Front Page Titles (by Subject) CHAPTER III.: the divine idea, and the conditions of its realization. - Social Statics
The Online Library of Liberty
A project of Liberty Fund, Inc.
Search this Title:
CHAPTER III.: the divine idea, and the conditions of its realization. - Herbert Spencer, Social Statics 
Social Statics: or, The Conditions essential to Happiness specified, and the First of them Developed, (London: John Chapman, 1851).
About Liberty Fund:
Liberty Fund, Inc. is a private, educational foundation established to encourage the study of the ideal of a society of free and responsible individuals.
The text is in the public domain.
Fair use statement:
This material is put online to further the educational goals of Liberty Fund, Inc. Unless otherwise stated in the Copyright Information section above, this material may be used freely for educational and academic purposes. It may not be used in any way for profit.
the divine idea, and the conditions of its realization.
If, instead of proposing it as the rule of human conduct, Bentham had simply assumed “greatest happiness” to be the creative purpose, his position would have been tenable enough. Almost all men do in one way or other assert the same. There have indeed been times when such a faith was far from universal. Had the proposition been made before Simeon Stylites on the top of his column, he would very likely have demurred to it. Probably the Flagellants of the thirteenth century may have thought otherwise. And even now it is possible that the Fakeers of India hold a contrary opinion. But, whilst it may be true that a savage asceticism attributes to the Deity a barbarity equal to its own, and conceives him as delighting in human sacrifices; whilst it may be true that amongst ourselves the same notion yet lingers, under the form of occasional fasts and penances; still there are few if any amongst civilized people who do not agree that human well-being is in accordance with the Divine will. The doctrine is taught by all our religious teachers; it is assumed by every writer on morality: we may therefore safely consider it as an admitted truth.
It is one thing, however, to hold that greatest happiness is the creative purpose, and a quite different thing to hold that greatest happiness should be the immediate aim of man. It has been the fatal error of the expediency-philosophers to confound these positions. They have not observed that the truth has two sides, a Divine side and a human side; and that it matters much to us which we look at. Greatest Happiness and Morality, are the face and obverse of the same fact; what is written on the one surface is beyond our interpretation: what is written on the other we may read easily enough.
Or dropping metaphor, and speaking in philosophical language, we may say that it is for us to ascertain the conditions by conforming to which this greatest happiness may be attained. Not to put trust in guesses: not to do this or that, because we think it will be beneficial: but to find out what really is the line of conduct that leads to the desired end. For unquestionably there must be in the nature of things some definite and fixed pre-requisites to success. Man is a visible, tangible entity, having properties. In the circumstances that surround him there are certain unchanging necessities. Life is dependent upon the fulfilment of specific functions; and happiness is a particular kind of life. Surely then if we would know how, in the midst of these appointed circumstances, the being Man must live, so as to achieve the result—greatest happiness, we ought first to determine what the essential conditions are. If we solve the problem, it can only be by consulting these and submitting ourselves to them. To suppose that we may, in ignorance or disregard of them, succeed by some hap-hazard speculation, is sheer folly. Only in one way can the desideratum be reached. What that one way is must depend upon the fundamental necessities of our position. And if we would discover it, our first step must be to ascertain those necessities.
At the head of them stands this unalterable fact—the social state. In the pre-ordained course of things, men have multiplied until they are constrained to live more or less in presence of each other. That, as being needful for the support of the greatest sum of life, such a condition is preliminary to the production of the greatest sum of happiness, seems highly probable. Be that as it may, however, we find this state established; are henceforth to continue in it; and must therefore set it down as one of those necessities which our rules for the achievement of the greatest happiness must recognise and conform to.
In this social state the ‘sphere of activity of each individual being limited by the spheres of activity of other individuals, it follows that the men who are to realize this greatest sum of happiness, must be men of whom each can obtain complete happiness within his own sphere of activity, without diminishing the spheres of activity required for the acquisition of happiness by others. For manifestly, if each or any of them cannot receive complete happiness without lessening the spheres of activity of one or more of the rest, he must either himself come short of complete happiness, or must make one or more do so; and hence under such circumstances, the sum total of happiness cannot be as great as is conceivable, or cannot be greatest happiness. Here then is the first of those fixed conditions to the obtainment of greatest happiness, necessitated by the social state. It is the fulfilment of this condition which we express by the word justice.
To this all-essential pre-requisite there is a supplementary one of kindred nature. We find that without trenching upon each other’s spheres of activity, men may yet behave to one another in such a way as to produce painful emotions. And if any have feelings that lead them to do this, it is clear that the total amount of happiness is not so great as it would be were they devoid of those feelings. Hence, to compass greatest happiness, the human constitution must be such as that each man may perfectly fulfil his own nature, not only without diminishing other men’s spheres of activity, but without giving unhappiness to other men in any direct or indirect way. This condition, as we shall by-and-by see, needs to be kept quite distinct from the foregoing one. The observance of it may be called negative beneficience.
Yet another requirement is there by fulfilment of which the happiness flowing from compliance with the foregoing ones is indefinitely multiplied. Let a race of beings be so constituted as that each individual may be able to obtain full satisfaction for all his desires, without deducting from the satisfaction obtainable by other individuals, and we have a state of things in which the amount of isolated happiness is the greatest conceivable. But let these beings be so constituted as that each, in addition to the pleasurable emotions personally received by him, can sympathetically participate in the pleasurable emotions of all others, and the sum-total of happiness becomes largely increased. Hence, to the primary requisite that each shall be able to get complete happiness without diminishing the happiness of the rest, we must now add the secondary one that each shall be capable of receiving happiness from the happiness of the rest. Compliance with this requisite implies positive beneficence.
