore of the society of which their descendants would form part. Nor, in considering this aspect of the subject, have we been dealing with imaginary evils, seeing that many of the defects of the body social at the present day can be clearly traced to such misdirected, though well-meaning, efforts on the part of the better sort in past ages.

But, when we consider the mixed nature of all communities, the mischief of ill-regulated disinterestedness as compared with far-seeing consideration of the interests of family, race, and nation, becomes more obviously a matter of practical moment.

If all men sought the good of others before their own, it is obvious that a confusion of interests would arise—other but not less unsatisfactory, perhaps, than that which exists in a society where, let their doctrines be what they may, the greater number seek their own welfare first. If, on the other hand, all men were moved by far-seeing considerations and a well-regulated care for the interests of others, no special care would be needed, and few rules would have to be laid down, to insure the progress and happiness of the community. But, as a matter of fact, neither one nor the other state of things exists. The body social as at present existing may be classified, as regards care for others and self-seeking, into the following principal divisions:

A. First, there are those who in precept, and as far as they can in practice also, think of others before themselves, who repay injuries by benefits, answer reviling by blessing, and adopt as their rule the principle that those who injure and hate them are those whom they should chiefly love and toward whose well-being their efforts should be chiefly directed. This class is very small; it is always losing members, but is probably increased by fresh accessions about as fast as it is diminished by those who leave it.

B. Secondly, there are those who, having for their chief aim the well-being of those around them and of mankind generally, yet recognize as necessary even for the advancement of that object, a due regard for the well-being—the health, strength, cheerfulness, and even the material prosperity—of self.[1] This class, like the first, is small; but steadily increases in every advancing community.

C. Thirdly, come those who in all societies, at present, form far the greater part of the community—those, viz., who think chiefly of their own interests or their families', yet, though not specially careful to increase the happiness of others, are not selfishly intent on their own well-being only.

D. Fourthly, there are those who think solely of themselves, or, if they look beyond themselves, care only for their nearest kinsfolk, consciously disregarding the interests of others, and seeking only in the struggle for life the advancement of themselves or their families.

E. Lastly, there are those who, in their struggle to advance self, are prepared to prey on others if need be; in other words, willfully to do mischief to others for their own advantage.

In this classification we consider only the actual conduct of the various orders, not their expressed opinions. Were these to be taken into account, the classification would remain nominally unchanged, but the numbers belonging to the different classes would be very much

altered. Most of the members of the body social in civilized, and especially in Christian countries, would be assigned in that case to Class A—though every one knows that in reality this class is a very small one indeed. Class B would be scarcely changed in number, because, while members of that class are ready to maintain that the views on which their conduct depends are, in their opinion, sound and just, these views are not such as the members of other classes are anxious to simulate. They are not popular views, like the self-sacrificing ones which so many pretend to hold, but by no means really act upon.

It is tolerably obvious that the well-being of society as a whole requires that Classes D and E shall not be unduly large, compared with the whole number of the community. Whatever tends to diminish their number, and especially the number of Class E, must tend to increase the well-being—that is, the happiness—of the social body. Class C, which always constitutes the main body, merges by insensible gradations into Class D, and Class D into Class E. Comparatively slight changes, influences relatively unimportant, suffice to transfer large numbers from the indifferent Class C to the self-seeking Class D, and similarly slight changes may suffice to transfer many from the simply self-seeking Class D to the noxious Class E. The lines of distinction between the first three classes are more marked. Members of the first class are more apt, at present, to pass into the third class than into the second, though little it should seem is needed to make these (the self-forgetting, enemy-loving members of the community) pass into the section combining due care of self with anxious desire to increase the happiness and well-being of the social body. That any members of the second class should pass either into the first, whence most of them came, or into the third, whose indifference to the welfare of others is unpleasing to them, or into the fourth, whose selfishness is abhorrent to them, is unlikely; for which reason this class should logically have occupied the first place, seeing that the class we have set first really merges both into the second and into the third, which should, therefore, be set on different sides of it. We had a reason, however, which many will understand, for not depriving Class A of the position it holds theoretically, though practically the class has no such standing, and is especially contemned by Class C, the noisiest in pretending to accept its principles.

