Front Page Titles (by Subject) CHAPTER 11.: Egoism Versus Altruism - The Principles of Ethics, vol. 1
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CHAPTER 11.: Egoism Versus Altruism - 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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Egoism Versus Altruism
68. If insistence on them tends to unsettle established systems o unbelief, self-evident truths are by most people silently passed over; or else there is a tacit refusal to draw from them the most obvious inferences.
Of self-evident truths so dealt with, the one which here concerns us is that a creature must live before it can act. From this it is a corollary that the acts by which each maintains his own life must, speaking generally precede in imperativeness all other acts of which he is capable. For if it be asserted that these other acts must precede in imperativeness the acts which maintain life; and if this, accepted as a general law of conduct, is conformed to by all; then by postponing the acts which maintain life to the other acts which life makes possible, all must lose their lives. That is to say ethics has to recognize the truth, recognized in unethical thought, that egoism comes before altruism. The acts required for continued self-preservation, including the enjoyment of benefits achieved by such acts, are the first requisites to universal welfare. Unless each duly cares for himself, his care for all others is ended by death; and if each thus dies, there remain no others to be cared for.
This permanent supremacy of egoism over altruism, made manifest by contemplating existing life, is further made manifest by contemplating life in course of evolution.
69. Those who have followed with assent the recent course of thought, do not need telling that throughout past eras, the life, vast in amount and varied in kind, which has overspread the earth, has progressed in subordination to the law that every individual shall gain by whatever aptitude it has for fulfilling the conditions to its existence. The uniform principle has been that better adaptation shall bring greater benefit; which greater benefit, while increasing the prosperity of the better adapted, shall increase also its ability to leave offspring inheriting more or less its better adaptation. And, by implication, the uniform principle has been that the ill adapted, disadvantaged in the struggle for existence, shall bear the consequent evils: either disappearing when its imperfections are extreme, or else rearing fewer offspring, which, inheriting its imperfections, tend to dwindle away in posterity
It has been thus with innate superiorities; it has been thus also with acquired ones. All along the law has been that increased function brings increased power; and that therefore such extra activities as aid welfare in any member of a race, produce in its structures greater ability to carry on such extra activities: the derived advantages being enjoyed by it to the heightening and lengthening of its life. Conversely as lessened function ends in lessened structure, the dwindling of unused faculties has ever entailed loss of power to achieve the correlative ends: the result of inadequate fulfillment of the ends being diminished ability to maintain life. And by inheritance, such functionally produced modifications have respectively furthered or hindered survival in posterity
As already said, the law that each creature shall take the benefits and the evils of its own nature, be they those derived from ancestry or those due to self-produced modifications, has been the law under which life has evolved thus far; and it must continue to be the law however much further life may evolve. Whatever qualifications this natural course of action may now or hereafter undergo, are qualifications that cannot, without fatal results, essentially change it. Any arrangements which in a considerable degree prevent superiority from profiting by the rewards of superiority or shield inferiority from the evils it entails–any arrangements which tend to make it as well to be inferior as to be superior; are arrangements diametrically opposed to the progress of organization and the reaching of a higher life.
But to say that each individual shall reap the benefits brought to him by his own powers, inherited and acquired, is to enunciate egoism as an ultimate principle of conduct. It is to say that egoistic claims must take precedence of altruistic claims.
70. Under its biological aspect this proposition cannot be contested by those who agree in the doctrine of evolution; but probably they will not at once allow that admission of it under its ethical aspect is equally unavoidable. While, as respects development of life, the well-working of the universal principle described is sufficiently manifest; the well-working of it as respects increase of happiness may not be seen at once. But the two cannot be disjoined.
