Durant 1926: Ethics: The Evolution of Morals (Herbert Spencer)

Reference: The Story of Philosophy

This paper presents Chapter VIII Section 7 from the book THE STORY OF PHILOSOPHY by WILL DURANT. The  contents are from the 1933 reprint of this book by TIME INCORPORATED by arrangement with Simon and Schuster, Inc.

The paragraphs of the original material (in black) are accompanied by brief comments (in color) based on the present understanding.

.

VII. Ethics: The Evolution of Morals

So important does this problem of industrial reconstruction seem to Spencer that he devotes to it again the largest section. of The Principles of Ethics (1893)—“this last part of my task … to which I regard all the preceding parts as subsidiary.” As a man with all the moral severity of the mid-Victorian, Spencer was especially sensitive to the problem of finding a new and natural ethic to replace the moral code which had been associated with the traditional faith. “The supposed supernatural sanctions of right conduct do not, if rejected, leave a blank. There exist natural sanctions no less pre-emptory, and covering a much wider field.” 

There exist natural sanctions no less pre-emptory, and covering a much wider field.

The new morality must be built upon biology. “Acceptance of the doctrine of organic evolution determines certain ethical conceptions.” Huxley, in his Romanes lectures at Oxford in 1893, argued that biology could not be taken as an ethical guide; that “nature red in tooth and claw” (as Tennyson was phrasing it) exalted brutality and cunning rather than justice and love; but Spencer felt that a moral code which could not meet the tests of natural selection and the struggle for existence, was from the beginning doomed to lip-service and futility. Conduct, like anything else, should he called good or bad as it is well adapted, or mal-adapted, to the ends of life; “the highest conduct is that, which conduces to the greatest length, breadth, and completeness of life.” Or, in terms of the evolution formula, conduct is moral according as it makes the individual or the group more integrated and coherent in the midst of a heterogeneity of ends. Morality; like art, is the achievement of unity in diversity; the highest type of man is he who effectively unites in himself the widest variety, complexity, and completeness of life. 

Spencer felt that a moral code which could not meet the tests of natural selection and the struggle for existence, was from the beginning doomed to lip-service and futility. Conduct, like anything else, should he called good or bad as it is well adapted, or mal-adapted, to the ends of life.

This is a rather vague definition, as it must be; for nothing varies so much, from place to place and from time to time, as the specific necessities of adaptation, and therefore the specific content of the idea of good. It is true that certain forms of behavior have been stamped as good—as adapted, in the large, to the fullest life—by the sense of pleasure which natural selection has attached to these preservative, and expansive actions. The complexity of modern life has multiplied exceptions, but normally, pleasure indicates biologically useful, and pain indicates biologically dangerous, activities. Nevertheless, within the broad bounds of this principle, we find the most diverse, and apparently the most hostile, conceptions of the good. There is hardly any item of our Western moral code which is not somewhere held to be immoral; not only polygamy, but suicide, murder of one’s own countrymen, even of one’s parents, finds in one people or another a lofty moral approbation. 

The wives of the Fijian chiefs consider it a sacred duty to suffer strangulation on the death of their husbands. A woman who had been rescued by Williams ‘escaped during the night, and, swimming across the river, and presenting herself to her own people, insisted on the completion of the sacrifice which she had in a moment of weakness reluctantly consented to forego’; and Wilkes tells of another who loaded her rescuer ‘with abuse,’ and ever afterwards manifested the most deadly hatred towards him.” “Livingstone says of the Makololo women, on the shores of the Zambesi, that they were quite shocked to hear that in England a man had only one wife: to have only one was not ‘respectable.’ So, too, in Equatorial Africa, according to Reade, ‘If a man marries, and his wife thinks that he can afford another spouse, she pesters him to marry again; and calls him a “stingy fellow” if he declines to do so.’  

The complexity of modern life has multiplied exceptions, but normally, pleasure indicates biologically useful, and pain indicates biologically dangerous, activities. Nevertheless, within the broad bounds of this principle, we find the most diverse, and apparently the most hostile, conceptions of the good.

Such facts, of course, conflict with the belief that there is an inborn moral sense which tells each man what is right and what is wrong. But the association of pleasure and pain, on the average, with good or evil conduct, indicates a measure of truth in the idea; and it may very well be that certain moral conceptions, acquired by the race, become hereditary with the individual. Here Spencer uses his favorite formula to reconcile the intuitionist and the utilitarian, and falls back once more upon the inheritance of acquired characters. 

The association of pleasure and pain, on the average, with good or evil conduct, indicates a measure of truth in the idea that there is an inborn moral sense which tells each man what is right and what is wrong.

