Front Page Titles (by Subject) CHAPTER 10.: The Relativity of Pains and Pleasures - The Principles of Ethics, vol. 1
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CHAPTER 10.: The Relativity of Pains and Pleasures - 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.
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The Relativity of Pains and Pleasures
63. A truth of cardinal importance as a datum of ethics, which was incidentally referred to in the last chapter, must here be set forth at full length. I mean the truth that not only men of different races, but also different men of the same race, and even the same men at different periods of life, have different standards of happiness. Though there is some recognition of this by moralists, the recognition is inadequate; and the far-reaching conclusions to be drawn when the relativity of happiness is fully recognized, are scarcely suspected.
It is a belief universal in early life–a belief which in most people is but partially corrected in later life, and in very few wholly dissipated–that there is something intrinsic in the pleasantness of certain things, while other things are intrinsically unpleasant. The error is analogous to, and closely allied with, the error crude realism makes. Just as to the uncultured mind it appears self-evident that the sweetness of sugar is inherent in sugar, that sound as we perceive it is sound as it exists in the external world, and that the warmth from a fire is in itself what it seems; so does it appear self-evident that the sweetness of sugar is necessarily grateful, that there is in a beautiful sound something that must be beautiful to all creatures, and that the agreeable feeling produced by warmth is a feeling which every other consciousness must find agreeable.
But as criticism proves the one set of conclusions to be wrong, so does it prove to be wrong the other set. Not only are the qualities of external things as intellectually apprehended by us, relative to our own organisms; but the pleasurableness or painfulness of the feelings which we associate with such qualities, are also relative to our own organisms. They are so in a double sense–they are relative to its structures, and they are relative to the states of its structures.
That we may not rest in a mere nominal acceptance of these general truths, but may so appreciate them as to see their full bearings on ethical theory we must here glance at them as exemplified by animate creatures at large. For after contemplating the wide divergences of sentiency accompanying the wide divergences of organization which evolution in general has brought about, we shall be enabled the better to see the divergences of sentiency to be expected from the further evolution of humanity
64. Because they can be most quickly disposed of, let us first deal with pains: a further reason for first dealing with pains being that we may thus forthwith recognize, and then leave out of consideration, those sentient states the qualities of which may be regarded as absolute rather than relative.
The painfulness of the feelings produced by forces which tend to destroy organic structures, wholly or in part, is of course common to all creatures capable of feeling. We saw it to be inevitable that during evolution there must everywhere be established such connections between external actions and the modes of consciousness they cause, that the injurious ones are accompanied by disagreeable feelings and the beneficial ones by agreeable feelings. Consequently pressures or strains which tear or bruise, and heats which burn or scald, being in all cases partially or wholly destructive, are in all cases painful. But even here the relativity of the feelings may in one sense be asserted. For the effect of a force of given quantity or intensity. varies partly with the size and partly with the structure of the creature exposed to it. The weight which is scarcely felt by a large animal crushes a small one; the blow which breaks the limb of a mouse produces little effect on a horse; the weapon which 1acerates a horse leaves a rhinoceros uninjured. And with these differences of injuriousness doubtless go differences of feeling. Merely glancing at the illustrations of this truth furnished by sentient beings in general, let us consider the illustrations mankind furnish.
Comparisons of robust laboring men with women or children, show us that degrees of mechanical stress which the first bear with impunity produce on the others injuries and accompanying pains. The blistering of a tender skin by an amount of friction which does not even redden a coarse one, or the bursting of superficial blood vessels, and consequent discoloration, caused in a person of lax tissues by a blow which leaves in well-toned tissues no trace, will sufficiently exemplify this contrast. Not only however, are the pains due to violent incident forces, relative to the characters or constitutional qualities of the parts directly affected, but they are relative in equally marked ways, or even in more marked ways, to the characters of the nervous structures. The common assumption is that equal bodily injuries excite equal pams. But this is a mistake. Pulling out a tooth or cutting off a limb, gives to different persons widely different amounts of suffering: not the endurance only but the feeling to be endured, varies greatly: and the variation largely depends on the degree of nervous development. This is well shown by the great insensibility of idiots–blows, cuts, and extremes of heat and cold, being borne by them with indifference.11 The relation thus shown in the most marked manner where the development of the central nervous system is abnormally low is shown in a less marked manner where the development of the central nervous system is normally low; namely among inferior races of men. Many travellers have commented on the strange callousness shown by savages who have been mangled in battle or by accident; and surgeons in India say that wounds and operations are better borne by natives than by Europeans. Further, there comes the converse fact that among the higher types of men, larger-brained and more sensitive to pain than the lower, the most sensitive are those whose nervous developments, as shown by their mental powers, are the highest: part of the evidence being the relative intolerance of disagreeable sensations common among men of genius,12 and the general irritability characteristic of them.
