Popular Science Monthly/Volume 25/September 1884/The Morality of Happiness VIII

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647900Popular Science Monthly Volume 25 September 1884 — The Morality of Happiness VIII1884Thomas Campbell Foster




BUT we recognize the necessity of a more thorough altruism than that which merely considers the rights of others. That a community should progress as it ought, each member of the body social should feel that it is a part of his personal duty to consider the well-being of the rest. The weakness and the want of skill, the ill-health and the imperfect education of his fellows, are injurious to him and to all. In such degree as weakness or want of skill affects the productive power of some members of the community, the comfort and happiness of the stronger and more skillful are affected. The weak and inefficient members, who can not provide for themselves, must be provided for somehow. The trouble to the community which would arise from any plan for leaving the weak and unskillful unprovided for would be much more serious than the loss arising from the efforts made to help them. But these efforts being so much deducted from the general efforts of the stronger and more skillful members of the body social must be counted as loss. So that it is the interest of all to see that there may be as few weak and unskillful persons in the community as possible.

In like manner the sickness of our fellows is a matter in which we are interested. Apart from the necessity of restoring the sick to such health and strength as may fit them to take their part in the work of the community, the illness of others may bring illness to ourselves. Fever and pestilence, though they may first attack the weak, presently extend their attacks to those who had been strong. If even a man should feel no anxiety on his own account, those dear to him, those dependent on him, or those on whom perhaps he is in greater or less degree dependent, may succumb to such attacks. Considering all the evils, near and remote, which may follow from an epidemic, we recognize the necessity of adopting all such altruistic measures as may avail to diminish the chance of such diseases arising, or to limit their range of action when they have once found footing. No doubt egoistic considerations here seem to suggest altruistic duties; but these altruistic duties can not be properly undertaken or discharged unless they have become habitual and are referred to a real care and regard for others independently of consequences, more or less remote, to self. Apart from which, the discharge of such altruistic duties will be more satisfying and more pleasant if they are spontaneously undertaken.

Similar considerations apply to education in all its various forms. In other words, we must consider the mental as well as bodily weaknesses, and the mental as well as bodily diseases, of our fellow-citizens. "Where those around us are stupid and unintelligent, where they attempt no improvements, where they have little inventive capacity and little readiness to use even such as they have, we suffer along with them. The mere stupidity of the great mass of most communities with regard to the system of government they consent to be ruled by may mean most serious injury and discomfort to all, foolish and intelligent alike. Those who see what is needed, or at least the direction in which improvement may reasonably be sought, yet remain silent in the belief that it is no business of theirs, are as unintelligent as those who stupidly assent to what—without thinking—they suppose to be good for them and to be provided for by those who know better than themselves; though often, when traced to their source, the measures in vogue are found to be of no better origin than the body itself which submits to them.

A low standard of intelligence in the community affects the welfare of all, in many different ways. Wrong ideas about the relation of the nation to other nations may seem unimportant in the case of persons who take no direct part in political matters. But in reality a very notable influence is exerted by the community generally on the conduct of those who have charge of political affairs. Wrong counsels in the cabinet may be advanced or right counsels hampered by stupidity in the country at large. Statesmen themselves are not always so wise or often so firm that they are not influenced by prevalent ideas; and so far as mere numbers are concerned prevalent ideas are likely to be foolish ideas. Fortunately, mere numbers may not suffice to give weight to prevalent stupidity. Many of the unwise are influenced by the observed fact that such and such men conduct affairs successfully, and so are led to support the wiser sort, not through sound judgment on their own part, but from that kind of sense which leads the ignorant to defer to the judgment of the better-informed. But this does not prevent the average intelligence of the community from being a matter of great moment even in political matters—supposed to be guided always by the wisest, despite the true saying that the world is governed with but a small amount of wisdom. What I have here said has no relation to the action of kings, princes, and the like, who in English-speaking communities can not now injuriously influence political relations except through the weakness or folly of statesmen. Yet the argument might be strengthened by calling attention to the way in which, even within the last thirty years, our own country has suffered in this special direction, statesmen weakly or foolishly yielding to public pressure by which the unwise counsels of princes have been supported, A hundred years ago our country saw in still more marked way how the average want of intelligence of the many, supporting the stupidity of a king (of alien race, in that case), may go near to wreck the fortunes of a great race. We may hope, however, that no such trouble is in store for us hereafter as afflicted the British people when a foolish people insanely strengthened the hands of a mad king.

