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CHAPTER VI.: first principle. - Herbert Spencer, Social Statics 
Social Statics: or, The Conditions essential to Happiness specified, and the First of them Developed, (London: John Chapman, 1851).
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Thus are we brought by several routes to the same conclusion. Whether we reason our way from those fixed conditions under which only the Divine Idea—greatest happiness, can be realized—whether we draw our inferences from man’s constitution, considering him as a congeries of faculties—or whether we listen to the monitions of a certain mental agency, which seems to have the function of guiding us in this matter, we are alike taught as the law of right social relationships, that—Every man has freedom to do all that he wills, provided he infringes not the equal freedom of any other man. Though further qualifications of the liberty of action thus asserted may be necessary, yet we have seen (p. 89) that in the just regulation of a community no further qualifications of it can be recognised. Such further qualifications must ever remain for private and individual application. We must therefore adopt this law of equal freedom in its entirety, as the law on which a correct system of equity is to be based.
Some will, perhaps, object to this first principle, that being in the nature of an axiomatic truth—standing towards the inferences to be drawn from it in the position of one, it ought to be recognisable by all; which it is not.
Respecting the fact thus alleged, that there have been, and are, men impervious to this first principle, there can be no question. Probably it would have been dissented from by Aristotle, who considered it a “self-evident maxim that nature intended barbarians to be slaves.” Cardinal Julian, who “abhorred the impiety of keeping faith with infidels,” might possibly have disputed it. It is a doctrine which would scarcely have suited the abbot Guibert, who, in his sermons, called the free cities of France “those execrable communities, where serfs, against law and justice, withdraw themselves from the power of their lords.” And perhaps the Highlanders, who in 1748 were reluctant to receive their freedom on the abolition of the heritable jurisdictions, would not have admitted it. But the confession that the truth of this first principle is not self-evident to all, by no means invalidates it. The Bushman can only count as high as three; yet arithmetic is a fact: and we have got a Calculus of Functions by the aid of which we find new planets. As, then, the disability of the savage to perceive the elementary truths of number is no argument against their existence, and no obstacle to their discovery and development, so, the circumstance that some do not see the law of equal freedom to be an elementary truth of ethics, does not prevent its being one.
So far indeed is this difference in men’s moral perceptions from being a difficulty in our way, that it serves to illustrate a doctrine already set forth. As explained in Chapter II., man’s original circumstances “required that he should sacrifice the welfare of other beings to his own;” whereas his present circumstances require that “each individual shall have such desires only as may be fully satisfied without trenching upon the ability of other individuals to obtain like satisfaction.” And it was pointed out that, in virtue of the law of adaptation, the human constitution is changing form the form that fitted it to the first set of conditions to a form fitting it for the last. Now it is by the growth of those two faculties which together originate what we term a Moral Sense, that fitness for these last conditions is secured. In proportion to the strengths of sympathy, and the instinct of personal rights, will be the impulse to conform to the law of equal freedom. And in the mode elsewhere shown (p. 26), the impulse to conform to this law will generate a correlative belief in it. Only, therefore, after the process of adaptation has made considerable advance, can there arise either subordination to this law, or a perception of its truth. And hence any general recognition of it during the earlier stages of social development must not be looked for.
To the direct evidence that has been accumulated in proof of our first principle, may now, however, be added abundant indirect evidence furnished by the absurdities into which a denial of it betrays us. He who asserts that the law of equal freedom is not true, that is, he who asserts that men have not equal rights, has two alternatives. He may either say that men have no rights at all, or that they have unequal rights. Let us examine these positions.
Foremost of those who deny rights altogether, stands that same Sir Robert Filmer already named, with his dogma, that “men are not naturally free.” Starting thus, he readily finds his way to the conclusion, that the only proper form of government is an absolute monarchy. For, if men are not naturally free, that is, if men have naturally no rights, then, he only has rights to whom they are specially given by God. From which inference to “the divine right of kings” is an easy step. It has become very manifest in later times, however, that this divine right of kings, means the divine right of any one who can get uppermost. For since, according to its assertors, no man can be supposed to occupy the position of supreme ruler in opposition to the will of the Deity, it follows that whoever attains to that position, whether by fair means or by foul, be he legitimate or be he usurper, has Divine authority on his side. So that to say “men are not naturally free,” is to say that though men have no rights, yet whoever can get power to coerce the rest has a right to do so!
