Front Page Titles (by Subject) CHAPTER 6.: The Biological View - The Principles of Ethics, vol. 1
The Online Library of Liberty
A project of Liberty Fund, Inc.
Search this Title:
CHAPTER 6.: The Biological View - Herbert Spencer, The Principles of Ethics, vol. 1 
The Principles of Ethics, introduction by Tibor R. Machan (Indianapolis: LibertyClassics, 1978). Vol. 1.
Part of: The Principles of Ethics, 2 vols.
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.
This work is copyrighted by the Institute for Humane Studies, George Mason University, Fairfax, Virginia, and is put online with their permission.
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 Biological View
30. The truth that the ideally moral man is one in whom the moving equilibrium is perfect, or approaches nearest to perfection, becomes, when translated into physiological language, the truth that he is one in whom the functions of all kinds are duly fulfilled. Each function has some relation, direct or indirect, to the needs of life: the fact of its existence as a result of evolution, being itself a proof that it has been entailed, immediately or remotely, by the adjustment of inner actions to outer actions. Consequently, nonfulfillment of it in normal proportion is nonfulfillment of a requisite to complete life. If there is defective discharge of the function, the organism experiences some detrimental result caused by the inadequacy. If the discharge is in excess, there is entailed a reaction upon the other functions, which in some way diminishes their efficiencies.
It is true that during full vigor, while the momentum of the organic actions is great, the disorder caused by moderate excess or defect of any one function, soon disappears–the balance is reestablished. But it is nonetheless true that always some disorder results from excess or defect, that it influences every function bodily and mental, and that it constitutes a lowering of the life for the time being.
Beyond the temporary falling short of complete life implied by undue or inadequate discharge of a function, there is entailed, as an ultimate result, decreased length of life. If some function is habitually performed in excess of the requirement, or in defect of the requirement; and if, as a consequence, there is an often-repeated perturbation of the functions at large; there results some chronic derangement in the balance of the functions. Necessarily reacting on the structures, and registering in them its accumulated effects, this derangement works a general deterioration; and when the vital energies begin to decline, the moving equilibrium, further from the perfection than it would else have been, is sooner overthrown: death is more or less premature.
Hence the moral man is one whose functions–many and varied in their kinds as we have seen–are all discharged in degrees duly adjusted to the conditions of existence.
31. Strange as the conclusion looks, it is nevertheless a conclusion to be here drawn, that the performance of every function is, in a sense, a moral obligation.
It is usually thought that morality requires us only to restrain such vital activities as, in our present state, are often pushed to excess, or such as conflict with average welfare, special or general; but it also requires us to carry on these vital activities up to their normal limits. All the animal functions, in common with all the higher functions, have, as thus under-stood, their imperativeness. While recognizing the fact that in our state of transition, characterized by very imperfect adaptation of constitution to conditions, moral obligations of supreme kinds often necessitate conduct which is physically injurious; we must also recognize the fact that, considered apart from other effects, it is immoral so to treat the body as in any way to diminish the fullness or vigor of its vitality.
Hence results one test of actions. There may in every case be put the questions–Does the action tend to maintenance of complete life for the time being? And does it tend to prolongation of life to its full extent? To answer yes or no to either of these questions, is implicitly to class the action as right or wrong in respect of its immediate bearings, whatever it may be in respect of its remote bearings.
The seeming paradoxicalness of this statement results from the tendency, so difficult of avoidance, to judge a conclusion which presupposes an ideal humanity, by its applicability to humanity as now existing. The foregoing conclusion refers to that highest conduct in which, as we have seen, the evolution of conduct terminates–that conduct in which the making of all adjustments of acts to ends subserving complete individual life, together with all those subserving maintenance of offspring and preparation of them for maturity, not only consist with the making of like adjustments by others, but furthers it. And this conception of conduct in its ultimate form, implies the conception of a nature having such conduct for its spontaneous outcome–the product of its normal activities. So understanding the matter, it becomes manifest that under such conditions, any falling short of function, as well as any excess of function, implies deviation from the best conduct or from perfectly moral conduct.
32. Thus far in treating of conduct from the biological point of view we have considered its constituent actions under their physiological aspects only; leaving out of sight their psychological aspects. We have recognized the bodily changes and have ignored the accompanying mental changes. And at first sight it seems needful for us here to do this; since taking account of states of consciousness, apparently implies an inclusion of the psychological view in the biological view.
This is not so, however. As we pointed out in the Principles of Psychology (secs. 52, 53), we enter upon psychology proper, only when we begin to treat of mental states and their relations, considered as referring to external agents and their relations. While we concern ourselves exclusively with modes of mind as correlatives of nervous changes, we are treating of what was there distinguished as aesthophysiology. We pass to psychology only when we consider the correspondence between the connections among subjective states and the connections among objective actions. Here, then, without transgressing the limits of our immediate topic, we may deal with feelings and functions in their mutual dependencies.