Incapacity of every kind and of whatever degree, causes unhappiness directly and indirectly–direcily by the pain consequent on the overtaxing of inadequate faculty and indirectly by the nonfulfillment, or imperfect fulfillment, of certain conditions to welfare. Conversely capacity of every kind sufficient for the requirement, conduces to happiness immediately and remotely–immediately by the pleasure accompanying the normal exercise of each power that is up to its work, and remotely by the pleasures which are furthered by the ends achieved. A creature that is weak or slow of foot, and so gets food only by exhausting efforts or escapes enemies with difficulty suffers the pains of overstrained powers, of unsatisfied appetites, of distressed emotions; while the strong and swift creature of the same species delights in its efficient activities, gains more fully the satisfactions yielded by food as well as the renewed vivacity this gives, and has to bear fewer and smaller pains in defending itself against foes or escaping from them. Similarly with duller and keener senses, or higher and lower degrees of sagacity. The mentally inferior individual of any race suffers negative and positive miseries; while the mentally superior individual receives negative and positive gratifications. Inevitably then, this law in conformity with which each member of a species takes the consequences of its own nature; and in virtue of which the progeny of each member, participating in its nature, also takes such consequences; is one that tends ever to raise the aggregate happiness of the species, by furthering the multiplication of the happier and hindering that of the less happy.
All this is true of human beings as of other beings. The conclusion forced on us is that the pursuit of individual happiness within those limits prescribed by social conditions, is the first requisite to the attainment of the greatest general happiness. To see this it needs but to contrast one whose self-regard has maintained bodily well-being, with one whose regardlessness of self has brought its natural results; and then to ask what must be the contrast between two societies formed of two such kinds of individuals.
Bounding out of bed after an unbroken sleep, singing or whistling as he dresses, coming down with beaming face ready to laugh on the smallest provocation, the healthy man of high powers, conscious of past successes and by his energy quickness, resource, made confident of the future, enters on the day’s business not with repugnance but with gladness; and from hour to hour experiencing satisfactions from work effectually done, comes home with an abundant surplus of energy remaining for hours of relaxation. Far otherwise is it with one who is enfeebled by great neglect of self. Already deficient, his energies are made more deficient by constant endeavors to execute tasks that prove beyond his strength, and by the resulting discouragement. Besides the depressing consciousness of the immediate future, there is the depressing consciousness of the remoter future, with its probability of accumulated difficulties and diminished ability to meet them. Hours of leisure which, rightly passed, bring pleasures that raise the tide of life and renew the powers of work, cannot be utilized: there is not vigor enough for enjoyments involving action, and lack of spirits prevents passive enjoyments from being entered upon with zest. In brief, life becomes a burden. Now if, as must be admitted, in a community composed of individuals like the first the happiness will be relatively great, while in one composed of individuals like the last there will be relatively little happiness, or rather much misery; it must be admitted that conduct causing the one result is good and conduct causing the other is bad.
But diminutions of general happiness are produced by inadequate egoism in several other ways. These we will successively glance at.
71. If there were no proofs of heredity–if it were the rule that the strong are usually begotten by the weak while the weak usually descend from the strong, that vivacious children form the families of melancholy parents while fathers and mothers with overflowing spirits mostly have dull progeny that from stolid peasants there ordinarily come sons of high intelligence while the sons of the cultured are commonly fit for nothing but following the plough–if there were no transmission of gout, scrofula, insanity and did the diseased habitually give birth to the healthy and the healthy to the diseased, writers on ethics might be justified in ignoring those effects of conduct which are felt by posterity through the natures they inherit.