But this doctrine betrays its supporters into a still more serious dilemma. On referring back to Chapter IV., we shall find that the denial of rights amounts to a libel on the Deity. For, as we there saw, that which a man has a right to, is that which God intended for him. And to say that man has no right to freedom of action, is to say that God did not mean him to have it. Without freedom of action, however, man cannot fulfil his desires. Then God willed that he should not fulfil them. But the non-fulfilment of the desires produces misery. Therefore, God intended that he should be miserable. By which absurdity we may safely consider the position disproved.
For espousing the other alternative, namely, that men’s rights are unequal, no conceivable motive can be assigned but a desire to ensure the supremacy of the best. There are not a few good sort of people who commonly reply to strictures upon social inequalities by quoting that couplet, which, beginning with the postulate— “Order is heaven’s first law,” ends with the inference— “Some are, and must be, greater than the rest.” And on this maxim, with ludicrous inconsistency, they found a defence of conventional distinctions. Not daring to trust “heaven’s first law” to itself, they wish to help it by artificial classification. They fear that the desired “order” will not be maintained unless it is looked after; and so these “greater than the rest” are picked out by official divination; ranged in tiers; and ticketed with their respective values.
These people, and others akin to them, who hold that rights are unequal, belong to that large class who believe in nothing but externals—who can recognise no forces but those of prescription—votes, authority, rank, and the like—who “adore an institution, and do not see that it is founded on a thought.” A modicum of penetration, however, would show them that the great need none of this patronage at their hands. Real superiority will assert itself without factitious aid. Do away with disturbing arrangements, and, just in proportion to the force resident in each, will be the influence each exercises upon the rest. Allow things to take their natural course, and if a man have in him that which transcends the common, it must eventually draw to itself respect and obedience.
But even were it admitted that, to ensure supremacy of the best, liberty of action should be apportioned out to men in the ratio of their merits, the maintainers of unequal rights would be none the forwarder; for there remains the question—how are relative merits to be determined? Where are the standards by which we may test the respective values of different kinds and degrees of ability? We cannot appeal to public opinion, for it is not uniform. And were it uniform, there is no reason to think that it would be correct. On the contrary, if anything is to be gathered from surrounding facts, very erroneous estimates would be formed by it. Can confidence be placed in the judgments of men who subscribe Hudson-testimonials, and yet leave the original projector of railways to die in poverty? Are those fit to decide upon comparative greatness who ornament their drawing-room tables with a copy of Burke’s Peerage; who read through the lists of court presentations, and gossip about the movements of the haut ton—people who would trace back their lineage to some bandit baron—some Front-debœuf, rather than to a Watt or an Arkwright? Is any dependence to be placed on the decision of an authority which has erected half-a-dozen public monuments to its Wellington, and none to its Shakspeare, its Newton, or its Bacon?—an authority that awards to the door-keeper of its House of Commons £74 a year more than to its astronomer royal? According to Johnson, “the chief glory of every people arises from its authors:” yet our literary men are less honoured than people of title; the writers of our leading journals are unknown; and we see much more respect shown to a Rothschild or a Baring than to our Faradays and our Owens.
If, then, public opinion is so fallible a test of relative merits, where shall a trustworthy test be found? Manifestly, if the freedom to which each is entitled varies with his worth, some satisfactory mode of estimating worth must be discovered before any settlement of men’s right relationships can become possible. Who now will point out such a mode?
Even were a still further admission made—even were we to assume that men’s respective claims could be fairly rated—it would still be impossible to reduce the theory of unequal rights to practice. We should yet have to find a rule by which to allot these different shares of privilege. Where is the scale that would enable us to mark off the portion proper for each individual? What unit of measure must be used for this kind of division? Supposing a shopkeeper’s rights to be symbolized by ten and a fraction, what number will represent those of a doctor? What multiple are the liberties of a banker of those of a seamstress? Given two artists, one half as clever again as the other, it is required to find the limits within which each may exercise his faculties. As the greatness of a prime minister is to that of a ploughboy, so is full freedom of action to—the desired answer. Here are a few out of numberless like questions. When a method for their solution has been found, it will be time enough to reconsider the theory of unequal rights.
Thus to the several positive reasons for affirming that every man has freedom to do all that he wills, provided he infringes not the equal freedom of any other man, we must now add the foregoing negative ones. Neither of the alternatives, to which the rejection of this first principle leaves us, is acceptable. The doctrine that men have naturally no rights leads to the awkward inferences, that might makes right, and that the Deity is a malevolent being. Whilst to say that men have unequal rights is to assume two impossibilities; namely, that we are able to determine the ratios of men’s merits; and having done this, to assign to each his due proportion of privilege.