Popular Science Monthly/Volume 36/March 1890/Absolute Political Ethics
By HERBERT SPENCER.
LIFE in Fiji at the time when Thomas Williams settled there must have been something worse than uncomfortable. One of the people who passed near the string of nine hundred stones with which Ra Undreundre recorded the number of human victims he had devoured, must have had unpleasant waking thoughts and occasionally horrible dreams. A man who had lost some fingers for breaches of ceremony, or had seen his neighbor killed by a chief for behavior not sufficiently respectful, and who remembered how King Tanoa cut off his cousin's arm, cooked it and ate it in his presence, and then had him cut to pieces, must not unfrequently have had "a bad quarter of an hour." Nor could creeping sensations have failed to run through any women who heard Tui Thakan eulogizing his dead son for cruelty, and saying that "he could kill his own wives if they offended him, and eat them afterward." Happiness could not have been general in a society where there was a liability to be one among the ten whose life-blood baptized the decks of a new canoe—a society in which the killing even of unoffending persons was no crime but a glory; and in which every one knew that his neighbor's restless ambition was to be an acknowledged murderer. Still there must have been some moderation in murdering even in Fiji. Or must we hesitate to conclude that unlimited murder would have caused extinction of the society?
The extent to which each man's possessions among the Biluchis are endangered by the predatory instincts of his neighbors, may be judged from the fact that "a small mud tower is erected in each field, where the possessor and his retainers guard his produce." If turbulent states of society such as early histories tell of, do not show us so vividly how the habit of appropriating one another's goods interferes with social prosperity and individual comfort, yet they do not leave us in doubt respecting these results. It is an inference which few will be hardy enough to dispute, that in proportion as the time of each man, instead of being occupied in further production, is occupied in guarding that which he has produced against marauders, the total production must be diminished and the sustentation of each and all less satisfactorily achieved. And it is a manifest corollary that if each pushes beyond a certain limit the practice of trying to satisfy his needs by robbing his neighbor, the society must dissolve: solitary life will prove preferable.
A deceased friend of mine, narrating incidents in his life, told me that as a young man he sought to establish himself in Spain as a commission agent; and that, failing by expostulation or other means to obtain payment from one who had ordered goods through him, he, as a last resource, went to the man's house and presented himself before him pistol in hand—a proceeding which had the desired effect: the account was settled. Suppose now that everywhere contracts had thus to be enforced by more or less strenuous measures. Suppose that a coal-mine proprietor in Derbyshire, having sent a train-load to a London coal-merchant, had commonly to send a posse of colliers up to town, to stop the man's wagons and take out the horses until payment had been made. Suppose the farm laborer or the artisan was constantly in doubt whether, at the end of the week, the wages agreed upon would be forthcoming, or whether he would get only half, or whether he would have to wait six months. Suppose that daily in every shop there occurred scuffles between shopman and customer, the one to get the money without giving the goods, and the other to get the goods without paying the money. What in such case would happen to the society? What would become of its producing and distributing businesses? Is it a rash inference that industrial co-operation (of the voluntary kind at least) would cease?
"Why these absurd questions?" asks the impatient reader. "Surely every one knows that murder, assault, robbery, fraud, breach of contract, etc., are at variance with social welfare and must be punished when committed." My replies are several. In the first place, I am quite content to have the questions called absurd; because this implies a consciousness that the answers are so self-evident that it is absurd to assume the possibility of any other answers. My second reply is that I am not desirous of pressing the question whether we know these things, but of pressing the question how we know these things. Can we know them, and do we know them, by contemplating the necessities of the case? or must we have recourse to "inductions based on careful observation and experience"? Before we make and enforce laws against murder, ought we to inquire into the social welfare and individual happiness in places where murder prevails, and observe whether or not the welfare and happiness are greater in places where murder is rare? Shall robbery be allowed to go on until, by collecting and tabulating the effects in countries where thieves predominate and in countries where thieves are but few, we are shown by induction that prosperity is greater when each man is allowed to retain that which he has earned? And is it needful to prove by accumulated evidence that breaches of contract impede production and exchange, and those benefits to each and all which mutual dependence achieves? In the third place, these instances of actions which, pushed to extremes, cause social dissolution, and which, in smaller degrees, hinder social co-operation and its benefits, I give for the purpose of asking what is their common trait. In each of such actions we see aggression—a carrying on of life in a way which directly interferes with the carrying on of another's life. The relation between effort and consequent benefit in one man, is either destroyed altogether or partially broken by the doings of another man. If it be admitted that life can be maintained only by certain activities (the internal ones being universal, and the external ones being universal for all but parasites and the immature), it must be admitted that when like-natured beings are associated, the required activities must be mutually limited; and that the highest life can result only when the associated beings are so constituted as severally to keep within the implied limits. The restrictions stated thus generally, may obviously be developed into special restrictions referring to this or that kind of conduct. These, then, I hold are a priori truths which admit of being known by contemplation of the conditions—axiomatic truths which bear to ethics a relation analogous to that which the mathematical axioms bear to the exact sciences.