Lastly there must go to the production of the greatest happiness the further condition, that, whilst duly regardful of the preceding limitations, each individual shall perform all those acts required to fill up the measure of his own private happiness.
These then are necessities. They are not matters of opinion, but matters of unalterable fact. Denial of them is impossible, for nothing else can be stated but what is self-contradictory. Without any alternative, beings who are to realize the Divine Idea must be thus constituted. Before greatest happiness can be brought about, every man must answer to these definitions; and all approach to greatest happiness, presupposes an approach towards conformity with them. Schemes of government and culture which ignore them, cannot but be essentially absurd. Everything must be good or bad, right or wrong, in virtue of its accordance or discordance with them. We have no need to perplex ourselves with investigations into the expediency of every measure, by trying to trace out its ultimate results in all their infinite ramifications—a task which it is folly to attempt. Our course is to inquire concerning such measure, whether or not it fully recognises these fundamental necessities, and to be sure that it must be proper or improper accordingly. Our whole code of duty is comprehended in the endeavour to live up to these necessities. If we find pleasure in doing this, it is well; if not, our aim must be to acquire that pleasure. Greatest happiness is obtained only when conformity to them is spontaneous; seeing that the restraint of desires inciting to trespass implies pain, or deduction from greatest happiness. Hence it is for us to habituate ourselves to fulfil these requirements as fast as we can. The social state is a necessity. The conditions of greatest happiness under that state are fixed. Our characters are the only things not fixed. They, then, must be moulded into fitness for the conditions. And all moral teaching and discipline, must have for its object, to hasten this process.
Objection may be taken to the foregoing classification of the conditions needful to greatest happiness, as being in some degree artificial. It will perhaps be said that the distinction between justice and beneficence cannot be maintained, for that the two graduate into each other imperceptibly. Some may argue that it is not allowable to assume any essential difference between right conduct towards others and right conduct towards self, seeing that what are generally considered purely private actions, do eventually affect others to such a degree, as to render them public actions; as witness the collateral effects of drunkenness or suicide. Others again may contend that all morality should be classed as private; because with the rightly-constituted or moral man, correct conduct to others is merely incidental upon the fulfilment of his own nature.
In each of these allegations there is much truth; and it is not to be denied that under a final analysis, all such distinctions as those above made must disappear. But it should be borne in mind that similar criticisms may be passed upon all classifications whatever. It might after the same fashion be argued that we ought not to separate the laws of heat from those of mechanics, because fire when applied to water generates mechanical force. On like grounds Optics ought to be identified with Chemistry; seeing that in the photographic process, light becomes a chemical agent. Considering that muscles contract when stimulated by a galvanic current, we ought to treat of Physiology and Electricity as forming one science. Nor should we even distinguish between vegetable and animal life; for these are found to have a common root, and it is hardly possible to say of the lowest organisms which division they belong to. So that unless such objectors are prepared to say that Botany and Zoology should be regarded as one, and that all lines of demarcation between the physical sciences should be abolished, they must in consistency tolerate an analogous classification in moral science; and must admit that whilst this is in a certain sense artificial, it may be an essential preliminary to anything like systematic investigation. The same finite power of comprehension which compels us to deal with natural phenomena by separating them into groups and studying each group by itself, may also compel us to separate those actions which place a man in direct relationship with his fellows, from others which do not so place him; although it may be true that such a separation cannot be strictly maintained. And even in dealing with one of these sections—in developing the principles of right conduct to others, it may be further necessary to distinguish, as above, the primary and most imperative principle, from the secondary and less imperative one; notwithstanding that these have a common root.
The realization of the Divine Idea being reduced to the fulfilment of certain conditions, it becomes the office of a scientific morality, to make a detailed statement of the mode in which life must be regulated so as to conform to them. On each of these axiomatic truths it must be possible to build a series of theorems immediately bearing upon our daily conduct; or, inverting the thought—every act stands in a certain relationship to these truths, and it must be possible in some way or other to solve the problem, whether that relationship is one of accordance or discordance. When such a series of theorems has been elaborated, and solutions have been given to such a series of problems, the task of the moralist is accomplished.
Each of these axioms, however, may have its own set of consequences separately deduced, or indeed, as already hinted, must have them so deduced. Their respective developments constitute independent departments of moral science, requiring to be dealt with in the order of their natural sequence. For the present, therefore, our attention will be confined to the first and most essential of them. Individual or private morality, as distinguished from social or public morality, is not to be entered upon in the following pages. Neither will there be found in them any statement of that class of moral obligations above comprehended under the terms positive and negative beneficencea . It is with the several inferences to be drawn from that primary condition to greatest happiness, the observance of which is vaguely signified by the word justice, that we have now to deal. Our work will be to unfold that condition into a system of equity; to mark out those limits put to each man’s proper sphere of activity, by the like spheres of other men; to delineate the relationships that are necessitated by a recognition of those limits; or—in other words—to develop the principles of Social Statics.
[a]These other divisions of the subject may be taken up on a future occasion, should circumstances favour.