In social matters a low standard of general intelligence is a serious evil, which a wise altruism will endeavor to diminish. "I do not mean," I may here say with Mr. Herbert Spencer, "such altruism as taxes rate-payers that children's minds may he filled with dates and names and gossip about kings and narratives of battles and other useless information, no amount of which will make them capable workers or good citizens; but I mean such altruism as helps to spread a knowledge of the nature of things, and to cultivate the power of applying that knowledge."

It is hardly necessary to multiply examples. We are confronted at every step by the harmful effects of prevalent want of intelligence. The fire which is intended to warm your room is so stupidly placed that it sends the better part of the heat up the chimney and creates cold draughts round your legs. Equally obnoxious to the understanding is the window by which you seek to ventilate your room. It is a struggle to open it, a struggle to close it, unless when your head is in the way, when it generally descends in effective guillotine-fashion. The carpeting of your room is an absurdity, the papering (apart from any question of beauty) a monstrosity. The gaseliers are so ingeniously arranged that you get a minimum of light and a maximum of heat and foul air. The chair you sit on seems intended to make you uncomfortable; as you draw it up to the table you find that the senseless people who plan furniture have provided sharp corners just where your knees are most likely to be caught. If you wish to lie down or to recline on a sofa, you find the head of the sofa so ingeniously padded that, while too sloped for reclining, it is not sloped enough for you to lie on it comfortably.[1] Your child, running in for a kiss from papa, stumbles over a footstool so carefully colored like the carpet that it did not catch his eyes but his feet; and, falling, is hurt severely by a sharp projection on chair, sofa, table-leg, fender, scuttle, or what not, where no sharp projections are wanted, and none ever should be. In numberless ways miseries, individually small, but effectively diminishing happiness, result from general want of intelligence. "Unpunctuality and want of system," again, as Mr. Herbert Spencer points out, "are perpetual sources of annoyance. The unskillfulness of the cook causes frequent vexation and occasional indigestion. Lack of forethought in a house-maid leads to a fall over a bucket in a dark passage; and inattention to a message, or forgetfulness in delivering it, entails failure in an important engagement."

It is thus the interest of each one of us, and being also for the good of all becomes the duty of each, to be altruistic in regard to the mental progress of the community—"we benefit egoistically by such altruism as aids in raising the average intelligence."

But we are equally interested in the improvement of the moral feeling pervading the social body. The happiness of the whole community is diminished by the prevalence of unconscientious ways. In small matters as in large the principle prevails. We are all interested in helping to teach men the duty of considering the rights and claims of others. From the man who hustles others off the pavement or occupies an unfair share of what should be general conversation, to the man who swindles by gross aggressions or serious breach of contract, the products of a state of low average morality diminish the happiness of the community. The aggregate of discomfort wrought by paltry offenses is serious though each separate offense may produce but slight mischief. Moreover, offenses paltry in themselves may produce very serious results. The disobedience of a nurse in some small matter (such as taking her charge to this or that place) may lead to accident affecting life or limb, or to disease ending in permanent injury or in death. In other ways, mischievous results of greater or less importance are brought about by defective moral sense in small matters, while, when we consider the effects of want of conscientiousness in business, we recognize still more clearly how much we are all concerned in the moral improvement of the community. "Yesterday," says Mr. Herbert Spencer, "the illness of a child due to foul gases led to the discovery of a drain that had become choked because it was ill-made by a dishonest builder under supervision of a careless or bribed surveyor. To-day workmen employed to rectify it occasion cost and inconvenience by dawdling, and their low standard of work,

determined by the unionist principle that the better workers must not discredit the worse by exceeding them in efficiency, he may trace to the immoral belief" (well put!) "that the unworthy should fare as well as the worthy. To-morrow it turns out that business for the plumber has been provided by damage which the brick-layers have done." And so daily and hourly do we feel that the moral imperfections of the community are fit subjects for such altruistic efforts as may help to raise the average morality.