Surely, however, the innate moral sense, if it exists, is in difficulties today; for never were ethical notions more confused. It is notorious that the principles which we apply in our actual living are largely opposite to those which we preach in our churches and our books. The professed ethic of Europe and America is a pacifistic Christianity; the actual ethic is the militaristic code of the marauding Teutons from whom the ruling strata, almost everywhere in Europe, are derived. The practice of dueling, in Catholic France and Protestant Germany, is a tenacious relic of the original Teutonic code. Our moralists are kept busy apologizing for these contradictions, just as the moralists of a later monogamic Greece and India were hard put to it to explain the conduct of gods who had been fashioned in a semi-promiscuous age.

However, the innate moral sense, if it exists, is in difficulties today; for never were ethical notions more confused. It is notorious that the principles which we apply in our actual living are largely opposite to those which we preach in our churches and our books.

Whether a nation develops its citizens on the lines of Christian morality or the Teutonic code depends on whether industry or war is its dominant concern. A militant society exalts certain virtues and condones what other peoples might call crimes; aggression and robbery and treachery are not so unequivocally denounced among peoples accustomed to them by war, as among peoples who have learned the value of honesty and non-aggression through industry and peace. Generosity and humanity flourish better where war is infrequent and long periods of productive tranquillity inculcate the advantages of mutual aid. The patriotic member of a militant society will look upon bravery and strength as the highest virtues of a man; upon obedience as the highest virtue of the citizen; and upon silent submission to multiple motherhood as the highest virtue of a woman. The Kaiser thought of God as the leader of the German army, and followed up his approbation of dueling by attending divine service. The North American. Indians “regarded the use of the bow and arrow, the war-club and spear, as the noblest employments of man. … They looked upon agricultural and mechanical labor as degrading. … Only during recent times—only now that national welfare is becoming more and more dependent on superior powers of production,” and these “on the higher mental faculties, are other occupations than militant ones rising into respectability.”

Whether a nation develops its citizens on the lines of Christian morality or the Teutonic code depends on whether industry or war is its dominant concern.

Now war is merely wholesale cannibalism; and there is no reason why it should not be classed with cannibalism and unequivocally denounced. “The sentiment and the idea of justice can grow only as fast as the external antagonisms of societies decrease, and the internal harmonious cooperations of their members increase.” How can this harmony be promoted? As we have, seen, it comes more readily through freedom than through regulation. The formula of justice should be: “Every man is free to do that which he wills, provided he infringes not the equal freedom of any other man.” This is a formula hostile to war, which exalts authority, regimentation and obedience; it is a formula favorable to peaceful industry, for it provides a maximum of stimulus with an absolute equality of opportunity; it is conformable to Christian morals, for it holds every person sacred, and frees him from aggression; and it has the sanction of that ultimate judge—natural selection—because it opens up the resources of the earth on equal terms to, all, and permits each individual to prosper according to his ability and his work. 

The sentiment and the idea of justice can grow only as fast as the external antagonisms of societies decrease, and the internal harmonious cooperations of their members increase. Harmony comes more readily through freedom than through regulation. The formula of justice should be: “Every man is free to do that which he wills, provided he infringes not the equal freedom of any other man.”

This may seem, at first, to be a ruthless principle; and many will oppose to it, as capable of national extension, the family principle of giving to each not according to his ability, and product, but according to his need. But a society governed on such principles would soon be eliminated. 

During immaturity benefits received must be inversely proportionate to capacities possessed. Within the family-group most must be given where least is deserved, if desert is measured by worth. Contrariwise, after maturity is reached benefit must vary directly as worth: worth being measured by fitness to the conditions of existence. The ill-fitted must suffer the, evils of unfitness, and the well-fitted profit by their fitness. These are the two laws which a species must conform to if it is to be preserved. … If, among the young, benefit were proportioned to efficiency, the, species would disappear forthwith; and if, among adults, benefit were proportioned to inefficiency, the species would disappear by decay in a few generations. …The only justification for the analogy between parent and child, and government and people, is the childishness of the people who. entertain the analogy.

If, among the young, benefit were proportioned to efficiency, the, species would disappear forthwith; and if, among adults, benefit were proportioned to inefficiency, the species would disappear by decay in a few generations.

Liberty contends with Evolution for priority in Spencer’s affections; and Liberty wins. He thinks that as war decreases, the control of the individual by the state loses most of its excuse; and in a condition of permanent peace the state would be reduced within Jeffersonian bounds, acting only to prevent breaches of equal freedom. Such justice should be administered without cost, so that wrong-doers might know: that the poverty of their victims would not shield them from punishment; and all the expenses of the state should be met by direct taxation, lest the invisibility of taxation should divert public attention from governmental extravagance; But “beyond maintaining justice, the state cannot do anything else without transgressing justice”; for it would then be protecting inferior individuals from that natural apportionment of reward and capacity, penalty and incapacity, on which the survival and improvement of the group depend. 