Since, then, the welfare of the body social depends mainly on the relative smallness of Classes D and E, the selfish and the noxious, it follows that an important, if not the chief, duty to society, for all who really and reasoningly desire the well-being and progress of the community, is so to regulate their conduct as to cause these classes to become relatively smaller and smaller. Conduct which can be shown to encourage the development of these classes, to make selfish ways pleasanter, and noxious ways safer, is injurious to the body social, and is therefore wrong; while, on the contrary, conduct which tends to increase relatively the number of those who are considerate of the welfare of others, is beneficial to the community, tends to increase the happiness of the greater number, and is therefore right. If, therefore, it can be shown that the principle adopted by Class A, however self-sacrificing, must tend to work far wider mischief in encouraging the development of selfishness and wrong-doing than it can possibly effect in the way of good (the good being local and casual, the evil systematic and wide-spread), then will it become clear that the principle adopted by Class B, which equally seeks the good of others, but entirely avoids the risk of encouraging the selfish and the evil-disposed, is that which can alone lead to permanent improvement and happiness in the social body.

This, as we shall next proceed to show, is unquestionably the case.—Knowledge.

  1. One or two correspondents, whose letters have been handed to me, seem still unable to dissociate the idea of self-regard from the idea of selfishness, and imagine the man who duly cares for his own well-being (as the only effective way of fitting himself to be useful to others) to be necessarily one who really has at heart only his own comfort. It might be shown that the man who selfishly seeks his own comfort really goes the worst possible way to secure his own happiness. But, apart from this, such a man is not the man of whom I am speaking. I am inquiring what the man should do who really wishes to increase the happiness of those around him most effectively; and I show how his care for their happiness involves, if he is wise, a due regard for his own happiness and well-being also—and even primarily, because his existence and his fitness to do good necessarily came before the good he may be able to do. One correspondent asks whether a man who could save life at his own peril ought not, according to the views I have indicated, to consider whether his life might not be of greater value to the community than the life which he could save by sacrificing or endangering his own. I may remark in passing that the man who most freely acknowledged, as a matter of pure reasoning, that in such a case he ought to weigh his own life's worth against the worth of that other life would probably be the first to risk his life for others; while the man who made cheap parade of his readiness to sacrifice his life would probably be the readiest to slink away at the moment of danger. We are not considering, however, what men should do under sudden impulse of danger affecting others—and especially the weak and tender. If we were, we might point out that in such cases there is much more at issue than the mere value of the lives at stake. If I saw a child, weak-minded, crippled, of small worth as a member of the body social, in danger from which I could save it at the risk or even the certainty of losing my own life (which I might judge of more value to the community), I trust that, whether I had to act on impulse or after reflection, I should act, not as weighing the value of that life against my own, but rather as considering what would be the evil influence of cowardice and meanness in a community. If I had time to reason, I might reason that, whatever value my life might have, must go but a small way to counterbalance the effect of evil example. In many cases, however, men are bound first to think of the value of their life: they do so even in cases where eventually they know that their life must be sacrificed. The captain of an endangered ship, for instance, cares for his own life more than for the life of any on board, while his skill and experience are necessary to save life; and his actions in detail might under conceivable circumstances seem suggestive of mean care for his own life, when he knows at the very time that, after he has seen off the last boat—perhaps before many minutes are past—he and his best officers must go down with the ship. It is singular and significant, however, that cavils such as I have here touched upon, come without a single exception in letters otherwise so worded as to show inexperience, deficiency of reasoning power, or that turn of mind, unfairly regarded as specially belonging to the weaker sex, which does not reason at all, but simply repeats parrot-like, and with constant reference to the last word, the maxims (often quite misunderstood) learned by rote in childhood