While we thus recognize that our well-being depends so greatly on the well-being of others—their health and bodily capacities, their sense and knowledge, and their moral qualities—that due regard for others is essential to the happiness of self, we see further that each member of the body social gains directly by the possession and exercise of such qualities as lead or enable him to help his fellows. Among the proverbs which present in brief the ideas of a race as to what is good and bad, are many which imply that regard for the interest and welfare of others is bad policy. Such proverbs can not be regarded as expressing "the wisdom of many" by "the wit of one," for experience proves abundantly that the policy of hardness and indifference is unwise and short-sighted. Even mere material success—which does not always mean happiness—is not advanced in the longrun by disregard of others. The man of business gains in unnumbered ways by consideration for the rights and interests of his fellow-workers, and loses in as many by selfish disregard for them. Nay, even in the trivial affairs of ordinary life, at home and abroad, the kindly and considerate gain constantly, while the careless and indifferent as constantly suffer. It is, however, when we consider happiness as distinguished from mere material success, and the general balance of comfort and enjoyment as distinguished from the effects of individual actions, that we see how much men gain by sympathetic and kindly, conduct. We see even first-rate abilities and untiring energy beaten easily in the race of life by the kindliness which makes friends of all around and leads to opportunities which the hard and ungenial fail to obtain. But when we rightly apprehend the nature of life, and what makes life worth living, we find the chief gain of the kindly, not in these material opportunities, but in the pleasanter ways along which their life's work leads them. Compare two men, toward the evening of life, of whom both perhaps have achieved a fair amount of material success in life, but one of hard, unkindly manners, the other genial and sympathetic; one alone in life's struggle, the other with "troops of friends" from first to last. Who can doubt, as he compares the worn and weary look of one with the bright and cheerful aspect of the other, that regard for others counts for something toward the welfare and the happiness of self?

Care for others helps so surely in life's struggle that it would be good policy for the naturally hard man to benefit others for purely selfish motives, and still better policy to cultivate kindliness and consideration as qualities sure to be fruitful of profit. The kindly nature which leads to spontaneous good-will toward others, independently of any consideration of gain to self, is even more profitable than cultivated kindliness. Those are lucky who possess such a nature—lucky rather than deserving of special credit, seeing that a sympathetic nature is born in a man, not made by culture. Yet the will has much to do with the development of kindliness; and many, by sensible reflection and constant watchfulness over the undue promptings of self, have trained themselves to a kindliness and geniality of manner such as they were not naturally gifted with, and this without any direct reference to self-interest, but as a matter of right and justice to their fellows. Such men deserve much credit for their care in correcting inherent tendencies to undue care of self. The increased happiness of their lives (in so far at least as happiness depends on conduct) is their reward.

Among the good effects of kindly regard for others we may note the reflected happiness derived from those around. Men vary with their company, and undoubtedly the man of sympathetic temperament whose presence is a pleasure to others finds others much pleasanter in their relations with him than they would be were he of hard, ungenial nature. The wife and children of the kindly man are a constant pleasure to him, where the wife and children of the sour-tempered, ungenial husband and father are apt to grow gloomy and quarrelsome. His friends and relatives are kindlier than those of the harsh and selfish. Abroad, he sees few faces which do not reflect something of his own brightness and cheerfulness. As Mr. Herbert Spencer well says: "Such a one is practically surrounded by a world of better people than one who is less attractive: if we contrast the state of a man possessing all the material means to happiness, but isolated by his absolute egoism, with the state of an altruistic man relatively poor in means but rich in friends, we may see that various gratifications not to be purchased by money come in abundance to the last, and are inaccessible to the first."