That pain is relative not to structures only but to their states as well, is also manifest–more manifest indeed. The sensibility of an external part depends on its temperature. Cool it below a certain point and it becomes, as we say numb; and if by ether-spray it is made very cold, it may be cut without any feeling being produced. Conversely heat the part so that its blood-vessels dilate, and the pain which any injury or irritation causes is greater than usual. How largely the production of pain depends on the condition of the part affected, we see in the extreme tenderness of an inflamed surface–a tenderness such that a slight touch causes shrinking, and such that rays from the fire which ordinarily would be indifferent become intolerable. Similarly with the special senses. A light which eyes that are in good order bear without disagreeable feeling, cannot be borne by inflamed eyes. And beyond the local state, the state of the system as a whole, and the state of the nervous centers, are both factors. Those enfeebled by illness are distressed by noises which those in health bear with equanimity; and men with overwrought brains are irritated in unusual degrees by annoyances, both physical and moral. Further, the temporary condition known as exhaustion enters into the relation. Limbs overworn by prolonged exertion, cannot without aching perform acts which would at other times cause no appreciable feeling. After reading continuously for very many hours, even strong eyes begin to smart. And noises that can be listened to for a short time with indifference, become, if there is no cessation, causes of suffering.
So that though there is absoluteness in the relation between positive pains and actions that are positively injurious, in so far that wherever there is sentiency it exists; yet even here partial relativity may be asserted. For there is no fixed relation between the acting force and the produced feeling. The amount of feeling varies with the size of the organism, with the character of its outer structures, with the character of its nervous system; and also with the temporary states of the part affected, of the body at large, and of the nervous centers.
65. The relativity of pleasures is far more conspicuous; and the illustrations of it furnished by the sentient world at large are innumerable.
It needs but to glance round at the various things which different creatures are prompted by their desires to eat and are gratified in eating–flesh for predaceous animals, grass for the herbivora, worms for the mole, flies for the swallow, seeds for the finch, honey for the bee, a decaying carcase for the maggot–to be reminded that the tastes for foods are relative to the structures of the creatures. And this truth, made conspicuous by a survey of animals in general, is forced on our attention even by a survey of different races of men. Here human flesh is abhorred, and there regarded as the greatest delicacy; in this country roots are allowed to putrefy before they are eaten, and in that the taint of decay produces disgust; the whale’s blubber which one race devours with avidity. will in another by its very odor produce nausea. Nay without looking abroad we may in the common saying that “one man’s meat is another man’s poison,” see the general admission that members of the same society so far differ, that a taste which is to these pleasurable is to those displeasurable. So is it with the other senses. Assafoetida, which by us is singled out as typical of the disgusting in odor, ranks among the Estonians as a favorite perfume; and even those around us vary so far in their likings that the scents of flowers grateful to some are repugnant to others. Analogous differences in the preferences for colors, we daily hear expressed. And in a greater or less degree the like holds with all sensations, down even to those of touch: the feeling yielded by velvet, which is to most agreeable, setting the teeth on edge in some.
It needs but to name appetite and satiety to suggest multitudinous facts showing that pleasures are relative not only to the organic structures but also to their states. The food which yields keen gratification when there is great hunger ceases to be grateful when hunger is satisfied; and if then forced on the eater is rejected with aversion. So, too, a particular kind of food, seeming when first tasted so delicious that daily repetition would be a source of endless enjoyment, becomes, in a few days, not only unenjoyable but repugnant. Brilliant colors which, falling on unaccustomed eyes give delight, pall on the sense if long looked at; and there is relief in getting away from the impressions they yield. Sounds sweet in themselves and sweet in their combinations, which yield to unfatigued ears intense pleasure, become, at the end of a long concert, not oniy wearisome but, if there is no escape from them, causes of irritation. The like holds down even to such simple sensations as those of heat and cold. The fire so delightful on a winter’s day is, in hot weather, oppressive; and pleasure is then taken in the cold water from which, in winter, there would be shrinking. Indeed, experiences lasting over but a few moments suffice to show how relative to the states of the structures are pleasurable sensations of these kinds; for it is observable that on dipping the cold hand into hot water, the agreeable feeling gradually diminishes as the hand warms.
These few instances will carry home the truth, manifest enough to all who observe, that the receipt of each agreeable sensation depends primarily on the existence of a structure which is called into play; and, secondarily on the condition of that structure, as fitting it or unfitting it for activity.
66. The truth that emotional pleasures are made possible, partly by the existence of correlative structures and partly by the states of those structures, is equally undeniable.
Observe the animal which, leading a life demanding solitary habits, has an adapted organization, and it gives no sign of need for the presence of its kind. Observe, conversely a gregarious animal separated from the herd, and you see marks of unhappiness while the separation continues, and equally distinct marks of joy on joining its companions. In the one case there is no nervous structure which finds its sphere of action in the gregarious state; and in the other case such a structure exists. As was implied by instances cited in the last chapter for another purpose, animals leading lives involving particular kinds of activities, have become so constituted that pursuance of those activities, exercising the correlative structures, yields the associated pleasures. Beasts of prey confined in dens, show us by their pacings from side to side the endeavor to obtain, as well as they can, the satisfactions that accompany roaming about in their natural habitats; and that gratification in the expenditure of their locomotive energies shown us by porpoises playing round a vessel, is shown us by the similarly unceasing excursions from end to end of its cell which a captured porpoise makes. The perpetual hoppings of the canary from bar to bar of its cage, and the ceaseless use of claws and bill in climbing about its perch by the parrot, are other activities which, severally related to the needs of the species, have severally themselves become sources of agreeable feelings. Still more clearly are we shown by the efforts which a caged beaver makes to build with such sticks and pieces of wood as are at hand, how dominant in its nature has become the building instinct; and how apart from any advantage gained, it gets gratification by repeating, as well as it can, the processes of construction it is organized to carry on. The cat which, lacking something to tear with her claws, pulls at the mat with them, the confined giraffe which, in default of branches to lay hold of wears out the upper angles of the doors to its house by continually grasping them with its prehensile tongue, the rhinoceros which, having no enemy to fight, ploughs up the ground with his horn, all yield us analogous evidence. Clearly these various actions performed by these various creatures are not intrinsically pleasurable; for they differ more or less in each species and are often utterly unlike. The pleasurableness is simply in the exercise of nervomuscular structures adapted to the performance of the actions.
Though races of men are contrasted with one another so much less than genera and orders of animals are, yet, as we saw in the last chapter, along with visible differences there go invisible differences, with accompanying likings for different modes of life. Among some, as the Mantras, the love of unrestrained action and the disregard of companionship, are such that they separate if they quarrel, and hence live scattered; while among others, as the Damaras, there is little tendency to resist, but instead, an admiration for any one who assumes power over them. Already when exemplifying the indefiniteness of happiness as an end of action, I have referred to the unlike ideals of life pursued by the nomadic and the settled, the warlike and the peaceful–unlike ideals which imply unlikenesses of nervous structures caused by the inherited effects of unlike habits accumulating through generations. These contrasts, various in their kinds and degrees among the various types of mankind, everyone can supplement by analogous contrasts observable among those around. The occupations some delight in are to those otherwise constituted intolerable; and men’s hobbies, severally appearing to themselves quite natural, often appear to their friends ludicrous and almost insane: facts which alone might make us see that the pleasurableness of actions of this or that kind, is due not to anything in the natures of the actions but to the existence of faculties which find exercise in them.
It must be added that each pleasurable emotion, like each pleasurable sensation, is relative not only to a certain structure but also to the state of that structure. The parts called into action must have had proper rest–must be in a condition fit for action; not in the condition which prolonged action produces. Be the order of emotion what it may an unbroken continuity in the receipt of it eventually brings satiety. The pleasurable consciousness becomes less and less vivid, and there arises the need for a temporary cessation during which the parts that have been active may recover their fitness for activity; and during which also, the activities of other parts and receipt of the accompanying emotions may find due place.
67. I have insisted on these general truths with perhaps needless iteration, to prepare the reader for more fully recognizing a corollary that is practically ignored. Abundant and clear as is the evidence, and forced though it is daily on everyone’s attention, the conclusions respecting life and conduct which should be drawn, are not drawn; and so much at variance are these conclusions with current beliefs, that enunciation of them causes a stare of incredulity Pervaded as all past thinking has been, and as most present thinking is, by the assumption that the nature of every creature has been specially created for it, and that human nature, also specially created, is, like other natures, fixed–pervaded too as this thinking has been, and is, by the allied assumption that the agreeableness of certain actions depends on their essential qualities, while other actions are by their essential qualities made disagreeable; it is difficult to obtain a hearing for the doctrine that the kinds of action which are now pleasurable will, under conditions requiring the change, cease to be pleasurable, while other kinds of action will become pleasurable. Even those who accept the doctrine of evolution mostly hear with skepticism, or at best with nominal faith, the inferences to be drawn from it respecting the humanity of the future.