As it is, however, the current ideas concerning the relative claims of egoism and altruism are vitiated by the omission of this all-important factor. For if health, strength and capacity are usually transmitted; and if disease, feebleness, stupidity. generally reappear in descendants; then a rational altruism requires insistence on that egoism which is shown by receipt of the satisfactions accompanying preservation of body and mind in the best state. The necessary implication is that blessings are provided for offspring by due self-regard, while disregard of self carried too far provides curses. When, indeed, we remember how commonly it is remarked that high health and overflowing spirits render any lot in life tolerable, while chronic ailments make gloomy a life most favorably circumstanced, it becomes amazing that both the world at large and writers who make conduct their study should ignore the terrible evils which disregard of personal well-being infficts on the unborn, and the incalculable good laid up for the unborn by attention to personal well-being. Of all beques’s of parents to children the most valuable is a sound constitution. Though a man’s body is not a property that can be inherited, yet his constitution may fitly be compared to an entailed estate; and if he rightly understands his duty to posterity he will see that he is bound to pass on that estate uninjured if not improved. To say this is to say that he must be egoistic to the extent of satisfying all those desires associated with the due performance of functions. Nay it is to say more. It is to say that he must seek in due amounts the various pleasures which life offers. For beyond the effect these have in raising the tide of life and maintaining constitutional vigor, there is the effect they have in preserving and increasing a capacity of receiving enjoyment. Endowed with abundant energies and various tastes, some can get gratifications of many kinds on opportunities hourly occurring; while others are so inert, and so uninterested in things around, that they cannot even take the trouble to amuse themselves. And unless heredity be denied, the inference must be that due acceptance of the miscellaneous pleasures life offers, conduces to the capacity for enjoyment in posterity; and that persistence in dull monotonous lives by parents, diminishes the ability of their descendants to make the best of what gratifications fall to them.
72. Beyond the decrease of general happiness which results in this indirect way if egoism is unduly subordinated, there is a decrease of general happiness which results in a direct way He who carries self-regard far enough to keep himself in good health and high spirits, in the first place thereby becomes an immediate source of happiness to those around, and in the second place maintains the ability to increase their happiness by altruistic actions. But one whose bodily vigor and mental health are undermined by self-sacrifice carried too far, in the first place becomes to those around a cause of depression, and in the second place renders himself incapable, or less capable, of actively furthering their welfare.
In estimating conduct we must remember that there are those who by their joyousness beget joy in others, and that there are those who by their melancholy cast a gloom on every circle they enter. And we must remember that by display of overflowing happiness a man of the one kind may add to the happiness of others more than by positive efforts to benefit them; and that a man of the other kind may decrease their happiness more by his presence than he increases it by his actions. Full of vivacity the one is ever welcome. For his wife he has smiles and jocose speeches; for his children stores of fun and play; for his friends pleasant talk interspersed with the sallies of wit that come from buoyancy Contrariwise, the other is shunned. The irritability resulting now from ailments, now from failures caused by feebleness, his family has daily to bear. Lacking adequate energy for joining in them, he has at best but a tepid interest in the amusements of his children; and he is called a wet blanket by his friends. Little account as our ethical reasonings take note of it, yet is the fact obvious that since happiness and misery are infectious, such regard for self as conduces to health and high spirits is a benefaction to others, and such disregard of self as brings on suffering, bodily or mental, is a malefaction to others. The duty of making one’s self agreeable by seeming to be pleased, is, indeed, often urged; and thus to gratify friends is applauded so long as self-sacrificing effort is implied. But though display of real happiness gratifies friends far more than display of sham happiness, and has no drawback in the shape either of hypocrisy or of strain, yet it is not thought a duty to fulfill the conditions which favor the display of real happiness. Nevertheless, if quantity of happiness produced is to be the measure, the last is more imperative than the first.