I do not mean that these axiomatic truths are cognizable by all. For the apprehension of them, as for the apprehension of simpler axioms, a certain mental growth and a certain mental discipline are needed. In the "Treatise on Natural Philosophy" by Profs. Thomson and Tait, it is remarked that "physical axioms are axiomatic to those only who have sufficient knowledge of the action of physical causes to enable them to see at once their necessary truth." Doubtless a fact and a significant fact. A plow-boy can not form a conception of the axiom that action and reaction are equal and opposite. In the first place he lacks a sufficiently generalized idea of action—has not united into one conception pushing and pulling, the blow of a fist, the recoil of a gun, and the attraction of a planet. Still less has he any generalized idea of reaction. And even had he these two ideas, it is probable that, defective in power of representation as he is, he would fail to recognize the necessary equality. Similarly with these a priori ethical truths. If a speculative member of that Fijian slave-tribe who regarded themselves as food for the chiefs had suggested that there might come a place where men would not eat one another, his implied belief that they might come to have a little respect for one another's lives, condemned as utterly without justification in experience, would be considered as fit only for a wild speculator. Facts furnished by every-day observation make it clear to the Biluchi, keeping watch in his mud tower, that possession of property can be maintained only by force; and it is most likely to him scarcely conceivable that there exist limits which, if mutually recognized, may exclude aggressions, and make it needless to mount guard over fields: only an absurd idealist (supposing such a thing known to him) would suggest the possibility. And so even of our own ancestors in feudal times, it may be concluded that, constantly going about armed and often taking refuge in strongholds, the thought of a peaceful social state would have seemed ridiculous; and the belief that there might be a recognized equality among men's claims to pursue the objects of life, and a consequent desistence from aggressions, would have been scarcely conceivable. But now that an orderly social state has been maintained for generations—now that in daily intercourse men rarely use violence, commonly pay what they owe, and in most cases respect the claims of the weak as well as those of the strong—now that they are brought up with the idea that all men are equal before the law, and daily see judicial decisions turning upon the question whether one citizen has or has not infringed upon the equal rights of another; there exist in the general mind materials for forming the conception of a regime in which men's activities are mutually limited, and in which maintenance of harmony depends on respect for the limits. There has arisen an ability to see that mutual limitations are necessitated when lives are carried on in proximity; and to see that there necessarily emerge definite sets of restraints applying to definite classes of actions. And it has become manifest to some, though not it seems to many, that there results an a priori system of absolute political ethics—a system under which men of like natures, severally so constituted as spontaneously to refrain from trespassing, may work together without friction, and with the greatest advantage to each and all.
"But men are not wholly like-natured and are unlikely to become so. Nor are they so constituted that each is solicitous for his neighbor's claims as for his own, and there is small probability that they ever will be. Your absolute political ethics is therefore an ideal beyond the reach of the real." This is quite true. Nevertheless, much as it seems to do so, it does not in the least follow that there is no use for absolute political ethics. The contrary may clearly enough be shown. An analogy will explain the paradox.
There exists a division of physical science distinguished as abstract mechanics or absolute mechanics absolute in the sense that its propositions are unqualified. It is concerned with statics and dynamics in their pure forms—deals with forces and motions considered as free from all interferences resulting from friction, resistances of media, and special properties of matter. If it enunciates a law of motion, it recognizes nothing which modifies manifestation of it. If it formulates the properties of the lever it treats of this assuming it to be perfectly rigid and without thickness—an impossible lever. Its theory of the screw imagines the screw to be frictionless; and in treating of the wedge, absolute incompressibility is supposed. Thus its truths are never presented in experience. Even those movements of the heavenly bodies which are deducible from its propositions are always more or less perturbed; and on the Earth the inferences to be drawn from them deviate very considerably from the results reached by experiment. Nevertheless this system of ideal mechanics is indispensable for the guidance of real mechanics. The engineer has to deal with its propositions as true in full, before he proceeds to qualify them by taking into account the natures of the materials he uses. The course which a projectile would take if subject only to the propulsive force and the attraction of the Earth must be recognized, though no such course is ever pursued: correction for atmospheric resistance can not else be made. That is to say, though, by empirical methods, applied or relative mechanics may be developed to a considerable extent, it can not be highly developed without the aid of absolute mechanics. So is it here. Relative political ethics, or that which deals with right and wrong in public affairs as partially determined by changing circumstances, can not progress without taking into account right and wrong considered apart from changing circumstances—can not do without absolute political ethics; the propositions of which, deduced from the conditions under which life is carried on in an associated state, take no account of the special circumstances of any particular associated state.
And now observe a truth which seems entirely overlooked: namely, that the set of deductions thus arrived at is verified by an immeasurably vast induction, or rather by a great assemblage of vast inductions. For what else are the laws and judicial systems of all civilized nations, and of all societies which have risen above savagery? What is the meaning of the fact that all peoples have discovered the need for punishing murder, usually by death? How is it that where any considerable progress has been made, theft is forbidden by law, and a penalty attached to it? Why along with further advance does the enforcing of contracts become general? And what is the reason that among fully civilized peoples frauds, libels, and minor aggressions of various kinds are repressed in more or less rigorous ways? No cause can be assigned save a general uniformity in men's experiences, showing them that aggressions directly injurious to the individuals aggressed upon are indirectly injurious to society. Generation after generation observations have forced this truth on them; and generation after generation they have been developing the interdicts into greater detail. That is to say, the above fundamental principle and its corollaries arrived at a priori are verified in an infinity of cases a posteriori. Everywhere the tendency has been to carry further in practice the dictates of theory to conform systems of law to the requirements of absolute political ethics: if not consciously, still unconsciously. Nay, indeed, is not this truth manifest in the very name used for the end aimed at—equity or equalness? Equalness of what? No answer can be given without a recognition—vague it may be, but still a recognition—of the doctrine above set forth.
Thus, instead of being described as putting faith in "long chains of deduction from abstract ethical assumptions" I ought to be described as putting faith in simple deductions from abstract ethical necessities; which deductions are verified by infinitely numerous observations and experiences of semi-civilized and civilized mankind in all ages and places. Or rather I ought to be described as one who, contemplating the restraints everywhere put upon the, various kinds of transgressions, and seeing in them all a common principle everywhere dictated by the necessities of the associated state, proceeds to develop the consequences of this common principle by deduction, and to justify both the deductions and the conclusions which legislators have empirically reached by showing that the two correspond. This method of deduction verified by induction is the method of developed science at large. I do not believe that I shall be led to abandon it and change my "way of thinking" by any amount of disapproval, however strongly expressed.
Are we then to understand that by this imposing title, "Absolute Political Ethics," nothing more is meant than a theory of the needful restraints which law imposes on the actions of citizens—an ethical warrant for systems of law? Well, supposing even that I had to answer "Yes" to this question (which I do not), there would still be an ample justification for the title. Having for its subject-matter all that is comprehended under the word "Justice," alike as formulated in law and administered by legal instrumentalities, the title has a sufficiently large area to cover. This would scarcely need saying were it not for a curious defect of thought which we are everywhere led into by habit.
