Front Page Titles (by Subject) CHAPTER XII.: the right of property in character. - Social Statics
The Online Library of Liberty
A project of Liberty Fund, Inc.
Search this Title:
CHAPTER XII.: the right of property in character. - 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 right of property in character.
Could we accurately analyze the stimulus by which men are usually impelled to action—could we determine the proportions of the several motives which go to make up that stimulus, we should probably find that amongst those classes removed from the absolute pressure of bodily wants, its chief component is a desire for the good opinion, regard, or admiration of others. Whether we observe this feeling as shown by the tattooed savage in his willingness to undergo torture that he may obtain a character for fortitude, and to risk any amount of danger that he may be called brave; or whether, turning to civilized life, we contemplate that ambition so universally exhibited by poets, orators, statesmen, artists, soldiers, and others known to fame; or whether, by taking off its disguises, we discover the true nature of that insane eagerness with which people pursue wealth; we are alike instructed in the fact that, after those instincts immediately connected with the preservation of life, love of approbation exercises the greatest influence over human conduct.
Reputation therefore, as a thing which men strive so incessantly to acquire and preserve, may be regarded as property. Earned like other property by labour, care, and perseverance—similarly surrounding its owner with facilities for securing his ends, and affording him as it does a constant supply of food for divers of his desires; the esteem of others is a possession, having many analogies with possessions of a more palpable nature. An estate in the general good-will, appears to many of more worth than one in land. By some great action to have bought golden opinions, may be a richer source of gratification than to have obtained bank stock or railway shares. There are those to whom a crown of bay leaves would be a greater treasure than a fat legacy. Titles had once a definite pounds, shillings and pence price; and if they are now becoming depreciated in value when compared with the honours spontaneously awarded by the public voice, it is that they do not represent so large an amount of genuine approbation. Men therefore who cultivate character, and live on the harvests of praise they reap—men who have invested their labour in noble deeds, and receive by way of interest the best wishes and cordial greetings of society, may be considered as having claims to these rewards of good conduct, resembling the claims of others to the rewards of their industry. Of course this is true not only of such as are distinguished by unusual worth; it is true of all. To the degree in which each has shown probity, kindness, truth or other virtue, and has gained amongst his fellows a reputation for it, we must hold him entitled to the character he has thus fairly won, as to a species of property; a species of property too, which, without quoting the hackneyed saying of Iago, may be described as of greater value than property of any other kind.
Those who hesitate to admit that a good name is property, should remember that it has really a money value. To be accounted honest is to be preferred as one with whom commercial dealings may be most safely carried on. Whose is said to be particularly industrious, is likely, other things being equal, to get better pay than his competitors. The celebrity attending great intellectual capacity, introduces those possessing it to responsible and remunerative situations. It is quite allowable therefore, to classify reputation under this head, seeing that, like capital, it may bring its owner an actual revenue in hard cash.
The position that a good character is property being granted, a right to the possession of it when fairly earned, is demonstrable by arguments similar to those used in the two preceding chapters. Such character is attainable without any infringement of the freedom of others; is indeed a concrete result of habitual regard for that freedom; and being thus a source of gratification which its owner legitimately obtains—a species of property, as we say—it can no more be taken away from him without a breach of equity, than property of other kinds can. This conclusion manifestly serves as the foundation for a law of libel.
Possibly this reasoning will be thought inconclusive. The position that character is property may be considered open to dispute; and it must be confessed that the propriety of so classifying it is not proveable with logical precision. Should any urge that this admission is fatal to the argument, they have the alternative of regarding slander as a breach, not of that primary law which forbids us to trench upon each other’s spheres of activity, but of that secondary one which forbids us to inflict pain on each other. If the destruction of a fellow-man’s deserved reputation does not amount to a trespass against the law of equal freedom, then the flagitiousness of such an act remains to be treated of in that supplementary department of morals elsewhere generalized under the term negative beneficence. Of these alternatives each must make his own choice; for there seems to be no way of deciding between them with certainty. And here indeed we meet with an illustration of a remark previously made (p. 70), namely, that the division of morality into separate sections, though needful for our due comprehension of it, is yet artificial; and that the lines of demarcation are not always capable of being maintained.