And then, as above indicated, beyond this primary series of effects produced on others there is a secondary series of effects. The adequately egoistic individual retains those powers which make altruistic activities possible. The individual who is inadequately egoistic, loses more or less of his ability to be altruistic. The truth of the one proposition is self-evident; and the truth of the other is daily forced on us by examples. Note a few of them. Here is a mother who, brought up in the insane fashion usual among the cultivated, has a physique not strong enough for suckling her infant, but who, knowing that its natural food is the best, and anxious for its welfare, continues to give it milk for a longer time than her system will bear. Eventually the accumulating reaction tells. There comes exhaustion running, it may be, into illness caused by depletion; occasionally ending in death, and often entailing chronic weakness. She becomes, perhaps for a time, perhaps permanently incapable of carrying on household affairs; her other children suffer from the loss of maternal attention; and where the income is small, payments for nurse and doctor tell injuriously on the whole family Instance, again, what not unfrequently happens with the father. Similarly prompted by a high sense of obligation, and misled by current moral theories into the notion that self-denial may rightly be carried to any extent, he daily continues his office work for long hours regardless of hot head and cold feet; and debars himself of social pleasures, for which he thinks he can afford neither time nor money What comes of this entirely unegoistic course? Eventually a sudden collapse, sleeplessness, inability to work. That rest which he would not give himself when his sensations prompted, he has now to take in long measure. The extra earnings laid by for the benefit of his family are quickly swept away by costly journeys in aid of recovery and by the many expenses which illness entails. Instead of increased ability to do his duty by his offspring, there comes now inability Lifelong evils on them replace hoped–for goods. And so is it, too, with the social effects of inadequate egoism. All grades furnish examples of the mischiefs, positive and negative, inflicted on society by excessive neglect of self. Now the case is that of a laborer who, conscientiously continuing his work under a broiling sun, spite of violent protest from his feelings, dies of sunstroke; and leaves his family a burden to the parish. Now the case is that of a clerk whose eyes permanently fail from overstraining, or who, daily writing for hours after his fingers are painfully cramped, is attacked with “scrivener’s palsy” and, unable to write at all, sinks with aged parents into poverty which friends are called on to mitigate. And now the case is that of a man devoted to public ends who, shattering his health by ceaseless application, fails to achieve all he might have achieved by a more reasonable apportionment of his time between labor on behalf of others and ministration to his own needs.
73. In one further way is the undue subordination of egoism to altruism injurious. Both directly and indirectly unselfishness pushed to excess generates selfishness.
Consider first the immediate effects. That one man may yield up to another a gratification, it is needful that the other shall accept it; and where the gratification is of a kind to which their respective claims are equal, or which is no more required by the one than by the other, acceptance implies a readiness to get gratification at another’s cost. The circumstances and needs of the two being alike, the transaction involves as much culture of egoism in the last as it involves culture of altruism in the first. It is true that not unfrequently difference between their means or difference between their appetites for a pleasure which the one has had often and the other rarely divests the acceptance of this character; and it is true that in other cases the benefactor manifestly takes so much pleasure in giving pleasure, that the sacrifice is partial, and the reception of it not wholly selfish. But to see the effect above indicated we must exclude such inequalities, and consider what happens where wants are approximately alike and where the sacrifices, not reciprocated at intervals, are perpetually on one side. So restricting the inquiry all can name instances verifying the alleged result. Everyone can remember circles in which the daily surrender of benefits by the generous to the greedy has caused increase of greediness; until there has been produced an unscrupulous egoism intolerable to all around. There are obvious social effects of kindred nature. Most thinking people now recognize the demoralization caused by indiscriminate charity They see how in the mendicant there is, besides destruction of the normal relation between labor expended and benefit obtained, a genesis of the expectation that others shall minister to his needs; showing itself sometimes in the venting of curses on those who refuse.
Next consider the remote results. When the egoistic claims are so much subordinated to the altruistic as to produce physical mischief, the tendency is towards a relative decrease in the number of the altruistic, and therefore an increased predominance of the egoistic. Pushed to extremes, sacrifice of self for the benefit of others, leads occasionally to death before the ordinary period of marriage; leads sometimes to abstention from marriage, as in sisters of charity; leads sometimes to an ill-health or a loss of attractiveness which prevents marriage; leads sometimes to nonacquirement of the pecuniary means needed for marriage; and in all these cases, therefore, the unusually altruistic leave no descendants. Where the postponement of personal welfare to the welfare of others has not been carried so far as to prevent marriage, it yet not unfrequently occurs that the physical degradation resulting from years of self-neglect causes infertility; so that again the most altruistically natured leave no like-natured posterity. And then in less marked and more numerous cases, the resulting enfeeblement shows itself by the production of relatively weak offspring; of whom some die early while the rest are less likely than usual to transmit the parental type to future generations. Inevitably then, by this dying out of the especially unegoistic, there is prevented that desirable mitigation of egoism in the average nature which would else have taken place. Such disregard of self as brings down bodily vigor below the normal level, eventually produces in the society a counterbalancing excess of regard for self.
74. That egoism precedes altruism in order of imperativeness, is thus clearly shown. The acts which make continued life possible, must, on the average, be more peremptory than all those other acts which life makes possible; including the acts which benefit others. Turning from life as existing to life as evolving, we are equally shown this. Sentient beings have progressed from low to high types, under the law that the superior shall profit by their superiority and the inferior shall suffer from their inferiority Conformity to this law has been, and is still, needful, not only for the continuance of life but for the increase of happiness; since the superior are those having faculties better adjusted to the requirements–faculties, therefore, which bring in their exercise greater pleasure and less pain.
More special considerations join these more general ones in showing us this truth. Such egoism as preserves a vivacious mind in a vigorous body furthers the happiness of descendants, whose inherited constitutions make the labors of life easy and its pleasures keen; while, conversely, unhappiness is entailed on posterity by those who bequeath them constitutions injured by self-neglect. Again, the individual whose well-conserved life shows itself in overflowing spirits, becomes, by his mere existence, a source of pleasure to all around; while the depression which commonly accompanies ill-health diffuses itself through family and among friends. A further contrast is that whereas one who has been duly regardful of self retains the power of being helpful to others, there results from self-abnegation in excess, not only an inability to help others but the infliction of positive burdens on them. Lastly we come upon the truth that undue altruism increases egoism; both directly in contemporaries and indirectly in posterity
And now observe that though the general conclusion enforced by these special conclusions, is at variance with nominally accepted beliefs, it is not at variance with actually accepted beliefs. While opposed to the doctrine which men are taught should be acted upon, it is in harmony with the doctrine which they do act upon and dimly see must be acted upon. For omitting such abnormalities of conduct as are instanced above, everyone, alike by deed and word, implies that in the business of life personal welfare is the primary consideration. The laborer looking for wages in return for work done, no less than the merchant who sells goods at a profit, the doctor who expects fees for advice, the priest who calls the scene of his ministrations “a living,” assumes as beyond question the truth that selfishness, carried to the extent of enforcing his claims and enjoying the returns his efforts bring, is not only legitimate but essential. Even persons who avow a contrary conviction prove by their acts that it is inoperative. Those who repeat with emphasis the maxim “Love your neighbor as yourself” do not render up what they possess so as to satisfy the desires of all as much as they satisfy their own desires. Nor do those whose extreme maxim is “Live for others” differ appreciably from people around in their regards for personal welfare, or fail to appropriate their shares of life’s pleasures. In short, that which is above set forth as the belief to which scientific ethics leads us, is that which men do really believe, as distinguished from that which they believe they believe.
Finally it may be remarked that a rational egoism, so far from implying a more egoistic human nature, is consistent with a human nature that is less egoistic. For excesses in one direction do not prevent excesses in the opposite direction; but rather, extreme deviations from the mean on one side lead to extreme deviations on the other side. A society in which the most exalted principles of self-sacrifice for the benefit of neighbors are enunciated, may be a society in which unscrupulous sacrifice of alien fellow creatures is not only tolerated but applauded. Along with professed anxiety to spread these exalted principles among heathens, there may go the deliberate fastening of a quarrel upon them with a view to annexing their territory Men who every Sunday have listened approvingly to injunctions carrying the regard for other men to an impracticable extent, may yet hire themselves out to slay at the word of command, any people in any part of the world, utterly indifferent to the right or wrong of the matter fought about. And as in these cases transcendent altruism in theory coexists with brutal egoism in practice, so, conversely a more qualified altruism may have for its concomitant a greatly moderated egoism. For asserting the due claims of self, is, by implication, drawing a limit beyond which the claims are undue; and is, by consequence, bringing into greater clearness the claims of others.