But in yet other ways do we find illustrated by the effects of due care for others the saying, "To him that hath shall be given, and from him that hath not shall be taken even that which he seemeth to have."

Not only has the hard and ungenial man fewer gratifications, but those which he has he enjoys less than the man who cares for the wants and wishes of others. The one loses the power of enjoyment through his over-anxiety for self-gratification, the other unconsciously pursues—through his kindliness of character—the very course which a wise and thoughtful consideration of the plan best qualified to secure self-gratification would suggest. The one, while caring unduly for himself, is exhausting and satiating his power to care for any form of pleasure, the other while ministering to the enjoyments of others is fostering his own capacity for enjoyment. Here again, if one wished to suggest a course of action by which a man who suffered from life-weariness might again know the charm of happiness, one could advise no better course than to minister systematically to the enjoyments of those around. The very tide of life is made fuller thus, even as the tide of thought is made fuller by turning from mere reflection to a interchange of ideas and thoughts with those around. While there is work to be done in the way of increasing others' happiness, no man—not even the most jaded and satiated—need ask himself the sickly question, "Is life worth living?"

Especially is this so when the tide of life is ebbing. Mr. Spencer's words on this point are worthy of careful study, by those in particular who know of him only as the teacher of some hard, unsympathetic system of Gradgrindian philosophy, for they afford an apt example of his kindly and lovable teaching:

"It is in maturity and old age that we especially see how, as egoistic pleasures grow faint, altruistic actions come in to revive them in new forms. The contrast between the child's delight in the novelties daily revealed and the indifference which comes as the world around grows familiar, until in adult life there remain comparatively few things that are greatly enjoyed, draws from all the reflection that as years go by pleasures pall. And, to those who think, it becomes clear that only through sympathy can pleasures be indirectly gained from things that have ceased to yield pleasures directly. In the gratifications derived by parents from the gratifications of their offspring, this is conspicuously shown. Trite as is the remark that men live afresh in their children, it is needful here to set it down as reminding us of the way in which, as the egoistic satisfactions in life fade, altruism renews them while it transfigures them."

But not only does altruism increase the pleasures of life; the exercise of the altruistic qualities is in itself pleasurable. The state of mind when kindly actions are performed affords pleasure. It directly increases happiness, and thus (like other pleasures) enhances physical well-being. It is true that a sympathetic nature suffers where a hard and callous nature would feel no pain. Undue altruism has no doubt its bad effects, nor can it be denied that even such altruistic feelings as are desirable for the social well-being cause, at times, some degrees of suffering; but the exercise of the altruistic qualities is in the main pleasurable, and it can not be doubted that altruistic emotions give more pleasure than sorrow. When we sorrow for a friend's grief we experience pain and undergo such depression of the vital functions as always accompanies pain; but in the long-run the joy felt in sympathy with the joys of others surpasses the sorrow occasioned by their troubles.

Then, too, it must be remembered that those pleasures which we derive from the arts owe a large part of their value to altruistic emotions. Consider the pleasure given by a painting representing a scene which moves our sympathies, or the delight with which we read some work of fiction in which kindly emotions are dealt with, and it will be seen how large a portion of our æsthetic gratifications depend on our sympathy with others. The hard and selfish care little for art and nothing for fiction. How should we bear to lose the pleasures which painting and sculpture, music and fiction, afford us? How even should we bear to change the pleasures given by the kindly and sympathetic art of to-day for the harsher effects of the arts of harder times when only deeds of conquest or ceremonial observances were represented in paintings and sculptures, suggested in musical strains, or recited in story or in song? What material gains, what sensual gratifications, what power, wealth, or fame, would make up (to us) for the pleasure we derive from the higher emotions? and how largely do these depend on the sympathies by which men are moved to loving care for the well-being of their fellows!