And yet as shown in myriads of instances indicated by the few above given, those natural processes which have produced multitudinous forms of structure adapted to multitudinous forms of activity have simultaneously made these forms of activity pleasurable. And the inevitable implication is that within the limits imposed by physical laws, there will be evolved, in adaptation to any new sets of conditions that may be established, appropriate structures of which the functions will yield their respective gratifications.
When we have got rid of the tendency to think that certain modes of activity are necessarily pleasurable because they give us pleasure, and that other modes which do not please us are necessarily unpleasing; we shall see that the remolding of human nature into fitness for the requirements of social life, must eventually make all needful activities pleasurable, while it makes displeasurable all activities at variance with these requirements. When we have come fully to recognize the truth that there is nothing intrinsically more gratifying in the efforts by which wild animals are caught, than in the efforts expended in rearing plants, and that the combined actions of muscles and senses in rowing a boat are not by their essential natures more productive of agreeable feeling than those gone through in reaping corn, but that everything depends on the cooperating emotions, which at present are more in accordance with the one than with the other; we shall infer that along with decrease of those emotions for which the social state affords little or no scope, and increase of those which it persistently exercises, the things now done with dislike from a sense of obligation will be done with immediate liking, and the things desisted from as a matter of duty will be desisted from because they are repugnant.
This conclusion, alien to popular beliefs and in ethical speculation habitually ignored, or at most recognized but partially and occasionally will be thought by the majority so improbable that I must give further justification of it: enforcing the a priori argument by an a posteriori one. Small as is the attention given to the fact, yet is the fact conspicuous that the corollary above drawn from the doctrine of evolution at large, coincides with the corollary which past and present changes in human nature force on us. The leading contrasts of character between savage and civilized, are just those contrasts to be expected from the process of adaptation.
The life of the primitive man is passed mainly in the pursuit of beasts, birds, and fish, which yields him a gratifying excitement; but though to the civilized man the chase gives gratification, this is neither so persistent nor so general. There are among us keen sportsmen; but there are many to whom shooting and fishing soon become wearisome; and there are not a few to whom they are altogether indifferent or even distasteful. Conversely the power of continued application which in the primitive man is very small, has among ourselves become considerable. It is true that most are coerced into industry by necessity; but there are sprinkled throughout society men to whom active occupation is a need–men who are restless when away from business and miserable when they eventually give it up; men to whom this or that line of investigation is so attractive, that they devote themselves to it day after day year after year; men who are so deeply interested in public affairs that they pass lives of labor in achieving political ends they think advantageous, hardly giving themselves the rest necessary for health. Yet again, and still more strikingly does the change become manifest when we compare undeveloped with developed humanity in respect of the conduct prompted by fellow feeling. Cruelty rather than kindness is characteristic of the savage, and is in many cases a source of marked gratification to him; but though among the civilized are some in whom this trait of the savage survives, yet a love of inflicting pain is not general, and besides numbers who show benevolence, there are those who devote their whole time and much of their money to philanthropic ends, without thought of reward either here or hereafter. Clearly these major, along with many minor, changes of nature, conform to the law set forth. Activities appropriate to their needs which give pleasures to savages have ceased to be pleasurable to many of the civilized; while the civilized have acquired capacities for other appropriate activities and accompanying pleasures which savages had no capacities for.
Now, not only is it rational to infer that changes like those which have been going on during civilization, will continue to go on, but it is irrational to do otherwise. Not he who believes that adaptation will increase is absurd, but he who doubts that it will increase is absurd. Lack of faith in such further evolution of humanity as shall harmonize its nature with its conditions, adds but another to the countless illustrations of inadequate consciousness of causation. One who, leaving behind both primitive dogmas and primitive ways of looking at things, has, while accepting scientific conclusions acquired those habits of thought which science generates, will regard the conclusion above drawn as inevitable. He will find it impossible to believe that the processes which have heretofore so molded all beings to the requirements of their lives that they get satisfactions in fulfilling them, will not hereafter continue so molding them. He will infer that the type of nature to which the highest social life affords a sphere such that every faculty has its due amount, and no more than the due amount, of function and accompanying gratification, is the type of nature toward which progress cannot cease till it is reached. Pleasure being producible by the exercise of any structure which is adjusted to its special end, he will see the necessary implication to be that, supposing it consistent with the maintenance of life, there is no kind of activity which will not become a source of pleasure if continued; and that therefore pleasure will eventually accompany every mode of action demanded by social conditions.
This corollary I here emphasize because it will presently play an important part in the argument.
[]WiIliam W. Ireland, M.D., on Idiocy and Imbecility, pp. 255–56.
[]For instances, see Fortnightly Review, vol. 24 (New series), p. 712.