We cannot omit doing this; because the psychical changes which accompany many of the physical changes in the organism, are biological factors in two ways. Those feelings, classed as sensations, which, directly initiated in the bodily framework, go along with certain states of the vital organs and more conspicuously with certain states of the external organs, now serve mainly as guides to the performance of functions but partly as stimuli, and now serve mainly as stimuli but in a smaller degree as guides. Visual sensations which, as coordinated, enable us to direct our movements, also, if vivid, raise the rate of respiration; while sensations of cold and heat, greatly depressing or raising the vital actions, serve also for purposes of discrimination. So, too, the feelings classed as emotions, which are not localizable in the bodily framework, act in more general ways, alike as guides and stimuli–having influences over the performance of functions more potent even than have most sensations. Fear, at the same time that it urges flight and evolves the forces spent in it, also affects the heart and the alimentary canal; while joy, prompting persistence in the actions bringing it, simultaneously exalts the visceral processes.
Hence in treating of conduct under its biological aspect, we are compelled to consider that interaction of feelings and functions, which is essential to animal life in all its more developed forms.
33.3 In the Principles of Psychology, section 124, it was shown that necessarily, throughout the animate world at large, pains are the correlatives of actions injurious to the organism, while pleasures are the correlatives of actions conducive to its welfare”; since “it is an inevitable deduction from the hypothesis of evolution, that races of sentient creatures could have come into existence under no other conditions.” The argument was as follows:
If we substitute for the word pleasure the equivalent phrase–a feeling which we seek to bring into consciousness and retain there, and if we substitute for the word pain the equivalent phrase–a feeling which we seek to get out of consciousness and to keep out; we see at once that, if the states of consciousness which a creature endeavors to maintain are the correlatives of injurious actions, and if the states of consciousness which it endeavors to expel are the correlatives of beneficial actions, it must quickly disappear through persistence in the injurious and avoidance of the beneficial. In other words, those races of beings only can have survived in which, on the average, agreeable or desired feelings went along with activities conducive to the maintenance of life, while disagreeable and habitually avoided feelings went along with activities directly or indirectly destructive of life; and there must ever have been, other things equal, the most numerous and long-continued survivals among races in which these adjustments of feelings to actions were the best, tending ever to bring about perfect adjustment.
Fit connections between acts and results must establish themselves in living things, even before consciousness arises; and after the rise of consciousness these connections can change in no other way than to become better established. At the very outset, life is maintained by persistence in acts which conduce to it, and desistance from acts which impede it; and whenever sentiency makes its appearance as an accompaniment, its forms must be such that in the one case the produced feeling is of a kind that will be sought–pleasure, and in the other case is of a kind that will be shunned–pain. Observe the necessity of these relations as exhibited in the concrete.
A plant which envelops a buried bone with a plexus of rootlets, or a potato which directs its blanched shoots towards a grating through which light comes into the cellar, shows us that the changes which outer agents themselves set up in its tissues are changes which aid the utilization of these agents. If we ask what would happen if a plant’s roots grew not towards the place where there was moisture but away from it, or if its leaves, enabled by light to assimilate, nevertheless bent themselves toward the darkness; we see that death would result in the absence of the existing adjustments. This general relation is still better shown in an insectivorous plant, such as the Dionoea muscipula, which keeps its trap closed round animal matter but not round other matter. Here it is manifest that the stimulus arising from the first part of the absorbed substance, itself sets up those actions by which the mass of the substance is utilized for the plant’s benefit. When we pass from vegetal organisms to unconscious animal organisms, we see a like connection between proclivity and advantage. On observing how the tentacles of a polyp attach themselves to, and begin to close round, a living creature, or some animal substance, while they are indifferent to the touch of other substance; we are similarly shown that diffusion of some of the nutritive juices into the tentacles, which is an incipient assimilation, causes the motions effecting prehension. And it is obvious that life would cease were these relations reversed. Nor is it otherwise with this fundamental connection between contact with food and taking in of food, among conscious creatures, up to the very highest. Tasting a substance implies the passage of its molecules through the mucous membrane of the tongue and palate; and this absorption, when it occurs with a substance serving for food, is but a commencement of the absorption carried on throughout the alimentary canal. Moreover, the sensation accompanying this absorption, when it is of the kind produced by food, initiates at the place where it is strongest, in front of the pharynx, an automatic act of swallowing, in a manner rudely analogous to that in which the stimulus of absorption in a polyp’s tentacles initiates prehension.
If from these processes and relations that imply contact between a creature’s surface and the substance it takes in, we turn to those set up by diffused particles of the substance, constituting to conscious creatures its odor, we meet a kindred general truth. Just as, after contact, some molecules of a mass of food are absorbed by the part touched, and excite the act of prehension; so are absorbed such of its molecules as, spreading through the water, reach the organism; and, being absorbed by it, excite those actions by which contact with the mass is effected. If the physical stimulation caused by the dispersed particles is not accompanied by consciousness, still the motor changes set up must conduce to survival of the organism if they are such as end in contact; and there must be relative innutrition and mortality of organisms in which the produced contractions do not bring about this result. Nor can it be questioned that whenever and wherever the physical stimulation has a concomitant sentiency, this must be such as consists with, and conduces to, movement towards the nutritive matter: it must be not a repulsive but an attractive sentiency. And this which holds with the lowest consciousness, must hold throughout; as we see it do in all such superior creatures as are drawn to their food by odor.