It remains lastly to be noticed that as there should be thought for others, and for the just rights and interests of others in the family, in the society with which we are directly associated, and within the race or nation, so there should be a wider altruism having regard to the rights of other races and nations. Hitherto men have scarcely at all recognized this duty. Very gradually the sense of altruistic duty passed beyond the family to the community of families, and thence still widening to the nation formed of such communities. Men learned that as personal selfishness is in the long-run opposed to the true interests of self, so family selfishness is only a degree less pernicious. The selfishness of parochialism was in turn seen to be mischievous, though it is still prevalent enough. But the selfishness of what is called patriotism—though it is as unlike true patriotism as personal selfishness is unlike due and wise self-regard—still remains as a virtue in the minds of most men, though characterized by inherent defects akin to those which belong to personal, family, and parochial selfishness. Men fail, indeed, to recognize any selfishness in undue care for what is called a man's own country—though with but vague and indefinite meaning. Nay, a blind love of country is regarded as something so directly the converse of selfishness, that Sir Walter Scott speaks of the absence of this sort of patriotism as simple selfishness. After asking if the man lives with soul so dead as never to have said to himself, "This is my own, my native land?" he goes on to say that such a man, a "wretch concentered all in self," can be swelled by no minstrel music, and is bound to go unmourned and unsung to an unhonored grave. The idea that patriotism could under any circumstances be exaggerated, and become but a widened form of selfishness, would doubtless have outraged utterly Scott's sense of the fitness of things. Yet viewing matters from the outside, and, as far as possible, independently of inbred ideas, there is nothing except its wider range to distinguish the selfishness of exaggerated patriotism from personal or family selfishness.

That patriotic selfishness is mischievous in its effects would scarcely need showing if men were not so ready as they are to be deaf to the teachings of experience. The well-being of other nations is in the same sense essential to the well-being of our own nation as the well-being of other members of the body social is essential to our own personal well-being. The misfortunes of any nation with which our own has relations are misfortunes to our own nation, however they may be brought about, whether by internal misgovernment, by the attacks of other nations, or by our own warlike measures. There can be no doubt, for example, that the loss incurred by Germany, the victor, was only less than the loss incurred by France, the conquered, in the disastrous Franco-German War. Other nations suffered greatly, but Germany more, and France most of all. In the war with Russia, in 1854-'55, all Europe suffered. In the American civil war not only all the United States but the whole world incurred loss. It is easy for nations to blind themselves, nay, most nations are naturally blind, to the losses suffered by each through the misfortunes of others. But there can be no doubt about the actual facts. The British race would have been taught the lesson long since, if the lesson could reach the average national mind through experience—for we are suffering, have long been suffering, and long must suffer, from the energetic efforts of our "imperial" race to get the better of other races. Directly and indirectly, in loss of blood and material, in the paralysis of trade as well as in increased expenditure, our people has to pay for its imperial instincts, just as the man of over-bearing, hard, and selfish nature has to pay in many ways for the gratification of his instincts imperious. There are the same reasons, based on material profit, for inculcating just and considerate dealings between peoples as there are for encouraging just and considerate dealings between man and man. But at present nations delight in proclaiming themselves selfish and overbearing; the more brutal instincts which remain dominant in nations after they have begun to die out in individuals are upheld as virtues, much as in old times many races regarded the more brutal qualities of humanity as chief among the virtues.—Knowledge.

  1. I fear Mr. Foster refers to that abomination of desolation, the Alexandra sofa, which certainly for hideousness and utter unfitness for all the uses of a sofa is a marvel of idiotic absurdity. Nine tenths of our sofa and arm-chair patterns, however, are "too absurd for any use," as they say in America. Among my own pet abominations I may mention nearly all the methods (save the mark!) for curtaining windows, the ridiculous ways in which looking-glasses are swung, the preposterously unscientific forms of inkstands, and some others quœ nunc perscribere longum.—R. P.