Just as, when talking of knowledge, we ignore entirely that familiar knowledge of surrounding things, animate and inanimate, acquired in childhood, in the absence of which death would quickly result, and think only of that far less essential knowledge gained at school and college or from books and conversation—just as, when thinking of mathematics, we include under the name only its higher groups of truths and drop out that simpler group constituting arithmetic, though for the carrying on of life this is more important than all the rest put together; so, when politics and political ethics are discussed, there is no thought of those parts of them which include whatever is fundamental and long settled. The word political raises ideas of party-contests, ministerial changes, prospective elections, or else of the Home-Rule question, the Land-Purchase scheme, Local Option, or the Eight-Hours movement. Rarely does the word suggest law-reform, or a better judicial organization, or a purified police. And if ethics comes into consideration, it is in connection with the morals of parliamentary strife or of candidates' professions, or of electoral corruptions. Yet it needs but to look at the definition of politics ("that part of ethics which consists in the regulation and government of a nation or state, for the preservation of its safety, peace, and prosperity"), to see that the current conception fails by omitting the chief part. It needs but to consider how relatively immense a factor in the life of each man is constituted by safety of person, security of house and property, and enforcement of claims, to see that not only the largest part but the part which is vital is left out. Hence the absurdity does not exist in the conception of an absolute political ethics, but it exists in the ignoring of its subject-matter. Unless it be considered absurd to regard as absolute the interdicts against murder, burglary, fraud, and all other aggressions, it can not be considered absurd to regard as absolute the ethical system which embodies these interdicts.
It remains to add that beyond the deductions which, as we have seen, are verified by vast assemblages of inductions, there may be drawn other deductions not thus verified—deductions drawn from the same data, but which have no relevant experiences to say yes or no to them. Such deductions may be valid or invalid; and I believe that in my first work, written forty years ago and long since withdrawn from circulation, there are some invalid deductions. But to reject a principle and a method because of some invalid deductions is about as proper as it would be to pooh-pooh arithmetic because of blunders in certain arithmetical calculations.
I turn now to a question above put—whether, by absolute political ethics, nothing more is meant than an ethical warrant for systems of law—a question to which, by implication, I answered No. And now I have to answer that it extends over a further field equally wide if less important. For beyond the relations among citizens taken individually, there are the relations between the incorporated body of citizens and each citizen. And on these relations between the State and the man, absolute political ethics gives judgments as well as on the relations between man and man. Its judgments on the relations between man and man are corollaries from its primary truth, that the activities of each in pursuing the objects of life may be rightly restricted only by the like activities of others: such others being like-natured (for the principle does not contemplate slave-societies or societies in which one race dominates over another); and its judgments on the relations between the man and the State are corollaries from the allied truth, that the activities of each citizen may be rightly limited by the incorporated body of citizens only as far as is needful for securing to him the remainder. This further limitation is a necessary accompaniment of the militant state; and must continue so long as, besides the criminalities of individual aggression, there continue the criminalities of international aggression. It is clear that the preservation of the society is an end which must take precedence of the preservation of its individuals taken singly; since the preservation of each individual and maintenance of his ability to pursue the objects of life, depend on the preservation of the society. Such restrictions upon his actions as are imposed by the necessities of war, and of preparedness for war when it is probable, are therefore ethically defensible.
And here we enter upon the many and involved questions with which relative political ethics has to deal. When originally indicating the contrast, I spoke of "absolute political ethics, or that which ought to be, as distinguished from relative political ethics, or that which is at present the nearest practicable approach to it"; and had any attention been paid to this distinction, no controversy need have arisen. Here I have to add that the qualifications which relative political ethics sets forth vary with the type of the society, which is primarily determined by the extent to which defense against other societies is needful. Where international enmity is great and the social organization has to be adapted to warlike activities, the coercion of individuals by the State is such as almost to destroy their freedom of action and make them slaves of the State; and where this results from the necessities of defensive war (not offensive war, however), relative political ethics furnishes a warrant. Conversely, as militancy decreases, there is a diminished need both for that subordination of the individuals which is necessitated by consolidating them into a fighting machine, and for that further subordination entailed by supplying this fighting machine with the necessaries of life; and as fast as this change goes on, the warrant for State-coercion which relative political ethics furnishes becomes less and less.
Obviously it is out of the question here to enter upon the complex questions raised. It must suffice to indicate them as above. Should I be able to complete Part IV of the "Principles of Ethics" treating of "Justice," of which the first chapters only are at present written, I hope to deal adequately with these relations between the ethics of the progressive condition and the ethics of that condition which is the goal of progress—a goal ever to be recognized, though it can not be actually reached.
The grave misrepresentations dealt with in the foregoing sections, I have been able to rectify by an exposition that is mainly impersonal: allusions, only, having been made to the personal bearings of the argument. But there remain other grave misrepresentations which I can not dispose of in the same way. Life sometimes presents alternatives both of which are disagreeable, and acceptance of either of which is damaging. A choice between two such I now find myself compelled to make. Prof. Huxley, referring to me, speaks of "the gulf fixed between his way of thinking and mine": the implication being that as he regards his own "way of thinking" as the right one, my way of thinking, separated from it by a gulf, must be extremely wrong. As this tacit condemnation of my "way of thinking" touches not only the question at issue but also many other questions, and as it comes not from an anonymous critic, but from one whose statements will be taken as trustworthy, I am placed in the dilemma of either passively allowing his injurious characterization, or else of showing that it is untrue, which I can not do without describing or illustrating my "way of thinking." This is, of course, an unpleasant undertaking, and one which self-respect would ordinarily negative. But unpleasant as it is, I feel obliged to enter upon it.
Years ago Prof. Huxley criticised the political doctrine held by me, and entitled his article "Administrative Nihilism." As this doctrine includes advocacy of governmental action for the repression not only of crimes but of many minor offenses, I pointed out that if it is to be called "administrative nihilism," then still more must the eight prohibitory clauses of the decalogue be called ethical nihilism. Prof. Huxley nevertheless thought his title a fit one; and has continued to use it in the last edition of his "Critiques and Addresses." This political doctrine held by me remains unchanged, but the view taken of it by Prof. Huxley appears to have been reversed. In an emphatic manner he has recently warned me against "undertaking to preserve the health and heal the diseases of an organism vastly more complicated than the human body," having for my guides "long chains of deduction from abstract ethical assumptions." So that while represented as one who would have no administration at all, I am represented as advocating dangerous administrative methods of healing diseases of the body politic. My policy is characterized now as a policy of no action, and now as a policy of rash action. These two characterizations are applied to the same set of beliefs, and they stand in direct contradiction. Necessarily there must be extreme error in one or both; and the latter alternative is the true one: both are wrong.
The "way of thinking" which Prof. Huxley indicates as separated by a gulf from his own, and which he implies is exclusively pursued by me, is that of reaching conclusions by "long chains of deduction from abstract ethical assumptions, hardly any link of which can be tested experimentally." On the other hand the course he advocates is that of seeking guidance from "inductions based on careful observation and experience"—a course which he implies is not pursued by me, either in the political sphere or elsewhere; certainly not in the political sphere. Now let us ask what is implied by the evidence. Up to the end of the division treating of Ecclesiastical Institutions, where it has stood still for these four years, the "Principles of Sociology" contains more than five thousand facts, gathered from accounts of more than two hundred societies, savage and civilized, ancient and modern. If, then, I am rightly described as pursuing the deductive method (exclusively, as it would appear), there arises this curious question:—How have I used for deductive purposes more facts than have been used by any other writer on Sociology for inductive purposes? "This is irrelevant," will perhaps be the rejoinder—"the question concerns not the method pursued in dealing with Sociology at large, but the method pursued in dealing with governmental actions at the present time." Merely remarking that it would be strange had I pursued one method in treating the subject at large and an opposite method in treating a small division of it, I go on to reply that I have not pursued the opposite method but the same method. The views I hold respecting the sphere of governmental action are everywhere supported by inductions. The essay on "Over-Legislation," dating back to 1853, is almost wholly inductive. Inductive reasoning in support of the same views occupies the greater part of the essay on "Representative Government," much of the essay on "Parliamentary Reform: the Dangers and the Safeguards," and half of the essay on "Specialized Administration." In the "Study of Sociology," again, several masses of facts are brought in support of the same views (pp. 3, 4, 161-169, and 270-273); and once more in "The Man versus the State" (pp. 48-60 and 62-64) a like course is pursued. I count, in different places, eight inductive arguments, not in defense of proposals for curing the diseases of the body politic, but in reprobation of proposals for doing this. "But do not the books and essays named contain deductive arguments?" it may be asked. Certainly they do; and I should be ashamed of them if they did not. But everywhere there has been pursued what I have above said is the method of developed science—deduction verified by induction. I shall think it time to reconsider the deductions when I find the masses of facts which support them met by larger masses of facts which do the reverse. "Careful observation and experience" have not yet furnished these.
To make clear the use of an ideal for guidance in dealing with the real, I had recourse to the familiar comparison between the individual body and the body politic. I remarked that "before there can be rational treatment of a disordered state of the bodily functions, there must be a conception of what constitutes their ordered state." The guidance contemplated as derivable from such knowledge consists in exclusion of what is wrong to be done, not in directions concerning what is right to be done. This is clearly shown by the context. There is an imaginary warning against the excesses of a supposed empiric as being "at variance with physiological principles"; that is, negatived by them or forbidden by them. There is no trace whatever of any proposed treatment conforming to physiological principles, but merely an interdict against a treatment. Yet on the strength of these passages, Prof. Huxley ascribes to me the monstrous belief that the practitioner should "treat his patients by deduction from physiological principles"! Similarly with the body politic. While I have alleged that "a system of limits and restraints on conduct" may be deduced from the primary conditions of social co-operation, Prof. Huxley represents me as proposing to seek guidance in healing "the diseases of an organism vastly more complicated than the human body" by "deduction from abstract ethical assumptions!" "While in both cases the guiding inferences indicated by me all come under the blank form—"Thou shalt not do this," they are represented as coming under the blank form—"Thou shalt do that." How utterly at variance is the view thus ascribed to me with the view I have myself expressed, will be seen in the following passage:
How, indeed, can any man, and how more especially can any man of scientific
culture, think that special results of special political acts can be calculated, when he contemplates the incalculable complexity of the influences under which each individual, and a fortiori each society, develops, lives, and decays? ...
As fast as crude conceptions of diseases and remedial measures grow up into Pathology and Therapeutics, we find increasing caution, along with increasing proof that evil is often done instead of good. This contrast is traceable not only as we pass from popular ignorance to professional knowledge, but as we pass from the smaller professional knowledge of early times to the greater professional knowledge of our own. The question with the modern physician is not as with the ancient—shall the treatment be blood-letting? shall cathartics, or shall diaphoretics be given? or shall mercurials be administered? But there rises the previous question shall there be any treatment beyond a wholesome regimen? And even among existing physicians it happens that, in proportion as the judgment is most cultivated, there is the least yielding to the "must-do-something" impulse.
Is it not possible, then—is it not even probable, that this supposed necessity for immediate action, which is put in as an excuse for drawing quick conclusions from few data, is the concomitant of deficient knowledge? Is it not probable that as in Biology so in Sociology, the accumulation of more facts, the more critical comparison of them, and the drawing of conclusions on scientific methods, will be accompanied by increasing doubt about the benefits to be secured, and increasing fear of the mischiefs which may be worked? Is it not probable that what in the individual organism is improperly, though conveniently, called the vis medicatrix naturæ, may be found to have its analogue in the social organism? and will there not very likely come along with the recognition of this, the consciousness that in both cases the one thing needful is to maintain the conditions under which the natural actions have fair play?—The Study of Sociology, pp. 15-21.
Manifestly if, instead of saying that I proposed to treat the diseases of this complex social organism by the aid of deductions from "abstract ethical assumptions," Prof. Huxley had, contrariwise, said that I am so over-cautious that I dare not treat them at all, save by maintaining the conditions to health, he would have had ground for his statement. As early as 1853 ("Over-Legislation," pp. 62, 63) I dwelt on the involved structure of a society and the consequent difficulty and danger of dealing with it. Since then I have more than once insisted on these facts. And now that which I have been teaching for a generation is put before me as a lesson to be learned!
Replies will, I suppose, be made to some of the things said in the foregoing pages. Always there are collateral questions on which debates may be raised. I see, for instance, that one of my remarks may have given to it a meaning quite different to that which I intended. After the ascription to me of the belief that treatment of diseases should be dictated by physiological principles, rightly enough regarded by Prof. Huxley as absurd, there came from me the remark that, according to him, "the principles of physiology, as at present known, are of no use whatever for guidance in practice"—a remark which may be interpreted as a tacit indorsement of the ascription; whereas it referred to the fact that he had recognized for the present (though not for the future) no guidance whatever beyond that of empiricism. Doubtless there may be other side-issues which I do not perceive. But no number of such can change the verdicts on the main issues. That Prof. Huxley's two characterizations of the political doctrine I hold are contradictory, is undeniable. That his description of my "way of thinking" is utterly at variance with the evidence as presented in my books, is no less demonstrated. And it is equally certain that the conceptions of right treatment, medical and political, which he ascribes to me are opposite to those I have myself set forth.—Nineteenth Century.