Besides those movements which cause locomotion, those which effect seizure must no less certainly become thus adjusted. The molecular changes caused by absorption of nutritive matter from organic substance in contact, or from adjacent organic substance, initiate motions which are indefinite where the organization is low, and which become more definite with the advance of organization. At the outset, while the undifferentiated protoplasm is everywhere absorbent and everywhere contractile, the changes of form initiated by the physical stimulation of adjacent nutritive matter are vague, and ineffectually adapted to utilization of it; but gradually, along with the specialization into parts that are contractile and parts that are absorbent, these motions become better adapted; for necessarily individuals in which they are least adapted disappear faster than those in which they are most adapted. Recognizing this necessity we have here especially to recognize a further necessity The relation between these stimulations and adjusted contractions must be such that increase of the one causes increase of the other; since the directions of the discharges being once established, greater stimulation causes greater contraction, and the greater contraction causing closer contact with the stimulating agent, causes increase of stimulus and is thereby itself further increased. And now we reach the corollary which more particularly concerns us. Clearly as fast as an accompanying sentiency arises, this cannot be one that is disagreeable, prompting desistance, but must be one that is agreeable, prompting persistence. The pleasurable sensation must be itself the stimulus to the contraction by which the pleasurable sensation is maintained and increased; or must be so bound up with the stimulus that the two increase together. And this relation which we see is directly established in the case of a fundamental function, must be indirectly established with all other functions; since nonestablishment of it in any particular case implies, in so far, unfitness to the conditions of existence.
In two ways then, it is demonstrable that there exists a primordial connection between pleasure-giving acts and continuance or increase of life, and, by implication, between pain-giving acts and decrease or loss of life. On the one hand, setting out with the lowest living things, we see that the beneficial act and the act which there is a tendency to perform, are originally two sides of the same; and cannot be disconnected without fatal results. On the other hand, if we contemplate developed creatures as now existing, we see that each individual and species is from day to day kept alive by pursuit of the agreeable and avoidance of the disagreeable.
Thus approaching the facts from a different side, analysis brings us down to another face of that ultimate truth disclosed by analysis in a preceding chapter. We found it was no more possible to frame ethical conceptions from which the consciousness of pleasure, of some kind, at some time, to some being, is absent, than it is possible to frame the conception of an object from which the consciousness of space is absent. And now we see that this necessity of thought originates in the very nature of sentient existence. Sentient existence can evolve only on condition that pleasure-giving acts are life-sustaining acts.
34. Notwithstanding explanations already made, the naked enunciation of this as an ultimate truth, underlying all estimations of right and wrong, will in many, if not in most, cause astonishment. Having in view certain beneficial results that are preceded by disagreeable states of consciousness, such as those commonly accompanying labor; and having in view the injurious results that follow the receipt of certain gratifications, such as those which excess in drinking produces; the majority tacitly or avowedly believe that the bearing of pains is on the whole beneficial, and that the receipt of pleasures is on the whole detrimental. The exceptions so fill their minds as to exclude the rule.
When asked, they are obliged to admit that the pains accompanying wounds, bruises, sprains, are the concomitants of evils, alike to the sufferer and to those around him; and that the anticipations of such pains serve as deterrents from care-less or dangerous acts. They cannot deny that the tortures of burning or scalding, and the miseries which intense cold, starvation, and thirst produce, are indissolubly connected with permanent or temporary mischiefs, tending to incapacitate one who bears them for doing things that should be done, either for his own welfare or the welfare of others. The agony of incipient suffocation they are compelled to recognize as a safeguard to life, and must allow that avoidance of it is conducive to all that life can bring or achieve. Nor will they refuse to own that one who is chained in a cold, damp, dungeon, in darkness and silence, is injured in health and efficiency; alike by the positive pains thus inflicted on him and by the accompanying negative pains due to absence of light, of freedom, of companionship. Conversely, they do not doubt that notwithstanding occasional excesses the pleasure which accompanies the taking of food, goes along with physical benefit; and that the benefit is the greater the keener the satisfaction of appetite. They have no choice but to acknowledge that the instincts and sentiments which so overpoweringly prompt marriage, and those which find their gratification in the fostering of offspring, work out an immense surplus of benefit after deducting all evils. Nor dare they question that the pleasure taken in accumulating property, leaves a large balance of advantage, private and public, after making all drawbacks. Yet many and conspicuous as are the cases in which pleasures and pains, sensational and emotional, serve as incentives to proper acts and deterrents from improper acts, these pass unnoticed; and notice is taken only of those cases in which men are directly or indirectly misled by them. The well-working in essential matters is ignored; and the ill-working in unessential matters is alone recognized.
Is it replied that the more intense pains and pleasures, which have immediate reference to bodily needs, guide us rightly; while the weaker pains and pleasures, not immediately connected with the maintenance of life, guide us wrongly? Then the implication is that the system of guidance by pleasures and pains, which has answered with all types of creatures below the human, fails with the human. Or rather, the admission being that with mankind it succeeds in so far as fulfillment of certain imperative wants goes, it fails in respect of wants that are not imperative. Those who think this are required, in the first place, to show us how the line is to be drawn between the two; and then to show us why the system which succeeds in the lower will not succeed in the higher.
35. Doubtless, however, after all that has been said, there will be raised afresh the same difficulty–there will be instanced the mischievous pleasures and the beneficent pains. The drunkard, the gambler, the thief, who severally pursue gratifications, will be named in proof that the pursuit of gratifications misleads; while the self-sacrificing relative, the worker who perseveres through weariness, the honest man who stints himself to pay his way will be named in proof that disagreeable modes of consciousness accompany acts that are really beneficial. But after recalling the fact pointed out in section 20, that this objection does not tell against guidance by pleasures and pains at large, since it merely implies that special and proximate pleasures and pains must be disregarded out of consideration for remote and diffused pleasures and pains; and after admitting that in mankind as at present constituted, guidance by proximate pleasures and pains fails throughout a wide range of cases; I go on to set forth the interpretation biology gives of these anomalies, as being not necessary and permanent but incidental and temporary.
Already while showing that among inferior creatures, pleasures and pains have all along guided the conduct by which life has been evolved and maintained, I have pointed out that since the conditions of existence for each species have been occasionally changing, there have been occasionally arising partial misadjustments of the feelings to the requirements, necessitating readjustments. This general cause of derangement operating on all sentient beings, has been operating on human beings in a manner unusually decided, persistent, and involved. It needs but to contrast the mode of life followed by primitive men, wandering in the forests and living on wild food, with the mode of life followed by rustics, artisans, traders, and professional men in a civilized community; to see that the constitution, bodily and mental, well adjusted to the one is ill adjusted to the other. It needs but to observe the emotions kept awake in each savage tribe, chronically hostile to neighboring tribes, and then to observe the emotions which peaceful production and exchange bring into play, to see that the two are not only unlike but opposed. And it needs but to note how, during social evolution, the ideas and sentiments appropriate to the militant activities carried on by coercive cooperation, have been at variance with the ideas and sentiments appropriate to the industrial activities, carried on by voluntary cooperation; to see that there has ever been within each society, and still continues, a conflict between the two moral natures adjusted to these two unlike modes of life. Manifestly, then, this readjustment of constitution to conditions, involving readjustment of pleasures and pains for guidance, which all creatures from time to time undergo, has been in the human race during civilization, especially difficult; not only because of the greatness of the change from small nomadic groups to vast settled societies, and from predatory habits to peaceful habits; but also because the old life of enmity between societies has been maintained along with the new life of amity within each society. While there coexist two ways of life so radically opposed as the militant and the industrial, human nature cannot become properly adapted to either.
That hence results such failure of guidance by pleasures and pains as is daily exhibited, we discover on observing in what parts of conduct the failure is most conspicuous. As above shown, the pleasurable and painful sensations are fairly well adjusted to the peremptory physical requirements: the benefits of conforming to the sensations which prompt us in respect of nutrition, respiration, maintenance of temperature, &c., immensely exceed the incidental evils; and such misadjustments as occur may be ascribed to the change from the outdoor life of the primitive man to the indoor life which the civilized man is often compelled to lead. It is the emotional pleasures and pains which are in so considerable a degree out of adjustment to the needs of life as carried on in society; and it is of these that the readjustment is made, in the way above shown, so tardy because so difficult.
From the biological point of view then, we see that the connections between pleasure and beneficial action and between pain and detrimental action, which arose when sentient existence began, and have continued among animate creatures up to man, are generally displayed in him also throughout the lower and more completely organized part of his nature; and must be more and more fully displayed throughout the higher part of his nature, as fast as his adaptation to the conditions of social life increases.
36.4 Biology has a further judgment to pass on the relations of pleasures and pains to welfare. Beyond the connections between acts beneficial to the organism and the pleasures accompanying performance of them, and between acts detrimental to the organism and the pains causing desistance from them, there are connections between pleasure in general and physiological exaltation, and between pain in general and physiological depression. Every pleasure increases vitality; every pain decreases vitality. Every pleasure raises the tide of life; every pain lowers the tide of life. Let us consider, first, the pains.
By the general mischiefs that result from submission to pains, I do not mean those arising from the diffused effects of local organic lesions, such as follow an aneurism caused by intense effort spite of protesting sensations, or such as follow the varicose veins brought on by continued disregard of fatigue in the legs, or such as follow the atrophy set up in muscles that are persistently exerted when extremely weary; but I mean the general mischiefs caused by that constitutional disturbance which pain forthwith sets up. These are conspicuous when the pains are acute, whether they be sensational or emotional. Bodily agony long borne, produces death by exhaustion. More frequently, arresting the action of the heart for a time, it causes that temporary death we call fainting. On other occasions vomiting is a consequence. And where such manifest derangements do not result, we still, in the pallor and trembling, trace the general prostration. Beyond the actual loss of life caused by subjection to intense cold, there are depressions of vitality less marked caused by cold less extreme–temporary enfeeblement following too long an immersion in icy water; enervation and pining away consequent on inadequate clothing. Similarly is it with submission to great heat: we have lassitude reaching occasionally to exhaustion; we have, in weak persons, fainting, succeeded by temporary debilitation; and in steaming tropical jungles. Europeans contract fevers which when not fatal often entail lifelong incapacities. Consider, again, the evils that follow violent exertion continued in spite of painful feelings–now a fatigue which destroys appetite or arrests digestion if food is taken, implying failure of the reparative processes when they are most needed; and now a prostration of the heart, here lasting for a time and there, where the transgression has been repeated day after day made permanent: reducing the rest of life to a lower level. No less conspicuous are the depressing effects of emotional pains. There are occasional cases of death from grief; and in other cases the mental suffering which a calamity causes, like bodily suffering, shows its effects by syncope. Often a piece of bad news is succeeded by sickness; and continued anxiety will produce loss of appetite, perpetual indigestion, and diminished strength. Excessive fear, whether aroused by physical or moral danger, will, in like manner, arrest for a time the processes of nutrition; and, not unfrequently, in pregnant women brings on miscarriage; while, in less extreme cases, the cold perspiration and unsteady hands indicate a general lowering of the vital activities, entailing partial incapacity of body or mind or both. How greatly emotional pain deranges the visceral actions is shown us by the fact that incessant worry is not unfrequently followed by jaundice. And here, indeed, the relation between cause and effect happens to have been proved by direct experiment. Making such arrangements that the bile duct of a dog delivered its product outside the body, Claude Bernard observed that so long as he petted the dog and kept him in good spirits, secretion went on at its normal rate; but on speaking angrily, and for a time so treating him as to produce depression, the flow of bile was arrested. Should it be said that evil results of such kinds are proved to occur only when the pains, bodily or mental, are great; the reply is that in healthy persons the injurious perturbations caused by small pains, though not easily traced, are still produced; and that in those whose vital powers are much reduced by illness, slight physical irritations and triffing moral annoyances, often cause relapses.
Quite opposite are the constitutional effects of pleasure. It sometimes, though rarely, happens that in feeble persons intense pleasure–pleasure that is almost pain–gives a nervous shock that is mischievous; but it does not do this in those who are undebilitated by voluntary or enforced submission to actions injurious to the organism. In the normal order, pleasures, great and small, are stimulants to the processes by which life is maintained. Among the sensations may be instanced those produced by bright light. Sunshine is enlivening in comparison with gloom–even a gleam excites a wave of pleasure; and experiments have shown that sunshine raises the rate of respiration: raised respiration being an index of raised vital activities in general. A warmth that is agreeable in degree favors the heart’s action, and furthers the various functions to which this is instrumental. Though those who are in full vigor and fitly clothed, can maintain their temperature in winter, and can digest additional food to make up for the loss of heat, it is otherwise with the feeble; and, as vigor declines, the beneficence of warmth becomes conspicuous. That benefits accompany the agreeable sensations produced by fresh air, and the agreeable sensations that accompany muscular action after due rest, and the agreeable sensations caused by rest after exertion, cannot be questioned. Receipt of these pleasures conduces to the maintenance of the body in fit condition for all the purposes of life. More manifest still are the physiological benefits of emotional pleasures. Every power, bodily and mental, is increased by “good spirits"; which is our name for a general emotional satisfaction. The truth that the fundamental vital actions–those of nutrition–are furthered by laughter-moving conversation, or rather by the pleasurable feeling causing laughter, is one of old standing; and every dyspeptic knows that in exhilarating company a large and varied dinner including not very digestible things, may be eaten with impunity, and indeed with benefit, while a small, carefully chosen dinner of simple things, eaten in solitude, will be followed by indigestion. This striking effect on the alimentary system is accompanied by effects, equally certain though less manifest, on the circulation and the respiration. Again, one who, released from daily labors and anxieties, receives delights from fine scenery or is enlivened by the novelties he sees abroad, comes back showing by toned-up face and vivacious manner, the greater energy with which he is prepared to pursue his avocation. Invalids especially, on whose narrowed margin of vitality the influence of conditions is most visible, habitually show the benefits derived from agreeable states of feeling. A lively social circle, the call of an old friend, or even removal to a brighter room, will, by the induced cheerfulness, much improve the physical state. In brief, as every medical man knows, there is no such tonic as happiness.
These diffused physiological effects of pleasures and pains, which are joined with the local or special physiological effects, are, indeed, obviously inevitable. We have seen (Principles of Psychology, secs. 123–25) that while craving, or negative pain, accompanies the underactivity of an organ, and while positive pain accompanies its overactivity, pleasure accompanies its normal activity. We have seen that by evolution no other relations could be established; since, through all inferior types of creatures, if defect or excess of function produced no disagreeable sentiency, and medium function no agreeable sentiency, there would be nothing to ensure a proportioned performance of function. And as it is one of the laws of nervous action that each stimulus, beyond a direct discharge to the particular organ acted on, indirectly caused a general discharge throughout the nervous system (Prin. of Psy., §§21, 39), it results that the rest of the organs, all influenced as they are by the nervous system, participate in the stimulation. So that beyond the aid, more slowly shown, which the organs yield to one another through the physiological division of labor, there is the aid, more quickly shown, which mutual excitation gives. While there is a benefit to be presently felt by the whole organism from the due performance of each function, there is an immediate benefit from the exaltation of its functions at large caused by the accompanying pleasure; and from pains, whether of excess or defect, there also come these double effects, immediate and remote.
37. Nonrecognition of these general truths vitiates moral speculation at large. From the estimate of right and wrong habitually framed, these physiological effects wrought on the actor by his feelings are entirely omitted. It is tacitly assumed that pleasures and pains have no reactions on the body of the recipient, affecting his fitness for the duties of life. The only reactions recognized are those on character; respecting which the current supposition is, that acceptance of pleasures is detrimental and submission to pains beneficial. The notion, remotely descended from the ghost theory of the savage, that mind and body are independent, has, among its various implications, this belief that states of consciousness are in no wise related to bodily states. “You have had your gratification–it is past; and you are as you were before,” says the moralist to one. And to another he says, “You have borne the suffering–it is over; and there the matter ends.” Both statements are false. Leaving out of view indirect results, the direct results are that the one has moved a step away from death and the other has moved a step toward death.
Leaving out of view, I say, the indirect results. It is these indirect results, here for the moment left out of view, which the moralist has conclusively in view: being so occupied by them that he ignores the direct results. The gratification, perhaps purchased at undue cost, perhaps enjoyed when work should have been done, perhaps snatched from the rightful claimant, is considered only in relation to remote injurious effects, and no setoff is made for immediate beneficial effects. Conversely, from positive and negative pains, borne now in the pursuit of some future advantage, now in discharge of responsibilities, now in performing a generous act, the distant good is alone dwelt on and the proximate evil ignored. Consequences, pleasurable and painful, experienced by the actor forthwith, are of no importance; and they become of importance only when anticipated as occurring hereafter to the actor or to other persons. And further, future evils borne by the actor are considered of no account if they result from self-denial, and are emphasized only when they result from self-gratification. Obviously, estimates so framed are erroneous; and obviously, the pervading judgments of conduct based on such estimates must be distorted. Mark the anomalies of opinion produced.
If, as the sequence of a malady contracted in pursuit of illegitimate gratification, an attack of iritis injures vision, the mischief is to be counted among those entailed by immoral conduct; but if, regardless of protesting sensations, the eyes are used in study too soon after ophthalmia, and there follows blindness for years or for life, entailing not only personal unhappiness but a burden on others, moralists are silent. The broken leg which a drunkard’s accident causes, counts among those miseries brought on self and family by intemperance, which form the ground for reprobating it; but if anxiety to fulfill duties prompts the continued use of a sprained knee spite of the pain, and brings on a chronic lameness involving lack of exercise, consequent ill-health, inefficiency, anxiety, and unhappiness, it is supposed that ethics has no verdict to give in the matter. A student who is plucked because he has spent in amusement the time and money that should have gone in study, is blamed for thus making parents unhappy and preparing for himself a miserable future; but another who, thinking exclusively of claims on him, reads night after night with hot or aching head, and, breaking down, cannot take his degree, but returns home shattered in health and unable to support himself, is named with pity, only as not subject to any moral judgment; or rather, the moral judgment passed is wholly favorable.
Thus recognizing the evils caused by some kinds of conduct only, men at large, and moralists as exponents of their beliefs, ignore the suffering and death daily caused around them by disregard of that guidance which has established itself in the course of evolution. Led by the tacit assumption, common to pagan Stoics and Christian ascetics, that we are so diabolically organized that pleasures are injurious and pains beneficial, people on all sides yield examples of lives blasted by persisting in actions against which their sensations rebel. Here is one who, drenched to the skin and sitting in a cold wind, poohpoohs his shiverings and gets rheumatic fever and subsequent heart-disease, which makes worthless the short life remaining to him. Here is another who, disregarding painful feelings, works too soon after a debilitating illness, and establishes disordered health that lasts for the rest of his days, and makes him useless to himself and others. Now the account is of a youth who, persisting in gymnastic feats spite of scarcely bearable straining, bursts a blood vessel, and, long laid on the shelf, is permanently damaged; while now it is of a man in middle life who, pushing muscular effort to painful excess, suddenly brings on hernia. In this family is a case of aphasia, spreading paralysis, and death, caused by eating too little and doing too much; in that, softening of the brain has been brought on by ceaseless mental efforts against which the feelings hourly protested; and in others, less-serious brain affections have been contracted by overstudy continued regardless of discomfort and the cravings for fresh air and exercise.5 Even without accumulating special examples, the truth is forced on us by the visible traits of classes. The careworn man of business too long at his office, the cadaverous barrister poring half the night over his briefs, the feeble factory hands and unhealthy seamstresses passing long hours in bad air, the anemic, flat-chested schoolgirls, bending over many lessons and forbidden boisterous play, no less than Sheffield grinders who die of suffocating dust, and peasants crippled with rheumatism due to exposure, show us the widespread miseries caused by persevering in actions repugnant to the sensations and neglecting actions which the sensations prompt. Nay the evidence is still more extensive and conspicuous. What are the puny malformed children, seen in poverty-stricken districts, but children whose appetites for food and desires for warmth have not been adequately satisfied? What are populations stinted in growth and prematurely aged, such as parts of France show us, but populations injured by work in excess and food in defect: the one implying positive pain, the other negative pain? What is the implication of that greater mortality which occurs among people who are weakened by privations, unless it is that bodily miseries conduce to fatal illnesses? Or once more, what must we infer from the frightful amount of disease and death suffered by armies in the field, fed on scanty and bad provisions, lying on damp ground, exposed to extremes of heat and cold, inadequately sheltered from rain, and subject to exhausting efforts; unless it be the terrible mischiefs caused by continuously subjecting the body to treatment which the feelings protest against?
It matters not to the argument whether the actions entailing such effects are voluntary or involuntary. It matters not from the biological point of view, whether the motives prompting them are high or low. The vital functions accept no apologies on the ground that neglect of them was unavoidable, or that the reason for neglect was noble. The direct and indirect sufferings caused by nonconformity to the laws of life, are the same whatever induces the nonconformity; and cannot be omitted in any rational estimate of conduct. If the purpose of ethical inquiry is to establish rules of right living; and if the rules of right living are those of which the total results, individual and general, direct and indirect, are most conducive to human happiness; then it is absurd to ignore the immediate results and recognize only the remote results.
38. Here might be urged the necessity for preluding the study of moral science, by the study of biological science. Here might be dwelt on the error men make in thinking they can understand those special phenomena of human life with which ethics deals, while paying little or no attention to the general phenomena of human life, and while utterly ignoring the phenomena of life at large. And doubtless there would be truth in the inference that such acquaintance with the world of living things as discloses the part which pleasures and pains have played in organic evolution, would help to rectify these one-sided conceptions of moralists. It cannot be held, however, that lack of this knowledge is the sole cause, or the main cause, of their one-sidedness. For facts of the kind above instanced, which, duly attended to, would prevent such distortions of moral theory, are facts which it needs no biological inquiries to learn, but which are daily thrust before the eyes of all. The truth is, rather, that the general consciousness is so possessed by sentiments and ideas at variance with the conclusions necessitated by familiar evidence, that the evidence gets no attention. These adverse sentiments and ideas have several roots.
There is the theological root. As before shown, from the worship of cannibal ancestors who delighted in witnessing tortures, there resulted the primitive conception of deities who were propitiated by the bearing of pains, and, consequently angered by the receipt of pleasures. Through the religions of the semicivilized, in which this conception of the divine nature remains conspicuous, it has persisted, in progressively modified forms, down to our own times; and still colors the beliefs, both of those who adhere to the current creed and of those who nominally reject it. There is another root in the primitive and still-surviving militancy. While social antagonisms continue to generate war, which consists in endeavors to inffict pain and death while submitting to the risks of pain and death, and which necessarily involves great privations; it is needful that physical suffering, whether considered in itself or in the evils it bequeaths, should be thought little of, and that among pleasures recognized as most worthy should be those which victory brings. Nor does partially developed industrialism fail to furnish a root. With social evolution, which implies transition from the life of wandering hunters to the life of settled peoples engaged in labor, and which therefore entails activities widely unlike those to which the aboriginal constitution is adapted, there comes an underexercise of faculties for which the social state affords no scope, and an overtaxing of faculties required for the social state: the one implying denial of certain pleasures, and the other submission to certain pains. Hence, along with that growth of population which makes the struggle for existence intense, bearing of pains and sacrifice of pleasures is daily necessitated.
Now always and everywhere, there arises among men a theory conforming to their practice. The savage nature, originating the conception of a savage deity, evolves a theory of supernatural control sufficiently stringent and cruel to in-fluence his conduct. With submission to despotic government severe enough in its restraints to keep in order barbarous natures, there grows up a theory of divine right to rule, and the duty of absolute submission. Where war is made the business of life by the existence of warlike neighbors, virtues which are required for war come to be regarded as supreme virtues; while, contrariwise, when industrialism has grown predominant, the violence and the deception which warriors glory in come to be held criminal. In like manner, then, there arises a tolerable adjustment of the actually accepted (not the nominally accepted) theory of right living, to living as it is daily carried on. If the life is one that necessitates habitual denial of pleasures and bearing of pains, there grows up an answering ethical system under which the receipt of pleasures is tacitly disapproved and the bearing of pains avowedly approved. The mischiefs entailed by pleasures in excess are dwelt on, while the benefits which normal pleasures bring are ignored; and the good results achieved by submission to pains are fully set forth while the evils are overlooked.
But while recognizing the desirableness of, and indeed the necessity for, systems of ethics adapted, like religious systems and political systems, to their respective times and places; we have here to regard the first as, like the others, transitional. We must infer that like a purer creed and a better government, a truer ethics belongs to a more advanced social state. Led, a priori, to conclude that distortions must exist, we are enabled to recognize as such, the distortions we find: answering in nature, as these do, to expectation. And there is forced on us the truth that a scientific morality arises only as fast as the one-sided conceptions adapted to transitory conditions, are developed into both-sided conceptions. The science of right living has to take account of all consequences in so far as they affect happiness, personally or socially directly or indirectly; and by as much as it ignores any class of consequences, by so much does it fail to be science.
39. Like the physical view, then, the biological view corresponds with the view gained by looking at conduct in general from the standpoint of evolution.
That which was physically defined as a moving equilibrium, we define biologically as a balance of functions. The implication of such a balance is that the several functions in their kinds, amounts, and combinations, are adjusted to the several activities which maintain and constitute complete life; and to be so adjusted is to have reached the goal towards which the evolution of conduct continually tends.
Passing to the feelings which accompany the performance of functions, we see that of necessity during the evolution of organic life, pleasures have become the concomitants of normal amounts of functions, while pains, positive and negative, have become the concomitants of excesses and defects of functions. And though in every species derangements of these relations are often caused by changes of conditions, they ever reestablish themselves: disappearance of the species being the alternative.
Mankind, inheriting from creatures of lower kinds, such adjustments between feelings and functions as concern fundamental bodily requirements; and daily forced by peremptory feelings to do the things which maintain life and avoid those which bring immediate death; has been subject to a change of conditions unusually great and involved. This has considerably deranged the guidance by sensations, and has deranged in a much greater degree the guidance by emotions. The result is that in many cases pleasures are not connected with actions which must be performed, nor pains with actions which must be avoided, but contrariwise.
Several influences have conspired to make men ignore the well-working of these relations between feelings and functions, and to observe whatever of ill-working is seen in them. Hence, while the evils which some pleasures entail are dilated upon, the benefits habitually accompanying receipt of pleasures are unnoticed; at the same time that the benefits achieved through certain pains are magnified while the immense mischiefs which pains bring are made little of.
The ethical theories characterized by these perversions, are products of, and are appropriate to, the forms of social life which the imperfectly adapted constitutions of men produce. But with the progress of adaptation, bringing faculties and requirements into harmony, such incongruities of experience, and consequent distortions of theory, must diminish; until, along with complete adjustment of humanity to the social state, will go recognition of the truths that actions are completely right only when, besides being conducive to future happiness, special and general, they are immediately pleasurable, and that painfulness, not only ultimate but proximate, is the concomitant of actions which are wrong.
So that from the biological point of view ethical science becomes a specification of the conduct of associated men who are severally so constituted that the various self-preserving activities, the activities required for rearing offspring, and those which social welfare demands, are fulfilled in the spontaneous exercise of duly proportioned faculties, each yielding when in action its quantum of pleasure; and who are, by consequence, so constituted that excess or defect in any one of these actions brings its quantum of pain, immediate and remote.
[]Note to Section 33. In his Physical Ethics, Mr. Alfred Barratt has expressed a view which here calls for notice. Postulating evolution and its general laws, he refers to certain passages in the Principles of Psychology (1st ed., pt. III., ch. viii., pp. 395, sqq. cf. pt. IV.,, ch. iv.) in which I have treated of the relation between irritation and contraction which “marks the dawn of sensitive life:” have pointed out that “the primordial tissue must be differently affected by contact with nutritive and with innutritive matters”–the two being for aquatic creatures respectively the soluble and the insoluble; and have argued that the contraction by which a protruded part of a rhizopod draws in a fragment of assimilable matter “is caused by a commencing absorption of the assimilable matter.” Mr. Barratt, holding that consciousness “must be considered as an invariable property of animal life, and ultimately, in its elements, of the material universe” (p. 43), regards these responses of animal tissue to stimuli, as implying feeling of one or other kind. “Some kinds of impressed force,” he says, “are followed by movements of retraction and withdrawal, others by such as secure a continuance of the impression. These two kinds of contraction are the phenomena and external marks of pain and pleasure respectively. Hence the tissue acts so as to secure pleasure and avoid pain by a law as truly physical and natural as that whereby a needle turns to the pole, or a tree to the light” (p. 52). Now without questioning that the raw material of consciousness is present even in undifferentiated protoplasm, and everywhere exists potentially in that Unknowable Power which, otherwise conditioned, is manifested in physical action (Prin. of Psy., §§ 272-73), I demur to the conclusion that it at first exists under the forms of pleasure and pain. These, I conceive, arise, as the more special feelings do, by a compounding of the ultimate elements of consciousness (Prin. of Psy., §§ 60, 61): being, indeed, general aspects of these more special feelings when they reach certain intensities. Considering that even in creatures which have developed nervous systems, a great part of the vital processes are carried on by unconscious reflex actions, I see no propriety in assuming the existence of what we understand by consciousness in creatures not only devoid of nervous systems but devoid of structures in general
[]Note to Section 36. More than once in the Emotions and the Will, Dr. Bain insists on the connection between pleasure and exaltation of vitality, and the connection between pain and depression of vitality. As above shown, I concur in the view taken by him; which is, indeed, put beyond dispute by general experience as well as by the more special experience of medical men.
[]I can count up more than a dozen such cases among those personalIy weII known to me.