Spencer thinks that as war decreases, the control of the individual by the state loses most of its excuse; and in a condition of permanent peace the state would be reduced within Jeffersonian bounds, acting only to prevent breaches of equal freedom.

The principle of justice would require common ownership of land, if we could separate the land from its improvements. In his first book, Spencer had advocated nationalization of the soil, to equalize economic opportunity; but he withdrew his contention later (much to the disgust of Henry George, who called him “the perplexed philosopher”), on the ground that land is carefully husbanded only by the family that owns it, and that can rely on transmitting to its own descendants the effects of the labor put into it. As for private property, it derives immediately from the law of justice, for each man should be equally free to retain the products of his thrift. The justice of bequests is not so obvious; but the “right to bequeath is included in the right of ownership, since otherwise the ownership is not complete.” Trade should be as free among nations as among individuals; the law of justice should be no merely tribal code, but an inviolable maxim of international relations. 

The principle of justice would require common ownership of land, if we could separate the land from its improvements. Each man should be equally free to retain the products of his thrift. Trade should be as free among nations as among individuals; the law of justice should be no merely tribal code, but an inviolable maxim of international relations. 

These are, in outline, the real “rights of man”—the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness on equal terms with all. Besides these economic rights, political rights are unimportant unrealities. Changes in the form of government amount to nothing where economic life is not free; and a laissez-faire monarchy is much better than a socialistic democracy. 

Voting being simply a method of creating an appliance for the preservation of rights, the question is whether universality of votes conduces to creation of the best appliance for the preservation of rights. We have seen that it does not effectually secure this end. … Experience makes obvious that which should have been obvious without experience, that with a universal distribution of votes the larger class will inevitably profit at the expense of the smaller class. … Evidently the constitution of the state appropriate to that industrial type of society in which equity is fully realized, must be one in which there is not a representation of individuals but a representation of interests. … It may be that the industrial type, perhaps by the development of cooperative organizations, which theoretically, though not at present practically, obliterate the distinction between employer and employed, may produce social arrangements under which antagonistic class-interests will either not exist, or will be so far mitigated as not seriously to complicate matters. … But with such humanity as now exists, and must for a long time exist, the possession of what are called equal rights will not insure the maintenance of equal rights properly so-called.

These are, in outline, the real “rights of man”—the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness on equal terms with all. Changes in the form of government amount to nothing where economic life is not free.

Since political rights are a delusion, and only economic rights avail, women are misled when they spend so much time seeking the franchise. Spencer fears that the maternal instinct for helping the helpless may lead women to favor a paternalistic state. There is some confusion in his mind on this point; he argues that political rights are of no importance, and then that it is very important that women should not have them; he denounces war, and then contends that women should not vote because they do not risk their lives in battle—a shameful argument for any man to use who has been born of a woman’s suffering. He is afraid of women because they may be too altruistic; and yet the culminating conception of his book is that industry and peace will develop altruism to the point where it will balance egoism and so evolve the spontaneous order of a philosophic anarchism. 

Spencer is afraid of women because they may be too altruistic; and yet the culminating conception of his book is that industry and peace will develop altruism to the point where it will balance egoism.

The conflict of egoism and altruism (this word, and something of this line of thought, Spencer takes, more or less unconsciously, from Comte) results from the conflict of the individual with his family, his group, and his race. Presumably egoism will remain dominant; but perhaps that is desirable. If everybody thought more of the interests of others than of his own we should have a chaos of curtsies and retreats; and probably “the pursuit of individual happiness within the limits prescribed by social conditions is the first requisite to the attainment of the greatest general happiness.” What we may expect, however, is a great enlargement of the sphere of sympathy, a great development of the impulses to altruism. Even now the sacrifices entailed by parentage are gladly made; “the wish for children among the childless, and the occasional adoption of children, show how needful for the attainment of certain egoistic satisfactions are these altruistic activities.” The intensity of patriotism is another instance of the passionate preference of larger interests to one’s immediate concerns. Every generation of social living deepens the impulses to mutual aid. “Unceasing social discipline will so mould human nature that eventually, sympathetic pleasures will be spontaneously pursued to the fullest extent advantageous to all.” The sense of duty which is the echo of generations of compulsion to social behavior, will then disappear; altruistic actions, having become instinctive through their natural selection for social utility, will, like every instinctive operation, be performed without compulsion, and with joy. The natural evolution of human society brings us ever nearer to the perfect state.

Presumably egoism will remain dominant; but perhaps that is desirable. We may expect a great enlargement of the sphere of sympathy, a great development of the impulses to altruism. The natural evolution of human society brings us ever nearer to the perfect state.

.

Post a comment or leave a trackback: Trackback URL.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: