Popular Science Monthly/Volume 39/October 1891/Editor's Table

From Wikisource
Jump to navigation Jump to search



THE volume which Mr. Spencer has just put forth under the title of Justice, being the fourth and last part of his proposed first volume on The Principles of Morality, will be eagerly welcomed by a large circle of readers. It has seldom fallen to the lot of a philosopher to awaken so wide an interest and sympathy as Mr. Spencer has done. We can not speak of him as a "popular" writer, yet he writes for the people, and each successive volume that he publishes finds a wider constituency than its predecessor. His style is not adapted for literary epicures; it is not laden with exquisite flavors, nor rich in tone or color, but it has the higher quality of utter truthfulness. Its aim is not to amuse or to flatter, but to convince, and it ever seeks the most direct road to the candid understanding. In illustration Mr. Spencer is unrivaled; he takes the commonest incidents of life and shows their ethical or philosophical significance in such a way as to stimulate at once the reflective and the observing powers of his readers. If the question were asked, What man has done most to promote the intelligence of mankind in the nineteenth century? we think a very good case might be made out for answering—Herbert Spencer. He is a man to whose philosophy the world at large can grow up, for there is something in it for everybody, dealing as it does with every day realities and appealing to principles that are implicit in the most familiar actions and reactions of our mental and moral life.

When we look into a book of Herbert Spencer's we find ourselves carried out at once into the broad currents of general law; or, to express it otherwise, we find ourselves assisting as spectators at the great drama of life—not the life of a special society or time, but the vast unfolding life of species and tribes from the lowliest forms up to man in his highest development. In dealing with Justice, or the ethics of social life, Mr. Spencer takes us back to the kingdom of the subhuman, and shows us that even there the germ of justice exists, and that the conditions are being prepared for its fuller manifestation. We have only space to glance at a few of the more interesting views which the present volume contains, but these, we think, will suffice to prove that Mr. Spencer has here given us a most substantial and valuable contribution to the discussion of a highly important subject. We venture, indeed, to risk the assertion that this work will set the lines on which all future discussions of the question of justice will more or less be conducted.

The primitive law of justice, according to Mr. Spencer, "implies that each individual ought to receive the benefits and the evils of his own nature and subsequent conduct, neither being prevented from having whatever good his actions normally bring him, nor being allowed to shoulder off on to other persons whatever ill is brought to him by his actions." This law is, however, in the higher animals of a gregarious type, and still more in man, qualified by the self-restraint necessitated by association; that is to say, no individual must push the exercise of his active faculties to such a point as to interfere with the exercise of the similar faculties of his neighbors. The latter principle acquires more and more authority the longer association lasts, and the more highly developed it becomes. Thus the idea of justice comes to consist of two elements—an egoistic one, by virtue of which an individual claims benefits proportioned to his merits and faculties; and an altruistic one, by virtue of which he recognizes the right of others to such benefits as may be due to their merits or may flow from a proper use of their faculties. These two elements Mr. Spencer also calls positive and negative—the former positive, as putting forward positive claims; the latter negative, as implying a restraint upon natural liberty.

Another important distinction which Mr. Spencer makes is between the ethics of the family and the ethics of the state. In the family the young have to be cared for, and, in their case, benefits have to be proportioned, not to merits, but to needs, which, in a certain sense, may be described as lack of merits; in other words, the less a child can do that is beneficial to others the more care and attention it must receive. The state, on the other hand, deals with adults, and its guiding principle therefore should be exclusively—benefits according to merits, evils according to demerits. Only confusion and trouble can arise, according to Mr. Spencer, from applying the ethics of the family to state action. He is willing that individuals should exercise a prudent benevolence if they will, but he sees no reason why the state should ever depart from the strictest rule of justice. In discussing The Constitution of the State and the question of giving women the suffrage, he makes the following significant remarks: "Human beings at large, as at present constituted, are far too much swayed by special emotions temporarily excited and not held in check by the aggregate of other emotions; and women are carried away by the feelings of the moment more than men are. This characteristic is at variance with that judicial-mindedness which should guide the making of laws. . . . At present both men and women are led by their feelings to vitiate the ethics of the state by introducing the ethics of the family. But it is especially in the nature of women, as a concomitant of their maternal functions, to yield benefits not in proportion to deserts, but in proportion to the absence of deserts—to give most where capacity is least. . . . The present tendency of both sexes is to contemplate citizens as having claims in proportion to their needs—their needs being habitually proportionate to their demerits; and this tendency, stronger in women than in men, must, if it operates politically, cause a more general fostering of the worse at the expense of the better." These are weighty words, and we can not but hope they may not be entirely inoperative on the minds of modern legislators.

On the subject of political rights our author does not strike at all a popular key. In the chapter entitled Political Rights—so called, he says that such rights are not, strictly speaking, rights at all. A man's substantial rights are, he says, the right to physical integrity, the right to free motion and locomotion, the right to the use of natural media, the right of property, the right of incorporeal property, the right of gift and bequest, the right of free exchange and free contract, the right of free industry, the right of free belief and worship, and the right of free speech and publication. As to political rights, they are merely the supposed means of obtaining the above real rights; and serious mischiefs have resulted from confusing them with real rights. It has been assumed that where political rights were possessed by all, the liberty of all would be secure; but, far from this being the case, we can not fail to observe that, "where so-called political rights are possessed by all, rights properly so called are often unscrupulously trampled upon." For example, "universal suffrage does not prevent the corruptions of municipal governments, which impose heavy local taxes and do very inefficient work, . . . does not prevent citizens from being coerced in their private lives by dictating what they shall not drink; does not prevent an enormous majority of consumers from being heavily taxed by a protective tariff for the benefit of a small minority of manufacturers and artisans." So-called political rights may be used for the maintenance of liberties; but "they may fail to be so used, and may even be used for the maintenance of tyrannies."

In his discussion of the Nature of the State we see an illustration of the vast superiority of Mr. Spencer's method over that employed by writers of a simply historical or literary school. Sir Frederick Pollock, in his Introduction to the Science of Politics, says that, to arrive at a true idea of the nature and functions of the state, he can give no better advice than "Back to Aristotle!" Mr. Spencer, on the other hand, shows clearly why Aristotle, advanced thinker as he was for the age in which he lived, can not serve us here, the state, in its essential constitution, being no longer what it was in his day. Very instructive indeed is the contrast which our author draws between the state in a period of perpetual warfare and the state in an era of peaceful industry. In the former case it is obliged to tyrannize over its own citizens; in the latter, it has nothing to do but to see that they do not unduly interfere with one another. Justice in all matters, civil as well as criminal, ought, in the present day, the author holds, to be a right of the individual citizen, to be enforced without cost on application to the proper tribunal. In answer to the objection that, if justice in civil cases could be had without cost, there would be a perfect blockade in the courts, Mr. Spencer declares that, if justice were thus obtainable, the number of offenses would be enormously reduced, which doubtless is true. There are some very interesting chapters in the book on The Limits of State-Duties, which we can not too strongly recommend to the attention of our readers. Mr. Spencer effectually disposes of the notion, so common in our days, that majorities can do no wrong, and that men can not be slaves under a republic. There is a strong temptation to reproduce some of his vigorous and manly utterances on this topic, but we must refrain. It is a great satisfaction to find that Mr. Spencer is again at work, and that there is a prospect that his vast philosophical undertaking will be advanced yet further toward completion, or may even be fully accomplished before he lays down the pen. The volume before us shows a mind as vigorous and as fertile as ever, and the same high, unflinching purpose to effect a great and enduring work of intellectual emancipation and moral regeneration for mankind.


Among the most noteworthy of the summer schools of 1891 was the School of Applied Ethics at Plymouth, Mass. Its formation was due to some of the most successful teachers in America, who had become convinced that, were right conduct cultivated as a science, it would be better practiced as an art; that with due adaptation it should form a part of all education—with, indeed, the aim that schools in every department should be pervaded and vitalized by an ethical atmosphere. From this school's foundation we feel sure will date a new impulse freighted with good to individual character and national life. Since conduct has been so much under the sway of religion, it was fitting that the great faiths of the world should receive extended study. With all the resources of modern scholarship Prof. Toy, of Harvard, set forth the rise and progress of religious ideas, the transformation from faith in many gods to belief in one, the slow crystallization of oral traditions into scriptural canons, the emergence of ethical codes from associations of mythology and ritual. Of his masterly lectures the best lesson lay in their calm scientific spirit. While crediting religions with having given authority to high ideals, he pointed out the inevitable injury which had come from imagining these ideals to be incapable of either lift or expansion. Other lecturers, who have devoted themselves to the study of special faiths, supplemented the discourses of Prof. Toy.

In economics, with incidental excursions into the political sphere, the chief expositions were by Prof. H. C. Adams, of Michigan University. He graphically sketched the history of recent industrial development, and showed how new exigencies had arisen for which adaptations of law and organization were necessary. An era when the massing of machinery is necessary to production, and when monopolies raise their heads on every side, is not to be justly ruled by institutions dating from a time when manufacture was armed with simple tools, and in which over a race of small producers free competition reigned. He viewed with sympathy the growth of trades-unions, regarding them as the chief agency for securing rightful wages. For monopolies he considered the fit check to be the commission, State or Federal, such as now supervises railroads. Publicity of transactions would educate public opinion to demanding public rights. His elucidation of the functions of a commission, and his declaration of faith in its principles, were candidly accompanied by the opinion that so far the Interstate Commerce Commission had not justified its existence. Its four years of life had been too short for legal definition of its powers; it lacked authority to give its opinions effect. President Andrews, of Brown University, in a series of three lectures, set forth "the social plaint," socialism's remedy, and "the better way." His account of the evils under which the masses suffer included everything that intelligent discontent can say. To his rapid survey of socialistic doctrine no socialist could demur. In his view the woes of society will be cured not in one way but many, and along paths in which important steps have been already taken; for example, in profit-sharing and other modes of co-operation. He would reform taxation by making the chief levies on land values, and on the great franchises whose profit is of public creation. In the development of statistical inquiry he saw prospect of relief from industrial crises through an organized adjustment of supply to an ascertained demand. He looked with hope on the beginning which has been made in teaching people how to buy food and cook it, and how to expend their earnings to most advantage. The lessons in practical thrift now introduced in a few schools he deemed worthy of general adoption. In this department of economics men of authority described co-operation, factory legislation, the relief of crowded cities, and modern agrarian movements, including the Farmers' Alliance.

In ethics proper the principal lecturer was Prof. Felix Adler, who, drawing upon his experience with ethical classes in New York, delineated how right conduct may be taught. On the threshold of his subject he confronted the question as to how morals can be taught apart from religion. He averred that a most important body of moral doctrine exists as the common heritage, not only of all religions, but of all men of sound mind and heart. On this he would proceed, teaching authoritatively and ignoring the consideration of sanctions, whether religious or philosophical, which indeed young minds can not weigh. He then outlined the motives of good conduct, the ethicization of the feelings, the duties of self-control, self-improvement, veracity, justice, and charity. Following this came treatment of the ethics of the family, of professional and business life, of citizenship. He indicated the aid which stories afford in teaching young classes; which biography, proverbial and scriptural literature, and history contribute in advanced classes. Throughout the course the interplay between intelligence and conscience was made very clear; plainly did it appear that without knowledge, and much knowledge, without a judgment trained to nice discrimination, the desire to do right and justice in these days of complex social life must be vain. In this department summaries of experience in reform were added by men who have devoted their lives to seeing the Indian righted, the wretched in cities relieved, the prisoner born to new hope and purpose.